AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a What-If, spinning off Inferno. I won't waste your time or mine with a lengthy discussion of how and where this timeline deviated, because I've gone to great pains to try and make it entirely self-explanatory. :) Depending on the response I get to this, it might be the beginning of a series. Feedback will be devoured gleefully. Serious. This was an excruciating story to write, so I'm desperate for audience reaction. ;)
DEDICATION: To Redhawk, Co-Plotter Extraordinaire,
for his birthday. What can I say, besides 'better late than never'? :)
Hell had its own scent. It was sulphur and decay and a dozen other, worse things tossed in for good measure. It burned your eyes and lingered at the back of your throat, and Victor Creed had come to know it well. Too well, after all these years of fighting this damned hopeless war he'd gotten sucked into. Right now, the hell-stink was so thick in the air that it was almost enough to choke him.
He was too busy killing demons to care.
Something that was all claws and wings and burning eyes that his mind wouldn't assemble into a whole flew at him, shrieking. Dodging, he reached out unerringly, catching it as it came around for a second dive at him and snapping its neck in one smooth motion. It shredded the flesh of his forearm in its death throes, and he snarled as he tossed it aside, turning to face the huge demon lumbering at him from behind.
"Too slow, meat," he spat, getting past its guard and slashing it open from crotch to chest. The smell hit him like a blow to the face, acrid fumes making his eyes water and blur, but its scream as it toppled was sweet music to his ears.
"Stop enjoying yourself, Creed!" Kitty Pryde shot past him, a hissing demon no larger than that damned dragon of hers hanging off one arm. She whirled, slamming it against the chest of a larger demon and phasing it partway in before she left it there.
"Thought that was the point, kitty-cat!" He smelled the demon rushing at him from behind, but even as he turned, Kitty's hand flashed down to her belt and came back up with a throwing knife. It was embedded in the demon's single eye before it could take another step.
"It isn't," she hissed as the demon's body hit the ground. "And don't call me that!"
Creed grinned appreciatively. So damned fast, she was. . .*too bad she won't spar with me. We could have a real good time, me and her.* She was quite a sight, eyes blazing with battle- lust in her pale, ichor-splattered face. "What'll you do. . .claw my eyes out?" he said with a malicious grin, knowing the jab would hit home. "Then you could have two of us. A matched set for the kitty-cat. . ."
Her eyes narrowed, going almost incandescent with hate. "You're going to beg me to forget you said that," she spat, and turned for another target.
Still grinning, he did the same, knowing he'd end up paying for the 'joke' one way or another. Not that he minded. Always turned out to be so much fun, and he had to amuse himself SOMEHOW when they weren't in battle. . .
There were more than enough targets for both of them. Too many, he realized. Sure, he liked ripping apart Limbo-bred scum as much as the next guy - sort of a patriotic duty these days, as a member of what was left of the human race - but that didn't stop him from realizing when he was overmatched.
*Pryde's sure not letting that slow her down,* he thought as her slender, black-clad form leapt and whirled in a deadly dance across the charred and broken ground of one of the last human settlements in what had once been France. *Pretty fucking ironic, when I'm the one thinking tactics. . .* It had been a hell of a long time since he'd been in THAT position, back in the days he'd run with Logan and Maverick. But they were dead, and he was here, and you did what you had to do to survive, in this world.
They'd bought plenty of time for the others to get the survivors out of here and through the portal to the fortress. No point in throwing their lives away just to kill more cannon fodder, not when there were plenty more demons where these had come from. That was the problem in the first place, wasn't it? Demons here, demons there. . .demons everywhere on a planet that didn't belong to the human race anymore. . .
"Pryde!" he shouted. "We gotta fall back!" So he was getting soft in his old age, but he kind of liked the kid. Off the battlefield, she still had a few too many scruples for his liking - he was working on that - but when the chips were down, she had the killer's instinct to spare.
"Not until we get the signal that the evacuation's done!"
Creed wondered how badly he'd get his ass kicked if he waded in there, threw her over a shoulder and carted her back to the portal. That was assuming she didn't phase him into the ground up to the waist and beat the rest of him into a bloody pulp. . .
The ground beneath his feet exploded. Blinded, deafened, he clawed at the ground, trying to push himself back up. The first noise he was aware of as the roaring in his ears faded was soft, mocking laughter.
Kitty coughed, spitting blood as she scrambled back to her feet, swaying. *Trust that to happen JUST as I unphased. . .* Wasn't that always the way? She shook her head to clear it, straightening.
There was a flash of silver and blonde hair, and something slammed into her jaw, throwing her back to the ground. Dazed, Kitty looked up and into the smiling face of her former best friend.
"Hi, Kitty," Illyana Rasputin said with a wink. "Miss me?"
Kitty rolled away, coming back to her feet, a knife in either hand. "Like a hole in the head, you traitorous bitch," she snarled. "What's the matter, Illyana? Things in Limbo getting a little too boring, so you thought you'd pop over and kill some more of your own people?" She shot a quick look around. Where had all the demons gone? All she saw were corpses. . .
Illyana's smile only broadened, and Kitty felt loathing churn in her stomach like nausea. The physical evidence of the transformation Illyana had undergone, years ago during Inferno, was long, long gone. Illyana's 'queen' had seen to that, a favor for her most faithful human servant. Illyana was blonde and beautiful and outwardly human again.
But there was no hiding the fact that everything that had been her friend was gone, dead for years. The eyes that met Kitty's were brilliant with power, and utterly empty of anything resembling a soul.
