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Volume 4 -- Issue 74 -- Dark Messenger

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Dark Messenger
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A new era has dawned for Professor Charles Xavier and the X-men. Having vowed to use their extraordinary powers to promote peace and understanding in a world that hates and fears them, they find themselves in an uncertain position. Senator Robert Kelly has been elected President of the United States. He has vowed to confront the human/mutant conflict with bold action. What that action will entail, however, remains to be seen.

For now, the X-men are taking a wait-and-see approach. They have stepped up their training in order to prepare for the unique challenges to come, implementing new tools like a new version of Cerebro and a new aircraft known as the Velocity. But in the midst of this new status quo, some members of the team continue to struggle with personal issues.

Since joining the X-men, Kurt Wagner has dealt with his share of personal challenges. His reunion with his adopted sister, Rogue, has been complicated since she lost control of her powers again. In addition, he tries to manage a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Amanda Sefton. Through it all, Kurt has maintained unwavering faith. He is once again set to visit his lover for some much needed personal time. The only concern is the Seftons have a knack for attracting trouble.

Rural Germany – Sefton Farm

Throughout her life, Amanda Sefton had her share of bad days. She understood everybody had them. Sometimes it involved simple things like missing an appointment, losing a set of keys, or feeling sick. A bad day was part of life. But with her, bad days took on a much darker connotation.

It was part of the burden her family carried. Like her mother and her grandmother before her, the Seftons had a knack for very bad days. It wasn’t just because they regularly practiced and experimented with magic. It wasn’t just because they lived reclusive lives, only associating with those who were equally reclusive like gypsies, secret societies, and mutants. It was all part of a painfully unavoidable concept called destiny. There were just some parts of her life that were set in stone and no matter what she did, she couldn’t escape her true purpose.

Sitting in her room, she gazed out the window in a daze as a light snow fell outside. It was another cold, serene morning in rural Germany. It hardly seemed appropriate for a day like today. It was a foregone conclusion that this was a day that Amanda was going to dread because today was her birthday.

“Amanda sweety? Are you awake?” came her mother’s voice from the other side of her bedroom door.

Amanda didn’t respond. She was too lost in her own world, hugging her knees and watching the snow fall outside.

After a minute or so, the door opened and Margali Sefton walked in. With worried eyes she approached her bed and sat down next to her.

“Still giving me the silent treatment?” she asked her daughter, “I was hoping we could avoid it this time around.”

“So was I, but here we are,” said Amanda distantly.

“Please Amanda…let’s not do this. I hoped you would be excited about Kurt visiting for your birthday.”

“Why on Earth would you hope that, mom? You know as well as I do what my birthday entails.”

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least try to be happy about it.”

“Happy?” scoffed Amanda, “Today I’ll be 18, an age I’ve been dreading since I was old enough to understand the curse that is my life! Today, I’ll be one step closer to becoming what I hate! It’s enough to make me wish I was never even born!”

“Don’t say that, darling. You know it was never my choice to put you through this,” said Margali strongly as she pulled her daughter into an embrace.

“I know it wasn’t! But that’s not even the worst part! I can deal with being stuck in this unending cycle of fate and doom. I can deal with having the same responsibility that you and every Sefton before me has ever had. What I can’t deal with is having to lie to the man I love! I may be capable of hurting so many people, but I can’t stand hurting Kurt like this!”

In her anguish, Amanda sobbed. Tears of sorrow formed in her eyes as she turned away from her mother. She still tried to embrace her, but she was beyond consoling at this point.

“Amanda…” her mother began.

“Later today he’s going to be here. He’ll probably have a present, a card, and a plan to spend the whole day making me feel extra special. He’ll do all this without knowing that I’m going to hurt him. Whether I tell him the truth or keep on lying, he’s going to get hurt! And I…I can’t deal with that.”

“That doesn’t mean you should succumb to despair, Amanda. Your stronger than that.”

“I wish I was,” she said through another sob, “I’ve been able to cope with this for so long. And against all odds, Kurt has never let it affect our love. But after today I’m just not sure I can keep going. I’m not sure I can…”

But her mother didn’t let her continue.

“Yes you can, Amanda! And more importantly, you must,” she said more seriously, “Uncertainty is the first step to weakness and you can’t afford to be weak at a time like this.”

“Are you trying to convince me or yourself, mom? Because now you’re the one sounding uncertain.”

“I am certain. I’m also certain I raised you better than this,” said Margali, gently cupping her daughter’s chin and turning her so she could look her in the eye, “Our family has bred some strong women in the past. With everything you’ve dealt with, you’re by far the strongest. You’ve had to deal with dark forces none of our ancestors had to deal with and I’m not just talking about falling in love with Kurt.”

“And whose fault is that?” she said bitterly.

“It doesn’t matter. Blaming our curse on others doesn’t lessen our burden. In time those dark forces have grown stronger. It is our responsibility to match that strength.”

Amanda fell silent. More tears formed in her eyes. Her mother offered a caring smile as she wiped away those tears. It was hard to even contemplate having such strength. But if she couldn’t rise to the challenge then she would only hurt both her family and Kurt even more. With this in mind, Amanda swallowed the lump of sorrow in her throat and finally embraced her mother.

“It’s just so hard,” she sobbed softly.

“I know, sweetie. Try not to think too much about what the future will bring. Later today you’ll be sharing your birthday wishes with Kurt. He’ll hold you in his arms, tell you how much he loves you, and go to any possible length just to put a smile on your face.”

“But what about the other aspects of my birthday,” said Amanda cryptically.

“Even if destiny is unavoidable, it doesn’t have to be immediate,” Margali assured her, “I’ll be spending all day in my study. I promise I’ll put together a spell that will make this day go by as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

“That’s an impossible promise, mom. You of all Seftons should know that.”

“And you of all Seftons should also know that nothing is impossible when magic is involved.”

Her mother kept on holding her, as if to to strengthen her promise. She had to believe she could deliver for her. It was the only way to avoid hurting her lover. It may mean more lies and deceit. But no matter how much she and Kurt loved each other, she knew the truth would only destroy them.

Xavier Institute – Hanger

Being on the front line of the human/mutant conflict made it difficult to justify taking time off for personal reasons. But every so often, someone came up with a very good excuse to be spared from classes, training, and human/mutant drama. Kurt Wagner had such a reason on this cold winter day. It was Amanda Sefton’s 18th birthday and he was set to fly to Germany for a much needed visit with his lover.

He had been looking forward to this for quite some time. It almost overshadowed the chaos surrounding Inauguration Day. With all the conflicts the X-men had taken part in lately, it was harder and harder to keep up with his lover. Her birthday added a new level of stress, but that wasn’t going to stop him from celebrating with her.

He had everything ready. He packed two full suitcases, he finished his assignments and training for the next few days, and he had with him a very special gift that he hoped would make this day memorable for both of them. It would only be a matter of hours before he had her in his arms. Mr. McCoy had the X-jet fueled and ready to go. Jean, Rogue, Logan, and Kitty were also present to see him off. Jean and Logan were helping him load his luggage into the back of the X-jet while Kitty and Rogue was going over Kurt’s birthday plans for Amanda.

“Looks like you’re all set, little brother,” said Rogue as she helped Hank haul some of the heavy gear from the jet, “It won’t be long now before you’re enjoying a relaxing weekend catering to your girlfriend’s every birthday need.”

“You sound like you feel sorry for me, mien sister,” grinned Kurt jokingly.

“Ah may not be able to touch, but Ah am a woman last Ah checked and Ah know how women can be when it comes to their birthday.”

“I don’t think Kurt has to worry. Amanda is so going to love her gift! If she doesn’t smother you with love within five seconds of seeing it, then something is seriously wrong with the universe!” said Kitty with brimming enthusiasm.

“I hope you’re right, Kitty,” said Kurt as he looked down at the gift he had in his hands, “It vould certainly go a vays towards brightening her day. Amanda never vas one for birthdays.”

“Why the heck not? Ah thought women ain’t supposed to start dreading their birthday until they were in their 30s or something,” said Rogue.

“It’s not zhat. Amanda has always been a bit…sensitive on her birthday,” said the German mutant cryptically, “She and her mother have certain issues concerning birthdays. In their family it is rarely an occasion to celebrate.”

“Let meh guess. That’s another one of those minor details she says she can’t tell you about,” said Rogue dryly.

“I’m sure she has her reasons,” sighed Kurt, “And vhatever zhey may be, I respect zhem. Zhat’s all you can do for someone you love.”

“Right, because keeping secrets is such an important part of a healthy relationship.”

Kurt had to hide his response to comment as he looked down at the wrapped package that contained Amanda’s gift. Kitty offered some consolation, but Rogue remained skeptical. Ever since Kurt told her about his relationship with Amanda, she had been suspicious. While she never denied that he deeply loved this girl, she didn’t like that Amanda kept secrets from her brother. In her experience with Mystique, secrets were destructive and no amount of love could justify that kind of mistrust.

