Things crawl in the darkness
That imagination spins
Needles at your nerve ends
Crawl like spiders on your skin
Pounding in your temples
And a surge of adrenaline
Every muscle tense to face the enemy within
I’m not giving in to security under pressure
I’m not missing out on the promise of adventure
I’m not giving up on implausible dreams
Experience to extremes
Experience to extremes
~ The Enemy Within (Rush)
They squared off against each other in the hall outside of the kitchen. Jean felt the same tense anticipation she’d often experienced just before a fight against all odds, but in this fight, they were both suited up in the uniform of the X-Men.
“I want you to stay here and keep scanning with Cerebra,” Scott announced in his don’t-argue-with-me tone. It was the way he spoke to the military and police they ran into on missions, and the younger mutants who wore an X, too.
“No. I’m going with you.” She kept her voice firm, but neutral. “Our ranks are depleted enough right now, and I’m not pulling my share lately as it is.”
“It’s not about shares. I need you to scan for other problems. We’ve already got two runs to make. If something else comes in, we’ll need to know where to regroup.”
“Ororo’s staying. She can watch CNN as effectively as I can.”
“She can’t operate Cerebra. While Professor Xavier is in Washington, you’re it.”
“What about Emma?”
“She has to run the school with Hank – which is another point; they could both use your help with that.”
The ruby-quartz lenses of his uniform goggles forever hid his eyes, but Jean could still feel his glare. She stiffened and clenched her fists at her sides in response. For the last two days, she had tried to talk to him. He had dodged her, or worse, ignored her entirely. It would stop now.
“Why are you leaving me out of the missions, Scott? Are you trying to keep me safe, or us apart?”
“Don’t be an idiot. I’m not trying anything, except to keep this mutant situation under control. I have to use everyone’s abilities to the best advantage. That means I need you to stay. End of discussion.” His arms crossed over his chest as he stared down at her.
“I’m not finished.” She took a breath. “There is no controlling this situation. What if it never stops? How can we handle it all? It would take only one well-placed Omega-level mutant enemy to wreck us, the way you keep parceling us out all over the globe. There are too many little fires, Scott, and they’re all spreading. If you don’t step back and get some perspective, you’ll end up torched.”
“This is pointless. The Seattle issue isn’t something you need to be involved in. You’d be overkill there. The Kentucky run is right down Logan’s alley, obviously. Neither should take long. If you’re here, you can contact us all the moment you know where we’re needed next.”
Jean was about to speak, but the sound of the jet starting up stopped her.
Scott looked past her and called out toward the stairs, “Whenever you’re ready, Logan. We’ll drop you over Kentucky.”
He was already turning away. A crushing feeling of helplessness warred with her anger. “Scott!”
Starting to walk away, he didn’t turn back. “What, Jean?”
She had planned to say be careful, or some similar worn-out farewell, but his voice had turned cold, impatient. Words failed her. As she watched her husband head out to the jet through the garage door, his back stiff, no message of goodbye spoken, her fists slowly unclenched. The fingers felt numb.
Jean walked away, forcing herself not to run after him, and stopped short in front of Logan at the foot of the stairs.
Great. He heard the whole thing. “Don’t get singed,” she said. “He’s in a mood.”
“So I noticed. Ya stayin’?”
“Apparently. I don’t think there’s any point in holding up the mission so we can fight in front of our friends.” She sighed. “But if he keeps taking cues from the villain playbook, I’m going to knock him on his X.”
Logan chuckled. “Yeah, I dunno whether t’ goose-step or curtsy these days.”
“Don’t let them toss you out above one thousand feet,” Jean said, frowning.
“He ain’t bustin’ my chops, so maybe he’ll land tha plane first.”
“Logan, do me a favor?”
“If you need help on this one, call me.”
“Got that urge t’ slice an’ dice again?”
She sidestepped around him. “Just call me.” He was out the door but hadn’t closed it yet when she added, “Be careful, okay?”
“Nothin’ tha ol’ Canucklehead can’t handle, darlin’ – but if I need ya, I’ll shout.”
~ ~ ~
They landed the plane, but he was barely out of it when it rose up vertically again. Darting forward and gaining altitude in seconds, the Blackbird disappeared.
