The wind blows around the hill, howling at us, laughing like the demons that wander the foul plains of this land. Limbo's winter is on us and, like all things in this evil land, it is controlled by its master and he is not happy with us. Once I served at his feet, groveled before him and begged him to teach me all things, all his knowledge, every spell from that damned book. I was young, far from friends, and under his sway. When I saw the light, when I broke free and defied him, he vanquished me and I was no longer Katherine Pryde but a mockery of her pet name, no longer Kitty but Cat, more animal and less than human. Enraged, I slunk into the darkness, fleeing from the very friends who had come to save me from the demon's hands. I left them to their doom while I crawled his lands in my new form, my tainted form. Wolverine had taught me well and Belasco's hand had made sure that I was now my former mentor's equal in senses and strength, which was for the best since Logan had died at the hands of a monster that made even Orcs and Dark Riders seem tame.
My charge shivers next to me, the icy air sinking into her bones and making her moan lightly in her sleep. She has not been in the wilderness of Limbo before and this cold makes the Siberian village she called home look like a tropical paradise. If she survives the next few months then she will be strong enough to get through anything this land can throw at her. I can teach the child to hunt and to fight, what to avoid and where not to tread. I can teach her to look Belasco in the eyes and kill him, the task that Ororo never had the will to complete when she was given the chance. But I cannot make the child's skin thicker. I cannot make the wind seem warmer. That she will have to do for herself.
Will she live? Will she see freedom and her own world ever again? These are the questions she used to ask in the daylight, her eyes so innocent that it almost killed me to look at them and know that, beyond her control, an evil was growing inside her mighty soul, sinking its roots so deep into her that I doubt they can ever be pulled out. After I slapped her, she stopped asking me those bothersome questions, she stopped looking at me as though I had come down from the sky, out of the darkness to save her, and, instead, her gaze held only a silent fear and a respect.
I fear that Illyana will never love me as she did her beloved Kitty or even the sorceress Ororo who forbid her to mettle in the magics of this world for fear of awakening that evil lying dormant in her slender body but that doesn't worry me. In fact, it gladdens me. Her heart has started to harden. The weak never live long in Limbo. They either die quickly or Belasco's magics twist them into something dreadful, something so beyond what they were that you couldn't even catch a glimpse of the valor left in their eyes. (Kurt, I'm sorry we left you behind, old friend. I will kill you. I will release your soul from torment, Fuzzy Elf, or I will die trying.)
For now, she needs heat and rest. Months from now those needs will dwindle down to the slightest memories of discomfort in the back of her mind. In a year's time she will be able to walk day and night without being seen or heard or needing to rest. She will eat sparingly and seldom. Her hand will be so honed with that dagger that I doubt I'll be able to get her to let it go, even when I tell her to rest. Her eyes will lose that innocent glow and become watchful, no one will ever sneak up on her, no trust will be easily won, there will always be some secret plot going on behind those eyes. In two years, she will be ready to kill.
Limbo's sun is on the rise, setting the land afire with its brightness and, hopefully, bringing an end to the worst of the cold. We have tarried in this shallow cave for too long. We must continue forward, pressing onward to Belasco's citadel in the southern most part of the land. All evil begins in the south and we are still too far north. The snows will come soon if we do not move swiftly.
Illyana stirs besides me, her eyes fluttering rapidly beneath the lids as if she is held captive within a dark dream. She has not yet learned that there can be no dream darker than the waking world of Limbo, however, and even the foulest nightmare must be savored. It is a lesson that the days before us will teach. The hardest thing in the world is laying down your innocence, casting it aside and embracing knowledge, survival, just to go on breathing this foul air.
I polish my sword, making the silver shine while I watch the pale beams of the sun play upon the barren gray land unrolling before us. For a time, we will cross low hills until coming to the flat, low plains that run across the middle of Limbo. Plains where only thin, spidery trees grow and demons lurk behind the fog that fills the valley when the moon is on the rise. There are years of journeying before we hit the capital city for not only must we travel stealthily, but I must train her in all the ways of life in Limbo.
Any other day I would rouse her, shake her from her dreams, force her to hone the ability to snap to complete awareness at the slightest sound. In the months to come, she will forget what it is like to sleep sound and peacefully, sure that you are safe and protected. Her body will learn to always be on alert; her muscles will be toned and ready to kill even when her head is still somewhat murky from rest. But looking at her now, all I see is the face of a child I was willing to give my life to save. If I have to choose again, I wonder if I will take the same path as I did all those longs years ago.
She crouches besides a boulder, dagger drawn, waiting for me. Even though I make no sound as I approach, the blade flashes before my eyes when I draw near to her, followed by a glimpse of blue and pale blond as she whips around to face me, metal tracing across my cheek. "Tag," she says soberly. This land has wiped the childish smile from her face as surly as it melted away fat, leaving her lean and swift. Constant nightmares over the years have driven her inwards and she says little but thinks much.
"An improvement. Still too slow. I could have disarmed you if I wanted."
Illyana raises her eyebrows but says nothing, withdrawing the blade and stepping away from me. My leg shoots out to knock her feet out when she turns back and a hand curls tightly around my throat. "It's never over, is it, Cat?"
I sometimes fear that my student is advancing far beyond my ability to teach. It's as though some of this fire was built into her, this strength, this sense of the way the land lays ahead of us, where to hide, what caves to stay away from. I've lived here, prowled Limbo, for nearly twenty years and yet she takes point and calls it better than I ever did. "Now it is."
In a flash, she's gone, a trail of blond hair and long legs. Almost thirteen now, I think. Her childhood fled long ago. Everything good fled long ago. Now she won't even listen to my stories, the ones she used to beg for on the nights when she huddled besides me, too afraid of the calls in the night to go to sleep even though she knew I'd punish her the next day.