Kurt didn’t blame her for being suspicious. But Rogue didn’t understand the depths of his relationship with Amanda. There was a lot of trust involved and he chose to have faith in that trust, regardless of what better judgment may tell him.

“Take it easy on him, Rogue. Let’s not have that old argument again,” coaxed Kitty, “It’s the only subject that seems to make you two bicker like real siblings.”

“Ah don’t wanna argue either,” Rogue went on, “Ah ain’t got anything against Amanda, but if she’s keepin’ secrets it’s only a matter of time before they come back to bite you. And Ah don’t want that to happen to mah brother.”

“I appreciate your concern, Rogue,” said Kurt, looking up from his gift, “But Amanda and I have endured a great deal in our time together. Vhatever reasons or consequences zhese secrets may bring, I vill deal vith zhem.”

“That alone makes you a better man than ninety percent of the men in this world,” said Kitty with a friendly gesture, “Amanda doesn’t know how lucky she is!”

“If not, she damn well better,” muttered Rogue under her breath.

Kurt rolled his eyes and allowed his sister’s fume in her distinct, Rogue-like manner. As much as he appreciated her concern, this was not the time to dwell on such issues. His sole focus for the weekend was going to be Amanda and nothing was going to change that.

With his luggage now loaded, the jet began to power up. Jean and Logan emerged from the storage area in the rear of the jet and Hank was standing at the opening hatch.

“You’re all set, Elf. Enjoy your birthday romp with your girlfriend. Try not to give her too many rug burns,” said Logan with his usual dirty subtext.

“Danke, Herr Logan. I’m sure ve’ll have a good time,” he said with a light-hearted smile.

“Hope you’ve kept up with your training, bub. Women love testing your endurance on days when you’re practically their slaves,” the feral mutant added.

“Once again, the award for most degrading comment towards women goes to the reigning champ,” said Jean with a wry grin.

“What? It ain’t degrading to give a guy a friendly warning,” said Logan as he gave the young man a slight punch in the shoulder, “Ain’t like I make this shit up. I still remember how Cyke was limping for two days after your last birthday.”

That got Jean to blush slightly, but still earned him a bemused glare. Kurt blushed as well. At least for him it was easier to hide because of his blue complexion.

“I’ll keep zhat in mind, but hopefully not too much,” said Kurt with a grin.

“Ah wouldn’t give too much weight to Logan’s advice, Kurt. This is the same guy who kissed our mama,” said Rogue, casting Logan a look of her own.

“You just had to bring that up, didn’t you?” Logan groaned.

“Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it,” quipped Jean.

“Whatever,” he muttered, “Just be lucky you ain’t stickin’ around. That whole Inauguration mess put us all behind. One-eye’s got that engineering test with the Prof. Popsicle, Gumbo, and half-pint here gotta take some overdue exams this weekend. And stripes owes us all at least three make-up tests on damn near everything.”

“You know we do have names, Logan. Do you always have to refer to everybody by whatever goofy title you give them?” said Kitty.

“You really want me to answer that when you’re set to do a Danger Room run with me and Gumbo in a half hour?” retorted Logan as he made his way out the hanger.

Now it was Kitty’s turn to groan. Between the personal dramas and missions to save the world, it was easy to forget the drudgery of training. Kurt was lucky in that respect. He was getting a weekend off. Hank, Jean, and Rogue were lucky as well because they got to go with him.

“You have mah sympathies, sugah. Not that they’ll do you much good,” offered Rogue.

“Speak for yourself,” muttered Kitty, “How is it that you get to go to Germany on this trip with Jean when you’ve got so much to catch up on?”

“Kurt’s mah brother. Ah should make sure he gets to his gal alright,” she shrugged.

“That and Mr. McCoy has some assignments set up for you that involve hands-on testing and helping him gather a few exotic rock samples,” said Jean with a coy grin.

“You just had to remind meh of the oh so exciting world of Earth science, didn’t you?” muttered Rogue.

“Oh don’t fret, Rogue!” said Hank as he caught up to his student, “It’ll be a great experience and it will help you catch up on your geology classes. Plus, I need those samples to run some special tests on radiation levels. The Professor and I are about to begin an exciting new study!”

“Ah’m sure Ah’ll hear all about it,” sighed Rogue, “Which reminds me, why isn’t Jean getting dragged into this?”

“Unlike some people, I actually kept up with my school work,” she said proudly, “I owe Kurt a favor so it’s only proper I tag along. Plus, there’s this really nice mall in Copenhagen I’ve been looking to check out! I hear it has some exclusive shops with psychic themes and Phoenix gear!”

“So it’s a mall…Ah should’ve known,” said Rogue.

“Still totally justified!” grinned Kitty.

Kitty and Jean shared a good laugh while Rogue rolled her eyes. It was odd how Jean got into accessorizing since her encounter with the Phoenix. It’s like she wanted it to be part of her identity now. How Scott put up with it was beyond her.

While Kitty lingered, Kurt followed the others up into the jet. Kitty stood back and waved, knowing she was going to have go at Logan’s training sessions short-handed. It was sure to be a long weekend for everybody.

“Well then, if my fellow blue compatriot is ready then I’d say we’re set to take off,” said Hank.

“Oh I’m ready, Herr McCoy. I always have to be ready on Amanda’s birthday,” sighed Kurt, looking down at his gift again.

“Then let’s not keep her waiting!” said Jean as she took Kurt’s hand and led him into the jet, “I’m sure she’s just as eager to see you as you are to see her.”

“I hope she is,” he said, “But when it comes to zhe Sefton family, you can always expect some surprises.”

Xavier Institute – Hank’s Lab

Class at the Xavier Institute often took on a very non-traditional tone. While they did have traditional classrooms and regular lectures, there were some aspects of the curriculum that just didn’t fit the mold of ordinary education. It was part of Professor Xavier’s unique method of teaching his students.

While the Xavier Institute was a school at it’s core, it often doubled as a hub for research. Even though there were much bigger entities like Worthington Industries and Lilandra’s Aerie Global doing major research, Xavier took it upon himself to look into issues that most did not have the time or incentive to take on. These projects often required help from the students and this was no exception.

For most of the day, Professor Xavier had been conducting experiments in Hank’s lab. The X-men’s battle with Stryfe created a new round of mysteries. On the surface it was a pretty open-and-shut case. A mutant with potent psionic powers tried to influence the minds of vulnerable people to cause a riot. But as was often the case with mutants, there was more to it. Professor Xavier compiled all the data from the battle and was crunching the numbers. Scott, being well-versed in math and engineering, was helping as part of his class work.

“This is the last of the hard drives, Professor. How’s the compiling coming along?” said Scott as he entered the lab with an armful of averaged sized external hard drives.

“As well as can be expected, I’m afraid,” sighed the Professor.

“In other words, slow at best and stalled at worst?”

“That’s to be expected when dealing with such exotic. These numbers you crunched for me just don’t add up.”

“Last I checked an obviously unstable mutant is hard to quantify crazy, sir,” said the X-leader as he set down the hard drives on the table.

“This isn’t just about Stryfe’s questionable mindset. I still remember how difficult it was to overcome Stryfe when we did battle on a psychic plane. There was something else driving him…something that went beyond traditional psionics.”

“You think this might be another case of mutants being artificially enhanced? Weapon X has shown us it can be done.”

“That’s a distinct possibility. But my instinct tells me this is different. Since Stryfe was taken into federal custody, we have no way of finding out for sure. We must rely on the data from Cerebrum and make the connections ourselves.”

It sounded pretty serious. Scott remembered the battle with Stryfe as well. He carried himself like another Magneto wannabe, looking to succeed where the master of magnetism failed. When they apprehended him, he did not go quietly. He continued raving like a madman, swearing that he had to spread war and conflict. It was the kind of ranting the X-men heard regularly from any number of misguided madmen. It shouldn’t have been a greater cause for concern than a typical deranged radical.

Then again, he wasn’t a psychic. Professor Xavier had the misfortune of going mind-to-mind with this guy. He definitely had a better insight to his psyche than anyone else. Following his own curiosity, Scott plugged in a few hard drives and ran the data through some math programs he made. As a leader and a math whiz, he could put the numbers together. The challenge was figuring out what they meant.

“Guess this will become the X-men’s new semester-long project,” said Scott as he started looking over the data, “It seems there’s always some big challenge we have to endure. First it was Magneto’s uprising. Then it was Jean’s migraines. We even had a presidential election in between.”

“It is overwhelming, I know. The old challenges are constantly evolving and new ones are always coming in.”

“Did I say I was overwhelmed?” said Scott, “I’m always up for a good challenge. It keeps the team sharp. Besides, you tend to find many interesting quirks along the way.”

The Professor smiled at his dedication. Scott Summers may be a scientific genius like Hank, but what he lacked in IQ he made up for with focus. He was very astute and able to pick up on abnormalities that even more intuitive minds would miss.

