Waged At The Stroke Of Midnight
Written by Azmodi,
Edited by E.A. Morrissey
This story follows the events in The
Twilight War and Foundations
Forged Before Nightfall.
Continued from Dusk's End Chapter Seven.
The man once called Norrin Radd felt the splitting of space seconds before his optics saw that which had caused the fracturing of what was. As he beheld the being who now floated before him in the darkness of his space, he was taken aback by the combination of the condition the entity was in, and the post the entity obviously served at.
Perhaps once this creature had been considered handsome, marble-white skin stretched over sharp, aquiline features, emerald eyes perfect contrast to flowing locks of fiery red hair. But that veneer had been shattered, now, though the Silver Surfer did not as yet know why. Flesh had been charred to angry red and black across nearly half the man's face. His hair too was burned to brittle, grey strands, where it existed at all. Across his grim countenance, crimson was slowly caking in the vacuum of space.
The being's form seemed to have favored no better against whatever foe he had found himself warring against. Obsidian and scarlet armor, organically sculpted so that it almost seemed an extension of the entity's musculature, was crackled and curled by immense heat. Entire portions had been ripped or seared away along the chest and shoulders, and other parts even melted into the man's bubbled flesh. He seemed a pathetic creature, because he appeared to have fallen from such great heights.
Those heights from which the wounded stranger had descended were what concerned Norrin Radd so greatly, perhaps even more so than the man's grievous injuries. In this interloper, he sensed a familiar potency, a living energy that was infused within few beings, and stemmed from only a solitary source in the Omniverse.
That same vibrant force coursed through the Silver Surfer's very body, and with his powers of perception he sensed that this creature's power, at its true levels, was perhaps the equal of his own. This revelation, though it took but a moment of study, only caused Radd's concern to deepen.
As he exited from the flow of Hyperspace, the stranger instantly reached out for the gleaming presence of his target, and his broken lips moved to mouth words. The Surfer glided to the injured mystery's side, and put his arm around the man's waist, steadying them both on the stellar surfboard.
"Quiet," Radd said, not harshly but tenderly, for he wished the being to stay silent, less his injuries further worsen, "do not try to speak while you are in this condition. I will do my best to heal your wounds with the Power Cosmic."
The entity seemed to make a guttural, disapproving sound in the back of his lacerated throat, but even such a proud creature knew well the futility of resisting. He fell silent as the Surfer put a smooth hand to his head, and slowly he began to feel the rush of unbridled cosmic force seeping into his limbs.
For most beings, the application of the Power Cosmic as a healing force would all but instantly cure their gravest injuries. Yet this was not such a simple man, and the grievous harms inflicted upon his complex system refused to be mended with such ease. The burns lightened in color, from blackness to grey, or crimson to pink, but they remained prevalent upon his body. Cuts healed only half, and cosmic ichor still leaked from the warrior's body in some abundance.
But the respite, small as it was, remained a welcome one for the harried man, and as the Surfer eased him down onto the board. He found again the strength to speak, "Norrin Radd . . . I have traveled far, and long, to find you."
Though he regretted being unable to make the man look, and feel anew once again, the Surfer realized he could do no more, and instead set to speaking with this beaten stranger, "Why?" he asked simply.
"At the behest of my master . . . Galactus. He bid me to find you, and - " small streams of blood trickled from the corners of his mouth, " - protect you."
"Galactus . . . " Radd repeated, echoing the man's statement. The mention of his former master never failed to bring a slight tinge of both fear and awe to his heart, along with resentment, "Protect me from what? Was it that same thing that attacked you?"
Weakly the man shook his head, though he seemed to be garnering strength with every passing minute. Surely, his own portion of the Power Cosmic was hard at work restoring the entity's ravaged body, "No . . . Someone else attacked the Worldship, attacked me, before I set out in search for you. Had the Devourer still been aboard, the interloper never would have escaped with his life, but alone I could not match him."
"Who could so grievously wound a herald of Galactus?" the Surfer mused, almost to himself as much as his new companion, "The raw power it would take to cause such injuries . . . few beings I know of possess it."
His being labeled a herald did seem to anger the stranger, but rather seemed to bolster his spirits and augment his burgeoning strength. "He used the power of the master himself against me... With cunning and technology, nearly the equal of the Devourer's itself he forced himself aboard the Worldship. Once there he kept the Punisher and I at bay until he devised a way to drain the vessel itself of all its power. Intoxicated by his now godly might, the outsider swatted me away as if I was less than nothing, before disappearing, leaving no sign of his destination."
