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Volume 7 -- Issue 160 -- Unholy Man Part 2

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Unholy Man Part 2
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Professor Charles Xavier sees conflict brewing between humans and mutants. In an effort to further peace and understanding, he formed the X-men to aid in this struggle. When that was no longer enough, he struck a deal with the governments of the world to create the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. This arrangement ensures that the X-men work with the authorities and not against them. For some conflicts, such resources are necessary.

Before the initiative, Reverend William Stryker wielded great influence. In wake of numerous failed endeavors, he left President Kelly’s inner circle to expand his band of anti-mutant crusaders, the Purifiers. He and his loyal followers had been laying low since the Mutant Monitoring Initiative was implemented.

Then, in a brazen act, Reverend Stryker shot and severely wounded Father Hansen of the Church of Humanity. Along with this shot came a message to the X-men. He seeks a direct confrontation at his church. However, when the X-men arrive they are greeted with a ghastly sight.

Reverend Stryker’s Purifiers have been slaughtered. Nearly all his followers and his vast resources have been destroyed. Reverend Stryker believes that it was the X-men who were behind this attack. Now, with Father Hansen’s life hanging in the balance, Stryker seeks an endgame to his holy crusade. What neither he nor the X-men know is that the circumstances of this attack are more mysterious than they can imagine.

Purity Church – Three Days Ago

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” said Reverend William Stryker in a prayer, “Bless upon us the purity of God’s children and save us from the evil that taints it.”

“Amen!” proclaimed his loyal followers.

It was the end to another stirring sermon. These were trying times for Reverend Stryker and his flock, but their faith had never been stronger. The Purifiers had gone underground. Their efforts had been undermined by the likes of Charles Xavier, General Grimshaw, and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. The leaders of the world had grown cowardly, believing they could negotiate with evil. They were wrong and the Purifiers were going to prove it.

With no government support, Reverend Stryker went back to the basics. He consolidated his resources around the mega-church where he began his movement. His loyal Purifiers contributed what they could, turning the church into a base of sorts. Within their sanctuary, they hoarded weapons and supplies. They also made sure that psychics like Charles Xavier could not peer into their minds by implementing psionic shielding. Now, they could plan their next crusade against a world that was quickly devolving into sin.

“We’re with you, Reverend Stryker! We’ll send those mutant devils to the gates of Hell!” yelled one of his more enthusiastic followers.

Reverend Stryker smiled at such religious fervor. With the sermon over, his Purifiers conversed amongst themselves. Some had brought their families and children to hear him preach. His mega-church wasn’t nearly as packed as it had been in the past, but it still had a sizable contingent of followers. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near the number he needed to make a difference in this ongoing holy war.

‘If only the faith of this country were that strong. When did it become permissible for fallible men to cooperate with sin? It can only end in Armageddon. President Kelly has fallen off the holy path. If God is testing our faith, then his children are failing miserably. I came close to failing as well. I refuse to let that happen to the rest of this world. My Purifiers will set humanity back on a holy path!’

The Reverend bowed his head and prayed before the large crucifix behind his podium. There was much work to do. Connections had to be made. Plans needed to be formulated. It all came back to faith. So long as Stryker and his followers maintained their unbreakable spirits, nothing would thwart them.

While Reverend Stryker prayed, something strange happened in the area between him and the cross. In a brief flash, an imposing figure appeared out of thin air. The figure was dressed in a black body suit. He stood a little over six-feet tall and his face was completely covered by a special mask with reddish slits for eyes. Startled, Reverend Stryker fell back and recognized that this was no holy apparition.

“What in god’s name?” exclaimed the Reverend.

“Commence test run,” said the figure in flat one.

In a gesture that caught the attention of the Purifiers still lingering in the pews, the dark figure struck Reverend Stryker across the face with a devastating right cross. It struck so hard that it sent the reverend flying back against the wall. Then with his Purifiers looking on in confusion, the figure approached the podium and made an announcement.

“Attention Purifiers,” he said stoically, “You have been deemed a threat. If you cease this threat, your lives will be spared. If you do not, then you will be contained. War or peace. Decide now.”

The baffled Purifiers looked at this figure as if he were an agent of Satan himself. Some of the Purifiers decided to guard the families that were still within the church. Most of the zealous men stormed towards the central podium, outraged that anyone would ask them to cease their crusade. Along the way they picked up their weapons, prepared to oppose any evil that threatened their sanctuary.

“The devil has sent a minion to challenge us!” yelled one of the Purifiers.

“Do you take us for reprobate fools? You shall never contain our spirits!” yelled another.

“Tell your dark master that our faith will not be compromised! We will fight all those that champion the unpure!” said a Purifier that had just retrieved his gun.

Before anyone could even reach the dark figure, a few Purifiers started shooting with their specially made machine guns. The figure standing at the podium didn’t flinch in the slightest. The first few bullets passed right by him. A few struck him right in the chest and lower neck. It left a bloody wound, but the figure didn’t seem to feel it. He just kept staring out at the now outraged crowd, ambivalent to the choices of these men.

“The decision is made,” said the man, “Beginning containment.”

As the first Purifier reached the stage, the dark figure stepped out to confront them. The Purifier was armed with a 45-caliber pistol. He aimed it right at the figure’s head. Just as he was about to pull the trigger, the figure clenched his fists. As he did this, a set of metal claws popped out from his knuckles. With these claws, he skillfully slashed at the approaching man. Both the gun and a good chunk of the Purifier’s hand were shredded.

“Ahhhhhhhhh!” the Purifier cried out as he clutched his bloodied arm.

“Test units, begin the procedure,” the dark figure announced.

While many Purifiers were still focused on the central area, more dark figures appeared in similar flashes all along the perimeter of the church. They all looked identical to the one at the podium. As soon as they appeared, they blocked off all the exits and drew their own set of claws. Without saying another word, they began a bloody attack that quickly consumed the church.

“Oh Lord! Please get us out of here!” cried one of the mothers who was trying to protect her three children.

“Stay close to us,” urged one of the Purifiers as he and a few others prepared to defend the families, “We will protect you while our brothers-AHHHHHHHHH!”

Their protection was short lived. Every Purifier that surrounded the families was slaughtered. They were ruthless, efficient, and terrifying. Their limbs were severed, their throats were slit, and their insides were ripped out. Their pained cries mixed with the terrified screams of the woman and children. Yet for some reason, these unarmed families were spared. Even after all the Purifiers were slain, the dark figures just looked over them briefly and moved on.

Purity Church quickly became a slaughterhouse. Every Purifier on hand worked frantically to retrieve a weapon and fight back. However, their bullets were ineffective. Every shot wounded the figures for a moment, but those wounds healed. Some didn’t even slow down. They remained coordinated, efficient, and lethal.

The Purifiers didn’t stand a chance. Reverend Stryker could only watch from his semi-conscious state as his loyal followers were slain in a scene that could have been its own circle of Hell.

“Oh heavenly father,” said the reverend weakly, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Purity Church – Present Time

“My god…” gasped Professor Charles Xavier as he pieced together the gruesome details from Reverend Stryker’s thoughts.

“No, Charles Xavier…this wasn’t your god,” said Stryker coldly, “Only evil could produce such carnage. Only evil tainted by your kind’s cursed blood.”

It had been a long time since Xavier had been in the middle of such a bloodied battlefield. During his travels as a young adult, he had seen many horrific scenes. Even those paled in comparison to what he saw before him. If Stryker’s twisted thoughts were accurate, then the source of such carnage utilized some ominously familiar methods.

For Phoenix, Storm, and Captain Freeman it left them feeling sick. As they followed Professor Xavier to the central area, they passed by rows upon rows of bodies. On each body, they could make out the distinct claw marks that were so familiar to them. It raised many disturbing questions that were sure to have equally disturbing answers.

