Waged At The Stroke Of Midnight
Written by Azmodi,
Edited by E.A. Morrissey
Written by Warren "Azmodi"
Entros, Edited by
This story follows the events in
The Twilight War and Foundations
Forged Before Nightfall.
Continued from Dusk's End Chapter Five.
As Wylig's legs carried him across the barren stone, he looked up into the crimson-drenched sky and was struck by how similar the end of time was to the beginning of time. He had been there, not long after the fabled "Big Bang," when this Aeon of existence had begun its long life. Now, as he steadily trekked towards a baroque temple situated in the middle of that hovering shard of rock, the Dark Watch was bearing witness to the Big Crunch, the heat-death of the universe itself. How strange the parallels of nature truly were, even to one as knowledgeable and wise as he himself was.
Again the searing sting of that ancient, bitter memory impressed itself upon him, and Wylig's pace faltered as the thought of what he could have become violently tugged at his very being. Within that crashed hulk of a starship there had lain and small and helpless man, yet had the renegade merely forsaken his oaths then, instead of later, he would have held a third of existence within his grasp. Control would have been his, and with that control would have come . . . What? He did not truly know. All he was aware of was that, had he deigned to leash the Devourer when he had been but an infant, the peril the universe was now in would surely be averted.
His teeth gritting within his mouth, Wylig pushed away the disheartening memory, forging ahead, making himself forget, though the shame, the burning self-loathing that came coupled hand in hand with that very same echo would not fade so easily. Forever now, he lived under the tyranny of the contradiction of his soul, and no matter how far or how often it receded into the background of his mind, still did it linger there like a pall. Never would the Dark Watcher be able to escape the inevitable fact that what he now opposed, with all his will, was the very thing he could have so easily become.
The squat, though large, structure grew larger within his sight, the goal of his journey to the end of time coming closer with every long stride. Now he could make-out his eyes the shimmering field of force that surrounded the citadel, a bulwark against those few and fierce who would dare trespass during the few remaining days of the life of the universe.
Wylig did not bother to stop as he approached the glimmering shield of energy; it did not bar his path. Without flinching he passed through, unaffected, and began the short ascent to the very body of the temple itself, upon stairs of worn gold.
Drawing to a halt at the apex of that small case of steps, the Dark Watcher spied a trio of grey statues, worked into the shape of armored beings, and standing upon identical pedestals. They were the silent guardians of the final piece of civilization left within the dying carcass that was reality, the last bulwarks against those who sought the knowledge secreted within. In them, he sensed the potential for artificial life, yet feared them not. Wylig pressed onward, not hesitating even when those formerly frozen entities began to move, down from their platforms, and into the path of the intruder.
"Hold, interloper! You trespass upon sacred ground, and such an effrontery can no longer be permitted! Turn back now, or face the might of the Protectroids!"
As though those grey-hulled automatons had not even spoken, the Dark Watcher drew himself forward still, striving to reach the inner reaches of the citadel, and what lay within. There was no fear in his bearing, not even a single glance cast directly at the Protectroids as they raised their hands, glowing with energy.
Six bolts of glowing power cascaded across Wylig's still moving body. For moments, the searing lances of focused force bore down on the Dark Watcher's form, but to seemingly no avail. Without his pace slackening at all, the renegade continued toward the interior of the temple. Yet, as the Protectroids refused to end their attacks despite their obvious ineffectiveness, it appeared that Wylig's patience with the energy bombardment splintered and cracked to pieces.
Calmly, the rebel entity gestured at the trio of machines, and they toppled to the ground, all out-pouring of energy ceasing abruptly. Animation fled from their forms, and it was as if they had never possessed life, however artificial it may have been, for the entirety of their shared existence.
The annoyance of the Protectroids terminated, Wylig continued onward into the fortress. The light darkened the illumination of the curving chambers coming from an unknown source. Everything was bathed in a deep and tranquil emerald, stark contrast to the deadly crimson turmoil that raged on outside.
The Dark Watcher wandered about the temple, appearing to do so aimlessly, but actually having a set course in mind. With ease he could feel the energy radiating from those three beings he sought to recruit for his cause and without difficulty he followed that trio of signatures to its source.
Like the other rooms, this one was barrenly attired, its ceiling curving and vaulted its walls of either steel or stone. Yet in the center there sat a simple alter, upon which were perched three identical masses, each emanating a slight hint of energy from within. They appeared soft and supple, almost gelatinous; a pale indication of what power lay locked within.
A small smile painting his features now, Wylig advanced upon the oddly shaped mounds of protoplasm, feeling triumph within his grasp.
Bright light flashed, so unexpected and powerful that momentarily blinded even the eyes of the renegade Watcher. For a moment Wylig could see nothing visually, but could sense the presence of a single, mighty force now occupying the chamber. Immediately he put forth a mental guess as to the identity of this entity, but it was not confirmed until his sight was at last returned to him. The Dark Watcher looked upon three robed presence's standing between him and his objective.
"The Time Keepers . . . I had expected you might attempt to interfere with my efforts here."
He who seemed foremost among the trio of chronal beings, his utterly inhuman face done in yellow hues, spoke in reply, "We know you, Wylig, and detest the imbalance you have brought to the Omniverse. You cannot be allowed to give further influence to Chaos by freeing the Time Twisters from their imprisonment here. It is not often that we are forced to act, but be warned that we shall use our full powers to bar you from reviving our destructive counterparts."
Wylig raised a curious eyebrow, thin and insubstantial as it was, "And how would you propose to stop me?"
"You are cunning, Watcher, and resourceful; there are few beings in the Omniverse entire who could accomplish what you have already done, especially with so much apparent ease. Nevertheless, as great as your intellect is, your own personal powers are all but nothing compared to our own. Engaging us in battle would only bring about great destruction to the universe, and lead to your demise. Great as your crimes have already been, we have no wish to end you, Wylig. Leave this place now, and never return."
The Dark Watcher took an experimental step forward, feeling the raw might emanating from the Time Keepers increasing exponentially as his proximity to them decreased. Yet, he knew himself to be utterly safe, for he had the ultimate defense against all the myriad powers occupying the cosmic spectrum.
"I dare too much, approaching the dormant Time Twisters as I have now, do I not? Should you not strike me down for this offense?" His voice was raw, and cold.
"Do not make us terminate you, Wylig."
He smiled, without humor or good will, "Are you truly foolish enough to believe I forgot the very ruling I myself proposed?" His face returned to its stolid mask, "You can do nothing to halt me, Time Keepers. Your actions will be immediately frozen by the ruling of the Living Tribunal, and you yourselves condemned by the cosmic court."
The trio of time-wielding entities looked at each other, emotions and thoughts passing between them far too quickly for even the Dark Watcher to perceive. Yet when they turned their three visages back upon him, as he felt the aura of overwhelming energy about the Time Keepers beginning to ebb, he knew victory to be his.
"Unfortunate as it may be, we must accept the truth of your words, Watcher. Your manipulations have made it impossible for us to stop you from reviving the Time Twisters, if that is truly your wish. We dare not strike against you, or even erect a barrier around their comatose forms, lest the Tribunal loose divine retribution upon us."
The bodies of the three beings began to fade from sight, but their words echoed ominously in Wylig's ears all the same, "Be warned, renegade. The Time Twisters cannot be controlled, they cannot be reasoned with. Freeing them will only bring about your own eventual destruction."
The Dark Watcher knew well the truth of what the TimeKeepers had said in their final moments, but that did not stay his steps. Soon he stood at the side of the simple altar, staring down at the three undulating spheres of gelatinous substance. His mind reached out, saw the imprisoned consciousness held within those globules, and with deadly efficiency cut their bounds, freed their minds from the shackles the TimeKeepers had chained them with!
Reaction was instant: the glimmering orbs of gel slithered fiercely, rolling back upon their own substances. Quickly they grew from the altar, elongating and widening, colors shifting and churning, changing as they ascended to beyond human height. More gradually now, those cradles of energy resolved themselves into definite shape and form, strange as it was.
