The sand was an unending as the wait; a half-world of pale disinterested brown joining painful blue sky at the end of the world. Kenji had fixed her attention at that shimmering boundary over every spare moment she had, for more days than she cared to count. Perhaps more than she was able to count.
It didn't matter. He had never returned. Months had passed since his last message, buried inside silver silk and brought to them by an indolent camel train. Most of the others had already given up hope. Those who had held hope in the first place, that was. Too many in the settlement had something to gain if the storyteller never returned, and too many others worked hard to convince themselves they had something to gain, so as to disguise their shameful joy from their neighbours and from themselves.
Today, they would be disappointed. Today, the wanderer returned.
It was Karhil who saw him first, the only one in the village with greater reason than her to keep watch for the old man. He was hollering and cheering from the moment the horizon was torn by a tiny dark mark, swelling by imperceptible degrees. Had he been able to, she knew Karhil would have hurriedly thrown his protective clothes about himself and run out into the desert, another dark smudge, this one shrinking as it moved to meet its twin. That would be a flagrant waste of body-water, though; there are some things you don't do for any reason. Not while people can see you, at least.
Instead, Karhil had to wait by the grease-stained gates, growing ever more agitated, until the slow figure could first be recognised - it was him! It was! - and then arrived, his bone-weary shamble swallowing the distance a handful of inches at a time. Karhil was through the gates the instant they were wide enough, reaching for the newcomer and embracing him as though terrified he might prove a mirage. After long moments and with visible reluctance, Karhil stepped backwards, allowing his hug to stretch until he had his friend held by the shoulders. By now Kenji was close enough behind to see the look Karhil was giving the newcomer; joy and hunger and an unbearable premonition of loss. If love were a fire he could burn the world.
"You're late," Karhil said, and stood aside to let his companion enter.
"Do you have it?" asked Kenji desperately, running to his side and then matching his slow, small steps. "Do you really have it?"
"I do", the man replied simply, a smile gathering at the edge of his words.
"Then you know!" she said, unable and unwilling to hide her excitement. "What happened to Angel! Whether Lorna was saved! Whether Professor Xavier ends up with Teri Martin! You know it all!"
"I do", the man repeated.
"And I'll tell you all about it this evening."
* * *
Kenji hated the work days. There were always far too many hours haphazardly inserted between the ones that were supposed to be there. Someone had once suggested to her that God stole minutes from those times you were enjoying yourself and added them to those times you were bored, though notably he had been unable to offer any plausible reason for Him doing so. Kenji wasn't convinced by the idea anyway. There were always far more hours added than subtracted. If God was screwing with her, He wasn't doing it with arithmetic.
Every clock has to move forwards eventually, though, for fear of being taken apart, and eventually, at lost last, she found herself cross-legged on an earth floor, a bowl of thick soup warming her hands and fellow listeners interfering with her elbows. Before the jostling crowd a wooden stage stood unconcerned beneath a four-legged wooden stool, which stood equally unconcerned beneath a thin elderly man wearing a smile that threatened to overwhelm his face. The storyteller raised one thin, browned arm, and the forest of whispers around Kenji was felled almost immediately.
"Where should I begin?"
The floor exploded with suggestions. "What happened to Angel?" "Is Lorna OK?" "What about Charles and Teri?"
The hand was raised again, and silence once again fell. The other hand reached into voluminous robes, and produced the thin book of illustrations and text that contained the final scenes
"I will begin with the Fantastic Four."
A ripple of excitement passed through the audience, though Kenji thought it a little muted. Or maybe that was simply a reflection of her own feelings. It was hard for her to see why the Fantastic Four were suddenly so important to a story in which they'd barely featured. She shook her head clear and focused on the storyteller, waiting for his voice to wrap itself snugly around her imagination,
The war had begun. Shots had been fired, and they had been aimed at the Baxter Building. The army of Prince Namor was coming.