“There’s no way Wolverine or X-Force did this. They couldn’t!” said Storm as she looked over the bodies.

“Maybe they wouldn’t, but I can see Weapon X doing this sort of thing every other week,” said Phoenix angrily.

“I agree. This kind of brutality is practically their business card,” said Captain Freeman as he investigated some of the bodies.

“But I thought Weapon X was finished after the death of John Wraith,” said Storm.

“It wouldn’t be the first time Weapon X defied its own demise,” said Professor Xavier as he remained focus on Reverend Stryker, “This wasn’t just a slaughter. It was a statement. Someone wanted to demonstrate their lethal capabilities.”

“And they did,” said Reverend Stryker, now standing shirtless before a pile of dead bodies, “They slaughtered my flock. To ensure their evil spreads, they spared the women and children. Their traumatized stories will fill all those who receive God’s truth with terror. It is a direct affront to God. As such, I cannot allow it to stand!”

“If you think that’s an excuse for shooting Father Hansen, then you’re worshipping the wrong God, reverend,” said Captain Freeman as he caught up with Professor Xavier.

“Don’t you dare claim to know God better than I do! I’ve endured the scars of sin. I’ve dedicated my life to repenting…not just for myself, but for all humanity. Father Hansen was just one of many false prophets that you X-men have allowed to propagate. He will burn, as well the rest of your corrupt brethren.”

“Enough with the preaching. We get it. You hate mutants,” said Phoenix, “What is shooting an innocent man and luring us here supposed to accomplish anyways?”

“I don’t think you understand what took place here,” said Storm, “There’s no need to make this tragedy any worse.”

“Shut up! I understand perfectly,” said Reverend Stryker sternly, “God tested Job with many hardships on his path to salvation. I’m nowhere near as holy as Job, but if God sees fit to test me then I shall pass with flying colors…even if it requires sacrifice!”

This man was both distraught and determined, almost to the point of madness. There was no making sense of what happened to his Purifiers. Reverend Stryker had drawn his own conclusion.

He wasn’t going to accept any aid from the X-men. It didn’t matter if attack was carried out by Weapon X or Satan himself. He was prepared to retaliate. As the emboldened holy man stood before the X-men, he took out a small device from his pocket and held it up.

“Ah hell, is that what I think it is?” groaned Phoenix.

“He’s rigged this place to blow!” exclaimed Captain Freeman, “Hurry up and…”

“Too late, X-men,” seethed Reverend Stryker, “May god have mercy on our souls!”

With this holy proclamation, Reverend Stryker pressed one of two large buttons on the device. A deafening explosion followed, shaking the mega church to its core. In an instant, chaos turned to darkness as the roof of the building came crashing down.

Wright Patterson Air Force Base – Holding Cell

Emma Frost was used to Sebastian Shaw’s devious lies. For years, she lived a life that embraced those lies. It got to the point where she expected his every word to be laced with deceit. On the rare occasions he told the truth, it was often more jarring than any lie.

The truth about Shaw’s operations with MGH and the betrayal that landed him in a prison cell was too fantastic to be a lie. Emma found herself pacing restlessly, trying to process everything she had uncovered. Shaw, despite being at her mercy within this cell, maintained his arrogant smugness.

“What’s the matter, my queen? Was everything I told you about my former business associate too disturbing?” he asked wryly.

“There’s very little you can say that disturbs me at this point. Although this may be the exception proving the rule,” said Emma, rubbing her temples in frustration, “So let me see if I understand this…some mysterious man pitched you the concept of MGH. Yet somehow, you don’t know the name of the man or simply won’t tell me. Is that correct so far?”

“More or less,” said Shaw wryly.

“Well which is it?” asked Emma sternly, “So help me if you’re keeping something from me…”

“Spare me the petty threats. The man’s name isn’t important. Those are his words, not mine,” he told her.

“So you’re not above a little plagiarism. Big deal,” she scoffed, “But somehow this man was able to provide you with everything you needed to develop MGH. Did you ever ask why the damn fool wouldn’t do it himself?”

“Because I had the kind of resources that would get the job done faster,” Shaw replied, “I get the sense he wanted to develop it on his own, but for some reason he was in a hurry. I was more than happy to oblige. It was a perfect opportunity to re-establish my power base after my idiot son worked so hard to undermine it.”

It sounded like a weak excuse, some shady business partner trusting Sebastian Shaw to help them. However, it made as much sense as everything else Shaw told her. That wasn’t saying much so Emma tried to focus on the larger details. He explained to her without the threat of psychic probing that he worked with a mystery partner in the development of MGH. That partner might be the key to uncovering the truth.

“Yes, about that opportunity…you say it was all about money and control. That first wave of MGH that you sold to mutants like Beak was just the test phase. The version you forcibly injected into Jubilee was the finished product.”

“Every new drug has to go through a testing phase,” shrugged Shaw, “I just didn’t have the patience to work with the FDA.”

“Very few do, but this isn’t a new boner pill we’re dealing with. How does feeding this drug to mutants give you the obscene power and wealth that you so hungrily crave?”

“You’re a businesswoman, Emma. You should understand the finer process of marketing,” he retorted, “Not every venture needs to sell something tangible. Sometimes selling an idea or a concept can be just as lucrative. The way I saw it, the Mutant Monitoring Initiative was selling a sense of control to the masses. Meanwhile, mutants everywhere demanded an escape from that control. And economics dictate, whenever there is demand for something, there will be someone seeking to supply it.”

“Except you weren’t supplying what you promised,” said Emma sternly, “You were using mutants just as you were using the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. If every mutant that used your drug was part of a collective that you controlled, then you would have the ultimate leverage over every government that feared mutants.”

“I like to think of it as cornering the market,” he said with a grin, “The humans of this world wanted peace of mind. I could do that with MGH. I could be in a position to sell them what they wanted.”

“And what would your partner get out of it?” she asked.

“That’s where even my recollection gets a little hazy. I was more interested in power. He was more interested in money. As the sole developer and distributer of MGH, he would have been in a position to make an obscene amount of money.”

“With mutants?” questioned Emma.

“They were a means to an end, nothing more. As you know, it’s illegal for mutants to be part of any standing army. Yet certain private mercenary groups employ mutants for their tactical skills. It’s a risky venture with thin margins because, in addition to being small in number, not all mutants are trained for combat. Even if they are, they’re difficult to control.”

“That hasn’t stopped some from trying.”

“Very true,” affirmed Shaw, “For you see, one private mercenary group was brazen enough think big. He could have controlled any mutant and created a fighting force that would command the highest prices. I never thought he would be foolish enough to throw that opportunity away.”

That was where they both seemed to hit a dead end. The premise itself was sound, even if it was deceitful in a Sebastian Shaw sort of way. If that mysterious partner ran a mercenary group that employed mutants, then they had a lot to gain by developing MGH.

They could not only control their mutant soldiers, but they could use the power to expand their business. It would have been profitable on an astonishing level. The fact that Shaw’s mystery partner threw it away only heightened the intrigue.

“I suppose this is one instance where greed wasn’t enough,” sighed Sebastian Shaw as he sat down on his bed, “You call me a madman, but at least my endeavors have a basis in sound business practice.”

“You always wore your greed like a badge of honor, Sebastian,” muttered Emma, “Which is why I’m convinced you won’t give me a name.”

“I couldn’t if I wanted to. This is once instance where you’ll have to fill in the blanks,” he said, “It may not be as daunting as it sounds. After all, how many private mercenary groups that utilize mutants are there in this world?”

“The list is short. Although one in particular does come to mind,” she said distantly.

“Oh? Care to share?” asked Shaw coyly, “I’d like to know myself so I can deliver a cruel and effective punishment when I get out.”

“That’s assuming you will,” quipped Emma.

“Oh come now, Emma. You know me better than that. It’s only a matter of time before I wear the crown of the Black King once more. If you assume I won’t find a way, then you’re as dumb as those fake breasts I paid for.”