The trio of Time Twisters stood as tall as Wylig himself, and too did their heads seem a bit large for their bodies, though not nearly to the degree of the renegade Watcher's. Their ears were long and pointed, and their flesh thin and pale, stretched across their bony, alien countenances. It seemed as though these entities had never been bathed within a single ray of sunlight, so pale and milky white was the pallor of their skin. Their eyes were wide and perfectly circular, with minute white irises surrounded by great dishes of stark ebony.
Wrapped about the thin necks of the Time Twisters were bands of silver metal, which ran a short length to join the thick black cloaks, which totally concealed all their bodies. This garb of dark grey resembled greatly the attire of their nemesis, the TimeKeepers, betraying the similarity of origin that both trios shared.
The Time Twisters seemed oddly calm and collected for beings so recently restored from a state of protoplasm. Objectively they looked about their surroundings, those jet black eyes drinking every detail, down to even the quantum level. Then those star-dappled countenances turned in unison to stare at Wylig, and, if for only a moment, he felt much smaller than he normally did.
Though their shared gazes seemed to dissect him utterly, quickly the Dark Watcher recovered, and spoke to them with all the considerable power and eminence he could muster. "Time Twisters, I am Wylig, and I have freed you from your imprisonment by the Time Keepers."
The lead Twister nodded his alien head, "We are aware, Wylig, and we are grateful."
"A war is soon to be waged across the universe, one which shall decide the fate of all, both the space and time of the Omniverse."
"Also of this are we aware, Wylig, for still could we see and hear while shackled. And like the Time Keepers, too do we know the true purpose behind the conflict, those simple facts which elude the majority of the participants thinking they fight merely for the dominance of Chaos or Order."
The Dark Watcher's slight eyebrow raised at this, another unexpected revelation; he had not expected the Time Twisters to be aware of the knowledge, which the TimeKeepers had shepherded into the current Aeon. Wylig was not fond of surprises, but unlike most rigid schemers, he had learned to take advantage of them rather than allow those sudden intrusions to bring his machinations to shambles. Already the structure of his plan began to flow, incorporating this new wrinkle, the renegade's mind devising new and better stratagems with due swiftness.
"Then surely you must also know the reason I freed you, Time Twisters."
The foremost among those strange creatures again nodded, "We are, and our answer is no. The fate of the Supreme One is no concern of ours; we are only concerned with our great pilgrimage. Nothing may take precedence over that journey."
Wylig did not flinch, his re-forged scheme having already taken into account this possibility. "You are single-minded in your pursuit . . . perhaps so much so that you cannot see that your sacred pilgrimage will be ended before it even begins if the Tribunal is successful in impressing his will upon Creation."
There seemed a momentary pause from the Time Twisters, as if together they processed new data that they heretofore had not considered, "Explain."
"You are a destructive element within the Omniverse, ravaging entire worlds in your pursuit for knowledge. If the Living Tribunal succeeds, I find it highly doubtful he will suffer you to live, Time Twisters. He shall erase you from the Omniversal template before you were even a frightful fancy within He Who Remains' aged mind. But fight alongside me, and you shall be free to do as you believe yourselves destined to do, for it is the natural course of events I champion, not artificial order."
Again, the Twisters did not see fit to reply for a few moments, their great and intricate brains absorbing and understanding Wylig's words. As the Dark Watcher had said, those time-traveling beings had been so utterly fixed upon their backward journey that they had never bothered to consider the greater picture of things within the Omniverse. Despite all their great knowledge, the Time Twisters had nearly been truly and utterly blind.
"Your words have convinced us to . . . postpone our pilgrimage until the threat that the Living Tribunal poses is ended. You shall share with us-"
The lead Twister abruptly ceased to speak, his eyes suddenly focusing on something behind Wylig rather than the Dark Watcher himself. The black optics narrowed ominously at the three presence's which had made their appearances in the background, even as the renegade observer turned to cast a suspicious glare on that trio of entities as well.
The Dark Watcher smiled slightly, another unexpected wrinkle, but this one purely fortunate.
"Time Keepers . . . what has brought you back into my presence?"
Tension boiled in the room, palpable and pulsating, surging back and forth between the pairs of chronal beings, their mutual hatred and loathing evident. The six eyes of the TimeKeepers never left the visages of the Time Twisters even when their apparent leader spoke.
"We have listened to what you have said to our twisted brethren, and it has forced us to reconsider our stances as well. Our sole purpose for being is to deliver knowledge to the next incarnation of the universe . . . The Living Tribunal's motivations are known to us and the Time Twisters, as surely as they are known to you. Did we too not commune with The One in the end days of the last Aeon? We find the Tribunal's motives all too mortal, but his end goal shall be nonetheless potentially dangerous. If he is successful, who is to say the Tribunal shall leave the cycle of Big Bangs and Crunches intact? We shall be . . . obsolete, our survival thrown into serious doubt . . . And above all, the TimeKeepers must survive. Though we find it extremely distasteful, we are forced to join your burgeoning army, Watcher."
Wylig nodded, looking back at the Time Twisters, "Is this acceptable? Will it be agreeable to fight alongside those who are your diametric opposites?"
Again, there was a pause before the time rending being replied those black orbs that served as eyes boring dangerously into the faces of the TimeKeepers. Yet finally the foremost Time Twister nodded, "If our pilgrimage can be halted, even for a short period, so too can the enmity between ourselves and the Time Keepers be put aside until this task is accomplished. Afterward . . . "
"We shall reduce you to your previous protoplasmic state." the lead Keeper replied brusquely.
"Come then, Time Twisters and Time Keepers, back into the time-stream," the Dark Watcher said, even as he felt himself phasing into that vapid river of chronal energy, "there I shall share with you the intricacies of my machinations."
Almost in unison, the lead Twister and lead Keeper nodded, applying their nearly infinite energies to move themselves too into the rapid flow of events, even as pair of smoldering emerald eyes looked on from the shadows, studying suspiciously.
Dark and deadly bolts of celestial energy crackled violently between the polarities of existence, the balance that they had shared for so long suddenly torn asunder. In the Nexus of All Realities, from which sprung all that existed, the Omniverse entire, there was disorder, for it was Chaos that ruled now, neither Order nor balance.
In the midst of this tumult of matter and anti-matter, time and anti-time, life and anti-life, the Hawk God attempted to keep a sane mind, which, even for being as advanced as himself, proved to be an exceedingly difficult task. As he forged ahead, trying to reach the centerpoint between the facets of existence, his body was wracked from both sides of the cosmic spectrum, nature itself attempting to dichotomize him. The molecules of his form were scrambled in one instant, and then re-formed into a perfectly orderly formation in the next. He died and was revived a thousand times, was reduced to simple protoplasm and then evolved to a state beyond god-hood and back, yet never did he retreat or give in. He believed far too strongly in the cause he championed to surrender to mere outside assaults.
Debris, both living and unliving, passed before his sights as he crawled onward toward the pulsating points of duality, where he hoped to encounter Lord Chaos and Master Order, and convince them to free their eternal servant from bondage. He only prayed that he would prove persuasive enough, lest his trip through the inner turmoil of the Omniverse be totally in vain.
Dragging himself along, holding his mind and body together through force of will, the shining beacons slowly grew large in the eyes of the Hawk God. Like straining against a wave of onrushing water, at times it seemed as if he was actually being pulled backwards, farther from his goal, but still he pushed on, refusing weakness, making himself survive.
When the primordial being set a wavering foot upon the stony island resting between the two points of the Nexus, all the dichotomies that had been tearing at him for what seemed an eternity suddenly stopped. Like a gigantic cloud sweeping across the sun. Chaos was now reigning within the majority of the universe, but still there was this small pocket of balance, allowing a brief respite for whatever weary traveler had managed to enter the cradle of existence.
Gathering his thoughts and energies, the Hawk God moved to the center of the natural platform, looking up into the storm as he did. Massive bolts of obsidian power ripped from each polarity above his head, colliding with flashes of crimson and purple. For moments he studied the maelstrom of disorder, and then cleared his throat, and spoke as loud as he could.
"Lord Chaos!" he shouted to the undulating sky, "Master Order! The Hawk God calls to you! Make yourselves known to me!"
His reply was nothing more than the howling of the cosmic storm, the roar of energies undreamed falling back upon one another, only to be reborn the next moment, continuing the epic struggle. The winged entity searched the horizon with his keen sight, yet he could see nothing. Anger rippled through him.
