Erik smoothed the letter back into its envelope and carefully folded it before stuffing it back into the pocket of his jacket with a sigh. The cold air outside was seeping into the car now that the engine was off. It wouldn’t be long before it brought the damp of the fog along with it. He could already feel the wet in his lungs. But the fog was heavy, and he didn’t dare drive any further into it and run the risk of a close encounter with a tree. He’d have to continue on foot.
The handle of the car door stuck when he tugged on it, and Erik scowled, finally losing his patience with the car. The hinges only gave the barest hint of a creak as the door kindly removed itself from Erik’s path and fell to the ground at his feet. He stepped out onto the pavement, not bothering to spare the car even a passing glance. It was a miracle the rusty old thing still worked, and he couldn’t fathom why Toad held onto it, liability that it was. Sentiment, probably. He wouldn’t miss it much once he finally noticed it was gone.
The thin, filmy sunlight was waning behind the heavy fog. Erik glanced at his watch and his frown deepened. He would have to hurry to make it into town before the light was completely gone. He hitched his jacket up a little higher on his shoulders and started out, the gravel of the road crunching lightly under his feet. The letter brushed against his fingers from inside his pocket, burning his thoughts with its presence as he walked.
It had to be a fake, a cruel trick from one of his many enemies who had known of his connections to Xavier. It couldn’t have come from Charles himself because he was dead. He had been for some time now. A broken neck from a fall, nothing they could do. A quick death, an accident, but the man was most definitely dead. Erik knew that for sure; Charles’s little band of misfits never let him forget it.
Anger bubbled up in his chest, and the letter crinkled a little in his hand as his fist tightened. The X-Men. Charles’s last laugh at him. A group of delusional kids following Charles’s naïve fantasies of humans and mutants living together in harmony, they had been leaderless for over a year, and yet they still persisted in their silly little cause. Ridiculous.
And now there was this letter. It was written in Charles’s hand, the curve of the inked characters on the paper so familiar that it made his chest ache. Erik could almost hear Charles’s voice speaking to him when he read the letter, and somehow that made the thing an even greater insult. There was no way Charles could have written it. A dead man couldn’t possibly write to the living, and the last part of the letter was flowery and over-sentimental, even for Charles.
Then again, there was no doubt in Erik’s mind that it had somehow come from Charles’s hand. Perhaps he was out there somewhere, tricking the entire world into thinking he was dead. Charles always was far too clever for his own good, and that meant that there was a chance, slim as it may be, that this was something real and not a trick. Erik had to cling to that. Why else would he make this stupid trek into the middle of nowhere, chasing the ghost of a man who had been dead for months? The very man who had been his most public of nemeses for years before that? The man that Erik grieved for with an intensity that made him sick to his stomach. As much as Erik hated to admit it to himself, he needed Charles back. Just as the light could not exist without the dark, Erik needed his other half. He needed to feel whole again.
The road before him was slowly swallowed up in the fog, and Erik slowed to a halt. What little scenery he could make out was horribly unfamiliar, but when he turned around, he could no longer see the hideous red paint of Toad’s car. He was lost, the dense fog leeching away his sense of direction and leaving him disoriented. Erik cursed under his breath and looked out into the distance. He narrowed his eyes in an attempt to find any sign of civilization, but there was nothing but fog. He had to keep going. Eventually he would run into someone who could point him in the right direction.
The pavement fell away to uneven gravel under his feet, and the trees began to thin. Vague shadows appeared on the horizon where the trees fell away, and Erik picked up his pace. He was getting closer to something, though he wasn’t sure exactly what it might be.
The wet seeped into his bones as he ran, and the letter burned in his pocket. This was a fruitless venture, he knew, but something was spurring him forward. He had already made it this far; there was little point in turning back. The shapes became clear, and he slowed as he realized what they were. His shoes slid on the wet grass under his feet, full and thick and dark in the hazy film of the fog. Rising up out of the ground at irregular intervals were gravestones, slabs of stained marble and granite stamped with the names of the dead. That’s right. The cemetery was just outside of town. He was close, then. Erik paused to catch his breath, and he stared out into the distance, trying to catch a glimpse of the familiar buildings where Charles was sure to be hiding, but there was nothing.
He cursed the fog and moved onward toward the looming shadows. The town couldn’t be far; he could feel it deep in his bones.
A gentle whispering swept over him like a breath of air. He winced and brushed his fingers against his ears. This feeling was familiar somehow, almost like…Erik straightened, his arms snapping to his sides.
“Charles?” It was telepathy. It had been so long since he had felt the presence of another so acutely, and he longed for the familiar weight of his helmet, shielding him from psychic attack.
“You never were the brightest one, were you, Erik?”
“Emma.” The White Queen. Of course. He didn’t know how he had missed the hard edge of her power before now. It had been far too long since he had had to deal directly with a telepath. Erik turned to face her, his hands curling into fists at his sides. Much as he hated her, she could still be of use. She certainly owed him after the little stunt she’d pulled on the Brotherhood.
She was kneeling at the foot of a gravestone, no different from the tens of others littering the grounds. Her knees were dark with the damp of the grass beneath her. She never once looked his way, keeping all her attention focused on the grave, and it only made Erik’s anger burn brighter. He was not one to be ignored. His hands curled into fists as she huffed out the breathy beginnings of a laugh, the edges of her lips curling up in amusement.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Magneto?”
“Why are you here?” he asked, ignoring her question. He owed her nothing.
She looked up, her blue eyes strangely dull in the fog. “You really need to work on your manners, darling.”
“ I said, why are you here? I thought I’d seen the last of you.” Emma had disappeared not long after the Brotherhood had released her from the clutches of the CIA, running off to god knows where with all of the secrets she could carry as incentive not to hunt her. It took all of Erik’s willpower not to kill her where she knelt. He could feel the sharp edge of the keys in his pocket, the tiny ridges and smooth planes of metal on both of their persons as it jumped to attention under his command, ready and willing to do whatever he desired.
“We telepaths are a tricky bunch.” Her eyes darted away from him for a moment before coming back to rest on his face, her expression suddenly serious. “I would turn back if I were you.”
“There are things here, Erik. Things you couldn’t possibly understand. You don’t know what you’re looking for.” She seemed nervous, edgy, almost afraid.
“You’re losing your touch, Frost,” he sneered. He looked back out into the fog, trying to decide where in the hell he needed to go. Emma was gong to be of no help to him.
Emma shook her head and looked back to the tombstone. “He’s not here, you know.”
“Don’t play dumb with me,” she spat at him, her tone suddenly sharp. “I know who you’re looking for, sugar, and he’s not here.”
Erik stiffened, his face smooth as stone. “Do you know the way into town?”
“I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to tell you before you finally get it through your think skull: he’s not here, Erik.” A small, breathy laugh escaped her lips, falling away quickly to the fog. “Xavier is dead. You of all people should know that.”
“Tell me how I can get back to the road.”
Emma’s mouth thinned into a tight line, and she glared at him for a long moment before lifting her pale hand and pointing out into the distance. There was nothing there but shadows and fog, but he had little choice but to trust her. And really, she had no reason to lie to him about this.
Erik nodded and shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, letting the press of the letter against his skin bring him back to earth. Emma was probably right. Xavier was dead, and there was no logical reason to think Charles was somehow here, waiting for him like a lost child. But then there was the letter, and even the slightest possibility that Charles’s death was only a trick was enough for Erik to investigate. Emma slumped down in defeat and reached out to trace the name carved on the tombstone before her, her finger catching on the curve of what looked to be an ‘S.’ It was almost like she had forgotten he was even there.
He trudged past her in the direction she had given, sparing her one last look as her figure was swallowed up by the fog.
The place was nothing like Erik remembered.
The dim light filtering in through the fog threw shadows on the crumbling buildings as they sagged toward the pavement. There was nothing of the quaint, folksy place that he and Charles had so loved in their youth. He slipped his hand around the folded square of the letter in his pocket as he trudged along the side of the road. This was a trick; it had to be, but he couldn’t find it in himself to turn around. Charles was dead, but somehow he had sent Erik a message. The words couldn’t have come from anyone else.
