Waged At The Stroke Of Midnight
Written by Azmodi,
Edited by E.A. Morrissey
War Waged At
The Stroke Of Midnight
Part Two: Longest Night - Chapter
Follows events in The Twilight War,
Forged Before Nightfall, and Part One:
Continued from Part Two: Longest Night Chapter Three
Castle Doom's throne-room was small and without grand adornment. It was obvious that its master had little use for it. Nevertheless, Thor and his comrades had followed Doctor Doom's path through the winding corridors of the palace to find him occupying the squat throne which sat near the back of the archaic chamber. Despite his frozen mask the ruler of Latveria had appeared entranced, deep in thought.
After minutes of tense silence, Kristoff could stand no more and blurted, "How could you have not been aware of Warlock's death, master? Would you not have been informed by - "
Doom's commanding tone crushed the boy's mutterings, "I have been aware of the Soul Gem's theft and Adam Warlock's death for some time, Kristoff. Even the fact that the Reality Gem as well was stolen is not hidden from me."
"Lord?" asked the boy with loud consternation, "Why did you not inform me of these happenings before I left for Earth?"
"You are young Kristoff, and ill-acquainted with the techniques of subversion. I did not tell you of these circumstances simply to see what the reply of the heroes would be. They have proven trustworthy and will make worthy enough allies."
The irony of the situation was far too much for the Thunder God to stand, "You would call us untrustworthy, Doom? You who have deceived and sabotaged as long as you have worn that mask?"
"My reputation portrays me as a monster, Thor. I will not have that perception jeopardize my design. You have proven that, despite your obvious distaste for this partnership, you shall act honorably and truthfully."
"The Odinson Acts always with honor, as does his friend Beta Ray Bill." said Thor tersely.
Doom made a dismissive gesture and did not acknowledge the statement any further, "Both the Soul and Reality Gems will be retrieved from the Dark Watcher's army. This objective will be accomplished by the two Asgardians and myself." His crimson optics turned to his ward, "A replacement body for Adam Warlock must be readied when we return. This will be furnished by you."
Kristoff's great intellect seemed to shrink nearly a hundred-fold in the presence of his master, "You wish me to construct a body for Adam Warlock's spirit? My Lord, my expertise are not in genetics, nor are we even assured that Warlock's soul escaped into his Gem before he died."
Thor's brow furrowed as he felt a slight surge of anger from the Latverian monarch. Again it was almost palpable, a living crescent of energy that enraptured the scientist. It was familiar, yet his memory could not quite grasp that unique energy's identity.
"Silence Kristoff, your ignorance begins to irritate me. You will go to the group of scientists called the Enclave and proposition them to construct a new vessel for Adam Warlock's spirit. When it is completed you shall return here and await my own arrival."
"But, my lord," said the child, "how can you leave this place? The barrier . . ."
"Our ally will have dealt with it by now. On this occasion we are affiliated with not mortals but immortals, Kristoff. Direct communication is not required for us to understand what must be done."
"What barrier do you speak of?" questioned Beta Ray Bill.
"Surrounding Earth's solar system there is a vaguely sentient wall of unspecified force. It does not allow beings of great power to enter, or leave. This pocket dimension's only terminus is in the Sol system, and until the barrier is nullified I am trapped here."
"But your own might is nothing extraordinary, Doom." replied the horse-faced warrior, "The power that Thor and I wield is far greater than yours, and we were not barred during our journey."
"Can you not sense it, Bill?" said the Thunder God, "Yon villain radiates with a majesty that he has ne’er before possessed in the past. I have encountered it in the past, but I cannot . . ." his eyes lit suddenly, "Galactus!"
"What?" said Kristoff confusedly.
"Doom is possessed of the power inherent within Galactus's Worldship! He has shaped it to fit his own body, altering it into a different form. How did you come upon such cosmic might, Doom? Such power is not meant for you to wield."
"The World Devourer is an enemy in this endeavor." said Doom coldly, "His own power will be used to aid in his defeat. The forces we will be opposing to regain the Soul and Reality Gems will be formidable; my own enhanced abilities will be necessary to attain our goals."
Thor appeared far from convinced, "Choose your steps carefully, varlet. The Odinson will brook no miss-use of your ill-gotten power."
Kristoff was defensive, where Doom was without care, "Hold your tongue, Asgardian, for you forget who you address!"
