There are wrinkles in time. Folds that can be gently pushed back to reveal things we have never noticed. Things we had never seen but things that had been there just the same. The X-Men had been accidentally teleported to a training ground for the Skrulls, an alien race of shape-shifters plotting to invade Earth. To complicate matters, they were years in the past, and the world devourer Galactus had arrived to consume the Skrull homeworld. The X-Men escaped and saved thousands in the process, but upon their return to Earth, discovered they had arrived before they left. They had an opportunity to change the recent past but before they could act the wrinkles of time unfolded in ways none of them could have predicted.
When the Skrulls boarded the X-Men’s ship, they immediately went towards Wolverine. One of the Skrulls stated that this was the one the master wanted. He then mentioned to another Skrull that he had undergone a thorough psychiatric conditioning and months of training. He is aware that once he undergoes his deep-cover transformation it will be impossible for him to resume his true form. The Skrull then asks his comrade if he is ready. Transforming into Wolverine, the Skrull replies, “Bub, I was born ready.” Satisfied, his Skrull friend tells him goodbye and adds that he must render him unconscious before they place him and the others in cryo-stasis. Skrullverine tells him to save it; he’s not one for sentimentality. With that, the Skrull shocks his friend.
The X-Men awoke from cryo-stasis some eight days later. Among them, only Professor Xavier had even a hint of the truth, in the form of half-remembered visions from a telepathic nightmare. Visions quickly discounted by “Wolverine” as the result of frustration and fatigue. It was a deceptively subtle plan. Using every opportunity to question Xavier’s leadership, the imposter slowly began to convince his “teammates” that the team’s founder, the man who’d been their teacher, friend and even father figure was suffering a breakdown. At the same time, he insinuated himself into every facet of the X-Men’s activities, every wrinkle of his host persona’s past (his mission with Alpha Flight vs. A.I.M.). He threw himself into his role with wild abandon. He accepted challenges, took risks, proved himself Wolverine’s match in terms of both cunning and tenacity and neither friend nor foe was the wiser about his true intentions (such as his battle vs. the Hulk). For anyone willing to peer deeper into the folds of his ruse though, there were signs (like when Kitty Pryde asked him if he was okay) but even so, the course of the future had already been set.
Xavier’s credibility with his students eroded and the X-Men were disbanded. The faux Wolverine remained “loyal” to Xavier, “loyal” to the X-Men but his master’s plot was already unfolding in new ways and his deception was soon undone by a mysterious assailant who, to the horror of the X-Men, was revealed to be the true Wolverine.
There are wrinkles in time and at the team’s secret headquarters in Salem Center, New York, only now are the patterns they’ve created becoming apparent. At a meeting, Scott Summers informs his fellow X-Men that no matter what any of them want to believe, you can’t plan for this kind of thing. No more than you could have planned for Magneto being given control of Genosha, of being transported to an alien world moments away from being destroyed by Galactus. They don’t know the future and as deflating as it is to be confronted with the loss of someone as integral to the team’s stability as Logan, that’s what they have to remember. They need to stop concentrating on what they could have done to prevent this and start devising a plan to deal with it.
Kitty Pryde pipes in and tells him that’s easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one responsible for getting the X-Men back from the Skrull homeworld. She was and they had to have taken him while they were in orbit around the Earth. When they first returned… Jean tells her that doesn’t make it her fault. Scott’s right; there’s no way she could have known. But what she wants to know now, what they all need to know is what happened to Wolverine? How did he become this thing?
This “thing” is Death. He’s the best there is at what he does and what he does is kill - savagely, mercilessly. He has known other names – Logan, Weapon X, Wolverine – but they’re in the past. All that matters now is the present and the future he can carve from it. Standing before his master, a Middle Eastern gentleman wearing a fez, Death says to him that he summoned him?
En Sabah Nur states that he did. He has proven himself worthy of the honor bestowed upon him but that an even greater trial awaits him. He shows him the image of his next challenge. This is the face of his opponent, the creature known as the Hulk. He tells him to search the recesses of his feral mind and he will no doubt realize this monstrous visage is known to him. He has encountered him in the past, before he was molded into the unbridled killing machine he is now. The Hulk is a blemish on the higher cause they both serve, a mistake born of man’s arrogance and infatuation with science. This plague must be removed from the Earth. He tells him to go forth servant and destroy him.