He hadn’t been processing the hard drive data for more than five minutes when something came up on his computer screen. A couple of messages appeared in front of him and while they seemed insignificant, they quickly got his attention.

“Me and my big mouth,” he said as he stopped the transfer momentarily and started typing on the console, “Now this definitely qualifies as an interesting quirk.”

“What is it, Scott?” asked the Professor as he wheeled over from the main console.

“See for yourself,” said the X-leader, backing away so his mentor could take a look, “You know how you had Jean compile a profile on that Exodus guy we faced at Magneto’s trial? Well when I added Stryfe to the file, the archives automatically picked up on some similarities. Whatever unknown factors these two have going on, they’re coming from the same source.”

“My word, you’re right! That same mysterious power I detected in Stryfe…it carries the same signature as the one Jean detected in Exodus.” 

“If Beast was here I’m sure would call this a coincidence of impossible circumstance.”

“As would I, only I would simply call it an important clue,” said Xavier as he looked closer.

The similarity was undeniable. Exodus was another one of those mysterious mutants who often spoke cryptically while wielding power that seemed greater than any ordinary mutation. The mystery surrounding him had been at a dead end since their last encounter with magneto. This was the first major connection and connection was often the first step towards answers.

“This is a very important find,” the Professor went on as he scrutinized certain pieces of data, “These psychic readings aren’t just similar. They’re practically identical.”

“Does that mean Stryfe and Exodus were psychically linked?” said Scott.

“Not quite,” Xavier answered, “On a purely physiological level, these two are no different than any high level alpha mutant. On a purely psychic level, their powers bend if not break the traditional rules of mutation. On their own they could never have held their own against my psychic attack from Cerebrum. But they have more than just their psychic talents to aid them.”

“How much more?”

“That, my boy, is where the mystery deepens. When battled Stryfe, I sensed there was another power supplementing his attacks. It was like he was tapping some outside source to make himself stronger.”

“You think we’re dealing with more magic? Like the power Juggernaut uses?” Scott suggested.

“That may be the case. Or it could be something even more exotic. At this point we can only speculate, but this is the first clue that these mysterious figures are not isolated incidents. That leads me to conclude that there might be others like them out there.”

It was a daunting notion. Exodus and Stryfe had proven to be formidable foes. Exodus held his own against the Phoenix during the Senator Kelly abduction and Stryfe came very close to sparking an all out human/mutant war. If there were more like them out there, they would most certainly pose a grave threat.

“Talk about lousy timing,” Scott sighed, “Deranged mutants with deranged power on top of their mutation is not what we need with Robert Kelly in the White House.”

“I don’t think this is an instance of bad luck, for once. I believe these threats are a either a result or a supplement to growing human/mutant tensions,” said Xavier.

“I would actually prefer it be bad luck. There are way too many ways to exploit the current situation.”

“Which is why we must stay a step ahead of them,” Xavier went on as he wheeled back to his console, “Please forward the data on Exodus trough Cerebrum’s compiler. I’ll do some deeper analysis with some more sensitive tools.”

“We should also consider re-vamping our training so we’re more equipped to handle the next Exodus or Stryfe,” suggested the X-leader.

“Most definitely,” agreed the Professor, “I trust you’ll prepare the team for battles that defy the traditional rules of genetics. We’ll discuss it in greater detail team later tonight.”

“I’ll get right on it after I finish these downloads. But I still can’t help but think we’re already falling behind. I think it was Beast who once said combating a power is easy. Combating the source is a lot harder. Although I’m sure he used much bigger words than that.”

“I don’t hold that against you, my boy,” said Xavier with a lighthearted smile, “But Hank was right. If mutants like Stryfe and Exodus are able to tap this power, then that means others may already be doing so. We also have to be on the lookout for such signs so we can attack the source before it attacks us first.”

Rural Germany – Sefton Farm

There was a thick overcast covering the Sefton farm as morning set in. A light snow had already started to fall and the winds were light, but brisk. Inside the Sefton Farm, Amanda and her mother were preparing for Kurt’s arrival. She tried to at least fake a some birthday excitement, but she did a poor job of it.

“I just got off the phone with Kurt. He’ll be here within the hour,” said Margali Sefton as she walked into the kitchen where Amanda was preparing breakfast.

“Great,” was all Amanda could get out, “Guess we can begin the party once he gets here. I’ll get the beer and tell the band to start warming up.”

“I know you’re not overly thrilled, sweetie. But I was hoping you could at least taper the sarcasm,” her mother coaxed, “Your boyfriend is coming with the full understanding that you’re never cheery on your birthday. He’s going to do anything and everything to make sure you’re happy. Shouldn’t you at least return the favor?”

Amanda groaned to herself. Usually she was so good at resisting her mother’s coaxing, but at times like this it was nearly impossible to get around.

“Are you going to be throwing guilt-tripping me for the rest of the,” she complained.

“If it keeps working, why shouldn’t I?” Margali shrugged.

“There has to be a crime against parentage in there somewhere. Between that and Kurt giving me those puppy-dog eyes, I feel like I’ll be at the mercy of you two all day.”

“We’ll try to go easy on you,” her mother joked.

“Gee thanks,” said Amanda dryly, “That almost makes me hope for another visit from that Deadpool creep.”

Margali’s demeanor quickly shifted. While she was trying to keep her daughter’s spirits high, there were some topics they simply could not joke about.

“Okay, stop right there, Amanda. Let’s not even entertain that possibility. I know you have strong feelings about this, but maintaining this fatalistic outlook isn’t going to change anything!”

“I know. I know,” groaned Amanda, “I don’t mean to overplay the melodrama. I just…”

Amanda’s words trailed off. She couldn’t think of anythinge else to add that wasn’t dire or anxious. She and her mother had endured such melodramas before. Chances were it would get worse before it got better. She could easily rebel like so many 18-year-old girls do, but unlike other girls she had a responsibility. No matter how much she resented her situation, her fate would remain unchanged.

Her mother offered a soothing gesture besides the serious glare. Margali wished she could do more, but there was only so far a mother’s love could go. Fate, it seemed, was all but insurmountable. While she did her best to console her daughter, there was a knock at their front door. Under normal circumstances they wouldn’t be too concerned, but on a day like this there was no room for hospitality.

“Could that be Kurt?” wondered Amanda.

“No…it couldn’t,” said Margali suspiciously as she carefully approached the door.

“Oh no…I know that look,” she dreaded as she backed away towards the living room, “My hatred of birthdays is about to be vindicated, isn’t it?”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, but stay back anyways. I’ll see who it is and deal with them accordingly.”

“I thought you said you put up the best protection spells in your arsenal?”

“I did. But just to be safe…”

Margali never got a chance to finish her warning. Before she could even look through the window, a deafening burst echoed through the small farm house. It was like someone drove a fully loaded dump truck right through the house. Margali barely avoided it as the invisible wave of force plowed through the front door, creating a gaping hole in the wall. The cold air came rushing in. In addition, a strange purple light began radiating from outside. Sensing it was magic in nature, Margali and Amanda rushed to take cover.

“Stay down, Amanda!” her mother urged, as she scrambled to protect her daughter.

“Ugh, please don’t let this be what I think it is!” groaned Amanda, staying behind her mother as she had been taught to do.

Through the ominous purplish glow, a figure emerged and casually entered the house through the gaping hole in the wall.

“Oh it’s worse than that!” said a cold, sinister voice, “Fate hasn’t forgotten this day, Miss Sefton! And neither have I”

That voice was enough to shake even the strongest spirits. It was a voice Margali Sefton recognized all too well, belonging to the last person she wanted to see on a day like this.

“Selene…the Black Queen,” Margali seethed.

“Glad to see you remember me, Margali,” said Selene with a sinister grin.

“Not by choice, I assure you!”

“Don’t tell me your surprised. What kind of woman would I be if I forgot the birthday of my oldest and worst friend’s daughter?”

Selene Gallio someone Margali hoped she would never have to deal with again. It was probably naïve of her to believe she had escaped this woman’s clutches. She was as tenacious as she was devious. She was everything she had been trying to protect Amanda from since the day she was born.

Selene watched with mild amusement as Margali attempted to protect her daughter. It was pretty pathetic. She was already shivering from the cold and clearly disoriented from the earlier blast. It showed she was weak. Undaunted, the Black Queen casually strolled over the ruins of the front wall wearing the same revealing lingerie she wore in the Inner Circle. Her body was surrounded by a halo of mystical energy. Her eyes glowed bright red as she stared down Margali and her daughter.

“You’re supposed to be dead!” spat Amanda, “Kurt told me the Phoenix took you down!”

“She left me sore, but far from defeated,” scoffed Selene, “You of all people should know that I cannot die. Not until my destiny has been fulfilled!”

“Your destiny failed you long ago!” spat Margali, “In fact, it failed us both!”

