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Volume 3 -- Issue 56 -- Diary of the Fallen

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Diary of the Fallen
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As the next stage in human evolution, mutants face a world that hates and fears them. Leading the charge for peace are Professor Charles Xavier and his X-men. They stand against those who would insight war and now they’re taking on an even greater fight in the realm of politics. They seek to show an evolving world that they are not to be feared.

It isn’t an easy sell. Not long ago, Charles Xavier’s old friend turned rival, Magneto, nearly brought the world to an end by directing an asteroid into a collision course with Earth. The X-men stopped him and were able to prevent further violence by negotiating a truce between Magneto and the governments of the world. But this truce remains fragile. Anti-mutant sentiment lingers and continues to be a major issue surrounding the upcoming presidential election. The X-men continue to work hard, but at the same time they also have to contend with ongoing personal issues.

Among those issues involve a blossoming relationship between Wolverine and Storm. After his encounter with Sinister, Wolverine became distant and nearly left the team. But Storm convinced him to stay and by reaching out to them, they become much closer. While their newfound romance is growing, issues from the past continue to plague them. And it isn’t just Wolverine who has a shady history that still affects him.


Nairobi, Kenya – 15 Years Ago

“Stop! Get that little thief!”

The commotion erupted in the crowded Nairobi marketplace. The streets grew chaotic and hoards of people scattered in confusion as these alarming calls rang out. It was not an uncommon occurrence for this part of town. Thievery was to be expected in any crowded area where goods were openly displayed, but that didn’t stop some from fighting back.

“Somebody seize that girl!” yelled the merchant who had just been robbed.

“I see her! She went that way!” yelled one of his co-workers, pointing to an alley.

The two men chased after the thief, but they didn’t get far. The bustling crowds slowed them down, forcing them to push and shove their way across the street. It wasn’t long before they fell behind, allowing the small thief to slip further away.

Unknown to either of them, this thief was no ordinary thief. She was a 12-year-old Ororo Munroe, a recently orphaned child who was doing everything in her power to survive. And part of that survival involved stealing. It was not a trade she was proud of, but when hunger and desperation set in there were few options. Her only advantage was her nimble form and small stature. Few would ever expect a meek-looking girl such as her as being a thief, but it was a sad reality in which she had to live.

While the men chased after her, she slipped into a dirty corner with the goods she had stolen. She didn’t take much, only some fruit and some nuts. She hugged the precious food close to her and waited for the men to pass. She closed her eyes, bracing herself from whatever may come. She soon heard loud footsteps. She wasn’t sure if it was them, but she didn’t dare open her eyes until it was safe again.

‘When does the nightmare end? Why Mommy? Why did you and Daddy have to die? Why couldn’t I have saved you from that fire?’

As the little girl huddled and prayed for her survival, she didn’t notice a new figure standing over her.

“You can open you’re eyes now. They’re gone,” said an unfamiliar yet calm voice.

Ororo tensed as she opened her eyes and backed away. To her relief, the voice wasn’t from the men she stole from. It was from a teenage boy a few years older than her. He had Arabic features including dark hair, tanned skin, and dark brown eyes. He was also wearing a strange veil around his body that bore a series of mysterious symbols. He didn’t look threatening, but was still intimidating in a unique way.

“Who…who are you?!” the young girl demanded.

“It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you,” he said as he kneeled down to her, “My name is Amahl Farouk Jr. And I have to say I’m impressed. You carried yourself well back there. For a girl of such small stature, you have a natural gift for thieving.”

It was an odd compliment. Ororo had never been commended for stealing before. She wasn’t sure what to make of it, but this boy seemed sincere.

“I…I didn’t want to steal it,” she said as she laid out the food she had stolen, “But I’m hungry. I’m alone. I…I have nowhere to go.”

“You don’t need to be sorry. This is a cruel world and there are times when people suffer…good people who don’t deserve it. Stealing is merely a byproduct, a means of survival. You’re doing nothing wrong.”

Ororo gazed at the young man suspiciously. Nobody had ever described stealing in such a way before. She was brought up to believe it was wrong like everything else, but so much of her upbringing had been lost. At this point she was open to anything that would ease her suffering.

“Why are you telling me this? What do you want from me?” she asked him.

The young man smiled as he sat down next to her. Taking a piece of fruit, he sliced it up as he gazed at her in a friendly if not affectionate manner.

“We have something in common, you and me. I’m also a thief. I’m part of a very special class of thieves run in part by my father, Amahl Farouk Sr. We call ourselves the Shadow Kings.”

“The Shadow Kings? I’ve never heard of them,” said Ororo.

“And rightfully so. We tend to keep to ourselves. But we’re always on the lookout for others for whom stealing is a way of life. And you, my dear, have potential.”

“Me? But I’m just a girl. I only steal to eat.”

“It does not matter who you are or how young you are. The Shadow Kings do not discriminate. We welcome anyone who has potential. And I see plenty in you.”

Ororo blushed a bit, not sure how to take that. A reassuring gesture helped calm her down. It was the first such gesture she had received since the loss of her parents.

“You don’t have to do this alone. The Shadow Kings can help you. They can make you more than just a thief. We can give you a home. We only ask for your trust and your loyalty in return. Give us that, and I promise you will never grow hungry again.”

He continued to smile as he gave part of the fruit to her. It was an offering of sorts, an assurance of his sincerity. It was a gesture Ororo reluctantly accepted. As she bit into the fruit, she found herself making a fateful decision.

“Tell me more,” she said, “How do I become a part of the Shadow Kings?”


Xavier Institute – Ororo’s Room

Night had fallen over the institute as much of the team slept after another exhausting day of training and class. Ororo was among those in need of extra rest. Between new relationships, teaching, and missions she had plenty of catching up to do. But it was not to be. At around four in the morning her rest was interrupted by her ringing cell phone.

“Bzzt! Bzzt!”

“Hnn…”

Ororo let out a tired groan as she shifted under the soft sheets of her bed. She kept her eyes close, still half asleep while she reached over for her phone. She fumbled a bit at first, nearly knocking the phone off her dresser. She managed to catch it before it fell and clumsily answered it.

“Hello?” she groaned, still lying down.

“Hello Ororo…it’s been a while.”

The sound of that voice jolted the African woman out of her drowsy state. It was impossible. It had to be a dream of sorts. There was only one such person whose voice she recognized with such fervor.

“Farouk?! It…it can’t be! You’re…”

“Dead? Oh come now Ororo, you of all people should know that death is but another obstacle for one such as I.”

“But…”

“I’ve no time to explain myself. I’m calling because the Shadow Kings need your help. And you are the only one powerful enough to do so.”

“If you’re trying to flatter me into joining again, it won’t work!”

“Oh I’m very serious. And you will help me. There’s no way around it.”

“What makes you so sure about that?!” spat the angry woman.

“Because you have too pure a heart, Ororo. Naïve it may be, you will not allow yourself to simply brush this off. I can give you any number of reasons, but you already know the most important ones. So save yourself the trouble.”

The former thief fell silent. Even after all these years that voice still sent chills down her spine. Few could evoke such anger and hatred within her. But as much as she dreaded that voice, she knew he was right.

“What do you want, Farouk?” she said bitterly.

“Gather whatever resources you have and get on the next plane to Morocco. The Shadow Kings are facing the gravest of threats.”


Casablanca, Morocco – Café

Irene Adler didn’t travel much. Being blind and chronically tired from visions of the future did not mix well with airport security, delayed flights, TSA pat-downs, and baggage checks. On the rare exceptions she did travel, it was always for a good reason.

Her visions had taken an unusual twist lately. The future, it seemed, was approaching a major crossroad. If certain events unfolded as she had foreseen, then the consequences would be grim. She had similar vision before the uprising on Genosha. She had another one before the asteroid incident. Yet this new vision had the potential to be worse than all previous visions.

Sitting patiently at a local café, Irene sipped a cup of tea while sampling some of the fine African cuisine. She was outside on a balcony, the commotion of various people walking by echoing from just below. It was hard for anyone to pick up a single presence, let alone someone who was blind. But she soon detected a presence sitting down in the chair across from her.

“You’re late, Raven,” Irene greeted, “I was starting to worry.”

“Oh come now, Irene. You should know by now that I can take care of myself,” replied the shape shifter, who was disguised as a balding, middle-aged, bearded man in a business suit.

“I can’t help it sometimes. When the only images you see are the morbid scenes of a scorched Earth, worry is only nature.”

“Those visions won’t persist for much longer. Not if everything continues as planned.”

“I take it your excursion in Cairo was a success? If not at little messy even?” said Irene.

“Do you even have to ask?” grinned Mystique.

Irene felt a mild touch of relief, but her expression remained stoic. Raven was always a reliable fighter even if she wasn’t the most subtle. She could only imagine the kind of destruction she left in her wake after breaking into that Shadow Kings cell. The means she used to extract the necessary information from the people inside was probably worse. Such was the price they had to pay for preserving the future.

“So what’s next?” the shape shifter asked, “According to a very generous thief I conversed with, the cell here in Casablanca has the diary. They keep it under heavy lock and key at a villa near the coast.”

“That’s the old Farouk estate,” said Irene.

“Yes, I’ve heard of him. He has quite the reputation among the Shadow Kings. Or used to at least.”

“Careful with your choice of tense, Raven. The Shadow Kings have been known for surprising people with their resilience,” warned Raven ominously.