Norrin Radd's gleaming features crinkled as he considered this truly disturbing turn of events, for what else could such circumstances be called? Any entity that possessed both the technology and malevolent intent to steal the very power of Galactus' Worldship, that very same cosmic might that had powered Korvac the Man-God, was truly dangerous indeed.
And yet, this new herald did not seem overly concerned with his own plight, nor the pilfering of his master's power; he had recounted the events surrounding his own brutal victimization rather detachedly, as if they meant little to him. In truth, he seemed far more consumed with merely being in the very presence of the silvery entity he had apparently been assigned to protect. What terrifying force could make this warrior-herald focus not on the stranger who had stolen the power of the World Devourer, but on the mysterious threat to the Silver Surfer's safety?
"A dangerous turn of events indeed; this is a situation which must be rectified immediately. Any creature who has such power at his disposal and is of such murderous intent cannot be allowed to remain free."
The herald's emerald eyes suddenly seemed to gleam with feral intensity, despite his injuries. "No." the word was final, spoken with power dredged up from the core of this being. "Though I ache to revenge myself upon any monster who would so violate the sanctity of Galactus' home, the master's own wishes must come first. You must be protected until the threat to your safety is passed; then I shall go forth into the universe and hunt whoever has stolen from my lord and god."
The reverence with which the herald spoke of the World Devourer took the Silver Surfer momentarily aback; more than merely serve Galactus, this man seemed to worship that frightening force that destroyed without mercy. Was this the true personality of the herald, or the product of those spiritual tampering Galactus seemed to enjoy at times? Radd found the former infinitely more disquieting.
Understanding still escaped the Surfer's mind, "But . . . why? Why has Galactus told you to seek me out? What, or who, does he wish you to protect me against?"
Again the herald's eyes were shining ominously, their dangerous luster only heightened by the fact that he had pulled himself to his feet, and now looked Norrin Radd directly in his own orbs. "See this, Silver Surfer: I have no love for you, no more than I have for any of the World Devourer's children. All of you betrayed him, left him to his Hunger. You abandoned the most pure, the most holy of all posts in the universe to pursue your own selfish desires, and never shall I forgive any of you for such grievous miss-steps. I help you only because I have been commanded to do so by God; Galactus never deigned to share with me any further details, and I did not bother to inquire. Then I did not care, and still now do I not care."
Radd felt a coldness twist through his body as the words rolled forth from the being's tongue, as those spheres stared darkly into his own. The former herald knew his form could feel no such sensation as "cold," and thusly did he know it was his own spirit which had been momentarily chilled by this creature's diatribe.
Several moments passed before he could find his voice, and when he did, the Silver Surfer spoke in a muted tone. His eyes sought to avoid the glare of the other scion of Galactus, "Perhaps . . . perhaps my unknown enemy is involved in this cosmic conflict I have sensed building. Still, I am not involved and know nearly nothing of such events . . . What reason would they have to threaten me?"
The herald's voice was still harsh, though not quite to the degree as before, "In all matters of cosmic importance it seems you must be entangled, Surfer; that is your lot in life."
"Yes, of late it seems that way . . . " And then, as silence began to fall again upon the motley sons of the Ravager. Norrin Radd realized he had yet to ask the man his name, "What are you called, herald of Galactus."
"The name of my birth was Id'thoth Scophek, but after being inducted into the service of the master, I chose a new name: Harqabe. In the ancient tongue of my race, it means simply 'Hand of God,' for that is what I now am."
Again, the chill came to the soul of the Silver Surfer, as Harqabe spoke his piece. Radd could do little but look with deep concern and near-horror at this being who had seemingly wished to become the herald of Galactus, and now reveled in that position. That biting cold only grew more frigid as he watched Harqabe's body mend itself before his very eyes, felt the aura of power beginning to re-form around the herald's body.
Of all the heralds he had faced as an enemy, none now provoked such fear in the Silver Surfer; not fear for himself, but for any who stood in the way of the World Devourer's whims. Terrax had been dangerous in his ambitions, but at heart honorable. Morg had been little more than a maniacal butcher, making him cruel and deadly, yet far from calculating.
This creature had no ambition save to serve his master faithfully, would butcher only those he was assigned to butcher. But all his actions would be fueled by holy fire, a divine urge to make Galactus' wishes reality. Harqabe, the Silver Surfer sensed, was to embark upon a jihad against the universe itself, in the name of the World Devourer.
