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Ashes in the Wind
An Elseworld's Style X-men Story
J. A. C. Delaney, 1996
Colonel Vashkin lit a cigarette in the cold morning mist. It was a pity that Dr. Cooper had been compromised by the Shadow King; she was a tough lady and a worthy ally/opponent. Funny how in the strange world of secret intelligence agencies the words could come to resemble each other so much. He had been in the game long enough not to let compassion or friendship cloud his judgement. It was obvious she had been compromised; now he would find out by who.
He had hunted this particular evil for a long time. A serial killer in Russia had led him to a decadent court where anything was permitted and debauchery was the order of the day. Several members of the club had been members of the central committee of the Communist party. It was pitiful how powerful men had begged for their lives like women. But against a cancer like this extreme measures were necessary to prevent it from spreading.
He sighed with regret. The world had changed since he was a simple covert agent responsible for the security of Russia. He had never played these games of one-upmanship; his forte had always been counter-espionage. Now the master was going to be tested by his greatest challenge to date.
It was a pity, he thought, that he would never see the Rodina again. He breathed in the cool fall air deeply, savoring the fresh smell of this time of the morning. It was, he reflected, a good day to die.
Wolverine crept through the underbush being careful not to make a sound that might alert one of the hunters that prowled the island. He could hear the odd distant scream, as the island was transformed into a killing zone. Whatever had begun here was coming to it's final conclusion. He couldn't know it, but the same thing had happened aboard a fishing trawler that had rescued Lorna Dane. The men had been overcome by lust; both for the beautiful heroine and for blood. When Banshee had rescued her, he had foolishly failed to determine what had happened on the ship. If he had still been alive he might have remembered this incident and warned the others; not that it would have done much good with the island this far gone. Still, Banshee had paid the price for his lack of curiousity; the first victim of a newly awakened Rogue. The madness had set in far too deeply of Forge's technology to effect such a quick and generic fix. But Wolverine knew nothing of this; he only knew that the remains of the Morlocks and the X-men had gone completely insane and had begun tearing each other to shreds.
Inside his skull he fought a losing battle against the red rage that fought to come forth. In some ways this was his natural state; at least this was the way he had been found by James and Heather after the maniacs at Weapon X had turned him into a killing machine. All he had to do was let the savagery come to the surface and he would be the most lethal killing machine on the island.
I'm getting old, he thought. First my healing factor is kicking out and now I am resisting an urge to violence that would have irresistible when I was young. It was ironic that old age brought benefits as it stripped everything else away. As a young man he had been a typical sociopath; only now had he found a family and learned the value of bonds. The friends, no the family that the X-men had become was the only thing he regretted about his impending death. Not that he regreted the coming of the end itself; a man's life was measured by how he lived it and the ending defined his life and gave it purpose. I never feared death and I ain't going to start now, he swore to himself. One last effort and he could let his old bones lie down and rest at last. The quiet of the grave was forever, after all. He was a walking dead man; the damage done to him by the Reavers was pretty much mortal. All that had been keeping him going was a loudmouthed girl by the name of Jubilation Lee.
He idly wondered where she was and dismissed the thought. The source of evil that had drowned this island in blood-lust had to be found and eliminated. All else was secondary to that. The girl would just have to survive long enough for him to force the issue. Another problem with age was that it forced a man to think about what was most important; to think with his head rather than his guts. That was what made old wolves like himself so dangerous; they went after the greatest threat to the pack rather than the greatest threat to themselves. No matter how tough it was he knew where his duty lay. Duty, that was one more thing that he would only be freed of by death.
He stopped and peered through the underbrush. He had reached the research complex where the sickness seemed to be emanating from. He struggled again to master the rising of the savage beast within as it attacked him with renewed force. Perhaps this is why he missed the quiet footsteps of a new arrival. Or perhaps, somewhere deep inside, he craved an opponent of flesh and blood and subconsciously blocked the signs of his approach. Whatever the case, his struggle was broken by a high pitched whine as a charged card struck him with the force of a small cannon.
"Told you that you were slowing down, old man." Gambit commented in his irritating and cocky manner. Wolverine rolled in agony as his weakened healing factor struggled to kick in. "From the look of things I'd say that perhaps it was time to give it up. I win."
"It ain't over til it's over, boy. Someday you'll learn to stop counting a battle over before it's half begun. If you live long enough." Razor sharp claws extended from Wolverine's knuckles. Foot long blades of razor sharp adamantium that were capable of slicing through solid steel, they were a fearsome weapon.
"Ready to dance then, old man?"
Wolverine responded with a growl and a leap. Somewhere deep inside him the red rage began to win. Which was just what the gloating presence hovering over the island was hoping would happen to him.
<An Island in the Bermuda Triangle> <POV: Magneto>
I disentangled myself from Lee and rose from the bed. Sleep was impossible for me; the nightmares were just too close to the surface. It was a pity that this had to happen now of all times. When facing an opponent as vicious as the Shadow King one couldn't afford to have distractions or entanglements. I left the complex riding on a wave of magnetic force, to be alone with my thoughts and the deep darkness outside.
I was born in 1928 and dragged to a concentration camp in 1941 after my family had been slaughtered. That thirteen year old boy was the last time in my life I had been innocent and the last time life had been anything but a struggle. I was in Auschwitz at the beginning and I watched nearly everyone I knew die in it. They employed me as a laborer to cart the bodies into the furnaces. Day after day I carried the bodies of my people to the crematorium to be burned. I used to knuckle under with rage the way the Nazi engineers complained that the fat in human bodies created too much soot when burned and that was blocking the chimneys. These were people that they were killing!