The silence was overwhelming, muddling his senses. Erik skirted past an abandoned car, his shoes brushing a dark patch in the road that he swore glinted red in the hazy light of the streetlamps as he passed. It was nothing. He was imagining things. He gripped the soft fold of the paper in his pocket and continued onward, hoping to find some form of life here. Even a stray dog would suffice at this point.
Erik pulled his jacket tighter around his body and looked out into the fog. His skin itched terribly, like he was covered with a thousand insects, and he wondered if perhaps Frost was the one playing tricks on him. The letter was real; there was no doubt about that. He had received it and read it several times when no telepath could possibly have gotten to him. But she could be doing this to him now: the itchiness, the unease, the overwhelming silence. Or perhaps it was the fog putting him on edge. Whatever it was, he needed to find a place to gather his wits. He traced the line of the street to a drain pipe, closed off by a half-hearted attempt at a fence and took off for it at a run, hoping for a slight reprieve from the fog.
Erik slid through the gaping hole torn into the flimsy fencing, not bothering to spread the metal wider with his powers in his haste, and made a beeline for the solid brick wall opposite the pipe. He needed to sit down and gain his bearings. The silence was getting to him. He slid down the wall to a crouch and leaned his head back against the brick, his breath catching oddly in his throat. What was he doing here? This was a pointless search, and he knew it. There was nothing here, nothing that could possibly—
Someone—or something—else was here with him. Erik shot to his feet at the shuffling sound coming from the pipe, his whole body thrumming with adrenaline.
It was a person of sorts, but twisted and horribly misshapen. Like a doll that had been put together using only the vague notion of a human being, using far too many bones and far too little skin. Its eyes, mouth and nose were gone, lost in a thin stretch of skin that had been pulled tight across its face like a mask, and its head was twisted almost all the way around on a grotesque parody of a neck. Perhaps this was the result of a rather unfortunate (and useless) mutation. Erik stared down at the…man? Woman? He couldn’t tell. He cleared his throat, and it moaned at the sound, dragging itself further out into the light.
The smell of iron was thick in the air, and Erik saw it leave behind dark streaks of blood in its wake as it tried to claw its way toward him. Its skin sloughed off as it moved, rotting away right before his eyes. If ever there was a time for Charles’s unending sympathy it was now. Erik had no use for a man whose mutation did little else but kill the body it belonged to, but Charles and his bleeding heart ways would know exactly what to do.
The creature dragged itself forward, and Erik could now see the twisted, bleeding stumps where its legs must have been. Suddenly, the creature’s hand shot out and wrapped itself around his ankle, its clawed fingers digging deep into the flesh of his leg.
Erik swore and slammed the heel of his good foot into the creature’s wrist, his stomach sinking in relief at the sharp crack of bone under his foot. It loosened its grip, and Erik stumbled back, reaching out with his hand for metal, any metal within reach.
There was no response. His heart shot up into his throat. The metal, it wasn’t responding. He couldn’t even feel the change in his pocket or the zipper on his jacket. Something was blocking his abilities. He turned his eyes back to the creature on the ground as it feebly tried to grab for him again, its gurgling breaths harsh in the quiet of the fog.
He edged backward toward the broken remnants of the fence where a section of pipe lay amongst crumbling blocks of cement, relics of whatever project had been abandoned here. The pipe felt good and solid in his hands, even though he couldn’t quite feel the comforting presence of it deep in his bones like he should have.
Even with its twisted, broken wrist that Erik had snapped with his boot, the creature was still trying to get to him. It moaned, low and deep in its throat as it inched closer. Most of the skin of its chest had been pulled away by the pavement, leaving nothing but pulsating red flesh, bleeding endlessly onto the asphalt. Erik steadied the pipe in his hands and propelled it toward the thing’s head, putting his entire weight into the swing.
Not since Shaw had killing an enemy given him this much relief. The hard crunch of the metal sinking into the creature’s skull echoed loudly in his ears long after the thing had dropped to the ground and gone still. Erik sucked in a few heavy breaths and wiped away the thin spray of blood dotting his chin from the impact. His powers should return to him at any moment. He had been fine until the creature had appeared, and now that it was dead, everything would return to normal. He could find Charles and get the hell out of here.
He tightened his grip on the pipe, willing the metal to bend under his fingers, but nothing happened. He squeezed harder, but to no avail. His powers were gone.
Erik hissed out a curse and brought the pipe down on the creature’s sunken body again in a tiny burst of anger. The body slid with the force of the blow, but the creature never moved, never made a sound. It was well and truly dead—whatever it had been—yet Erik was just as powerless as he’d been when it had first appeared. Shit. He turned to look at the towering buildings behind him and wondered if there were other things out there like the creature at his feet. He had never seen a mutation like that before, and somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that even with the fantastic things the human body was capable of with the power of genetic mutation, this was not something that should be celebrated. It was wrong. And there were probably more out there.
He breathed out a heavy sigh in an effort to calm himself and tried to gain his wits about him. He was alone and without the use of his powers for the first time in decades. He should turn back, leave this pointless mission and the stupid letter behind before he got himself injured or killed, but the thought of Charles, somehow alive and breathing and real here, in this place, and perhaps just as powerless as Erik was now, made it impossible. They were not friends, nor were they truly enemies; it was something deeper than either of those things between them, and he couldn’t find it in him to abandon Charles again. He refused to give the man yet another reason to act like his superior.
Besides, if Erik could somehow learn how his abilities had left him, he could probably find a way to make it work to his advantage. The X-Men were a fairly useless bunch when stripped of their superhuman abilities. This town could be useful after all. He tightened his grip on the pipe, his lone weapon for now, and slid back out onto the street through the hole in the fence. He needed to find shelter. Night was slowly creeping in to join the fog, and there was no telling what was lurking in the dark.
The apartments in this side of town all looked the same. Erik scowled at the muddy red bricks smudged with half-written blurbs of graffiti. Charles could be anywhere, really, and he had no idea where to start. He sighed and squeezed the pipe in his hand, taking some comfort in the solid weight of the metal. He couldn’t sense it, not in the way he should, but it was as close as he was likely going to get.
A soft shuffling, like a fabric sack being dragged across the pavement, rose up from behind him, and he turned to face it. Another creature, exactly the same as the one he’d killed not a half hour ago, was slowly pulling itself toward him. There was no helping it now. He barreled toward the building to his right and climbed through the rotting wooden boards blocking off what once must have been a window.
He paused to catch his breath once he was safely inside. Now he was certain that something was wrong here; no two mutants had ever been identical. Similar in ability, perhaps, but never as close as the things waiting for him outside. His jaw tightened as realization hit him. The letter, the lack of people in the town, the creatures…this was a trap, and he’d fallen right into it. He swore and smashed the pipe against the wall in frustration. How in the hell had he not seen this before? Meeting Emma on the road should have tipped him off, even with her pathetic excuse of a warning. Pity he had been too blind to see this whole thing for what it was before.
The room around him was dark, the only light the waning rays of sunlight creeping in through the cracks in the boards. He needed to find a better weapon, perhaps a knife or two that he could easily throw from a distance. If only his powers hadn’t left him. Things would be so much easier with them.
The apartments looked to be as deserted as the rest of the town, but Erik could hear gentle thudding coming from the ceiling somewhere in one of the floors above him. Footsteps. He swallowed and made for what looked to be a stairwell. Someone had left the dim light above the steps burning. Surely none of the creatures would have done that—if they were anything like the two he had encountered thus far, then he doubted they could even reach high enough to pull a light switch. Someone else was here, or they had been at some point no too long ago.
Erik slid his fingers along the wall to keep his bearings. There was a number of doors, each with their own little brass number. Any of them could easily lead him to a kitchen, a bedroom. There would have to be something he could use there, knives, forks, weapons. But the sounds hadn’t dissipated. Someone else was here, right now, and any sign of human life was a good thing at this point. Maybe he could wring some answers from them as to how the town had gotten to be this way.