Despite their imparity, all these thoughts were pushed from Norrin Radd's mind as he again felt the shredding of the continuum of existence. Near him, now the Silver Surfer sensed a presence far colder than whatever chill had come to his soul; it was the pall of a dead spirit, fueled by raw power and deadly motivations.
Faced with this entity clad in jet, Norrin Radd knew Harqabe to be nothing more than a servant who would be no more dangerous than his master wished. He was nothing save a dog of service, albeit one backed by the Power Cosmic.
This, this beast he faced now, the Silver Surfer saw, was truly a monster.
"This," said Harqabe through gritted teeth, "can be only the beast I was ordered to protect you from."
No argument came from Norrin Radd as he looked with loathing and fear upon the mockery of a man floating in deep space before him, in armor darker than the ether itself. His eyes seeing far more than any mortal's, the Surfer caught sight of an aura pulsing 'round the creature's body, a halo of obsidian which radiated deadly power. Stranger still there seemed a slight shimmering tendril whipping out from this being's body, and extending into such high levels of the cosmic spectrum that not even the former herald of Galactus could find its origin. The man was a puppet, a marionette being manipulated by a master existing many planes above them all.
This thought repulsed the Surfer, and brought anger to his heart. In his veins the Power Cosmic surged strongly, burning to life about his hands, twirling through his fingers.
"Why have you come here stranger?" the Zenn-Lavian questioned warily, even as he felt Harqabe's own powers flaring to life at his side.
The beast's voice was flat and dead as he replied, reflecting the state of his soul, "I am Vyer, Norrin Radd, the Voice of Pain, the Son of Pain, and my master has need of your spirit. Come willingly or come with struggles, it matters not, you shall come. The might your former master granted you is as nothing compared to the power I wield; it shall not stay my hand."
Harqabe's eyes were awash in crimson energy, boiling out of his sockets in hot trails, "Twisted mockery of life, you have no place upon this coil. Though the fate of Norrin Radd concerns me little if at all, it has been Galactus' wish that his life be preserved, and none may go against the will of God. Die, abomination."
Though his tone had not been raised above a deadly whisper, the newest scion of the World Devourer launched himself from the Silver Surfer's board in a plume of undulating cosmic energy. Despite his wounds and their only partial healing, Harqabe moved with such speed that even Norrin Radd was taken aback. Few times in his life had the pacifist witnessed such swiftness, and perhaps never before had it been put to such use in combat.
Harqabe's movements were practiced, obviously he was a warrior born, and with confidence, he threw the full brunt of his might onto Vyer's ebony frame. Crimson blurs served as the herald's fists as they lashed out with ferocity at the Voice of Pain's frozen features. Three times in not more than a moment had Harqabe struck his foe's features, though the blows only seemed to push, slightly the avatar's head back.
His movements not slackened by their apparent lack of effect, the herald's legs, too churning with incalculable might, whipped across Vyer's body, landing with such thunderous impact that they surely had been capable of shattering mountains. Harqabe's foot finally drove itself into the Voice of Pain's impassive countenance, still drawing not so much as a trickle of blood.
The herald's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly as he saw the lack of damage, even as he moved himself back a meter, before unleashing a burning barrage of the Power Cosmic upon Vyer's as yet unmoving body. Feral rage grew within Harqabe's sights as he poured his celestial energy into his enemy, with every passing moment hoping he would fall.
A calming hand fell upon the herald's shoulder, shocking him away from his attack. The warrior's angular face whipped about, his instincts sensing another foe, but he saw only the countenance of the Silver Surfer.
"It is of no use, Harqabe, his power is drawn from a source which possess might far beyond our means. Alone neither of us can hope to best him; only together, by pooling our talents can we hope to escape with our lives."
The herald said nothing in reply, but his eyes admitted reluctant agreement, though he shouldered off Radd's calming hand.
"Do you see the cord of light which connects him to a higher plane of reality? We must concentrate our attack there, sever him from the source of his power."
Harqabe's glare was cold, yet again he was forced to agree with his erstwhile comrade. The herald's head turned slowly toward his enemy's rather distant shape, and the Power Cosmic that now flowed through his body was focused, rather than oblique.
As one, both children of the Great Ravager rushed the Voice of Pain, twin streams of cosmic might churning into his chest. But it was not the physical form they were aiming form, but the celestial string which attached fire to his absent master.