“As if it matters,” scoffed the shape shifter, “Dead or alive, I’m breaking into that villa and I’m taking that diary! Azazel and I had our differences, but he trusted me to finish what he started. I’m not going to let him down. I owe him as such for giving me Kurt.”

There was a noticeable shift in her tone. Irene understood better than most the complicated history between Raven and Azazel. For a while, there was quite a spark between them. Azazel certainly had a flame for her. She sensed Raven had one as well, but it was incomplete. She never loved him in the way he loved her. She never understood why, but when Azazel revealed he was using her in part to father a child that destroyed any potential for the two of them.

It was a shame too. Irene sincerely wanted her friend to find love. She was such a desolate woman for reasons that even she could never understand. She long suspected there was something deeper to her bitterness. But whatever the cause, it didn’t stop her from maintaining her loyalty.

“I would still urge you to use caution, Raven,” said Irene seriously, “You have no idea what kind of tactics the Shadow Kings may employ. Since you butchered your way through that last cell, it’s likely they’ll take even greater precautions this time.”

“I’ll deal with it,” said the shape shifter sternly, “I just wish I found out about this diary sooner. Azazel left quite a mess behind after his untimely departure. He sure could have saved us a lot of trouble by just giving the damn thing to me in the first place.”

“Azazel has a long list of enemies. He probably thought he was protecting you by hiding it,” reasoned Irene.

“As if I ever needed protecting,” scoffed Raven, “Tell me, Irene, how can a man who by his very definition is more than a man still make such foolish mistakes?”

“It really doesn’t matter whether he was a man or a god. He did what he did for a reason. And that reason always came back to his primary mission.”

“I know. He was up against forces far greater than him,” muttered Mystique with dripping sarcasm, “Any chance this diary will finally reveal what those forces are?”

“There’s only one way to find out, I’m afraid,” sighed Destiny, “My visions can only go so far. If we’re to learn the full extent of this threat, we must get that diary.”

Mystique muttered a string of curses in frustration. This diary had better be worth the trouble. She had plenty of other issues she would rather be dealing with, namely her kids. But Azazel was willing to sacrifice everything to stop whatever it was he was fighting. If nothing else, she had to know what the father of her child had died for.

“Damn you, Azazel,” she said under her breath as she got up from the table, “I’ll get to work. Stay in touch and call me if you have another vision.”

“I will,” said Destiny with a nod, “Good luck, Raven.”


Xavier Institute – War Room

Ororo paced anxiously as she stood in full uniform watching over the War Room monitors. Besides her was Professor Xavier, who was still in his pajamas and looking very tired. It was five in the morning and this impromptu call caught him off guard. But upon learning the details, he was quick to act. Having known the more personal details of Ororo’s history, he understood the seriousness of the situation.

But she wouldn’t be handling this on her own. Others would have to be involved for more personal reasons. After an abrupt wake-up call, they finally arrived. Among them were Rogue, Remy, and Kurt. They were all still in their pajamas as well and looking every bit as drowsy.

“Whoa boy, five a.m. on a Saturday morning. This got to be a crime in some states,” groaned Remy.

“Tell meh about it,” said Rogue as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, “What the heck is this about? Somebody better be dying.”

“I’m sorry,” said Ororo as they sat down at the table, “I know this was supposed to be our morning to sleep in, but something serious has come up…something I do not trust myself to handle alone.”

“Calm down, Miss Munroe,” said Kurt with a tired yawn, “You know ve’re always up for helping a fellow X-man, but vhy single us out?”

“Because, Kurt…it involves Mystique,” replied Professor Xavier.

That revelation definitely helped wake Kurt and Rogue. They hadn’t heard anything from their mother since the Genosha incident and that was probably a good thing. Her past attempts to use them left plenty of bitterness and they were far from over it.

“Ah hell, there goes mah weekend,” groaned Rogue, “What in the heck is she up to this time? Blowin’ up a bus full of nuns?”

“Not quite, but it certainly involves explosions,” said Ororo as she brought up an image on the holographic computer, “A few hours ago I got from an old acquaintance of mine…one I hoped to never hear from again.”

“That be a mighty long list, Stormy,” commented Remy, who was still groggy.

“It involves the Shadow Kings,” she said in a more serious tone.

Now it was Remy’s turn to be surprised.

“Aw hell, please tell Remy you’re joking,” he groaned.

“I wish I were,” she said grimly.

“Zhe Shadow Kings? You mean the Shadow Kings?” said Kurt in amazement, “Vhy in God’s name vould zhey call on you?”

“Because Kurt…I’m one of them,” Ororo revealed.

The younger German mutant gasped at this revelation. It was hard to believe this compassionate woman who so many looked up to had been associated with the likes of the Shadow Kings. It seemed too outrageous to be true, but the look in her eyes said it all.

“Wait, back up a minute!” said Rogue in confusion, “Who the heck are the Shadow Kings and why is that such a big deal?”

“Don’t make light of them, cherè. The Shadow Kings be some serious shit,” said Remy, who knew of them as well, “They’re a loose but powerful bunch of thieves that leave their mark no matter where they be.”

“So what? They’re another clan like the Thieves Guild?” said Rogue.

“Not exactly,” said Ororo, her tone becoming more distant, “The Shadow Kings are not like gangs, guilds, or thugs. There’s no family or tradition. It is, ideally, an organization where like-minded thieves can come and refine their thieving skills. They don’t coordinate so much as they encourage their trade. It was here where I learned how to become a skilled thief and where I found a home after my parents died.”

“Sounds too much like an Oceans Eleven knock-off,” said Rogue skeptically.

“They’re more than that,” Ororo went on, “Yes, they are thieves, but they’re not thugs. Not all of them anyways. They are involved in a great many secret endeavors.”

“Zhat’s putting it mildly,” said Kurt, “My father vorked vith zhe Shadow Kings. He had mixed views about zhem to say zhe least.”

“He’s in good company,” said Ororo, “I could spend hours talking about the mystery surrounding the Shadow Kings, but we’re short on time! Show them, Professor.”

The African woman turned to the Professor and nodded. Using the War Room’s computers, he brought up a number of news images from Egypt. They depicted what looked to be the remains of a building in the middle of a slum.

“About 12 hours ago, a Shadow King den was attacked in Cairo,” Xavier explained, “As you can see, there weren’t many survivors. Luckily, the building was sparsely populated and the destruction was only secondary.”

“Let meh guess, that’s where Mystique comes in?” said Rogue bitterly.

“I can zhink of few others who vould be brazen enough to attack zhe Shadow Kings,” said Kurt.

“She certainly appears to be the culprit,” Xavier went on, “Cerebro detected her signature in the area around that time. It’s likely she was behind the destruction.”

“But why would she attack the Shadow Kings?” questioned Remy, “Mystique don’t strike me as a woman who just be picking random fights.”

“That we’re not sure of, but near as I can tell nothing was stolen from the building. So theft wasn’t her goal. There was no one prominent in the building either so assassination is unlikely as well. But we do know she’ll strike again and the next time will surely be more ambitious.”

“And how do we know that?” asked Rogue.

“Remember that call I got?” said Ororo, “Well it was from someone who is highly regarded in the Shadow Kings. He says he knows what she’s after and he knows where she’ll strike.”

“And you believe this man?” said Kurt.

“Oh yes. If anybody would know of such an attack, it would be him. And he wouldn’t have called on me specifically if it wasn’t serious,” said Ororo confidently, “As such, we must go to Casablanca and stop Mystique before she carries out her next attack!”

“You mean you want to help the Shadow Kings? Why?” asked Rogue, “Ah’m all for annoying mah mama, but Ah thought you said you cut your ties with these folks. And they don’t sound like the friendly type the X-men go out of their way to help.”

Ororo shifted uncomfortably. She understood what she was suggesting seemed counterintuitive. The X-men were supposed to oppose thieves and deviants, not aid them. But there was more to this than just defending the Shadow Kings…much more than she could ever comfortably reveal to her friends.

“I know it does not sound too appealing. I…can’t get into details, but I have to do this,” she said strongly, “I want you involved because I know Mystique is a personal matter for you. If she’s up to her old tricks again, I’m sure you’ll want to be the first to oppose her.”

“You got meh there,” sighed Rogue, “Guess any trouble Mystique causes will find its way back to us some way or another.”

“Indeed,” said Kurt, “Ve’ll be happy to help, Miss Munroe. Our mother, misguided she may be, is still our responsibility.”

“But what about Remy? Why you want Remy involved in this, Stormy?” questioned her Cajun friend.

“We’re dealing with professional thieves, Remy. The way I see it, two former thieves are better than one,” she replied, “And you do owe me a number of favors if I recall.”

“Right…always with the favors,” muttered Remy, “Is we ever gonna be even?”

“We’ll discuss it later,” said Ororo as she got up from the table, “For now, I need three suited up and ready to go in fifteen minutes. I’ll prep the X-jet for takeoff. Mystique is probably preparing her attack as we speak!”

The African woman didn’t give the others time to question her commands. She promptly stormed out of the room and towards the hanger. It was strange seeing her like this. Usually, she was so calm and collected. This whole Shadow Kings issue must really be personal for her.

Professor Charles Xavier couldn’t help but be concerned. Unlike the others, he had a more intimate understanding of her history with the Shadow Kings. He still remembered how deeply it affected her. It played a major role in leading her to the X-men. He hoped she wouldn’t have to go through some of the darker parts of her history. But as was often the case with them, the past had a ways of coming back to haunt them.

“Dang, is she gonna be alright?” wondered Rogue.

