Three men set a quick, direct pace through the streets. Lamplight cut shallow pools of yellow through the black, pools they each studiously avoided. They were X-Men, and while they were heroes, they did not tend to attract the right kind of publicity. An enormous animal clad in blue fur, a deadly figure more hawk than man, and their leader, with fire in his eyes and uncontrollable power bubbling just behind… Far better, for three noble outcasts: far better to remain unnoticed.
Scott Summers viewed the world through a crimson haze. The ruby-quartz lens of the visor he wore drained all colors but one from the world, a silent parody of Scott's own single-minded dedication to the X-Men. Since he was a teenager, Cyclops had lead the team, fighting to uphold the dream of Charles Xavier; a dream of a world where mutants and humans lived in peace together. Now, though, mutants were considered dangerous, uncontrollable. Scott was a perfect example… The optic blasts his visor held in check could punch a hole through a mountain, and he was helpless to stop them. Scott often felt the weight of the burden his powers placed on him… But since Xavier's death he had felt a different weight. That of the responsibility he now carried as the leader of the X-Men. He set his jaw and walked onward, determined not to fail in his role.
Warren Worthington soared on wings of steel, and lacerated the midnight air with a thousand razored feathers. He searched with eyes as keen as any eagle's, watching for attack from any side. The flechettes housed within his wings were locked into place, ready to be shot forth with lightning speed to wound or even kill whosoever was unfortunate enough to be in their path. Archangel almost smiled at the thought.
Henry McCoy was not smiling. The blue furred Beast almost always had a grin on his lips, a joke dancing just behind his menacing fangs, but the reason for their mission had deprived him of his normal levity. He had been a costumed adventurer for over a decade, and in that time alien invasion, super-powered terrorism, and even divine intervention had become commonplace. One thing that he had never gotten used to, though, was cold-blooded murder. It never failed to amaze him how casually and carelessly people threw away the lives of others… That was why he was here tonight, after all. To stop it.
Two nights earlier, NYPD police scientist Matt Bryers had been working over time. He wasn't the type, really; he'd never been as committed to the job as a lot of his coworkers. He was always more interested in the science of things than the human interest, so to speak. This case, though… This case intrigued him. The victim was a white male, age sixteen, apparently stabbed to death. There was nothing unusual about that, not in New York… But what had attracted his attention was the evidence piling up around the case. The murder weapon was found, with clear fingerprints on it. Footprints from the trail of blood were easily matched to the killer's shoes. DNA testing on torn skin found underneath the victim's nails had provided conclusive evidence of the murderer's identity. Sixteen-year-old Mark Page had bee killed by…. Sixteen-year-old Mark Page. It was insane… This was no suicide. People who commit suicide don't leave footprints in their own blood, and they don't scratch themselves in a scuffle. They certainly don't dump their own body in a dumpster when they're done. Why the dumpster? The killer had left footprints, DNA samples, fingerprints… Yet felt compelled to hide the body? It made no sense. The killer was so obvious, yet so impossible. What that meant, he didn't know.
The next night Matt had met with a surprise… Another body, same MO. This time a woman, forty-five, shot down. Her own fingerprints on the gun, her own footprints found around, her own skin found under her fingernails, even a nasty bite mark on her right shoulder matched her dental prints. A bite mark on a shooting victim… A BITE MARK. Lord in Heaven, what on earth was the purpose of that? Matt was mystified… But at the same time a kind of excitement held him. If he could solve this mystery, that would be a genuine achievement. Within hours, news was all around the station about the case. One detective took particular interest. Detective Charlotte Jones.
Archangel had heard about it that evening at six. He had been dating Charlotte on and off for two years, and while they were not currently seeing each other, a dinner between friends was hardly looked down upon. It was an odd case, certainly, but nothing Warren would have normally been terribly concerned with. However, over the last few days, the X-Men's computer system, Cerebro, had been reporting unusual mutant activity in New York City, and between the unusual nature of the case and Cerebro's scans, there was obviously something in need of investigating. Luckily, the X-Men didn't have anything better to do.
Kitty Pryde stepped through the door. She did not step through the doorway, not at all; she stepped through the door. As her immaterial form moved towards the opposing wall, she heard a sudden inrush of smoke and flame making a familiar BAMF! noise. She turned to face NightCrawler, a demonic young man possessed of indigo fur and a forked tail. He grinned and put a finger to his lips as he leapt to the wall beside her. Now the door she had passed through opened, and another man walked out. He was short and bulky, but moved as silently as any cat, and the look on his face would have sent any dog running. Wolverine closed the door, and began walking into the alley. NightCrawler leapt after him, yellow eyes gleaming, and Shadowcat followed. In seconds, the trio were gone, one with the darkness surrounding them, and on the prowl.