"Lord Chaos, surely at least you shall grant me an audience! Was it not due to the actions of myself that it is now your rule that dominates in the Omniversal body of great and mighty Eternity?"
Again, it seemed as if there would be no response, and the flames of the Hawk God's anger began to burn all the brighter, embers beginning to change into roaring flames. As he prepared to yell out once again, this time with far more vehemence, there appeared the two familiar visages of Lord Chaos and Master Order in the dark sky. Both peered down at him intently.
"Why have you come to the Nexus in this time of turmoil?" Lord Chaos said, his voice booming like a detonation across the realm, "You, of all beings, who helped cause this disunity? You are not welcome here, Hawk God."
The primordial being was taken aback by the floating being's sentiments; he had firmly believed Lord Chaos would be most in favor of holding greater sway over events than he had in only the recent past. He voice his concerns.
"Why do you feel as such, Lord Chaos? Are you not gladdened by the fact that your influence is now so much more strongly felt across all the Omniverse? Before you were but an equal of Order . . . Now you are the superior!"
It was Master Order who responded, "We are passive forces, Hawk God. We take no pleasure in seeing events disrupted because one of us has been strengthened by the actions of others. For all time we have existed as a balance, a perfect union of disarray and compartmentalization; your destruction of that ages-old agreement is an abhorrence to us both."
Lord Chaos' voice was far more adamant, and a great deal, more threatening, when he spoke this time, "I shall ask you again, embodiment of survival and instinct, why have you trespassed within our realm?"
The Hawk God's mind raced as he thought how to frame his reply. All the advice Wylig had given him having turned to ash! Never, not even once, had the primal entity considered for an instant that the Dark Watcher may have been wrong in his assumptions regarding the two beings floating before him.
"I have come to petition you both to free the In-Betweener from his imprisonment," he said finally.
"The In-Betweener’s crimes against the Celestial Trinity have been grievous." Master Order responded, "He is a danger to the core timeline, and therefore a danger to the entire Omniverse. Freedom ill-befits such a renegade."
The Hawk God nodded his agreement, "True . . . I would be forced to agree, if things were arranged as they usually are . . . But the balance has been broken, and disorder reigns. Surely that mere tipping of dualities will severely diminish his potency, and the degree to which he can effect events."
"That is true." admitted Lord Chaos, "Yet what reason have we to free him? And what reason have you to petition his release?"
"Wylig wishes his aid . . . for what I cannot say. However, consider this, Lord Chaos and Master Order: the In-Betweener is the balance between yourselves, a very personification of that which has been fractured. Would not his mere presence within the open universe, the core universe, help to mend the wound and begin to re-establish the rightful way of things?"
Master Order's eyes narrowed, "It would."
The Hawk God forced back a smile as he said, "Then is it not a violation of the Tribunal's wishes to deny the In-Betweener his freedom? He wishes this disunion to continue, but not indefinitely . . . The release of the In-Betweener would mean you are truly following his ruling."
Lord Chaos and Master Order turned to one another in the burning sky. They began to converse as if the Hawk God was not even there! "He speaks the truth, that which we have tried to avoid . . . Is it truly worth the possibility of the balance being restored more expediently if the In-Betweener is free to cause havoc as he wishes." said the deformed countenance.
Master Order replied, "He has seemed far more subdued in his current incarnation, though he is not in possession of his full powers. Perhaps the In-Betweener has realized the folly of what unleashing his full might will do to the cosmic spectrum . . . "
"Then it is agreed, the In-Betweener must be released."
"Yes." said Master Order as he and his opposite turned back to face the Hawk God, "You have convinced as to grant the In-Betweener his freedom, Hawk God."
The winged being smiled.
"However, his prison is not kept here, within the Nexus of All Realities."
The Hawk God's smile faded quickly replaced with a look of consternation, and frustration.
"After acquitting himself well in the battle against Thanos, in which he safeguarded the Celestial Trinity," Master Order continued, "the In-Betweener was granted a limited amount of freedom by Lord Chaos and myself. His powers were greatly reduced and he was consigned to a purely physical body, but granted free reign of the universe."
"And now I must find him?"
It was Lord Chaos who rejoined, "We will give you his energy signature, and the dynamic energy sequence necessary to return to him his full abilities and trans-physical body. Prepare to receive this information, Hawk God, for it cannot be communicated in the verbal manner in which we now converse."
The primal entity nodded, even as he felt alien thoughts intrude upon his mind, imparting to him a quantum signature. This was a visual representation of the energy he would need to use upon the In-Betweener, thus restoring to him his full power.
When the transfer was done, the Hawk God nodded, though he felt slightly dazed from communing with a being so far above him in the cosmic hierarchy, "I thank you, Lord Chaos."
The deformed countenance stared back at him with less than appreciation, "Understand that your words convinced us to do as you asked, Hawk God. We abhor the cause you fight for, and detest the imbalance you have wrought. Leave our realm now, before you incur our further displeasure."
His eyes narrowed at the threat, but even such a powerful being as the Hawk God knew well that he would be little match for the combined might of Lord Chaos and Master Order. Even outside their home realm, they were far above his capabilities to challenge. He only nodded once again and looked away from the two hovering visages, and dreaded braving that chaotic storm once again.
In the distance, two spheres of hard, sparkling grey watched in silence.
Captain America's brow furrowed in disbelief, "What do you mean S.H.I.E.L.D. cannot intervene on Olympia's behalf? The Deviants are a threat to the entire world, and you can't spare even a few ships or troops to help launch a counter-attack?"
On the small viewscreen, cigar as ever chomped between his stained teeth, Nick Fury was forced to shake his head, "I'm sorry Cap, but my orders are strict. We can't take a stand against Lemuria until they threaten a recognized nation, and as of now, Olympia does not fall into that category. Hell, most people in the United Nations didn't even know the Eternals existed until this missile strike occurred! You think those people will give me authorization to help out some enhanced beings they just discovered are alive? I don't think so. It's a bitch, Cap, but that's just the way politics work."
"Nick," he protested, "you know the Deviants are going to try and finish what they started, and odds are when they're done with Olympia they'll start eyeing some bigger targets. Can't you at least speak to some of the members of the Security Council and make them see the danger that an armed and aggressive Lemuria poses?"
"I'll try," the S.H.I.E.L.D. director answered, "but I can't promise anything. Dealing with super-humans and mutants . . . it's not something these guys like to do. They'd rather ignore the problem until it explodes in their faces."
"Yes," Fury said with emphasis, making it clear he would brook no more arguments, even from the legendary Captain America, "I will see what I can do." He eyed the patriot a shade suspiciously, "Since when have you been a big champion of the Eternals, anyway? Hell, barely more than a week back we were fighting against them . . . "
Captain America nodded reluctantly, "I know, but that was merely a miss-communication on both our parts . . . Neither side knew what the other was intending, and that led to the inevitable clash. I won't stand by and watch as a whole city of good people is burned to the ground, though, Nick. We've had several Eternals on the team, and the rest have usually been staunch allies. If you can't spare some forces to defend Olympia, and go on the offensive against Lemuria, the Avengers will have to act alone."
"Officially, I can't condone your actions, Cap . . . But unofficially . . . go kick their asses."
The patriot nodded, his grim expression not at all changed by the other war hero's easy vulgarity. The small screen blinked and went black with a touch of the super-soldier's finger, and soon he was up from the chair, striding across the expansive chamber. Cylindrical with a stage at the far-end and a crescent-shaped conference table dominating much of the impressive space, this was truly a chamber meant only for large-scale events. Massive screens were wedded to the curving walls, and each displayed different satellite images, culled from the world around. Yet, most were focused on the ruins of once-proud Olympia.
It was early morning in Greece as Captain America strode across the chamber as he watched Quasar and Giant-Man clearing away wreckage, always searching for bodies underneath. He shook his head and looked away, fixing his gaze instead on the one other occupant of the chamber.
"How 're things going over there, Tony?"
Iron Man looked up from studying a small data pad, his flat faceplate incapable of displaying the emotion he felt. "It's been little over a day since the Deviant attack, and together with the remaining Eternals we've been able to clear away most of the rubble."