Tendrils of gleaming might wrapped themselves around the dark cord, seeking to choke the lifeblood, which flowed through it, strangling fingers. For moments both Radd and Harqabe assaulted Vyer with their myriad abilities, attacking him on the levels they had access to, while their enemy remained quiescent. Yet, finally it seemed the Son of Pain had tired of his ineffectual tormentors, and lashed out at them with a single spear of wicked power.
The beast's facial expression, blank and cold, changed not at all as he watched the stab of dark energy burn into Harqabe's chest, through it. The warrior looked down at his impalement with abject disbelief, the tide of force coming from his hands quickly slackening to nil.
Vyer's hand twitched slightly, and pulse of dark light shot through the spear, sending waves of agony through its target's broken body. Harqabe's teeth clenched with such force that it seemed they would shatter like glass, yet he refused to cry out. Desperately the herald reached up, curled his fingers around the stab of evil running through his body, and tried to pull it from his chest.
A second wave of pure pain, descending all the way to the quantum level of existence coursed up the deadly line and struck Harqabe, and his struggles could do nothing save cease. Before the tidal wave of suffering, even a warrior such as he could not stand. Awareness dropped from his eyes, and the new herald's body went limp.
"No!" came the shout, torn from the Silver Surfer's core of being, "Murdering animal!"
Norrin Radd tore forward, board a shining streak beneath his feet, energy pouring from his fists in boiling torrents. With such force, for he traveled at speeds greater than that of light itself, did Norrin Radd impact his opponent that Vyer's torture of Harqabe ceased, his mind jarred into facing his remaining foe.
His eyes steaming with excess cosmic might, his fist hammers of divine retribution, the Silver Surfer no longer thought but only acted. Few times in his life had the first scion of Galactus unleashed his full, unbridled might upon enemy, truly had he feared the consequences. Yet, though he had known Harqabe for only a few moments, not even cared for him, his apparent murder by this . . . thing had struck a cord within him. Even when Nova had been slaughtered by Morg, Norrin Radd had not let himself go as he did now, for in Vyer there was something he loathed above all other things. He could name what it was, could not explain the level of the hatred this "Voice of Pain" stirred within him, but still did he act upon it.
The Surfer's blows fell like murderous raindrops upon Vyer's body, smashing him with all the years he had repressed the rage in his heart. Upon this dead, soulless thing Norrin Radd felt he need not restrain himself, for the creature was nothing save a puppet, not truly living.
A dooming cry of anguish bellowed from the former herald's lungs as he loosed a storm of Power Cosmic upon Vyer's still impassive form. Such a light rose up from the field of war that many surely mistook it for the detonation of a super-nova, so great was the fury of Norrin Radd's assault.
And then, as his fist sped toward its destination for what would have been the thousandth time, the Voice of Pain's ebony hand flew up to meet it. Stopping the blow as if the Silver Surfer was little more than a bothersome child. Radd's eyes looked into the deep pools that were his enemy's a moment before he felt the cold steel enveloping Vyer's knuckles crashed against his jaw.
The former herald reeled from the sudden blow, his feral rage shaken off, his momentum destroyed. A cold blast of power washed over him, seemed to tug at the fibers of his being and whisper to them to unravel, and in space the Silver Surfer toppled.
A swift kick flew into his mid-section, doubling Norrin Radd over, his sight beginning to cloud over with pain. It seemed as if the Power Cosmic had ceased to flow in his veins, ceased to course with such vigor. No longer could he reach out and tap the might that was rightfully his, and use it to exact a terrible toll upon the dead flesh battering him.
Knives and spears barbed with tearing hooks ripped into the former scientist's fragile mind, dredging up memories that he wished to remain long buried. A mental hammer pounded painful stakes into his consciousness, crucified those he knew before the eye of his perception; the attack on his physical form had ended, but this by far outpaced its ferocity.
Vyer's face still dead to expression, he stood high upon a pile of flayed corpses, Norrins family and friends, and held high aloft the broken body of Shalla Bal. Through cracked and bloodied lips, she whispered to him, but he could not hear her words. Impotently the Silver Surfer reached out with the hand of his mind, sought to stop the butcher, but he could do nothing.
The Voice of Pain's wrist flicked and his beloved fell too into the heap of grisly cadavers, and Norrin Radd was at last alone. The pacifist let loose a roar that would have shattered buildings had it been audible, and died then, a monster bursting forth from his soul. Silver skin ran black with his own inner darkness, and Norrin Radd's eyes grew crimson with fire. The shadow's features twisted as he charged the hill of dead, carrying not for the bones he crushed.