Four more X-Men made their way through the night. Bishop moved like a walking mountain, his imposing stature belying speed and combat prowess to match any soldier of the time. Or of his. The plasma rifle in his grasp swung silently to follow his cautious gaze. Bishop had taken on, after coming to this time period, the task of protecting the X-Men as much as the task of being an X-Man. Though he was far from friendly to any perceived threat to his mutant charges, there was one threat he was most concerned with: That of the traitor to the X-Men, the man who, according to history, would betray them and slay them. History was unclear on just who this traitor was, but Bishop had a prime suspect.
Gambit walked alongside Bishop with a shadowy footstep any ninja would envy. In the pockets of his brown trench coat rested a deck of cards, the usual target of his mutant powers. At Gambit's touch any object could be charged with explosive energy, making even playing cards deadly weapons. Growing up as part of the Thieves Guild in New Orleans, though, Gambit had learned to live by more than his mutant powers. Between his fingers he twirled a short metal cylinder, one that could be extended into a six-foot staff at a moments notice. As proficient as Remy LeBeau was with his cards, his bo made him one of the most effective close range fighters on the team. Smiling slightly, Gambit glanced up at his teammate, Rogue, a young woman from Mississippi. She flew overhead, and he shook his head at her yellow and green bodysuit. That girl… There they were, trying to be stealthy, and she practically wore a flashlight for a costume. He smiled again; the poor young belle was in desperate need of some charming scoundrel to teach her the ways of the world.
Rogue peeked down at Gambit just as he looked away. The Cajun had been watching her, she knew it; she could feel his glowing red eyes on her. She sighed and looked back up. No sense in flying through a wall while she was letting her imagination run away with her. She and Gambit had dated… sort of… for a while now, but she still felt vaguely uncomfortable with him. He had a charm about him. Whenever those eyes were on her she felt compelled to listen to him, her guard came down… But that was dangerous, for her and for him. Rogue was dangerous. Her mutant power was to steal the thoughts, the mind, the powers, of anyone she touched, and she had no control over it. A single kiss from Remy might end up killing him. He didn't seem to care; he thought it was worth the risk… And she knew she might not always be able to stop herself from listening to him. She shuddered at the thought, chilled by the idea of hurting him, disgusted at her weakness for him. Sighing once more, she flew higher, hoping to clear her mind.
Elizabeth Braddock's mind was far from clear. Psylocke was a telepath, and at the moment she was mentally searching for the mystery killer. Keeping her thoughts clear of her teammates' was difficult. Rogue's confusion shone like a green beacon on the astral plane, while Bishop's near-paranoid attention to his chosen duty was a bright red flame. Gambit… Gambit was something else. Betsy wasn't sure she could have picked up Remy LeBeau's thoughts if she tried. Frowning slightly, she brushed her violet hair from her eyes and concentrated on filtering out all the noise, all the mental static, and searching for the killer. Even concentrating as she was, Psylocke moved with a grace born of years of training as a ninja. The wealthy British aristocrat had not asked for the skills she now had, but fate had provided them anyway, along with a body, Asian in appearance, and at virtually the height of human ability, to match. She smiled… She may not have asked for them, but she certainly enjoyed them now that she had them. If stealth wasn't so required, she thought she might be leaping across rooftops simply looking for trouble… and relishing it when it found her.
The figure in black ducked behind a raised skylight as Rogue flew past. That was all ten of them… Perfect. He would take one group, the one with the elf, probably, and then the others would all fall into place. He grinned. His plans were working out as well as he could have hoped, even better, really. Ten of them… He had expected seven at the most. Well… He was a firm believer in "the more the merrier". Oh how merry it would be. He leapt down the fire escape, and darted across the dimly lit road.
"Hey, who wants snow-cones?" asked Bobby Drake, twisting in his chair. He grinned at his friends and held up two paper cups filled with crushed ice.
"Hmm?" murmured Jean Grey-Summers. "What flavor?"
"Ummm… Ice, I guess," replied Bobby, shrugging. Jean rolled her eyes, and Storm half smiled. "Hey! I'm Iceman, my options are kinda limited. Get me a cute sidekick named Artificial-Syrup-Girl and you'll have more luck."