"Something like that," Illyana said pleasantly. "Limbo can get very dull at times, after all." She waved the Soulsword dismissively in the direction of Creed, who was still trying to get up. "He really sent you off with only the hairy psychopath for back-up?" She tsked. "Really, Kitty. You'd be so much more appreciated if you came back with me. I know Madelyne would welcome you. . ."
Kitty laughed harshly. She wasn't sure why Illyana kept trying to lure her over to the 'other side', but this wasn't the first time the sorceress had made this offer. Kitty almost admired her persistence. "You can shove your offer where the sun doesn't shine, 'Yana. Just like the last time, and the time before that. . ."
Illyana managed a sorrowful expression. "I do so hate it when we get to this part," she said mournfully, bringing the Soulsword up to a ready position. Her eyes were shining, eager. "It always gets SO bloody."
"Save your regret for yourself, girl."
At the sound of that deep, harsh voice coming from out of nowhere - the last voice she'd expected to hear right here and now, and yet paradoxically the most welcome - she did the only sensible thing and hit the ground, sparing a quick thought to hope Creed had enough sense to stay down, too. Even as swiftly as she reacted, it was JUST in time.
Illyana screamed as a column of blazing, incandescent light slammed into her, throwing her through the air to land in a crumpled heap ten feet away. She was back on her feet almost instantly, but a few muttered words from her attacker, and she was caught, like a silver spider in a web made out of living fire.
"Curse you!" she shrieked, thrashing frantically. Counterspells spilled from her lips, mingled with profanities. Neither seemed to have any effect, but Kitty knew that wouldn't last for long. She was too strong, with a portal opening directly on Limbo somewhere back there in the ruins of the settlement.
"Better than you have, Illyana, and I'm still here."
Kitty glanced up at her rescuer in horror. "What the FUCK are you doing here?" she almost screamed at him. Part of her mind just refused to process the situation. Him, here, NOW. . .he was taking a hellish risk. He wasn't recovered from that last battle with S'ym, and if anything happened to him, the wards around the fortress would be compromised. Their only sanctuary, endangered. "Are you out of your MIND, you stupid asshole?"
He was cloaked, but there was a glimmer of gold within the hood's shadows as he turned to look down at her. "Language, Kitty." His voice was perfectly even. So calm, as always. He reached down and pulled her back to her feet, almost overbalancing as he did. "You and Creed head back to the portal," he said, his breathing noticeably ragged. "I'll be along in a minute."
Illyana screamed something in a throat- shredding language, and managed to get one arm free to bring the Soulsword down against the web. It shattered, instantly. She straightened, smiling broadly, her composure back and apparently intact. "None of you are going anywhere," she said sweetly, her eyes glowing fiercely. "We're not anywhere near finished yet."
"Says you, girlie," Creed growled from Kitty's other side. She shot a look at him, seeing his wounds already closing over. Not that she minded seeing Creed suffer a little, but they might need him to get out of here, and it was better if he wasn't leaking vital fluids all over the place. "Toast the little bitch's ass, boss, and let's get out of here."
There was no answer. No response of any kind. Just that eerie silence. Kitty gritted her teeth. "This isn't the time to space out!" she snarled, fighting the urge to reach out and shake him. "Snap out of it!"
He reached out and pulled his hood back, the light from the burning buildings reflecting eerily off his silver hair and casting his scarred, somber face into more shadows. "All the survivors are safely out," he said quietly, his left eye glowing fitfully as he glanced at her and Creed. "Just the four of us left."
Kitty knew that tone. "Then let's get going!" she urged in growing agitation. That was his 'time for an object lesson' tone, and that tended to get REALLY messy. . .
"Oh, come on, people! If there's one thing I hate, it's being ignored," Illyana said, gesturing with one hand and murmuring under her breath.
The ground beneath them erupted again, if less explosively this time, and Kitty couldn't hold back a scream as oozing tentacles wrapped themselves around her arms and legs. The greenish ichor burned right through the tough fabric of her uniform, the pain distracting her for a moment.
Only a moment, though. Focusing, she phased herself free, reaching out and doing the same for Creed.
Nathan didn't need the help, of course. The tentacles that had grabbed him were charred and withering, falling away already. Trying to help him would only have broken his concentration.
He dropped to the ground, a fiery nimbus taking shape around him as he stared intently at Illyana. "Not bad for a second stringer," he said, his mouth twisting in what might have been a smile. "But you'll have to be more creative than that." He was swaying on his feet even as he spoke, making the bravado a little less than convincing.
Illyana laughed, her expression almost friendly. "Creativity is overrated, at times," she said casually. "I admit, though, that was an effective counter. . ."
"Well, I do get the fire magic from both sides of my 'heritage', kid." Nathan extended both hands, palms up, and muttered something in Askani.
The barren ground beneath his feet came alive. First grass, then other plants, all sprouting from the dead earth and growing as they spread towards Illyana in a great green wave. By the time it reached here, there were TREES reaching up out of the ground for her, full- grown in seconds.
And she screamed as they grabbed her, as if their touch burned. If Kitty had been inclined to ascribe personality traits to plant life, she would have thought, watching the trees lash at Illyana with branches like whips, or the menacing way that even the blades of grass swayed, that they were angry.
The heat coming off Nathan was unbelievable, but his voice was still perfectly level. Kitty raised a hand to shield her eyes, but kept listening. "Do you remember when my mother had you raze the Amazonian rainforest, Illyana?" he asked calmly. "They do."