Curiously, at least as far as the Fantastic Four were concerned, they were coming by elevator. If Ben Grimm thought such an attack strategy odd whilst he dragged the cable upwards to begin clobbering all the quicker, it didn't seem to overly concern him Iif Ben Grimm found the arrival of a elevator car packed with explosives surprising, the others would have to wait until he regained consciousness to learn.
With his great friend and conscientious bouncer down, Reed Richards felt his options collapsing just as quickly. Crystal's elemental powers could, optimistically, buy them a few minutes of safety, but even then, once the Atlanteans realised they could just obliterate the lower levels and let their enemies fall through empty air, the chances of constructing anything complicated enough to use as a weapon were fairly slim. Absent the arrival of an invulnerable floating expert on Magneto's weaknesses, the situation looked bleak.
It was at that moment that the astral form of Professor Xavier arrived, and began explaining his plan.
But other events drag our attention elsewhere. Reed Richards might recommend that we reflect our cognitive focus in the crude approximation of a polar plane so beloved of geologists and other charlatans. Were he feeling playful, that is. Below the sprawling concrete virus of New York, four of the original X-Men - Angel still being missing to them, and a Renaissance sculpture to the Eternals - awoke to found themselves suspended from a rock ceiling in another of the Mole Man's caverns.
For a few moments, no-one spoke. Perhaps their failed escape attempt had left our heroes demoralised. But it had also left their captor over-confident, which in turn left him helpless to fight his desire to gloat. The specifics of his greater scheme need not concern us, though - an invasion here, a culling there, all very familiar - for the nature of Hank McCoy was irrepressible. With one flex of his oversized muscles, the chains were shattered. With one bound he was free -
"Wait!" Kenji thought, her soupbowl halfway to her lips, and to her surprise the storyteller did. It was only then that she realised she had spoken aloud.
The storyteller had raised his eyebrows like his nose was a bird readying for flight.
"A problem, Kenji?" he asked calmly.
"I'm so sorry!" she replied quickly, horribly aware of the number of stares breaking against her. "it's just... wasn't that too easy? Wouldn't the Mole Man have stronger chains? He has dozens of massively powerful subterranean monsters; wouldn't he have ways of making sure they couldn't escape? If it has been this easy earlier, they could already be fighting Magneto!"
The silence that followed was excruciating. The only person who seemed unconcerned with her outburst was the storyteller himself, who seemed more amused than anything else. After a few more moments, he uttered a simple "Hmmm..." before returning to the tale.
- and busy tearing out his fellows.
At this point we can assume that the Mole Man was running out of patience. First the X-Men had breached his realm, and not even had the decency to admit he had bested them despite him zapping Beast personally. Minutes later, they had run rampant, forcing him to release his menagerie of subterranean creatures, many of whom had required extensive medical treatment afterwards. The youngest of them had even tried to stop Mole Man pushing his buttons in his cavernous interiors. And now they were tearing apart his finest chains? We can only imagine how angry all this must have made him.
His response was to collapse the entirety of the cavern.
Whether Mole Man himself escaped the resulting rockfall, we cannot know. The fate of his subjects, who just moments ago thought themselves tremendously lucky to have been invited to a public execution with all necessary safety precautions taken, must also remain a mystery. The X-Men at least remained unhurt, safe beneath the sweep of Cyclops' eye-beams. As long as he was providing cover for his retreating friends, though, Cyclops could not head for the exit and escape himself. It would usually be at this point that a Worthington Industries airlift would be performed. With that option suddenly gone, Cyclops was trapped where he was and running out of space.
Meanwhile, in a nearby chamber, a fallen statue twitched to life. Cold stone began to warm and soften, becoming white feathers and pale flesh. Scattered dust dissolved into desperate sweat. An angel was returned to life. Glancing around the cave his attackers had brought him to, Warren tried to push some sense into his thawing brain. How had he ended up here? Why was his entire body alive with pins and needles?
