As Maddy reached out to the warped reflection of herself in the demon’s fingernail (malevolent and destructive and powerful and oh, she wanted to lose herself in that fantasy, just for a moment), she was interrupted.
“Traitor—creep—don’t you dare!” Maddy didn’t recognize that voice—young, female, angry—but it felt more real, somehow, than anything else around her. It cut through the oasis, the sights and smells of water and food—made them shred like old sun-weathered paper. Maddy thought she could smell rot underneath, now, and she was suddenly, intensely glad she hadn’t eaten anything.
“Didn’t expect a demon to scheme against his master, boss? More fool you.”
The newcomer put an armored hand between Maddy’s hesitant fingers and S’ym’s, sharp and gleaming knife-bright. “I knew you were up to something—I didn’t think it was this. Guess I was stupid to expect a demon to leave the bystanders out of it.” The blunt-cut fair hair, the cold blue eyes—those were familiar. The incongruously shining armor—that wasn’t, exactly, though it reminded Maddy of Piotr.
That last put the pieces together. Illyana, she finally remembered. Piotr’s kid sister, the girl he drew over and over again from memory, the sorceress who’d tried to raise him from the dead just recently. (She’d been at Maddy’s wedding with her classmates, looking hideously uncomfortable the whole time, like she wanted to run out the back of the church—but she hadn’t, and at the reception she’d been happier, laughing with her arm around Kitty’s shoulders, telling her how pretty she was in her new dress.)
“Enough. I’ll deal with you later.” The girl’s claw-gauntleted hand ripped through the air, and the demon fell through light. The two of them were alone, now.
Illyana turned to her, pulling herself together visibly, a few minor pieces of armor melting back into her skin. She was still more metal than flesh. “Bit of advice, Ms. Pryor—never make deals with demons. If they say ‘this or that,’ the only safe answer is ‘neither.’” The girl's voice was bitter; that and angry, covering up scared. She’d clearly been caught off balance by S’ym’s little stunt.
“I’m only dreaming. Nothing that happens here will matter once I wake up.”
“You so sure about that?” Illyana had put herself physically between Madelyne and where the demon had been, as if there was (still) something dangerous to her there. “If a demon like S’ym can find his way into a dead woman’s dream, he can hurt you there.” Then, softer, “You died a hero. You ought to be safe from him, but if you’re not—” Her voice caught a little.
A dead woman. That was right: Illyana had seen her die at Dallas… alongside her brother Piotr. She still thought Piotr was dead, even though they’d met since then; he’d allowed her to think she was summoning his ghost.
(Maybe that was why such a brash girl had stumbled on her words: Piotr’s noble soul hadn’t been immune to her magic, after all. Wouldn't be immune to her servant’s, either.)
If she was putting this much thought into it, she’d accepted that this wasn’t a dream. (Damnit. If it hadn’t been a dream, then that awful vision of Scott and his first love—)
Maddy sat down, hard. This was real, then. This was real, and she’d almost— “You going to make an offer too?”
Illyana Rasputin was a demon sorceress, after all. Maybe she’d picked up some tricks, some habits.
Maddy found herself hoping she had.
“You wouldn’t like the kind of power I could give you,” Illyana said, turning away.
“I’m not asking for a gift. Gifts can be taken away. I know that. But magic can be learned, right? You could teach me.” And even if you had to be predisposed to it (Ororo had said something along those lines, once)—well, if a demon had wanted to use her against his mistress, she probably had something to work with.
“Yeah.” Illyana sighed. “Get up, all right? We can go for a walk.”
Back into the desert. Fine by Maddy: the desert might not be kind, but it wasn’t out to get her. Unlike some places, some people.
“I learned magic from two teachers,” Illyana said, each word bitten off hard and reluctant. “One of them used dark magic; one bright. Mine came out nasty, no matter how my kind teacher tried… Magic is like that. It comes out like it wants to, and you have to predict it and control the damage. It’s not safe, and I—I don’t think I’d be a good teacher.”
“Better one than him,” Maddy said.
Illyana started. “Oh, you mean—yeah. I guess.” She kicked a bit of rock underfoot. “What good can learning magic do a ghost, anyway?”
A ghost. It kept coming back to that lie, didn’t it?
