She hadn't aged very well. Raven had to control a shock -- somehow he always forgot how old people got. He himself showed every sign of being immune to Time, and Rene's age had crept up slowly, so he only noticed when he looked at pictures of younger days. But this... it had only been ten years. When had Erika gotten so old? She couldn't be more than... what, 40? 45? Had she ever told him her exact age? She looked like she'd aged twenty in the ten it had been... her body was fit enough, whipcord lean with evidence of taut muscle under the skintight red chain mail she was wearing (good god, woman, haven't you changed your costume in 10 years either?), but her face had weathered badly. Features that had always had a tendency to hardness in certain lights had hardened. She looked like a statue of an old woman, some grim warrior goddess, the Morrigan in her crone aspect taken human form.

Raven wasn't sure whether that made it harder or easier. Coming to beg for aid from a lover you'd once ditched was never going to be an easy thing. Would it have been better if she were still attractive? Or would that have made it worse?

"Hello, Erika," he said, none of this showing on his face. "You look well."

"And you haven't changed at all," she said. Her voice had harshened too, what had once been an attractive husky edge now a rasping one. There was still power in it, though, perhaps more than there had been in those days. Speech lessons, Erika? Learning to project? "Still every bit the mendacious flatterer. I know what I look like, Raven; shall we dispense with the pleasantries? What do you want?"

Her language had, if possible, gotten even more pompous since the last time he'd seen her. As if she were turning herself into a caricature. The motionless pose, arms folded, wrapped in a cape that she hadn't had the last time he'd seen her; the harsh voice, projecting outward as if he were a theater she were playing to; the pompous language... oh, something had happened in ten years, something had completed her transformation from woman to Icon Of Power. A transparent defense, if you knew her, but he wasn't at all sure he did anymore. She had fled her humanity, and he wasn't at all sure that what he was dealing with was sane.

This may have been a rather large mistake.

But if it was, there was nothing he could do about it now. It was begun, and Rene's fate depended on this woman. "I need your help."

A very slight cold smile bent the stony features. "Indeed? For what?"

Oh, the bitch was enjoying this. She was keeping her poker face well, but Raven could tell from the smile. He sat down, carelessly sprawling into a chair. If he'd stood, he'd have been as tall as her, but she was successfully pulling off that air of forboding menace and he couldn't manage that without a change of form. "You remember Rene."

"Yes." The smile was gone; the voice was harsh again. Damn. Did she still hold it against him, then? Flattering to think he'd had that kind of impact, but if she was jealous of Rene as well as angry at Raven himself still, she'd probably just leave Rene to die.

"He's been captured, Erika. They're torturing him. They're going to kill him." He let his vulnerability, his fear, show-- real feelings, but it was a calculated risk to show them. If he'd been her and this had been his ex-lover coming to him to beg for help, he'd want the man to crawl, to beg. Letting her see his vulnerability would give her part of what he was sure she'd want. "He saw it, but it had all gone rancid by then-- I couldn't save him. We lost the other member of our team-- a widower with a little boy." Divorced man, actually, but Erika was less likely to have sympathy for a man who'd kidnapped his son from a vengeful ex-wife, and then died under Raven's command and left the boy an orphan, than the same man with a dead wife. "I couldn't save either of them. You're my only hope to get Rene out."

"You're a resourceful man, Raven." She still hadn't moved. "Your resources are not sufficient for the task?"

"They've got -- some sort of jammers. Something that blocked Rene's vision. I don't know what else they might have, but it's all technological. I'd assume you'd be up to any technological threat." Just the hint of a challenge, there. She was a proud woman, and justifiably proud of her power most of all. She might take the bait.

"I see." Erika did move then, breaking her pose to pace over to the window, facing away from him. "And did you think I would grant you this help out of the goodness of my heart? You have entirely the wrong dupe, if so."

"No. I never thought that."

"I'm pleased. I'd hate to think I shared my life with that much of a fool." She turned to face him. "The price will be high."

"Name it. I'll pay it."

She turned away again. "Tell me, Raven. Have you ever thought of ruling the world?"

The sudden non sequitur irritated him. She was trying to throw him off balance, perhaps? Or was she insane, and simply not tracking what he was saying at all? "Too high-profile for my tastes," he said, forcing a languid tone he didn't feel. Rene was suffering, maybe dying, but if he rushed Erika he'd get no help at all.

"Not necessarily you personally. Our kind. Mutants."

The thought had occurred to him. And he'd dismissed it, since it wasn't something he wanted to capitalize on. He wanted to be answerable to no one, in charge of his life, Rene and him safe and wealthy and under no one's control. A pipe dream, most likely; with humans so numerous, the only long-term safety for any mutant was probably under their control, as one of their protected assets. He'd tried to break from that mold, and Psychophage had died. And Rene. Dying now, perhaps. "There aren't enough of us."