“She’ll be fine, cherè,” said Remy, looking very worried as well, “Stormy is a tough woman. She can handle this, although she might not handle it rationally.”

“That’s exactly why she’ll still need our help,” said the Professor as he powered down the computer, “Go get suited up. I’ll try to uncover more about this situation from Cerebro. I have a bad feeling there may be more to this than Ororo was told. We had best find out before it’s too late.”


Outside War Room

Ororo left the War Room focused and determined. She didn’t take charge often, but when she did there was little that could stop her. It was part of what made her a good X-man. It was also part of what made her a good thief with the Shadow Kings. She sincerely believed she was done with thieving. A big part of coming to America, going to college, and joining the X-men was her getting away from that life. But as every thief knows, it’s a life that is impossible to completely escape.

She didn’t like that she was doing this. A part of her actually wanted Mystique to barge in and destroy the Shadow Kings where they stood. But as Farouk himself stated, she had to do it. There was no avoiding it. As she made her way to the hanger, she encountered an unexpected presence along the way. Right outside the War Room, she came across Wolverine who was casually leaning against the wall in his sleeping attire.

“Mornin’ darlin’. Going out on an early stroll?” he said in his usual gruff tone.

“Logan!” said a very surprised Ororo, “I uh…didn’t know you were up.”

“Sleep is overrated,” he shrugged, “Plus I figured something was up when I heard my girlfriend running down the hall at four in the morning.”

“I’m…sorry if I worried you. I don’t have time to explain, but…”

Logan quickly cut her off.

“You don’t need to go into it, Ro. I overheard the cliff notes in the War Room. I know you’re going on a little trip down memory lane. And seeing as how I’m already up, I wanna go with you.”

“You…really don’t have to do that, Logan,” assured Ororo, “This is a personal matter. I can handle it.”

“Like I haven’t heard that before,” he muttered, “Seriously Ro, if we’re gonna be seeing each other naked on a regular basis we may as well get involved in each others’ lives. The way I see it, I owe you one after coming after me when I tried to leave. And before you tell me to back off you should know I can be just as annoyingly persistent as you.”

There was a coy sarcasm in his tone. Yet he sounded dead serious. He wanted to help her and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. It put Ororo in an awkward position, not unlike the one she put him in recently. It was ironic in many ways. It seemed fitting though. For a battle like this, she would need someone like him both for his fighting skills and for his moral support.

“Okay, I suppose I should save myself the trouble,” she sighed, “So long as we’re going to be together, we should share in each others’ troubles.”

“And we’ve been dealing with mine so damn much lately it hardly seems fair,” he said with a wolfish grin, “Plus, I don’t mind busting a few heads to wake myself up in the morning.”

“I’ll bet, but if you’re going to help me with this I need you to take it seriously, Logan,” said Ororo in a sterner tone, “This is very personal for me. And just to give you fair warning, you may learn of some less than pleasant details of my past.”

“If that’s what I gotta do for a babe like you, I’ll deal with it,” said Logan, giving her an affectionate gesture to reinforce his point.

His words and demeanor earned him a smile, a major feat given her current state of mind. Jean once told her that Logan may have his faults, but when it comes to his girlfriends he’s as dedicated as they come. It was one of the many developing aspects of their relationship and this was sure to be their first test.

“Thank you, Logan,” she said warmly, “I really do appreciate you helping me with this.”

“You can make it up to me tonight,” he said with a dirty grin, “Besides, I’m lookin’ forward to a rematch with Mystique anyways. She and these Shadow King goons sound like a clusterfuck waiting to happen.”


Secret Azazel Manor – 4 Years Ago

Raven Darkholme wasn’t used to seeing Azazel so distant. His demonic appearance and intimidating disposition always made him so difficult to read. There were few forces on Heaven and Earth that could worry him like this. This was one of those rare occasions where even a figure of his power couldn’t escape his fate.

“Stop giving me that look, Azazel! I’m not cutting my monthly visit short to just watch you stare out the window!” said a frustrated Mystique.

“I’m sorry, my love. I’ve had a lot on my mind as I’m sure you’ve noticed,” he said in a low tone.

“I’m sure you have,” replied the shape shifter dryly, “Six months and you’re entire organization is falling apart! While you’re busy going on meaningless quests for non-existent artifacts, your enemies have been making new allies! Now you’ve got the Hand, Black Tom, and even the Shadow Kings plotting against you!”

“I know what I’m up against, Raven. But I had no choice! Those artifacts you speak of were not non-existent. They are vital to the success of my mission,” said Azazel bitterly.

“Are you referring to the mission to weed out our competitors or the other mission you refuse to tell anyone about?! Because from the looks of it, you’re failing at both!”

Azazel’s demonic face tensed. Few people had the nerve to speak to him with such disrespect. But Raven was a cut above anyone else he ever encountered. It was part of what he found so alluring about her. It was also part of what aggravated him to no end.

The tension continued to escalate as silence fell over them. Azazel finally rose up from his chair and turned to the fuming shape shifter. His usually stoic demeanor gave way to a strange mix of sorrow and frustration. He reached out and caressed Mystique’s face. The gesture didn’t soften her demeanor, but it did calm her down. He could tell she was thinking about Kurt. Like it or not, their son was destined to play a part in this.

“Please Azazel,” Mystique said in a more serious tone, “I can’t take these secrets anymore. I have to know the truth! You’ve kept them from me and Kurt for too long.”

“You’re right, my love,” he said solemnly, “You, Kurt, and even little Marie deserve so much better. I should have told you long ago just as I should have told you my initial reason for being with you. But please understand I had good reason for keeping it a secret.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said sternly, “I don’t care that you’re the Lord of Limbo. I got roped into this mess and I’m not going to go down with it.”

“I have no desire to see that either,” said Azazel, now with both hands on her shoulders, “I know you may not care for me as much as I do for you, but believe me when I say I will do everything in my power to protect you and Kurt.”

“Then tell me!” she restated, “Spit it out so we can be done with it!”

“I would need an awful lot of spit,” he replied, “There’s a lot to tell, but if I am going to reveal the truth I want both you and Kurt to be present. He’s back at the manor in Munich with the Wagners. Go to him and I’ll meet you there in an hour. This is a family affair. We’ll handle it as a family.”

Mystique’s expression shifted under his gaze. As mixed as her feelings were for this man, she was tied to him in so many ways. They were as close to family as she ever had. He was the father to her son and the reason why she had Marie in her life. Seeing that powerful look in his dark, demonic eyes reminded her of what she was a part of.

“Very well,” she said as she pulled away from his grasp, “I’ll go to Kurt. But you better be there!”

“I will, my love. I promise,” he said.

The shape shifter left, now off to find her son. As she exited the room, Azazel’s gaze grew distant again. He never expected his mission to bring such emotional strife. He was not a figure of this mortal world. But he endured so many mortal struggles. Such was the consequence of a being such as him.

However, his greatest regret was still to come. As much as he wanted to do good for his family, his fate always found a way of catching up with him. While standing in his daze, a communicator in his pocket started beeping. With his usual demonic fortitude, he answered it despite the grim knowledge he knew it would entail.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“Lord Azazel, I’ve just received word that Black Tom is on his way.”

“Has he come prepared?” said Azazel cryptically.

“If by prepared you mean coming with an entire contingent of Hand assassins, then yes.”

It was not good news for him or his organization. Black Tom and the Hand were both allies of his enemies. Their presence could only mean one thing.

“What should we do, my lord?”

“Prepare my elite guard,” Azazel answered, “Divert all our forces to this area and make sure Raven and my son get away.”

“But sir, at our current levels we won’t…”

“Don’t argue with me! Just do it!” he yelled with demonic fervor.

It was a tone none of his acolytes were foolish enough to argue with. Even though such an order was foolhardy, they loyally obeyed.

“Y-Yes sir. I’ll prepare our forces immediately!”

Azazel put the communicator away. He knew what was coming. He could sense it in his demonic core. So much of his purpose had already been fulfilled. Unfortunately, there were some tasks he would never complete. Raven was partially right. He had failed in his mission, but that didn’t mean his enemies had to win. He still had a son with his legacy to carry on and a mother plenty tough enough to handle it.

‘I’m sorry, Raven. I’m sorry, Kurt. But it looks like I’ll have to break my promise. I trust you’ll carry on without me. You’ll have to or the world as you know it will be lost.’


Outside Farouk Beach Villa

It was a stormy afternoon over the coast. Winds were sweeping in from the east and causing choppy waters outside the opulent Farouk Beach Villa. It was not the kind of weather to go out and take a stroll along the beach. But weather or no weather, the facility was heavily guarded. Getting inside was not going to be easy.

Mystique was scoping out the villa from afar. Perched atop a rocky ridge about a half-mile away, she scanned the area for possible points of entry. What she saw here was a far cry from what she saw back in Cairo. This place was not meant to be subtle. It was mean to dissuade anyone who wasn’t a Shadow King from breaking in. The whole perimeter was lined with elegant gates that were clearly electrified for added security. The grounds were well-kempt, but monitored closely with cameras she saw sticking out in the rocks. In addition, there were a number of Shadow King guards walking the grounds. Like the thieves in Cairo, they wore the distinctive black cape with the Shadow King emblem on the back. This place wasn’t meant to be a fortress, but it was certainly guarded like one.

The shape shifter held back an angry grunt as she watched these glorified thieves walk about, acting as though they were any better than typical thugs. They were not mercenaries like her and they weren’t criminal overlords like Azazel or Black Tom. They were their own little fraternity, a collection of thieves just looking to get away from the dirtier aspects of crime. It was laughably redundant, but they were still a formidable force with a reputation for being tough and they had something she wanted.