Stark's answer was slow in coming, "It's . . . bad, Cap. We've counted over two thousand dead, and another seven hundred wounded, with a few dozen still missing. That leaves just over a hundred healthy Eternals to take care of Olympia, until the others are nursed back to health. And with the condition of the city's defenses . . . It won't be nearly enough to withstand another Deviant attack."
Captain America shook his head, obviously deeply concerned. "S.H.I.E.L.D. won't spare us any units to help defend them, and we're spread thin as it is, especially considering the Lemurians could choose to attack any part of the globe whenever they wish . . . "
"Adam Warlock has some suggestions. He's still in Olympia, but will be coming here when the Infinity Watch has finished their part in cleaning up the city. I believe he mentioned something about aid from Attilan and Black Bolt . . . "
"I've never been sure of his loyalties, but I cannot argue with the success he's had as a tactician." Captain America reluctantly admitted, "What about Doctor Doom and Latveria?"
"There's been no contacting him since before the Fifth Host landed, and we've been detecting dangerously high energy readings in Latveria for awhile. No one knows what he's up to, and right now, no one cares."
The patriot sighed as Iron Man presented him with another dead-end. Beginning to feel the fatigue of managing such a crisis situation, Captain America leaned against the cold steel of the conference table, feeling his eyelids beginning to close of their own volition. He did not resist.
For a few moments, at least, the warrior was granted the sweet succor of refreshing sleep, but quickly it was ripped away as he was jarred awake by heavy footsteps, and Tony Stark's surprised shout.
"Who are you? How did you get in here?"
Immediately Captain America's eyes shot open, his body automatically tensing for possible combat. In a moment he surveyed the room, and assessed the possible threat. He saw Iron Man facing a large, red-bearded figure, his repulsors drawn and ready to fire. The intruder was large, nearly as towering as Thor himself was, and dressed in a simple brown robe. Nevertheless, his face was the picture of shock, and his hands were up at the level of his face, showing that he was unarmed, despite the fact that a heavy hammer dangled from a chain wrapped around his wrist.
"Hey, whoa guys! I'm not here for a fight!"
Captain America could plainly see as much, "Put down your hands, son, we won't be attacking you if you don't mean us any harm."
The intruder smiled nervously, slowly lowering his arms, "Thanks . . . "
"Now . . . As Iron Man already asked, who are you, and how did you breach our defenses?"
"I'm called Red Norvell, and awhile back I was a stand-in for Thor. Odin sent me here to restore the Thunder God's life because, so he told me, Yggdrasil was about to be destroyed, and he wanted his son to live on. As for how I got in . . . I dunno. After I left the Rainbow Bridge, I just sorta appeared here, I guess . . . "
Iron Man looked at the leader of the Avengers, "So it is like Thor said . . . The Celestials have wiped out all the Earth's pantheons. I almost didn't believe him . . . "
Astonishment bloomed on Red Norvell's bearded face, "Thor . . . told you that?
You mean he's alive?"
Captain America nodded, "Yes, he was restored to life by his mother, Gaea." He turned to his comrade, "Iron Man, you better get Thor here, and quickly. I'm sure he'll want to be aware of this."
Stark nodded and simply spoke into his mouthpiece, for it was naturally hooked into the Avengers communications systems, "Thor, could you please come to the war-room as quickly as possible. There is someone here with news from Asgard."
Neither Captain America nor Red Norvell could hear the response. Even they were shocked when there was a sudden burst of light within the room, and from that cascade of brightness stepped the Last Son of Asgard in all his sorrowful grandeur.
Recognition immediately dawned on Thor face as he saw the bearded man, and at once strode over to engage him, "Red Norvell! It has been a long span, friend . . . Surely 'twas Odin who returned you to life?"
He nodded sadly, "Yeah, right before the Celestials destroyed Yggdrasil . . . He sent me here, thinking that you too would've died when they killed the World-Ash, but it looks like you're fine to me."
Thor's face was a mask of pain, "Aye, my father was a good man, noble and true to the last."
Red Norvell held up his hammer then, and looked down at it, "I wonder what the thing inside this is gonna do now, then, since you obviously don't need it . . . "
"What did the All-Father secret away within this proud weapon?" the Thunder God asked as he gently removed Ebonsbane from Red Norvell's grasp, and weighed it within his own palm, "'Twas a fine and practiced artist who crafted this piece . . . "
"He said something about a flicker of life or somethin' . . . Like it would go into you and bring you back from the dead, I guess."
Thor's brow furrowed as he examined the hammer further, "'Tis strange . . . I sense no such thing present, though there is a small enchantment which I cannot detect the true purpose of."
Red Norvell shrugged, reaching for Ebonsbane, "Guess it doesn't really matter now."
As the revived man's hand closed around the hilt of his weapon, while Thor's grasp remained on its head, a strange reaction suddenly took place. To the bewildered eyes of both Iron Man and Captain America, it seemed as if Red Norvell suddenly went utterly tense. All muscle's in his body tightening at once, while the entirety of life and expression appeared to drain from his eyes and face.
Their sight saw Thor's mouth agape with surprise and his optics seemed to bulge from their sockets. As if there was too much in his head and his skull could no longer contain the excess spirit, which now resided within it. His fingers tightened instinctually around the mallet's head with such force that it seemed his fingernails would drag ragged furrows 'cross the Uru steel.
Then, a moment later, life flooded back into Red Norvell with such force that he was hurled backwards, landing hard on the floor. Thor shook his head, clearing away the haze of the strangeness that had just occurred, his hands still firmly gripping Ebonsbane.
"What just happened?" Iron Man said with astonishment, as Captain America knelt and helped Red Norvell back to his feet.
The Thunder God was silent for a few moments, his eyes seemingly distant, and he merely held the hammer like a frozen statue. When he finally spoke his voice was unusually hushed, far subdued from the booming quality it often possessed.
"Father . . . Odin . . . He lied to you, Red Norvell." The Asgardians gaze fell upon the red-bearded man's, and it was full of sorrow. "There was no flicker of life within your hammer, only a simple enchantment . . . which would, when I touched the head and you the haft, transfer your own life into my body, restoring me from death." He shook his head with shame and disgrace, his eyes inadvertently closing, whispered, "Father, how could you be so . . . cold."
The three others looked at one another wordlessly, choosing not to speak in their comrade's moment of pain.
Slowly, Thor looked up at Red Norvell, and as he did, pushed Ebonsbane back into his reluctant hands, "I am, sorry, Red Norvell, but I must take my leave of you, for the moment."
The Thunder God turned then, without giving the two Avengers so much as glance, and stalked out of the immense chamber, looking somehow far smaller than when he had entered it. No one spoke until long after Thor had departed.
Instantly Warlock's eyes saw that he had not been transported to Avengers Headquarters. Yet, as he looked upon the familiar visage of the High Evolutionary, the calming form of Uatu, and the bizarre countenance of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, he was already quite aware of where he was.
"Why have I been diverted during my teleportation to the Avengers compound?" asked the golden schemer, focusing his attention solely upon the High Evolutionary. On most occasions, he would have been happy, perhaps even overjoyed, to see his surrogate father. However, this was not such an occasion, and the grim foreboding of building conflict hung heavily even upon Warlock's steady shoulders; there was truly no time to waste.
Yet as his keen senses reached out of their own volition, Warlock knew little more than an instant after speaking why the Evolutionary had brought his adopted son into his presence.
"The Reality Gem . . . Where is it?"
Wyndham's mask hid the grim look carved upon his features, "Vyer appeared here and took it from me. After recovering, I made it my first duty to contact you. This seemed to be the most expedient means to do so."
"Vyer . . . " Warlock said, more to himself than the others, "Where is he now?"
It was Uatu, who spoke now, his infantile face remaining unchanged by the situation at hand, "He has returned to Deviant Lemuria, along with his prize."
"This conflict grows more complicated, and more dire, with each twist of fate . . . I dare not hazard to guess what Wylig shall do with the Reality Gem in his possession."
The former Watcher raised a thin eyebrow, "You know of the current state of affairs in the upper echelons of existence?"
Warlock nodded absently as he strode to look out across the lunar landscape at the mottled blue globe so many miles away, "Thanos informed me, before charging me with ending whatever threat the Deviants might pose."
