Riptide watched from the seclusion of the monitor room as Essex and the freaky kid appeared to be locked in an intense staring match. At least it would seem that was what they were up to except they both had their eyes shut. The boy’s hands, strapped to the arms of the chair that the rest of him was secured to, were fisted, his fanged teeth were clenched. Essex was likewise tensed.
Finally, Essex threw his arms up in obvious frustration and stormed from the room. The boy smirked at his retreating back, then exhaled with equally obvious exhaustion, and slumped down in his seat.
“That boy is quickly becoming more trouble than he’s worth!” Essex grumbled as he slammed into the room.
“Just what were you trying to do in there?” Riptide asked, baulking as fiery red eyes narrowed on him. “If you don’t mind me asking…” He added quietly.
“The others seem to be drawing their strength from him…” Essex explained. “If I can break him…the others will fall like a house of cards…” He leaned over the monitor, studying the blue-furred youngster. “But he is proving far more formidable than I could have imagined…Xavier has taught him well…I can’t put a dent in his psychic shields!” He smiled slyly to himself.
“But…as they say…there’s more than one way to skin a cat…”
Charles sighed deeply as he wheeled into his study. It had been weeks since his brief telepathic communiqué with Kurt, and his failure to locate the missing mutants after so long was beginning to weigh heavy on his heart. He reached out and absently touched the button on the telephone answering machine. He had turned the thing on so he wouldn’t be interrupted while he continued his fruitless search with Cerebro.
“Charles?” Ororo appeared in the doorway, carrying a tray of food. “I thought I heard you.” She smiled as he beckoned her in.
“I still can’t find them.” His shoulders slumped. “Even I am beginning to lose confidence…” He jabbed the fast-forward on the answering machine to move to the next message…he wasn’t interested in taking a holiday, no matter how much he might need it. “Infernal salespeople…” He muttered, stabbing it again to get past the one offering wholesale wine.
“Everyone has to make a living…” Ororo shrugged as he fast-forwarded over the young man divulging the benefits of the long distance carrier that was currently giving him employment.
“I suppose…it’s just…”
“Oh! Great!” Pietro’s disembodied voice filled the room. “I break out…find a bloody phone…and there’s no one bloody home to answer the bloody thing! Just perfect!”
The telepath and the weather witch stared at each other in dumbfounded silence.
“Okay…fine…I’ll just tell this bloody machine as much as I can…we’re in a castle outside this city…ancient looking place…barely a high rise in sight…it’s got trams and a river running through it…there’s a church…I think it’s a church…on my right…the river’s in front of me…I can’t even begin to pronounce the place names around here…I think the street’s name is Podolská vodarna…though that could be the church…I DID see a statue on top of a yellow pole…looked like some kinda landmark…and a zoo…”
“Hey!” Another voice could be heard.
“There he is!”
“SHIT!” Pietro’s voice cut back in, then the line went dead.
Xavier turned to face the assembled X-Men and Brotherhood. He’d mentally summoned them all as soon as he’d authenticated the voiceprint on the answering machine.
“Thoughts?” He asked them.
“It’s a little convenient don’t you think?” Mystique asked with an arched brow. “We can’t find hide nor hair of them for over two months…and suddenly one of them just phones home?”
“But we authenticated…” Kitty began.
“I’m not faulting your machines, girl…” She countered. “All I’m saying is that we should proceed with caution.”
“Could you pick up anythin’?” Todd asked Xavier. “You know, whether or not Pietro was on the level or somethin’?”
“I can’t make a mental reading on a taped voice, Mr Tolensky.” Xavier informed him. “But he certainly sounded distressed…”
“Yeah…” Lance cut in. “But Pietro’s only got two tones of voice…smug and scared…”
“And why did he call here?” Mystique’s eyes narrowed. “Why not the Brotherhood house…or his darling daddy?”
“He wouldn’t have had the funds for a Trans-Atlantic phone call. The Institute has a toll free number…all the students know it…” Xavier told her.