Feral corn-fed urchins. What’s tha world comin’ t’? This kid’ll probly turn out t’ be autistic with a bubble bath phobia, an’ I’ll be hitchhikin’ from Bowlin’ Green t’ tha Big Apple – or not. Who’s gonna pick up a guy lookin’ like me? Glad these are tha mutant-issue togs – ain’t gonna sacrifice my best cowboy boots t’ tha cause.
Logan walked along the North Entrance Road to the headquarters of the Mammoth Cave National Park. The place was overrun with police and rangers, and the unavoidable curious tourists.
An older ranger spotted him and stepped up. “Sorry, sir, but the park is closed today.”
“Looks pretty busy t’ me. What’s with tha rubberneckers?”
“The police will be clearing them out in a minute, too. Please return to your vehicle. Perhaps if you call ahead, you might be able to visit tomorrow.”
Logan pasted a vaguely disappointed expression on his face and headed off. When the ranger stopped watching him, he slipped into a crowd of onlookers. They were all dressed in thick sweaters or brightly colored windbreakers. His uniform could pass for a Harley biker’s gear, but that didn’t allow him to blend in with this bunch.
He caught the eye of a teen boy who was staring at him. Laying on the yokel tourist act, he tried to sound curious and bored at once. “What’s goin’ on?”
“They found a kid, lost I guess,” he said. His parents turned to look at the newcomer.
“It’s easy to lose your way in these caverns,” the boy’s father added.
“The poor thing… ” The mother held her own daughter closer to her pink jogging pants.
“What’s tha matter with ‘er?” Logan asked.
“She looks just wild,” the father answered. “There, see? They’re taking her into that other building now.”
Logan agreed that the little girl looked wild, but he wasn’t listening after that. When the crowd moved, split, and reformed, he walked away from them.
Getting around the back of the building and finding a convenient door was simple enough. When it turned out to be locked, he popped one claw of his right hand with a ~snikt~ and inserted it into the space between the door and the frame. The adamantium blade sliced through the steel deadbolt like rice paper.
Sorting through the scents in the building was easy, too, and he found the room the child had been placed in within moments. The police could be heard down the hall, arguing about how to proceed; it was a question with a simple answer for Logan. One quick application of his claw, and the second locked door opened for him as easily as the first.
The girl was alone in a room that was barely bigger than a broom closet. She was huddled in the back corner, ignoring the sandwich some enterprising soul had placed on a short stool in the middle of the room. She had been staring at it as he entered, but afterward, she kept her eyes on him. Had she seen him retract his claw?
Her clothing was a mystery. The dress had been expensive, but it was hanging on her in rags, and she was draped in poorly tanned furless skins.
“Ya don’t talk, do ya?” he asked. When she remained silent, Logan took a deep breath, scenting the skins. “Yer poncho’s an unknown beastie. Congratulations, darlin’ – ain’t many outside my experience. Got tha scent o’ a big furry canine-type on ya, too – also a scratch in tha unknown category.” With a smile, he thought, Hey, Jeannie, I’m shoutin’, ya listenin’?
Her thought seemed almost eager. I’m here. What do you need?
Need a telepath. Use tha back door at tha Mammoth Cave headquarters, then pull a left right left t’ find our door – gray metal, with a picked lock. I’ll be waitin’.
I’m on my way.
Logan crouched down on the balls of his heavily booted feet. “Cavalry’s comin’.” He smiled at her and she growled. “Ya don’t smell like a mutant t’ me, girl. Might be wearin’ some, though. That’s awright; there’s some I wouldn’t mind wearin’ myself.”
Footsteps and voices drew closer. He edged nearer to the girl and got a better look at her. She was younger than the tourists had been speculating, perhaps six years old.
That savage look in tha eyes is familiar ‘nuff; seen it in a lot o’ mirrors in my time. Bet ya gotta real Tolstoy tale in store fer Jean t’ untangle, too. We might need t’ liberate ya before comp’ny arrives, though, if we’re gonna hear it all. Don’t much feel like explainin’ all tha sliced locks, neither. ‘Sides, Jean can home in on me anywhere.