‘Not bad for a bunch of punks. Ground entrances are sealed and the basements are locked off. Guess that leaves the roof as my only way in. According to that punk in Cairo, they keep their prized items in the vault. Knowing Farouk, he’s taken all sorts of precautions. Too bad there’s nothing left of him to pummel. What I wouldn’t give to punish him and Black Tom for what they did to Azazel.’

The shape shifter continued to scan the area. She focused on the roof where she saw a number of guards and sentries. They didn’t look as focused or coordinated as the ones below. They probably were thinking nobody would be foolish enough to drop in from above. It was the typical naivety of thieves. All they knew was stealing. They didn’t know the first thing about being a mercenary or a fighter. That would be her greatest asset in fighting her way in. She couldn’t be as messy as she was last time, but she could still play to her strengths. One of them was stealth.

After getting a good feel for the roof, Mystique shape shifted into a large black falcon. Using her new avian talents, she flew up high into the stormy weather. Using the clouds as cover she swirled over the roof, watching as guards walked back and forth. She waited patiently for her window. Soon, she saw her chance. She found a lone guard on the southeast corner of the roof. He broke off from the others so he could smoke a cigarette. In blustery weather he fumbled a bit with his lighter. It was just the kind of moment she needed to make her move.

Setting her sights on the line figure, she swooped in. The guard didn’t even notice her even after she came into view. He remained focused on lighting his cigarette. When he finally did look up, the only thing he saw was a black bird turning into an angry blue-skinned woman.

“What the-ungh!” he exclaimed as she pounced on him.

Before he could call out for help, Mystique pinned him to the rooftop and placed her foot on his neck. She then took out a knife and held it to his eye.

“The vault! Where is it?!” she demanded.

“Hnn…” was all he got out.

He wasn’t going to say anything. Shadow Kings were too loyal. It was their defining trait.

“Fine! Have it you’re way!” she barked.

The shape shifter slugged him hard, knocking him out cold and probably leaving him with some brain damage. She then quickly took his form. This way she could move safely amongst the others. To make sure the body didn’t cause any commotion, she propped him up against the wall so it looked like he was taking a nap. Once he was settled, she took his gun and rose up. She also took his cigarettes in the process.

“These are very bad for you,” she said a she tossed them aside, “No wonder you people have to keep recruiting new thieves. If only Farouk was that foolish.”

Now armed and in the perfect disguise, Mystique carefully began her infiltration. Just below her were the answers that she had waited so many years for. Nothing short of divine intervention would keep her from the truth.


Farouk Villa – Courtyard

The flight to Morocco went smoothly despite the weather. Storm remained tense while Gambit, Rogue, and Nightcrawler drank some coffee to help wake them up. They weren’t used to seeing her like this. Something about these Shadow Kings brought out a different side to her. It wasn’t dark or angry. It was more so an overwhelming sense of sorrow. It was a feeling that hung over her strongly as Logan took the X-jet down for a landing.

Now in full uniform and awake for the most part, the team followed Storm out of the jet and up towards the front entrance of the villa. According to Storm, they were expecting them. That didn’t mean they would be welcome though. Looking out at the villa, the X-men saw an unforgiving environment before them. Few knew what to expect. Even Kurt, who had heard of the Shadow Kings through his father, didn’t know a whole lot about them. But some couldn’t help their curiosity. Wolverine especially was concerned and couldn’t help but inquire as they followed Storm to the front gate.

“You better be awake by now, Gumbo. Because you need to start talking before we find this shit out the hard way,” said Wolverine sternly.

“What’s there to talk about?” said Gambit innocently as he shuffled some cards, “Ro be your girlfriend now. Why don’t you ask her?”

“Because I’d much rather bug the hell out of you than her,” retorted the feral mutant, “Now stop playing dumb. I know you know something. Spill it before I have to beat it out of you.”

Gambit shook his head. He had a feeling Stormy wouldn’t come clean with the details. As her ex-lover, it was up to him to fill in the blanks.

“Remy only knows what Stormy’s told me. She joined these hommes after she lost her parents. She lived under this big time Shadow King boss named Amahl Farouk. Remy don’t know too much about him, but word on the street was he was into some really strange mojo. His cell specialized in stealin’ rare artifacts, most of them magic.”

“You mean magic like the kind that makes Juggernaut so dang tough?” said Rogue.

“The very same,” said Gambit, “As you can imagine, it made him quite a tough fella to work for.”

“You don’t need to convince me, mien friend,” said Nightcrawler bitterly, “Zhat vould explain vhy he constantly clashed vith my father.”

“Gambit don’t know much about that. All I know is that they were the ones that brought Stormy in and trained her to be the skilled femme she is today.”

It filled in a couple of blanks. It explained why Storm was already such a proficient fighter when she joined the X-men. She had already been hardened by the Shadow Kings. But Wolverine wasn’t satisfied with this information.

“There’s more, ain’t there?” he said, giving the Cajun a menacing look.

“Don’t be pushing me, Logan,” said Gambit, “This sort of thing ain’t for Remy to say.”

“I’ll be the judge of that!” snarled Wolverine.

But before he could go any further, Storm stepped in. She was already very anxious about all this. She didn’t need her lover getting worked up as well.

“He’s right, Logan,” she said strongly, “If anyone is going to spill on my dark secrets, it’s going to be me.”

“So then why are you keeping me in the dark while your ex here knows the rest?” retorted the feral mutant.

“It’s…not that simple,” she said anxiously, “I promise it’ll make much more sense after we meet with Farouk.”

“I’m already lookin’ forward to it! He sounds like the kind of guy who would get along nicely with adamantium claws!”

“That may not be possible,” she said awkwardly as they reached the gate, “Meeting with Farouk is somewhat…unorthodox.”

“What do you mean, Storm?” asked Rogue.

Before Storm could respond, they got their answer. The five X-men all felt a sudden surge in their minds. It was as if someone was shouting into it, not unlike the feeling they got when they talked to Professor Xavier telepathically. Only this felt a lot less pleasant.

‘Welcome Ororo! At last you return!’

“The hell?!” grunted Wolverine.

As the X-men reeled from the shock, they watched a strange glowing figure form in front of them. He looked like a ghost or an astral projection, but his presence was definitely felt. As he stepped forth his intimidating appearance came into view. He was tall, oversized male with tan skin, dark eyes, and a very hallow expression. He was wearing what appeared to be a more elaborate version of the Shadow Kings cloaks that the rest of the thieves inside were wearing. It was almost like he was royalty.

As he approached them, Wolverine drew his claws and Rogue and Nightcrawler took on a defensive position. The only one who didn’t look surprised was Storm, who only tensed with anger as she saw him.

“Uh…Storm?” said Rogue warily.

“That’s what I was about to say,” she said in a low tone, “Farouk is a powerful psychic. He always did exercise his mind more than his body.”

‘You always had a talent for understatement, Ororo. You more than anyone should know that my mind evolved beyond my body long ago.’

“I suppose it was too much for me to hope for,” said the African woman bitterly as she gazed up at the glowing figure, “You insist on bending the rules to your favor.”

‘What can I say? It’s what I do best. It is, after all, what brought you here. Now are you going to come inside or are we going to waste what precious little time we have?’

Storm’s gaze narrowed on the disembodied figure. A great range of emotions coursed through her as she looked up at him, but she would have to push them all aside if she was to get through this. She still didn’t like it, but there was no going back.

“Very well,” she said, “But only if my friends come with me. I am not doing any favors for you without them by my side!”

‘Normally, I would abhor the idea of allowing such outsiders into our realm. Particularly one who bears the stench of the Azazel.’

“Don’t you dear mention zhat name!” yelled an enraged Nightcrawler.

“Kurt don’t!” urged Rogue, holding him back.

‘But seeing as how you’ve been so loyal, I will make a rare exception. Just make sure they behave themselves. I do not take kindly to such disrespect.’

“Just shut up and get on with it, bub! The more I hear you in my head the more I want to dump acid on my brain!” snarled Wolverine.

Farouk scorned the feral mutant’s response. That was just the kind of disrespect he despised. This man had some nerve, but civility would have to wait. While he found it annoying, it seemed to earn him an approving look from Storm. He sensed something more between them. He would have to remember that for future reference.

Without another word, Farouk’s ghostly form faded and the front gate opened. Immediately, they were greeted by a team of Shadow King guards. They were all heavily armed and wearing the same distinct cloak. But to the surprise of Wolverine and the other X-men, they were respectful of their presence.

“Welcome back to the Shadow Kings, Ororo Munroe,” one of them said with a welcoming bow, “We appreciate you gracing us with your presence once more.”

“Thank you,” she replied despite some bitterness, “But don’t get too used to it. I do not plan on staying long.”

“Understood,” said another, “Follow us. Farouk has set up a special meeting area inside.”

“Special how?” said Rogue suspiciously.

“I cannot say. Not because I don’t want to, but because you need to see it for yourself to believe it.”

This was getting stranger by the second. The more they learned about these Shadow Kings, the more suspicious they grew. Something really didn’t feel right. Wolverine could smell it. Nightcrawler could feel it, having gone up against them when he was with his father. But they placed their trust in Storm and the history she had with these people.

Under heavy escort, Storm and the X-men followed the guards into the villa. As they made their way through the courtyard, many of the other Shadow Kings gathered to watch the affair. Many bowed respectfully to Storm, showing they hadn’t forgotten her even though she left this group many years ago. She tried to remain stoic, but it was hard not to get a little emotional considering her history. Wolverine and Gambit pushed her along, reminding her that she left these people for a reason and wasn’t going back.