"Plants!" she spat, writhing in their ever- tightening grip. "You think plants are going to beat me, Dayspring?" She wrenched an arm free. . .NOT the one holding the Soulsword, and gestured in Nathan's direction.
And, cliched or not, Illyana had something up her sleeve. It all happened so fast. . .Kitty whirled to phase him clear, but the narrow triangle of light had already blazed through the intervening space and slammed into Nathan.
Kitty heard him grunt at the impact, and he crumpled to the ground even as she reached out to him. The thing sticking out of his shoulder solidified, and she saw that it was a knife. A knife with a black, oddly serpentine hilt.
And it was still glowing.
"Nathan!" She threw herself down at his side. *Oh shit, no. . .* There was no blood, but the eerie green glow around the weapon made it something worse than a knife in the shoulder, to anyone who had enough sense to know what they were seeing.
He was already struggling to sit up, but the light surrounding him had gone out like a snuffed candle, and all the color had drained from his face. "It's not. . .oath. . ." he rasped, reaching up to grip the handle of the knife and then jerking his hand away again, as if touching it had burned him. Gray eyes wide with shock met hers, already starting to go distant and hazy. . .
"Fuck this!" Creed was suddenly past her, hauling Nathan up off the ground, taking a surprising amount of care to avoid jarring the knife. "Back to the portal, Pryde, dammit! Let's GO!"
"N-No," Nathan murmured unsteadily and pulled away from Creed, standing on his own. "Not yet, not until. . ." Red-gold fire screamed into life around him again, and he reached out a hand towards Illyana, who was still struggling in the grip of the plants. He breathed a few slurred words in Askani, barely audible. . .
And the fabric of reality tore. Illyana had time for one shriek before the vengeful plant life abruptly released her, and the wind kicked up by the cross-dimensional distortion blew her back through the rift.
The rift pulsed, blinding blue-white light spilling from it, and Nathan collapsed against Creed with a moan. Supporting the semi-conscious sorcerer, Creed swore again, eyes flickering towards the slowly expanding rift.
"That thing going to keep growing?"
"Until it collapses on itself," Kitty shouted back. At which point everything within a five-mile radius of this place would be fused glass. . ."Come on, we've got to get back!"
"No shit, kid!" Creed snarled, half-carrying, half- dragging Nathan as they ran. The portal was still right where they'd left it, gaping open on one side of a half-crumbled wall. Kitty took Nathan's other arm, and together, the three of them leapt through, tumbling into a tangled heap onto the cool not-quite-stone floor of the fortress.
"Shut the portal!" Kitty shouted, trying to struggle out from underneath Creed. "Shut it now!" Her head whipped around and she swore as the portal's calm blue glow changed, growing white-hot. "SHUT IT!"
The portal flickered and vanished, just in time, the sputtering sparks it spat outwards as it collapsed telling her just how close it had been. She'd instinctively phased, but forced herself back to a tangible state as people came running to their assistance.
She tuned out the footsteps, the urgent voices. "Creed," she said shakily, seeing him leaning Nathan. "Is he. . ."
Amber eyes met hers, almost glowing. "Not on my watch," Creed hissed, and before anyone could stop him, reached out and closed his hilt around the hilt of the knife. It glowed red-hot as soon as he touched it, and a snarl of pain escaped him. But he didn't let go. "Draining him," he growled through gritted teeth. "Damned thing's HUNGRY. . ."
"Pull it out." Nathan's voice was a strained whisper, no more. Creed muttered what might have been a protest - or a curse - and Nathan reached out, grabbing Creed's wrist. "Even if I pass out, the wards will still stay up," he gritted. "W-Won't, if that. . .THING keeps draining me!"
Creed's face twisted into some unreadable expression. "Shit," he rasped, and yanked the knife free.
Nathan didn't so much as cry out, but the wards started to buckle and the walls of the fortress shook in response as his body spasmed and then went limp. The silence that fell then was, if anything, even more terrifying.
The man once known as Nathaniel Essex regarded the scene depicted on his screens impassively. It was not every day that a sizeable chunk of what had once been the French countryside was turned into a wasteland of multicolored glass by the violent collapse of a pan-dimensional rift. The effect should really be studied, but he had neither the time nor the resources to devote to it at the moment.
He, and the one he served, had other priorities.
Sinister stiffened at the sound of the deep, cold voice of his lord and master rumbling his name. "A minor skirmish," he reported calmly, without turning around. "Nothing of note."
"Another move on the chessboard."
Sinister nodded slowly. Limbo's offensive operations over the last year had been increasingly idiosyncratic. They were striking at human settlements; they had destroyed nearly a third of the rapidly dwindling number of such sanctuaries in the last six months alone. Yet there was no systematic geographical or otherwise, to their attacks. . .no common element save the presence of human survivors.
The very lack of a pattern was indication enough for him that some other motivation was at work here. "Meddle not in the affairs of wizards," he murmured, "for they are subtle. . ." Only this was a demon sorceress, and she was far from quick to anger. No, Madelyne planned her course carefully, always. Add to that the fact that they had not been attacked here in Egypt for nearly eighteen months, and Sinister was growing increasingly convinced that his 'daughter' and her demonic allies were planning something he needed to know about.
"Impressive," Apocalypse said, coming up beside him and studying the screen.
"Unintentional," Sinister murmured. "The consequences of a collapsing dimensional rift."
"Of course." Sinister felt his expression tighten at the sound of what passed for a laugh, from Apocalypse.