Logan moved closer to her, leaning down on his hands in a bestial crouch. She shrank away and growled, but he kept pressing her back into a corner, his own low growl barely audible. When hers broke and became a whine, she crumpled and rolled onto her back, giving him her throat.
Without a second thought, he opened his mouth and closed his fang teeth gently over her chin and nose, held her a moment, and then released her. She rolled back to her feet and jumped up quickly, licking his jaw and under his chin with excited puppy laps of her all-too-human tongue.
He snarled at her sharply once, to stop the obeisant display, and then turned to lead her out. She followed without a sound. Out in the hall, he straightened and turned to face her. His abrupt height cowed her again, but he didn’t have time to reassure the animalistic young mind. Scooping her up in his arms, he strode back out the way he’d come and slipped easily into the woods.
Shelter was at hand along a low hill in the form of a shallow cleft half-concealed by the roots of a fallen ash tree. Logan put the girl down and crawled into the narrow hole in the hillside. Once he was cross-legged and comfortable, he reached to pull his small ward in with him. She settled in his lap without a fuss and fell asleep like a tired pup.
Logan remained alert and listened to the sounds of people searching the woods for their lost charge. When the noises moved off to the east, he rolled his shoulders once and closed his own eyes. It would take Jean a while to reach him if she was flying it solo and if this thing went down the way things usually did, it could be a time before he got another chance to relax. The afternoon sun felt warm on his eyelids, even in the brisk chill of the day. He fell asleep in moments and dreamed of snow.
“Is that a proper wolverine burrow?” Jean asked, a smile on her lips.
Logan opened one eye and smiled up at his uniformed teammate. “Hiya, Jeannie. Tha li’l tike needed a nap. Guess it seemed like a good idea.”
He roused the blonde child curled up in his lap. To Jean’s shock, the girl licked at his jaw first before he picked her up and put her on the ground outside of the makeshift den. He came out after her, stood and stretched.
The girl saw Jean and slipped into a crouch behind Logan, her hands clinging to his black leather pants leg.
“What’s going on, Logan?”
“That’s why yer here, Red – t’ tell me what’s goin’ on.”
“Let me rephrase the question. Why is this child behaving like a puppy with you for a furry parent?”
“She was like that when we met. Just used a bit o’ canine-speak t’ get ‘er t’ follow my lead is all. Question is, who is she an’ why’s she actin’ this way? Which is yer department.”
~ ~ ~
It took some time to coax the child to trust her, but she would only let Jean touch her if she was close under the protection of Logan.
They sat in a clearing on a bed of brown oak and birch leaves. The child was crumpled in a heap half in Logan’s lap, with Jean gently stroking her dirty blonde hair. Carefully, Jean opened her telepathy and entered the girl’s mind.
The landscape there was vast, white, and empty – cold and dimly lit by an unseen sun behind thick gray clouds. In the distance, a massive black cavern appeared in the side of a mountain, defined by her thoughts as a place of sanctuary. Yet the fear in the child’s mind was focused outward – over the snow.
Jean’s astral image stood beside the girl and looked out over the plains. Something was moving out there – dark bestial shapes. After a moment, it was clear that one of these creatures, whatever they were, had spotted them and was heading their way. Jean reached out to touch it with her thoughts, but cried out in pain.
The feral child growled once and looked frantically around her. Was she searching for Logan? Seeing nothing but the strange red-haired woman, the child turned and ran for the black open mouth of the cavern.
Jean ran after her and caught her up in her arms. The girl fought her madly, shrieking and snarling.
This isn’t real, honey, she thought. It’s a nightmare. You need to wake up now. Holding the spitting thing was hard, but she forced her to be still and listen. What is your name? Show me your name, honey… Jean dug deeper, hunting for any human recognition or understanding. One spark of thought almost eluded her, but she followed it down until she found where the name was hiding. Wendy… You’re not an animal, Wendy. You’re a human, a person, a little girl. Remember… Boring into that hiding place, she found a few atrophied memories – a blonde mother, an older brother who wore a Red Sox baseball cap. There is your mother, Wendy. She must be terribly afraid for you, and wants to find you again. She loves you very much, Wendy. You have to come back to her now. Come, follow me, I’ll help you out of this place.