Once past the courtyard, they entered the villa. As was expected from its outer appearance, the interior was quite opulent. It had fine rugs, expensive artwork lining the walls, and various vases and relics strewn about. It wasn’t the fanciest dwelling, but it had all the markings of thieves den.

“Not bad,” commented Gambit, “It ain’t the prettiest haul Remy’s seen, but still decent.”

“Quiet Gumbo! Swap notes with them later!” said Wolverine as he thoroughly scanned the area, “Something feel very wrong with this place and it ain’t just the stench of theives!”

“Ja, I feel it too,” said Nightcrawler with equal suspicion.

“Try not to worry,” said the guard stoically, “It’ll all make sense soon enough.”

The guard led them through a series of heavy chamber doors. Storm kept her eyes focused forward, but the others kept looking around. They noticed that the deeper they got into the villa, the fewer guards they saw. It was as if they were leaving behind them. It was strange because if this was as bad as Farouk said it was, it would have made more sense for them to stay. It only added to their growing suspicion.

BWhile the others were looking around for clues, Storm found herself lost in memories. Looking around at the opulent villa, she found herself reflecting on the time she spent here. She remembered her first meeting with Farouk, her extensive training, and her coming of age here at the Shadow Kings.

“That’s right, Ororo. Work with the forces of nature and not against them. Let the light, air, and earth around you be an ally and not an obstacle.”

Those words from Farouk himself would be a pre-cursor to her powers. It was something she would later discover under the Shadow Kings tutelage. Farouk himself revealed that he knew of her power and sought to nurture it.

“I always knew you were special, Ororo. I sensed it in you the day I met you. Like me, you have a gift. And like me, you must learn to use that gift. It can turn you from an ordinary thief into an extraordinary thief. Trust me and I’ll lead you to a new world of promise.”

She found herself tensing at the memories of those words. Trusting Farouk was what led her away from the Shadow Kings. It was part of what encouraged her to make a better life for herself. But that wasn’t the most painful memory of her experience here. One in particular, always stood out.

“Ororo…I love you. Please, stand by me and there’s no limit to what we can attain.”

“Still with us, Storm?” said Rogue, breaking the older woman from her daze.

“What? Oh…yes, I’m okay,” she said.

“Yeah right, and I’m a card carrying member of Alcoholics Anonymous,” said Logan dryly, “Seriously darlin’, talk to me.”

“I…”

But before she could continue, the guard interrupted them as they reached the final chamber door.

“We’re here,” he said.

Storm fell silent despite Wolverine’s gaze. She really did want to tell him everything, but she didn’t even know where start. It was a conversation that was going to have to wait though. Farouk was waiting for them.

Wolverine, Rogue, Nightcrawler, and Gambit followed Storm inside. The guard slipped away, leaving them alone with the mysterious figure. They quickly realized that this was no ordinary chamber. It felt very dark and isolated. It was nowhere near as fancy as the rest of the villa. The walls were dimly lit, the ceiling was a lot lower, and there was a very confined feeling to the area. It felt almost like a tomb of sorts, not unlike those one would find in Egypt. If what they saw from Farouk earlier was any indication, it was an appropriate setting.

“Zhis does not look like your typical meeting room,” commented Nightcrawler.

“Feels more like a tomb,” said Gambit, “Either this homme got some kinky tastes or he be messed up on a whole new level.”

“I’m guessin’ it’s a little of both,” said Rogue as he looked up ahead.

“You don’t know how right you are, Rogue,” said Storm distantly.

Storm stopped in mid stride, causing the others to stop as well. At first they were confused by her actions. Then they looked up ahead and saw what she was talking about. Residing at the front of the room was a very morbid sight. It more or less answered many lingering questions about this Farouk character.

At the very front of the room were two elaborate coffins. One was neatly laid out, placed perpendicular to the back wall. It had various flowers and emblems covering it, as if people had been paying respects to it daily for a while now. The second, however, was far more ominous. This coffin was standing upright and the top half was open. Inside resided a neatly preserved, but substantially decayed corpse. It bore a striking resemblance to the astral figure of the Amahl Farouk they saw earlier, but there were no signs of life in it.

“Ugh, there goes mah appetite for the rest of the dang week!” groaned Rogue.

“A freakin’ corpse?!” exclaimed Wolverine, “So this guy is dead!”

“His body is,” said Storm distantly, “But his mind is not.”

As the team digested this gruesome revelation, they heard Farouk’s voice again.

‘Very astute, my child. Now you know the truth. Yes, my body did perish. I made no miraculous escape or managed some inhuman recovery. There are limits for those who are shot, stabbed, burned, bludgeoned, and electrocuted.’

“You don’t have to remind me. I was there,” said Storm bitterly.

‘Yet you were still surprised when you heard my voice again. Honestly, Ororo, did you really think I would let it end like this?’

Storm tensed with anger as she gazed at the unmoving corpse of her former mentor. If he wasn’t already dead, she would have unleashed a full blown hurricane on him. This man may have taken her under his wing when she joined the Shadow Kings, but he hurt her in so many ways.

“What the heck are they talkin’ about?” asked Rogue under her breath to Gambit.

“Put two and two together, cherè. Stormy played a big part in puttin’ ugly here in his current state. From what she told me, old man Farouk pulled a fast one on the rest of the Shadow Kings. He get involved with some nasty folks that really put his people in a tough spot.”

“Zhat vould be vhere my people came in,” said Nightcrawler, “Vhen he started plotting against zhe Azazel, my father struck back.”

“And he struck hard. So when it all went down, Stormy let Farouk go down with it.”

“So why the heck is she helping the guy?” wondered Wolverine, “What’s he got on her?”

“Not what, Logan…who,” said Storm distantly.

While the others were contemplating these revelations, Storm walked up to the front of the room where the coffins were. She ignored the one that had Farouk’s decaying body on displayed and focused on the one next to it. Her expression shifted as she placed her hand over it. A wave of sadness came over her. A slight tear trailed down her face. She knew who was in this coffin and just being close to it again struck her to her core.

“Amahl…” she said sadly.

‘Yes, fitting is it not? The body of the father rests besides his son. It is tradition here in the Shadow Kings.’

“Don’t talk to me about tradition!” spat Storm, “It’s because of you Amahl was killed!”

‘Do not blame me for my son being weak. He should have been stronger when I sent him in to face Black Tom and his associates. I know you had a soft spot for him, but he was not fit to succeed me.’

“He was more a man than you ever were!” she cried as she looked over the coffin.

‘He was a disappointment. He did not deserve your love. He deserves only his fate.’

At this point, the rest of the X-men caught onto what was going on. Farouk’s words and Storm’s demeanor said it all. The figure in the other coffin was Farouk’s son. But more than that, he was also Storm’s former lover. It was a startling revelation and one that put this whole endeavor into a new perspective.

“Back up…Storm was humpin’ this guy’s son?!” exclaimed Wolverine.

“Okay, that be news to me too,” said Gambit with equal surprise, “Remy don’t remember her talkin’ much about him back in the day.”

“I zhink I can understand vhy,” said Nightcrawler as he gazed at Farouk’s corpse, “I knew you were a devious man, but your own son?!”

‘Are you going to stand here and criticize me or are we going to get down to business? I called you here to help me and that is what you’re going to do.’

“Don’t flatter yourself, Farouk!” said Storm with a hard sob, “It’s not you I wish to help! It’s Amahl Jr. I’m doing this for! He’s the one that taught me to be loyal and strong, not you! If it were up to me, your corpse would be exhumed from these grounds and thrown into the nearest fire!”

‘Such harsh words, my child. But utterly pointless. It matters not that you hate me. It only matters that you’re here. Now set aside your hatred and stand before me. I promise this won’t take long.’

The African woman gazed bitterly over the coffin of Amahl Jr. As much as she hated his father, she couldn’t forget about the lessons he taught her grown up. Loyalty and dedication were among the chief tenants of all Shadow Kings. To betray those tenants was to betray his memory and he deserved better even if his father didn’t.

She reluctantly pulled away from the coffin and stood before Farouk’s dead corpse. As she did, Wolverine and the others joined her. She felt Wolverine’s critical gaze on her, obviously unnerved by the revelation about Farouk. Gambit was as well, being an ex-lover of hers. She had a lot of explaining to do, but now was not the time.

“We’ll discuss it later, Logan. I promise,” she told him under her breath.

“We damn well better,” muttered the feral mutant.

Now they were all facing Farouk’s body. Bitter reunions aside, a daunting task at hand lay before them. And it wasn’t lost on Rogue and Nightcrawler that it involved Mystique.

“Okay pretty boy, spill it before Ah lose my breakfast,” said Rogue bitterly, “You said this has something to do with Mystique. Tell us so we can deal with her and get the hell out of here!”

‘Ah yes, Miss Raven Darkholme. It has been a while since our paths crossed. She’s quite the fighter as I’m sure you know. She’s also very dangerous. As we speak, she is seeking to steal a very important artifact from my collection.’

“What kind of artifact?” asked Storm bitterly.

‘One that holds the key to unimaginable destruction. Not just for the Shadow Kings, but for the world as we know it.’

“Sounds like Mystique alright,” growled Wolverine, “Just tell us where you’re keeping this junk and we’ll take care of it.”

‘It’s…not quite that simple. But you need not worry. I’ve already formulated a plan for you to follow.’