He paused at the door marked 515 and let his hand hover over the doorknob for a moment before twisting it open. The hinges were old and rusty, and they screamed as the heavy wooden door swung open into the apartment. Standing there in the doorway was nothing short of a monster.
Its jaw was completely unhinged, dangling open and dripping saliva onto the floorboards. A constant stream of half-formed words rumbled in its throat, filling Erik’s ears with an odd sort of white noise. He jerked back, keeping his pipe close at hand in case of an attack. The thing’s eyes bulged large in its bulbous head, darting back and forth in an endless dance. He was fairly certain it couldn’t see him—the blue of its irises was dulled, hidden by a mucous-like film, but that didn’t stop it from staggering toward the open door. Erik shot back and pulled the door closed behind him with a sharp crack.
So. There were more of them. His heart was beating madly in his chest, and he jerked forward as the creature slammed into the door. He had to get out of here. Who knew how many of these monsters there were? This was likely what had happened to all the people here, and soon it would be Erik’s own fate. He bolted down the hall, leaving the apartment and its blue-eyed monster at his back.
It was near impossible to know where he was going now that the faint light of the first stairwell was behind him, but he couldn’t stop now. Shuffling steps followed his every move, and he could have sworn that the walls were speaking to him. He had to get out of here. His pathetic excuse for a weapon was not going to save him should he somehow find himself up against more than one opponent.
Erik knew he was breathing far too fast now, but he couldn’t stop running. He pounded up yet another flight of stairs and found himself staring at a dead end, one empty apartment after another. There was a hole in the bottom of the door at the end of the hall where someone had kicked it in. Light spilled out onto the floor through the splintered mess of wood. It could be another sign of life, or yet another trap. Either way, it was his best chance at escape, even if there was something waiting for him on the other side. Erik tried the handle only to find it locked. He willed the metal of the lock to open, but it didn’t respond. He couldn’t feel it, not the way he was supposed to. His powers were still gone, then. He scowled and crouched down low to see if he could get a better look at the room on the other side. Someone else had to have been there. There was no way Erik was the only person left in this hell hole.
The glint of metal on the floor immediately caught his eye. A key. He could get through here after all. Erik slid down onto his belly and reached his arm through the hole. He pulled his arm taught and stretched it as far as he could, hoping that somehow he could reach it before something made its way up the stairs to meet him. He grinned at the brush of metal against his skin and stretched a little more, trying to catch it with the tips of his fingers. Suddenly, his head was full with the sound of childish laughter, and he froze at the sight of a little girl standing just on the other side of the door.
She was oddly familiar, though Erik was certain he had never seen her before in his life. Her blonde hair fell loose about her shoulders, and she smiled at him with barely contained laughter. She was young, no older than ten or so, and she seemed completely at ease here, like there were no monsters roaming about in the dark trying to kill them. Erik opened his mouth to call out to her, but before he could get a word out, she slammed the heel of her bare foot into his hand, sending a harsh jolt of pain coursing through his arm.
Erik pulled back, and she swiped the key from his grasp with a giggle.
“Fuck.” He rubbed at his hand, but didn’t rise from the floor. The girl was far stronger than she looked. “What the hell was that for?” His brow furrowed in thought. “And what are you doing here? A girl like you shouldn’t be alone in a place like this.”
All of her mirth quickly drained away at the sound of his voice, and her face bunched up in a scowl. “Charles was right about you.”
Charles. Erik’s eyes widened in shock, but the girl was already backing away, the key clutched tight against her chest. “Hey! Hey wait! What do you know about Charles?”
“Go to hell,” she sneered before disappearing into the dark, taking the key with her.
Erik pulled away from the hole and threw himself against the door, slamming his shoulder into the wood with all of his weight, but it didn’t give. There were more footsteps now, heavy and slow as they climbed the stairs behind him. They drowned out the mad pounding of his heart in his ears, and Erik wrenched himself to his feet. He couldn’t afford to waste anymore time here with children too stupid to keep themselves safe. Whatever it was behind him was close now. There was no time to figure out an escape plan.
He snatched his pipe from the floor and tried the handle again in vain. Nothing. Erik spat out a whispered curse and made for one of the empty apartments at his back. He could hide there until whatever it was that was hunting him had passed.
The place was littered with broken furniture, stained and sagging from years of disuse. Erik slowed as he walked inside, even though the footsteps behind him were growing ever louder. It was so strange. Even though it had been years since he had last visited this place, he would never have imagined it could have come to this—abandoned, run-down, crawling with hordes of demons.
A heavy thud resonated throughout the room, and Erik bolted for a linen closet, the closest hiding space he could find. There were still towels and dusty pillowcases stuffed messily into the shelves, and they softened any sound he made as he barreled inside. Thin rays of light hit his face through the wooden slats in the door, and he tensed, scarcely daring to breathe, as the thing entered the room.
It was tall and far more human than any of the other creatures he had run into thus far, but the way its skin stretched across its shoulders made it look far too thin, almost translucent, and it too clearly showed the pulse of blood beating through the muscles of the creature’s bared chest. A large domed helmet obscured its face, not unlike the one Erik had left behind at base, and the smooth metal glowed a deep, dull red in the fading sunlight as the creature made its way through the door. In its hand was one of the largest knives Erik had ever seen, tied to its arm by a length of thick, rusted chain.
Erik’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of it. This had to be Frost’s doing somehow. Not many people could place his face without the familiar mask he showed to the world, and Frost could very easily project horrors like this into his head, especially now that his shield against her meddling, the very helmet she was now mocking him with, was hundreds of miles away. He curled the fingers of his empty hand into a fist, ignoring the tight pinch of lingering pain from where the girl’s foot had crushed into his skin. As soon as he figured out how Frost was blocking his abilities and showing him these nightmares, her life was his.
The solid clink of metal hitting against metal followed the creature’s every step as it lumbered into the room, and Erik could hear the sound of something being dragged across the floor. Whatever it was, it was alive. He held his breath and waited. The girl he’d met earlier couldn’t be alone here, not when the place was this run-down. Whatever the monster in front of him had, there was a very real possibility that it was another living, breathing person. He waited and watched until the things were fully in sight, his hand clenching around his pipe as he readied himself for action. At the thing’s feet was not a person, but yet another creature, something different than the ones Erik had seen. Its face was hooded with frayed, bleeding strips of skin that silenced any sound that tried to come out of what had to be a mouth, and it floundered against the chains wrapped around its body, tugging at its bonds with its thin, spindly arms and catching against the floor with its feet, but the larger creature paid it no heed and continued on past Erik’s hiding place.
The pair stopped at the middle of the room where a table sat, one of the only pieces of furniture in the place that hadn’t been smashed to bits. The creature in chains was still flailing weakly, and suddenly, with no warning, it was launched into the air by its chains and thrown onto the hard wooden expanse of the table. The struggling stopped, but its chest still heaved with heavy, panting breaths. Erik doubted it would still be alive when this was all through.
The helmeted creature leaned in close to the table and crushed its hips against the other thing’s legs, pinning it in place. Its free hand swept possessively over the smaller creature’s chest. It was so gentle, almost like a lover’s caress. Erik looked to the door, hoping to find a way out while the monsters in front of him were distracted.
The solid thunk of the knife hitting the table drew him back to attention. Blood poured out over the floor from what remained of the smaller creature’s arm. It arched its back and writhed against the table, and it was rewarded for its efforts with the loss of its other arm. Erik could not draw his eyes away.
There was blood everywhere, staining the wood and the already dirty cloth wrapped around the larger creature’s waist and coating Erik’s vision in red. The larger monster jammed its knife into the floor and gripped the smaller one’s hips, grinding their pelvises together in a sickening mockery of intimacy. Something lodged itself in Erik’s stomach as he watched. This was his chance to run, while both of these things were lost in their depravity, but he couldn’t get his feet to move.
Somehow, the smaller creature continued to struggle, even though its chains were drawn taught with a pull of the larger one’s wrist. The larger one soon grew tired of the fight, and it drew its knife out of the floor. When it came crashing down on the smaller one’s legs, slicing through muscle and bone like they were nothing, Erik burst from the door and fled down the hall, unable to watch for a second longer.