The child’s mind spoke at last. It’s coming to hurt us! She pointed over Jean’s shoulder.
Jean turned to look just in time to launch them both into the air with her telekinesis.
A large black and gray furry shape passed under their feet, carried along in a violent charge that would have run them down. It turned in a skid on the powdered snow and roared. The wide, brutish face looked like a demon-dog, with tiny red eyes and triple rows of vicious needle-thin teeth in a heavy set of crushing jaws. It had wide paws with talon-tipped toes.
Gathering itself to spring up at them, it let out a long deep-throated howl. To Jean’s horror, several other creatures answered. Some of them were not very far away.
Wendy, listen to me. I’m going to take us out of here. When I do, you’ll be able to remember who you are.
Where is he?
The strong one, he’ll protect us!
You could only mean Logan, I guess. I’m going to take you to him, okay?
She nodded and tightened her grip on Jean’s jacket sleeves.
Here we go! Jean shot high into the freezing atmosphere, the scream of the child echoing in her ears.
She had to fight against the strange mental world to escape its hold on her own psyche, but at last they both broke free. There was a sensation of falling, and then she opened her eyes with a shock.
None of them had physically moved. Jean tried to orient her mind. She hadn’t fallen. There were no demon animals leaping for her, there was no snow.
“Ya okay, Jeannie?”
She put a palm up to her forehead. “I think so. Is Wendy all right?”
“Wendy, huh? What, no Peter Pan?”
Jean opened her eyes and saw the little girl staring from her to Logan and back again. She smiled. “Hi Wendy. I’m Jean. This is Logan. We’re going to help you find your mother and brother, okay?”
The child looked confused, but sane. She nodded slowly. Turning to Logan, she stared at him for a long moment. “Are you going to kill the bear-dogs?”
Logan stood and swung Wendy up in his arms. “How ‘bout we find yer mother first? Then, if it makes ya feel safer, I’ll go hunt yer bear-dogs.”
~ ~ ~
Jean waved to the tearful mother as the car drove away to the police station. Wendy had been missing for three days, after getting separated from her family and becoming lost in the woods. The mother and her twelve-year-old son had been staying at a hotel as they worked with local police to find Wendy.
Logan was talking to the police a few feet away, giving them his official story of going for a nature walk and finding the lost little girl who had escaped them earlier. The radical change in her mental condition had them all stumped, but maybe they’d be too relieved to have the child found and healthy to worry about the details.
She watched as one of the policemen folded the odd leather garment the child had worn over her ragged dress into an evidence bag. Wendy had no memory of how she’d come to be wearing the thing, and had gratefully shed it for the warm blanket offered by a policewoman.
When they all turned away from Logan and went to their squad cars, he headed back to her.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Case closed?”
“Ya don’t believe that.”
“No, I don’t, but I have no idea what happened to her either. Could something in the Mammoth Cave affect her?”
“Not sure. ‘Sides, she was lost in tha woods, not tha caverns.”
“I know, but in her nightmare, her fantasy – or whatever it was – the Mammoth Cave was there. The woods weren’t in the picture at all. It was a mountain with the big black hole in it. A lot of snow, for miles around, and her bear-dogs – that was it, although the caverns actually seemed to be a safe place, in her perception.”
“I’d like a look ‘round both – woods an’ caverns. The cops said she was in tha underground tunnels, an’ that she wandered away from her family down there. All tha paths are pretty well marked on tha tourist trails. She musta just followed ‘em back up an’ gone int’ tha woods.”
“Her mother did say that Wendy is claustrophobic. They were taking this trip to try and get her over her fear.”
“Maybe she changed ‘er mind.”
“Then why not tell her mother she wanted to quit?”
“No idea, Jeannie. Ya thinkin’ somethin’ turned ‘er feral on purpose?”
“It would make more sense than it just happening all of sudden to a perfectly normal little girl. That was a whole different world in her head, and a child her age might dream up a monster like that bear-dog thing, but she couldn’t make it a real coat.”
“Well ‘er coat wasn’t a bear-dog skin. Wrong scent, though she had their scent on ‘er.
Skins smelled like mutants t’ me.”
