The question didn't even need to be thought about. "Of course I can," was the only answer I could give. I could not ask anyone else to perform that task, and if it helped save everyone else, then my sacrifice was well worth it. The cost of one life to save the tens of thousands out there was negligible by comparrison, and even helped justify everyone else's sacrifices that day, if they helped put me in this place to save everyone else.
"I've come this far," came out of my mouth. "It would be a shame to turn back now, and let things play out, and chaos reign. As much as I normally like a spot of chaos, I don't like seeing people suffer because of it."
Ashley understood and smiled. "If you don't make it through this, I'll make sure everyone knows what you did for them today."
I didn't care about any of that, any accolades, even posthumous ones, and gave a noncomittal grunt. As long as people lived, I'd be happy, whichever side of the ground I wound up on.
The recent addition to my redhead squad twisted her neck from side to side, cracking it with loud pops that made me wince just hearing them. She looked over my head at Chris standing behind me, an arm wrapped around the spear and gripping it near her head, leaning against it. "Chris, we may need your help, for the most part to fill in any gaps in Martin's knowledge, but there may be other tasks for you. If something goes wrong, you may need to seperate us. I may also have need of additional energy, and may draw upon you to spare Martin, but that is unlikely."
Chris just gave a nod, and I could see her grip tighten on her spear once more. "Anything you need, just ask."
"Are you ready, Martin?" Ashley cast her gaze down at me, and I clambored off my ass, only to be hustled over to a chair and put in that. She walked around the chair, and placed her hands on the back of it, looking down at me. I'd turned in the chair and was watching Ashley, with her eyes closed, and her breathing slow and low as she concentrated.
"Is everything all right," I enquired.
Without opening her eyes, she replied, "Yes, I'm just trying to clear my head as much as possible, and find my centre. I may have the powers of the Phoenix within me, but I have trouble containing them. I have Jean's powers, but not her skill at using them, and she remains incapacitated within my head. This is a pretty big gamble, you realise?"
"Got any better ideas?"
"Not really, no." Her eyes opened and met mine "I think I'm ready. Or as ready as I'm gonna be, at least."
I placed a hand over one of hers, resting against the back of the brown, wodden chair I found myself in after such a crazy day. "Take all the time you need. Within reason, of course."
Ashley flinched a little at my touch, and this time no voices entered my head. They would be there soon enough, but for the moment, she had them under some semblence of control. "As long as nothing major happens downstairs, or elsewhere, I should be ok. If I can keep my concentration focused, nothing too horrible should happen once I'm started."
The other crimson haired female who once had a different form altogether leaned forward on her aquired weapon, "How long will this take?"
After considering the question, during which time I pulled my hand back, as I could feel that familiar tickle at the edge of my thoughts the more she let her mind wander from keeping her focus, she spoke, "It won't be instantaneous, not like the magic that cuased this. I have to work backwards from scratch, find the people affected, ignore those who weren't. The spell was broad, and harsh, lashing out at any and all within its path. I have to search for targets, and I may need to spread my search wider than this wanna be sorcerer intended his spell to reach, since creatures may have travelled beyond the tri-hotel area. Even at the speed of thought, this could take awhile. I've never done it before, and I don't want to harm Martin."
"Thanks for the concern."
"I wouldn't want to leave you as a melted, burnt up husk of a man."
"No really, thanks for the concern. Can we get started?"
Ashley cracked her neck again and did the same with her fingers, finishing up with a deep breath. I glanced behind me again, and saw her hopping up and down, like a prize fighter about to go into the ring.
"Are you s-," she started to ask.
I interupted, shouting at her, "Just get it over with! The wait is killing me faster than Luthor."
Her golden hands gripped the sides of my head, and she pulled me back so I was looking up at the ceiling. She leaned over, giving me a view of her upside down face, as her long, deep scarlet hair spilled down, almost touching my cheeks.
"I can kill you a whole lot faster than even that." Her eyes flickered again, and I wasn't sure how much she was pulling my leg, and just how serious she might be. Knowing that she very well had the power to snuff me out in an instant was enough for me to curb my cynicism. For the moment.
She loosened her hold on where my head was, and I moved it back to a more comfortable position, rather than keeping it strained backwards, despite the view it gave me up her nostrils.
While I was able to move my head into a more natural state, Ashley kept her hands where they were. They rested towards the top of my head, not quite covering my entire ears, allowing me to hear for the time being. Chris stood in front of us, watching and keeping her weapon at the ready as she kept an eye over the pair by the chair. If there were any interuptions, while Ashley's powers could dispatch whatever came our way under most normal cirumstances, her focus would be on fixing everyone, and not frying my brain. Having someone there just in case was a good idea. The two of us were very vulnerable.
That tickling sensation grew once more, just the barest touch of a fly at first, coming from her fingertips. The sensations increased, soon becoming a more constant presence, ramping up from a light breeze, to something pressing into my head.