“Yet you still insist on hiding from it,” she teased, “Did you really think I wouldn’t track you down after all these years?”

“If you’re so powerful, why did it take you so long?! My protection spells are also supposed to keep you away!”

“Oh please,” scoffed Selene, “You’re a good mystic, but a lousy coward. I have much more than my heritage going for me. Lucky for you, I didn’t come to belittle your mistakes. I came to deliver a very special message that Miss Amanda here should have gotten long ago.”

“Forget it, bitch! A message from you is a message I’m sure I don’t want to hear!” said Amanda, her eyes glowing as well.

Amanda and her mother were prepared to defend themselves. The Black Queen just kept on grinning, stopping about halfway between the hole in the wall and where they were standing. Her body was still glowing brightly, looking as though she was about to attack. But she had something else in mind.

“Such poor manners,” said Selene with a mock sigh, “I expected more from you, Margali. Exodus, if you please…”

Selene casually snapped her fingers to signal another imposing figure to step out from behind her. Margali and Amanda both recognized this figure as Exodus, both because the X-men had clashed with him before and because they were familiar with him on a more personal level.

“You…” Margali gasped in horror.

“Surprised? Don’t be,” said Selene, “My magic is strong, but favors can be much stronger. Plus, I enjoy the personal touch, don’t you?”

“Yes, Mistress Selene,” said the stoic voice of Exodus.

Amanda and Margali hesitated in their intent to attack this menacing threat. This allowed Exodus to jumped out in front of Selene and reveal a strange high-tech device he was holding in both arms. It looked like a cross between a bazooka and an assault rifle. It was metallic in texture and had a long barrel with a large opening at the end that glowed with exotic energy. Armed with this weapon, Exodus took aim and fired a single shot. In the blink of an eye, a bright light consumed the room and a lightning-like burst struck Amanda and Margali.

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” they both yelled as a paralyzing sensation came over them.

The two women were hit from every angle by an overwhelming shock. Their bodies arched in pain, their glowing mystical auras sparking erratically as if their power had been short-circuited. The pain was agonizing, but it didn’t last long. They were quickly rendered unconscious by the blow, thus halting any hope of a retaliatory strike by magic or any means for that matter. With an almost casual demeanor, Selene walked up to their limp bodies and stood over them triumphantly.

“My dear Nathan was right. Science can overcome magic with the proper application of force,” she said as she gazed down at the unconscious women, “Bless his heart for putting together something that can bypass those protection spells and take down these annoying little skanks.”

“Doesn’t look like it took much,” said Exodus as he put the weapon away, “Are you sure these two are really that powerful?”

“If you had even a fraction of your memory intact, you would never question their potential. What they lack in presence, they more than make up for in many special ways. In order to get my message across, we’ll have to unlock some of those ways.”

“Should I prepare them for transport back to Sinister’s lab?” asked Exodus.

“That would be convenient, but unfortunately time is of the essence,” said Selene as she knelt down and possessively trailed her hand down Amanda’s face, “Science may have rendered them unconscious, but magic must carry this message. And I’ll need all my mystical skill to if I’m to deliver this very special girl on her birthday present as well as some help from a capable apprentice.”

Selene snapped her fingers again to summon another figure to join her. From the gaping hole in the wall, the capable apprentice approached. For something of this magnitude, the Black Queen only trusted one person to aid her.

“Are we ready, my Mistress?” said Madelyn Pryor, bearing the same exotic garments as the Black Queen.

“We’re ready, my pupil,” said Selene as she possessively clutched Amanda’s chin, “Set everything up outside as I instructed. Our little birthday girl here is coming of age. She deserves the party that fate has decreed!”

Skies over Germany – X-jet

The XR-77 Blackbird descended through the clouds over Germany as they neared the Sefton family farm. For Kurt Wagner, it wasn’t a moment too soon. Time moved painfully slow during the flight. The longer he was away from Amanda on this very important day, the worse it would be for her. Only after he had her in his arms would they have some level of assurance that this day would be just like any other birthday.

While Hank flew the jet, Jean and Rogue sat in the passenger area with Kurt. They tried to keep his spirits up despite not knowing the mysterious details of why Amanda’s birthday was so taboo. He didn’t want to talk about it or even think about it for that matter.

“Hang in there, Kurt. We’re only ten minutes away,” said Jean, who was sitting in the seat in front of him, “I convinced Mr. McCoy to bypass the airport and just drop you right in front of Amanda’s door. That way you can maximize your time with Amanda.”

“Danke, Jean. Do I dare ask how you convinced him to make such a generous accommodation?” said Kurt with a weak smile.

“I’m a psychic. I can be very persuasive,” said Jean coyly, “Plus, Beast owes me for covering his lab work while he made time with Tessa. And seeing as how I still owe you for the good relationship advice you gave me, this seems like a nice way of balancing it out.”

“How strategic of you, Jean,” commented Rogue, “It almost sounds like you’re pickin’ up on Scott’s tactical skills.”

“You don’t get so deeply intimate with someone and not pick up on some of their tendencies,” shrugged Jean, “I’m sure you and Amanda have exchanged your share of quirks, Kurt.”

“Ve probably have, but not as much as I vould like,” he sighed.

His gaze grew distant again as he looked down at Amanda’s present. It seemed to be a running theme since they took off. Kurt would shift between excitement and dread. The excitement over seeing his lover was definitely there, but the dread over her birthday could not be ignored.

“Do you ever zhink I have too much faith at times?” Kurt wondered aloud, “I know it’s always been a defining trait for me. My father always said it vas one of my strengths. But sometimes I vonder if I’m taking it too far.”

“How could you take it too far? Would you rather be paranoid and suspicious all the dang time?” replied Rogue, “Because Ah think folks like Magneto have shown just how badly that works out.”

“I’m not saying I vould rather have doubts. I just can’t help but zhink I don’t make enough of zhe secrets Amanda keeps from me.”

“You’re just realizing this now?” said Rogue dryly.

“Rogue, I know being cynical is one of your greatest strengths, but now is not the time to show it off!” scolded Jean.

“She’s right to point it out, Jean. Even if it isn’t terribly subtle,” said Kurt flatly.

“Sorry, little brother. There are just some things Ah can’t be coy about,” said Rogue.

“I vouldn’t expect you to, mien sister. I certainly haven’t been coy enough vith Amanda and her mother over zhe yeasr. I’ve know for years zhat zhere are zhings zhey cannot tell me. I always had faith zhat zheir reasons vere good and I never let zhem stop me from loving Amanda. But part of loving someone is trusting zhem. I’ve trusted Amanda vith many of my darkest secrets. All zhe bad zhings I did in zhe Azazel…she knows all about it.”

“And your worried that by not returning the favor, it’s going to come back and bite you,” Jean surmised.

“Zhat’s part of it,” replied Kurt, “I keep asking at vhat point does my faith in her turn into gullibility? Am I wrong for zhinking zhis?”

Jean offered a look of sympathy while Rogue had to hold her tongue so she didn’t say something foolish. As someone who had her share of relationship dramas, Jean could relate to what Kurt was going through. Kurt was somewhat at a disadvantage because he had only been with one woman and didn’t know the pitfalls that went into relationships that failed. There was so much about his dedication to Amanda that was admirable, but some of his issues were unique. Without knowing the truth, there were no easy answers.

“Don’t ever equate faith with gullibility, Kurt. You’re better than that,” said Jean with a friendly gesture, “Secrets or no secrets, it says a lot about your love for Amanda that you’re willing to trust her like this. Whatever it is she’s keeping from you, I doubt it would make her love you back any less.”

“So vhy is she hiding from me? Vhy can’t she trust me?” he wondered.

“Maybe it has nothing to do with trust. She probably thinks she’s protecting you with these secrets. It’s what you often do when you love someone. You do whatever it takes to protect them.”

“That’s all nice and sappy, Jean. But Kurt’s an X-man and he’s got Mystique for a mother. Why on Earth would Amanda think he needs protecting?” Rogue pointed out.

“I don’t know. But take it from someone who has a piece of a cosmic being locked in her…there are forces that go beyond our greatest strengths. Amanda and her mother know how strong you are. Yet they still think it’s too much for you or anyone to handle. If you really trust them, then it’s probably justified.”

“I’ll take your vord for it, Jean. But justified or not, vhy vouldn’t she let me help her? Does she zhink I von’t be able to support her?”

“That I don’t know. Guess that means it’s up to you to convince her otherwise,” said Jean.

Kurt finally looked up from Amanda’s gift and saw the comforting smiles of both Jean and his sister. It eventually got him to smile as well. It was just what he needed going into a day like this. It seemed somewhat fitting that Jean would offer such advice after he helped her a while back with Scott. His advice must have been right on some levels since the two of them had taken the next step and moved in together. Perhaps her advice towards Amanda would help him in a similar way. He wanted to show he loved her enough to take on all the burdens that came along with it. Amanda’s least favorite day of the year seemed a fitting time to make his case.