Emma Frost scolded the arrogant man with every ounce of her hatred. His coarse personality was insufferable enough. What burned her even more was that he was probably right about being the Black King again. No prison could hold a man like Sebastian Shaw. It was only a matter of time before he found a way.

She would have loved nothing more than to stay and make Sebastian Shaw’s stay here as unpleasant as possible. Unfortunately, a knock on the outside of the cell signaled that her time here was up.

“Times up, Miss. I think Mr. Shaw has had enough human interaction for one day,” said the guard.

“I agree,” said Emma, using her telepathy to shroud her appearance, “Thank you for your time. I have everything I need.”

Still scolding Shaw every step of the way, Emma Frost turned around and left the cell. The guards escorted her out of the holding area, never once questioning if they had been infiltrated. Her psychic deception, as well as Cypher’s creative hacking, had done wonders. With it, she obtained the information that X-Force needed. It seemed as though Shaw’s plot was more complicated than they imagined.

As soon as Emma was clear of the secure areas, she took out a special blue-tooth headset and placed it in her ear. With it, she sent an encrypted signal back to X-Force. If they were to act on this information, they had to do it quickly.

“James, it’s me. Tell Cypher to unhack the systems and cover his tracks. And while you’re at it, reopen those old files on White Cell. I think your brother was onto more than we suspected.”

Purity Church

“GET DOWN, GUYS! I CAN HANDLE THIS!” exclaimed Phoenix.

“For our sakes, you damn well better,” groaned Captain Freeman, whose ears were still ringing from the blast.

The X-men found themselves in the epicenter of a chaotic scene. Reverend William Stryker had crossed one too many lines. He was willing blow up his own church and himself in order to attack his enemies. As the walls and foundation of his church began to crumble, Phoenix instinctively put up a telekinetic bubble to protect them. Professor Xavier, Storm, and Captain Freeman took cover as they scrambled to collect themselves.

It all happened within a matter of seconds. The deafening sound of the blast and the flash of each burst left them momentarily stunned. That gave Reverend Stryker the window he needed.

With reckless disregard for his own well-being and that of his church, he jumpt down from the altar and lunged towards the X-men. In the process, he took out a combat knife that was shaped like a cross. With it, he set his sights on Charles Xavier. In that brief moment, with the world’s most powerful psychic was stunned, he got close enough to drive the knife right into Xavier’s side.

“Return to Hell, agent of the devil!” exclaimed the misguided holy man.

“ARGH!” exclaimed Xavier as he felt a stabbing pain.

“Charles!” exclaimed Storm.

Stryker pulled the knife out and prepared to stab Xavier again, this time aiming for his neck. Before he could carry out his attack, Captain Freeman grabbed his arm from behind and pulled him away. That allowed Storm to tend to the Professor’s wound. It didn’t seem serious, but it put him in a lot of pain.

“That’s enough of that, reverend!” said the Green Beret, “God won’t protect you from attempted murder charges. Let alone the whole thoust shalt not kill bit!”

“God is on my side! You and your false prophet will face His wrath!” seethed Stryker.

“Need I remind you that I could easily snap your arm off?” said the mutant soldier, “I doubt the authorities will mind.”

Reverend Stryker continued struggling despite having little chance of breaking Captain Freeman’s grip. With the worst of the blast behind him, he was content to subdue this man and arrest him. He had already adapted his body to absorb any knife attack. He could easily take this man down.

Just as the Green Beret was about to end the battle, a large chunk of the ceiling broke off that had been lingering after the blast. In a stroke of uncanny luck, it fell right on top of Captain Freeman. Phoenix’s telekinetic bubble wasn’t big enough to deflect it. So as soon as it struck the mutant soldier, he was buried under a pile of rubble while Reverend Stryker escaped the debris.

“UNGH!” grunted Captain Freeman.

“I believe God has made his point,” said Reverend Stryker as he pulled away from Captain Freeman’s grasp.

With the Green Beret stuck, the reverend turned his attention back towards Professor Xavier. He was still conscious and clutching his side. Blood gushed from the wound. It looked like Stryker had hit some organs. Storm was helping to apply pressure while sitting him down so the wound wouldn’t tear further.

“Stay with me, Charles. Don’t go into shock,” Storm urged him.

“Feeling…lightheaded,” said Xavier in a woozy tone.

“Keep your hand over the wound. Try and slow the bleeding,” she told him, adding extra pressure.

With Stryker now approaching, Storm turned to Phoenix. There was still a large pile of debris on top of her telekinetic bubble. She tried to shove it off, but it proved to be a major strain on her mind.

“Phoenix, I could use your assistance!” Storm exclaimed.

“I’ll be right there,” grunted Phoenix as she struggled harder, “Just give me a minute to push the debris…”

“Charles doesn’t have a minute!” she said.

“You have even less than that, I’m afraid,” said Reverend Stryker, now covered in dust and light shrapnel wounds, “You think that was the only blast? That was just the roof. There’s a sizable basement beneath our feet. That basement is full of incendiary explosives…the kind that will incinerate our flesh in a fraction of a second.”

“You…you wouldn’t,” gasped Storm.

“Reverend please…you don’t need to do this,” said the wounded Xavier, “What kind of god would condone such madness?”

“The kind that won’t tolerate his children being tainted! But if it makes you feel better, I’ll ask him again on your behalf when I meet Him!”

Reverend Stryker proved he was serious as he took out the same remote device he had used earlier. From underneath he nearby pile of rubble, a conscious Captain Freeman tried to reach out and grab his foot. Stryker stepped out of the way, approaching Professor Xavier and Storm.

Phoenix still hadn’t shoved off the debris from under her telekinetic bubble. With Xavier and Storm still inside, she couldn’t risk letting her guard down. She could only watch helplessly as the approaching madman drew near.

“With this act, we walk the valley of the shadow of death on two different paths,” said Reverend Stryker, “One path leads to Heaven. That’s where I’ll be going. The other leads to a fiery pit from where all the corruption of the world has spawned. That’s where you and everyone like you are destined to end up.”

“Don’t do it, Stryker,” said Storm, her eyes glowing white as she prepared to strike back.

“Go ahead,” said the reverend, “Strike me down if you dare. You’ll only make me a martyr with the rest of my brothers.”

“Drop the device or face several bolts of lightning!” she threatened.

“If you haven’t done it by now, then that means you’re as cowardly as your dark master. Even if you could, no amount of lightning shall keep me from pressing this button!”

Storm’s reluctance to strike this man down worked to his advantage. Holding up the device, he prepared to press the button that would end them all. Then seemingly out of nowhere, a feral roar echoed through the mangled structure.


As soon as Stryker looked up, he saw an enraged Teon jump from atop a pile of debris. Running on pure instinct, the imposing young mutant tackled Reverend Stryker to the ground before he could push the button. As he fell flat on his back, he dropped the device.

“Hnnn…NOOOO!” exclaimed the Reverend.

“Fight! Fight!” roared Teon as he slammed Stryker’s head into the ground, rendering him dazed.

“At a boy, Teon! When all this is over, you can have all the doggy treats you want!” grinned Captain Freeman from under the rubble.

With Stryker now neutralized, Captain Freeman re-adapted his body so that he had the strength to pull out from the rubble. As soon as he was free, he grabbed the device and crushed it in his hand. This ensured that Stryker wouldn’t be meeting his god today.

“You…demonic…fools,” groaned Stryker as he saw this.

“Quiet!” barked Teon as he struck the Reverend again to fully knock him out.

Once Stryker was silent, Phoenix finally managed to shove back the debris that was on top of her telekinetic bubble. Once she, Storm, and Professor Xavier were clear, she rested her mind. Letting out a tired groan, she fell to her knees. Once again, her limited power put her friends in jeopardy.