As he rushes away, Death tells him so it is ordered, so shall it be done. The words of his master sear through his mind, cutting away the dense gray fog that mires his thoughts. His memories burn with the fury of an open flame and as the fire overtakes him, he is suddenly engulfed by the past.
In the past:
As two Skrulls drag an unconscious Wolverine through a corridor and to their ultimate destination, one of the Skrulls wonders what makes this one mutant so important to their great ally. He is little more than a common beast. Their boss, a Middle Eastern gentleman wearing a fez states that even animals hold a place in the great scheme of things as they will soon see. He then commends the Skrulls and tells them that they have done a good job, they have not failed him. The man tells the Skrulls that it is time to step away now. He wants to gaze upon the prize as he struggles to regain some foothold in reality.
Picking himself up off the ground, Wolverine wonders what happened and where the rest o’ the X-Men are. Turning his eyes to the man before him, Wolverine says you. The man informs Wolverine that his heightened senses serve him well and that he remains as perceptive as ever, a fact consistent with his continued survival. Wolverine asks him if he thinks he’ll wanna talk about survival after he’s through with him an’ his Skrull henchmen? The X-Men have faced both o’ their kind before and…
The man tells Wolverine that he confuses the issue. The X-Men have nothing to do with this, not now. This is about the fulfillment of his lifelong destiny. Everything he has suffered through or achieved over the course of their miserable existence only served to bring him to this moment. Wolverine asks him what he knows about his life, his past. The man says enough to know that it is largely irrelevant from this day forward. He then recommends him to prepare for his greatest challenge. How he faces it will determine his life forever more.
In the Present:
Riding a mechanical steed, Death informs his master that he’s tracked the stench o’ the one called Hulk to the heart of a wooded valley. Just now, his exact location is unclear but, considering the trail o’ destruction he’s left in his wake, that shouldn’t be a concern for very much longer. Caught in the heart of a nuclear explosion, a victim of gamma radiation gone wild, Doctor Bruce Banner now finds himself transformed in times of stress into seven feet, one thousand pounds of unfettered fury – the most powerful creature to ever walk the earth – the Incredible Hulk.
There was a time when Bruce Banner held some measure of control over the beast locked inside him, no longer. Events of the recent past have ensured that those days are lost in the folds and creases of memory, shadows of the past. His life is aimless now, governed by thoughts and impulses only he understands. More animal than man, the creature stops in his tracks, instinctively sensing that all is not as it should be. That something’s not right. Throughout the creature’s tortured existence he has had but one desire, to be left alone. As ever, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
Looking up, the Hulk asks who bothers him now. Just then, Death kicks the Hulk in the back of the head, knocking him down. The Hulk then asks who is trying to hurt him. Hitting him again, the answer comes from his attacker that Death comes for the Hulk.
In the Past:
While Wolverine is attempting to meditate by himself, he thinks that this is a fine pickle he’s gotten himself into. He’s been tryin’ to meditate to prepare himself for whatever’s coming next but he can’t get his mind off the rest o’ the X-Men. Where are they, what happened? Hearing a door creak, he hears someone coming and figures this must be it. What he sees are two Skrulls who inform him that it is time to come with them.
As they walk down the corridor, Wolverine tells the Skrulls that he doesn’t know if their boss-man is tryin’ t’ be Akbar or Jeff but whatever the case, he hopes fez-head is payin’ them well ‘cause when he’s through with him, he’s comin’ after their slimy green hides. The Skrulls tell him that their threats are amusing at best but he’ll have no opportunity to act on them. Once they reach the temple, the Skrulls tell Wolverine that only he is to continue past this point and to die with honor terran dog. Wolverine tells them thanks and to give his love t’ th’ wife an’ kids.
Once in the temple, the man wearing the fez greets him as Logan. Wolverine calls the man En Sabah Nur that if he’s expecting him t’ run over an’ give him a lovin’ embrace, he’s barkin’ up the wrong tree. En Sabah Nur simply informs him that his destiny awaits. Wolverine says that he wishes it would get on the stick. There’s a nature program he’s hopin’ t’ catch on the Learning Channel.