Kurt officially felt ready to face his lover. Between Jean’s advice and the gift he had for her, everything was about to come together. The jet was heading into its final descent. That’s when Hank made an unexpected announcement.

“By stars and garners…Kurt, by any chance does your girlfriend celebrate her birthday with exotic fireworks?” he called out from the cockpit.

“Um…not zhat I’m aware of,” said Kurt wearily, “Why vould you ask such a question, Herr McCoy?”

“Come and see for yourself.”

Kurt immediately undid his seat-belt and rush up to the cockpit. Equally curious, Jean and Rogue got up and joined him. It sounded like one of those questions that only X-men would hear. When they got into the cockpit and looked out the window they saw what Hank had been referring to.

“Whoa…” was all Rogue could say.

“Somehow I doubt those are fireworks,” commented Jean.

“Zhey’re not,” said Kurt, who recognized the display as well as any son of Azazel.

Kurt was immediately overcome with dread. Looking out the window, it didn’t take faith to assume that something very wrong was going on.

Through the snowy skies, a strange beam of greenish purple light shot up into the clouds. It had a soft yet sinister aura. It bore an uncanny resemblance to the kind of light shows they witnessed during the Phoenix affair. The closer they flew to it the more turbulent the air became. Through the turbulence they could see that this column of light was coming from a single area. It didn’t take long for them to figure out where it was centered.

“Amanda…” said Kurt anxiously.

“Is it reasonable to assume that the epicenter of this anomaly is Amanda’s residence?” surmised Hank.

“Ah think that goes without saying,” muttered Rogue.

Setting his gift aside, the German mutant clenched his fists and prepared for what was sure to be an eventful reunion with his girlfriend. Unfortunately, it promised to be eventful for all the wrong reasons.

 “Take us down as close as possible, Herr McCoy!” he commanded as he rushed towards the back of the jet, “Jean, can you fly me down zhe rest of zhe vay?”

“You’ve got the Phoenix on your side, Kurt. Consider it done!” affirmed Jean, showing a flash of Phoenix fire to further reassure him.

“Good, because I have a feeling ve’ll be needing zhe aid of a cosmic power! Amanda has a vay of attracting dark forces! I must get to her before zhy do!”

“And you’ll have an overprotective sister backin’ you up as well!” said Rogue confidently as she stood by her brother, “Whatever secrets Amanda may be keeping, no gal should have to go through this on her birthday!”

Sefton Farm – Backyard

“Amanda! Amanda, wake up! You need to wake up!” cried a desperate, but helpless Margali Sefton through the winter cold.

“Silence! You dare interfere with our mistress?!” said Exodus firmly, who was carefully guarding the worried mother.

“Mind your manners, Exodus,” said Madelyn Pryor in a coy yet sinister tone, “She deserves to witness to this momentous occasion. She is, after all, the mother to the star of the show. It’s her own damn fault for trying to avoid fate.”

Margali Sefton could to nothing but struggle as she watched Selene do to her daughter what she had been trying to protect her from since birth. In a hastily assembled ritual, the Black Queen conducted a series of powerful spells over Amanda’s unconscious body. In the middle of the backyard of their farm, she had a number of torches assembled in a circle around a series of symbols that had been painted into the snow with reddish dye. These symbols were a mix of Latin, Egyptian, and Chinese incantations that any mystic would understand as being advanced and potent. Lying in the center of these symbols was Amanda, who had been stripped to her underwear and laid down flat on her back. It was from her that a powerful column of mystical energy shot up into the skies in accord with Selene’s chanting and gestures. With each mystical feat, this energy around Amanda grew with sinister intensity.

Margali could only watch with dread. Exodus had her tied to a large tree with heavy chains. He also kept the mysterious weapon he used on them earlier ready at all times. There was no way she could escape, magic or no magic. Madelyne made sure of that by keeping her powers held back with some magic of her own. It left her helpless and unable to save her daughter from the clutches of Selene.


Selene’s booming voice added an even greater chill to the frigid air. The snow started to fall harder as the Black Queen continued waving her hands over Amanda’s body, chanting in a series of ancient tongues. Through her chanting, Amanda’s body began twitching and contorting. The light surrounding her body swirled with growing intensity, building towards a something for which only Selene and Margali had the faintest understanding.

“How much longer must this go on?” asked Exodus impatiently.

“As long as it must,” said Madelyn as she watched her mistress intently, “This is a delicate ritual. It cannot be rushed.”

“I don’t mean to be impatient, but I was told this ceremony would bring me closer to the answers I desire. Mistress Selene gave me her word she would deliver where Magneto had failed.”

“And she will,” assured Madelyn, “So long as nothing obstructs the ritual, we’ll all get what we…”

The scantily dressed woman abruptly froze in mid-sentence. Her demeanor quickly shifted, becoming defensive as she sensed an all too familiar presence. 

“Damn it all to hell! Curse my tongue for scolding fate,” she said as she directed her attention upward.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Exodus suspiciously.

“See for yourself,” she said as she pointed upward.

Exodus looked up and saw exactly what Madelyn was referring to. It was the X-men and they were descending towards then along a trail of telekinetic force with Nightcrawler leading the way.

“Selene! Step away from my girlfriend!” ordered Nightcrawler with an intensity he rarely showed.

“Curse the gods! Why must I crush these insects again?!” grunted Selene, who was still hovering over Amanda, “Exodus! Madelyn! Annoy them! I need more time!”

“Continue the ritual, Mistress! We’ll handle them!” said Madelyn, seething with even greater intent once she saw her cousin.

Phoenix, Nightcrawler, and Rogue landed about twenty feet away from where Selene was conducting the ritual. As soon as they touched down, Exodus and Madelyn took a defensive position between them. If they wanted to get to Selene, they would have to go through them. They had no idea what to expect when the arrived, but nobody expected to see Selene.

“Dang, is that the freakin’ Black Queen?! Ah thought we took care of that crazy bitch!” exclaimed Rogue.

“We did. I remember it well. She shouldn’t be alive!”

“Guess we were thorough enough last time,” said Phoenix, now surrounded in a fiery halo, “Now she’s got my cousin of all people helping her!”

“Save your frustration for later! Ve have to get her away from Amanda!” exclaimed Nightcrawler.

With no strategy or plan in mind, Nightcrawler charged towards Selene. But before he could take more than two steps, Madelyn stepped forth and attacked.

“What’s the rush, demon boy?” she proclaimed, “How about a quick visit with some friends of yours?”

Her hand flashed in a reddish purple glow as she gestured towards the oncoming mutant. This caused the ground below Nightcrawler to shift into a strange circle of pulsing light. From this circle, a mystical gateway opened and Madelyne’s demon minions came pouring out with a horrifying screech. The German mutant tried to teleport away from the portal, but a demonic hand shot out and grabbed his ankle.

“Argh! Goblin minions?! How did you…” he grunted as he was pulled to the ground.

“I’m a woman of many talents,” said Madelyn snidely, “Plus, I had a good teacher.”

Seeing this attack was enough to send Phoenix into a rage. It was bad enough Madelyne was working with Sinister, but aiding Selene on the side gave her even more reason to resent her cousin.

“Let him go, Maddie! Or you’ll get a taste of my talents as well!” she yelled, flashing her Phoenix powers briefly.

“You’re welcome to try, cousin. I’ve been looking forward to a rematch!”

Phoenix took Madelyne up on that challenge, taking to the air and charging towards her with all the telekinetic force she could muster. Madelyne made sure her minions would keep Nightcrawler restrained before summoning her psychic and mystical talents to form a barrier to block the incoming attack. When they impacted, it caused a sharp burst of glowing telekinetic energy. While Phoenix was able to drive Madelyn back towards Selene, her cousin held her own and didn’t let her through.

While Phoenix went to work subduing Madelyn, Rogue set her sights on Exodus. The mysterious mutant was still armed with the paralyzing weapon he used on the Seftons earlier and he was already preparing it for another shot.

“You go ahead and catch up with your cousin, sugah! Ah’ll handle this clown!” proclaimed Rogue.

“You would be wise to get out of the way, girl!” threatened Exodus.

Making good on his threat, Exodus fired Sinister’s weapon again and unleashed two powerful bolts towards Rogue. Rogue was able to jump to the side of the blast and her invulnerable form allowed her to absorb any arcs that grazed her. Seeing that her brother was still trapped by Madelyn’s demons, she rushed to take care of Exodus quickly and took to the air with a ramming attack.

“Sorry fella, but Ah don’t think you’re old enough for a toy like that!” she taunted.

Exodus tried to recharge the weapon and aim it at her again, but Rogue flew in and kicked it right out of his hands. This both disarmed him and destroyed the weapon in the process. Now if Exodus wanted Selene to make good on her word, he had to stop this girl with his bear hands.

“Errrrr! I will not be denied again!” he exclaimed as he prepared to attack.