“What? That’s crazy. That little girl couldn’t be a killer.”
“I agree, but she ain’t exactly tha Jeremiah Johnson type, neither. So who did tha skinnin’? I’m up fer a sniff-‘round, at least.” Logan smiled. “Ya love a mystery. Wanna come along? If there is a big nasty lurkin’, ya could work out yer domestic aggressions.”
“Nothing would make you happier than finding some hideous creature you had to fight to the bloody steaming death, would it?”
“It’d make tha trip worthwhile.”
“You and your hunt for violent adventures.”
“Experience t’ extremes, Jeannie – it’s what keeps me sharp.” He grinned at her. “So … ya up fer it?”
“Oh, I’m up for it. Or my domestic aggression is, anyway.”
Logan laughed. He pulled a fresh cigar and matchbook out of his jacket and headed for the entrance of the Mammoth Cave.
“I don’t think they let you smoke in there.”
“They’re closin’ soon, so they won’t know I gotta stogie lit, will they? Let’s hit it, Red.”
They passed through the front portion of the caverns that had lent the place its name, and headed off into Audubon Avenue, one of the main tunnel trails that led deeper underground. Logan could have gotten them past the authorities without being seen, but with Jean along, stealth was unnecessary. She merely stuck the idea in people’s heads that they were allowed to enter after the caverns had been closed.
As they walked on, Jean held a flashlight she’d convinced one of the rangers to lend her. The beam of light interfered with Logan’s night vision, but he wanted to walk beside the statuesque redhead, so he dealt with it.
Jean ranged her spot of light along the walls for a moment before shining it forward again. “What’s the plan if we don’t find anything down here?” she asked. “You must have checked out some of the area topside already, or you wouldn’t have been napping.”
“‘Nuff t’ know it was safe t’ nap, anyhow.” He puffed on his cigar. “If nothin’s down here, I’ll give tha trees a more thorough sweep; addin’ yer input on any hostile mental sigs t’ tha mix, we should be covered. If we get an ‘all clear’, it’ll be time fer a brew.”
“Not for me. I had enough that other night to last a good while.”
Logan chuckled. “Then I’ll drink yers an’ we’ll get ya a root beer.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
~ ~ ~
There was plenty of underground maze to go when Jean called a halt. Logan had eventually ranged ahead of her far enough to get beyond the flashlight beam, so he turned back and rejoined her. He blinked fast once when she swept the light across his face and away.
“Sorry. I wanted to be sure all the echoes were still you.”
“Just makin’ ‘em so ya can place me, darlin’; if ya prefer I didn’t, I can oblige. It’d be sure proof that any pitter-pats are a bad guy.”
“Or a bat.” Jean aimed the light between her boots. “Your eyes turn red when the light hits them.”
Logan didn’t answer. Her voice had taken on that tone of uneasiness it often did when she was feeling unsure or nervous. He knew his animalistic qualities unsettled her, and saw little point in discussing them. Sighing, he asked, “Ya gettin’ any hints o’ a villainous resident?”
“Not a one. Sometimes there’s a residual impression, of general thought signature, but it’s too faint to be real. It’s probably a collective saturation in the stone from all of the people passing through here every day.”
“No sniffs o’ hostiles, neither. People, from t’day an’ before, an’ yer bats – but nothin’ more dangerous than a cricket. Wanna call it? We can go runnin’ through tha woods on tha way t’ a suitable waterin’ hole.”
“It’s technically your mission, but I’m ready for fresh air.”
“Ya got tha higher leadership creds, Jeannie.” He started up their trail again, and she fell into step beside him.
“Hardly – you’ve led the X-Men more than I have. Rogue still brags on your style. I botched things too much in Genosha, too… Some people aren’t cut out for the top spot under pressure. You’re a natural leader. Plus, how many years did you run covert ops before we stole you away from your government?”
“I’m always happy t’ leave it t’ leveler heads than mine. When tha claws come out, it’s too easy t’ forget everythin’ else – an’ everyone else, too. ‘Sides, if I sit on my inner beast an’ try t’ play soldiers, it’s a lot less fun fer me.”
“Why do you enjoy fighting like that?”
