Despite her speed, Shagreen managed to duck out of 'Taube's grasp and kick open the door to the Captain's quarters.
Captain Barbacoa was there, half the treasure in his chest already stuffed into his baggy clothing. He was holding Shagreen's staff, and when the sorcerer burst in, the large pirate raised the sturdy staff like a club.
"Hand it over, Pirate," the sorcerer spat. "I am in no mood for games-sss."
"The worth of this staff is well known to me," the pirate snarled through his beard. "And I'll not let it go so easy. Come and claim it, if your fishy heart has the courage to face me."
Shagreen bared his pointed teeth and lunged. Barbacoa dodged and swung, but stubbed his toes against his treasure chest and howled in pain. The sorcerer took advantage of his opponent's distraction and snatched the staff from his hands.
"Oh no, you don't."
Shagreen turned at the gruff voice behind him. Wolverine hulked in the doorway, blocking his exit. The winged woman stood behind him, beside a dark man with golden eyes.
The sorcerer snarled, then smiled. Brandishing his staff, he took a half-step back and said, "Fools. You can't stop me."
"Wanna bet, fish-face?"
Wolverine stalked menacingly toward him, claws extended. The sorcerer's eyes widened and he cringed back another step, then another, holding the staff out before him as if in supplication.
"Logan-" Nightcrawler cried out, an instant before the cramped cabin lit up with a blinding, yellow light. The light disappeared a moment later with a sizzling SHAZZP, leaving behind a sharp electrical smell.
Wolverine and the sorcerer were gone.
"What in all the blue blazes...!" Barbacoa roared. He struggled to climb to his feet, only to roar in pain and fall back. "Argh, me toe! I've broken me big toe!"
"That shark-man—he opened a portal," Nightcrawler said, and swore behind clenched teeth. "This complicates matters. 'Taube, do you think-"
A raucous cheer broke out on deck, and 'Taube felt small hands tugging at her legs, her wings, her arms. More little Boggies flooded into the cabin, where they swarmed around the wounded Captain Barbacoa, lifting him into the air and dropping the howling pirate high in the crow's nest at the top of the main mast.
'Taube and Nightcrawler followed the Boggies' insistent pull out onto the upper deck, where they saw the rest of the pirates had been soundly defeated. The crew stood tied to the masts in groups and clusters, and hordes of Boggies danced around them, spitting, kicking, taunting, and waving their winged arms.
"Look-look! Fieryboggie has defeated the pirate-leader! This Fieryboggie—my own dearest friend!"
The harsh, little voice carried above the cheers, and 'Taube realized it was the drunken Minion shouting. Only now, the swaying Boggie seemed to be high on the cheers of his comrades, and clearly seeing an opportunity to gain their favor by association. "Fieryboggie is a hero! Yes! My own friend—my friend, the hero!"
"A hero, a hero!" the celebrating mob cheered, flapping and hopping and clapping. "Fieryboggie, the hero!"
"And she will lead us, now," the little Minion cried. "She will lead us to free those who remain enslaved. To the mines, the mines in the clouds!"
"Lead us, yes!" the Boggies cheered. "Freedom for those enslaved!"
'Taube's gray eyes roved over the crowd with calm composure, but Nightcrawler lashed his tail in frustration.
"Truly, this is a great victory," he called out. "But, although you have beaten the pirates, a dangerous enemy remains at large. A man with the features of a shark has used his staff to open a portal to another dimension, and he has taken our friend, the Wolverine, with him."
The Boggies' cheers died down, replaced by angry, worried mutters.
"Sharky is loose...Sharky is free..."
"Fieryboggie can catch him!" Minion shouted.
"Fieryboggie must lead us against the cloud miners!" an older Boggie shouted back, to a roar of approval. "Our Fellow-Boggies must be freed!"
"Yes, yes, that is very true," Nightcrawler called out. "But listen, please. Sharky kidnapped my daughters. They are here now, on this ship. Please, I ask that before you continue on your mission to free your friends, that we first return to Sharky's island. My wife is waiting there for our girls' return. As for 'Taube leading you—this is not something you can force upon her. You must allow her to choose for herself whether she wishes to return with us to our dimension, or stay here with you."
The Boggies burst into a wave of animated chatter. Nightcrawler turned to 'Taube.