“It happened again,” she mused, “I wasn’t strong enough. I should’ve…”

“Save the apologies for later, Phoenix. Come over here and help me with our misguided holy man,” ordered Captain Freeman.

Phoenix swallowed her self-loathing and caught up with the mutant soldier. Teon still had him pinned and was growling angrily at the unconscious reverend. Captain Freeman had to pull wave Teon down so that he didn’t rough Stryker up more than they needed to.

“That’s enough, Teon. No more fight,” coaxed Captain Freeman.

“Safe?” said the primal mutant as the mutant soldier pulled him off.

“Yes Teon. We’re safe now,” said Phoenix as she hovered over Stryker, using her telepathy to keep him unconscious, “You did good. You saved us all. We owe you.”

Phoenix smiled towards Teon, which helped him calm down. He stopped growling and smiled back. Even with his primal mind, he understood what he accomplished.

“Mate?” said Teon as he smiled back at Phoenix.

“Down boy,” she said in a humored tone, “We don’t owe you that much.”

“Can’t blame the kid for trying,” shrugged Captain Freeman.

With Stryker now secure and the danger behind them, Phoenix and Captain Freeman turned their attention towards the wounded Charles Xavier. Storm still had him sitting in an upright position. He was still clutching his side, but the bleeding had slowed.

He remained conscious, blocking out the pain and focusing on Reverend Stryker. It had been a new extreme even for him. In his desperation, he was willing to sacrifice his life and destroy his own church. It spoke volumes to the carnage that had transpired here.

“How are you doing over there, Xavier? Still with us?” asked Captain Freeman.

“I’ll be fine. I’ve survived worse,” said Professor Xavier.

“Well don’t try to stand up just yet. Psylocke just informed me that the EMTs are on their way,” said Phoenix, “They’ll patch you up and ensure the good reverend is fit to share a cell with Sebastian Shaw.”

“I don’t think his punishment should be quite that egregious, Phoenix,” said Xavier.

“After he stabbed you and tried to blow up a building with us inside it? Sometimes you’re too forgiving, Charles,” said Storm, relieved to see him in good spirits.

“It’s not his actions that concern me as much as what caused them. Look around at what he’s lost,” said Xavier, gesturing towards the bodies not covered by debris, “I can’t say I blame him for going over the edge. He was a target. He only sought to retaliate, misguided he may have been.”

His church now ruined. With plenty of bodies still rotting in the rubble, it was easy to feel pity for Reverend Stryker. He might have been an anti-mutant zealot, but he was still a victim here. Someone else had made a move against him that left his Purifiers and his church decimated. It posed some disturbing questions that the X-men would have to answer.

“Blame or not, we need to take this guy in. He’ll tell us everything he knows about what happened here,” said Captain Freeman as he and Phoenix restrained the reverend.

“He’ll probably need a hell of a therapist as well and not just for his religiously-motivated bigotry,” commented Phoenix.

“The President will probably want to keep this quiet,” added the Green Beret, “With Stryker being a former advisor, it wouldn’t look good if word got out that he snapped.”

“It’s probably for the best,” said Storm, “I don’t think the public needs to know about the attack that killed the Purifiers just yet. At least not until we know what we’re dealing with.”

“I already have a faint idea of what’s involved,” said Xavier, “We’ll need to start investigating immediately. If we don’t uncover who was behind this and why, then Reverend Stryker’s Purifiers won’t be the only victims.”

New York Memorial Hospital – Later

‘Oh yay as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I shall fear no evil. I shall embrace the moment in which I join the Lord. I need only know…is He ready for me? Is this my time? Have I done enough?’

Father Ryan Hansen saw a blurred vision of light before him. He couldn’t tell if it was the Lord guiding him through the gates of Heaven or if he was somewhere else. As he gazed up at the light, he heard some familiar voices.

“He’s waking up!” said an exuberant Idie Okankwo.

“Praise the Lord! It’s a miracle among miracles,” said an equally enthused Isaac.

As Father Hansen’s vision cleared, he realized where he was. He was lying in a hospital bed, covered in IVs and surrounded by life-support equipment. As he saw Isaac and Idie hovering over him, he recalled what happened. He had been shot by Reverend William Stryker. He had come close to dying. It seemed as though God had other plans.

“It would seem the Lord isn’t ready for me, after all,” he said with a weak smile.

“Is that what he told you or are you just happy to see us?” said Idie with tears in her eyes.

“I suppose both would apply,” said the priest in a weak tone.

Father Hansen tried to sit up, but was kept on his back by the lingering pain of the gunshot wound. Isaac coaxed him into staying down. He had a long road to recovery ahead of him.

“Please Father, don’t sit up,” said Isaac, “That heretic, William Stryker, did quite a bit of damage. You had a collapse lung, a damaged kidney, and severe internal bleeding. You were in surgery for over two hours and you required several blood transfusions. You came dangerously close to leaving us.”

“Close is more than enough when it comes to survival. The fact I can speak implies that it could have been a lot worse,” said Father Hansen, still a bit woozy from the medications.

“Indeed, but not by much,” said Idie as she clenched the wounded man’s hand, “It was only by God’s grace that the bullet missed your heart.”

“It is also a testament to the depravity of corrupt souls like Stryker,” said Isaac sternly, “That man is a false prophet of the worst kind. He would strike at God’s messengers and corrupt the Word in his own name! A special place in Hell surely awaits him.”

Isaac burned with anger. He took acts like this very personally. It showed the depths of his spiritual fervor. Father Hansen had to wave him down before he got too worked up.

“Easy, my friend. Stryker is more misguided than he is corrupt. It wouldn’t be very Christian of us to harbor vengeful feelings. Christ taught us to forgive. Not to avenge,” said Father Hansen, showing little disdain at the mention of Stryker.

“But father…” began Isaac.

“God will judge the man at the appropriate time,” assured Father Hansen, “In the interim, allow the authorities to deal with him.”

“That’s already happening, Father,” assured Idie, “About a half-hour ago, we received a call from Professor Xavier. He and the X-men apprehended Reverend Stryker. They say something happened to his Purifiers and that somehow drove him to shoot you.”

“A pitiful excuse if ever there was one,” scoffed Isaac, “There’s no punishment the authorities can give that would be fitting enough.”

“That’s not for us to say. Nor is it appropriate for us to intervene,” said Father Hansen, “As far as I’m concerned, William Stryker’s fate is in his own hands. I expect you and the rest of my congregation to respect that, Isaac.”

It was difficult request, even if it was the Christian thing to do. Isaac had a hard time holding back his anger. He had to get up and walk around a bit so everything could sink in.

They were in such dire times. False prophets were running around shooting God’s messengers and blaming mutants for their own sin. For Isaac, it was a sign that something was coming. Something dark was preparing to consume this world. His every instinct urged him to confront it. Yet Father Hansen was telling him to hold back. Having been down that road before, he heeded Father Hansen’s wisdom at least for the time being.

While Isaac continued fuming, Idie grasped Father Hansen’s weak hand and smiled. Despite his wounded state, Father Hansen smiled back.

“The rest of District X will be happy to hear that you’re okay, Father,” said Idie, “Jubilee and Gabriel told me that tensions have been running high all day.”

“I’ll be there to preach to them as soon as I’m well enough to do so,” said Father Hansen, smiling back at the young girl, “You and Isaac can spread the good word in the meantime.”

“I wouldn’t know what to say,” she said distantly, “How are we supposed to react when men like William Stryker start shooting the people we care about?”

“In my experience, the best possible reaction is to not overreact,” said the priest, “There will always be tribulations. God made having faith difficult for a reason. It’s only when we feel weak, vulnerable, or outraged that we can truly appreciate faith. That is why our message always needs to be one of comfort. Not vengeance.”

“Comfort…I think I can sell that,” said Idie.