“Ah got your denial right here!” quipped Rogue, hitting Exodus with a solid haymaker to the face before he could attack.

Exodus was sent flying back, but kept his balance so that Selene and the trapped Nightcrawler were still behind him. Rogue came charging in again, looking to knock him out of the way. This time, he was ready for her. Using his telekinesis and durability, he rose up off the ground and charged right back at her. Leading with his shoulder, he managed to deflect Rogue from her incoming attack. This left Rogue dazed momentarily, but she remained airborne and quickly attacked again. Exodus stayed on the defensive, focusing on delaying her instead of defeating her. He only needed to give Selene enough time to complete the ritual.

The Black Queen had to shut out such chaotic interference and continued with the ritual. Nightcrawler kept trying break free from Madelyne’s goblin hoards. Phoenix tried to help him, but remained entangled with Madelyne in a psychic assault. Armed with magic and telekinesis, she was much more formidable compared to their previous encounter. The Phoenix Force was strong, but Madelyne was tapping some potent mystical forces that even the aid of cosmic power could not overcome. With her recent battle against Selene still fresh in her mind, she easily surmised where she learned such power.

“So this is how you upgrade your powers, Maddie? You takelessons from Selene?!” exclaimed Phoenix as she hit Madelyne with a Phoenix fire blast.

“She took me under her wing when I was destined for prison! She taught me the ways of magic and helped me become stronger when everyone else left me behind!” exclaimed Madelyne as she used a mystical barrier to divert Phoenix’s blasts, “She did more for me than you ever bothered!”

“And you’re content with being her puppet?!”

“Not a puppet…an apprentice!” grinned Madelyn.

To prove her point, she showed off more mystical skill by casting a quick spell that sent a purplish bolt right towards Phoenix. When it hit her, it caused her to tumble towards the ground. It was as if gravity got a lot stronger all of the sudden.

“Augh! What the…”

“This dark power…she’s using forces beyond her physical manifestations to attack!”

“That would be the magic!” grunted Phoenix, “As if I didn’t have enough reasons to hate Selene!”

“I take it you’re talking to that fiery friend of yours,” grinned Madelyn as she menacingly approached her cousin, “I must say I was shocked when I heard you were the chosen avatar. Then I was disappointed when I heard you sacrificed much of your power. Now you’re just a pathetic shell of what you once were!”

“There’s a reason why I made such a sacrifice. Allow me to demonstrate with a little assistance from my gracious host!”

The Phoenix Force showed it’s worth, using a part of its cosmic power to break Madelyne’s defensive spell. In a sharp burst, the purplish bolts from earlier were shattered and Phoenix was free to attack. This caught Madelyn off guard and gave Phoenix a chance to lay her out with a telekinetic blast. The Goblin Queen went flying and landed not far form where Nightcrawler was trapped beneath the claws of her minions. Phoenix tried to use this chance to free him, but Madelyne quickly recovered and countered her cousin with another telekinetic barrier.

“You…won’t…get…through!” grunted Madelyne as she kept Phoenix at bay.

“Push harder, Phoenix! I cannot break free from zhese pests!” grunted Nightcrawler as he thrashed under the powerful grip of Madelyn’s minions.

“Can’t you just teleport away?!”

“Not vithout taking zhese creatures vith me! And I’d rather not share zhem vith my gilrfirned on her birthday!”

Phoenix pushed hard while behind, Rogue kept trying to overcome Exodus. Both were stuck in a stalemate, which is just what Exodus wanted. He and Madelyne were running out the proverbial clock, giving Selene the time she needed to complete this ritual. If the glowing column of light around Amanda was any indication, time was almost up.


Selene’s booming voice echoed loudly as her body was surrounded by more purplish energy. The glowing in her eyes intensified and the unconscious Amanda Sefton continued to tensed with growing discomfort. Nightcrawler and the others could only watch in horror, the painful secrets of the Seftons taking form and substance.

While the battle raged, Margali continued to struggle with her restraints. She thought with Exodus and Madelyn distracted, she could break free. But she had no such luck. Madelyne’s spell kept her powers in check and she was still too weak from the blast she took earlier to summon the magic she needed. Her eyes never left her daughter, around whom the energy from Selene’s ritual was starting to coalesce.

“Amanda…I’ve failed you,” she lamented through her struggles.

“Don’t get too ahead of yourself, Miss Sefton. Despair is only the first step of failure, but hardly the last,” came an unexpected voice.

Margali gasped as she looked up to see a new figure hanging from the tree above. It was Beast, who looked right at home skillfully navigating through the snow-covered trees. She watched as he quickly dropped to the ground and went to work on the chains.

“Oh thank, heavens!” said Margali, “Please tell me there are more X-men on their way!”

“I’m afraid you’re looking at the whole crew for this little trip. If we had known it would turn into a mission, we would have come prepared,” answered Beast as he found the lock near the back of the tree.

“You may have to give them a call! If Selene completes that ritual, we’ll all be in grave danger!”

“Selene’s mere presence implied as such. If I free you, do you think you’ll be able to stop it?”

“It may already be too late,” she lamented, “But I’ll try!”

That was good enough for Beast. Working quickly, he used his gorilla strength to warp some of the chains. When he found the main lock, he took out one of his pocket tools he kept on the X-jet and started picking the lock. It was nothing Beast hadn’t handled before. In short order, he was able to unlock it and break the restraints.

As soon as Margali was free she felt Madelyn’s spell lift. She figured she must have tied it to the chain and now that it was broken, she could use her magic to save her daughter. With little time to act, she rushed towards the heart of the chaotic ritual. Along the way, she formed a ball of white energy in her hands and shot it towards Nightcrawler who was still being held down by Madelyn’s minions.

“Kurt! I’ll need your help to save Amanda!” Margali exclaimed as she cast the spell.

As soon as the ball of light hit the goblin hoards, they let out a paralyzing shriek and were cast back into the realm from where they came. Now free, the battered yet determined Nightcrawler shot up and set his sights on his girlfriend.

“Ungh! No need to urge me! I vill protect her!” grunted Nightcrawler through a myriad of wounds left by the goblins.

“Teleport her out of that ritual! It won’t be pleasant, I assure you. But if you take care of my daughter, I’ll can take care of Selene!” seethed Margali.

“Since vhen do I zhink twice about throwing myself into zhe heart of danger?”

It was a race against time. Phoenix had Madelyn pinned against a tree with a telekinetic choke hold and Rogue knocked Exodus clear across the yard with a roundhouse kick. Neither was in a position to assist Selene now. Nightcrawler and Margali had a clear path to the Black Queen. Glowing with dark energy, the Black Queen continued chanting as she placed a hand on Amanda’s forehead. The young woman’s body contorted in pain as more energy swirled around her. She sounded like someone was tearing at the very core of her soul.

“Hnn...make it stop! Make it stop!” Amanda groaned with slurred words.

“The time has come! Destiny shall no longer be denied!”

“Deny this!” bellowed Margali.

The angry mother’s eyes flashed bright red a she cast a quick spell. From her hands a bright beam of red energy shot out, striking the Black Queen right in her side. She didn’t even try to avoid it. The force of the blast was great, knocking her clear across the yard not far from where Rogue knocked Exodus. As soon as she was away from Amanda, Nightcrawler teleported just outside the swirling energy and prepared to retrieve his ailing love.

“Hnn…Kurt?” she gasped weakly.

“It’ll be okay, liebe! I’m here!” he said to her.

Getting to her was a lot harder than he anticipated. As soon as he appeared within the swirling energy, he was overcome with a myriad of forces trying to knock him away. It was like being in the center of a tornado. Fate itself seemed determined to keep him away from the woman he loved. Despite fate’s intent, he pushed through and endured more wounds in the process. He eventually managed to take the dazed Amanda into his arms. As soon as he was secure, he teleported out of the swirling energy and appeared right next to Margali. Within seconds, the dazzling light show from the ritual faded.

Upon seeing that Nightcrawler had Amanda, the others quickly rejoined him. Rogue shoved Exodus off as he tried to restrain her while Phoenix forced Madelyne to the ground with a firm telekinetic burst. Beast caught up with them as well, stepping over the dazed Black Queen in the process. Surprisingly, she and her minions did not pursue them. They remained eerily silent as they crowded around Amanda.

“Is she okay? She looks like she lost a fight with a snow blower!” said Rogue as she landed next to her brother.

“I honestly haven’t a clue, mien sister,” said a very worried Nightcrawler, “Amanda! Amanda, vake up! It’s over now. Selene has been thwarted.”

“Are you sure of that, Kurt? Something seems…off,” questioned Hank as he felt around Amanda’s face.

“What are you talking about? We stopped the ritual, didn’t we?” asked Phoenix.