"You disguise it well, Essex, but I made you, my servant, and there is little you can conceal from me." Apocalypse's voice was subtly mocking. "You still cherish the hope that your creation will fulfill his original function and put an end to me. Even after all that has happened, my loyal servant, you still see that as a possibility. If it was not so amusing, I would punish you for it."
*And you still cherish the hope that you will rule this world,* Sinister thought, but said nothing, He reached out and adjusted the view, to let Apocalypse see the scene of the battle from all angles. It was laughable, truly. There was no world left to rule. Nothing but ashes, and shadows of what had once been. . .
Seven years, now, since N'Astirh's gambit had so nearly suceeded in destroying the barrier between Earth and Limbo. In the end, Sinister reflected, it truly didn't matter that the sacrifice had been only half-completed, leaving the infant Nathan psionically crippled instead of dead. The release of energy had been enough to make the barrier between the planes permeable, easily crossed with a minor magical intervention well within the capabilities of Limbo's sorcerers.
New York had been only the beginning.
How had he ended up here, with Apocalypse? It had seemed like the logical choice at the time. . .the ONLY choice, to be honest. He needed equipment, and resources, and a ready supply of raw material to continue his work.
None of which he would have had, had he remained on his own, a free agent. Madelyne didn't cherish hope, she cherished her grudges.
So he was here, in Egypt, in Apocalypse's service and under his 'protection', nominally, just as the several hundred other mutants and altered humans housed here in the enclave were. It was, considering his betrayal of Apocalypse at the beginning of their association, a rather more pleasant servitude than he had expected. But it was servitude nonetheless, and he would be free of it.
He thought of how destructive his prodigal 'grandson's' chrono-spacial rift had been. He imagined Apocalypse caught in the collapse of such a rift. He remembered the battles he had witnessed over these very screens between Dayspring and Illyana, Dayspring and N'Astirh, Dayspring and S'ym. . .even the more vicious battles between mother and son that had done far worse than leave glass deserts in their wake. That would have destroyed whole countries, if the war had not already left nothing but devastation in its wake.
He remembered, and wondered if magic wouldn't be his salvation, after all.
"What in the Seven Hells were you thinking, letting her get close enough to STAB you?"
The voice came from everywhere and nowhere. Nathan Dayspring floated in the darkness, reflecting rather ironically on how flonqing unfair it was that he was UNCONSCIOUS and still being nagged at.
"Nagged?" She was suddenly there, floating in front of him, and he flinched. The look on her face was stern, but rather difficult to focus on, since her face kept changing, flickering between one face and another. One had the Hound scars, the other didn't. One had green eyes, the other, blue, and her hair kept changing from red to strawberry-blonde. "Don't you ever get tired of being flippant, Nathan?"
"Don't you ever get tired of being two people at one time?"
The Mother Askani smiled dryly. "I find it rather stimulating, actually. Not that I had a choice in the matter, but I've learned to make the best of it."
Nathan sighed. "I never know what to call you," he said, relaxing into the void. He felt. . .weightless. He liked dreams where the world wasn't resting on his shoulders anymore, where he didn't have to be the piece on the chessboard who got to keep both Apocalypse and Madelyne in check. . .
The Mother Askani's features stabilized, and Amanda Sefton shook her head at him. "She could have killed you today."
"You should have anticipated an attack."
"And what?" he asked dryly. "Thrown up a telekinetic shield? I can't DO that, remember, thanks to mother dearest. . ."
Amanda shimmered again, and the next thing he knew, Rachel was smiling faintly at him. "Always so stubborn," his sister said softly.
He'd never known her. She'd been part of Excalibur's attempt to go back in time and prevent the Inferno; she'd sacrificed herself to try and rescue her teammate Britanic from the timestream before Nathan had done more than orient himself in a world rapidly falling apart.
She'd died doing it, but her astral self had survived, merged with Amanda, who'd been pulled into the timestream trying to facilitate the exchange. The two of them had emerged, in one body, into the world of two thousand years to come.
He owed them. . .her, his life. He knew that. If she hadn't formed the Sisterhood, hadn't sent back a sorceress talented enough and dedicated enough to rescue him before the balance of power had settled in Limbo and Madelyne had been able to complete the sacrifice, he would be dead.
"All right, I was sloppy. But she wasn't exactly close enough to stab me. I wasn't expecting flying enchanted leech-daggers. So shoot me."
Rachel reached out and traced the scars on his cheek with a gentle hand. A demon had gotten lucky. . .six years ago, now. He had been lucky, as well. A little higher and he'd have lost his eye, like Pete. . .
"They're still there, you know. Your psionic abilities."
"I know." How he could NOT know? They flared up unpredictably at the most flonqing inconvenient times, interfacing with his magic in often explosive ways. Teleporting. . .opening rifts like the one he'd banished Illyana back to Limbo through. . .he even thought that might be more of a psionic rather than a magical ability.
He didn't know the limits of what he could and couldn't do. He'd never reached them. The benefit, and drawback, of wild magic. . .
"If you want it badly enough. . ."
"Don't start with me," he said warningly. He wasn't in the mood for a lecture, at the moment. Not after walking through that portal and seeing yet another enclave destroyed. . .the corpses, everywhere. They could travel across continents in an eyeblink, but somehow, they still never got there in time. . .
"Your magic, at its heart, has always been healing magic." Amanda said quietly. "Always. Remember that. Remember Anodyne. . ."
Anodyne. Anodyne was dead. . .anything of the woman who had been his mother was dead. All that was left was the self-proclaimed queen of Limbo.