“You’ll be fine. As will you, Isaac,” assured Father Hansen, “No souls need be lost during times like this. Now more than ever, we must do our part by reaching out to others before they’re led astray.”

Idie marveled at how someone could be so hopeful after going through so much pain. Father Hansen had always inspired her, even after her faith was shaken. It was only fitting that she drew from the same inspiration as she, Jubilee, and the rest of the Lights tried to make a difference in District X.

It looked as though the crisis was over. Father Hansen was okay. Reverend Stryker had been apprehended. Their collective souls could begin recovery. Isaac and Idie were ready to let Father Hansen rest.

Then, the door burst open and a man in a trench coat stumbled in. He entered with such urgency that he knocked the door right off the hinges. Idie and Isaac instinctively prepared to defend Father Hansen.

“By the devil, have you come to finish what Reverend Stryker began?” exclaimed Isaac.

“If so, you’ll have to go through us!” said Idie as she activated her powers, forming a halo of ice and fire around her body.

“Please…I don’t wish to fight. Not anymore,” said the man desperately.

“Then explain yourself! Include how you made it past security while you’re at it,” said Isaac angrily.

“Isaac please…” said Father Hansen, waving him down once more, “Let him speak.”

Despite Father Hansen’s pleas, Isaac and Idie remained vigilant. They watched the man fall to his knees and pull back the hood that was covering his head. It revealed a man that many had seen before. The X-men had clashed with him. He made his presence felt back when Magneto was being tried for war crimes. He was an imposing presence, but as he gazed towards Father Hansen he appeared desperate and humble.

“You…I know you!” said Isaac, “You call yourself Exodus. A most ominous and somewhat blasphemous title.”

“I’m not sure how much meaning there is behind that name,” he said sadly, “I don’t blame you for being upset with me either. I injured several people on my way to this room. Please forgive my impatience, but I needed to see Father Hansen. I’m so lost. I need answers and you’re the only one who can help me find them.”

SWORD – Main Labs

It was an exciting time for Hank McCoy. Working with SWORD and having access to their vast resources was promising enough. The ordeal with Sebastian Shaw yielded even more potential. Beyond the Shaw’s nefarious plots, there was much to learn from Mutant Growth Hormone. Now that the authorities controlled all known supply, they could research its true potential.

Hank was so focused on uncovering the secrets within MGH that he rarely left the lab. He only left once to visit Sage, who was helping him with some of his research. She conducted regular analysis on Jubilee and the Lights. With that data, he worked with Dr. Rao’s team to conduct a series of experiments.

The lab was working at full capacity, using technology confiscated from Shaw’s villa to synthesize new variations of MGH. At such a critical stage, Hank would not leave the lab even after he found out about Father Hansen. It grew even more critical when he found out what happened with Reverend Stryker and his Purifiers.

“Is Charles certain of what he sensed, Psylocke?” asked Hank as he spoke over a secure line, “Were these shadowy figures that Stryker recalled utilizing Weapon X tactics?”

“Jean and I did our own scan. We know what we sensed. It had all the signs of Weapon X, complete with the blood-bath to top it all off. We’re all prepared to dig up Wraith’s body just to make sure he’s still dead.”

“That may not be necessary. For all we know, this may not be Weapon X. This may be someone who simply picked up where they left off,” reasoned Hank as he multi-tasked, using his hands and feet to work a nearby control panel.

“Given the history of Weapon X, who in their right mind would want to emulate them?”

“That’s difficult to surmise, but I find it more than coincidental that this so-called ‘test attack’ transpired shortly after Sebastian Shaw was betrayed.”

“Yeah, you’re not the only one to point that out. I don’t know if this qualifies as a coincidence, but it sure stinks of one.”

“It also may confirm what my latest round of experiments have indicated. It is completely feasible to take the genetic information from X-gene manifestations and copy it into other individuals. Our friend, Wolverine, may have been the pre-cursor. We know for certain that Weapon X enhanced his healing abilities. A catalyst like MGH takes it a step further, synthesizing certain mutations and transposing them into other genomes.”

“I hope you’re not implying that there’s another Weapon X out there with access to MGH. I almost prefer another clash with Shaw.”

“We cannot make any definitive conclusions just yet. For once, we may have an edge. With SWORD’s resources, we can refine MGH ourselves. Perhaps there’s a way to counter it. That says nothing of the other benefits it could incur.”

“I’m sure you and Sage are just giddy with excitement. I hope Professor Xavier shares your enthusiasm. After his stab wounds heal, of course.”

“Indeed,” said Hank, solemn over his friend’s condition, “Please give him my regards. Assure him that we are on the cusp of so many breakthroughs. If this mysterious attacker sees fit to conduct another test, take comfort in the certainty that we’ll have the knowledge and the resources to confront it.”

Hank ended the call and set aside his earpiece. He started working with more urgency. In the past, the X-men had no choice but to react as these powerful new advances were used for sinister purposes. Under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, they could turn the tables and make advances of their own.

He had been hanging upside-down for the last twenty minutes or so, using his hands and occasionally his feet to operate the main controls of SWORD’s mainframe. At the moment, the primary cables fed into a reconstructed synthesizer that had been confiscated from Sebastian Shaw.

The synthesizer was about the size of a trailer home and had various pipes feeding exotic chemicals into it. Dr. Rao worked with the engineers, carefully observing the equipment to ensure it did what they hoped it would do. The mood was tense, but their excitement was palpable. There was a general sense that they were onto something big.

“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, Hank. I hope you weren’t being overly optimistic,” said Dr. Rao as she stepped away from the engineers for a moment.

“After bringing Reverend Stryker into custody and learning that Father Hansen will make a full recovery, I think some optimism is warranted,” said Hank as he leapt down from his perch.

“I’m all for apprehending militant religious zealots, but I doubt Stryker’s capture will affect the outcome of this experiment,” she said.

“I’m not expecting it to. I’m simply expecting the math to add up, just as Tessa and I calculated,” said Hank as he rushed over to the synthesizer.

“Don’t you mean Sage?” said Dr. Rao in a humored tone.

“Does it matter what her name is? Your people have cooperated our number crunching and now we can put it into practice. If I’m brimming with too much excitement, I apologize. I’ve just never had such an opportunity. Having SWORD’s resources means we don’t just uncover the mysteries of mutation. We put them to good use!”

Dr. Rao had never seen Hank McCoy so focused. He was like a kid in a candy store, waiting for fresh treat to come out of the oven. She tried to maintain a serious demeanor as led her fellow scientists through this experiment. However, she couldn’t help but be excited herself. These experiments with MGH held so much promise.

Hank watched as the synthesizer pumped more chemicals through its elaborate systems. Only a select few understood what went on in the depths of his complex machine. The several dozen engineers, chemists, electricians, mathematicians, and lab assistants didn’t need to understand. They all remained focused on their tasks as laid out by Dr. Rao.

At one end of the synthesizer, data was pouring in through SWORD’s elaborate servers. At the other, special glass canisters were slowly filling with a new reddish substance. As they slowly filled, a series of laser scanners passed over the canisters to collect data.

“Molecular consistency is holding steady. So far, so good,” said one of the top chemists who was monitoring the chemical intake.

“The numbers are coming in fast. They’re a bit more erratic than we calculated, but they’re still within the optimal range,” said one of the analysts at a computer station.

“Slow down the extraction process. Give the compounds time to react,” ordered Dr. Rao, “I’ll gladly wait a little longer for stability.”

“Speak for yourself,” said one of the physics as he looked over a digital mock-up of the process, “I’ve sat in the control room at some of the largest particle accelerators on the planet and I’ve never seen properties like this! I could write no fewer than fifteen papers on the quantum properties of this stuff alone.”

“I bet I could write fifteen more on genetic anomalies I’m detecting,” said a female biologist working with a DNA computer.

“That’s assuming SWORD will allow us to make these results public,” said one of the lab assistants.