The hurried self-diagnostic would need to be shelved, he realised, as the sounds of shouting, rocks falling, and the unmistakable noise of Cyclops' eyebeams filtered through into his consciousness. Taking to the air, Angel ignored the raging storm of tiny fiery pins in his pinions, and headed for danger. A few beats of his protesting wings, and at long last he found himself among his friends. Also, falling rocks, but the interaction of heavy objects and standard gravitational rules were hardly an obstacle for a man who'd spent so much time in a combat simulator constructed by a control freak. A few seconds of well-practised evasion, and Cyclops was safe.
"Come on!" Kenji exclaimed. This time she was fully aware she had interrupted, she was just too frustrated to care. "Those two strangers turned Angel to stone and then took him to his friends? Why? Why did he wake up at the exact instant he was needed? Wouldn't the Mole Man have guards in chambers that close to him?"
Uproar. Interrupting a story in progress was close to unheard of. Certain things, one simply does not do. Apparently, though, once a story had been interrupted, it was fully permissible to start shouting all the time.
"Please," the storyteller said, his voice strong but not raised. The angry voices began to quieten, becoming disgruntled mumbling, and finally stopping altogether.
"Should we ask her to leave?" Karhil asked from the other side of the hall. Apparently he was the only person there comfortable enough to address the speaker directly. Of course, he was one of the only people there above the age of twenty five, which probably made a difference. Living with the storyteller probably didn't hurt either.
"Oh, no", the elderly man replied. "I think we can all understand what it's like to care too much about a story to ride silently over the cracks. But if I may-"
He cleared his throat, and Kenji took the hint.
At long last, the X-Men were heading back to the surface.
Miles above, and many more miles along, Reed Richards stood away from his work bench, and nodded. Between Xavier's experience and his - well, pretty much his everything else, really - they finally had a weapon that stood a chance of defeating Magneto, by cutting away the power sources he was using to regenerate his fading abilities. With the first wave of Atlantean troops beaten back, and the Thing recovered -
So they were never in any danger after all, Kenji thought. That opening was one explosion amongst several tons of pointess. This time though she held her tongue. The horrible thought was dawning that this was a tale that could do nothing so welcome as coming to an end. Best get to that point as quickly as possible.
- the Fantastic Four took to the Fantasticar, and headed into battle.
Magneto, of course, was not a hard megalomaniac to find. Basic battlefield prudence was for the weak. Nothing could hurt him anymore. He was just marking time before his inevitable victory, and that being the case, the front lines of his invasion struck him as likely to provide the best view. Namor stood beside him, a seething attack-dog ready to smash anything in front of him in displaced rage. Every foe would have Magneto's face.
But arrogance has ever been the lord of magnetism's undoing. Arrogance in assuming himself invulnerable. Arrogance in believing extorting his will was more efficient than persuasion and cooperation. When the Fantastic Four came for him, Namor stood by and watched. When Reed Richards fired his strange new weapon and crippled him, there was no ally to come to his aid. After all his dreams of glory, Magneto once more stood alone, and failed just as utterly as each time he had done so before.
After Namor had departed in peace with his fiancee -
"Arrgh!" Kenji said loudly. She just couldn't help herself. This was now nothing short of physically painful. "Just like that? Just shoot the new gun and Magneto is defeated? The X-Men didn't even get the chance to fight their oldest enemy! They spent the entire war - in which the Atlanteans were utterly useless, by the way - being gloated at by the Mole Man! Why did the Fantastic Four do all this? This isn't their story!"
There was another explosion of angry objections, though this time Kenji thought there were somewhat muted. Perhaps she was winning people over. Though more likely it was the story losing support, rather than her gaining it.
"You seem upset", the storyteller pointed out, his expression hard to read.
"Aren't you?" she asked. "You've spent how long now tracking down the pieces of this tale, and this is how it's coming to an end? The heroes and the villain don't even meet! Do they at least get to save Lorna?"
The storyteller raised his eyebrows again.
"No," he said thoughtfully. "No, they don't get back in time. Professor Xavier saves her."
"What?" she said, stupefied. "How?"