"'Taube," he said, "I need to ask you something. Something important. You saw what happened to Logan. He's trapped out there, in an alternate dimension. I can't just leave him."
"Yes, I am aware," 'Taube said.
"You have already proven yourself a great friend to my girls. No matter what you choose to do about the Boggies, could you please make sure the children are returned safely to my wife?"
'Taube gazed over the heads of the Boggies to where Forge stood with Marti, Suzie, and the other children. Slowly, she nodded.
"I will watch over your Marti, Suzie and their friends as if they were my own sprout."
Nightcrawler favored her with a warm, sympathetic look.
"Forge and I will find Logan. We'll return as soon as we can. 'Taube," he said sincerely, "I can't thank you enough."
Leaving 'Taube on the upper deck, he teleported to the little group by the railing.
"Forge," he said the instant he appeared. "Logan's gone. Sharky opened a portal and they both went through. I need to know if you can track him."
"Bitte, Forge," Nightcrawler said. "We cannot just leave him stranded."
Forge nodded and got to work.
"Dad?" Marti said. "Can we-"
"Nein, Liebchen, you are not to come with us," he said. "I have asked 'Taube to bring all of you children back to Alice, on Sharky's island. No matter what happens, you are all to stay with her, all right? Do you promise me?"
Marti, Suzie and Kurt shared a long look, but finally they nodded.
"We promise, Dad," the girls said.
"I promise, sir," Kurt chorused.
"Sehr gut," Nightcrawler said. "Then I will put my trust in you."
"I hate it when he says that," Suzie muttered.
Nightcrawler shot her a knowing look.
"Once Forge and I have located Logan, we will return for you," he said. "So you must all stay together, and stay put, so we can find you easily. Then, we will go home, all of us, to our own dimensions."
Kurt smiled, and held Crawler closer. "Hear that, little one?" he said. "You're going home."
"OK, I think I found their trail," Forge said. "See that yellow line, there?"
He held out the scanner. Nightcrawler squinted at it, and nodded.
"Can you take us there?"
"Coordinates already programed. You ready?"
"Ready," Nightcrawler confirmed, and watched as Forge opened the glowing yellow portal. "You children be good, OK?"
"Best behavior," Marti said, straightening to attention with a smart salute.
Her father grinned at her, then led the way through the flickering tear in space/time, followed closely by Forge. A few seconds after their shadows were swallowed up, the light vanished with a fizzing SHAZZP!
The blinding light of the portal vanished, revealing a world of water and endless sky.
Nightcrawler and Forge looked around, and realized they were standing on the deck of a wooden ship, not that different from the pirate ship they'd just left. A small, rocky island lay to starboard, its craggy shoreline lapped by gentle waves.
"How strange," Nightcrawler commented. "It is as if we have landed on the flip side of a coin."
"Whoa, look at that!" Forge exclaimed, pointing to a black, long-necked creature swimming past the ship just under the surface of the water. "What is that thing?"
"It looks like a giant penguin," Nightcrawler said. "But so graceful! It really does look as if it is flying beneath the waves."
"If you two are done admiring the wildlife, I'd like to get off this boat."
The two men turned.
"Logan!" Nightcrawler exclaimed. "Where is the shark-man?"
"He ain't here," he snapped. "Soon as we got here, he opened another portal and I ended up stuck on this wreck."
"This ship does look to be in pretty bad repair," Forge said, looking up at the tattered sails and splintered masts. "What happened here?"
"How should I know," Logan grumbled. "I wasn't here for it. What I do know is this thing's takin' on water pretty bad below decks."
"Then it's a good thing we showed up when we did," Forge said. "So, ready to go back?"
Wolverine and Nightcrawler shared a long look.
"What do you think?" Nightcrawer asked.
"It ain't safe havin' that shark-face on the loose," Wolverine said. "Look at all the mess he's already caused. I'll leave it up to you, Elf, but could we really sleep easy knowing we left him free out there?"
Nightcrawler closed his eyes and pinched his lips together, his head nodding slowly.
Forge smirked knowingly, and plotted in the coordinates for the next jump.
"Ready, guys?" he asked.
"Jawohl," Nightcrawler said, and straightened his posture. "Duty first, ja? Such is the IX-MO way."
"IX-MO?" Logan queried.
Nightcrawler smiled. "I'll explain later, mein Freund. Forge?"