Mordrin now struck at the dark intruder, shrieking at Vyer as he cut at him futilely with daggers formed of his own essence. The Son of Pain looked at him with that dead stare and reached into the dark shadow's chest, and pulled from it a beating heart. Mordrins face grew pale with terror as he saw the core of his essence held so easily before his very eyes, and then was crushed to a pulp.
Ichor ran down from Vyer's hand to the blood-soaked ground below and Mordrin screamed as a fierce wind blew up and he was shattered. The horrid shriek rang for moments upon the grisly field of Norrin Radd's mind, until at last it faded, leaving nothing in its wake aside from broken memories . . . and the Voice of Pain.
Tears ran unbidden down upon his silver cheeks as the former herald lay curled into a fetal ball, floating in space. No longer did he see the outside, but only the inside of his now ravaged mind.
The Surfer did not even notice as Vyer hoisted him easily over his shoulder, and did not feel the sensation as they tore into Hyperspace. Leaving the body of Harqabe to float silently, lonely in the clutching ether, caught between the halls of life and the corridors of Death.
Across the barren lunar landscape, the High Evolutionary watched the rising globe of the planet Earth. His eyes, so keen, almost seemed able to pick out the beating presence of that small crimson Gem, such a long distance away. His brow itched madly where the jewel had once wrested proudly, and Wyndham desperately wished to rid himself of that tiresome physical sensation. Yet he would not give in to his own urge and remained stoic, merely pondering in silence.
Beneath his frozen mask, the geneticist frowned.
A short distance back, shrouded in swirling bubbles, the Supreme Intelligence sensed the discomfort his companion now suddenly felt. Perhaps because he was slowly beginning to think of the High Evolutionary as a friend, something he had never possessed before in his long life, the swollen Kree supercomputer felt compelled to ask, "What troubles you, Doctor Wyndham? Since the fall of Lemuria you have been far more . . . introspective than is usual for you."
The human sighed, forgetting how both perceptive and powerful the organic machine truly was. Before such a force, there was little anyone could ever hide. The Evolutionary did not turn to address the Intelligence, but merely continued his vigil as he replied in a solemn voice.
"Adam Warlock has yet to return to me the Reality Gem. I begin to doubt that he ever will."
There seemed a small amount of puzzlement on the Intelligence's inhuman features, "That is what troubles you? To me it seems . . . insignificant."
Wyndham smiled now, guessing that the computer was as aware of the expression as any others he had worn since their first meeting, "Perhaps to you it is, Supremor, but to me it means a great deal. Of all my children, Warlock has been the most loyal, the most successful. Of them all, he is the only one that has truly accepted me, even considers me a friend. While the New Men and Godpack have gone their separate ways, only Warlock still appears to consider me a part of his life."
Now the Intelligence began to understand. Despite all his components, the greatest minds of the Kree Empire, none were human, and as such, he still could not grasp the full complexities of such an unpredictable race. "And the fact that he now seems to have deemed you unworthy to protect the Gem causes you distress? You believe that his acceptance of you has been destroyed by your failure to keep the Reality Gem from falling into Vyer's hands?"
Had his spirits been but a modicum higher, surely the High Evolutionary would have laughed at how perceptive the Supreme Intelligence truly was. Then again, how could any being that ruled the Kree Empire for countless centuries not possess such deductive capabilities?
"Yes . . . " he was forced to admit, albeit with reluctance, "Warlock's loss of faith in me is a wound in my soul, for is he not now just like all the others, a child rejecting his parent?"
The Supreme Intelligence's words were like knives, "And your life has been punctuated with rejection. The Man-Beast sought your death. The New Men have abandoned you, and the Godpack too have left. Even the people of Earth rejected your plan to make them all into gods. Yes, surely this final rejection is the most bitter of them all."
Again the High Evolutionary smiled, this time with great sadness; "You understand the minds of men far better than you believe, Supreme Intelligence, far better . . . "
"If it concerns you so, Doctor, would it not be wise to contact Adam Warlock? Surely his words will make his own feelings toward you quite clear."
The High Evolutionary said nothing for a few moments, his gaze still fixed on the distant, mottled globe. He seemed unable to tear himself away now, so fascinated was he by the sight. No longer, did it seem, could he stop . . . watching.
