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The Death Card: Chapter Six

Mac O'Roni

This is the way the world ends...
This is the way the world ends...
This is the way the world ends...
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

-T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

     “Oh my, we do think much of ourselves, don’t we?” Bishop muttered. Standing close by the big man’s left elbow, Wolverine chuckled low.
     “It’s amazing he ain’t proclaimed himself ‘Grand High Poobah of Upper Butt Crack,” he observed.
     “Stick around; that’s probably next,” Forge said, stepping up to join the two men as he twisted a new wide-bore barrel onto his latest enormous, multi-purpose gun.
     “What’s that thing do?” Wolverine asked.
     “Whatever I need it to do,” Forge said simply.
     The men fell silent, listening to Apocalypse announce to the world in general that he was the be-all and end-all of existence. “I’d pay real money if he’d shut up,” Wolverine growled at last.
     “Aw, let him speak his peace, sugar,” Rogue said, flexing her muscles some distance down the line. “This is really kinda entertaining, and it’ll just make beating the hell out of him and his stupid Infinites that much more fun.”
     “Don’t get cocky just yet,” Iron Man cautioned. “I don’t like this—inviting every damned one of us out like this for, what? Some kind of Charge of the Light Brigade action? Feels damned hinky to me. And we haven’t met the Horsemen yet.”
     “So what? We’ve fought Poccy and his stupid Horsemonkeys before. We’ll be fine, won’t we, Wolvie?” Jubilee said, punctuating her aplomb with a snap of bubblegum.
     “Don’t count on the Horsemen going down easy, kid. Poccy’s got good taste; remember—he used me, once.”
     “Yeah, but not this time. So what’s the worry?”
     “Why are we standing around listening to this crap?” Iceman wondered aloud. “Shouldn’t we, I dunno, go on the offensive, or something?”
     Not until we find out what Apocalypse is hiding behind his back.
     The voice, a calm, cultured Oxford, went through every mind on the line, from Cyclops and his X-Men to Spiderman to Magneto with his Brotherhood and Captain America and his Avengers. A psionic presence well-known to all of them, friend and foe alike.
     I think I already know, Charles. This thought, a smaller one, was picked up by the telepaths and passed along to the others. And I’ve got it covered.
     It was then that Apocalypse, standing in his most massive form at the top of a rise, stepped aside, disclosing a rather wicked-looking cannon which appeared, by the humming electronic units surrounding the bore, to fire some sort of beam rather than ammunition rounds. “My God, that’s an inhibitor cannon!” Hawkeye shouted. “He’s going to take away our powers!”
     Now now, didn’t I say I had it covered? The thought was once more passed along the lines by the telepathic facilitators, and this time the thought’s originator stepped out of the lines and leveled the heavy bulk of his latest invention, freshly-completed, in the direction of the inhibitor. At the exact instant the inhibitor was fired, Forge fired his own weapon. A wide beam of energy shot out, seemed to wage battle with the beam from the cannon, and finally overpowered it, sending it shooting back at its source. The inhibitor cannon exploded in a pale blue flash and a rain of random scrap metal.
     “How did you know to do that?” Spiderman asked through his mask.
     Forge rolled his eyes. “Are you kidding? I invented the damn thing.”
     “Get ready, folks—they’re coming,” Iron Man announced. Indeed, the swarm of Infinites now pouring down the hillside hardly needed pointing out. Had Apocalypse’s ploy of stripping the opposition of their super powers come to fruition, it would have gone rather badly for them. As it was, they had little trouble reducing the number of Sinister’s genetically enhanced soldier/clones to something a little more manageable. There was still no sign of the Four Horsemen.
     “This isn’t so bad,” Iceman said, wiping his brow on his forehead and freezing three Infinites at the same time. “Kind of fun, really. When does it get tough?”
     “Probably right about now,” Angel responded from ten feet above. “The Horsemen have arrived.”
     The battle stilled and every eye turned to the figures now pawing impatiently on the crest of the hill. The great armored beasts were flesh and blood, and had probably once been actual horses, but now they were monsters, genetically altered and melded with technology until they were half-animal, half machine, and unlike anything natural on the earth.
     Storm landed next to Cyclops where he stood with Captain America and Electra. “Scott—there are only three. Where is the fourth?”
     “Look there!” Mystique cried, pointing at the sky.
     The massive creature winging through the sky resembled a horse only in the vaguest possible way—it was a hoofed quadruped with a long mane and tail of coarse white hair. The neck, stretched to its maximum, was far too long and thin and the long face beneath its heavy armor bore only a passing resemblance to the equine. The great leathery white wings churned the air into great eddies. Drawing near, the creature rose up in a great loop. At the top of the arch, its rider dropped out of the saddle with apparent deliberation, twisted through the air in the seventy or so feet of its drop and landed, catlike, solidly on its feet in a low crouch right in the middle of the assembled combatants, who instantly queued away from it in a near-perfect circle. The figure straightened slowly, the tails of its long black leather duster swirling about its long legs in the wind stirred by its unusual mount. Faster than the swiftest eye could track, it pulled a stout metal stick from the interior of its bulky coat, which telescoped out in its hands into a pole nearly twelve feet long. This it held in its huge, half-gloved and gauntleted hands beneath the rolled sleeves of the duster at a slight angle across its broad chest. The pale face beneath the blood-red hair lifted, displaying the pip blacked over one deep-set eye. Both eyes were still shut: even so, and despite the changes, there could be little doubt as to this creature’s former identity.