There was nothing for him here but death. He was going to kill Frost and whoever else was behind this when he finally made it out of here. And his encounter with that terrible little girl only proved to Erik that Charles was here somehow, and he still poisoning children against him. Just like old times. Erik needed to find the girl. If he found her, surely Charles would have to be close by. He never could find it in him to abandon a child. Erik tightened his grip on his pipe and quickened his pace. There were secrets buried within secrets here, and he was going to find out exactly what was going on.
The pipe fell to the floor with a clang as Erik steadied his grip on the window frame. Thank god the glass had long since been swept away. He pulled himself up through the hole, his arms straining, and crashed to the frayed carpet below as his body fell in through the hole. He had been ambushed at the last building, and his meager excuse of a weapon was not nearly as effective as he’d hoped.
He pulled himself up to a crouch and took in his surroundings. It was a bedroom, or, it had been at some point. At least the furniture here was mostly in tact, and there was nothing in here trying to kill—
He started, his eyes darting to a full-length mirror at his right.
She was lying on the floor, her blonde hair spilling out behind her in a messy pile. So much for the perfect image she always seemed to strive for. Through the mirror, Erik could see her running her fingers along the edge of a knife. Its blade was wedged deep into the floor.
Erik tensed and grabbed for his pipe, ready for her to make the first move. There was no way she hadn’t heard his clumsy entrance, and she was the one in control here.
“I thought you told me to stay away from here, Emma. I see you’re not one for following your own advice.”
She said nothing and pulled the knife out of the floor. Erik watched her painted lips pull into a smile through the glass of the mirror. She was laughing at him. “I can see you trembling,” she said as she pushed herself up from the floor. “Are you afraid, Erik? You should be.”
Erik stood and backed up to the wall as Emma rose to her feet and turned to face him. He pulled his pipe back, prepared to swing and crush her skull if she made another move toward him. “Are you planning to kill me, Frost? I know you’re the one making me see all the strange things here in this town, and I’m not going down without taking you with me.”
Emma shook her head. “And that’s where you’d be wrong, sugar.” She threw her arms wide. Her smile never wavered. “I’m not going to hurt you, Erik, but if you want to strike, you should know that there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
His eyes shot to the knife in her hand before darting back to her face, and she followed the line of his thoughts in the emotions flitted hard and fast across his face. “Ah, I see.”
She turned the knife around and held the blade in her palm, extending the handle out for him to grab. He saw now that there was blood on the metal. The red smeared onto her pale skin, staining it with color.
“You should take it if it makes you so nervous,” she said softly, almost as if she was speaking to a child. “I need someone to safeguard it for me anyway.”
They were at a stalemate. Erik made no move to take the knife from her, and Emma’s smile faltered for a moment. “I’m not going to hurt you, Erik,” she repeated. “It’s too much trouble for me at this point, and I need this kept safe. You’re the only one I can trust at this point.”
Erik narrowed his eyes in suspicion, but he relaxed a little, letting his arms fall to his sides. “So you’re not the one behind this?”
“No, sugar. I’m in this just as deep as you.”
Erik looked down at the knife, at the smooth line of metal pressed into the skin of her fingers. There was a shuffling sound coming from the room below them. More monsters, most likely. They had to resolve this quickly. “How do I know I can trust you?”
Erik stared at her for a moment before stepping forward and lifting the knife from her hands. Something in her deflated with the loss of her weapon, but her smile softened as she watched him wipe the blade clean on his pants and tuck it into his belt. Then, without warning, she reached out and wrapped her hands around his jaw, pulling him down to her level and pressing their lips together in a chaste kiss.
“Thanks,” she murmured quietly as she pulled away. Erik steadied his grip on his pipe, still reeling from the warmth of her body against his. More shuffling. The sound of something heavy hitting the floor. Erik swallowed and stared at Emma. The blood on her hands was distracting, jarring against the familiar white of her skin and clothes. He wiped at his face, sure that she had left smudges of it behind on his skin.
She stepped back and made for the door. Erik made no move to stop her, but the knife in his belt and the thought of the creatures outside had something catching in his throat. “Wait. Your telepathy, it’s gone too, isn’t it?”
Emma nodded, and Erik pulled the knife from his belt.
“Then why are you giving me your last weapon?”
Her smile returned with full force. “Don’t worry about me, Erik. I’ve got everything under control.” She spun on her heel and walked out into the hallway, leaving Erik where he stood, dumbfounded.
His fingers ran over the knife’s smooth handle, growing accustomed to the weight and feel of the weapon. The knife would help, yes, but it was nothing compared to some of the things he had seen. What good would it do against a creature with the strength to dismember a person in a single blow? A dark red helmet, familiar and yet so very alien, flashed in his memory. Charles sat before him, defiant and smug as ever, until strong arms wrapped around his neck to silence him. Erik squeezed his eyes shut, pinching the bridge of his nose in a desperate attempt to ward the images away. There was nothing there. It was all in his head. He steadied his breathing and scanned the room, hoping to find something useful before he moved on. This place was driving him insane.
The street was dark and deserted. Erik held his flashlight steady, though the small beam of light did little to cut through the fog. Night had fallen, but Erik was far too anxious to sleep. There were monsters everywhere he looked, and the blood on his hands was making him itch. Best to use the time searching. Maybe he would find something useful in one of the buildings he had left to search, like more batteries for the light he now held in his hand.
As he walked under the dim yellow glow of a streetlamp, his eye caught on thick blue lines of chalk looping around one another on the wall beside him. It was a child’s drawing, though he couldn’t quite make out what it was in the fog. Erik pressed his palm to the brick and let the cold seep into him.
“You’re going to get killed being all distracted like that. They like easy targets.”
Erik’s head shot up, and there, sitting atop the wall was the little girl he had met in the first apartment building. Her bare feet swung back and forth lazily as she watched him from her perch. In her hand was a blank crumpled envelope, crushed tight between her thigh and the wall.
His face twisted into a frown. “You almost got me killed earlier with that little stunt of yours.”
She shrugged and looked out into the fog. Erik couldn’t for the life of him place her in his memory, but something about her face and her demeanor was so familiar it ached. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
Her nose wrinkled in distaste and turned away without a word. She pulled the letter onto her lap, rumpling the paper even more.
Erik growled at her stubborn silence. Fine. So she wanted to be difficult. This would be no different than dealing with fussy child recruits. He pointed at the letter, hoping that might get her to reveal something. “What is that you have? Is it from Charles?”
That definitely got her attention. She jumped to her feet and glared at him, her eyes flashing strangely yellow in the light. “Shut up! You don’t know anything! You just…you stay away from him!” Suddenly, it hit him. He knew who she was.
It was impossible. He’d left her back at base. She was his second-in-command, far more competent than any of the others in their group, and one of the only people he trusted to keep things in order if he was ever out of commission. But the strangely yellow eyes, the shape of her mouth, the pink skin and blonde hair she had so favored when Erik first met her, it was all Raven. Somehow, it had to be her. The little girl’s face twisted with something like hate, and she bolted, taking the letter and her secrets with her.
Erik’s footsteps echoed loudly in his ears as he ran, but Raven was long gone, lost to him in the fog. He slowed his pace to catch his breath, cursing her in his head. It didn’t make any sense. None of this did.
His control over metal had disappeared as had Frost’s telepathy if her word was to be trusted. If she was even real in the first place. How, then, could Raven look like a little girl? She wasn’t able to change her shape to something that small and hold it for that long, was she? And if so, how was she the only one still left with her abilities? Erik carded his fingers through his hair and tried to catch his breath, but faint puffs of hysterical laughter continued to bubble out of his throat.
Nothing was making sense.
He fell to his knees, dropping his pipe on the asphalt with a loud clatter. He was hallucinating. There was no other explanation. Why else would Raven be here? Why else was he seeing demons rise up out of the fog to tear him apart as their own bodies decayed before him?
Metal scraped against the pavement in front of him, moving in time with heavy, plodding footsteps. Erik lifted his head and saw a tall, dark shadow moving toward him through the fog, the clink of chains following its every step. The helmeted creature. It was coming for him.