"He has ordered you take such a firm stand on the side of Order?" queried Uatu; "The Closed Circle and his ken are meant to remain neutral in conflicts such as this. This decision troubles me greatly. It is a grave omen of what is to come."
The golden hero looked at Uatu from the side of his pupil-less eye; "It was the Living Tribunal who was responsible for Thanos' visitation. It was on the Tribunal's word that the Titan acted."
For this, the Watcher had no reply, but the emotions seething in his spirit were evident despite the noble facade he erected.
Staring at the Earth, as if the power of his gaze would ferret out the secret plans of his numerous foes, Warlock said in a low voice, "I must move quickly, before the situation worsens." He turned to the High Evolutionary; "I thank you for informing me of Vyer's actions, but it is time I returned to Earth. Every fleeting moment I spend here is one less I have to stop my enemies' advances."
Grimly Herbert Edgar Wyndham nodded at his protege, even as he began to fade away, the power of Uatu working its magic quickly. When Warlock was gone, the Evolutionary eyed both the Watcher and Supreme Intelligence; "We must help him, in some way. The scope of this war cannot be allowed to widen any further. Far too many have died already."
Uatu shook his immense head; "We are observers, Doctor Wyndham, nothing more. It is not our place to interfere." Yet something in the renegade Watcher's tone made it seem his words held little of the truth, and that if one of that trio was to act, it would in fact, be himself.
Captain America's gaze was intent as he looked out at the motley faces of the heroes assembled in the Avengers war room; "Our reserves have already been placed around Olympia in the event of a secondary attack from the Deviants. With many of our number otherwise occupied, Ghaur shall, hopefully, be lulled into a false sense of security. It is then that we shall launch our siege on Lemuria." His eyes searched across the rather sparse crowd, and picked out a pink-hued figure, "Lord Kro shall enumerate on our avenue of assault."
Many pairs of optics turned to watch as the former ruler of the City of Toads stood from his chair. A strobe of light arcing down from the ceiling to illuminate his form in the gloomy darkness, "Since our creation, the Deviants have wished for the destruction of the Eternals, and now it is in their grasp to do so. It is not enough to protect Olympia - Lemuria's capacity for war must be utterly eliminated." His eyes strayed to Adam Warlock, drawing everyone's own gaze as well. "The fact that the Deviants are currently involved in some cosmic conflict only reinforces the fact that Ghaur's regime must be ended now, before further damage can be inflicted by him and his lackeys."
"Ghaur has allied himself with an entity known as Vyer," came Warlock's sharp voice, instantly snapping everyone to strict attention, "whom is himself merely a servant to entities who have brought chaos to the universe. He has pilfered the Reality Gem from its protector and secreted it away in Lemuria; our invasion must occur soon, before this situation worsens."
The familiar image of Earth crackled to life, hovering over the expansive war-room table, again causing the gazes of all those assembled to shift.
"We shall wait until this 'Vyer' leaves Lemuria, so that our forces will not have to deal with a being of such murderous power and intent." It was Kro who now spoke his voice full of practiced command. "He will be dealt with by someone more . . . experienced in handling such matters."
A streak of light flashed across the graphical globe, tracing a line from the snow-peaked Himalayas to the submerged city of Lemuria, "Blackbolt himself has agreed to lead Attilan's army during the siege. With his aid, the Avengers shall be able to focus on a more covert, and infinitely more important, attack. Using my knowledge of the City of Toads, Pip shall transport the Infinity Watch and myself into the very heart of the Deviant stronghold. With our combined might, it should take little effort to destroy Lemuria's main reactor, and deprive the city entire of power. Without energy to power his defenses, Ghaur's tenure as ruler shall quickly fall, and we will all be one less an enemy in this secret war."
A deep, basso tone rumbled across the expansive chamber, such a voice could only be produced by the throat of a god, "I shall gladly lend my strength to this effort, Lord Kro. But I would more pleased to engage the Deviant called Lord Tantalus than any other, during the invasion."
In his steel chair, Beta Ray Bill nodded vigorously, "I too would like a second chance to defeat this fearsome enemy. Though he bested the Thunderer and myself during our last encounter, neither of us was quite near our peak abilities. He shall not take us by surprise again."
Both Adam Warlock and Captain America seemed amiable to the alien Thunder God's request as the lights slowly came up. Allowing the war-room's full austere power to become evident, and make it possible for each hero to see one another far more clearly than they had in the relative gloom. Too did several of the numerous video-screens adorning the curving walls brighten, revealing familiar visages: Black Bolt, Nick Fury, and Cable. All had been as present at the meeting as those assembled, simply in mind far more than body.
"Are there any comments, or questions, before we adjourn?" Captain America from his relatively high position behind the podium.
It was the S.H.I.E.L.D. director who replied, "Our sensors positioned at the very outer reaches of the solar system have detected a large spacecraft approaching. Its configuration matches Lord Tantalus' vessel Vimana; apparently the Deviants will be getting reinforcements."
The patriot did seem pleased by the news, as one would expect; "This is news to me, Nick."
"We just picked it up a few hours ago, so what do ya expect? But don't waste your time planning to take out the Vimana, we'll handle that. This time we'll get to see how well the defense grid works . . . Hopefully it won't be destroyed or shut down before it can fire a single shot . . . "
Captain America nodded curtly, his nerves obviously frayed by the succession of crises that had assaulted Earth in such a short period of time. His skin seemed pale beneath his mask, his slightly hazed with lack of sleep. The patriot and hero appeared to be in need of a long rest, to restore his potency as a leader and warrior.
"Is there anything further?"
There was no response for several moments, and it seemed as though the meeting would come to an end, the Avengers and other heroes relegated to tensely waiting for the strike to occur on Lemuria. But, as it is often the habit of such individuals to hold their tongues until the very last second, Ikaris rose from his seat, his face a cold mask, hiding the emotions which still roiled inside him. Still did he feel the painful sting of Thena's death?
"I would also like to be a member of the team attacking Lemuria. Though I can do nothing against Vyer, still must retribution be paid for Thena's death? From the Deviants I shall exact a great toll."
Warlock's glare was harsh; his eyes boring into Ikaris' own visage, but the Eternal seemed to take no notice of his comrade's displeasure. Such was the look he had worn since the anointed heir to Olympia's throne had chosen to come with the Watch rather than claim his rightful place.
The Captain's brow furrowed with weary confusion, "I had believed you would be returning to Olympia to take your throne, but - "
Ikaris' tone was harsh and defensive; "I will be much more of an asset directly on the field of battle, Captain America."
The patriot looked into his fellow hero's eyes for a few moments saw the burning fury that flickered just below his irises, and had neither the energy nor the inclination to disagree with the Eternal. Again, he nodded his accidence.
"Is there anything else?"
This time there was no reply; the veteran gratefully ended the meeting by simply saying, "Than this gathering is adjourned. You may stay here or leave the premises, but be sure your Avengers communicards are on at all times. Immediately after our satellites detect Vyer's departure, we will launch the assault on Lemuria. Do not hold us back. That is all."
His steps still confident and assured, Captain America strode from the stage, leaving the Avengers and Infinity Watch to slowly start conversations amongst themselves, or begin to file out of the chamber, on the way to pursuing their own interests.
"How come the Fantastic Four isn't here?" Gamora asked Warlock, "They're usually involved in affairs of this magnitude."
Adam Warlock did not bother to look at his comrade as he replied his eyes focused on Ikaris, "Apparently they are investigating the disappearance of Doctor Doom's nation, Latveria."
Moondragon's voice was like a sharp slap, "What? The entire country has disappeared?"
"So I was informed. It has been replaced by some type of energy barrier than even Mister Fantastic has yet to penetrate." He stood, optics still on Ikaris, "It is none of our concern; think on it no longer."
The bearer of the Mind Gem seemed displeased by the leader of the Watch's rather curt attitude, for he seemed even more distant than he often did. But soon she focused on other things, and Warlock's inadvertent was nearly forgotten in the musings of future battle.
Rounding the crescent-shaped table, Warlock made his way to the seated form of Ikaris, who seemed lost in his own thoughts. The Eternal was startled when the golden-hued hero spoke from behind him; Warlock's flat voice cutting through his idles.
"You cannot run from your responsibility indefinitely, Ikaris. It is better to take your throne now, before you grow complacent in your flight."