As they took in the situation, Amanda let out a sudden gasp and through her eyes and mouth a brief burst of white light shot out. When the flash subsided, Amanda returned to full consciousness. At the same time, however, a mysterious arcane symbol appeared on her forehead and abdomen. They considered of a strange pattern of ancient texts that swirled around in a circular shape. The one on her head was especially ominous, bearing a mysterious A-like symbol. They looked like tattoos, only they were giving off an ominous glow.

Amanda gasped for air as she tried to gather herself. Still in just her underwear, she was shivering severely in the winter cold. But that was the last thing on her mind. Looking down at herself and up at Kurt and her mother, she quickly surmised what just happened.

“Mom…is this what I think it is?” she said warily.

“I’m afraid it is, sweetie,” said Margali sadly.

“Vhat is zhis? Vhat zhe hell did Selene just do?!” exclaimed Nightcrawler in growing frustration.

Before Amanda and Margali could answer, Selene stepped in. She was helped up by Exodus and Madelyne, who had each recovered from their own injuries. Even though the Black Queen was dazed from Margali’s blow, she was laughing insidiously.

“You never told him? And here I was thinking you two valued honesty to those you loved!” she taunted, “Did you really think you could keep something like this a secret?”

“Can it, Selene! Ah’d rather get mah facts from Fox News over you!” spat Rogue.

“Oh but this is something you need to hear! Because you certainly aren’t getting the full story from these two!” scoffed Selene, gesturing towards Amanda and Margali.

Nightcrawler looked at his girlfriend and then towards Margali. He didn’t want to believe that Selene knew the secrets that they had been keeping from him. His every inclination was not to believe anything that Selene had to say, but his gut instinct told him she knew the truth. He so desperately wanted answers and he was willing to get them from the devil himself at this point.

“Selene no…” said Amanda, bracing herself for the revelation.

“Take it easy, birthday girl,” said Selene with a taunting grin, “Your boyfriend has a right to know. He and his kind are destined to play a role just as much as you are.”

“Is this another one of your secret cults, Selene? Because I seem to remember that not working out very well for you last time!” said Phoenix with a threatening show of power.

“Oh this goes beyond the Phoenix, Miss Grey. For you see, the Inner Circle was just a mere step toward something so much more. For untold centuries, there has been a bloodline that holds the key to unlocking an ancient and most extraordinary power. What it means for those who wield magic and those who bear mutant powers cannot be understated. It is a power many have gone to great lengths to protect and even greater lengths to exploit.”

“What kind of power are we talking about here?  Phoenix level or worse?”

“It’s not so much quantity as it is quality,” said Selene with an ominous grin, “The nature of the power is mysterious. No one knows the full story, but I know my family has been trying to unlock it for centuries. And one of the major roadblocks for us has been the Seftons!”

Now able to stand on her own, Selene shook off help from Madelyn and Exodus and approached Nightcrawler. The others took a defensive position, but they continued listening intently.

“Just as my talents stem from my ancestors, young Amanda here has potential that stems from hers. For some pathetic reason her family seeks to prevent this power from being unleashed rather than embrace it. Over the ages it has been a cat and mouse game. My family has sought to unlock it while hers seeks to suppress it. It’s been nothing short of infuriating and I’m sure my ancestors felt the same.”

“They should have taken a hint! This power isn’t meant to be released!” spat Margali.

“That’s where you’re wrong!” retorted Selene, “It written in the stone of destiny that this power will be freed!”

“Just as it was your destiny to possess the Phoenix Force?” scoffed Phoenix.

“The path of fate has numerous turns, but it inevitably ends at the same place. That’s where Amanda here comes in. I’m sure Azazel’s little seed here remembers the day he first met you. Don’t you remember? You were running from the Hand and Deadpool!”

“How…how do you know about zhat?!” demanded Nightcrawler.

“Is it really so surprising? I hired them both!” laughed Selene, “They had only escaped the grasp of the Inner Circle! We were in the middle of a ritual that would have ended this farce long ago, but these two just had to make it harder on themselves. They had to run from their destiny, dragging you in along the way. What they fail to understand is that Amanda’s fate has just been sealed!”

“And vhat fate is zhat?” asked Nightcrawler in an almost desperate sounding tone.

Selene grinned sadistically. She could see in the young man’s face. Considering who he is and where he came from, it seemed only fitting and all Amanda and Margali could do was look away while she blurted out the truth.

“That she will be the key that unlocks this power! She will be the one that brings an end to this pathetic world as we know it!” she proclaimed.

“You actually think we’re gonna stand by and let that happen?” scoffed Rogue, “Ah think that thong has cut off your circulation because you ain’t gettin’ this girl back!”

“Not unless you want another round with the Phoenix Force!” threatened Phoenix.

“Fools! I don’t need her back! The ritual has been completed!”

“You’re bluffing!” spat Nightcrawler, holding Amanda closer.

“Am I? Why don’t you ask Margali?” offered Selene, “Assuming she won’t lie again.”

Nightcrawler turned the woman who did so much for him. He didn’t want to see in her eyes the grim confirmation of Selene’s words. It was only under his penetrating gaze that she finally turned to face him. Her distant eyes said it all.

“Margali…please tell me it isn’t true!” he asked in an almost desperate tone.

“It’s true,” she affirmed, looking down at her daughter and ran her hands over the symbols, “These marks on her body are the marks my family has been trying to hide for centuries. Now they’ve been unleashed. It’s the first sign that the Sefton’s ultimate fate is fast approaching.”

“And there’s no going back!” added Selene, “At long last the Sefton family bloodline will finish what my ancestors started! I originally hoped to have the Phoenix Force so I could proceed with the next step. But given my limited power, I’m content to give our birthday girl here just the right nudge. The next steps shall come slowly, but it’ll allow you to be there and watch as the slow, painful process that awaits. Such is the fate of those who deny destiny!”

Nightcrawler stood aghast at what he just heard. Looking down at the love of his life, it was hard to imagine that she would be the key to so much destruction. The shame in her eyes and the distraught in her mother gave little reason to believe that Selene was lying. It left him and the rest of the X-men with a cold, heavy feeling. For Kurt Wagner, however, that feeling quickly turned to rage as he lashed out at the Black Queen.

“You…you insidious bitch!” exclaimed Nightcrawler.

Setting Amanda aside the German mutant charged towards Selene with murderous rage.

“Kurt don’t!” exclaimed Beast.

But it was too late. Nightcrawler was already on his way to end Selene. The Black Queen remained utterly bemused. She kept on smiling as Exodus stepped forth to defend her.

“Know your place, boy!” he said as he used his telekinesis to freeze Nightcralwer where he stood, “Don’t tempt fate more than you already have.”

“Or do,” shrugged Madelyn, “It’ll make this day that much more productive!”

Now paralyzed yet still raging, Nightcrawler tried to fight his way towards Selene. However, Exodus’s grip was too strong. He stood frozen in mid air, unable to concentrate enough to teleport and break free. He was left helpless as Selene approached him with that sadistic look that made his blood boil.

“I would love to keep tormenting you, but I have other tasks ahead of me,” said the Black Queen, “Rest assured, there’s more to come. Only next time I’ll make it a point to give you some special attention. Not just because your lover is the key, but because I owe as such to Azazel for his pestilence.”

“Azazel?!” exclaimed Nightcrawler, “How does my father fit into zhis?!”

“That, my boy, is something I’ll let torment you until the time is right,” she taunted, “In the meantime, I advise you enjoy your time with Miss Sefton. It’ll make the events to come all the more agonizing!”

With those sadistic words, Selene shoved Nightcrawler back towards his friends with a quick mystical blast. Before he could get up, Selene rejoined Exodus and Madelyne. Madelyne was already casting a transport spell. They did what needed to be done and this time the X-men couldn’t stop them. As a mystical hue engulfed Selene and her minions, Phoenix had one last message for her sinister cousin.

‘Running like a coward, Madelyn? Are these the kinds of lessons you learned with Selene?’

‘Oh I’ve learned much more than that, Jean. And as much as I would like to stick around and share those lessons with you, I too have my obligations. But mark my word the next time we meet, I will show no mercy.’

‘Didn’t you say that last time? You may think you have fate on your side, but mark MY word the path you’ve chosen will come back to haunt you.’

‘We’ll see, cousin…we’ll see.’

In a swirl of mystical light Selene, Madelyn, and Exodus disappeared. This left Amanda and Margali Sefton behind, reeling in defeat. Hank and Jean offered the two women their coats so that they could warm up, but the cold was the last thing on their minds. With the mysterious symbols now etched on Amanda’s body, there was no turning back. Margali solemnly embraced her daughter. This was everything Amanda hoped her birthday wouldn’t be. Selene was right in the end. She could never escape her fate.

While the Seftons were reeling, Rogue rushed to her brother’s aid. As soon as Exodus disappeared with Selene and Madelyn, the telekinetic hold on him was released. He fell back to the snowy ground in a maligned dazed.

“Ah know this is probably a dumb question, but are you gonna be okay, Kurt?” asked Rogue.

“I…I don’t know,” said Kurt in a conflicted tone, “I honestly don’t know.”