“This experiment holds tremendous promise for humans and mutants like. It would be outrageous, if not impossible, for any government to keep such a breakthrough secret,” said Hank.

The mood amongst the team of scientists remained intense as the canister slowly filled. Hank watched closely exotic red substance came together in a beautiful display of science and knowledge. It took nearly twenty minutes for the canister to completely fill up. Once it was ready, the synthesizer stopped and Dr. Rao signaled the lab assistants to turn off the pumps.

The experiment now complete, Hank McCoy did the honors and removed the canister from the machine. Every scientist in the room dropped what they were doing and gathered around him to take in what they just accomplished.

“Is that it? Is the experiment a success?” asked one of the biologists.

“Indeed it is. And for once, no critical failures need be contained,” said Hank triumphantly.

“So what does this mean?” asked one of the physicists, “Where do we go from here?”

“The possibilities, my friends, are limited only by our imagination,” said Hank, who couldn’t stop grinning, “Mr. Shaw was motivated solely by profit. His version of MGH was not meant to make lasting, beneficial changes to the mutant genome. By using the products of his greed, we’ve created our own MGH prototype. One that will serve this world in so many wonderful ways.”

“I’m sure President Kelly will be interested in the possibilities,” said Dr. Rao, “However, he’ll probably just focus on how this will help the Mutant Monitoring Initiative.”

“Oh it’ll help in many ways,” assured Hank, “This new blend of MGH goes beyond merely enhancing mutant abilities. Using this prototype, we can tame the inherent chaos that often comes with the X-gene. We can give it to young mutants that struggle with control by enhancing other aspects of their X-gene. We can even impart other mutant abilities into a genome so that one power may compliment another. It can help mutants that were deformed by their powers change their appearance, if they so wish. It can even help mutants that wish to limit their powers if they so desire.”

“I’m sure the MSA would love it,” said one of the lab assistance, “They would jump at the chance to limit the powers of certain prisoners. You have to admit, some mutants are just too good at abusing their powers.”

“I won’t contest that. In this bold new world where new mutants are being born every day, we require the right tools to tame the inherent chaos of evolution. With the proper vision and protocols, mutants can maximize their potential while the Mutant Monitoring Initiative ensures it is done in a responsible manner.”

“I hope the rest of the world shares your optimism, Mr. McCoy,” said Dr. Rao.

“I suppose we’ll find out soon enough,” said Hank as he clutched the canister, “The next step is to share this breakthrough with the world. It is sure to be a historic day for science. A great many dreams can now be fully realized!”

“Then I’m afraid I’ll have to wake you up, McCoy,” came an unexpected voice, “Because those dreams will stay that way for the foreseeable future.”

Hank McCoy and Dr. Rao’s science team were quickly brought down from their triumphant high as they turned towards the main elevator to see Abigail Brand entering the lab. She had a number of high-level MSA operatives with her. She certainly didn’t share their enthusiasm for scientific breakthroughs. She always brought with her the cold, hard reality that crushed every trace of idealism.

“Ms. Brand, this is an unexpected surprise,” said Dr. Rao nervously.

“We’ll have to skip the niceties this time,” she said stoically.

“As if she’s ever been good at those in the first place,” muttered one of the physicists, which Brand chose to ignore.

“I’m afraid I’ve come here after a rather nasty discussion with General Grimshaw and President Kelly,” said Brand, “For reasons I’m not at liberty to discuss, all experiments on MGH are to cease immediately and all files regarding these tests are to be sealed indefinitely.”

“That…that’s preposterous!” exclaimed Hank, “I just finished speaking with Psylocke. She says there may be others who have already done these experiments and utilized them in ways far worse than Shaw.”

“I get the same reports you get and a few you don’t. I know all about the logistics, but it isn’t my job to give a damn about them,” she said sternly, “This comes from the very top of the pecking order. All MGH research must stop immediately. You’re all very smart people. I’m sure you’ll find other way to change the world.”

Hank McCoy stood aghast to what he was hearing. He and Dr. Rao were on the cusp of something remarkable. Now Abigail Brand was telling him that the government was shutting down their experiments and she wouldn’t even give an explanation.

It made no sense. These advancements had the potential to revolutionize their understanding of mutation. There were so many legitimate reasons to develop this technology and few reasons outside of irrational politics to hinder it.

“Ms. Brand, if I may…” began Hank in as reasonable a tone he could muster.

“No Mr. McCoy. You may not,” said Agent Brand sternly, “Last I checked, this lab was on SWORD’s payroll.”

“I understand that, but if the General would just give me a chance to describe what we’re doing…”

“It won’t make a difference,” she said, cutting him off abruptly, “You could have the cure for cancer ready to ship and it would still amount to nothing. This is the kind of situation that’s beyond science. I know that’s not your specialty so let me give you a quick lesson. Whenever an order comes down from the President of the United States, you don’t conduct an experiment. You just do it and make sure your ass is covered.”

Hank had to restrain himself for arguing further. The animal within him wanted to let out an angry roar. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative was supposed to enable progress that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

How could President Kelly or General Grimshaw squelch that progress before it had a chance to blossom? Still holding the container in his hand, Hank McCoy quietly seethed in frustration. That sentiment was shared amongst Dr. Rao’s team, but they were not inclined to challenge Abigail Brand’s authority.

“That lesson goes for all of you,” Agent Brand announced to the rest of the team, “I expect you to turn over all your papers and records on this experiment by the end of the day. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Miss Brand,” said Dr. Rao solemnly, “If we cannot continue our MGH research, then what does the President want us working on?”

“Build a screen door on a submarine for all I care. Just don’t work on anything MGH related until told otherwise,” said Agent Brand firmly, “Go back to working on that so-called cure you used to drone on about. If you’re as smart as you all claim to be, you’ll forget you ever worked on this stuff.”

Agent Brand’s harsh words echoed throughout the lab. She didn’t linger to note the frustration that now permeated throughout Dr. Rao’s team. She wasn’t in the business of delivering good news. She was under orders like everyone else and if they wanted to keep this cushy arrangement then they had to follow those orders.

Hank McCoy continued fuming as Abigail Brand exited the lab. She took with her all the potential breakthroughs their research could’ve had and left in her wake plenty of danger that would result from inaction. Some of Dr. Rao’s associates were already cleaning out their files, but not without a heavy heart. Hank remained frozen where he stood, fixated on the container in his hand.

“I’m sorry, Hank. If it makes you feel better, this isn’t the first time SWORD has canceled a promising breakthrough,” said Dr. Rao, offering a comforting gesture.

“I’m afraid that offers little solace,” said Hank distantly, “This is wrong and not just because of the good our work could’ve done. If she received the same report from Psylocke, then she knows that someone else may be developing this technology. What are we to do if we end up having to confront it again?”

“All the more reason to work on our own breakthroughs,” she said, “Agent Brand is a harsh personality, but there is purpose behind her every decision.”

“Do you tell yourself that to make sacrificing new knowledge more palpable?” said Hank as he clutched the canister firmly.

“It’s a matter of trust and we had best not abuse it. We still have plenty to gain and plenty more to lose.”

With further coaxing, Dr. Rao managed to pry the canister from Hank’s grasp. His feral side wanted to fight for it. He chose not to. He could only watch as Dr. Rao took the canister where it would most likely be locked away or destroyed.

It was enough to make even an intelligible mind seethe with anger. Before now, he never felt hindered by SWORD and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Even if Agent Brand had a viable explanation, it could very well be the beginning of a disturbing trend.

Outside Purity Church

“Oh Heavenly Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” said a dazed and wounded Reverend Stryker.

“Will ya give it a rest already, Reverend? Hasn’t God made it painfully clear that he doesn’t answer prayers from guys who blow up their own churches?” said Rogue, watching as two MSA operatives escorted Reverend Stryker into an armored van.