“In case you’ve forgotten…he’s NOT one of your students.” She glared at him.
“No…but one of the missing children IS.” He returned. “Kurt must have told him in case he managed to escape…”
“If it WAS an escape…” Mystique mumbled.
“Are you suggesting he’s leading us into some kind of trap?” Scott asked.
“Well…Pietro being the upstanding young man that he is…I’m so sure we can take him at his word…” She smirked as she turned slowly towards him.
“She’s got a point.” Logan said gruffly. “He could’ve been coerced…he could’ve cut a deal…”
“So whatta we do?” Fred asked. “We goin’ after ‘em or what?”
“We still have to find out where they are.” Jean pointed out.
“I can run that name he mentioned…” Kitty began, studying the small pad in her hand where she’d been scribbling down what useful information she could gather from Pietro’s message. “…Podolská vodarna…through a search engine…it should bring something up…”
“If you can spell it right…” Todd added.
“There’s no need.” Mystique dismissed the suggestion. “I know where he means…I know the landmark he mentioned…the statue on the yellow column…that along with the trams, the river and the overall look of the city…and the fact that we already know they’re in Central Europe…it can only be one place…
“You mean the place they filmed that vampire movie with Wesley Snipes?” Todd questioned.
“All right…let’s go!” Scott surged to his feet, totally ignoring the greenish mutant.
“For crying out loud, Summers….” Lance rolled his eyes. “I though you were supposed to be some great leader…we can’t just charge off…we need a plan or something…”
“What’s to plan?” Rogue asked. “We go in there…kick butt…and get our friends back…”
“Do you even know what we’re up against?” Lance sighed.
“Five hostile mutants…” Scott began.
“Eight.” Mystique corrected.
“Eight?” Scott frowned at her.
“It’s been nearly ten weeks…” She said. “Do you honestly think he hasn’t turned them?”
“You mean…we’re gonna have to fight them?” Kitty asked in a tiny voice.
“It IS a possibility…” Charles admitted. “And then there’s Essex himself…” He glanced at Mystique. “Is he a mutant?”
“I don’t know…” She admitted. “But he’s obviously well organised…and highly intelligent…he managed to snatch three of our own from right under our noses…he’s a force to be reckoned with.”
“And if he’s hacked our system like we feared he knows how to deal with each and every one of us.” Hank put in.
“If we bring in every mutant we know…Evan…Forge…Alex…we’ll number more than twenty…” Scott theorised.
“Are you suggesting we take the younger students into danger?” Charles gasped.
“We don’t know for sure what we’re up against, so we need all the help we can get.” Scott pointed out. “And some of those kids can pack a real punch…”
“True…” Charles admitted.
“But what if we need someone to come in and get US out?” Mystique asked. “We know next to nothing about what we’re heading into…I say we leave them out of it…and Poindexter here…” She jerked a thumb at Hank. “In case we need a plan B…”
“Fine…” Logan rumbled. “But we better get a move on while the trail’s still fresh.”
Kitty phoned Amanda to tell her they had more or less found Kurt, and was surprised to find the dark-skinned girl arrive scant moments after the call. It had taken all of Xavier’s powers of persuasion to keep her off the X-Jet.
“We’ll bring him back to you.” Kitty assured her as the others began to board the sleek black aircraft.
“You better.” Amanda replied. “But why is that blue woman looking at me like that?”
Kitty glanced over to where Mystique and most of the Brotherhood stood beside the Velocity. Her arms were folded across her chest as she glared at the young human.
“Well…um…you see…” Kitty began sheepishly.
“Who is that?” Mystique demanded.
“Beats the hell outta me.” Lance shrugged.
“That’s Amanda…” Todd began. “She’s kinda, sorta, Blue Boy’s…” He looked up at Mystique who was now giving him her undivided attention, and baulked.
“Kinda, sorta, BLUE BOY’S…WHAT?” She demanded.