At that moment, a voice from behind him tells him that he never changes, does he? Always with the attitude. Always talkin’ bigger than he is. Well, no one’s laughin’ now runt! Th voice belongs to a mutant much like Wolverine – Victor Creed, aka Sabretooth. He is strong, fierce, deadly. He is perhaps Logan’s deadliest foe with a healing factor of his own bones laced with adamantium and razor-sharp claws. Given the hundreds of different options of what to expect here, Victor Creed wasn’t even on the list. Wolverine was left for dead after their first clash, many years ago. Sabretooth has left his mark on Logan nearly every year following on the anniversary of the X-Man’s birth. The two are more alike than either cares to admit. But while Wolverine has spent a lifetime fighting his inner demons, Creed embraces them.
At first, Logan is able to deftly dodge Creed’s attacks but eventually, Creed catches him with his claws against his chest and draws first blood. Lying on the ground, he thinks to himself that he’s gotta keep movin’. Creed’s claws and his whole skeleton is laced thick with adamantium and his ain’t, not anymore. If he nails him the right way he’s finished. He then wonders what is going on and why Sabretooth is there.
In the Present:
Lunging at his attacker, the Hulk asks why puny humans always hound Hulk. Jamming his sword into the back of the Hulk, Death tells him it’s because he has no place in master’s new order. The Hulk proceeds to punch him away and tells him that nobody orders the Hulk. Dodging another striker from the Hulk, Death tells him that he fails to understand there is no place for the weak in the world that is coming. The Hulk tells him that there has never been a place for the Hulk and calls him fancy man. Hulk knows that, Hulk not as stupid as fancy man thinks. He then tells fancy man to stop hopping around so Hulk can smash him.
Simultaneously leaping over the Hulk and pulling his sword out of his back, Death tells him that he had his chance when the master anointed him his bringer of War. He muffed it, now he dies. After slashing the Hulk across the stomach with his sword, the Hulk grabs Death’s sword and pulls him into a destructive bear-hug. As he squeezes the life out of his attacker, he tells him that he thinks stupid knife makes him better than Hulk but Hulk is smarter than fancy man. Hulk can use stupid knife to pull him closer, Hulk doesn’t need knife. Hulk is the strongest one there is!
In the Past:
Sabretooth fights like an animal, less skilled than Wolverine, but what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in ferocity. Continuing to beat on Wolverine, Sabretooth asks him if he hears that, it’s his bones breaking. He adds that there ain’t no one tougher ‘n ol’ man Sabretooth. Kicking Sabretooth in the mouth, Wolverine tells him that he begs t’ differ. Sabretooth replies at least he’s begging. It’s a start.
Facing off against each other again, Wolverine asks Sabretooth what this is all about, why is he here. Sabretooth says that he still don’t get it, does he? There’s more at stake there ‘n just who wins or loses, or lives and dies. No matter who that turns out t’ be, the whole world is gonna run red with blood. The apocalypse is comin’ but the Horsemen ride first. So it’s down to them as who’s most deservin’ to ride as Death!
Just then, inside the feral mutant known as Wolverine, something snaps. Wolverine yells out that will never happen and slashes Sabretooth across the face with his bone claws. Brushing it off, Sabretooth goes to attack Wolverine again and tells him that he has to admit it, it kinda suits him better. He means, forget about the business down in the Morlock tunnels, he ain’t even seen the kinda mayhem he’s capable of. Smacking Sabretooth again, Wolverine crosses his claws and jams them into Sabretooth’s gut. As he does he tells him that he’s seen enough.
Raising Creed above his head, he adds that the thing about an adamantium laced skeleton, it makes him bones unbreakable sure enough but it don’t do a blamed thing t’ protect his gut. Wolverine then rips Creed’s guts with his claws and drops him to the ground. Wolverine then tells him that, under different circumstances, he’d tell him to keep that in mind for the future but at this point, a future is something he ain’t got. He doesn’t know why he always stopped short o’ takin’ him out before. Maybe it was out o’ some kind of perverse loyalty to the friendship they had at one time. Not this time.