“You don’t know God. You can never know God like I do. You’re too ignorant to see the signs,” said Stryker in a flat tone.

“A while back, Ah would’ve agreed with ya. But Ah know God better than you think,” she retorted, “If you knew him too, then maybe you would realize how wrong you are.”

Reverend Stryker sneered towards Rogue as he was led into the van. He had a large wound on his head and a series of bandages on his torso. Even after numerous blows to the head, William Stryker was still as driven as ever. He still bore a look of disgust, seeing the X-men work with the authorities. In many ways, that was how Rogue and the rest of the team knew that what they were doing had some merit.

Rogue stood by with Remy and Piotr, watching as the MSA kept Stryker restrained. Shortly after Teon knocked him out, the MSA and the local police arrived. They brought EMTs with them to treat Professor Xavier’s stab wound.

They also brought in reinforcements from a nearby hospital to start processing the bodies that were left inside. Several large trucks were called in to carry the morbid load. There was already a steady stream of bodies being hauled out from the church. The scale of such a scene put a unique perspective on this affair.

Rogue’s perspective included a more spiritual element, which was something she had come to appreciate after her time with Isaac. A man like Stryker was the very antithesis of what she learned. It struck her in a way from which her durability could not protect her. Remy gently draped his arm around her shoulder, which helped to console her.

“Never knew you to debate theology, cherè. This be a new hobby or something more?” said Remy with a slight tease.

“You’re still the top philosophy buff, Remy. Don’t feel threatened by mah less-simplified outlook on life,” said Rogue.

“Why would Remy be threatened? I think it’s good when someone calls folks like Stryker out on their ideas. It can be just as effective as a punch to the head.”

“But not as satisfying,” said Piotr, “Some men never change. They are set in their way and their ideas.”

“You don’t always have to change a fella’s mind in order to debunk his position,” Remy pointed out, “This guy was ready to blow up his own church. I think that makes a hell of a statement to anyone that might take him seriously.”

“Ah wanna take comfort in that. But Isaac taught meh that people who use God to make excuses tend to be dangerous,” mused Rogue as she rested her head on Remy’s shoulder.

“Well, hopefully the not-so-good Reverend will be less dangerous in a jail cell,” said Piotr.

“Caging him ain’t gonna cage that spirit of his. It’s that spirit that worries meh most.”

“Well save some worry for the Professor, cherè. After takin’ a knife from Stryker, I’m sure he be eager to contain this here mess. Given the body count, I’m sure he ain’t the only one.”

Rogue remained fixated on Stryker for a moment before letting out a tired sigh. It seemed Reverend Stryker’s spiritual battle was far from over. There was still plenty to deal in terms of massive body counts and a mysterious slaughter that was sure to raise numerous concerns.

Now that the MSA seemed to have a handle on Stryker, the three X-men turned their attention towards Professor Xavier. He was lying on a gurney just outside an ambulance getting treatment for his stab wound. He was still conscious and looked no worse for wear. Ororo, Jean, Betsy, and Teon stood by his side while he was treated.

While they were relieved that his wounds weren’t serious, Professor Xavier remained concerned about the mission. In his mind, it wasn’t over yet. Watching the MSA haul piles of bodies out from Purity Church, he seemed to believe that this was just the beginning.

“How are you holding up, Charles?” asked Ororo.

“I’ll be fine. I’ve endured worse,” said Professor Xavier.

“Be that as it may, I suggest you spend the night in a hospital,” said the EMT that was treating him, “The internal bleeding may have stopped, but given your blood loss I feel it’s best to err on the side of caution.”

“I appreciate the concern, but we don’t have that luxury at the moment,” he said, gazing back towards Purity Church, “This conflict isn’t over. We cannot simply ignore this large collection of dead bodies.”

“We’re already making an effort,” said Jean, “Captain Freeman has been coordinating with the local MSA chapter. We’ve sealed off every road leading into this area so we can skip the media blitz.”

“It’s not the media that concerns me. Whoever attacked the Purifiers made a ghastly statement. They can attack a fighting force as resilient as Reverend Stryker’s followers and kill without compunction.”

“Killer?” said Teon as he watched a truck of bodies drive by.

“In this instance, I share Teon’s instincts,” Xavier went on, “Such killing power cannot be overlooked.”

“No one is going to overlook it, Professor,” said Betsy confidently, “Last I checked, no government tolerates someone else having that kind of killing power. Especially when it’s more efficient than they are.”

“That didn’t stop them from tolerating Weapon X,” retorted Xavier, “You saw those claw marks as well. This could be something just as menacing.”

“Given how Weapon X has a tradition of blowing up in everyone’s face, I doubt anyone will give it another chance,” scoffed Betsy.

“That doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t,” he said.

“Well, we don’t know who that someone is just yet. Until we do, our work here is done and that means you need to rest in the hospital, Charles,” said Betsy.

“I agree,” said Ororo, “We will take care of this, Charles. But you need to take care of yourself first. We’ve seen what happens when you don’t.”

Such a harsh reminder made Xavier’s stab wound sting. The X-men weren’t going to let Xavier strain himself again. He had done that many times before and nothing good ever came of it. His concerns about a possible Weapon X related incident were plenty justified. However, there was little else that could be learned. He would be able to uncover much more once he was healthy.

With a defeated sigh, Xavier laid back on the gurney and allowed himself to rest. The doctor finished patching up the wound. He was almost ready to make his way to the hospital, leaving the rest of the cleanup to the authorities.

“Face it, Professor. You’re in no condition to argue with us,” said Jean with a weak smile, “The best you can do for this investigation is to heal.”

“The Mutant Monitoring Initiative has given us allies,” said Betsy, gesturing towards the surrounding MSA operatives, “Let those allies help us with the work. They have just as much incentive to investigate this slaughter as we do.”

“I just hope it’s enough,” said Xavier tiredly, “From what I sensed, we’re dealing with a very dangerous threat.”

“We’re used to such danger, Professor,” said Ororo, smiling as well, “We’ll find out what happened here.”

“Moreover, we’ll have help from friends in high places,” added Betsy, “So try not to worry. The investigation has already begun.”

Professor Xavier seemed reassured by their words. He was content to spend the night in a hospital. But just as he prepared to depart with the EMTs, Captain Freeman approached after having been on his phone for the last half-hour.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to correct you, Betsy. There isn’t going to be an investigation,” said the mutant soldier.

“Wait, say that again?” said Rogue as she, Remy, and Piotr caught up, “Did Ah just hear that the same government that makes such a big deal outta mass murders ain’t gonna look into this mess any further?”

“I hope that is a misunderstanding,” said Piotr.

“You heard what I said so don’t act so outraged,” said Captain Freeman flatly, “I just finished talking to General Grimshaw. His words were painfully blunt. No one is to dig any deeper into this incident. As far as he and President Kelly are concerned, this is a closed case.”

Professor Xavier shot up, causing a sharp pain in his side. This pain was secondary to his shock. The rest of the X-men stared at Captain Freeman with a baffled expression. This had to be a mistake.

“This…this can’t be true!” exclaimed Xavier, “Get General Grimshaw back on the phone. I must speak with him!”

“Charles, your wounds…” began Ororo.

“I can heal later,” he said strongly, “Right now, I need an explanation. After what we just witnessed, I’d say we’re entitled to one.”

“If you want entitlement, vote for the Democrats,” quipped Captain Freeman, “I don’t like it either, but it’s already a done deal. You know the General. Once he makes a decision, he doesn’t change his mind.”

“Bullocks!” said Betsy, “This makes no sense! I thought Grimshaw was the poster boy for anti-Weapon X sentiment!”

“Did he not see the pictures of the bodies that we sent him?” added Jean, “He has to look into this!”

“I don’t doubt that he will, but it won’t involve us,” said the Green Beret, “Our orders are clear. We’re to be debriefed back in DC and set this case aside indefinitely.”