"Yes, yes I suppose you are correct, Supremor." He replied at last, "I have spent such time in the company of Uatu that it seems I am able to do naught save observe. Once again I must become the man of action that I have so often been in the past."
The Intelligence's great optics narrowed in the crevices that secreted them as the Watcher's name was mentioned, "Your words bring to mind that we have not glimpsed our host since Warlock's departure. Locked away in his quarters, even his silent vigil abandoned. I had believed Uatu to be utter unflappable, but my assumption seems to be far from the case."
The High Evolutionary turned and faced the immense mass of the former Kree ruler for the first time in their discussion. As always he was struck by how penetrating the emerald entity's gaze was, how wise and deadly the Supreme Intelligence seemed, even suspended as he was within the bubble-filled fluid.
"I shall look in upon the Watcher before sending word to Warlock. In fact, I find it truly necessary that I speak with him, for I dare not utilize his communications machines without his approval. And by the appearance of this technology, perhaps I will not even be able to use it at all without his direction . . . "
"Doubtful, Doctor. Both Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom have proven capable of manipulating the Watcher's technology. You should have as little trouble as they, perhaps even less. I would gladly initiate the programs necessary to send a message to your adopted progeny, but cannot activate the communications array without Uatu's approval."
The High Evolutionary felt the compelling urge and continue his inspection of the Earth, but ignored his instincts, "True, Intelligence. Nevertheless, Uatu invited me here out of kindness, and I shall not impose upon that kindness by using his devices without his permission."
Though the Supreme Intelligence did not nod in agreement, he made his feelings evident through his distorted facial expression. The two genetic tinkers in agreement, Wyndham made his way from the chamber had stood and watched in for so long.
His forehead still itched annoying as the scientist's metal foots carried him down the long, smooth halls of Uatu's citadel, clanging the entire well. It seemed now, his mind occupied and his body spurred on with purpose, that the Evolutionary was not so overly concerned with the possible disappointment Warlock now felt for him.
The journey to the former Watcher's private quarters took the geneticist a handful of introspective minutes, for the lunar castle proved quite large. Yet finally he had reached the doorway to Uatu's chambers, and paused briefly. To the left there was a small crimson keypad, pulsing with power. For a moment he considered utilizing it, but quickly decided against the notion.
With some hesitation the Evolutionary reached out his hand and rapped his steel-cased knuckles 'gainst the sloping doorway, once, twice, three times. He then stepped back, and through the lenses of his mask watched the silver metal for signs of life.
Moments passed, finally minutes, and the scientist was compelled to repeat his knocks upon the gleaming frame. Again, there was no answer from within, no reply, and no acknowledgment.
"Uatu?" Wyndham shouted now, though he hazarded that the renegade would not hear him through the thick steel. Then, however, the Evolutionary remembered the high level of awareness that any being of Uatu's level possessed, and decided the action may not have been futile after all.
When again there was no response, the geneticist shouted out the Watcher's name, louder this time, and waited. More minutes passed, and both curiosity and slight fear began to grow in Wyndham's heart.
His eyes fell upon the glowing control panel, the ebb of the light almost seeming to beckon him to touch it. It was a siren call that the High Evolutionary could not resist, and gently he pressed his palm to the oversize device.
Instantly a slight hum thrilled through the high doorway and it slid open silently, bidding him to enter of his own accord. The dueling emotions of fear and curiosity burgeoning in size, the scientist cautiously set foot into the chamber, each step carefully measured, as if the floor would explode if he stepped too harshly.
Like a child in technological wonderland, the Evolutionary surveyed his environment, an infant smile coming unbidden to his lips. Such sights he saw in the expansive and well-lit room; they set his heart soaring. The devices he beheld, the towering machines that he could only hazard guesses at as to what their function was, dwarfed any he before seen. They made the smattering of wonders he had glimpsed within the halls of the Watcher's citadel seem as nothing, antiquated toys which no longer provided their master with sufficient challenge or enjoyment any longer.
Frozen in his stance, his limbs locked by the mere joy of seeing these achievements, it took the High Evolutionary a great deal of minutes to recognize that the creator of all the myriad technologies was not himself present. Temporarily tearing himself away from the grandiose mechanisms, again Wyndham swept his gaze 'cross the crowded space, once more finding no sign of Uatu.