The Latverian ruler waved his hand at the troublesome boy, "Silence, Kristoff, the warrior's words are below my notice and unworthy of my reply."
The Thunder God's mouth opened as he prepared a second strong statement, but Beta Ray Bill spoke before any words came from Thor's lips, "When are we leaving?"
"When the status of the barrier around the Sol system is ascertained." Doom raised a finger into the air, seemed to feel the empty space experimentally. Around his silver-coated digit, reality warped and bent for split, almost unnoticeable second before snapping back to normality, "The energy wall no longer bars the path to Earth; I may now travel freely between planes."
"Then we leave soon?" inquired the alien swad.
Doom stood from his throne and began a purposeful stride, speaking as he did, "On the morrow. Arrange accommodations for our allies."
The monarch's heavy cape fluttered as he stalked out of the chamber, once again leaving the trio uncomfortably alone in each other's company.
Kristoff made for the doorway soon after his master had exited, hastily saying to the heroic duo, "Speak with a guard, and he will provide you both with quarters. Wait there until the master summons you."
Again, there came that knowing glances between friends and allies.
"Ah, I see our host has returned at last." said the Supreme Intelligence as the familiar form of Uatu shimmered into being before his massive eyes, "Your sojourn was fruitful?"
The Watcher seemed somewhat uncommonly forthcoming, "In a way, Supremor."
Herbert Edgar Wyndham was not interested in Uatu's success or failure. His eyes yet burned with the images of Wylig's forces cutting down dozens of the Tribunal's beasts, only to have the fallen replaced by an even greater multitude. It was a hopeless struggle for the Dark Watcher, a hopeless struggle for Earth.
"Will you act against the Living Tribunal?" came the High Evolutionary's blunt question as his eyes locked with the observer's own. The child did not shy from the elder, despite the great gap between them.
"I am a Watcher. I cannot act, I can only observe."
The geneticist pried, undaunted by the entity he was confronting, "You were ex-communicated when you slew Aron, Uatu. Moreover, you yourself said that had you been aware of what Man is destined to develop into, you would have long ago forsaken your vows. You even seem displeased by the Living Tribunal's intentions. Surely you must act."
Gravely the Watcher shook his head, "I do indeed disagree with what the Living Tribunal aims to do with the Human populace, but I shall not disagree with it in any more than word and thought. If I chose to act it would be useless; the power of a Watcher is nothing compared to that of all but the Tribunal's lowliest lieutenants. No, Doctor Wyndham, I shall only watch history takes its course, as so often I have in the past."
The High Evolutionary did not waver, "If you will not act, tell us how we might, Watcher. I will not see my race enslaved only to provide the Living Tribunal with even greater power. Show us how we might help Wylig, so that he will at least fight on level ground. It is that we ask, Uatu, and it is all that can done."
Uatu contemplated Wyndham's request in silence for a few moments. He looked down at the geneticist's face, the frozen mask discarded, and saw the tortured man beneath the armor. The great machinery in the Watcher's mind churned, weighed, considered.
His answer came, finally, "I cannot. Already I have dared to act far too often and far rashly in these affairs - I have told you far too much already."
"And what harm could there be in revealing more, Uatu?" the Supreme Intelligence pressured the Watcher, seeing how haggard, how depleted he seemed. "If you have told us such a great truth, why not tell us things at are of far less importance. Surely you can see the lack of logic in your refusal to share further with us, Uatu."
"Yes, you are being both illogical and unreasonable." the High Evolutionary added impetuously, scientific and moral curiosity overtaking his natural manners.
The wearied observer’s saucer-eyes were hard, "Your conceptions of reason and logic do not apply to me; I shall do as I wish. Now I must retire to my quarters - the journey back from Earth has left me greatly taxed."
Uatu began to stride towards the far hall, but his steps were slowed by the deep tone of Supremor, "If you will not share with us, Watcher, we will be forced to seek out new sources of information. This is no discourtesy to you, but matters of such importance cannot be denied - the Living Tribunal will be stopped."
The infant-face turned over its shoulder, and despite his fatigued intonation, Uatu’s voice ran deep with an undercurrent of danger, "If that is the course you choose, I will not stop you - either of you. However, my resources will not be at your disposal for such matters. You may remain here and observe, but that is all. If you wish to allay your supposed ignorance, you will not find your answers here."