“Indefinitely be a long time when we be dealing with Weapon X,” said Remy, “Has the General done lost his damn mind? You know as well as the rest of us that a lot of bad mojo gonna come from this!”

Captain Freeman remained stoic under the X-men’s harsh gaze. Jean, Ororo, Rogue, Remy, Piotr, Betsy, and Professor Xavier looked utterly outraged. They had too much direct experience with Weapon X to just set this case aside. Even Teon seemed to sense how foolish this order was. He growled at Captain Freeman, as if to show that even on an instinctual level this was wrong. Even if he agreed with them, there was little he could do.

“No fight?” said Teon.

“I’m sorry, guys. Really, I’m as surprised as you,” he said.

“Somehow I doubt that, comrade,” said Piotr strongly.

“Surprised ain’t even half of it. Pissed off is more like it!” said Rogue.

“If you want to probe General Grimshaw for answers, be my guest. But he told me to remind you of something…just because we’re partners under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative doesn’t mean you’re privy to every bit of information.”

“Is that a reminder or a warning?” questioned Ororo.

“It is what it is,” replied Captain Freeman, “And if his tone was any indication, you would be wise not to test him. This initiative has come so far. Now is not the time to jeopardize it.”

The Green Beret wasn’t trying to speak in a threatening tone, but if those were General Grimshaw’s words then there was no other way to interpret it. He was keeping something from them. After everything they had been through under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, he still didn’t trust them. Not only did it make no sense, it rendered the X-men powerless in ways that ran counter to everything the initiative stood for.

Captain Freeman offered no further explanation. He turned away, leaving the X-men to process this unexpected turn of events. It stung more than any stab wound. The team turned to Professor Xavier, who had nothing else to say. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative was his vision. The resources they gained meant nothing in the face of cold, hard politics. Neither he nor the X-men were the only ones to recognize the implications.

“You see? It’s another sign, X-men!” shouted Reverend Stryker, who had overheard part of their argument, “Your day of reckoning will come. Only then will you understand the wrath you’ve incurred.”

“Shut up, Reverend!” said one of the MSA operatives as he shoved Stryker into the armored van, “And just so you’re as uncomfortable as possible, I’m Jewish.”

Stryker’s hateful remarks were stifled once the doors of the armored van were closed. However, the impact of his words still lingered.

“Is it odd that Stryker didn’t sound so crazy this time?” wondered Jean.

“I wouldn’t call it odd. Sickening would be more appropriate,” said Piotr.

“But he’s still wrong, ain’t he?” said Rogue, turning back to the Professor, “We’ll find a way around this, won’t we?”

Professor Xavier held his head low, feeling conflicted and powerless. Jean, Ororo, Rogue, Remy, Piotr, and Betsy were at a loss. For once, he wasn’t in a position to deal with a potential crisis. It was a distressing feeling and one that could come back to haunt them in many ways.

“I hope so, Rogue,” he told her, “There are clearly some mysterious forces at work here. I truly believe we can do something about it. But will we be in a position to do so? I honestly don’t know.”

Unknown Location

“Heather! Heather, where are you? Radio silence is not part of this mission!”

The frantic cries of James Hudson echoed through deathly silent halls. Everywhere he looked, he saw either darkness or destruction. Occasionally, he saw a dead body or two. If their state of decomposition was any indication, he was too late before this mission even began. Everything was going wrong and on top of that his wife was missing.

Armed in the special enhancer suit that was standard for all White Cell operatives, James Hudson maintained his role of Guardian as he carefully navigated this facility. His superiors told him that it was part of some rogue operation by the Hand. It was also supposed to have ties to Black Tom Cassidy, but Guardian was seriously starting to question their intelligence.

The whole complex was a death trap. As soon as he and his wife, Heather Hudson, entered, they were attacked with automated gun turrets and anti-personnel mines. Either someone had a sic sense of humor or they didn’t want them to find something important.

Guardian ran faster through the nearby corridors, leaping over large holes in the floor and passing by small fires that had been left by previous explosives. His wife hadn’t checked in for nearly twenty minutes. They also weren’t encountering any of Black Tom’s thugs or Hand’s ninjas. For all he knew they were long gone. To finish the mission, he needed to find Heather and uncover what was going on here.

“Heather? This isn’t funny anymore!” he shouted, “For all we know, the Hand wired this place to blow. We need to fall back and figure out what the hell is going on here!”

With increasing urgency, he pushed his enhancer suit harder and literally plowed through a pile of burning debris that was blocking a major doorway. His face got a little singed in the process, but he shook it off and kept moving forward. As he emerged through the smoke, he saw a distinct figure ahead of him.

“James! Is that you?” came the urgent voice of Heather Hudson.

“Heather! Where the hell have you been? We need to…” he began.

“No time to explain! Follow me! I’ve found something,” she told him.

“What is it? What did you find?”

“You have to see it to believe it. Follow me!” she said, already running full speed ahead of him.

Despite being short of breath, Guardian sprinted full speed to catch up with his wife. She led him past two more piles of burning debris and a few dead bodies, all of which looked badly burned. The air was getting hotter and denser. Whatever Heather found, it needed to include some answers.

He eventually caught up with her at a seemingly unremarkable doorway at the end of a hall. It looked like the entrance to a typical storage closet. He assumed there was more to it, trusting that Heather knew what she was doing. It didn’t help the uneasy feeling that continued to fester in the pit of his stomach. As he stood in front of the door, he maintained a cautious stance.

“You gonna keep me in suspense or am I going to have to bust the door down?” he asked Heather, who was in her Vindicator suit.

“I’ll let you decide on the door. As for the suspense, I’d rather not waste time putting it into words. We’re working on a time limit, remember?” she told him.

“When are we not?” he said in exasperation, “This better be the first step to getting the hell outta of this dump!”

Guardian barged past Vindicator and swiftly kicked down the door. With little hesitation, he stormed into the room. What he found was even more shocking than he expected.

“What the…Heather?!” he exclaimed.

His frustration turned to sheer confusion. It turned out the room was a storage closet. There was nothing but empty shelves and a dirty mop bucket, but the most shocking feature was in the middle of the room. Sitting before him tied to a chair in nothing but her underwear was his wife, Heather Hudson.

It looked like someone had roughed her up pretty good. She had a nasty bruise on her face and a black eye. As he struggled to process what he was seeing, the confusion quickly turned to dread.

“This has to be a trick!” he exclaimed, “The Hand must be…”

“Hnn…behind you,” said Heather in a raspy voice.

Guardian quickly remembered the other Heather Hudson that led him to this room. If this was the real Heather, then who was it that led him here? Before he could turn around and ask, he felt a sharp sting in his lower back. A painful surge through his enhancer suit followed, rendering him paralyzed and limp.

“AHHHHHHH!” he yelled out.

“I told you, didn’t I? You had to see it to believe it!” said the other Heather Hudson.

While Guardian was too stunned to react, the Heather behind him took out a special metal device and jammed it into his enhancer suit. It was a special tazer, one specifically made for overloading White Cell’s hardware. That kind of technology was difficult to come by, but it got the job done. As Guardian fell to the floor, the second Heather revealed her true form. She was Mystique and her little ploy had worked perfectly.

“Damn you, Mystique!” spat Heather.

“He’ll be fine,” assured the shape-shifter, giving James’s body a rough nudge, “You both deserve the discomfort. You fell for my little trick. You actually believed that the Hand was working with Black Tom out of this old dump? White Cell must be losing their touch.”

“You’re fucking with the wrong people! Trust me when I say my superiors will find you and make you suffer!” spat Heather.

“I’m counting on it,” said Mystique with a wry grin, “Now that your better half has joined us, we can get back to the Q&A. I believe you were about to tell me all about these superiors of yours. One in particular has my interest.”

Up next: Capital Corruption

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