“Plan? What kind of plan?” asked Storm suspiciously.

A mysterious silence fell over the room. The five X-men were no longer hearing Farouk’s voice in their minds, but they still felt his ominous presence. And if the cold feeling in the air was any indication, it was growing and not in a good way.

Then something unexpected and horrifying happened. The corpse of Amahl Farouk suddenly came to life. The eyes on the half-decayed face shot open, revealing a very sinister-looking gaze. Storm gasped at such a sight, but she didn’t have time to be surprised. In another shocking display, the eyes started glowing in an ominous purple hue. From that glow, the astral figure of Amahl Farouk formed again. Only this time he didn’t just hover in front of them. He literally flew into Storm’s body, taking her over and consuming her to her core.

“Ahhhhhhhh!” she cried out as she clutched her head.

‘Don’t fight it, Ororo. I’m just borrowing you and your powers for a moment. You really don’t think I would trust you to such a task, do you? I’ve always been fond of a more hands on approach…figurative speaking.’

“Storm!” exclaimed Wolverine.

But as the feral mutant ran to help her, Storm turned around and showed a very different gaze. Her eyes were now glowing the same color as Farouk’s had earlier. Now he was the one in control and with that control, he used Storm’s powers to blow Wolverine back with a sharp wind gust.

“Out of my way!” said Storm in a voice that sounded like Farouk, “Your assistance is no longer needed, X-men. I can take it from here!”

With a sinister new demeanor, the mind-controlled Storm took to the air on a slipstream of wind. She forcibly blew Gambit, Wolverine, Rogue, and Nightcrawler out of the way in the process, making it clear that Farouk was in control.

“Stormy!” Gambit called out as he watched her fly out of the room.

“That fucking dirt-bag! He tricked her!” roared Wolverine, “I swear he’s a dead man!”

“Tell us something ve don’t know,” groaned Nightcrawler, who was still reeling from the wind blast, “Zhat’s Farouk for you. He’s as cunning as he is dead!”

“Ah don’t care how cunning he is! We gotta get to Mystique!” exclaimed Rogue.

“Wait, so now you wanna save your, merè?” said Gambit.

“You can point out the irony later!” spat Rogue as she and Wolverine ran of after her, “Let’s just get to her before he starts throwing tornadoes at her!”


Farouk Villa Basement – Vault

Mystique reached the vault faster than she anticipated. As soon as she was inside, the number of guards and security obstacles dropped off fast. She passed only minor obstacles. A few guards here, a security camera there, and even some locked doors. But they were easy to get around since they all used fingerprint scanners. She didn’t even have to knock anybody out. It seemed as though the deeper she got, the fewer guards there were. They either slipped away or weren’t there to begin with.

‘Farouk must be slipping in his old age. This system is a joke! Did I catch them all on break or something?’

The shape shifter maintained her vigilance. Farouk was a dangerous man with a reputation for cunning. She had to be on her guard no matter how easy it appeared. She stepped out of the main elevator leading from the ground level to the basement. As soon as she entered, she encountered only three guards patrolling the vault. Two of them were keeping watch while another was smoking a cigarette. For something that was supposed to house so many valuable, it really was undermanned.

Entering the main area, Mystique maintained the disguise she took earlier. The three guards seemed to recognize her.

“What are you doing down here?” asked one of them.

“Early shift change,” Mystique lied, “Lost a bet and now I have to take over early.”

“You lost a bet? Since when do you gamble?” laughed the other guard.

“You want to bust my balls or do you want to shut up and leave?”

“Sure thing. Just show the new schedule card and I’ll be out of your hair.”

Mystique held back a curse. Nobody said anything about a schedule card. Farouk must have been a little smarter than she thought. That meant she was going to have to use the direct approach.

“Sure, it’s right here…” she said as she reached into her cloak.

But instead of pulling out a card, she skillfully whipped out her Colt 45 postil and fired at the unsuspecting guard. He was struck right in the head, killing him instantly. When the two other guards saw this they were stunned.

“What the?!” one of them began.

Before they could respond, Mystique attacked. She took one down with a swift roundhouse to the face and shot the one smoking the cigarette before he could even get up. Within a few seconds it was over. Neither stood a chance. But this raucous was sure to cause a commotion soon. She had to get into this vault and get out as fast as possible.

“Will these fools ever learn?” she scoffed.

Tossing her weapon aside, Mystique shifted back to her normal form and ran up to the vault. It was not the most elaborate vault she ever saw, but it was definitely top of the line. It looked like a standard bank vault, consisting of a large rectangular door with two large cranks to work the locks. In the center was a keypad for entering the code and another fingerprint scanner. The scanner she could easily get around. The code would be a bit trickier.

To crack the code she took out a small device she bought in the Cairo black market. It was a special decrypting device built out of a smartphone. Using a special attachment, she pride off the key panel and inserted a wire into the port. It automatically booted up and started processing. According to the man who sold it to her, it could crack any bank code. For what she paid, it damn well better.

“Come on you piece of junk! Work faster!” she grunted impatiently.

The next few minutes were tense, but the device did its job. The seven-digit code showed up on the screen and she quickly punched it in. To her relief it was accepted and the heavy metal door was unlocked. It revealed a small chamber full of gold, money, and assorted gems. It was everything one would expect a thieves’ vault to contain. In another life Mystique would have been ecstatic about such riches, but she was after something much more valuable.

“Where is it?! Where did you hide it, Farouk?” she mused intently.

She quickly tore through the vault, pushing over tables of jewels and money and sifting through various artworks and artifacts. She didn’t care if they were priceless or one-of-a-kind. She would destroy everything in this vault if she had to.

Finally, she found something in the back of the room. It was an elaborately decorated locked box, bearing on it the symbols of the Azazel. They were symbols that Mystique would recognize anywhere. With burning anticipation, she grabbed the box and quickly pried it open with her knife.

“At last!” she said, “Looks like you’ll keep that promise after all, Azazel.”

The book was nothing fancy. It consisted of a slightly worn leather cover and small brown pages. As she opened it up briefly, she quickly recognized the handwriting as belonging to Azazel. This was it. In these pages were the answers to so many burning questions.

‘Your visions better start improving, Destiny. For once, the future is not going to be set! I’ll make sure of it.’

With the diary in hand, Mystique swiftly ran out of the vault and back towards the elevator. But before she could even get halfway, something strange happened. The lights around her started flickering and the air in the room became bitterly cold. It quickly stirred Mystique’s instincts in all the wrong ways.

“Oh for the love of…” she began, “Is that you, Farouk?! What kind of childish games are you playing this time?”

‘Oh this is no game. I assure you!’

The sound of that cold, malevolent voice in her mind stirred the shape shifter’s rage. But before she could start looking around for the source, a deafening explosion ripped through the room.

It came from above in a flash of destruction. Mystique looked up and gasped as she saw the whole ceiling collapsing down as if some massive weight had just been thrust upon it. The shape shifter barely got out of the way, jumping to the side just in time. But as she tumbled into a corner, she looked up and saw an ominous figure descending through the newly created hole. She half-expected to see Farouk in some bizarre new form, but when she got a glimpse of who it was she was shocked.

“What the…an X-man?!” she exclaimed.

Hovering on a cushion of wind, the mind-controlled Storm gazed down at Mystique with murderous intent.

“Not quite, but you’re half-right!” said Farouk through the body of the African woman.

“Farouk…” seethed Mystique, quickly recognizing that tone.

“Yes…it’s good to see you too, Raven. I knew you would show up eventually if I kept that book long enough. Black Tom wanted to destroy it, but I felt it had other uses…like finishing you off!”

Using Storm’s vast power, the malevolent figure formed a powerful tornado in the confined area. Before Mystique could even get up, she was swept away in the winds along with streams of debris. She tried grabbing a gun from one of the downed guards, but it was quickly blown out of her reach. All she could do at this point was cling to the book and hold on as she was swept up through the tornado and out through the villa.


Xavier Institute – Cerebro Chamber

Professor Charles Xavier had been closely monitoring the situation in Africa. Since Farouk was a powerful psychic, he made sure Storm and the others were shielded enough to prevent manipulation, but open enough to receive psychic communication. His focus was on any unusual spike in telepathic energy. But when he sensed what happened to Storm, he was caught off guard.

“No…Storm!” he lamented.

Quickly making adjustments, Charles Xavier refocused his psychic energy on the ailing woman. Farouk was skillfully blocking him out so he cranked up the power. Something else was going on and he wasn’t sure what it was, but he had better find out before Farouk made Storm do something she would regret.

‘X-men, Farouk has a powerful hold on Storm’s mind! You must find a way to weaken her! But be careful! Farouk is up to something! You must stop him before he succeeds!’


Farouk Villa – Outside

The roof of the opulent beachside villa was nearly blown off as a powerful tornado ripped through the structure. It nearly caused half the building to crumble. But by now all the Shadow King guards had been evacuated. There was no one present other than Farouk’s disembodied spirit and his adversaries.

Riding Storm’s tornado high into the air, Farouk swept Mystique a good couple hundred feet into the air. He watched as the shape shifter tumbled helplessly through the winds. He could tell she didn’t want to shape shift into an animal. Otherwise she would lose the book. She clung to it as if it were her last grasp at life. It was pathetic.

“Enjoying the ride? I can blow you clear into the stratosphere!”

“Go to Hell, Farouk! You’re overdue!” spat Mystique through the winds.