“Uh…chemistry partner…?” Todd suggested, thinking that it wasn’t entirely off the mark.
Mystique arched a brow as Todd began to back away with a rather sick look on his face. “Are you telling me that Kurt…my SON…has a girlfriend?”
“A HUMAN girlfriend?”
“I’m going to have to have a word with him about that…”
“It really is a beautiful city…” Jean commented as she gazed out over the river. Beside her, Logan was sniffing the air. It hadn’t taken them long to get from the States to the Czech Republic, as long as it had taken to suit up and leave appropriate instructions for Hank and the other students, and convince the gung-ho Amanda to remain behind with them. “Find anything?”
“Got a scent…but it’s faint…” His eyes narrowed as if that would somehow intensify what he could smell. “You?”
“There was a chase here…” She nodded. “The people around here were freaked about it…a man with spears and a guy with smaller sharp objects…chased a skinny, pale-skinned boy that moved faster than they could see…certainly sounds like Pietro…”
“Yeah…” Logan agreed. “And the two that nabbed the Elf…” He sniffed again. “This way…”
People parted to let them through. Logan always had a ‘don’t mess with me’ air about him. Jean just smiled brightly and followed in his wake. He walked over to the car the pair had rented and pulled open the door, falling into the seat. Jean got in almost daintily beside him. As they drove out of the city, Logan pulled out a communicator.
“Our little speed demon was here all right….” He confirmed for those on the other end. “We’re looking for the castle he mentioned now.”
“Right…” Scott’s voice crackled over the airwaves. “We’ll remain in cloak until we here from you again.”
“Logan!” Jean cried out a while later. “There!” She pointed to a large, stately, and mostly crumbling structure.
“I’d call it a dump more than a castle…” He said as he took in the state of the structure. “What makes you think they’re in there?”
“According to my telepathy…” She said. “The lights are on but nobody’s home. I’m not picking up any thoughts…just like the plane they used to get out of Bayville…”
“And there’s a lot of highly scented plant life around to mask any familiar scents…” Logan added. “Beast did say this guy knew us…” He stopped the car and stepped out into the murky twilight, sniffing the air again. “Got a faint scent of Pietro…headin’ right for the place…” He arched a brow at the redhead.
“What say we call in the troops?”
“So whatta we do?” Toad asked as they surveyed the large, silent building. “Go up to the front door and knock?” He mimicked the action in the air. “Pardon us…but do you have any spare mutants lying about…we seem to have misplaced a few…”
“I say we go in blasting!” Cyclops said. Jean frowned. Scott was usually more levelheaded than this. He really felt responsible for Kurt’s predicament, and was desperate to make amends.
“I could make us a back door.” Avalanche suggested.
“So could I…” Blob added.
“Spread out and search…” Mystique said. “A castle this old is bound to have servant entrances…hopefully long forgotten ones…”
“Wait a minute…” Logan said suddenly. “Got the speed freak’s scent over this way…” He moved away to the rear of the building…away from the main entrance. “Probably where he got out…” He pushed aside some large bushes to reveal a rusty metal gate, barely hanging on its hinges.
“Looks like we won’t have to make a back door after all…” Avalanche said.
The group moved cautiously into the shadows within. A short tunnel opened up into a large, domed chamber with many arched doorways lined around its walls. A small walkway ran along the top of the doorways to give access to an upper row of similar arches.
“Great…” Shadowcat mumbled. “Needle in a haystack…”
“We split up to search?” Toad asked.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea…” Logan shook his head.