It felt as if tendrils were digging into my head, but without the pain that might be associated with something capable of burrowing past flesh and bone. While the sensation was painless, it was not entirely pleasant. It still felt as if there were things crawling through my head, invading me, and in truth, they were, just it was another person's thoughts, and not anything physical.
Once Ashley had established contact with my mind, I realised I was seeing two of Chris, and that for a brief instant, I was seeing through Ashley's eyes, as our minds touched, and she broadcast what she saw into my head. The double vision passed as she pulled back a little, and refocused. I could still sense the occasional odd feeling from her, that didn't match my own, as these things leaked down through our shared connection, and I did my best to pull back and not do the same to her, unsure of how to go about it, but I tried anyways. She had enough on her mind without my own thoughts overwhelming her.
What I at first mistook for her speaking, but was instead her thoughts being spoken straight into my head, took me by surprise. "Don't pull back. I need access to all your thoughts, and can't waste time trying to fight past your barriers to find what I need, for you to show me. I can handle whatever you may throw at me, and I will do my best to not look where you don't want me to look. The less you fight and we do what we need to do, the less likely I am to have to go looking and find something you don't want me to find."
I relaxed and let my thoughts go, and as the wave hit Ashley, Chris doubled up again, but was soon back to normal. More sensations began to flow into my head, and it felt as if I was flying, while I yet continued to sit in a hotel room. What I was feeling, that out of body experience, was Ashley's quest beginning. She was casting her thoughts outwards, and it felt as if I was falling through the floors, plummeting down to the ground below as if they weren't there.
Again, I was seeing what Ashley saw, or what she sensed, or her mind saw, as her thoughts searched for people, and the dissonance between that and what was before me became too much, forcing me to close my eyes. With that done, it felt as if Ashley and I were moving as one, and it became hard to tell where one ended and the other began, our thoughts were so intertwined by then, a sense of a singular self was fading away.
I didn't fight any fading indivuality, knowing Ashley would keep me safe, and following her advice to just go with the flow. At least, I hoped she would keep me safe. I pushed the thought from my head, and just went along for the ride, until my resources were needed, reduced to the mental equivalent of a library.
Our thoughts continued down through the floors and found the lobby beneath us. I could see the battle through Ashley's senses, and saw that it looked like everyone was still alive, somehow. The few bodies scattered around the dogpile in the center of the elevators were still moving, so life moved through them yet.
Even the Spartans had yet to land any fatal blows, but it was not for the lack of trying. The people who supplied the distraction that allowed Chris and I to sneak away had worked hard at just doing that, serving as a distraction, and keeping things contained. Even if that meant the occasional kneecap had to be shot out, or a Spartan sword driven through someone's foot.
Ashley grabbed upon the mind and form of the central figure, the instigator of all this fighting, and Lex Luthor stopped moving. We were fortunate that he had no mental defenses built into his armour, or if there were that the Phoenix Force was able to burn right through them.
I focused my own thoughts upon the fiction in front of me, and could feel Ashley taking those thoughts and using them to pull the fantasy from reality, leaving behind a young man with a bald cap on, and a suit turned back into the cardboard it had been made from.
Ashley could very well have picked out Lex Luthor from a crowd and fixed him, I'm sure, but it worked as a test case for our arrangement.
The forces he had been leading stopped at the sight of their once powerful leader, shocked to see his true form, reduced to just an everyman in their midst. The zombies siezed upon the opportunity, and closed in on him, but Ashley was too quick for them, and they too were stopped.
Meanwhile, back upstairs, where our bodies were, Chris had heard some noise outside, and with reluctance, left us to go invesitgate. She was unsure about even taking her eyes off the two of us, both of our eyes filled with flames from the Phoenix. Chris did, however, and went to the door. She leaned up on her toes, gaining a little bit more height than even her heels afforded her, and looked through the tiny peephole in the door.
Outside the door, it was difficult to see what was causing all the banging and commotion. All she could see was the bent distortion through the lens, and flashes of light.
Chris figured it would be better to face whatever it was, if it was indeed a threat, outside the room, rather than having it come to the three of us, and disrupting our efforts.
With a deep breath, she grabbed the cold metal of the handle, and opened the door making as little noise as she was able to, hoping that whatever was making the noise would mask what little sound she made.
She turned the light off, not wanting to give any cue that there was a door opening, despite the hall being lit, thinking it may be noticed where a darkened doorway might not. Giving one last look behind her to where we sat, Chris could see flickering flames had enveloped Ashley and myself, encasing us in a glowing orange coocoon of fire.
Assured we were safe for the moment, Chris ducked his head around the door, to see just what was out there, and was greeted by a large green man landing with a thud that left a crack in the floor beneath him, visible around the edges of the carpet that ran down the center of the hall.
Her gaze moved from the Hulk and looked down the hall, seeing a familiar site; the man who was truly responsible for everything, the 'wannabe Sorcerer Supreme' himself, the man she knew only as Doctor Strange was standing there in the hall, dusting off his leopard-print gloves.