For that there was no reply, from the Kree computer, nor the human geneticist. They merely brooded in silence as the Watcher strode off into the shadows. When they heard the reassuring hiss of the door to Uatu’s chambers close, the two schemers resumed speaking, though now with a great deal more warily, their glances often shifting toward the darkened corridor.
"Do we dare pry where Uatu clearly does wish us to?" Wyndham questioned, his righteous bravado wilting swiftly.
Supremor’s great optics shimmered as he looked distantly at the passage, as if he could see through the shadows and walls, "We must, Herbert - this a conflict we cannot afford to lose. Uatu has been a gracious host, but I will gladly offend him if it means the defeat of the Living Tribunal and what his actions represent."
Wyndham nodded reluctantly, "But where can we look? The knowledge we require - it is beyond even our means to obtain, easily. And it even seems as though the universe beyond our solar system has been barred from us . . ."
"We remain here Herbert, and simply watch."
The High Evolutionary’s brow furrowed, "That will do us little good - our despair will only grow as we watch Wylig’s army crumble and any hope of defeating the Tribunal flee from our grasp."
"All the information we require is right here, with Uatu. If we watch long enough and closely enough, we will learn what he knows, in time."
Wyndham was not convinced, "I am not certain of that, Supermor - beings of a Watcher’s stature do not often make mistakes."
"Did you see him, Herbert? Uatu was tired, and from a mere trip to Earth. For a being of that stature to be truly fatigued is an unfamiliar experience - he will be off-balance."
"Either that or more careful, knowing his own weakness and the interest we’ve shown in what he knows."
The Supreme Intelligence brushed aside the High Evolutionary’s concerns, "I have lived for longer than even you can conceive of, Herbert, and have seen situations such as this one before. I know the course that events are most likely to take, and that course does not change with time."
For that, Herbert Edgar Wyndham had no response, and the geneticist was more than glad to concede the point to his gargantuan ally.
Adam Warlock looked up into the night sky, gazed at the celestial lights with pupil-less eyes, and smiled. It had been long, far too long, since he had last smiled.
The stars sparkled and winked at him, yet their divine radiance had an impermanence - they seemed to burn with a fever, one which would soon consume them all in fire. The lights dared the golden hero to reach out and save them, or join them in final purification.
Warlock’s smile faded slowly, and he sighed as his gaze was lowered from the shining stars. The bliss of Soul World threatened to desert him, for he knew it was an ephemeral joy. In short time he would be voyaging amongst the myriad spheres of outer reality once more, saving an existence he had no affinity for.
"What ails you, friend?" asked Autolycus, looking away from the roaring bonfire to his quiet ally, "Not still the confrontation with Loki and the Magus, I hope."
Warlock shook his head in the negative, staring at the ground, "No, it is not that, Autolycus. The Magus is no threat to me, and I have done my best to heal both Kray-Tor and the God of Mischief. It is the future that troubles me, my friend - in far too short a time I will be forced to leave this blissful place, the only realm I dare say that I truly care for."
"Then do not leave, stay, and let those outside Soul World muddle through their affairs."
"I cannot, Autolycus, for if I do not act countless beings will die, even one as cold as I cannot bear such a stain upon his spirit. When my allies come for me, I shall exit without protest, and take up the role it seems I was born to play. Hopefully I will jest at being hero for the last time, on this occasion."
"And will you return to us then, when this great conflict is finished?"
"Perhaps, Autolycus. I shall certainly need to periodically check on Ikaris’ progress, but that can be accomplished from without as easily as within."
Sitting nearby, Jean Grey grinned and interjected, "Your friend Gamora seems to have taken quite a liking to him - they have been nearly inseparable since she arrived. It seems she favors the brooding, tragic types."
For that, Warlock had no reply, save for the common pang whenever he caught a glimpse of the former X-Woman. Her soul was forever trapped within that jade paradise, a gift from Thanos of Titan - Grey’s broken mind would shatter utterly if she ever dared enter the flesh again. Even the golden-hued schemer had never discovered a method with which to restore her, and that failing singed the ice that always threatened to consume his heart.
"How will anyone even find you?" Autolycus inquired, "The Soul Gem is in the hands of your enemies, correct? I assume they will not make the location of their treasure well-known."
Adam Warlock stood suddenly, looking down on the warrior with intense, white orbs, "You are correct, and that is a situation I will presently correct."
Without the ceremony and pomp that would often accompany such a ritual, Warlock’s eyes simply seemed to take on a distant look. For fleeting moments his mind did not seem to rest within that spiritual body, yet rather somewhere wholly else.