Ikaris' looked up at Warlock menacingly, obviously in no mood to be lectured by such a blunt and scheming entity, "Don't speak to me of such things, Warlock. All I crave now is vengeance for Thena's death, and the attack on my fellow Eternals. Perhaps, when I have gained satiation, I will consider what you say, but not now."
Warlock leaned closer, speaking in the hero's ear now, so no others could hear clearly, "I have been where you are now, Ikaris. Continue your walk down this twisted path, and you will forever be changed by it, and not for the better." He paused, "Can you not see that you dishonor Thena's memory by not accepting her dying wish?"
The Eternal was up from his chair in less than a moment, steel scraping on steel as the seat skidded backwards. Dangerously Ikaris pointed his finger only inches from Warlock's face, even as he nearly shouted at the Machiavellian anti-hero.
"Do not tell me of dishonoring Thena, Warlock! You knew her for only a handful of hours, while for thousands of years I was her friend! You do not understand me, and you do not understand her!" His eyes were wild with anger, "What a fool I was to listen to you, to believe Thena would be better off dead than in the sanctity of Soul World! You are a schemer and a liar, and I will listen to no more of your words this day."
Ikaris began to turn away, but added with deadly intensity, "The next time we speak, tread carefully in what you say, Warlock."
And the he was gone, stalking out of the war-room, leaving heroes to watch him retreat with confused glances, all of which eventually turned to Adam Warlock. Their confusion melted to contempt, for automatically they assumed this being, who never had they truly ever trusted, was the cause for Ikaris' painful consternation.
"Don't waste your time on him, Adam." Gamora said, coming up beside him, "He's in too much pain, now. Later, then maybe he will listen."
Warlock's voice was neutral as ever, his eyes fixed upon the dark doorway that the Eternal had stalked through, "Perhaps, Gamora, but in order for Olympia to re-build, they need a leader, and he is obviously preordained for that position. The Eternals must be ready when war comes, Gamora. I fear they shall have an important part to play, and without them the situation shall grow even more grim."
Gamora's features hardened, "You don't even really care about him, do you?"
Now he focused that wilting gaze on the emerald-skinned assassin, "If I truly cared about anyone, Gamora, I could not go on. The safety of this universe must come before my own personal desires. Such is the way it shall always be; such is the way it must be."
Ghaur grimaced as his ornate shoes were coated with mud as he continued the trek through the waterlogged Florida Everglades. His face was contorted in a mask of dispassionate command; show for the three dozen heavily armored troops slogging through the same marsh on foot behind him. In the darkness of night, the Deviant Priest-Lord could only vaguely make out the spined shape of Vyer, several meters ahead.
As he trod, Ghaur's mind wandered back again to Lord Tantalus, and how he was now the dominating power in Lemuria. At least until the High Priest returned from insuring this bog was secured by his forces, and the garrison properly assembled. The Voice of Pain had indicated the importance of this mission, requiring his personal attention, and had made Ghaur bring nine heavily armored warships in order to guarantee the swamp would not be taken until its purpose had been fulfilled.
What that purpose was, the Priest-Lord was still unaware. Nevertheless, even Ghaur was not arrogant enough to question Vyer when it was evident how secretive he wished to remain on the topic. Since meeting the "dark angel" not long before the assault on Olympia, the Priest-Lord had for the first time become truly acquainted with the word "fear." However, despite his apprehension, the Deviant was sure all would be revealed in due time.
Yet, it was not this what troubled him, but rather the fact that the Armechadian was in control of his city. Never had he trusted Tantalus, all the kind words that Ghaur had said to him little more than opaque babbling' which could easily be ripped away to reveal the true intentions within.
Would the deposed warlord dare usurp his own position as ruler of the Lemurians? Of this Ghaur was not entirely sure; perhaps Tantalus had grown tired of fighting to regain his own planet, and would settle for a small coo which would give him control of the City of Toads.
More frightening than this prospect was the consideration that Ghaur himself would not be able to re-take Lemuria. For Vyer seemed infinitely more well acquainted with Tantalus than himself, and it seemed whoever the Voice of Pain sided with was bound to be victorious. These thoughts and more cascaded through the Priest-Lord's intricate mind, and so preoccupied was he that he almost did not notice Vyer coming to a complete stop, at the very edge of a weed-choked bog.
Ghaur strode up beside the Voice of Pain, scanning the darkness for anything unusual. He saw nothing, but nonetheless motioned his men to keep their weapons readied, and so they did.
"Why have we stopped here, Vyer?" questioned the Priest-Lord, in a whisper, even as in the distance a bird shrieked, only adding to the eeriness of the gloomy surroundings.
The reply was flat, like tarnished metal, "This is the gateway to the Nexus of All Realities, the easiest way for a mortal to enter that focal point of existence. It must be secured and held, until all the required pieces have been gathered and are ready for transport."
Ghaur's eyebrow raised slightly, his mind already calculating the ramifications of this newly revealed part of the grand scheme, "Should I order the rest of my soldiers to disembark and begin garrisoning the area?"
Still focused on the swamp, Vyer's head did not turn to look at the Deviant, as he spoke, "No, the guardian of this place must be dealt with first Then can you begin fortifying the area."
Suspicious now, Ghaur slowly nodded, and took several paces back, away from the bog. He motioned for his troops to bring their weapons to bear, for now the High Priest knew conflict to be imminent. His senses seemed to become all the more keen and honed with this sudden threat of danger. No longer did the grim darkness present a challenge to his eyes; easily now did he see through the wet fog, as if it were daylight. The shrill cries of birds sounded as if they were no more than inches away.
For moments Ghaur only listened and watched, attuned to the motley sounds of the Floridian jungle. And then, slowly, there came a noise, which he knew to be distinctly out of place in the now familiar symphony. What it was, had he had the chance, the Priest-Lord could not describe it, for words cannot form themselves around the so utterly surreal, and strange. Simply, the noise, growing louder with every rhythmic repetition, was not from the realm of man, or nature.
Two crimson spheres lit with their own inner fires, in the outer reaches of the swamp. Ominously they hovered, watching, waiting, seemingly able to perceive all that was occurring, and far, far more. The eyes of all the Deviant soldiers fixed upon these two glowing shapes, and soon all their weapons were trained upon those strange lights.
Undaunted, the burning orbs began to sweep forward, rising out of the bog as they did, gradually illuminating the vaguely humanoid shape upon which they were mounted. It did indeed appear to be the body of a man that held those twin glowing shapes. It was not a form made of flesh and bound of sinew, yet rather forged of the very stuff of the Earth: vines, leaves, and dirt.
"The Man-Thing . . . " said Ghaur, more to himself more than any other, as nearly entranced was he by the nebulous and strange sight. He raised his hand to stop his own men from firing upon the creature, so transfixed by its ethereal being was he?
"K'had-Mon." rasped the Voice of Pain in his usual monotone, apparently unaffected by the bestial eminence of the Man-Thing, "Guardian of the gateway. You are an obstacle which must be surmounted."
With a swift motion Vyer's hand flicked up, unleashing a radiant stream of energy upon the slowly advancing form of the Man-Thing. Like a waterfall of energy, the torrent roared illuminating the jungle in twisting shards of otherworldly light.
Yet when the sudden strike had fallen silent, still did K'had-Mon continue his gradual steps up the sloping embankment, still focused upon the Voice of Pain's ebony-clad shape. Where the blast had struck, mottled flesh formed of nature had curled and burned to ash, but it seemed little harm had been done to the creature.
Had Vyer still been truly a man, surely surprise, perhaps even concern, would have written itself across his pale countenance, but he was no longer a man. His reply was only a second burst of startling power, this one even longer sustained and more potent than the previous.
The Man-Thing was nearly upon him when the attack had ceased, leaving much of K'had-Mon's torso blackened and falling away in crisped shards. Hands wrought from trees and vines reached out with inhuman strength, knocking away Vyer's spined helm and clamping tightly onto his bald skull. Those fingers dug into cold flesh, but no blood flowed.
"Your touch burns those men who fear, K'had-Mon," the Voice of Pain said, his own digits digging into the Man-Thing's sockets, as if trying to gouge out his circular eyes, "but I am neither a man, nor do I fear."