Erik scrambled for his fallen pipe, cursing his previous bout of weakness. The sound of its footsteps grew louder and louder with every passing second; the monster moved faster than he remembered. Erik wrapped his hand around the solid curve of the pipe just as the thing came into view. It towered over him, and he stared, awestruck, at the giant arc of the helmet’s edge and the pulse of muscles in the creature’s body as it pulled back its arm in preparation to strike.
The knife came down hard, and Erik jumped out of the way, his mind jolting back into focus. Head shots were probably useless, but a few solid blows to the body and legs could very well disorient it long enough for him to escape. Getting it on the ground was all he needed to do. Erik steadied his grip and looked for an opening as it heaved its weapon up from the ground.
The creature’s knife was heavy, and it took it far too long for the monster to heft the weapon back into the air. That would work well to Erik’s advantage.
It swung at him again, and Erik used the opportunity to strike. He rolled to miss the blade and swung hard at its ankle with his pipe, causing the creature to stumble. This was going to be more difficult than he had expected. He was going to have to try a slightly different approach. Erik’s hand whipped to his belt where Emma’s knife sat against his hip, and he jammed the blade into the back of the monster’s knee and quickly pulled it out again with a hard twist of his hand. He heard the chains hanging from its arms hit the ground before the monster actually fell.
Erik stood, panting, as the thing groped for its injured knee. It was strange; Erik would have thought that the thing would still be covered in blood—it hadn’t been that long since he’d left the apartments, had it?—but it looked just the same as it had when he’d first seen it. Nothing about it had changed, and now that he could see the helmet without a door impeding his view, Erik realized that there was no doubt that it was modeled after his own. Someone was toying with him. Someone who knew he was more than Erik Lehnsherr. Someone who knew that he and the notorious Magneto were one and the same.
Erik slid the knife back into his belt and readied his pipe. A chest blow probably wouldn’t kill it, but he doubted that he could lift the ridiculous weapon the thing had dropped with its fall, and there was little hope of him getting that damn helmet off without injury. Besides, if this thing’s skin was really as thin as it looked, he would do a decent amount of damage regardless of whether or not his weapon had a sharp edge to it. He lifted the pipe above his head and swung down hard.
The blow never made it. Erik’s arms ached with the impact, but instead of hitting the creature’s chest, the thing’s massive hand was wrapped around the heavy metal tube. With a tight squeeze, the pipe crumpled like paper in its hand, and the monster jerked the heavy pipe out of Erik’s grip like it was nothing. Erik staggered back. There was no chance of him killing it now, not when he couldn’t hit it from a distance and his only reasonable weapon had just been taken from him. He turned and ran, praying that whatever it was, it had been alone.
Erik ran like the dogs of hell were on his heels. He had no direction, no idea where he was going. All he knew was that he needed to get out of this god-forsaken town. The buildings began to thin around him, and he slowed. There was a lake not too far off. Rosewater Park. A hotel rose up there, just across the water. Charles had always insisted on meeting there for some reason. It was a quiet place, and a bit distant from the town proper; perhaps the remoteness had helped Charles forget that they were enemies for a while. Erik wasn’t sure why it hadn’t occurred to him until now to check there.
He walked toward the docks, his hand never straying far from his knife in case something decided to come at him again. He wasn’t strong enough to take on the helmeted thing again should it somehow find a way back to its feet.
The docks slowly came into view, and Erik jarred to a halt at the sight of the figure leaning against one of the wooden guardrails. He narrowed his eyes, trying to get a better look. It looked human enough, but he couldn’t be sure. He pulled out his knife and held it at the ready, just in case.
As he drew nearer, he could see that the person—a man, by the looks of it—was definitely human and very much alone. Erik stared at the man’s bare arms and wondered if he felt the cold creeping over them now that the sun was all but gone. Erik slowed as he grew closer and tried to keep as quiet as possible, but the man never once seemed to notice him, he was so lost in watching the fog roll in off the water.
Something about him was oddly familiar. Erik tried to place him, but he hadn’t run into a single person in this town other than Emma and his half-imagined vision of Raven. The man shifted, and for just a moment, Erik’s heart stopped. It couldn’t be. His fingers loosened around the knife in his hand, and the blade dropped to the wood below with a clatter.
“Charles?” So the letter wasn’t a fake. Charles wasn’t dead. Someone had been lying to him all this time. Charles had been lying to him all this time.
The man spun around, and Erik found himself staring down the barrel of a shotgun, held in the firm, steady hands of a man who should be long dead. Oh, god, it really was a trap, wasn’t it. The man wearing Charles’s face narrowed his eyes in suspicion; his gaze never once strayed from Erik’s face.
“Who are you, and how do you know my name?”
Erik’s voice caught in his throat. This man, this Charles, couldn’t possibly be a day over thirty, and there wasn’t even the barest hint of recognition in his voice. Erik scrubbed at his face, hoping that this illusion would quickly disappear, or that perhaps whatever had been hunting him all this time would finally show up and kill them both for good.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled half into his sleeve as he rubbed his eyes. “I thought you were someone else.”
“And this someone else somehow has my name?” the man scoffed, and Erik could only laugh at the absurdity of it all. Even the accent was the same.
When he looked up, Charles was still watching him warily. Erik wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch him. He had to find out if he really was going mad here.
“Is this other Charles an enemy of yours?”
“I—” Yes. “No. Not really.”
Charles nodded down at the blade in Erik’s hand, never once letting his gun slip. “Then is that just how you greet people? Come at them with a knife?”
“What?” Erik looked down at the blade and jerked back. “No! No, I just…there are things back there. They’re trying to kill me, or at least I think they are.” Erik gestured back at the town behind him. He still hadn’t quite convinced himself that he wasn’t hallucinating, that monsters really existed and men could come back from the dead. He still couldn’t quite believe that all of this was somehow real.
“So you can see them.” Charles finally lowered his gun, and Erik could breathe again. “The monsters, I mean.”
Erik nodded. Something in him was twisting uncomfortably at the sound of Charles’s voice. This couldn’t possibly be real, but seeing Charles again, alive and well after all this time, stung like salt on an open wound. He swallowed and took in the man in front of him, trying to find all the little details that didn’t add up. He looked younger than Erik remembered, more like when they’d first met than when Erik had last seen him. His style of dress was all wrong, too—Erik had never seen Charles in clothes like that—and he had more hair than when Erik had last seen him. Of course, there was the fact that he was up and walking, something Charles had said after Cuba that he’d never be able to do again. It was unnerving. Like talking to Charles’s ghost.
Charles flicked the safety of his gun back on, and his lips pulled back in a smirk that pulled Erik out of his trance. “You should take a picture. It’ll last longer.”
“Sorry. I just—you look exactly like Charles, and I don’t—” Erik cut himself off. His garbled explanation wasn’t going to convince anyone that he was sane. Hell, Erik himself wasn’t fully convinced that he was still sane.
Erik’s face lit up in a flush as he went silent, and he dropped to a crouch to pick up his knife, avoiding Charles’s gaze as best he could. Charles leaned back against the railing and looked down at him, smoothing his long fingers over the handle of the gun. “You’re looking for him, aren’t you? This other Charles. I assume he means something special to you.”
“Yes.” Erik stood and let out a breathy, half-crazed laugh as he raked the fingers of his free hand through his hair. “But as much as you two look alike, you can’t possibly be him unless I’m dreaming. He’s dead.”
Charles raised an eyebrow skeptically. “And I’m his ghost.”
“Yes. Maybe. I don’t know.” He looked at Charles and tried to quell the hysterical laughter that was bubbling up in his chest. “I don’t know if you’re even real.” He was insane; he had to be. Nothing was making sense anymore.
A gentle touch to his arm brought Erik back to reality. Charles was looking up at him in full now, his eyes brimming with a strange sort of sympathy that was so very Charles that it made Erik ache. The man before him placed his hand over Erik’s heart, and the warmth of his palm seeped into Erik’s chest through the fabric of his shirt. Erik closed his eyes and let himself breathe, losing himself for a moment in the illusion.