Leaning on Rogue for support, Kurt turned his attention towards Amanda and Margali. Now wrapped in coats offered by Hank and Jean, they were equally distant. Amanda wouldn’t look her lover in the eye and Margali was quite distraught, clinging to her daughter out of sorrow. Despite their wounded spirits, Kurt approached his lover. He little anger, but plenty of pain. The truth was out and nothing would be the same anymore.

“Amanda…” he said as he now stood before her.

“Kurt I…” she began with a strained voice, struggling to form words.

“Vhy didn’t you tell me? Vhy vould you keep something like zhis from me?!” Kurt asked in a desperate tone.

“How could I not?” Amanda cried, “Every Sefton who ever came before me has endured this burden. Only unlike my ancestors, I wasn’t strong enough to keep it hidden. That day you rescued me…Selene did to me what every Sefton before me had avoided. She awakened this power.”

“And you zhink I vouldn’t love you any less because of zhat?”

“Love isn’t the issue here, Kurt. It never was. The issue is weakness. Just as I was too weak to stop Selene, I was too weak to tell you the truth.”

“So you say you love someone, but not enough to be honest with him?” commented Rogue cynically, “How is that right on any level?”

“Rogue don’t!” said Jean, appalled she would such a comment.

“No…I deserve your scorn. Hell, I deserve far worse,” Amanda went on, “I just…I wanted to cling to any possible hope of escaping this curse. That day you saved me…it was the first time I actually had faith that my fate wasn’t set. You showed me I could have faith, but if I told you the truth…I knew that faith would falter.”

“But I could have helped you, Amanda! I could have done something! Anything!” said Kurt, his voice choked with emotion.

“But that would mean we would never have a moment of peace together. This fate is so powerful that if we spent all our time and energy trying to stop it, we wouldn’t have a chance to just enjoy our love. It would have been a hallow life, lamenting every passing moment. I didn’t want that for us, Kurt. You deserved better.”

Kurt fell silent as he contemplated her reasons, hallow they may be. If he had known the truth,  how many of those warm memories of their love would have been tainted? How much time would they have lost merely lamenting over the future? After escaping his chaotic life with the Azazel, it would have just continued the endless cycle of struggle. For that, it was hard to blame Amanda. At the same time, she still kept secrets from him and the truth hurt.

“I know I was being selfish. But I…I love you so much, Kurt!” said Amanda with tears in her eyes, “I want us to be together. I want us to be happy.”

“I do too, Amanda,” he said, moving closer to her, “And ve still can so long as ve…”

“You don’t understand!” she cried out, “After this…there’s no chance! I’m a monster! More than any mutant, demon, or devil could ever hope to be!”

“Don’t say zhat, liebe,” said Kurt strongly, “You’re still zhe woman I love. Secrets or no secrets, zhat vill not change. Fate or no fate, I’m here for you no matter vhat.”

“I…I know you are. That’s why it hurts so much!”

Amanda finally broke down. Her eyes full of tears, she threw her arms around her lover and embraced him. She left the arms of her mother in the process. As much as Margali wanted to hold her, she gave her daughter a moment with the man she loved. Kurt still embraced her with all his love. There were no tears for him though. There was only a feeling of total helplessness.

While Kurt and Amanda tried to comfort one another, the rest of the X-men were left with a more pragmatic issue. Rogue stayed close to her brother while Jean and Hank addressed an equally distraught Margali Sefton.

“So what happens now, Miss Sefton?” asked Hank, “My scientific expertise is quite limited when it comes to magic.”

“I’m not entirely sure,” she said distantly, “It would be useless to rebuild our house. We moved to this remote location because we were trying to hide from people like Selene. Now hiding seems somewhat redundant.”

“So what are you going to do? Sit by and wait for Selene to get the last laugh?” asked Jean, “Because I don’t think you should give that woman the satisfaction.”

“Believe me, the last thing I want is to give Selene more reasons to gloat,” said Margali bitterly, “But she made her point. It’s only a matter of time now before fate catches up to Amanda. I honestly don’t see how it can be avoided.”

“Then I suppose the only logical option is to find another way,” said Hank, “Assuming logic still applies, that is.”

“Were you not listening?” scoffed Margali, “Selene was right! She’s won! My baby girl is doomed to be a pawn in this sick game of fate!”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” said Jean, approaching the distraught woman with a warm gesture, “Give us a half hour. I’ll call the Professor and he’ll set it up so that you and Amanda can move to Westchester. That way you can be close to the X-men and we can be there to protect you.”

“That’s very generous of you, but changing locations rarely changes fate,” she said bitterly.

“A new home is only part of the offer. If you’re living near the X-men, we can work together to find a solution for this curse of yours.”

“How?” she said skeptically, “How can you X-men hope to succeed where all my ancestors have failed? This isn’t the mutant agenda we’re dealing with. This is fate!”

“You know, I once heard those exact same words from Selene. And you know what happened? I proved her wrong and kicked her thong-wearing ass in the process,” said Jean with a confident smile.

“It’s true. We were both able to avoid a far darker fate and become stronger in the process. You can too if you’re willing to endure the necessary hardships.”

Coming from a power as great as the Phoenix Force, her words carried a lot of weight for Margali. Kurt told her all about the X-men’s encounter with the Phoenix. As unbelievable as it sounded, she didn’t doubt that a cosmic force could change its fate. If such great forces could break the cycles of fate, then why not Amanda?

“It may seem like all is lost. And even if it is, that doesn’t mean you should stop fighting it,” Jean went on, “We have many tools at our disposal. We can help you fight this fate. Just give us a chance. But more importantly, give your daughter a chance.”

“And what if we can’t?” Margali warned, “This could end up getting very dangerous. I don’t wish to put that sort of burden on Kurt or the X-men.”

“The X-men are used to heavy burdens. One more will not break us,” said Hank, offering a gesture of his own, “We’ve prevented the end of the world on more than one occasion. We’ve had our share of encounters with magical forces as well. If ever you wanted help doing the impossible, the X-men are the best allies you could have.”

They almost made it sound casual. Margali could only wish she had that kind of confidence. This was a force unlike any other and stopping it was improbable at best. But looking back towards Amanda, the choice was all too clear. Seeing her languish in the arms of her lover, any parent would detest the idea of letting a child suffer such a fate. Even if a lifetime of bearing this burden told her it was too late, she had to do what was best for her daughter.

She could only manage a weak smile for Hank and Jean. In her current state it was more than enough to affirm her decision. She was going to place her trust with the X-men. This was the sort of trust the X-men didn’t take lightly. It remained to be seen whether such trust was ill-placed. Cosmic forces were overwhelming enough. Fate was something entirely different.

Over with Kurt and Amanda, the future was the last thing on their minds. Amanda remained secure in Kurt’s arms as the snow fell around them, clinging to his fuzzy warmth. Rogue was with them, offering support to her brother.

“I’m so sorry, Kurt…for everything,” said Amanda through her tears.

“Don’t be sorry, liebe,” he said softly, “Vhat’s done is done.”

“I should have told you. I was wrong to…”

“Nein, nothing you did vas wrong. It vasn’t right either. You vere just protecting our happiness. I cannot fault you for zhat.”

“Would you have done the same? Would you have been willing to keep the truth from someone you love?”

Kurt paused for a moment, conflicted on how to answer such a question. Luckily, he didn’t have to.

“Do yourself a favor, sugah. Don’t obsess over the what ifs. They’ll only give you more reasons to cry,” she told her, “You either move forward or let the world crush you. Seeing as how you’re dating mah brother you ain’t got much of a choice.”

“No…I suppose I don’t,” said Amanda, offering a weak smile towards Rogue.

“He’s gonna be strong for you and so am Ah. Question is…are you gonna be strong for him?”

Taking a deep breath, Amanda paused for a moment to wipe away her tears. Even with the darkness inside her, she knew she had a responsibility to Kurt and the X-men who did so much to help her. Curse or no curse, Kurt Wagner was worth it.

“Yes…I will,” she said, swallowing her sorrows.

“Promise?” said Rogue, always protective of her brother.

“I know better than to break a promise I make in front of my boyfriend’s sister. You have my word,” she said strongly, earning her a grin from Rogue.

“I know you vill, liebe. I still have faith in us,” said Kurt with a light smile.

“Even so, I want to do more than just hope. I want to make this right, Kurt,” said Amanda as she affectionately caressed her lover’s fuzzy face, “It’s not going to be easy. But as someone very special once told me, sometimes our greatest strength is our faith.”

Kurt couldn’t help but grin. Those words were the same words he once told her. There was a time when she didn’t believe in the power of faith. She had to fall in love with him to find out just how powerful it could be. On top of the grim fate Selene laid out for her, Amanda was able to push it all aside and pull Kurt into a tender kiss. Just being with him like this and having his strength to lean on made it the best birthday gift she could have hoped for.

Next Issue: Renegade

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