“Top ‘o the mornin’ to ya!” A bright brogue spoke from behind, despite the time of day. They spun to find a small, teenaged girl with long, strawberry curls framing her pretty face. She was dressed in a simple, skin-tight black body suit with accents of golden body armour. A spiked, cape-like garment hung from her shoulders and arms. A large, vibrant red brand, in the shape of a capital S had been applied to the left hand side of her face, starting at her eyebrow and moving down over her eye and across the curve of her cheek. Nobody present had set eyes on the girl before…
“I’m Siryn.” She introduced herself. Before anyone could react, she drew a deep breath, opened her mouth and let out a long, high-pitched scream. It hit them with the force of a brick wall, sending them tumbling through various archways, effectively separating them. Only Jean and Charles remained in the large room. She winked at them through her tattoo, then flew off down one of the adjoining corridors.
“Strange…” Charles mused from his position on the floor. The girl’s sonic scream had knocked his wheelchair over, depositing him rather unceremoniously in the dirt. “I know someone with a power identical to that…but he is both older and male…could that be his daughter? It would certainly fit with Hank’s theory of Essex’ interest in second-generation mutants. Still…this must wait until later…”
Jean shook her head in an effort to stop the ringing caused by the girl’s wail. She looked to the Professor who was struggling to upright his wheelchair. Jean thrust out her hand to help but found she couldn’t move it. She concentrated her efforts and managed to move it to a forty-five degree angle, only to have it slammed back down again.
“What is going on?” She wondered aloud. She was suddenly thrown against the wall, watching in stunned silence as the chair righted itself and Charles levitated into the air, then dropped into it. His eyes flicked to his redheaded student. He knew as well as she did that she was not responsible.
A young boy stepped from one of the archways, his hand out in front of him in a pose eerily reminiscent of Jean’s. He dropped it, and she fell to the floor. He smirked at Charles, not even paying her the slightest bit of attention. The same brand marked his dusty-skinned face. He was dressed in a similar skin-tight black body suit, this time accented with body armour in three shades of blue. His dark hair seemed to defy gravity, sticky straight up from his head, reminding Jean of that arrogant prince from that animie show Kurt and Evan seemed so fond of…
He stepped towards Xavier, still totally ignoring Jean, even as she moved to stand by him, in case she was needed to protect him.
“Hello…Daddy!” The boy smiled. Jean’s head snapped towards the Professor, expecting to see her sock mirrored there. But Xavier remained as calm as ever, his dark eyes locked with the boy’s.
“Hello David.” He replied.
“You okay?” Rogue heard Blob say, though his voice seemed very far away.
“Yeah…” She said finally, pulling herself upright. “What in hell hit us?”
“Dunno…” He shrugged. “Surprised it actually managed to move me…”
“You and me both…” She took his offered hand and he pulled her to her feet. “Now, where the hell are the others?”
“Beats me…” Blob said. “That girl kinda separated us all…”
“Wonderful…” Rogue sighed.
“Ah…don’t feel so bad…” A familiar voice spoke to them. “I’ll keep ya company.”
“Quicksilver…” Rogue hissed.
The pale mutant gasped in mock surprise. “After all this time…they still remember…” He too was dressed in black, with accents of silver armour. He wore a short leather jacket, edged in silver in such a way to resemble lightening bolts. The same scarlet brand was emblazed on his face.
“You set us up!” Blob bellowed. “AGAIN!”
“Oooohhhh…you’re smarter than you look, Blob.” He smirked. “So what are ya gonna do about it?”
“I dunno about him…” Rogue said, tearing off her gloves. “But Ah’m gonna tear ya a new…”
“Tsk tsk…” He admonished. “Such language…” She lunged at him, only to find herself grasping at air. “The problem with your power, Rogue, is you gotta make physical contact to do anything…” She collided with Blob, accidentally knocking the big mutant out with her abilities. “And using them on your back-up like that…not a good idea…you just halved the odds for me!”
She spun to face him.
“Shall we dance?”
Storm moved slowly through the dark corridor, desperately trying to keep control of her fear. There were times she hated her claustrophobia, not that she ever liked it, but right now she knew she had to keep her wits about her.
She generated a small ball of lightening in order to see where she was going. It suddenly arched and stabbed at her. She had no choice but to extinguish it. She knew there was only one mutant capable of doing such a thing.