"More are born every day. And a few can rule many, if the few have power. If the few can be feared by the many, but not feared so much that the many feel they have nothing to lose." She turned to face him. "There are three possible outcomes for the emergence of our people. Evolution dictates that when two species compete for the same niche-- in our case, dominion over the Earth as its dominant sentient race-- as a general rule, one annihilates the other. This shouldn't be necessary in our case. Humans are evolving into mutants. Give it a hundred years, and they will no longer exist-- their children will all be us. A bloodless conquest-- if they would let it happen."

"You don't think it will, though."

She snorted. "Of course not. They kill each other for reasons as trivial as refusing to believe that some prophet they nailed to a tree was God. What will they do with a new species? With powers that vastly transcend theirs? A species, furthermore, where power resides as much in the female as the male, making a mockery of their petty patriarchal notions of 'proper' male supremacy?" Erika shook her head. "No, they'll annihilate us. If they can. And if not, we'll annihilate them. I have no desire to have the blood of genocide on our species' hands, and less to be the victim of genocide ourselves."

"And you think conquering the world is going to give you a different solution?"

"Yes." She walked over to the table, leaning on it to look down at him. "If we hold them, if we crush all their resistance ruthlessly and hold them in our dominion, in a century it won't matter. There won't be enough of them left to resist at all. We can toss aside their useless notions, their petty ethnic boundaries and religious conflicts and their war of the sexes, and create a world where supremacy is based solely on ability and merit. And when evolution makes us into the dominant species on this planet, that is the society that will rule this world, not the corrupt society which now threatens the planet with nuclear annihilation. Nor a society the ragged remnants of mutantkind might build after being hardened in genocidal conflict. Utopia is within our grasp, Raven. For the first time, humanity has evolved to the point where we can make utopia possible. But for this to happen, the next generation of humanity-- Homo superior, mutantkind-- must take the reins of power. Now, before humanity realizes the threat, and acts against us."

Raven normally avoided political movements. He'd seen several come and go in his lifetime, and didn't believe that any of them would be any better than what they replaced. Nor did he seriously believe that mutants were capable of building a Utopia. But he recognized the passion in Erika's voice. He'd heard other ideologues speak that way, people who'd set the world afire, and they'd merely had a human's resources. Erika might well be the most powerful person on the planet-- certainly Raven'd never yet met a mutant whose powers were a match for hers for sheer strength and versatility-- and she had access to incredibly advanced technology. And she was intelligent, and passionate, and monomaniacal when you got her interest in something. Perhaps she could do it... not the utopia part, she'd do nothing but restructure the power hierarchy with herself on top, the way every revolutionary did. But to achieve the top... well, yes. Perhaps she could. And perhaps she could hold off the genocidal conflict, or the thing he feared, the control of all mutants by the human structures of power. But this wasn't helping Rene. "So, let me guess. You want me to help you take over the world, in exchange for saving Rene?"

"I want both of your services. His powers could be incredibly valuable to me-- as yours could be. I have all the raw power I need, but I lack reliable, subtle ways of obtaining enemy intelligence. That's something I imagine you're an expert in."

"I can't promise you Rene. He's his own man. But most of the time, he goes where I go-- and if you save him, I'll gladly work for you." Gladly might be an exaggeration. But if he couldn't be in charge of his own destiny, better to put his life in the hands of a woman who'd wanted him once-- who might, under that facade of iron control, want him still-- than in the hands of people who'd think him a freak.

She nodded, once. "Well enough."

Raven smiled wryly, sitting up. "I can't quite believe it's that easy."

"What did you expect?"

He shrugged. "What do you think I expected?"

"That I would make you crawl? Beg for my mercy and my aid?" Her eyes fixed him, and he regretted mentioning it. "The temptation occurred to me, yes. But I am homo superior. I'm above that."

Any number of women would give their eyeteeth to have the lover that jilted them come crawling back, begging for help, so they could torture him. Erika'd made him uncomfortable, certainly, but her offer was reasonable, and he hadn't had to crawl. Not as much as he'd expected, anyway. And if she did take over the world... well, better to have such a power consider him a valued ally and asset than the two-timer who'd broken her heart ten years ago.

As deals for his soul went, it was a reasonably good bargain at the price. "When will you be ready to leave?"

"Immediately." Erika headed for the door, speaking over her shoulder. "Direct me there; we'll retrieve your paramour as soon as possible."

Raven followed, catching up in a pair of long strides. "Erika. Thank you."

She looked at him. "I do not use that name anymore. Call me Polaris."