“Anyone enjoys doin’ what they’re best at. I recall ya bein’ pretty miserable when yer talents were on tha blink a few times.”
“My ‘talents’ are like breathing, but using them to fight isn’t what I live for. Having nothing left to fight – having peace – that would make me happy.”
“Why? What’s all the Zen Buddhist meditation for, then? Come on, Logan – wouldn’t you rather kick back in a world that doesn’t hate and fear you? Take a stab at a normal life?”
“I’ll never have a normal life. It’s not in tha cards,” Logan answered, a growl riding his words.
He didn’t bother to wonder why the question angered him, or notice when his response made her pause. He left the caverns and started walking toward the trees when her voice stopped him.
“Logan, wait… ”
He turned. She was leaning against the edge of the stone, hugging herself as if she were cold. Her vulnerability and confusion shone brightly in her emerald eyes.
“Ah, hell, Jeannie – just tell me t’ take a flyin’ leap when I act like that.”
A slight smile started on her lips. “I’m used to you acting like that.”
“Yer diff’rent.” He crushed his cigar stub into the white sand full of cigarette butts over a trash bin. “Look, I’ll take a stroll ‘round tha shrubbery an’ cool off, an’ then we can get outta here an’ I’ll buy ya that soda. Maybe ya can convince me that kickin’ back ain’t so bad.”
“I’ll take my best shot.”
Logan smiled and headed for the trees. “An’ Jeannie?” He glanced back over his shoulder at her.
“Next time I treat ya like that, knock me on my X.” He winked at her and disappeared between the trees.
“Count on it,” she called after him.
~ ~ ~
Tha lady just wants t’ relax, have ‘er normal life – with ‘er husband, who probly ain’t quite as eager t’ sit ‘round an’ play house. Logan crouched down, one hand in the leaves, and sniffed the air. Jean, darlin’, ya don’t understand but I can’t explain, cuz it’s not what ya wanna hear. So if yer listenin’, I – ah, hell – I’m just sorry, that’s all.
The wind changed directions slowly, and Logan scented it as it turned. All was clear, normal and peaceful, except for one thing.
Now that’s interestin’, he thought. ‘Nother human that reeks o’ bear-dog musk. Come out, come out wherever ya are … an’ step up tha hostile action, would ya? I need t’ blow off some steam.
A strange sensation washed over him, like the needle-prick feeling when a body part wakes up after going numb. A headache tried to start, but his healing factor negated it within seconds. All that was left was the gossamer feeling of walking through spider webs – in his mind.
The temperature dropped so abruptly that he swore out loud. I know Iceman ain’t in this burg – an’ no whiff o’ Stormy. What gives? He stood and looked through the trees, a growl starting in the back of his throat – and then the trees were gone. Bloody hell! Jeannie, ya gettin’ this?
Logan, where are you? There’s something out there; it’s right on top of you!
He reached out with every heightened sense he possessed. There’s nothin’ there. Includin’ what should be.
Responding to the fear in her mental shout, Logan leaped to his left. He sensed nothing, but then felt the dimmest flicker of something passing him at speed. He popped all six of his foot-long adamantium claws at once and fell into a fighting stance.
Then his eyes opened wide. The landscape was changing again, all around him. A thick plain of snow swallowed up the cleared ground, and the sky turned gray and overcast. The hills merged and grew, forming the only break in the flatlands of snow – a massive and forbidding black mountain. Low in its face was the wide ugly slash of a mouth, where echoes and darkness reigned. A healthy fear and an unreasoning rage crowded into his heart at once.
Logan! Logan, come back to me! Now!
He wanted to stay, to fight! Then the voice of the female cried out to him again. She was afraid, in need of help – under attack? He turned, snarling, and loped back along his own trail in the snow, to the dark mountain that marred the white haze. The female stood at the cavern’s mouth. She was safe, but her scent was spiced with fear.
The enemy didn’t follow. He crouched at the side of the female and watched the vast plain as the snow began to fall again.
“Logan, are you all right? What was it? What’s out there?”
He bared his teeth at the building snowstorm. Far in the distance, he picked out the black and gray shapes. They were entering his territory, threatening his den, his mate. Throwing his head back, he let out a howl – a challenge.