“Wanda?” She questioned the darkness. “We’ve come to take you home…”
“Where were you two months ago?” The sullen girl asked as she moved towards her out of the darkness of the twisting corridor. “Where were you when he was torturing us? Starving us? Branding us?” Storm’s expression softened to concern when she saw the same livid mark on Wanda’s face.
“Where were you when we needed you!?” She screamed before she brought the ceiling down on her head.
“Gross…” Shadowcat huffed. “Why did I have to get stuck with you?”
“Hey!” Toad snarled. “You’re not exactly my idea of the ideal date either you know.”
“At least I bathe on a regular basis!” She shot back.
“I bathe regular…” He informed her. “First Saturday of every month.”
They were so involved in their petty argument neither of them noticed the golden slits in the shadows above their heads.
“Let’s, like, go find the others.” Shadowcat commanded.
“Fine by me!” Toad snorted.
They froze when they heard the low-throated rumble, like the growl of a jungle cat.
“What the heck woz that?” Toad asked as he and Shadowcat backed up towards the wall.
“Please let it be Wolverine…” Shadowcat whispered.
“That weren’t no wolverine…” Toad shook his head. “That was a leopard or a cheetah or something…something with big, gnarly teeth…and wicked sharp claws…something that can see perfectly in the dark…”
“You need to shut up now!” Shadowcat snapped.
“Shutting…” She felt a breeze flash past her face, then something hit the ground with a wet thump.
“Toad?” She queried. “Are you, like, okay?” She whimpered when she got no answer. She reached out into the darkness, trying to find something, anything, that would tell her where her smelly companion was. Her fingers found something firm, at first she thought it was the wall. Then she realised it was warm…and breathing…
She glanced upwards and was transfixed by a pair of golden, cat-like eyes. She screamed as their owner growled in her face.
Avalanche and Cyclops jogged down a non-descript corridor.
“Where are we going?” Avalanche asked.
“Nowhere in particular…” Cyclops replied.
“Then why are you in such a rush to get there?”
“We’ve got to find the others.” Cyclops turned to face him. “This is a classic strategy. Divide and conquer…they split us up so they can pick us off…one by one…”
“You’re a real cheery guy to hang with, you know that?”
“Hmph…” Cyclops snorted.
“Y’know…it’s weird how often we end up working together…” Avalanche said absently.
“Maybe it’s fate’s way of telling us we shouldn’t be fighting each other…” Cyclops replied.
“You know…there’s plenty of room at the Institute for you guys…” Avalanche looked at him sceptically. “I know I was a jerk the last time you came by…but I think we’ve both grown since then…”
“You’d take us in?” Avalanche frowned. “After all we’ve done?”
“Everyone deserves a second chance…” Cyclops shrugged.
Shadowcat’s scream rent the air.
“KITTY!” They said in unison, breaking into a sprint as they headed towards the sound of her cry.
Quicksilver covered his mouth as he pretended to yawn. “Y’know…this is getting’ old!” He was easily keeping one step ahead of Rogue. The Goth was trying to bring down a wall, a section of ceiling, anything, on the mug speedster, but he was just too fast. She’d half buried the prone Blob, and was beginning to tire as Blob’s stolen powers began to desert her.
“Ready to give up?” Quicksilver asked.
“In yer dreams…” She panted.
“Suit yourself.” He sighed. He began to circle her, going faster and faster, producing a whirlwind that lifted her up, pushing her towards the ceiling. She was just beginning to feel dizzy when he suddenly stopped, letting her drop like a stone to the floor. She hit her head, and moved no more.
“Hmmm…” He mused. “Shoulda tried that one before…”
“You still care about her, don’t you?” Cyclops said as he and Avalanche sped along the corridor.
“Yeah…I guess…” He admitted. “But she deserves better…”
“Isn’t that her decision?”