And he didn't even remember his mother, no matter how hard he tried. . .
All he could remember was the pain. Something slashing into his mind like a knife as he laid there on that altar. Crying for the father who'd abandoned him and the mother he couldn't find anymore. . .
"I know you can hear me. Open your eyes."
A different voice, he realized. It was still dark, but he wasn't weightless, anymore. He was lying on a flat, soft surface, and his shoulder ached relentlessly.
The Mother Askani. . .both of her. . .was gone.
A cool hand touched his forehead, and he flinched, opening his eyes. "C-Can hear you," he rasped weakly, meeting the worried dark eyes that studied him so intently. "Don't. . .need to shout."
Cecilia Reyes raised an eyebrow. "I wasn't shouting," she said wryly, drawing her hand back slowly. Her voice grew brisk, and Nathan realized belatedly just how softly she had been speaking. "Guess you must have gotten tired of stringing us along. Your fever's finally broken."
"Finally?" He reached out, with effort, and took her hand. He couldn't muster enough strength to squeeze it, though, which bothered him. She didn't pull away, either. It must have been too flonqing close, to have scared her so much she wasn't putting any effort into being mad at him.
"You've been out for a full day." Cecilia shook her head, her braids swaying slightly with the motion. Her hand tightened on his. "If the wards hadn't still been up, I would've thought you were dead when Creed carried you in here."
A whole day? Nathan closed his eyes with a sigh. "Oath."
"Yeah, well, the feeling's mutual. I'm getting sick of sitting at your bedside, you stupid son of a bitch. My nerves aren't that good."
Nathan opened his eyes and looked up at her, part of him flinching from the bleak sincerity of her expression. He managed a faint, unsteady smile, a smile whose shakiness wasn't entirely due to his physical condition. "Don't give up on me yet, Cecilia," he said, trying to make the words light and failing miserably. "I'll get the hang of this, one of these days. . ."
Cecilia laughed softly, looking away and wiping her eyes. "Get the hang of what?" she asked with a shuddering sigh. "You can't keep doing this. They're wearing you down. . .you know that, right? S'ym dropped a building on you two weeks ago, Illyana stabs you yesterday. . .I could go on, do you want me to go on? You've nearly died a dozen times in the last six months, because you insist on rushing into every single situation that erupts like you think you can handle everything yourself! " Nathan took a deep breath and sat up, wincing at the way the room seemed to spin. Cecilia glared at him. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Getting up," he muttered. "Have to check the wards."
"Are you listening to me at all?" She pulled her hand out of his and laid it flat against his chest. The fact that it was enough to restrain him was mildly irksome. "The wards are fine. You're not. Lie the hell down, or I'll get Creed in here to hold you down while I sedate you!"
The smile was a little easier to manage, this time. "I didn't know you went in for that kind of. . .ouch!"
"She stabbed you in the other shoulder, moron." Cecilia sniffed, reaching out and pulling the bandages aside for a moment. Nathan winced, fighting the instinct to pull away. "Are you able to heal that?"
"I don't know," he muttered, resting his head in one hand for a moment. He could heal himself, sometimes, if his magic was properly balanced. But he'd worked so much Wild Magic against Illyana. . .he tried to think, to focus. "The evacuees?" he finally temporized.
"Are just fine. There weren't even any serious injuries, amazingly enough." Cecilia smiled wanly. "So if you hadn't let the little blonde bitch get the drop on you, I would have gone an entire day without adding to my trauma experience. Imagine that."
"You hardly need any more of that," Nathan said softly, reaching out with his good hand and pushing a stray braid back from her face. She hadn't left the fortress for nearly a year - her medical skills were too valuable to risk outside the wards - but she saw far too much of the aftermath of their battles. He'd have done nearly anything to spare her that, but there was nothing to be done. No way to break out of the roles they had to play.
"Tell me about it." She reached up and took his hand again, her eyes unreadable and yet somehow softer than they had been. They sat there in silence for a few moments, Nathan wishing he knew what to say to her, how to reassure her.
This wasn't anything they could change, that was the problem. The storm was too fierce to be stilled by will or love or anything in between. Nothing could change this world they were living in, not anymore. All they could do was try and live in it. And neither of them could stop what they were doing, not when it all came down to saving lives. It was the only good any of them could do.
"I really have to check the wards," he finally said, regretfully - they had far too little time alone together, these days - and tried to slide off the bed.
It was, perhaps, a little too ambitious of him. The room chose that moment to start tilting again, and he pitched forward almost instantly. Cecilia reached out and pulled his good arm around her shoulders, preventing him from falling.
"You're not going to rest until you do, are you?" she asked resignedly.
He managed a lopsided grin. "You know me too well."
Cecilia muttered a curse under her breath as she helped him over to the door. It slid aside as they approached, as if on cue, and Nathan swore under his breath in Askani at the sight of who was standing on the other side. *I have REALLY got to work on my timing. . .*
"Perhaps I'm mistaken," Erik Magnus Lehnsherr said, raising one silver eyebrow, "but if I recall the layout of this room correctly, the bed is in the other direction." He glanced past the two of them and smiled faintly. "And I see I was right."
"I need to check the wards," Nathan said stubbornly, pulling away from Cecilia and ignored her half-vocalized protest as he straightened. "It'll only take me a few minutes." Magnus didn't so much as budge, and Nathan glared at him. "I'm not being clear enough?"