Sometimes, I miss the stories. I used to tell her about the books I read so long ago when I still danced in leotards instead of stalking dark demons across a moonlit barren wasteland. On the worst nights, she would always ask me to tell her about Bilbo Baggins and his magic ring.
Her knees and elbows have grown sharp, jagged points sticking out for the entire world to see. Night has fallen around us and the darkness is never a comfort in these times, in this land. "Cat?"
"You need to sleep. I'm not letting you tomorrow. When the sun begins to rise, we begin to move, you know that."
"I know." Her voice has started to become soft, the whisper of the hunted. "But I want you to tell me about the ring again."
That again. I'm afraid that my blond student has found something of a bond between herself and the cursed Frodo Baggins. "What ring?"
Now her voice is low on purpose, but sweet and clear, the way she used to sing when we still dwelled behind the walls of Ororo's garden.
"`Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.'"
Smiling has been a rare occurrence in my life since Belasco took my humanity and reshaped it, brought me closer to the feral side, made me more like my mentor, Wolverine, than Logan himself had ever planned to take me but hearing those words in her voice brings a weak grin to my face. Since traveling with Illyana, I have rediscovered a tarnished, stained corner of something that resembles happiness when you squint at it. "Have I told it to you so many times that you've memorized it?"
"Just that verse. I like it."
"Well, I can't start there, you know. I have to start at the beginning, with Bilbo." And I tell her the story of Bilbo Baggins and his voyage with the Dwarf Company and Gandalf the Grey as they marched through Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, and Mirkwood in their quest to slay the dragon Smaug and regain the treasure that belonged to the King Under the Mountain. In the darkness of the Limbo night, with lesser demons running through the spidery trees, I recall the story that I read years ago. Illyana hangs onto my every
word, despite the fact that she's heard it all before and shudders when Bilbo meets Gollum and finds the magic Ring. During the Battle of the Five Armies, she starts to cry softly when Thorin apologizes to Bilbo and then draws his last.
When I come to Bilbo's parting insight, upon having traveled back to his tidy hole in the ground, Bag End, in the Shire, Illyana repeats the verse with me:
"`Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.'"
That story finished, I stop for a few minutes to see what she'll say.
"That one's so happy. Everything turns out all right. Bilbo gets to go home and it's wonderful, like it was before. He gets to go home."
"The story's not finished," I remind her. "Do you still want to hear about Frodo and his adventures with the Ring?" I know her answer before I ask. She always wants to hear this tale. It seems to call to her with some kind of arcane link. We sit in the night, a softer, yet still too chilly for comfort, breeze ruffling along our shoulders as I nod and begin the tale of Frodo and what the Ring really was.
Cat said I'd be free if we could just reach the castle. She said I could find the stepping disc that would take me home, that I could go back to Kitty and Piotr, that I could go home. For years I walked the barren wastes of Limbo, tramped through its hills and valleys, feeling the winter, the biting wind and then the snow, the rains. Passing from the Northland into the East, where there are a few last, glimmering snatches of sunlight and warmth, the feeling that evil has only managed to plant its roots so far in. Then into the South, the bitter, dreadful South, full of demons and all the evil in the world, the place Belasco set his castle and affixed his power. I got to the throne room, helped Cat slay the demon that had been formed from Nightcrawler's once pure spirit. His screams still haunt my nightmares.
In the end, we came so close. I thought we had made it. I let myself rejoice in the thought that I was going home, that I was going to be free from everything that had tried to hold me hostage over the last couple of years. Within my grasp lay the means to outrun not only Belasco and his pet demon, S'ym, but to outrun my own blackening soul. Within my grasp. Hovering there for an instant and then destroyed, an illusion meant to draw me to Limbo's lord, make me his servant for all time.
And, as his foul magics completed their task of draining all of Cat's humanity away, I stood and watched. What else could I do? I was drawn to this man, to the otherworldly, dark, god-like power he possessed. Part of my soul cried out to him and it stopped me in my tracks. No dagger. No blood. No fighting, Illyana. Bow to your lord and master. Bow to Belasco. Like Frodo with the Ring, slipping it on and feeling the evil rushing to meet him.
I've been in the castle for a few months. He teaches me things, magic, that I mean to use to my advantage, take over Limbo or the stepping discs, do something, and get myself the hell out of here. I go along with him. I play the game of disciple.
But, sometimes, Cat wanders into my room and looks at me with those green, green eyes she has now, those panther eyes, and they become human instead. She becomes the women who taught me to fight, who told me stories in the night to chase away my nightmares. The women who began to tell me of my destiny but never finished.
She sits at the end of my bed and looks at me, trying to remember when her tongue could form words and her mind knew what those words meant. All I remember is Frodo and his quest. The Ring. The One to rule them all. I am Frodo. I carried the burden. I was the Ring and the ring-bearer, Cat my Gandalf. I heard all about the plan to leave Bag End, followed Bilbo through the woods and rivers, into the grim tombs of death, through an ancient Dwarfen city crawling with Orcs, to a fairy tale home of elves. Cat took me on that journey, looking like Kitty when some far off glint of moonlight happened to catch her eyes. But I never got past Frodo and Sam leaving the others behind so that they alone could cross the borders of Mordor. Kitty had fallen into Limbo before she had time to read the rest of the trilogy so I was stuck.
We stare at each other now. I have to make up my own stories to make the monsters go away and, more often than not, they just laugh at me and strike me across the face. I have no more lands of elves to wander through, no more birthday parties with Bilbo. All I see is the evil lord Sauron sitting right in front of me, instructing me on how to use the Ring so that he can cast the world in shadow. Cat, my Sam, my Gandalf, can't even remember her name.