"It doesn't say. It happens whilst the X-Men get back to the surface and find they're on Monster Island."
"What?" she said again. "That's hundreds of miles from New York! How could they possibly - arrgh!"
Throughout this exchange Kenji was aware of the unalloyed hostility all around her, like clouds of insects by a sun-shrunken river. She suddenly felt very old, and very tired.
"I don't think there's much point my continuing," announced the storyteller. "Not with young Kenji here offering her own angry commentary."
Gasps everywhere. The cloud of insects buzzed more hatefully still. That was it, then. Kenji turned towards the exit.
"So perhaps she'd like to finish the story for us?"
The insects stopped. The gasps did too. All around was a silence so complete you could hear a pin whether it was dropping or not.
"I'm quite serious," the storyteller said smoothly. " Kenji, come up here, if you would, and you can bring this home for us."
Kenji swallowed. All the moisture seemed to have fled her throat, so it was a trickier operation than usual. She could refuse, she supposed, but not if she wanted to stay here and hear the story come to an end. Besides, as much as the idea terrified her, she couldn't deny the attraction of what was being offered. She'd never seen anyone else perform atop that stage than the thin, scraggle-haired man who was offering her his place.
Kenji swallowed again, and headed for the stage.
In later years, Kenji would remember this as being one of the most important moments of her life. Ascending those steps to that stage? The metaphors were almost too easy. At the time, though, there was very little beyond blind fear. By the time she reached the centre of the stage the storyteller had slid from his stool and was standing, holding out his slim book toward her. She reached for it eyes lowered, not wanting to look at his face while she performed this blasphemy.
"Kenji," the man said quietly.
"May I take the stool? Old knees, I'm afraid."
She looked up at that, catching the tail end of a truly expansive smile.
"Of course", she said, stepping aside so the elderly man could shuffle past. This he did, walking quietly down the stairs and through the sea of listeners until he came to the spot where Kenji had been seating, marked out by her cooling soup. He placed down the stool, lowered himself upon it, and fixed his attention upon her.
Kenji looked around the room, trying to hide her fear. Everyone was quiet, at least. Clearly the storyteller's choice was something they intended to respect; they were no less silently attentive than they had been for him, though they had been wearing rather different expressions back then. Only Karhil seemed remotely happy with the switch, and the grin he was wearing didn't seem like it was meant for her.
Still, there was nothing to do but get to work.
OK... so. OK. With Magneto defeated, Charles Xavier finally had time to apply his immense knowledge of mutant DNA and robot assembly to deactivate all of the Promise's cryo-tubes. Everyone stumbled out, confused - even Lorna, who's pretty much OK now, hooray - except for Messenger, who didn't so much stumble as collapse, and was less confused than he was deceased.
As it turned out, no-one in the Promise was all that much more invested in Messenger's insane schemes than Lucy was, so his sudden demise went by comparatively unremarked. Lucy's insistence that there was nothing unusual in the moments before Messenger's death probably had something to do with that as well. A tremendously persuasive woman, isn't she; Lucy? Always handy when you tell someone to drop dead, I guess.
"Actually, that is pretty brilliant" she said, glancing up at the storyteller. He nodded, once, in agreement, and it was back to the book.
With Lorna and New York safe, and the whole team finally reunited, we move into the period of tying off loose ends. The various members of the Promise left to start a new life, and Xavier returned to the Martins to tell Teri he had observed her daughter enough, and her too. He was headed out. Not that he didn't have feelings for her too - despite them not having anything at all in common - but his calling was too important for him to spend time on anything so frivolous as romance. Which is stupid, really, but then maybe he's still suffering from whatever was making him act strangely. Not that we'll ever know what that was.
Anyway, that's us almost done. Just time for a quick trip to the Savage Land to drop off Avia, and the X-Men can settle down to more important things: celebratin Beast's birthday. The big guy just turned twenty; hooray! Time for a party. A nice thing to end on, isn't it? Not that things are over for the team. It says here - and I swear I'm not making it up - that they fought happily ever after. Which is a stupid thing to say. Unless they all get into dysfunctional relationships that somehow last the distance. But whatever. Curtain. Finis. The end. Er... fade to black, indeed.