Wolverine then attacks Creed unmercifully, slashing at him with his claws. Standing victoriously over his foe, Wolverine thinks to himself that he’d serve the devil himself if it meant keeping a blood-thirsty monster like Sabretooth from doin’ th’ same. Ain’t a man alive been able t’ tame him yet and that better men than ol’ fez-head have tried t’ control him an’ failed. At least he has a fightin’ chance o’ shaking whatever programming this joker thinks he can dish out. Sabretooth wouldn’t even try to fight it. He’d relish the killing, the chaos. He can fight it and given time, he’ll win! Looking up at En Sabah Nur, he tells him that he takes it that he enjoyed th’ performance, now what?
In the Present:
As the Hulk continues to squeeze Death, he calls him a stupid little man. He thought he could beat Hulk with his puny knife. Thought he could cut Hulk and hurt him. But Hulk is stronger than he is, Hulk is stronger than anybody. Using all he has left, Death fights back with a head butt to the Hulk’s head. Dropping his foe, the Hulk states that he remembers him. He is the little man that Hulk met a long time ago. Hulk has fought him many, many times. Little man always hounds Hulk, tries to cut Hulk and no matter where Hulk goes, what Hulk does little man is always there to hurt Hulk. This time, Hulk hurts him. Ripping a giant tree out of the ground, the Hulk smashes Death/Wolverine with it causing a massive explosion.
In the Past:
While Sabretooth and Wolverine are facing each other, there are a number of wires and cords running between them. The process is long and painful. It is a living nightmare Wolverine had hoped to never have to endure again. The scars it left were beyond the physical, it left him an endless succession of sleepless nights and torment. The mere thought of the anguish he endured fills the X-Man with dread so real it’s palpable. It’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make.
As Creed yells out that this ain’t the way it should end, En Sabah Nur tells him that his protests are at this point quite useless. Even now, the process that will strip his frame of its adamantium and rebond it to Wolverine’s is beginning. There is nothing he can do to stop it. Creed calls him a fool and tells him that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, the mistake he’s making. He’s better than he is, stronger. The metal is rightfully his, he should keep it. En Sabah Nur informs Creed that he is good but Wolverine is the best there is at what he does. He then asks Logan isn’t that so. Logan informs him enough with the talkin’ then, let’s get this over with.
In the Present:
Death (Wolverine) pops his adamantium claws and as the Hulk leaps towards him, stabs him the hand with them. Enraged, the Hulk proceeds to pound on his attacker. As he slams Death into the tree, the adamantium laced skeleton folds as muscles and flesh turn to jelly against the massive tree. Consciousness fading, a last effort, given the monster’s proximity, seems futile but the great beast’s own momentum does what the savage Horseman’s sinew could not. Once Wolverine stabs the Hulk in the neck with his unbreakable claws, the giant beast feels pain and falls backwards.
As Death is perched on top of his prey, the Hulk feels pain and panic. A monster accustomed to neither finds himself writhing as a wound now open gets hammered relentlessly by one who shows no restraint. One filled with the kind of darkness and fury he feared an enhanced Sabretooth would so mercilessly wield. Yet, suddenly, explicably, he hesitates as deep within the berserker, a small part of the hero that was once this man asserts himself. The rage he’d let loose, the beast in his soul, is momentarily halted. When he does, the Hulk notices that the little man has stopped cutting Hulk, stopped hurting Hulk. Grabbing Death by the throat, he slams him into the ground. He then tells him that he is through smashing little man. All Hulk ever wanted was to be left alone but little man wouldn’t leave Hulk alone. Hulk showed little man. With that, the Hulk bounds off.
Just like that, it is over. The wrinkles in time shift, hiding from view things best left unseen, creating new patterns that yield darker meaning than those before. As he is transported from the woods, he is met by Apocalypse himself. Apocalypse then informs Death that the form he wore was one of many but the time for deception is past. He then tells the lowly cur not to speak, the contest is over. It is just as well. In a world where only the strongest can survive, there is every chance the two of them could fight an eternity before one claimed a true victory. Be assured though, faithful Horseman, he will perish by the same conflagration that will consume this entire world as they take their bold next step along the path that leads to a new era. His era, the Age of Apocalypse!