This time, the portal that opened was more of a yellow-green. The small group stepped through-
-into a glowing furnace of flowing magma, interspersed with tiny, rocky islands. Nightcrawler yelped and hopped from foot to bare foot.
"Gah, these rocks are white-hot!" he exclaimed.
"Well, fortunately for us, Sharky didn't stay here long," Forge said. "Let me just-ah, there! Here we go-!"
Kurt dove through the flickering portal before it had even fully opened and sat rubbing his singed feet. Forge and Wolverine followed closely, and stared up...and up...
"What the hell kind of place is this?" Wolverine said.
Nightcrawler stood gingerly on the narrow strip of cool, shaded sand, and followed his friends' gaze.
"The forest..." he said. "It seems to be growing...upside-down."
Forge couldn't hold back a giggle.
"Just look at those trees! All those leaves spreading over the ground, and a tangle of roots high above. It's like the whole forest's doing a handstand!"
"I wish I had a camera," Kurt said. "Alice would love to see this. Not to mention the children!"
"Hey-there's a thought! I can made a video recording with my scanner!" Forge said, and started tapping. "There-recorded for posterity: an upside-down forest. Heh, if the trees are like this, I wonder what the animals look like!"
Wolverine sniffed the air.
"You're gonna know soon enough," he said. "Somethin's comin'."
The three men looked up at the sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves. Whatever was coming, it was coming fast.
"Sounds big," Forge said.
"And it's not alone," Wolverine said. "I think it's chasin' something."
"Or someone," Nightcrawler said, and pointed. "Look-isn't that the shark-man, there?"
"Yeesh, and look at that thing behind him!" Forge shuddered. "It looks like one of those what-do-you-call'ems..."
"A star-nosed mole, I believe it's called," Nightcrawler said. "Edmund pointed them out to me last time we visited London Zoo. But those were barely the size of a mouse."
"This one's more like a bear!" Forge said. "So, what do we do? Wait for them to get here, grab Sharky, and hope that star-nosed monster doesn't trample us all to paste?"
"Not a bad idea, kid," Wolverine said.
Forge stared at him, incredulously.
"Open that portal," he said. "Sharky'll be sure to take the escape route. We'll catch him on the other side."
"OK," Forge said, and shrugged. "I'll go for it. Now, where'd I store those coordinates for that floating-island world..."
"You might want to hurry, Forge," Nightcrawler prompted, his golden eyes fixed on the fast-approaching monster.
"Hurry it up, Forge," Wolverine growled.
Forge fumbled the scanner slightly, then pushed a button. A shimmering ice-blue portal flickered opened a few meters ahead of them.
Sharky ran toward it frantically, waving his staff like a relay race baton, his fishy eyes wide with the terror of a hunted animal. Wolverine and Nightcrawler jumped through after him, followed by Forge. The snuffling, lumbering mole was left alone to blindly scour the beach for its vanished quarry.
-A quarry that was, at that moment, stuck motionless in an expanse of purple sky so thick and viscous it dripped and rose in globules, like the slow-moving blobs in a lava lamp.
Wolverine strained to reach the snarling sorcerer, but the sticky sky was like an adhesive jelly. It would stretch just so much before bouncing back and continuing its oozing plunge toward the swishing purple sea far below.
"Ugh!" Forge groaned. "This stuff is disgusting! It even smells purple."
"Don't tell usss about it, fool-sss," Sharky snapped, jammed into the goo deeper than any of them. "Get us-sss out of here!"
"OK, OK, I'm working on it," Forge said, straining to reach his scanner. It took all his strength, but he managed to hit the button with his nose.
The swirling, pink portal sucked them in one by one, dumping them unceremoniously into the clear, shallow waters of a breathtaking lagoon.
"Mein Gott..." Nightcrawler said, his indigo curls dripping over his forehead.
He and Forge stood slowly, awed by their picturesque surroundings. The trees and the water, the sweet birdsong...it was unspoiled perfection, all tinted with the romantic, fiery gold of a tropical sunrise.
A loud splashing shattered the moment, and Wolverine shouted: "DON'T MOVE!"
Still, Shagreen fought to slip away with all his might.
"I wasn't plannin' to skewer you, bub," Wolverine growled, "but you keep squirmin' and I'll spear an' gut you right here, like the slimy fish you are."
Shagreen lay still at once, glaring up at the Wolverine with eyes that spat pure hate.