She was getting dizzy and disoriented. The winds tossed her about relentlessly. If she kept going like this she was going to pass out. But she couldn’t…not when she finally had the answers from Azazel in her hands.

She stubbornly held on, much to Farouk’s bemusement. Rather than test her tenacity, he went in for the finishing blow. He re-focused the winds. Now she was hovering steadily in a tight swirl of winds, helplessly suspended hundreds of feat in the air. As she hovered, Farouk rode the winds in closer so that he was hovering right in front of her.

“You’ve been quite an annoyance, Raven. Why do you insist on interfering? You’re as foolish as Azazel! You cannot stop what’s coming! Nothing can!”

“I don’t care! I plan on finishing what he started!” spat Raven, “Then when I’m done, I’ll personally see to it that you and Black Tom share your own circle of Hell!”

“Such blatant disrespect,” taunted Farouk, “And you know how Shadow Kings feel about disrespect.”

With a sadistic sneer, Farouk had Storm whip up another gust of wind. This one swooped right in between her arms and literally ripped the book out of her grip.

“NO!” she exclaimed as she watched the book disappear into the winds.

“Yes! The secrets of Azazel end here! And so shall you!” Farouk proclaimed.

Storm’s eyes glowed brightly as Farouk had her summon darker clouds. Mystique watched as sparks of lightning erupted around them. She struggled to break free from the winds, but it was no use. All she could do was brace herself for the inevitable.

But before Farouk could unleash the killing blow on the shape shifter, Storm was hit by something unexpected. It was Rogue, who flew in from behind for a surprise a blow.

“Ah’m so gonna get detention for this!” she exclaimed as she rammed into Storm.

“Augh!”

Storm and Farouk were sent tumbling through the air. The winds and clouds quickly dispersed. Only now nothing was holding Mystique up so she started falling. But she didn’t fall far. As soon as Rogue hit Storm, she flew in to catch her bewildered mother.

“Rogue?!” exclaimed Mystique in bewilderment.

“Ah’m as shocked as you, mama,” she said dryly.

Negating the obvious awkwardness, Rogue flew Mystique away from the winds and down towards the courtyard. Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Gambit were there waiting for her, having escaped the destruction just as Farouk kicked Storm’s powers into overdrive. The shape shifter was not overly thrilled to see them, but their timing was impeccable.

“Are you okay, mother?” asked Nightcrawler as he ran up to Mystique.

“I’m fine!” she said, shoving off his and Rogue’s support, “Now out of my way! I have to find that book!”

“Whoa there, back up!” said Gambit, getting in her way, “Seeing as how Rogue just saved you, I think you be owing us an explanation!”

“Spare me the interrogation! I’m not leaving until I get what I came for!”

“You don’t start talkin’ the only thing you’re getting is a…” but Wolverine never got a chance to finish his threat.

A sharp gust of wind thwarted any further efforts to get answers out of Mystique. They were all blown back as they looked up to see Storm descending towards them on a newly created whirlwind. She was still airborne, riding trail of wind to the center of the courtyard. Her eyes continued brimming with malicious intent, indicating Farouk still had a strong hold on her.

“You pesky little insects. You know, I was going to spare Ororo’s friends from this wrath. But if you insist on helping that shape shifting bitch, you’ll share her fate!”

“Bub, you are pissing me off on a whole new level!” snarled Wolverine, “I swear if you don’t let go of my girlfriend I’ll…”

“Girlfriend, you say?” Farouk laughed, “Please…Ororo can do so much better.”

Grinning with intent, Farouk had Storm kick up a powerful lightning storm around them. They forced the X-men back even further. With little to take cover behind, they had to think fast. Gambit quickly came up with a plan. Taking out his bow staff, he carefully charged the tip. One of the benefits to having dated Storm was that he knew all the tricks when it came to handling her powers.

“Get behind Remy!” he called out, “I’ll keep the lightning at bay!”

“Smart move, mien friend! Beast vould be proud!” commented Nightcrawler.

Rogue, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine followed his advice, narrowly avoiding lightning strikes as they got behind Gambit. As they did, all the lightning around them was directed to the charged tip of his staff. It gave them some cover and a chance to regroup.

But Mystique didn’t care about regrouping. She only cared about getting that book. From her position just in front of the Cajun, she saw the discarded book lying in a pile of charred earth just up ahead. It was still intact, having not been torn apart by the winds. As soon as she saw it, she ran out after it.

“Mama! Are you out of your mind?!” exclaimed Rogue.

“Does it look like I care for sanity?!” she yelled back, “I must get that book!”

With no regard for her own safety, she ran out into the lightning storm. Rogue and Nightcrawler could only watch with shock as their mother ran into the line of fire. As soon as she was outside Gambit’s protective cover, Farouk grinned and took aim at her.

“DIE WHORE OF AZAZEL!”

Concentrating harder, Farouk formed a ball of lightning in Storm’s hand and with a murderous grunt, he unleashed it upon the defenseless shape shifter.

Mystique knew it was coming. She could care less if it hit her. All that mattered was getting that book. She prepared to make a dive for it, bracing herself for the inevitable impact. But at the last second, someone else tackled her out of harm’s way. The lightning struck just beside them. While she was thankful to be alive, she was shocked when she looked up to see who saved her.

”Wolverine?!” she yelled, “What the hell are you doing saving me?!”

“Honestly…I don’t have a freakin’ clue,” grunted Wolverine.

It was the truth. He acted on a whim. Mystique was the last person Wolverine would ever think to save, but something pushed him to go after her. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it would have to wait. Farouk wasn’t letting up.

While Farouk charged for another strike, Gambit ran up to them with his charged staff keeping them protected from stray lightning. Rogue and Nightcrawler followed close behind and rushed to their mother’s aid.

“Mother, you must stop zhis madness!” exclaimed Nightcrawler.

“Not until I get that book!” she yelled out.

“Why? What the heck is so important about it anyways?” asked Rogue.

“She can tell us later!” said Gambit as a bolt of lightning came uncomfortably close, “We gotta find a way to stop Stormy! Farouk ain’t letting her go!”

Farouk only reinforced his point by unleashing more winds to further throw them off. With Storm under his power, they didn’t stand a chance. As much as it pained Wolverine, he knew he was going to have to attack her. He just started getting close with this woman. Now their blossoming relationship was going to face its first major test. Gazing up at her enslaved form, he snarled with rage at Farouk. He soon put together a plan on how to stop him.

“You’re right, Gumbo! We gotta stop her!” he said as he turned to Nightcrawler, “Elf, I need you to teleport me up there! Land me right on her back!”

“Are you crazy?!” roared Mystique, “You’re not putting my son in that kind of danger!”

“You threw yourself into danger too, mother. Now it’s my turn!” said Nightcrawler defiantly, “I can get you up zhere, Logan. But I hope you know vhat you’re doing!”

“That makes two of us,” said the feral mutant.

Following Wolverine’s simple orders, Nightcrawler grasped onto his feral friend’s shoulder and teleported him away. They appeared in a puff of smoke just above Storm, where the winds were a lot stronger and the lightning was a lot closer. But Wolverine braved the elements, letting go of Nightcrawler and allowing him to fall towards her. As soon as he reached her, he grabbed onto her back and clung to her with all his might. Farouk grunted in frustration as he sensed this. With Storm still under his control, he struggled to get him off her back.

“Get off me you animal! She is mine!”

“You’ve overstayed your welcome, bub!” grunted Wolverine, “Storm, I don’t know if you can hear me in there, but you gotta fight this asshole! Don’t let him use you as a meat puppet! Trust me on this one! It’ll cause you nothing but trouble!”

Farouk seemed to falter. His urgings seemed to reach the woman behind Farouk’s control. The winds shifted and the lightning became more erratic. Having metal bones didn’t help as well. He endured his share of shocks, but he toughed through them and maintained his grip on her.

“Errrrrr! You…can’t…win!”

Farouk’s grip remained strong, but then Wolverine got some much needed help.

‘You’re wrong, Farouk. Your control over Storm ends now!’

Wolverine grinned upon hearing that telepathic voice. It could only be one person.

“About time you showed up, Chuck! Now do your thing while most of my skin is intact!”

Farouk was really struggling now. He had not only Wolverine’s weight and Storm’s resistance working against him. He had the mind of the most powerful telepath in the world bearing down on his psyche. From across an ocean, Professor Charles Xavier unleashed his telepathic wrath on Farouk. He struck hard at the powerful psychic, weakening his grip while strengthening Storm’s. The disembodied figure let out pained howls. Even without a body, there was only so much resistance he could endure.

Finally, Storm began to emerge from Farouk’s control. Her glowing eyes shifted color from purple to white. With help from the Professor, she was forcing Farouk out. Then with the winds still howling, she delivered a punishing blow.

“Get…out…of my…mind!” she exclaimed.

‘ARRRRGGGHHH!’

Farouk’s control was nearly shattered. He no longer had full control. As such, the wind and lightning he kicked up wavered. And without the winds holding them up, she fell to the ground below. The whole time, Wolverine kept a firm grip on her.

“That’s it, darlin’! I got you!” he grunted.

When they hit the ground, Wolverine shifted his body so he took the full impact. It was painful as hell, but he could take it. For Storm, he endured it. After reeling from the impact, Wolverine helped the dazed Storm up. She was still struggling with Farouk, whose grip was almost broken. She held onto Wolverine for support as she angrily attacked the invading figure in her mind. As she did Gambit, Rogue, Nightcrawler, and Mystique caught up to them. It appeared the fight was almost over.

“Stormy! You okay?” Gambit called out.