A flash lit the sky suddenly before fading, and with that bright announcement so ended the small rite. Sense returned to Adam Warlock’s blank optics and he sat once more without a word, leaving the small group camped ‘round the fire to wait impatiently for an explanation.
Knowing Warlock well, Autolycus simply asked, "What did you do, Adam?"
"Corrected a situation which would inhibit my ‘rescue’ from this paradise - a signal has been sent from the Soul Gem which will alert my allies as to the jewel’s location. It will be, unfortunately, only a small matter of time before they arrive and retrieve it."
Warlock’s gaze fell back into the fire, and there was no more talk.
The Dark Watcher weaved between the countless shafts of searing energy, and as an after-thought aimed a deadly lance of his own. Wylig aimed and struck true, Epoch’s immortal ichor filling the roiling, fractured space. The scion of Eon screamed across the countless corridors she existed upon, joined the symphony of agony, and then was silent.
Wylig paid the entity’s defeat no mind - his cold, fevered gaze was focused instead on the massive figures contesting far above his own head. Eyalus’ great wings cut great bloody swaths against the World Devourer’s broken armor, filling the ether with even greater quantities of cosmic life-energy. Galactus grimaced in pain and his eyes lit once more with furious anger. His retaliation pushed the Lord of Pain back, singing silver chrome to charred black. Yet the ever-silent wraith would never give in, feeding off his own agony as well as the pain he caused in his foe! Eyalus surged forward once more, razored-fists slamming again and again into the Ravager’s beleaguered and bloodied features, dashing what little remnants of his helmet remained.
The Third Force roared, shook the very foundations of that breaking sphere that was the Realm of Pain, and lashed out like a wounded child. His massive fist swung into a swarm of some nameless entities, crushing them, but his foe remained elusive.
Despite the tumult surrounding him, the Dark Watcher remained transfixed by the scene, as Galactus searched the space for his enemy, yet proved incapable of finding him. Wylig wiped the blood from his own features and allowed himself a wearied smile, for he knew well Eyalus’ trick.
Quicksilver flashed and Galactus bellowed as a gruesome gash opened across the length of his scarred countenance. He fired wildly a thick beam of cosmic might, but once more it had no target; the Lord of Pain had faded once more into his domain of trickery.
The entire battle seemed to pause, both sides as they brought their senses up to observe the strangely curious confrontation. Fire lit the air no more in those fleeting seconds, and there was a restful peace.
Again the fleeting blaze of silver, the spray of divine ichor, and impotent retaliation. Eyalus struck again, faster now, the pause between assaults shortening. A fourth flicker of chrome, and then a fifth, almost instantly afterward.
Galactus screamed as a storm of quicksilver seemed to descend all around him, slashing away at his spiritual and physical body, filling the void with his weakening essence. The World Devourer’s eyes flickered and revealed more than a waning of strength. Wylig looked deep into those tired orbs from his position far below and saw the inner conflict, man striving against deity. Galactus’ inability to find his foe was as much a product of himself as of Eyalus’ combat expertise.
The Ravager’s form began to shrink beneath the assault, falling slowly to his knees. His allies watched with horror evident on their faces, and all their collective might seemed to ebb with every blow struck by the monstrous Lord of Pain. Wylig saw as well, finding little satisfaction in the cold mastery Eyalus demonstrated, and more cold dread. His memory flashed back to the Antithesis, and he pondered how terrible that being must be, if he was so struck by only the Lord of Pain’s brutal fervor.
There was a discontinuity in space, a changing of paradigms, as the quicksilver blazed down and was interrupted, thrown backward by some even greater force. Eyalus materialized far from his enemy, hurled backward easily. His ruby eyes flickered with shock and injury, and only a cursory examination revealed a silver body bent twisted and smoking, sorely wounded by a single, unexpected attack.
Mixed feelings struggled through Wylig’s mind as his sight shifted and saw what he knew he would see: the Closed Circle, standing stoically in the roiling space, flanked by both the entity called Orikal and the last remaining Particulate, Toth. Thanos’ eyes glistened coldly as he lowered his hand and addressed his enemies through the impenetrable mask he wore so easily over his features. As he spoke, the Dark Watcher found even greater respect for the Titan growing in him.