If this was really Illyana—the X-Men hadn’t done right by her, had they? And Maddy had been part of that. She’d agreed to their decision, their “Plan Omega”, letting the world believe they were all dead. She hadn’t thought—
Be honest. She’d gone along with their plan idealistically, hoping to do good. Her intentions had been noble, at their root. But she’d been happy to leave her life behind because she had none. And when Alison had asked if it was too cruel to keep that secret from their families—well, of the people Maddy could call family, one couldn’t be hurt by the lie and the other she almost hoped would suffer for it.
That hadn’t been the case for the others—Illyana’s brother least of all. Other than Kitty—still in a coma, as far as Maddy knew—Piotr had been this girl’s only anchor. Maddy thought he might be her legal guardian, at least as far as the States were concerned. She was young enough she probably needed one.
(Maddy couldn’t remember ever being that young, herself.)
Point being, Illyana was a kid. She’d lost her entire world, once, as surely as Maddy had lost hers—been snatched away as an innocent seven-year-old and come back angry and traumatized, to parents who hadn’t recognized her and a closet full of clothes that couldn’t possibly fit, any more than she could slide back into that little child’s life. She’d had to make a new one on top of those ruins.
(Maddy wondered, suddenly: did Illyana blame her brother, blame the X-Men for failing to protect her? She would have, in the girl’s place.)
Did she want to stand on her own now, to be untouchable, like Maddy did? Well, neither of them had that option, not the human woman and not the mutant teenager. (Maybe no one really did—and oh, that thought was galling. But Maddy hadn’t survived this long by ignoring what was in front of her nose.)
Maybe the best they could do was to stand together, back to back with someone else who felt that same anger, that same pain.
“If you would teach me,” Maddy said, gentler than she’d meant it to come out, “I could help you. I’m helpless now—I don’t want to be, and if you taught me that would change. It seems like you need an ally. I could be one.”
“I don’t need your help!”
That rang a little hollow to Maddy, after how desperate Illyana had been when she’d burst in to find her minion trying to corrupt one of her brother’s friends. But she understood where the kid was coming from. “I get that you want to stand on your own. But I’m not offering to prop you up. I know you don’t need that. I’m offering to watch your back, and I’m asking you to watch mine. Like you did back then.”
Illyana’s crossed arms tightened. “Not going to do me much good when you’re dead.”
“Tell you a secret, kid. I’m not dead. I’m X-Man enough for it not to take, I guess. And you won’t damn yourself by asking a friend for help.”
Illyana stared at her a long moment, then surged forward to wrap her in a crushing, impulsive hug. “Thank you,” she said, almost under her breath.
Yeah, she’d heard what Maddy hadn’t said—that she wasn’t the only one who hadn’t had it in her to stay down. She’d be angry, once she got over being overjoyed. At Maddy herself, at Piotr, at the rest of them. Well, maybe they deserved that.
“Well, kid,” Maddy said, after the hug had gone on long enough to be awkward. “Where do we start?”
Later—was it days, weeks, that same night? Maybe she’d know when she woke—Maddy found herself back at that oasis, inside the demon’s lie. (She had eyes to see, now, all the ways that place bent truth around itself. His, then, not her own.) And the demon himself, back again with those funhouse fingernails of his.
Had S’ym just been biding his time, waiting until his young boss was distracted to find her again and trick her anew? Or was this a real dream, past images jumbled together by her subconscious? Either way, they were (she was) alone. No Illyana this time, to tell her to stop.
Last time she’d been so tempted. Now all she could see were the thousand ways each of those images could bite her in the ass. Child: all the potential and all the weakness. Pilot: that ended in fire. Demon: power, and malice enough to lose herself in forever. Herself as she was now, or as she’d been before her death—well.
No, no, and no, and no yet again.
Instead of reaching out to one of the demon’s fingernails, she looked at her own hands. Ten blank nails, unknown futures or nonexistent pasts. I choose these, she almost said. But no. She was talking to a demon, and even in dreams…
Why talk to demons, actually? This was her dream. She could turn around and leave.
She threw back her head, laughing, and did so. Walked away from that pretty little oasis and into the bleak and honest desert, the place that’d given herself back to her, the heat that stripped lies away.
She was still laughing when she woke up—unchanged, as if nothing had happened.
But, looking down at her meaningless human fingernails, she thought that wasn’t true at all.
I’ll see you soon, Illyana, she thought, and sat herself cross-legged to get to work.
Maybe this time, she’d get to see what form her power took. Would it be a weapon like her teacher’s, or a seed like hers in turn? Or something new, something (for once) all hers?
She was eager to find out.