The silence that followed her final words was essentially indistinguishable from the silence that had preceded her first. After a few moments, applause began to break out. Nothing flashy, or particularly suggestive of gratitude, but polite enough. A recognition of the role she was filling. Here and there a little more enthusiasm was being applied, but that was mostly her friends, and those that weren't were probably just grateful the whole wretched experience was over.
Not knowing what to do with such grudging acknowledgement, she simply nodded a few times, and sank to sit on the stage. After a little while the audience began to file out, until ultimately only the storyteller remained.
"Well done", he said, carrying the stool to the foot of the stage before sitting down again.
"Really?" Kenji asked, feeling more than a little dejected.
"You thought that was good?" Kenji was increasingly sure she was the target of some kind of elaborate and hurtful joke, though whether the storyteller was responsible or the universe in general bore the blame, she hadn't figured out just yet.
"Absolutely", he repeated. "Well, really no, not at all. It was almost uniformly terrible. Not that the material deserved better."
"Thank you" Kenji said sourly, though what she was hearing struck her as neither unsurprising nor unfair.
"It was never about how good you were", the storyteller told her. "We get better with practice." He glanced at the book Kenji had placed on the stage, its function fulfilled. "Well, we're supposed to."
"So what was it about?"
"Understanding how this is supposed to work, and caring when it doesn't."
A penny somewhere was heading for a cliff.
"Well," Kenji started, "That's not necessarily as comforting as you - wait. Wait, did you say 'we'"?
The expansive grin returned to the storyteller's face.
"Do you know," he said, "I don't think anyone around here really knows how I got this job in the first place. Other than Karhil, of course, but he doesn't much like to talk about it. He's never been particularly pleased with my choice of vocation. I believe he once described it as 'ninety percent missing, ten percent spouting crap'." The storyteller grinned at the memory. "It is a good job I love him, otherwise he would be utterly unbearable."
Kenji was trying to follow this, but she was finding it hard. There was too much hope buzzing in her ears.
"Are you saying you're hiring?" she asked.
"Do you want the job?"
The idea had quite simply never struck Kenji before, but as the old man asked her the question she realised she'd never wanted anything more. The answer was obvious.
"Not if I have to read any more Byrne".
The storyteller laughed.
"No, I think we can put him aside now," he replied. "He's done his job. Why don't you come over for dinner with us?
Kenji nodded, and the two of them headed for the exit, two storytellers arm in arm.
"And afterwards, I'll tell you a little story about a man named Claremont."
This story takes place over the course of a few hours, with a coda that stretches out over a week. The arrival of Hank's twentieth birthday is fortuitous, as it gives us someone new to use in our time-keeping pictures in UXM posts. It's worth noting that Bobby turned eighteen four months previously, which gives us the range of possible ages for Warren, Scott, and Jean.
Tuesday 15th to Wednesday 23rd July, 1980.
X+2Y+103 to X+2Y+111.
Ronald Reagan officially becomes the Republican Party's candidate for US President at their National Convention. At the same convention the party drops its support for the Equal Rights Act. Because the Republican Party have been vicious racist pricks for waaaaaaaaay longer than the last few years.
Speaking of bigots, the 1980 Summer Olympics are held in Russia. On this occasion it was their invasion of Afghanistan that led to demands of a boycott, rather than the decision to legally insist upon the persecution of a proportion of their own people.
(Glenn Greenwald is still insisting on Twitter that it's idiotic to point out Snowden decided the US government wasn't doing well enough by their people and so fled to Russia, by the way.)
"An attackin' army -- comin' up by elevator! If the blasted thing wuz outta order they'd probably call off the whole war!" - The Thing.
Genuinely the best joke Byrne pulls off in the entire run. The degree to which this is faint praise is left as an exercise for the reader.