"This conflict is ended, by my decree. Wylig, Ecce, Procell - whatever name your true name is - your army is defeated, and the barrier protecting this realm weakened. Surrender yourself now - do not force me to breach your stronghold, for the full application of my power would threaten to break the final tenuous bonds holding the Omniverse together. Do not be a fool and destroy the very same sphere you have fought to protect."
The Dark Watcher did not reply. He stared across the battlefield, and saw the haggard condition of his army - they were no match for the sheer force that the Closed Circle could easily bring to bear. Wylig’s most potent ally, the Lord of Pain, remained weakened, shocked by the pure energy that Thanos had suddenly brought to bear upon him.
Wylig’s teeth gritted and he suddenly seemed trapped, walls closing in upon him from all sides. There was no escape, not sudden brilliant plan that came to mind - his gambit was ended. His eyes met with the shifting globes that served as the Demiurge’s own optics, and even that primordial being acknowledged he was impotent before the Closed Circle power, for it three times that of the World Devourer himself. They exchanged thoughts, and again there was no sudden insight.
In a time not long ago, the Dark Watcher would have already been moving against the Closed Circle! Some brilliant plan already coalescing in his mind - but that Wylig was dead, had died the very moment he looked upon the terrifying visage of the Antithesis. That coldly calculating, mentally invincible creature was gone, replaced by one who longed more for the past than the future, and had begun to question his own deeds. The Dark Watcher’s defeat was as much a product of his own uncertainty as the Titan’s tactical skill.
A scream shattered the damning quiet, a screech that drew the entire massive gatherings strict attention.
"We will never surrender!" raged the Hawk God as he raced upward from far below, barreling towards the flickering crescent, all that remained of the barrier, "You are not omnipotent, Closed Circle! You too shall fall!"
The wall of energy crackled as the embodiment of survival was admitted through, tearing towards the massive curtain that was his enemy. Orikal and Toth moved forward, together directing a deadly stream of power at their foe. Thanos only looked on, composed as the gnat approached.
The Hawk God roared as the twin beams struck, threatening to break his grip on existence. Yet the primal entity pushed on despite the power arrayed against him, refusing to back down, even as he felt his atoms beginning to separate.
The Closed Circle’s eyes shined with anticipation as the insect neared, still remaining stoic, unmoved, unworried.
The Hawk God screeched as his wings dissipated, and then his arms burned to vapor, and he carried himself further into the heart of the roaring assault, Thanos looming close now, an imposing, invincible wall.
The husk roared and his eyes lit with fire as he pulled the remnants of his energy up from the dying core of his being, and modulated them to the frequency which danced in his head. His mind swirling in the madness of mortal pain, and he opened his mouth to shout once more, and vomited out the force building inside him.
The thick beam tore outward, shredding space in its wake, pushing back the dual assaults of Orikal and Marbas. It struck the imposing form of the Closed Circle dead-on, boring through the folds of his cosmic cloak and tearing through the opposite side like a radiant celestial spear.
Shock rippled through the crowd as Thanos crumpled under the ferocity of the assault, the light in his eyes flickering madly and then extinguishing. Raw beams of force ripped from his sockets and maw, tearing across the ether as a blinding right rose up from the gaping wound transversing his body across all planes.
Soundlessly the purifying glow expanded, encompassing Orikal and Toth and then bursting outward exponentially, taking sight from all those who had dared to watch.
When the sense of vision, physical and more, re-visited Wylig, he saw only the glittering fragments of what had once been the Closed Circle. His lieutenants, and at the center of the dying pieces, a small pulsating Corona, brighter and more seductive than any star.
The Dark Watcher charged forward through the void, racing for what he knew that living core to be. Behind him the mass of the Titan’s forces began to swell with confusion and then disappear, uncertain what future awaited them, but knowing they could not remain in the stronghold of their enemy. The renegade did not care as he rapidly approach the shining fragment, and slowly noticed the smoldering husk nearby that was the Hawk God. Even the great flash that accompanied Galactus’ exit did not draw his attention.
Wylig dived down on the core first, tightly grasping it before turning his attention to his ally. The cosmic Corona throbbed in his fingers like a thing alive, alive with power. The Dark Watcher stared down on the cinder of the Hawk God, sensing a small flicker of life within his shattered living corpse.
Wylig sighed as he encompassed his companion in a protective sheath of energy, dragging him back towards the barrier, holding the glowing core as carefully as his ally. He journeyed back slowly, numbly, into the folds of uncertainty.
Continued in Chapter 5
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