“Whoa!” Avalanche gasped as he screeched to a halt. Both Shadowcat and Toad lay on the floor before them. There were two deep gashes torn into the side of Toad’s head, his sandy hair was matted with blood. Avalanche immediately dropped to Shadowcat’s side, sighing with relief when he couldn’t find a mark on her.
“What could have done this?” He wondered, raising his head to look at Cyclops who had been searching the corridor when they attained there was no major damage to their comrades. Avalanche could just make out something snaking towards him.
“Look out!” He warned.
Cyclops’ head snapped towards him, startled by the sudden loudness of his voice. Unfortunately, what Avalanche had spied took that moment to tear the visor from Cyclops’ head. With a gasp he squeezed his eyes shut, but not before Avalanche was hit with a full blast from both eyes.
“Avalanche!?” Cyclops called as he groped about in the darkness. He couldn’t open his eyes out of fear of causing further damage. “LANCE!?”
He felt something wrap around his chest, pinning his arms to his sides, pushing against his ribs, driving the air from his lungs. If he’d been able to open his eyes, he’d have seen the world around him begin to swim. But as it was, he just slumped to the floor when he found he no longer had enough air to remain conscious…
“They weren’t so though.” A voice crowed.
“There’s still two unaccounted for, Legion.” The brogue replied.
“Two of the most dangerous…” Pietro’s voice informed them.
Xavier opened his eyes, startled to be looking into the concerned brown eyes of Scott Summers. “Are you all right, Professor?” He asked.
“Yes…” He assured him. “Young David packs quite a wallop.”
“So, it would seem, do the others…” Ororo added, dabbing at a gash in her forehead with her cape.
He tapped a strange metal device at his throat. “Some kind of power dampener.”
“A lovely little accessory that we all seem to have…” Jean grumbled.
“Except them.” Kitty pointed to the quartet, two of which they had come to save.
“Ah…” A refined voice chimed in. “But I know they aren’t about to turn on me…” They all turned to the chalk-faced man. “I’m sure you already know…” He smiled cordially. “That I am Doctor Nathaniel Essex…” He bowed gracefully. “Welcome to my home.”
“What the hell did you do to them?” Kitty demanded. “And where the hell is Kurt?”
“Well…you are quite the firebrand, aren’t you?” He smiled. “I merely equipped them with the abilities they need to survive in this world…” He gestured towards them. “They are, after all, our future…second generation…true, pure, mutants…”
“What’s with the brand?” Toad sneered. He was disheartened to see Wanda’s beauty marred in such a way.
“I am and artiste, Mr Tolensky.” He said. “One must sign one’s work…”
“With an S?” Xavier arched a brow. “Doctor ESSEX?”
“The children have dubbed me Sinister…” He explained. “I didn’t want them to forget it…” His ruby eyes flicked towards the shadows behind his captives. A blur of black and silver lunged at him.
Wolverine, snarling in fury, claws out, aim true…
But he never connected.
Something intercepted him, hurling him against the wall with a sickening crunch. At first, the others thought it was Pietro, that nothing else could have moved that fast. But as Logan sprang to his feet, sniffed the air, and turned towards the shadows…they knew it had to be something else…
Logan identified the scent and his shoulders sagged. “No…” He whispered.
A pair of golden eyes ignited in the darkness, bringing a whimper from Kitty. They moved forward, and the rest of their owner slowly became visible. He didn’t so much step from the shadows as materialise out of them. First one clawed foot and then the other. The same skin-tight black as the others, red body armour reminiscent of his uniform, his tail flicked back and forth.
There wasn’t a hint of a smile on his usually playful face, his dark hair was slicked back making his features seem even more severe. The brand seemed even more stark against his soft blue fur. His eyes had always appeared luminous, but now they seemed to be glow with their own inner fury. They never left Wolverine’s face. Every movement screamed of menace as he stalked towards his prey. As his lips curled back from his fangs in an angry snarl one thing was certain.
The Fuzzy Elf was gone…slain by Sinister’s science.
All that remained was the demon…