"Good choice." Wolverine grunted and hefted the sorcerer to his feet. "All right, Forge," he said. "Take us back to that surrealist's nightmare so we can get this crazy adventure over with."
Forge started to comply, but a sound from the trees him made him pause.
"Uh, guys..." he said. "Did you hear-"
"Down!" Nightcrawler shouted, ramming Forge back into the water. A pair of red laser beams shot over their heads.
"What...what...?" Forge choked and sputtered on the water.
"Gott im Himmel!" Nightcrawler exclaimed. "Did you see that? And there-another one! Mein Gott, it's a sphinx! A living sphinx!"
"A living sphinx that shoots lasers from its eyes," Wolverine said dryly. "Forge, any progress on those coordinates?"
"I just need a minute-oop!"
Forge dived again as another Sphinx appeared from the shadows, her red eyes glowing dangerously. The twin beams missed him by a hair.
"In mythology, the sphinx was always a guardian," Nightcrawler said. "They must be protecting this lagoon. They think we are intruders, or desecrators."
"Well, aren't we-sss?" Sharky snapped. "Here, let me."
Twisting out of Wolverine's grip, Sharky brandished his staff and an orange portal opened just ahead of him.
"Ha ha!" he crowed. "Sss-so long, ss-ssuckerss! Ssssss!"
He snickered and dove for the flickering tear-only to cry out when it vanished before his eyes, leaving him to flop face-down into the water. He felt a sharp tug at his staff and pulled it back, but the tug was insistent. The staff was wrenched from his wet, slippery hands.
Sharky surged to his feet in a dripping rage, only to stare in disbelief at the sight of his staff hanging suspended over the water, as if being held by invisible hands. He heard a giggle, bright and feminine, then small, invisible fingers dug into his shoulder.
"Ow! What iss-ss thiss-sss!" he hissed.
"Almost got it... I just need another second," Forge said, then gasped. "Hey-let go!"
Forge pulled at his scanner, fighting whatever invisible force had grabbed hold of it, but all too soon the scanner had joined Shagreen's staff, floating over the lagoon's crystal waters.
The disembodied voice giggled again, and the group found themselves caught in a swirl of wind and bolts of flashing light. The wind stole their breath and made it impossible to cry out.
As suddenly as it had begun, the whirlwind stopped, depositing its disoriented cargo onto a smooth, cold, marble floor.
The men groaned and rolled slowly to their feet, peering dizzily at their new surroundings.
They stood in the middle of an airy, white-marble room with many windows, its high ceiling held aloft by delicately carved pillars. Curtains of gossamer silk floated and billowed in the gentle breeze, lending to the place's dream-like feel. Tucked away in a corner, a chess set perched on a crystal table, its pieces holding the stations of a paused game in progress.
Sharky ran frantically from window to window, but apparently he saw no escape. Reluctantly, he returned to the center of the room and sat on the floor, his shoulders hunched and his sharp teeth clenched in a fierce scowl.
"OK, I give up," Forge moaned. "Where are we now?"
"Not a clue," Nightcrawler said. "But, at least we're dry."
"Hm," Wolverine grunted. "There's something about this place. That smell... I feel like I've been here before. I just can't remember..."
"Oh, there you are!"
The group looked up to see a young woman stride into the room. She wore a brown suit and trousers, and her chestnut hair was pulled back in a long braid that fell past her knees.
A gust of wind blew past them, and they heard the same giggling voice from the lagoon.
"Wisp, you were supposed to bring them straight here," the brown-haired girl scolded the invisible voice. The voice giggled and whispered, and the girl shook her head.
"You know that kind of sporadic cross-dimensional traffic wreaks merry havoc with my work. A comprehensive history of the multiverse isn't supposed to write itself, you know. What's my staff supposed to do when lines and notes appear in their texts from out of nowhere?"
The ghostly whisper swirled and laughed. The girl sighed.
"Yes, well, it's done now. We'll sort it out, like always. I'm just not fond of this kind of unpredictability. We historians interpret facts already in evidence. When you insert undocumented materials without first consulting the proper channels... Don't you call me a bureaucrat you absentminded ghost! All right, all right. You'd better go, anyway. Roma's expecting your report. I'll deal with our...visitors."
The ghostly breeze whisked away, and the girl turned her sharp, brown eyes on the four men.