Jean telekinetically tossed the two cups in his face, and this time Storm smiled outright. Quite a feat, Drake thought, the African goddess was usually about as open with her emotions as a stone robot. When your every feeling could potentially wreak havoc on the weather pattern for the tri-state area, you learn to keep them in check, he guessed.
Jean smiled herself, and watched the little blips on the screen she was attending. Everyone was all right so far, but the mutant they were tracking was a complete unknown. She should be there with them. She stood, and looked contemplatively at the door of the Blackbird.
"Jean, you are not going out to help," said Ororo, placing a hand on Phoenix's shoulder.
"I thought I was the mind-reader here?" she laughed, and sat down again. "I just feel so useless waiting in the jet for them.
"Do not be silly… We are back up, in case things go awry," replied Ororo, sitting in the seat next to Jean. "And I need not remind you that you are pregnant. To risk your own life is one thing, to risk the life of your child another."
Jean grimaced. Not at the thought of a baby, she wanted a baby… But she didn't like everyone thinking she was incompetent, too fragile to be useful. If the next eight months were as tedious as the last one had been she would almost certainly go insane before Rachel was born. She sighed now, and shook her head. She was still going to be useful, one way or the other. Jean turned to the screen Storm was now watching.
Truth be told, Ororo didn't like waiting behind much better than Jean did. For years she had lead the X-Men, while Cyclops was away, while the Professor was away… and then when they both returned, she had shared the duties of field leader with Scott. She took pride in her position, she was a more than competent leader by any standard, and in many ways she felt she was superior to the single-minded Cyclops… But since the Professor's death he had taken on more and more of the leadership duties, to the point where she felt like her command was more figurative than anything. The team was suffering for it, too. Thirteen X-Men was all well and good when they were divided into two distinct forces, but with Cyclops commanding everything himself the sheer number of mutants on the team was too much. It was past time she had a talk with him. On the other hand, she hated to risk upsetting Scott. So much of him was based in his command of the team, she was unsure how he would react to such a confrontation… but it needed to be done. Storm glanced down at Scott's wife. Jean… Jean was like a sister to her. Perhaps if she talked to Jean first it would be better.
Both women were taken from their thoughts by a flare on the display. A mutant the computer didn't recognize had just used his or her powers. Phoenix immediately reached out with her mind, giving a silent warning.
"I hear ya, Jeannie…" muttered Wolverine. He stopped in his tracks, and held up a hand to stop NightCrawler. "All right, elf, keep those glowin' eyes open. Jean's saying we've got company around here somewhere. Not close enough to smell, yet, but better safe than sorry."
"Ja, Logan, I will keep my eyes peeled," replied Kurt. He drew a rapier from the sheaths on his back. Better safe than sorry.
"You too, kiddo," Logan nodded to Shadowcat. She nodded, warily eying her surroundings. Phased as she was, little could hurt her physically, but there was no point taking risks.
"Eh?" Wolverine said, sniffing the air, "Two scents, not far… One's a broad, middle aged. That ain't her. The other's a kid in the grips o' adolescence. I think we've got our man." Puberty was when most mutant powers manifested. Often the teenager would be unable to control his powers, and that's when the X-Men stepped in to help. It looked like they'd be doing it again tonight. The three mutants moved forward, following the trail only Wolverine's senses could detect into a predictably dark alley. Lying in a crumpled heap was a forty-five-year old woman, and next to her was a shivering young man. He looked up at them, tears in his eyes.
"I- I didn't MEAN TO!" he cried, backing away as he saw Wolverine. The masked man advanced. "Stay b-back! Stay back or else!!" NightCrawler moved out of the shadows and the boy screamed. Kitty walked towards him and put a hand on his shoulder. He seemed comforted, and said, "M-my name's Mark… Mark Page… I didn't mean to…"
"Shhh, it's all right. It was an accident," she said. She could only imagine what he must feel like. When her power first manifested it had been fairly harmless, and even that had frightened her. The boy was probably only two years younger than her, fifteen or sixteen. She shook her head; it was never easy.
Kurt took the woman's pulse. "She is alive, thank God. We had best get her to ein doktor, nein?" He stood, and turned back to Wolverine. "Logan, see what you can do for her, I shall mentally alert Jean to our discovery. Kitty, explain things to our new friend here."