"Perfectly clear. But the wards are also perfectly stable, according to all the fortress's sensors." Magnus folded his arms across his chest, the not-quite smile fading. "Something of a miracle, wouldn't you say, considering how close you came to getting yourself killed?" There was a distinct edge of anger in the ice- blue eyes boring into his; tightly controlled, but still visible.
"Calculated risk," Nathan said, just to be obnoxious. Cecilia poked him in the ribs, and he tried not to jump out of his skin. "Look, Erik, I just have to check the wards, and then I'll turn right around and come back here, I promise." It burned him to be so conciliatory, but he didn't have the energy to butt heads with Magnus at the moment. Their relationship was a delicate one, worked out with painstaking care over the years, and Nathan was fully aware of the fact that he'd crossed a number of important boundaries with this last incident.
"Do I need to repeat myself?"
There was concern beneath the irritation, Nathan knew that This wasn't just the nominal leader of the Antarctic sanctuary rebuking one of his lieutenants, it was a friend telling a friend off for being monumentally stupid. It didn't make any of it any more palatable. He hated being nagged at. He did what he had to do; that was the way things were.
"Look," Nathan snapped, nettled despite his resolution to stay calm and not start an argument. Checking the wards wasn't just necessary, it might even be the best way to balance all this chaos with a little order. "The wards are stable according to your computers, Erik, which have limitations when it comes to monitoring pure magic. Now, get the flonq out of my way before I turn you into a frog."
Infuriatingly, Magnus smiled. "I'd say he's sounding somewhat recovered, Cecilia."
Nathan grimaced. "Frog. Definitely a frog," he said threateningly, taking an unsteady step forward. Cecilia reached out to support him again, and he shook his head, almost immediately wishing he hadn't as the wave of dizziness that hit him. "I'm fine," he muttered. It didn't sound convincing, even to himself, but you did what you had to do, and he had to check the wards. Now that his head was clearing a little, he could feel the instability, a fluttering at the edges of his perception that told him the disruptive effect of Illyana's dagger had done some real damage.
He had to fix them. Everything important to him was inside these wards; everything he loved.
His life was here. Out there, in what used to be the world, there was only death.
Kitty threw a pillow at the figure slouching in the doorway. "Where have you been?" she grumbled. "I'm sitting here bored out of my skull because his Magnetic Majesty decided that I was off-duty for forty-eight hours. Like I need any fucking r&r.; . ."
"Give the bloke a break, luv," Pete Wisdom said easily, coming in and sitting on the opposite end of the bed. "He hasn't quite gotten to the point where he can cope with you being all grown up, yet. . ."
"That's no excuse. I tried to sit monitor duty, and the next thing I know I'm being kicked out of the control room." Kitty sat up and pulled her knees up to her chest, giving Pete a measuring look. "So."
"Where WERE you?"
Pete gave her a rakish grin and scratched at the scars reaching down past the eyepatch. "Now THAT would be telling."
A few weeks ago, she would have told him to stop scratching, but the scars were completely healed, now. Even with Nathan's help - he'd somehow managed to get his healing magic working for someone else, for once - Cecilia hadn't been able to save Pete's eye. She'd barely managed to save his life. Like most demon-inflicted injuries, it had gotten infected, and severely so.
"Bastard," she said, without any real heat. She was still too relieved he was alive to get particularly angry with him.
"And you wouldn't have me any other way, would you?"
Muttering a few uncomplimentary things under her breath, Kitty leaned back against the wall behind her, continuing to study him. There was a distinctly self-satisfied gleam in his eye. She knew that look. "I hate it when you're off on these damned missions for Magnus and Nathan. I always end up getting paired with Creed." She sobered a little, remembering how very useful Creed had been on this last mission. "You hear about what happened?" she asked abruptly.
Pete nodded and shifted position on the bed so that he was sitting beside her. "About thirty seconds after I stepped back through the portal. The gossip mill's fast as lightning in the place, you know." Kitty leaned against his shoulder, and he put his arm around her as she nestled closer to him. "Heard he's going to be all right, though."
"This time," she said very quietly. "You know, when I promised Rachel, when she. . .left, that I'd find Nathan and take care of him, I thought I was talking about a baby, Pete. Not a full- grown sorcerer with a deathwish."
Pete's arm tightened around her reassuringly, and Kitty tried to smile. She'd made a lot of promises in her life, but that one, the one she'd offered freely as she watched her friend vanish into the timestream. . .that one, she'd been so determined to keep. She'd been fully prepared to storm Limbo herself, to find the baby she'd once held in her arms what seemed like a lifetime ago. . .
The Askani's rescue of him, his appearance a couple of months later as a man old enough to be her father wielding magic powerful enough to fight a war on two fronts, to hold off Limbo and Apocalypse. . .none of that changed her mind. She'd given a promise. Given her word.
And she intended to keep it. Even if she had to catch him off guard and beat some sense into him. He COULDN'T do all of this himself. The rest of them were here for a reason, damn it.
"Things go well with what I was up to yesterday," Pete said quietly, "and we might have a little more help around here, soon."
Kitty raised an eyebrow. "Care to be a little more specific?"
"Mmm. . .not right now. Better things to be doing. . ."
Kitty surprised herself with a giggle as Pete set about distracting her with a few initial 'better things'. "I'll get it out of you, you know," she said warningly. Part of her argued that she should be trying to get it out of him right now, but damn it, she'd missed him. And she was very, VERY bored. . .
"I know. . .you're persistent that way."
"You bet, bub."