     “Oh, dear goddess, please. No,” Storm breathed, and covered her face in abnegation.
     Apocalypse’s mighty form rose up again on the hill, and he gestured widely at the great figure still standing silently, calmly, in the midst of the armies. “My children, I give you…Death!”
     On cue, the calm white face twisted into a terrible, sharp-toothed snarl as the eyes opened and the body sprang into a defensive posture. Gambit/Death’s eyes, once merely strange and exotic, now blazed like the very pits of hell. His entire massive body began to glow—not the bright, almost cheerful magenta color that his powers had once glowed, but a deep bloody red that terrified with its intensity.
     “My Dark Knight!” Apocalypse cried out. “Rid me of these insects!”
     “My pleasure, Lord,” Gambit/Death said, voice lower, deeper, throatier than ever, but still recognizably Cajun. Though he did not speak loudly, that voice carried through the air to every ear in radius. Voice was followed by that frightful red light, and a terrible burning heat. Nobody would admit to it later, but more than a few of the heroes screamed, thinking their time had come.
     There was an explosion, and it was a massive one, but amazingly, not a one of the allied was injured, or even knocked aside. The Infinites, and Death himself, were not so fortunate. Sinister’s mindless soldiers were incinerated, leaving not so much as ashes to testify to their last violent moments, and Death was sent flying by the shockwave of his own powers, snarling some very creative curses in mixed English and French. He fetched up face-down in the dirt some forty feet distant, and spit out a string of even riper swear words along with grass and dirt. He scrambled to his feet without assistance, which was fortunate as the only ones present who might have helped him up—Sinister, Apocalypse, and the other three Horsemen—were all picking themselves up from the ground where they, too, had been thrown, and, brandishing his staff menacingly at anyone too near him, retreated to remount the reptilian horse-creature that had landed and stood patiently awaiting him.
     “What happened?” Apocalypse roared. “By the sun, if you’ve betrayed me—”
     “I don’t know what the hell happened!” Death shouted in what was to all appearances completely unfeigned anger. “I set to roast them but it backfired somehow! They must have used something on me, like they did on the inhibitor cannon!” There were few who missed the suspicious glare that Sinister cast into the crowd of supers now standing unopposed, and fewer still who missed the target of that glare—one differently-abled mutant inventor known only by his codename and nothing else.
     “My Lord, I recommend retreat—until we’ve had a chance to discuss this incident and its possible ramifications,” he said.
     “Very well,” Apocalypse commanded. “But know ye, this is not the last you’ll see of Apocalypse!”
     “Ah, suck my ass cheese,” Wolverine muttered as the tyrant and his Horsemen, remounted, faded swiftly into the distance.
     “Can someone please explain what just happened?” Daredevil asked the gathering at large.
     All eyes turned to Forge. “Don’t look at me,” he shrugged. “I didn’t do a goddamned thing.”
     “I have a question for you, Cyke,” Iron Man announced. “And that question is; didn’t that guy used to be one of your people?”
     “Emphasis on ‘used to be’,” Cyclops answered grimly. He turned on his wife. “Well, Jean—do you still want to give Gambit the benefit of the doubt?”
     “We’re still alive, aren’t we?” she said quietly. “I don’t know what just happened or why, but we’re alive. What happened to the Infinites suggests to me that we wouldn’t be if the ‘backfire’ hadn’t occurred. So I ask you, dearest—do you still want to refuse Gambit the benefit of the doubt?”
     “We can’t afford to trust him. Whether he did that on purpose or not, he’s in Apocalypse’s camp now. No one could infiltrate his inner circle without getting caught in the lie—and then Sinister would reprogram his mind so he’d still be our enemy now. No, from this point forward Gambit is persona non grata. If anyone gets the chance to kill him, they should take it. Without hesitation.”
     “I’m not so sure of that,” Bishop muttered.
     “I beg your pardon?” Forge asked as Wolverine’s ears pricked.
     “That bit about getting caught—hey, not like I trust the dirty sonofabitch, but if anybody was slick and tricky enough to lie to that lot and get away with it I’d bet good money on LeBeau.”
     “Well, whatever’s going on, remind me to thank him later. With maybe a swift kick to the crotch,” Forge said.
     Bishop’s stern mouth quirked in the reluctant beginnings of a grin. “Why?”
     “Because now Apocalypse thinks I broke his toy. They’ll be gunning for me, now, sure as shit.”
     “I wouldn’t worry about it, Forge,” Wolverine said, popping his claws in and out reflexively. “I don’t know about you, but this little scrap just put me in the mood for a little slicing and dicing. And if we have to carve up a little Cajun, well, there’s enough there for everybody now.”