Kitty nodded while Wolverine turned to the woman. He knelt beside her, and quickly examined her for spinal injury. His eyes ran over the rest of her body, searching for signs of broken bones, sprains, anything that would inhibit her movement. With a satisfied nod, he began laying her flat on her back.
The woman's hand shot up, grabbing Wolverine by the throat. Her eyes opened, and she grinned with an almost insane light to her eyes.
"Hurk!" Wolverine put a hand to his neck, and tore the woman's fingers away. He got to his feet with a start, snarling. "Listen up, lady, you have three seconds to talk before I start slicing. Make 'em good." The woman rose quickly, and smiled.
"Ah, "Logan", is it? Well, well, Logan, you certainly don't know how too treat a lady, do you? So maybe we should settle this… man to man." She smiled sweetly, and snapped her fingers.
"What're you…" began Wolverine, but he was cut off by a loud SNIKT. Turning to his left, he looked into his own eyes.
"What's the matter, "bub"? See a ghost?" snarled an exact duplicate of Wolverine. His adamantium claws were extended, gleaming in the dim light.
SNIKT. Wolverine unsheathed his own claws and looked back towards the woman. She was gone.
"Just you and me, Logan. The name's Michael Keretos, but you can call me Horde," he lunged towards Logan, claws arcing in a skillfully chosen path to Wolverine's heart. "I'll call you meat."
"Logan!" yelled Shadowcat as she saw three trails of blood form along Logan's chest.
"Pipe down, girl, you have your own problems," said the boy next to her. From the ground in front of him rose an ethereal Kitty Pryde. The boy smiled, winked, and disappeared.
"I am so tired of playing Cat and Mouse," sighed Shadowcat's double. "I feel like getting on to the Cat and Cat. Ready for me, Kitty?" Without waiting for a response, she leapt into the air and kicked Shadowcat in the face. Kitty reeled, but retaliated with a sweeping kick to her opponent's legs. Horde fell to the ground, and Shadowcat seized the opening, leaping on top of her and attacking.
Jean? Thought NightCrawler, unaware of the battle behind him. The concentration required to use his mental connection to the team's resident psychic was enough that he had wandered off to somewhere quiet, so as not to be disturbed by the panicked boy. Jean, we've found him. I expect a hero's welcome when we return, ja? And tell Kapitan Scott… His thoughts were interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. He turned, and was knocked across the alley by a two-fingered fist.
"Vas?!" he yelled, rolling into a crouch and drawing twin swords. Kurt looked upwards at himself. "Mein Gott, not ANOTHER verdammt evil twin…"
"Not quite, Wagner. Darkholme? Szardos? Quite a number of names you could carry, what do you prefer?" asked Keretos, drawing two blades to match Kurt's.
"Mein freunds call me Kurt. You can call me NightCrawler. I prefer to hear my enemies scream 'Stop, NightCrawler! Good God, don't stick that sword THERE!' It preserves my secret identity, ja?" He leapt up, onto the wall, grinning. His pure white fangs were bared, turning the friendly grin into something more threatening.
"Fine. You can call me Horde. Better yet, you can call me master." Kurt's double teleported above him, thrusting a sword down at the elf. Wagner barely dodged the blade, but managed to kick upwards and knock Horde off the wall.
"Ja, ja, call you master, I've heard it before. You're not a very creative supervillain, are you?" He leaped down onto his assailant. "At least you had the manners to introduce yourself before I was forced to kick your handsome German hinterteil." Kurt found himself flipped away, but managed to land on his feet.
"Your skills are impressive, Wagner. Not quite the combatant your friend Wolverine is, but impressive none the less. I look forward to finding out what the rest of your brood is capable of." Keretos teleported on top of Kurt with a BAMF! and kicked his face into the ground.
Kurt hissed, standing on his hands and kicking his double off of him with all his force. "I have bad news for you, herr Horde: It's all downhill from me," he grinned, and leaped on top of his fallen foe.
Scott, we've got a problem, came the telepathic call.
What is it Jean? Have you found him?
NightCrawler and the others have. Kurt was telling me about it, when he was attacked by something. I'm not sure what it was, it wasn't registering on the astral plane like a normal mind.
We'll take care of it. "Hank, tell Archangel we have a situation, then both of you follow me," Scott said to the Beast. He started running towards Kurt's team, following Jean's mental directions. Beast leapt to the side of a building and raced up to Warren's current altitude.