“I’m real, you know.” Hell, even their accents were the same. “I’m not a ghost. I may not be the Charles you’re looking for, but maybe I can help you find him.”
Erik staggered back, his face twisting in confusion. “I can’t. You’re not Charles. You aren’t real.”
The man before him—damn him for wearing Charles’s face—shot him a pitying smile with a small roll of his eyes, something the Charles Erik knew would never have done. The little gesture brought reality back to him. “Not your Charles, maybe, but I’m just as alive and real as you are.”
Charles looked down then, a small frown pinching the sin of his brow together. “There’s one thing I don’t understand, however. If the man you’re looking for is dead, why would he be here of all places? I mean, I guess it’s possible that you just forgot where he was buried, but did you check the cemetery outside of town? There are a lot of people who aren’t from around here who get buried there because they like the scenery or something.”
Erik swallowed. “He’s not—I got a letter.”
“A letter?” Charles looked nervously over his shoulder, almost as though he was looking for an escape route. His hand was tight around his gun, and Erik had little doubt that Charles was more than ready to shoot him at a moment’s notice. Erik didn’t blame him. He would do the same if he was the one trapped on a dock with an armed, obviously insane man babbling on about letters and the ghosts of dead lovers when they were trapped on the outskirts of a town infested with nightmares.
“I—he sent me a letter. Three days ago.” Erik pulled out the crumpled envelope from his pocket. “This. It said he was here, waiting for me.”
The pity crept back onto Charles’s face. “Are you sure it isn’t some sort of joke? I can’t think of why anyone would want to come here of all places. But I suppose if he was actually dead…”
Erik cut him off. “The things in town, have they been here a while?”
Charles nodded, and Erik’s suspicion rose. “Then why are you still here? There’s no one else—”
“No.” Charles sounded oddly worried now. He reached out with his empty hand to grab at Erik’s wrist, a vague attempt to keep him from running off. It didn’t matter. Erik would have stayed anyway. “You’re wrong. There is someone else. A little girl. I found her a while ago, but she ran off before I could get to her. I thought she might have come here to hide out near the water, maybe in one of the boats, but so far the only other person I’ve seen is you.”
“I see.” Erik’s eyes swept over Charles, taking in his mussed hair, his slightly disheveled clothes, the gun clenched tightly in his hand. He seemed far too sincere, just like the real Charles, and his lies were terribly convincing. Unless all of this was a trick or some sort of horrible dream. The little girl Charles spoke of sounded suspiciously like Raven. Erik wondered if she would have any answers about all this. He sighed and looked out over the water toward the hotel. It was still his best shot at finding the real Charles if he was even here. He shook his head and tucked his knife away into his belt. “Come on, then. Maybe we can both find who we’re searching for if we stick together.”
Even though the darkness kept it mostly obscured, the hotel looked almost exactly the way Erik remembered from all those years ago. Tiny purple flowers bloomed along the sidewalk, barely visible in the light of the dim yellow lamps lining the walk and mostly obscured by the lingering fog. Erik approached the door warily and placed his palms flat against the wood, listening carefully for anything moving around inside. It killed him not to be able to feel the doorknob, the hinges. Everything felt so wrong here. Charles was probably listening in on his thoughts now, too, no matter what Frost claimed about her own missing powers.
He whipped around at Charles’s shout, only to see Raven’s bare feet slip over the edge of an open window as she ducked inside the building. The two men raced over to it, but the little girl was gone, lost in the dark.
“We have to go in after her,” Charles said, his voice laced with worry. “What if there’s something in there?”
Erik nodded. He’d seen what those things did to each other, what they tried to do to him, and as heartless as people claimed he could be, he wasn’t about to let a child walk willingly into danger if he could help it. Especially when she quite possibly held the answers to just what in the hell was going on in this town. Erik traced his hand along the window frame.
“It’s too small for either of us to fit through. We’ll have to try the front door.” He turned to face Charles but quickly turned his eyes away from the other man’s face. It was hard not to see the idealistic man he once knew in the face of the Charles standing before him, and now that Raven—no, he needed to focus. He cleared his throat and made for the door, not sparing Charles a second glance. “Keep your gun handy. We might need it.”
The door stuck a little when they tried to open it, but it wasn’t locked. The heavy scent of blood filled the air as they walked inside. Charles coughed and gagged into his sleeve as Erik groped around for a light switch. “Come off it, Charles,” Erik muttered impatiently. His hand brushed along the wall, sticking slightly in places until he felt the hard jab of a light switch against his palm. He flicked the lights on with a flip of his fingers, flooding the room with light. Charles stumbled back and fell to the floor, scrambling to get away from the grisly scene in the center of the room.
It looked human, or, well, parts of it did. It was hard to tell with so much blood. Erik grimaced at the clump of hair clinging to his shoe and scraped it off onto the floor. He made his way to the front desk, hoping to find something of use there, perhaps another weapon they could use. The drawers yielded little but pens and loose paper, but he found a flashlight amidst the rubbish that, amazingly, still worked, though the light flickered a bit when he turned it on. Nonetheless, it would be useful; better than fumbling around in the dark, anyway. He looked up for his companion only to find Charles pressed hard against the wall, staring madly at what looked like clawed fingers laying within arm’s reach of where he sat. Erik sighed turned toward the hall leading to the rooms on the first floor. Little bloody footprints trailed away on the carpet toward the stairs. Raven.
“Come on, Charles. She went this way.”
He started for the hall, but stopped when he couldn’t hear the now familiar beat of Charles’s footsteps following along behind him. He turned back. Charles was still hunched up against the wall, eyes still fixed on the mess on the floor. Erik stormed over to him and lifted him to his feet. “What is the matter with you? It’s just a bit of blood. You’ve seen worse, I’m sure. Actually, I’m fairly certain you and your students have done worse than this.”
Charles’s blue eyes were wide and frantic, and his body trembled like a leaf under Erik’s hands. “I…I don’t…students?”
“Never mind,” Erik growled through his teeth. He wrenched the gun from where it rested at Charles’s hip and pointed the flashlight at the footprints. “She went that way. Now, do you want to find Raven, or do you want to stand here sniveling about someone—or something, even—that’s already dead?”
Charles swallowed and snatched the gun back, his momentary anger overriding his distress. “Fuck you. I’m not a child.”
“Then quit acting like one.” Erik shoved him back and made for the hall, Charles now hot on his heels.
Charles heard the shuffling first. He tugged on Erik’s sleeve to get his attention and pointed toward one of the closed rooms lining the hall with his gun. Without warning, something slammed up against the door, and Charles’s gun went off like a bomb, shattering the silence with the crack of gunpowder.
Whatever was behind the door fell and was now scrabbling weakling at the wood, nails catching on the small jagged hole Charles’s gun had left behind.
Erik turned his light onto Charles. He looked shaken, but whole. Something about him in that moment seemed so very, very young in a way that Erik had never seen before.
“Do you want to know what you just shot?” Erik flicked his flashlight at the door, and Charles shook his head. His breathing was oddly ragged.
“No. Let’s just keep going.” He lowered the gun, but the tension in his arms remained, the muscles so tight it left him shaking.
Erik huffed out an unamused breath of laughter. “I don’t understand you.”
Charles fixed him with a confused frown and waited for Erik to elaborate.
“You’re a war veteran. You threatened to kill me with no hesitation maybe an hour ago without the slightest tremor in your hand, and yet, ever since we set foot in here, you have been acting like you’ve never killed something before.”
Charles’s frown deepened. “At least I’m not seeing the ghost of a dead man walking around with me,” he sneered, and the tone of his voice jarred Erik back to reality. He remembered now. This man wasn’t supposed to be Charles, no matter how much his mind tried to convince him it was so. “And I don’t know why you keep trying to turn me into this guy you’re looking for, but I’ve never been a soldier.”
Erik shook his head in a half-hearted attempt to clear it and pressed the heel of his palm to his eyes.
“Sorry. I—” forgot that you are not supposed to be him “forgot for a moment. You look a lot like the man I want to find.”
“So you said before,” Charles spat, his blue eyes burning.