“Hang on, bub. It’s almost over,” grunted a still pained Wolverine.

Clenching her fists, Storm prepared to deliver the final blow. This man may have done much for her as a little girl. But now he was a grim reminder of a life she left behind.

“You’re finished, Farouk!” she grunted intently, “Now get out!”

‘Not…without…one more…task.’

In a last grasp of strength, Farouk took control of Storm for just a few more seconds. In this brief time, he summoned a small lightning strike. Only this time he wasn’t aiming for Storm, Mystique, or the X-men. This time he was aiming for the book, which was still resting on a pile of debris. It was his last shot and this time, he hit it perfectly. As soon as the lightning struck the book, it burst into flames.

”NOOOOOOO!” exclaimed Mystique in horror.

‘Yes…I’ve done it!’

“Errrrrr enough!” yelled Storm.

With that final push, she expelled Farouk from her body. His disembodied spirit was literally launched out of her. It couldn’t have been very pleasant for him, but it no longer mattered. Farouk finished what he wanted to. He had won.

While Gambit and Wolverine helped the ailing Storm, Mystique ran over to the now charred remains of the book. Rogue and Nightcrawler went after her, still full of questions. When she reached the now smoldering pile of ashes, the shape shifter fell to her knees in a fit of anger and anguish.

“Damn you, Farouk! Damn you, X-men! That was my last chance!” she said, “Now I’ll never know the truth!”

“Truth? What the heck are you talkin’ about, mama?” asked Rogue skeptically.

“That book…was the key to stopping a very grim future,” she said as she let the ashes crumble in her hands, “It was a secret diary kept by Azazel himself!”

“My…my father?!” exclaimed Nightcrawler.

“Yes…and it contained the answers to so many questions!” she said with a bitter scowl, “It had all the details Azazel was never able to tell us! Every question we ever had about who he was and why he did what he did was supposed to be answered in that book! He left it specifically for us to find! Now it’s gone!”

Nightcrawler was taken aback. At first he thought it was another one of Mystique’s tricks, but when he saw the look in her eyes he knew it was true. It put this whole threat they were brought in to stop in a new perspective.

“Wait…that was all you were after?! Some old book?!” said Rogue, “Then why the heck would Farouk drag Storm out here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” said Mystique bitterly, “He used you and you let him!”

They were harsh words. Rogue and Nightcrawler exchanged looks. They couldn’t have been that foolish and Mystique couldn’t have been the innocent one here. They were the X-men and she was a deranged woman with a long list issues. It seemed impossible, but Farouk appeared to confirm it.

‘Oh how ironic it is! The heroes for peace and understanding come to thwart the evil shape shifter! Only to discover your deeds were anything but heroic!’

At this point Storm, Wolverine, and Gambit took notice as well. Storm was back on her feet, still weak from Farouk’s control. But she was still livid. If what he said was true then he did more than just play off her old loyalties.

“You…you tricked us!” she exclaimed, “For what?! To insult everything the Shadow Kings stands for?!”

‘Do not lecture me on the honor of the Shadow Kings! I am only doing what our bylaws decree. I was merely keeping a promise to expunge any chance for the Azazel to further interfere. They must not stop what is destined to come.’

“Why? What be coming?” demanded Gambit.

The disembodied spirit of Farouk laughed.

‘The mere fact you do not know is the best means of ensuring you will never interfere.’

Storm’s expression tensed bitterly while Mystique rose up in a rage. They had all lost this time. Farouk, it seems, got the better of them all.

“Errrrrrrrrr! You traitorous hell-spawn!” yelled Mystique, “I wish you were still alive so I could kill you again!”

‘Tsk tsk, Raven. You know, part of my plan was to kill you and your children as further insurance. But since you are without answers or guidance, I’ll leave you to witness what Azazel failed to stop! A most fitting punishment, don’t you agree?’

“I’ll show you punishment!” the shape shifter yelled as she swiped at the disembodied spirit.

It was no use. Her attack was pointless. Farouk had nothing to attack. He was all psionic energy now. He kept on laughing as his spirit ascended away from his adversaries. His little ploy had been a smashing success. There was no reason to linger any longer.

‘Hahaha! Save your energy, Raven! You’ll be needing it!’

He then turned towards Storm.

‘And thank you, my child! You’ve done the Shadow Kings a great service! I knew I could count on you to come through!’

“Spare me your gratitude, Farouk!” said Storm bitterly, “I’ll never help you again!”

‘We’ll see about that. You of all people should know that fate has a way of catching up to all Shadow Kings.’

With that final taunt the spirit of Amahl Farouk disappeared, leaving a defeated Mystique and the embittered X-men. Storm was at a new low. She let a man she despised with every fiber of her being use her for his own selfish ends. The curse of the Shadow Kings continued to loom over her. The price of her failure was not apparent now, but if Farouk’s ominous words were any indication they certainly would be in due time.

This price was already being felt by Mystique. Farouk was gone now and so was the diary. The ashes of the text were now spreading to the winds. Chances were Destiny’s visions were going to become a lot darker now. Without Azazel’s final secrets to guide them, their hope was waning.

“It’s over. Azazel is truly dead,” she mused.

Her children gazed anxiously at their mother. Nightcrawler was especially affected.

“Mother…I’m so sorry,” he said with a comforting gesture, “Ve had no idea. Ve vere just…”

“Doing what you thought was best?” Mystique finished, “You know coming from you that really does sound pitiful.”

“Welcome to mah world,” said Rogue dryly.

“Don’t get crass with me, Rogue! I know you’re still bitter about the past, but everything I do is for a reason! That reason, whether you believe me or not, is you!”

Rogue was silenced. She really had nothing left to say. Just when it seemed Mystique could do no right, she does something like this. She stood against a man who hurt her and her family. She was still very angry at her mother, but it wasn’t so clear cut now.

“Mother…” Nightcrawler began.

“Don’t Kurt. It’s too late for understanding,” said Mystique as she pulled away from them, “I still don’t like that you’re caught up in Xavier’s agenda. You don’t like I’m still fighting my own battles. Let’s just leave each other to our bitterness and call it a day.”

“Mama wait…” groaned Rogue.

But it was too late. Mystique stormed off. There was nothing they could say or do at this point. Secrets or no secrets, she was not going to stop. She still had a promise to keep. Her kids may not understand or appreciate it now. In time they would come to see the truth. That still depended on whether or not the bleak future Destiny predicted caught up with them first.

While Rogue and Nightcrawler watched their walk off, Storm struggled with her own disappointment. She should have known better. If Amahl Jr. were still alive he would be disheartened. Even though she had grown so much since her days as a Shadow King, she still had some harsh lessons to learn.

“Well this mission officially be a bust,” commented Gambit.

“Can it, Cajun!” said Wolverine as he let Storm lean on him, “Let’s not stick around and tuck our tail between our legs.”

“You make it sound so easy, Logan,” said Storm in a low tone, “I…I shouldn’t have listened to Farouk. He played off my loyalties to the Shadow Kings and my past feelings for Amahl Jr.”

“Guys like him do that,” said Logan, “I know their kind. They’ll find all sorts of ways to screw you over.”

“But I should have been stronger!” she cried as she clung harder to Logan, “He…he used me in a way I should never have let him! I let old feelings get the better of me. You have no idea how it feels. I failed myself and someone I used to love.”

Her tone was solemn. Farouk’s deception really hit her hard, but to her surprise, Wolverine just kept embracing her. He even smiled, which was a rare gesture for him. Through her sorrow he affectionately held her, lending a comfort only a lover could give.

“I understand more than you think,” he told her, “Just hang in there. When we get back I’ll help you get through this.”

“I appreciate that, Logan,” she said warmly, “But how do you deal with something like this?”

Logan hugged her a little closer as they started walking together. The more he gets to know her, the more in common they seemed to have. It boded well for their relationship.

“Darlin’, let me tell you about a girl named Rose…”


Later

Raven Darkholm was defeated and fuming. Just when the answers to so many questions were within her grasp, Farouk had to take it all away. That madman not only cheated death. He cheated her out of any chance to pick of the pieces left by Azazel. Worst of all, he used her own kids against her. She hated him almost as much as Black Tom. She swore they would both pay for everything they had done.

But vengeance would have to wait. Even though she lost Azazel’s diary, she couldn’t stop fighting. She refused to accept the dark fate that awaited her and her children. Now far from the villa, she took out her phone and called Destiny.

“We’re in big trouble now, Irene! Without Azazel’s diary we have nothing to go on! Please tell me you’ve had a vision that can help.”

“I wish I could say I did, Raven. Unfortunately, the future has become a lot darker. Without Azazel’s assistance, the coming darkness may be all but unstoppable.”

“Don’t get pessimistic on me! You’re the one who is always saying the future is fluid and constantly changing. So let’s find a way to change it in our favor!”

“It’s not that simple, Raven. Without a clear understanding of what we’re up against, we may very well may find ourselves in a death trap.”

“I’ll take that chance. Now do you have anything for me or not?”

There was a silence over the line. Raven could tell Destiny was contemplating whether or not to tell her. Being her only real friend, she was always worried about her. She got herself into many bad situations. Even though she managed to survive so far, fate may still catch up with her.

“I do have something. It was in my latest vision. It’s unclear and may be a dead end, but it’s all I have at the moment.”

“Tell me what it is and I’ll find out more,” said Mystique intently.

“I’m not entirely sure of the details, but it involves something known as the Inner Circle.”


Next Issue: Rivalry and Reflections

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