Vyer's steel fingers tore through the creature's flesh, ripping away great bleeding shards and tossing them to the ground. Nearly mindless as it was, still did it seem the Man-Thing could feel pain, and its own efforts faltered before the savagery of the Voice of Pain's attack?
"Were I only possessed of my own might, K'had-Mon, perhaps this conflict would last far longer, and perhaps you would have a chance at victory. But my own energies are bolstered by the limitless might of the Lord of Pain, and before his power yours is as nothing. Fear Eyalus, K'had-Mon, for he is to change your universe forever, and none shall be able to undo what he will wreak."
For the first time, the Man-Thing seemed to hear Vyer's words, even consider them in what passed for the creature's brain, and instantly he burst into flame. Harshly ebony beast backhanded his opponent away, before again unleashing upon him the power of Eyalus.
Quickly the Man-Thing was pushed back, for even he could not stand against the dual assaults of both the Voice of Pain and his own primal fear. The life in K'had-Mon's eyes began to flicker as he backpedaled toward the steaming bog. A lance of energy pierced the twin globes and they shattered, spraying ethereal fragments out across the swamp, even as the Man-Thing's lifeless form collapsed into the murk, never to rise again in conflict with Vyer or his allies.
A small smirk spread across Ghaur's features as he saw the defeat of his foe, though behind it tickled a small sense of loss, for truly had the Deviant found K'had-Mon to be an utterly fascinating creature. Nevertheless soon he ordered his troops to begin establishing their base camp near the swamp, even as he strode to Vyer's side.
"Has the Man-Thing been destroyed?" he questioned with genuine curiosity.
The beast's voice remained the same monotone that it had before and during the short battle, "K'had-Mon is a primal force of nature; his death will only come when the universe itself dies. Slowly he shall re-form himself, but our goals will be long accomplished before K'had-Mon is again a threat."
His eyes straying to look at the waterside suspiciously, Ghaur nodded reluctantly, apparently not thoroughly convinced.
"There remains only one more piece which must be acquired before reaching the Nexus; I go forth now to gain it now. You are to remain here and instruct your soldiers to continue construction of the evolutionary mechanism. Tantalus will remain in command of Lemuria for the time being. The heroes must not capture the gateway until our own needs have been met. I shall return immediately after gaining what is required, and consulting with Wylig."
Ghaur opened his mouth to object, but already had Vyer begun to stalk away into the dense jungle, and never had he seemed to be an individual with which to disagree. The Priest-Lord could only order his men about, even while his mind tried to re-forge his fractured plans.
All was now in disarray. Tantalus would be the one decided when to attack to Olympia, not himself. And most distressing of all, the chances of his duplicity regarding the "evolutionary device" being discovered were much higher.
Although the gateway had been taken, it was not confidence that Ghaur felt, but dread.
On the fringes of Limbo, there lingered two orbs of emerald, but of them, no one seemed to take notice . . .
Immortus' thick ebony eyebrow arched, and his voice was clouded with confusion as he replied to his trio of masters, "Always have you instructed me to contain humanity. Now you wish me to help fan the flames of their destructive nature?"
Arrayed before the so-called "Master of Time," one of the TimeKeepers shook his head, even as the flanking Twisters and Dark Watcher only looked on in silence, though their attention was rapt.
"Lies, Immortus. As freely as you have lied to others, so too have we lied to you, if only to serve our own purposes? Never have you known the truth, only perversions of it. Though before we wished only to limit mankind's contact with other races and took no side in the issue of their development, now the situation has come to an impasse, and a choice had to be made. We have sided with Wylig's chaotic route, if only to ensure our own survival."
Obviously, the words of the TimeKeepers served to only further frustrate and bewilder the former Kang. His brows knitted together as he clenched his mind around the concept of all his work being nothing save a convenient fallacy. In past times he had taken pleasure in deception, but now when that same trade had been plied against himself, it did not seem as though Immortus had any pleasure in being deceived.
The Master of Time's voice was deadly serious, "Before I place my lot with your own, Keepers, I would appreciate being told the true nature of things. I cannot fight for a cause I do not understand."
At first, the TimeKeepers looked at one another, as if deciding amongst themselves whether to divulge such information. Then they as one looked at Wylig, who even they were, forced to acknowledge as their erstwhile superior. He nodded once, in confirmation.
"Very well, Immortus, you shall know the truth. Humanity is important, far more important than almost any entity would dare hazard to guess. In them lies a seed of potency which, when its growth is done, shall outshine all other powers in the Omniverse. Man is the singular heir to the legacy of the one, true supremacy. Their safety was paramount among our concerns.
"We charged you to contain humanity's development, to keep them from the stars until they were capable of dealing with those forces prowling the cosmos, such as the Badoon, Skrulls, and Kree. It was not our intention to safeguard the sanctity of those races; their existence is transitory and not worthy of our concern. It was the preservation of humanity that concerned us, for if man angered a more ancient power, there was a risk of that power enslaving or even destroying the infant mankind. Likewise, if alien races learned of the immense power inherent in all humans, the Destiny Force, surely those creatures would have sought to use it for their own purposes. This could not be allowed to occur. It was our intention for the Destiny Force not be awakened to until humanity could wield it properly, and your responsibility to carry out our wishes.
"Nevertheless you failed in this respect, as a minuscule portion of the Destiny Force manifested itself in Richard Jones during the Kree - Skrull War. Although it soon faded, numerous alien powers were now aware of the immense might which man is destined to wield in the far future. We had allowed you to preserve the Avengers, although it seemed in direct opposition to our own edicts, because they too served to protect their race. Their intervention in countless intergalactic affairs has proven our decision to be a mistaken one, but there is no longer time to right it. Now our sole concern is to prevent the Living Tribunal from further meddling, controlling, the growth of the humanity for his own wishes."
Immortus sat upon his relatively simple throne for a few moments in deafening silence, as he considered what the TimeKeepers had revealed to him. No longer did he feel truly cheated; in a way, he had known the truth, just not the design of the truth. All the pieces had been laid before his eyes to plainly see, he had simply chosen to remain blind, believing utterly every word the Time Keepers had said to him. No more would he be so trustworthy; as others were so distrustful of him, now he too would be so distrustful of others.
Stroking his beard, Immortus finally spoke, "What are the wishes of the Living Tribunal? What does he intend to do with the Destiny Force, if he is successful in harnessing it for his own desires?"
It was Wylig who spoke now, before any of the other entities could reply, "The Tribunal's intentions are unknown to us all, even to myself. The One, the prime Watcher from who I gained all my knowledge, was not aware of the Living Tribunal's motivations in his scheme, and so are we all cursed to the same level of ignorance. Yet, it is obvious that the essential enslavement of humanity can bring about no good, in the end. He must be stopped."
Immortus studied the form of the Dark Watcher, listened to his words, and with his new sense of distrust believed Wylig to be speaking something close to the truth, yet not quite the truth in its entirety. His gaze swept across the TimeKeepers and Time Twisters, and instantly he surmised these entities to have no suspicion of duplicity on the renegade Watcher's part. Too trusting did it seem most entities of higher stature were; when dealing with their brethren, often did they only seem to take words at face value.
Nevertheless, the Master of Time was forced to nod his almost reluctant agreement. "Although I have made the Space Phantoms my thralls as surely as the Tribunal seeks to enslave humanity, if the Time Keepers have spoken the truth, I am forced to side with you as well, Watcher. What would you have me do to aid your cause?"
"You are to ready Limbo for war, Immortus," said the apparent leader of the TimeKeepers in Wylig's stead, "Invigorate Tempus with as much temporal energy as possible, and then you are to simply wait for our return. If events proceed as we expect them do, your wait shall not be a long one."
The former Rama-Tut's gaze was guarded as the Twisters, Keepers, and finally Wylig faded from his sight and senses, leaving the ruler of Limbo to contemplate his fate in silence. In his breast, he felt the sudden burning to peel away the layers of docility that countless eons as the TimeKeepers' servant had put upon him. With war aborning, with the true power of the Destiny Force finally revealed to him, Immortus suddenly felt not as himself, but rather as he had in the past.
In those moments, he felt like Kang.