Erik sighed and continued down the hall. “Never mind. Let’s just keep going. Raven’s only a little girl; she can’t have gone far.”
Raven’s footsteps quickly dried up and disappeared, leaving them with nothing to follow. The last room on the second floor was just as empty as all the others had been. Erik sighed and leaned up against the wall, carding his fingers through his hair in frustration. “Do you think she’s gone up another level somehow?”
“Maybe.” Charles sat down on the edge of the bed and began to rub at the small of his back, his face tight with pain.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a muscle spasm or something.”
“You were limping earlier,” Erik observed.
Charles simply shrugged, brushing it off as nothing. Erik frowned, but he didn’t question it. He took one last look around the room. There was nothing here of use and no sign of Raven anywhere. It was like she had disappeared into thin air.
“Are you okay to keep going?” Erik really did not like the pallor on Charles’s face and the way he winced when his fingers pressed against the small of his back.
“Yeah, I think so.” Charles pushed himself to his feet, but as soon as he stumbled away from the bed, he promptly fell to the floor, curling up around his knees with a whimper. Erik’s heart began to pound, and his eyes darted for the door. What if there was something lurking just outside, ready to attack them while they were down? Erik rushed over to the other man and shook his shoulder. “Charles, you have to get up.”
“I know, I know,” Charles grit out through his teeth. “It hurts.”
Erik smoothed his hand down Charles’s back, and he froze when he hit an all too familiar knot of scar tissue. He remembered that scar. After all, he’d been the one to put it there. He swallowed, pushing down the horrible feeling rising up in his chest. He was imagining it. This man wasn’t Charles, not really. Someone was messing with him; they had to be.
Erik looked toward the door. He couldn’t afford to have his companion slowing him down, not when there was a missing child to be found and demons hiding around every corner. There were no shuffling sounds, no thuds or dragging to indicate a monster’s presence, but that didn’t mean anything, did it? Charles had killed something just down the hallway, and there hadn’t been much of a warning before it was too late then. They weren’t safe here.
“Charles, do you think you can walk?”
“I don’t know. Help me get up,” he panted as he looped his arm over Erik’s shoulder for leverage, and he bit back a cry as Erik lifted him to his feet. They staggered as a unit to the bed, and Charles collapsed onto the mattress with a hiss. Charles buried his face in his hands. “I don’t know why this is happening,” he murmured weakly through his fingers.
Erik straightened and turned back to the door, half expecting to find the helmeted monster from earlier standing in the hall. Every nerve in his body was thrumming with nervous energy.
“Charles.” He couldn’t stay here any longer, but he couldn’t just leave Charles behind.
The younger man looked up at him, and Erik could see the pain written across his face. “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”
Charles snapped into action from where he lay on the bed, and Erik found himself staring down the barrel of the other man’s gun. Charles’s thumb clicked the safety out of place, and Erik froze. So. This was it. He was going to die at the hands of this man, this hallucination. Maybe he had already died, and this town was his punishment for everything he’d done wrong in his life.
Erik scarcely dared to breathe.
“Go,” Charles hissed. “I can take care of myself for a bit. Just find Raven.”
Erik backed away. The metal around him was just as dead as it had ever been in this god forsaken town. He couldn’t feel the bullet in the gun; he couldn’t stop it if he tried should Charles decide to change his mind about letting him live. “I’ll come back for you,” he said, surprising himself when he found it to be true. Charles’s expression softened, but he held the gun steady.
“Go, before I change my mind.”
Charles would be fine. He had a weapon, and he could use it if needed. Erik spared him one last glance before he darted out into the hall, knife at the ready for anything that might be lurking in the dark.
I see that things haven’t changed for you.
Erik paused. Charles’s voice was ringing in his ears, faded and echoing like a half-forgotten memory. He flashed his light behind him, but the hall was just as empty as it had been a moment ago.
Still abandoning people when their usefulness runs out.
“Who’s there?” His heart was pounding in his chest now. This had to be telepathy, or at least something similar. Charles must have played dumb about it, tricked him into believing that he was someone else. Or maybe the man Erik had left behind really was someone else, and whoever was controlling this whole thing was toying with him by using Charles’s face and now his voice.
It’s a rather cruel gesture, you know. I trusted you.
“Charles?” He was going mad. He pulled out his knife and slice it through the air in front of him in frustration, cutting through the invisible demons that were haunting him. “Where in the hell are you? Why did you send me here?” His knees were growing weak now, his chest tight. “Why are you doing this?”
“You know you’re leading them right to you, right? With all that yelling and stuff.”
Erik spun around, his knife at the ready, only to find Raven leaning up against the doorframe of one of the many rooms at his side, the crumpled envelope from before clenched tight in her little fist. Her eyes flashed amber in the thin beam of his flashlight, and she flinched away from the light.
Erik relaxed, his hand falling back to his side. “I’ve been looking for you, you know.”
“Why?” she sneered.
“Does it matter?” His eyes swept over her. She looked dirty and maybe a little ruffled, but unhurt, and he breathed a sigh of relief. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Neither should you.”
“Then you should come along with me, Raven. The sooner we get out of here the better.” Erik sheathed his knife and held out his empty hand for her to take, but she backed out of his reach.
“How do you know my name?”
All right. He could play this game. “Charles told me.”
Her face screwed up in anger, and she clutched tight at the fabric of her skirt, but she stayed rooted in place. “You’re a liar.”
“No, I’m not. Charles is just downstairs, in room two, ah, two-fourteen. He told me he was looking for you, and he’s waiting for me to get back to him.”
She tightened her grip on the hem of her skirt. “I don’t believe you. He would be here.”
Erik was starting to lose patience. They were wasting time. “He couldn’t make it up the stairs,” he explained with a sigh. “But if you don’t want—” Suddenly, he was hit with the smell of rotting flesh, the sound of shuffling, half-formed feet, and he darted forward, sweeping Raven into his arms as he scrambled for a place to hide.
“Hey! Let go of me! Let go!” She kicked at his shins as he dragged her toward the stairs. There was something up here, and it wasn’t hindered by a door. He hadn’t been able to kill the helmeted creature. What if it had somehow followed him all the way here? Raven continued to struggle in his grip, curses spilling from her mouth like water, and Erik slapped a hand over her mouth.
“Shut up.” The shuffling was growing louder, and something was moaning, no, screaming, at the backs. “Do you hear that?” he hissed. “Something’s after us.” She stilled and quieted, but continued to glare daggers in his direction. This was no little girl he held in his arms. This was a violent young woman trapped in a child’s body, the Raven he left behind at base somehow toying with him in this nightmare. His chest filled with a burning rage as he looked at her. Why would she do this to him after everything he’d done for her?
He opened his mouth to reprimand her when the monster finally came into view. It was unlike any he had seen thus far—two creatures tied together at the waist with flesh and bone in a cruel parody of an embrace. The smaller one curled away from its companion, its back twisted in a painful, broken arch as it struggled to break free, and it screamed from a jagged, bleeding mouth with every step.
Erik pressed a hand to Raven’s collarbone and gently guided her behind him. She gripped the back of his pants like a lifeline and stepped back. The wooden stair creaked with her weight, and the creature went silent.
Erik bolted forward, his knife in hand, as the creature fell to the floor and scrabbled forward on its knees to get to them. Raven hadn’t listened to him at all; she was still standing behind him, dumbstruck. “What the hell are you doing? Run!” Erik snapped. Something sharp ripped across his face, and he fell to the steps. Raven began to scream, and the monster met her with screams of its own as it inched toward her, claws scraping loudly against the frayed carpet.
From his spot on the floor, Erik could see the creature’s hands were red with his blood, and he lost himself in it. He lunged forward and jammed the blade of his knife into what looked like the creature’s neck, or one of them, anyway. It scrabbled at his jacket, tearing the heavy leather sleeves with its grotesque, disfigured arms as it died. Erik wrenched the knife free and stabbed again, closer to the gaping mouth this time, and the thing finally stilled.
Erik let his arms fall to his sides as he tried to catch his breath. Lines of fire ran up the side of his face. Raven leapt forward and slammed into his shoulder, throwing him onto the stairs as her small arms wrapped around his neck.