"It appears as though we have an event of some importance to attend to, oh ye of the astounding aptitude for aviation," called Beast. "Follow our fearless leader, Wings." He grinned, and darted to the ground. Archangel swooped low after him, and soon they had caught up with Cyclops, nearing the battleground.
As they turned a corner, NightCrawler ran at them.
"Scott!" he yelled. He teleported on top of Cyclops's head, panting and swinging his tail madly. "I don't know if I can beat him…" He teleported onto Beast, "Not without back up…" he teleported onto Warren, "Kick his furry butt!"
"Calm down, Kurt, we'll take care of him," Scott said. Kurt was obviously spooked, it wasn't like him to run from a fight… He scanned the shadows for whatever creature could have done this to him.
An agile form burst from the darkness, and Scott fired. The blast was deftly avoided by the dark form, who yelled out in surprise.
"Vas? Scott?! What are you doing?" cried Kurt, leaping towards Cyclops. "Where did he go?" Scott looked up at Archangel. Warren was turning in shock to the creature on his wings.
"Kurt?" asked Warren.
"No, but it's quite a likeness, isn't it?" replied Horde, punching Archangel in the face, and leaping down. Warren fell, but not far, before his wings once more came under his control. Horde landed before Cyclops, but as Scott fired, Keretos gave him a kick to the jaw, sending the blast up and wild. Scott winced as it severed power chords, thinking how easily that blast could have done much worse. Before the villain could strike again, Beast was upon him.
"Oh my stars and garters, not yet another superfluous evil twin…" said McCoy, picking up Horde by the throat.
"Would you people stop saying that?" With a flash of smoke, he was out of Hank's grasp, sitting on a wall some two stories up. "We're far more than simple evil twins…"
Beast leaped up to where Keretos was sitting. "We?"
"Of course." He grinned, fangs and eyes gleaming in the shadows, "I am called Horde. Prepare to find out why." He looked at something over Beast's shoulder, and McCoy turned. There was something flying towards him, a great dark shape that sliced through the air with a vicious imperturbability. Beast leaped desperately away as a hundred steel feathers flew at him, splitting the brick of the wall he had perched himself on. He bounced off an opposing wall, and dropped to the ground with a grace that belied his massive form. Horde swooped down at him, the razor-sharp edge of his wing aiming to cut Hank in two. Beast back-flipped away from the wing, alighting on top of a lamp post just as Keretos cut it down. McCoy fell, landing on his hands, and bounding to another wall.
"Scott, please prematurely pardon my proceeding presupposition, but, oh fearless, peerless leader," Hank leaped past Cyclops, "blow this mook away!" Beast avoided another volley of wing-darts, and saw the true Warren grappling with NightCrawler, but trying to avoid attacking the real NightCrawler, who seemed to be having some trouble with Wolverine, but not the real Wolverine, the real Wolverine was narrowly dodging optic blasts from a second Cyclops, and the real Cyclops….
There was a loud ZAKT, and a flash of red light, and Horde's Archangel fell from the sky. Ahh, THERE was the real Cyclops.
Kitty Pryde darted through the wall after Horde. She had been chasing herself around New York for fifteen minutes now, and it was beginning to tire her. She only hoped that Horde was as tired as she was. Coming out into another street, she looked around, and saw Horde running around a corner to her right. She followed, running down the street. Moments later, she turned the corner and stumbled right through Bishop.
"If you're trying to get yourself killed, Pryde, I'll oblige you," said the man grimly. In Bishop's time the X-Men were legends, heroes worshipped like no others. He never seemed happy to find that the heroes of legend were in some way incompetent. An immaterial Shadowcat blindly running through his chest might have given him that impression.
"Sorry, Bish," she said, diplomatically, "But I'm following the bad guy, she… he… Horde looks just like me right now."
"I know. We saw you run past. Psylocke said it wasn't you, so Rogue and LeBeau went to investigate," he said Gambit's name as if it were a curse, practically spitting the word.
"It was quite odd, actually," mentioned Betsy. She walked towards Kitty with a puzzled expression on her face. "When she went round the bend there she ran straight through Bishop, like you did. She didn't stop, though, or even keep moving along, she actually went around and walked through each one of us, even going so far as to float upwards and run through Rogue. That's why I tried a mind-scan in the first place."
"Touch… He must do it by touch…" mumbled Kitty, looking thoughtful for a moment. Her eyes widened. "Gambit and Rogue are in a lot of trouble, come on!!!" She ran off down the corridor. Bishop and Psylocke exchanged glances, and followed.