Despite the apparent disappearance of his host, the fear in Wyndham's heart faded to a slight smoldering, barely noticeable. He saw no signs of struggle, and surely, for any being to take the Watcher by force would require a great conflict. Had Uatu truly been abducted against his will, the geneticist surmised that neither he nor the Supreme Intelligence would have survived the ordeal, for surely the battle would have laid waste to the citadel in its entirety.
His fear gone but his curiosity and suspicions further stoked, Doctor Wyndham reluctantly pried himself away from the towering devices and began the trek back to the observation chamber. This time his mind swam with possibilities which perhaps explained the Watcher's disappearance. In this somewhat expedient trek, never once did the scientist's mind fall upon the issue of Warlock's supposed rejection. The Evolutionary was now preoccupied with matters of far greater importance, the acceptance of an adopted child no longer weighed heavily 'pon his thoughts.
Soon his ringing steps had carried Doctor Wyndham again into the presence of the bloated Kree supercomputer, and that prying gaze. The Evolutionary stared up into the Supreme Intelligence's glinting eyes and no longer felt insignificant, for again there were affairs of far more import than his own fragile ego.
"Have you contacted Adam Warlock?" the living machine inquired, looking down upon his companion's small armored form.
"I have not, Supremor, but that is of little importance at the moment. I was unable to locate Uatu; I fear he has disappeared from the citadel entirely."
Was it concern that briefly flashed across the Supreme Intelligence's features, or merely an attempt to hide confirmation of inner suspicions. In the end, the scientist deemed it of little weight and threw his own suspicion to the wind.
"A disturbing thought, Doctor Wyndham. Events are even more serious than we dared suspect if a Watcher has decided to break his sacred vows of non-interference."
"Remember that Uatu is no longer a Watcher, Supremor; he broke his oaths when he defeated Aron the Rogue in combat. Nonetheless, he still proved rather . . . apathetic towards most matters even after his dismissal. Assuming he has moved into action, this situation appears to have worsened considerably."
"Agreed, High Evolutionary, yet what can we do to quell matters? Our own powers are great, but they are as nothing compared to the forces we would be opposing."
"And we cannot say which side we shall aid, and which we shall ply our strength against."
Slight confusion drew itself upon the Supreme Intelligence's jade countenance, "I had thought the choice obvious; those who have interfered with the Fifth Host's goal to raise Humanity to god-hood are most evidently in the wrong. You . . . see things differently than I, Doctor Wyndham?"
The High Evolutionary nodded with assurance, "Before Warlock's brief visit here I believed as you did, Supremor, but now I am not so confident. Uatu seemed disturbed by the Living Tribunal's actions . . . what if it is he we should be opposing, and not this 'Dark Watcher?'"
Disbelief now seemed to dawn upon the gargantuan Kree's features, "You would seek to topple the Living Tribunal from his post, Doctor Wyndham? Even considering such a course is utter folly; the Tribunal is the ultimate force within the universe, nothing can hope to stand against him. Further, he is a neutral force, lacking his own desires. To think him capable of misdeeds is akin to believing the ocean capable of murder. Since we first met I have been impressed by your wisdom, but now it seems you are taken by utter stupidity."
The High Evolutionary refused to be stymied or stung by the Supreme Intelligence's rather harsh diatribe. His voice was hard as replied, not giving or surrendering to the organism's own overwhelming self-confidence, "And what if we simply cannot hope to grasp the emotions of that ocean, of the Living Tribunal? What if our intellects, impressive as they are, are simply incapable of such a godly force possessing the same desires as ourselves? Do you think ants believe us to be consciously snuffing their lives, burning their homes? To the Tribunal we are ants, Supremor, or even less."
Wyndham did not bother awaiting a reply from the bloated machine, instead choosing to turn and stride up to once more look at the expansive observation window. Behind, the Intelligence's features had grown contemplative, his own immense consciousness considering this new view of existence that he himself had not thought of. Such occasions where new perspectives were introduced to him were few, and when they occurred he found them at the same time both pleasurable and jarring.
The armored scientist never spared a glance back at his companion, his eyes fixed upon the Earth. He imagined he could see those billions of organisms called men walking about, ants that could not conceive of greater things. Soon, he feared the lives of all those insects would be irreparably altered, and he could do nothing, for truly they did not wish for his help, or want it.
"Your words have proven illuminating, Doctor Wyndham." The Supreme Intelligence's voice said from his tank, "Few times in my long life have my perspectives been altered by a mere man, yet you have succeeded where so many others have failed. My aid you shall have in your efforts, Evolutionary, whatever course you may choose."