“Don’t leave me. You can’t leave again. I promise I’ll be good. I’ll listen this time, I swear—”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Erik edged away from the monster’s corpse, Raven held tight in his arms. Just because the thing wasn’t moving didn’t mean that it was well and truly dead. What little he could see of her pale blue dress was stained with smears of blood from his torn cheek. He brushed a hand down her hair to calm her. “What are you talking about?”
She pulled back from him and wiped away the thin tracks of tears working their way down her face. “He promised he wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“Who promised, Raven?”
Her face crumbled and she surged forward once more, burying her head in the crook of his neck. “He promised,” she mumbled.
Erik unwound her hands from around his neck and pushed himself to his feet. He swiped a hand across his face to wipe the drying blood out of his mouth. His face burned enough to make his eyes water, but he held onto his composure.
“We need to keep moving,” he said, inching back toward the creature’s body to retrieve his knife. “Are you going to be okay?”
She nodded and reached for his hand, winding her fingers around his to keep him close. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the stairwell as they made their way down to the second floor. Charles was waiting for them.
Erik nearly collapsed in relief when they rounded the hall to Charles’s room. He tapped on the door with his knuckle. “Charles. Charles, I found Raven.” There was no answer. His hand tightened around Raven’s. “Charles?” Nothing.
Erik pushed the door open and stepped inside, the mad pounding of his heart filling his head with static. The room was empty, save for Charles’s gun and a thick smear of blood on the mattress where Erik had left him.
Raven shoved at him and tore herself out of his grip. “You’re a liar! I knew it!” The tears were back. Erik didn’t know what to do; Charles was missing, and he was left with a hysterical child whose moods changed faster than he could ever hope to track.
“It’s all your fault!” she screamed. Something was moving around above them, shuffling and stumbling across the floor toward the source of the noise. “You killed him! He told me that it was you, and I didn’t listen. It’s your fault he broke his promise.”
Erik knelt down in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. “Raven, you need to calm down.”
“Let go of me!” She twisted away and tore out of the room.
“Raven! Come back!” He ran for the door after her, tripping over his feet as he reached the doorframe, but she was gone. He’d lost them both. Erik slid down to his knees as a wave of fatigue hit him like a sledgehammer. He had no idea what he was doing anymore. Everyone was gone, and he was alone.
Something was following him, but Erik could hardly bring himself to care. The gun hung heavily in his hand, a dead weight, as he staggered toward the stairs. There had been no sign of either of his companions since he’d lost sight of Raven on the second floor. Charles had to be dead. There were no two ways about that, and Raven blamed Erik for his death.
His flashlight flickered and went out as he stumbled down the steps toward the hotel’s basement. He slapped the thing against his palm, but it was dead. It was pitch black down here, and everything smelled of damp and mold. He groped for the wall, hoping to keep himself grounded as he searched for something, though he wasn’t quite sure what. Someone was following him, matching his heavy footfalls with their own.
“All right. You’ve had your fun. What more do you want from me?” he shouted out into the dark.
“I want you to remember.”
Erik froze. Emma. So she was the behind this, the one making him see all these things that couldn’t possibly exist.
“I thought you said your telepathy was gone, Frost.”
Oh, but it is, Erik. She’s not the one in control here.
“Very good, Erik. I expected no less from you.”
Erik closed his eyes and let his shoulders drop. “Why are you doing this, Charles?”
Emma’s thin, feminine hands wrapped around his neck from behind. “I needed you to remember.” Her voice blended into Charles’s smooth baritone. “You need to remember what you did.”
It was an accident.
“It was an accident,” Erik whispered.
“You always were the most terrible liar, Erik.”
“I always knew it would be you, in the end,” Charles whispered as Erik’s hands wrapped under his chin from behind, his voice heavy with resignation.
“I’m sorry, Charles.”
Charles leaned back against Erik’s chest and closed his eyes. “Don’t lie to me, Erik. You’ve always been a terrible liar.”
Erik stumbled back, but Emma’s hand held him in place. “That isn’t real. You’re lying to me.”
It was over in an instant. A single sharp twist of his hands and Charles toppled from his wheelchair to the floor, little more than a child’s plaything with the head turned all the wrong way.
The human neck was such a fragile thing.
Erik pulled at the short ends of his hair. “That’s not…It was an accident. You fell.”
Charles appeared before him, as young, healthy and vibrant as he was when Erik had first met him. His smile was cold and calculating, and it sent Erik’s heart up into his throat.
“You know that isn’t true, Erik.”
Something was dragging along the floor, something heavy and metallic. It was so hard to see anything in the dark. The shuffling steps, though, those were unmistakable.
“Charles, what are you—”
He saw the red glint of the helmet a second too late, and suddenly Charles was falling, a gaping hole torn through his back by the helmeted monster’s blade. A primal scream tore itself from Erik’s throat, and he surged forward, only to find himself still trapped in Emma’s embrace.
He pulled at her hands, but her skin melted away under his fingers. The smell of rotting flesh filled his senses, and he struggled in her grip as he choked. The clawed hands at his throat tore fresh lines of fire across his neck as he desperately tried to break free.
The helmeted monster jerked Charles up from the ground by the back of his neck, and for a moment their eyes locked. The disguise had now faded away into nothing, leaving behind the man Erik had been searching for.
You did this to me.
You took away everything.
“Charles, stop this.”
The monster began to squeeze, and a strangled cry wrenched its way out of Charles’s mouth, and suddenly Erik felt the pulse of metal singing through the room. Everything—the monster’s knife, its smooth red helmet, the gun in his hand—was coming to life all around him. Erik let go of his weapon and let it drift up into the air, aimed directly at the monster’s heart.
“Let him go.” A deadly calm washed over him as power surged through his veins. The monster only squeezed tighter, and Erik pulled the trigger. Once, twice, three times. The creature loosed its hold on Charles and fell to the ground. The pressure on Erik’s neck vanished, and he stumbled forward, letting the gun fall to the floor with a clatter.
Charles wasn’t moving. Just looking at him had red hot anger bubbling up in Erik’s chest. The man was still alive somehow, and he had been playing with him this whole time, blaming Erik for a crime he never committed. It was just like Xavier: always playing the victim.
Erik knelt down onto the floor and pulled Charles up onto his lap. The other man smiled up at him, his lips ringed with blood.
“Have you figured it out yet?” Charles’s voice was rough, but his tone light. Erik dug his nails into the man’s shoulders in frustration.
“What game are you playing at, Charles? Why did you make everyone think you were dead?”
“I am dead.”
“You are not! You’re right here! With me!”
Charles turned and lifted himself out of Erik’s grip. The hole in his back disappeared before Erik’s eyes, the marks and lines on his face fading away to smooth, unblemished skin. He reached forward and wrapped Erik’s hands around his own. The skin was like ice, colder than Erik would have ever believed possible. “Am I really?”
Erik had no answer for that. This was all a game, nothing more than the vengeful tricks of a deranged telepath. Charles smiled and brushed his fingers over the curve of Erik’s jaw before pulling him in close and sealing their lips together in a kiss.
It was all wrong. Nothing about this was real. It couldn’t be real. Charles grew colder and colder under Erik’s hands, and he smiled against Erik’s lips. “Tell Raven that I love her.” And the dark swallowed them whole.
Raven—no, Mystique’s—yellow eyes were burning when he finally walked in through the door to their base. “Where the hell have you been? We’ve been trying to find you for almost two weeks now. We thought you were dead.”
The words stuck in Erik’s throat as his eyes swept over her, taking in her familiar form. She looked exactly as she had when he’d left, wearing every inch of her scaled blue skin proudly. There wasn’t a trace of the angry little girl he’d seen in his nightmare.
“You haven’t talked to your brother recently, have you?”
Her frown deepened. “What are you talking about? Charles is dead.”
“I…” His eyes flicked over to the desk in the corner. There, in plain sight, was a familiar blank envelope, the paper crumpled and slightly yellow with age where it had been folded time and again. Erik dug his hand into the pocket of his torn jacket, but his fingers met nothing but fabric.