As a child I remember dreaming of being a famous explorer; of going to America or Africa and finding the wild and desolate places of the Earth. Standing where no man had ever stood before. I held on to that dream even when we were so densely packed we could hardly breathe. It is impossible to be in a concentration camp and be a good person. All of the morality that we espoused is the price of staying alive for just one more day.
I can recall it vividly if I concentrate on it. You did everything you could to survive; sold yourself to pedophile guards for a fistful of bread or stole food from the sick and dying. To fall ill in Auschwitz was to die and we all knew it. There was only one way out of the camps. We were Jews and to the Nazi's Jews were something less than human. At the time I didn't understand why they hated us so, I was just a scared child trying to grow into a young man amongst the horror of the camps.
It was there that I met a young Gyspy girl by the name of Magda. She had been a popular whore in the nearby internment camp for gypsies and been sent over to Auschwitz for the amusement of the guards there. Much better to screw a Gypsy than a Jewess. As I recall this I remember how much I loathed the inhuman bastards. How much I loathe them still, and how much their evil formed my view of the world. I don't hold this or anything else Magda needed to do to survive against her; how can anyone hold anything against someone else when they were in the camps. You know that you are evil for surviving and that only blind luck has kept you alive. We all knew people as tough, capable, brave and determined as ourselves who died out of sheer bad luck. But at the time this was all washed away in a new and forgien emotion that grew in me and I stopped caring about the camps. All I knew was that I was in love with this Gypsy lass.
When the chance came to escape I took it and I took her with me. The guard who had let me creep too close had her neck broken as I clawed my way over her. They would execute inmates for it the next day but that didn't matter. You did anything you had to in order to survive.
Afterwards I had been fooled by the first of several false summers in my life. I became a highlander and worked hard to make a life for me and my wife. Sure, it was difficult but it was also wonderful. To have my own life again and to be free of all the horror that I had done. But some crimes are too terrible to ever be forgiven and I had yet to pay for my evils in Auschwitz. When I sought to move on and become educated I was betrayed by the corruption of my fellow man. Even now, when I concentrate, I can remember Anya screaming and feel the dull thuds as the thugs attempt to make an example of me. I check myself as I realize that the memory has caused me to draw in so much power I am glowing like a lamp. I shouldn't dwell on this, but I fear I have no choice.
You see, every time I think I might be happy it happens again. With Anya and Magda it was thugs. With Charles it was hydra. With the New Mutants it was the stress of trying to be a headmaster and a protector at the same time. With Rogue it was Zaladane. What will it be with Lee. I don't deserve happiness; I know that and I should stop trying to seek it. All I can hope to do is to find a way to protect others from what happened to me. If I can never find peace than maybe I can make a world in which that is possible for others.
They call me an anti-human bigot, but I have never been that in my life. All that separates me from a normal human is a few genes different here and there. I am of the same genus and the same species. No, when I talk about the mistrust I have for humans it includes mutants as well. I am well aware that at Auschwitz it was humans killing humans. Is it so much to ask for a world in which nobody murders their neighbor for being different? Is this dream impossible? Or is the mad dream of Apocalypse right after all? If it is then I don't want to live in that kind of world. I am the ultimate survivor and I hate myself for it.
This is why I have to oppose the Shadow King. Not for some vainglorious notion of honor or because he has wronged me. No, it is because he feeds off of the same type of hatred that created Auschwitz and given the chance he will turn the whole world into a charnel pit. I have seen the effects of this too often to even dream of letting it happen.
I am the last guardian against this sort of evil. When I tried to conquer the planet from this very island, Scott Summers warned me that any peace I might make would only last for my lifetime. I wish I could believe that he was wrong. What is it that leads us to hate each other like this? What evil dwells in our souls that we must hate what we fear and we must fear everything. I would have thought that the X-men would cheer me on in the creation of a world where the senseless killing of both humans and mutants was stopped. Then they would have had their chance to put Xavier's dream to the test. But instead they opposed me and I learned that some prices are too high. What is the point of winning this sort of war if you become as bad as those you replace in the process?
So I fight the good fight and hope that I might make some small difference. I has been over 40 years since I was sent into the camp and I grow weary of the never-ending struggle. The long twilight war with no winners or losers, only victims.
That is why Lee Forrester is so dangerous to me. She awakens in me the tiny part that never gave up the hope of happiness. The part of me that never gave up hope that I might make a difference and sustained me through all my defeats. The sad hope that people might not have to die for because of the fears and greed of their fellow man. That paradise might be achievable and that I might accomplish something of value in this life. But I know it is a shadow; a fey illusion that will fade as I reach for it. Because I was in the camps and I paid the price to survive and that price was my very soul. If I still believed in God I would call myself damned but I gave up any faith in a deity who would not listen as his people were liquidated. But I know that there is no redemption possible for a man like me.
I have seen the signs of the coming holocaust and I dread it like nothing else. Even without the Shadow King, people were moving towards attacking my kind again. The registration acts and the hatred would be followed by resettlement and then the horror would begin all over again.
Lee is a human without a shred of mutant potential in her genes and yet I love her. Is it possible that there could be hope in a world where the mightest mutant can love the least of the humans? I don't think so but I want so desperately to try.
But I am warrior before anything else and I cannot avoid the coming battle. I know the signs; just as hope strings forth in my breast so am I damned to one last failure. The thought of hurting Lee tears at me but I don't have the strength to leave her. But will she have the courage to stay with me along the damned road I must travel?
I am surprised to find out that the question frightens me more thn anything else since Magda died. I stare out at the endless, eternal stars and I wonder, is there any hope left for me and my kind?
Then I turn and return to the complex and begin my search for the liar of the Shadow King.