Illyana opened her eyes to a great deal of pain and a familiar demonic visage looming over her, grinning toothily.
"Someone screwed up," S'ym said gleefully. "You're going to be paying for this one for a while, blondie."
"Shut up," Illyana snarled. "I don't remember you doing any better." She pushed herself up to her elbows and blinked around blearily. Back in Limbo, of course - Nathan didn't have the stomach to do anything but banish her - but the sight of exactly where in Limbo she was sent a cold shudder through her.
She was lying on the blood-stained altar before the Goblin Queen's throne, and the memory of every sacrifice she'd seen carried out here struck her all at once. Swallowing, she sat up, trying not to tremble too visibly.
S'ym still noticed, of course. "Like I said, you screwed up," he gloated. "At least I did a credible job of half-killing him. You and your tiny little leech-knife. . .poor show, kid."
"I said shut up!" Illyana cried, and then sunk her head into her hands, shaking. "I did my best," she muttered in agitation. "If she wants to kill me for that. . ."
"Don't be ridiculous," a quiet voice came from the shadows cloaking the throne. S'ym swore, and Illyana slid immediately off the altar, dropping to her knees. "You succeeded in part," Madelyne said, standing up and walking out of the shadows. She was in austere, almost modest black today, her red hair upswept, the expression on her ageless face effortlessly regal. "I'm willing to accept that, for the time being. Besides," the Goblin Queen allowed herself a small smile, "I don't have time to find and train a new apprentice."
"Not to mention that you have killed mosst of thosse with ssuch abilitiess, my Lady," a sibilant voice hissed, and Illyana started as N'Astirh materialized on the other side of the altar. "It makess it very difficult to find a new apprentice."
"I don't recall asking your advice, N'Astirh," Madelyne said mildly.
Illyana eyed the other demon warily. Madelyne had S'ym completely cowed, had for years, but Illyana wasn't honestly sure about N'Astirh. Madelyne had bested him quite definitively in the battle for the throne, but Illyana knew from her own tenure as mistress of Limbo that demons as clever as N'Astirh were rarely content.
"Ass ever, my Lady, I only sseek to sserve. . ."
"Oh, please." Madelyne sat back down on her throne, dismissing the cloak of shadows with a wave of her hand. "Go practice your lines on the minor imps some more. . .your delivery needs work. I stopped buying that seven years ago. "
"Ass you ssay, Misstress. . ."
Madelyne's eyes hardened, beginning to glow a soft, luminous green. "That's right. Keep that in mind."
N'Astirh somehow managed to shrug. He looked back at Illyana, thoughtfully. "You have had little luck againsst him, I have noticed. . ."
"Even exhausted, he is somewhat out of her league," Madelyne murmured, and the look in her glowing eyes was suddenly something very close to pride. "Bitch that she was, Sefton still trained him very well." She smiled delicately. "I'm rather looking forward to our eventual reunion. It should be. . .enlightening."
Illyana knew that the day that reunion took place, one of two things would happen. Either she would be displaced as Madelyne's heir and apprentice by Madelyne's son - and she knew how much Madelyne craved that outcome - or Nathan's life-blood would spill out on this very altar to permanently shatter the barrier between Limbo and Earth. She kept her passionate longing for the latter carefully hidden.
It never occurred to her that Madelyne wouldn't win.
Nathan swayed a little as the lift door opened onto the central chamber of the fortress. "So many people. . ." he murmured. Tactical, communications, internal security, each station had a crowd around it. An agitated crowd. "What's going on?" His head began to ache as his crippled telepathy struggled to react to the influx of input and failed miserably.
He almost didn't catch Magnus exchanging an unreadable look with Cecilia. "What?" he asked suspiciously, bracing himself with an outflung hand against the wall of the lift. "What happened?" There was a long moment of silence, and he strangled the urge to shake the pair of them until their teeth rattled. Not feasible in his current condition, and not wise, period. Magnus would certainly take exception, and Cecilia would probably knock him on his rear, just to hammer the point home. . .*why is it that my mind always wanders like this when I'm tired?*
"Nothing you need to concern yourself about," Magnus said briskly, shepherding him forward, out of the lift. "You look dead on your feet, Nathan. Check the wards and have done with it." It sounded suspiciously like an order.
This was a conspiracy, Nathan thought a little hazily. Definitely a conspiracy. "I'm fine," he muttered, pulling away from Magnus and walking very carefully to the center of the room. "You don't need to keep things from me. Shouldn't keep things from me, either. Doesn't work that way."
"I agree," a soft, British-accented voice said, and Nathan glanced up to the comms station, meeting Betsy Braddock's eyes. "It's good to see you on your feet, Nathan," the sanctuary's only fully-capable telepath said without emotion, removing the complicated headset she wore, the link that let her interface her abilities with the sophisticated computer systems the fortress possessed. "I must say, you look a trifle rocky. Let me help."
He flinched as he felt her wrap her own shields around his mind. It stopped the nagging discomfort, but it was so cold, so terribly cold. Every time she touched him telepathically, he felt like he'd just taken a walk out on the glacier. Her mind was like ice, cold and precise and sharp-edged.
He could remember when Betsy had. . .been warmer. Years ago, when the war had been in its infancy, before people had begun to die in the millions, she had been different. She'd helped him adjust to this time period, supported him when the truth - that he was stuck in the post-Inferno world, unable to travel back to a point beforehand and stop it - had been revealed.
He wasn't sure when she'd started to change. *Somewhere around the time when we all did, probably,* a wiser part of him said dryly.