As time slipped by, Immortus wondered inwardly if he would be capable of summoning up the killer instinct he had once possessed. In order to usurp the position of the pre-eminent force of the universe while he plotted, and therefore enjoy success, as he had never had while either Kang or Rama-Tut.
Who truly was this Nathaniel Richards? Was he at heart Kang and Rama-Tut, conquerors supreme and nearly unparalleled? Or was he Immortus, custodian of time, formerly unknowing protector of humanity? Could he be only one of these individuals . . . or both?
With a sigh, Immortus dismissed the conflict in his spirit; Kang was dead, and he vowed to let him remain buried. The former Kang had a task to do, and it would not be so expertly accomplished if the ancient Conqueror placed his meddling hand into Immortus' preparations.
As if running from his own thoughts, Immortus pushed himself from his throne and began at a brisk pace toward the outer reaches of his castle. Even for the Master of Time, it seemed the past was still a formidable enemy.
The Hawk God reached out his senses yet found them twisted by the strangeness of the realm into which he had journeyed. His eyes looked about and saw rolling mountains . . . which grew down from the sky, scraping the red crash with jagged blue peaks. Thin wisps of clouds charged across the sky at a dizzyingly accelerated rate, across the perverted place strange noises echoed at regular intervals, even though there was no sign of life.
His patience not renowned throughout the cosmic spectrum, the Hawk God glided to the ground, standing knee-deep in the crimson grass, slight breezes rustling it into disconcerting whispers. Again, he passed his optics across the myriad scenes of oddity, seeking some clue as to the whereabouts of the In-Betweener. How long the primal entity had to find his query he did not know, but the Hawk God assumed it to be a short span. As such, soon his efforts began to grow more eager, almost harried, as he felt the specter of looming war pressing heavily upon his shoulders.
With purposeful strides he began towards the nearest up-ended mountain, its craggy face of blue catching the light of twin emerald signs and washing the light across the fields of verdant pasture. As he stalked, slowly did the Hawk God at last begin to feel his powerful senses latch upon another force of being somewhere nearby. Assuming this to be the spirit of the imprisoned In-Betweener, the Hawk God's steps quickened even further, the mountainside rising ever closer now in his sight.
When he had reached the jagged citadel of stone, the primal entity called out, "In-Betweener, son of Lord Chaos and Master Order, I bid you come out!"
The Hawk God waited for a moment, hoping for a response, but there was none.
"Come out, In-Betweener! I have bargained with your lords, and your freedom has been granted! All you need do now is walk into my presence, so that I might free you from your physical captivity!"
Again there was a pause, and with every passing second that the scion of Order and Chaos did not appear, so too did the Hawk God's patience begin to wane, the flickers of his temper rising in his gullet.
Above his head dawned a flash of light, and when it had passed, there floated a caped entity in gold and ebony. His skin, pale yellow, and in totality he bore utterly no resemblance to the forceful being that he truly was. His emerald eyes spied down on the Hawk God suspiciously, an aura of power rising about him, proving himself to be a force to be reckoned with, even when not in full possession of his rightful might.
"What guarantees have I that my freedom is nigh, Hawk God? Reputation portrays you as a cruel creature, and surely torturing me so would bring pleasure to your twisted heart."
The embodiment of survival's eyes narrowed as he looked up at the other being. "I have no reason to toy with you, In-Betweener Chaos and Order re-define the nature of their balance as we speak, and in order to do so properly you must be present as well. You need not even return to their sights in order to regain your former stature; they have provided me with the dynamic energy sequence which will free you from your Asgardian shell."
The In-Betweener paused for a moment, considering in silence, "My position as Odin's toady does begin to grow utterly tiresome . . . When I am not in this shape I am forced to wear the form of a pathetic raven. Such should not be my lot in life."
The Hawk God's thinning patience was clearly evident in his tone, "Then accept my offer of freedom, and join our cause."
"Ah, you neglected to mention your need for my aid, Hawk God. I have heard tidings of the war, which builds along the Omniverse, but why should I join your side of the conflict? As the embodiment of dichotomies, it is nearly unthinkable for me to choose alliances in a conflict such as this one. After all, do I not represent both Chaos and Order?"
The winged creature's eyes narrowed with distemper, "Then perhaps should consider the forces you will be aiding if you side against us. Mistress Death will be far from pleased to see you fighting along her side, as will the Devourer Galactus. And let us not forget the individual who will be leading the Living Tribunal's foot soldiers into battle: Thanos the Closed Circle."
The In-Betweener sneered at the name.
"Do you truly wish to aid anyone who employs the being who tricked and humiliated you before Lord Chaos and Master Order? The sole reason the Tribunal allowed Thanos to ascend was because the Titan would serve to be the ultimate slayer of cosmic entities should this war erupt into astral conflagration."
"I suppose . . . not." the entity replied grudgingly, "My might is yours, Hawk God, if only for the time being."
"That is all that is required, In-Betweener. Now, let me free you from your prison of the flesh and bestow upon you again your full, unbridled power."
From his limitless mind, the Hawk God called up the sequence of energy necessary to destroy the physical body jailing the In-Betweener, and restore the true range of his trans-spatial abilities. Brightly the creature's optics glowed as he harnessed the intricate latticework of cosmic might building within him, before suddenly raising his hand and releasing a pulsating stream of emerald energy into the false Asgardians armored chest.
Beneath the beneficial cosmic assaulted the imprisoned identity writhed, for such power plied against the physical body, helpful as that energy might be, threatens to destroy the flesh instantly, and reduce all senses into the searing depths of numbing pain.
Yet, slowly the In-Betweener's body began to sprout fissures, from which poured shafts of divine energy. A smile spread across his face as he felt himself be born once again, his abilities coming to full bloom. With a flash that momentarily blinded even the Hawk God's amazing senses the husk of flesh was cast away at last, and the In-Betweener stood once again in his true, familiar form.
Widely, arrogantly, the In-Betweener smiled as he flexed his fingers as if for the first time. All his senses felt as if they had been enhanced a million-fold, but in truth, it was only a return to his true self. All things seemed far more real, but at the time far smaller, for he was truly one of the greater powers in existence. The Hawk God standing before him too seemed far less impressive, far less eminent. The In-Betweener knew himself to be that primal being's superior in the grand design of the cosmos.
"My thanks, Hawk God. At last I am . . . all that I should be." His eyebrow raised, "Now, it is time that you enlightened me as to the true purpose behind this 'war.' There is far more occurring than is obvious, that much is clear. Both your master Wylig and the Living Tribunal are playing for stakes unbeknownst to the majority of those fighting, no matter which side they have taken."
"And that is the greatest advantage of joining our cause In-Betweener. We offer you more than simple victory we offer you knowledge. While the Tribunal prefers to keep his allies nearly wholly ignorant of the stakes of this conflict, Wylig believes we shall all fight better if we know what it is that we fight for."
Now it seemed that the In-Betweener's patience was on the verge of failure, for his demeanor was far from the affable, if arrogant, facade he often wore, "Then enlighten me, Hawk God. Circumstances are too tangled for me to hazard a guess and actually be foolish enough to believe it correct."
The primordial embodiment did not shrink from the danger evident in the In-Betweener's tone; fear was not an emotion the Hawk God readily wore, or even accepted. It would take far more than the ire of the child of Order and Chaos to cause the winged entity to shrink away.
"The tale is long, and utterly convoluted. It shall take time to explain, even if we dispense with this primitive verbal communication and interact on an astral level." His eyes swept across the sky and terrain, as if looking for something, "And I do not feel comfortable further conversing with you in this place, In-Betweener. I feel as though we are being . . . observed."
Mimicking the Hawk God's studious glance about the motley and strange environment too did the In-Betweener nod, in agreement. "Yet by a being still inexperienced with his abilities, otherwise we would not be able to detect him. I had wondered if it was only a side-effect of my renewed sensitivity to existence, but it seems there is more afoot than such an innocent speculation."
"Both our presence's are required at the Nexus of Realities; let us journey there, and be free of this twisted place and its prying eyes."
Again did the In-Betweener nod his agreement, and with a flash of barely exerted cosmic power, the two beings were gone from the strange place. As the owner of those grey eyes cursed his ineptness, and vowed never to be so clumsy again.
Continued in Chapter 7
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