He ignored it. "What happened, Elizabeth?" he asked, ignoring Cecilia's sharp sound of protest from behind him. He met those cool, dead- seeming eyes, willing her to tell him. He'd never hidden from the truth; he didn't intend to start now.
"Another attack," Betsy said. "During a gap in our satellite coverage." Nathan stared at her, speechless for a moment, and she shrugged elegantly. "It came while you were unconscious," she said, almost casually. "It was too late. We sent a team out, looking for survivors. . .there were none."
Nathan closed his eyes, fighting back rage. If only he hadn't been so careless, letting Illyana injure him. He might have. . .
"Damn you, Braddock," he heard Cecilia snap. He flinched as she came up beside him and took his arm. "You didn't need to tell him that."
"Why not?" Betsy sounded almost. . .surprised. As surprised as Betsy got, at least. "He would have had to have been told sooner or later. . ."
"You know, for a telepath, you've got all the sensitivity of a. . ."
"Enough," Magnus said, his voice closer than it had been. "Nathan?" A strong hand fell on his shoulder. "You honestly don't look up to this."
Betsy's mind was still in contact with his. He saw a settlement, in ruins. Bodies everywhere. His whole being shrank from the sight, wanting nothing more than to withdraw into blissful unconsciousness and pretend that this whole grim interlude had been nothing but a dream.
#It really isn't your fault,# Betsy projected off- handedly. #There's only so much one man can do. Even when that one man is you, my friend.#
"Then I do what I can, Betsy," he grated, and opened his eyes. "Back away," he said harshly to Cecilia and Magnus, who both complied, Cecilia with visible reluctance.
"Nathan," she murmured.
"It's all right," he told her. "I'll be done in a minute." He saw the flash of hurt in her eyes at his brisk tone, and regretted it. "I can do this, Cecilia," he said more softly.
Her mouth twitched in a sad, ironic little smile. "I'll hold you to that, Nathan."
He managed a ghost of a smile in return, as he spread his arms wide. Here, he thought. Right here. He could feel the wards beginning to respond, and extended a tendril of energy, a lure.
And they descended around him, flashing, shimmering veils of golden light that flew to him like children greeting a parent after a long absence. *Greedy things,* he thought with a trace of detached affection.
They were weakened, but largely intact, he noted with relief. *Have to remember to thank Creed for pulling out that knife. . .* If he hadn't, the damage could have been a lot worse, and he knew he wasn't up to rebuilding them. Not now, maybe not even a month from now, even if he did nothing but sleep during the intervening time.
They'd been the creation of the man he'd been years ago. The one with energy and inventiveness to spare, before the constant fighting had sapped it all, left him like this. . .
*Stop wallowing,* he told himself harshly. *Focus. . .*
The wards were part of him, now. They'd been active too long, and he'd worked with them too much for it to be any other way. Part of him. An extension of him.
They'd break when he broke. Not a moment before.
He took a deep breath, and poured himself into them. Heart and soul, envisioning the wards in their places around the fortress. Guarding this sanctuary, keeping everything he loved safe.
*Safe. . .Madelyne won't have this place, these people. . .I won't LET her. . .* His mother's ageless, lovely face floated in front of him, smiling, and he let the anger pour out of him, fueling the wards even further.
They blazed like liquid fire, rippling violently. He heard gasps, even a few cries, from the watching crowds, but ignored them.
*Stronger. . .harder. . .*
He closed his eyes, unable to see anything, the light from the wards was so bright. They were alive with power, pulsing with the beat of his hard. *Yes. . .* He gestured outwards, and felt them swirl around him, almost in a caress, before they drifted away, forming up around the fortress once more.
He opened his eyes again. There was dead silence in the chamber, all eyes fixed on him. He managed a weak smile. "There," he said raggedly, his attempt at a reassuring tone falling flat. "All fixed. . ."
The world tilted erratically around him and he toppled slowly. A moment later, it went black. He never felt Magnus using his powers to lower him gently to the ground.
Cecilia swore, and ran to Nathan's side. "I knew this was too much for him," she snapped. "God forbid he should ever listen to me." She knelt down beside him, checking his pulse, as Magnus and Betsy hurried over. "Don't crowd me," she said irritably. She could feel dozens of eyes on her. . .everyone in the chamber was watching, she knew. "Stubborn fool of a man!" But his pulse and breathing were steady. . .he hadn't pushed himself too far. This time.
"Checking the wards was neccessary, considering the circumstances," Betsy said coolly.
"Did I ask for your opinion, Elizabeth?" The anger that had followed relief faded almost as quickly as it had come, and Cecilia sighed, leaning back and smoothing silver hair back from Nathan's forehead in an unconsciously tender gesture. "Out like a light," she murmured.
"Is that your professional diagnosis?" Magnus said dryly, kneeling down beside her. She shot a glare at him and he shook his head, smiling faintly. "Just trying to lighten the situation, Cecilia. . ."
"Well, knock it off. How can this situation BE lightened?" She gritted her teeth, glancing up at the monitors that kept track of demon activity around the world. . .and of the rapidly dwindling number of human settlements. "What are we going to do?" she asked, fighting back the desperation she tried so hard to confine to the early hours of the morning, between nightmares.
"We keep fighting," Magnus said quietly. "What else is there to do?"
Cecilia looked back down at Nathan. His face was still drawn and pale, even in unconsciousness. "He'll fight until he drops," she said. *Just like the rest of us,* she thought, and knew, despite everything, that it was only the truth.