From the scientist there came no reply, no sign that he had even heard the words of Supremor. Despite the Kree's agreement, all the High Evolutionary did was watch . . . and wait.
"Gentlemen and ladies," Captain America said from his post behind the steel podium, "this is where we stand as of this evening." The patriot permitted himself another glance down at the single sheet of paper below him before launching into his plain but necessary speech.
"Attilan's forces have succeeded in quelling the remaining resistance within Lemuria. Black Bolt has agreed to an indefinite occupation of the underwater city until a course of action can be decided regarding its Deviant inhabitants. His Inhuman troops will hold the city alone for several weeks, until S.H.I.E.L.D. and a multi-national UN task force cuts through enough red tape to provide their own peacekeepers."
Captain America paused with this thought, and his gaze unknowingly wandered up to one of the large viewscreens' adorning the curved walls of the immense war room. Upon it rested the gristled visage of Nick Fury, his rough features bathed as ever in a cloud of thick smoke. The director's single eye repaid Cap's glance with equal friendly, yet serious, calculation, and in that brief silence the two Veterans came to an understanding in there own minds.
"I would like to congratulate everyone who took part in the Lemurian invasion; you all did a commendable job. Both Avengers and Inhuman casualties were extremely low for a mission of such high risk. Wasp, Hawkeye, and the Black Widow were the only Avengers who sustained serious injuries, and they are all currently recuperating in our ward. May our thoughts be with them that they pull through."
The patriot's eyes turned cold as they fell upon the impassive form of Adam Warlock, seated near the back of the chamber, his Infinity Watch arrayed around him. "In addition to those three Avengers I just mentioned, Ikaris of Olympia was also rendered insensate during the fighting. Currently we can find no cause for his condition, but an investigation is forthcoming.
"Unfortunately, we were unable to capture the highest echelon of Lemuria's leadership. Though most of the Deviant priesthood was neutralized, Ghaur, Tantalus, and Khult slipped through our fingers. However, we were successful in detaining the Negative Zone ruler Annihilus, who was apparently aiding the Deviants; he is currently being held under heavy guard in our prison ward."
Captain America paused again, as he looked down and turned the page over, revealing a second laying within the confines of the plain manila folder. He swallowed, and his voice grew slightly hoarse when he continued, "Despite our success in Lemuria, however, the offensive against Vyer proved a serious error. We . . . we lost both Cable and Nate Grey in our assault on him, and have no clues as to where he was headed, or what his intentions were. Currently we are formulating a strategy to deal with his threat, but those details are still sketchy at this time. I would like now to take just a brief moment of silence to honor the two men who gave their lives defending this planet, as they deserve our respect for making such an incredible sacrifice."
The patriot's head bowed, and all along the room so too did many of the heroes', as they did their best to pray and honor the memories of Cable and Nathan Grey. Of them all, it seemed only Warlock's head remained aloft, his cold gaze flicking across the room, surveying those who apparently had more of a soul then himself. If this was true, the golden hero cared little, if at all.
His swift mourning done, Captain America pressed onward, "Our conflict with the Deviants is not yet over, despite our victory at Lemuria. Only hours before our task force set out for the submerged city, satellites detected a small fleet of Deviant ships moving towards the Florida Everglades. Currently telemetry indicates a small camp has been established there, though its purpose is as yet unknown. However, it is likely that the remaining cadre of Deviant leaders, Ghaur, Tantalus, and Khult, are all there, and that only strengthens our desire to take that base out as quickly as possible."
Even more than previously, the patriot's tone grew deadly serious, "This mission shall surely prove to be an exceedingly dangerous one. Mystical imbalances around the area of the Deviant camp make it impossible to pin down exactly how many of them there are, and what kind of firepower they're carrying. Also due to the interference, teleportation into the area will prove difficult, if not impossible. Essentially, we will be launching a blitzkrieg-style strike from the air, which will hopefully catch them unprepared, knocking out their defenses before they can respond. In addition to this, there is a chance that Vyer may return to this area, as he appears to be allied with the Deviants. We've all seen how powerful this monster is, and at his side, he'll have both Tantalus and Khult! Who have both proven to be quite potent in their own rights. There is a very good chance that some of the individuals who leave for this mission will not return."
Captain America allowed this final thought to sink into the collective mind of his audience, watched their facial expressions carefully before continuing. "I've drawn up a list of the eight most powerful heroes in this room, and they are as follows. Thor, Thunderstrike, Beta Ray Bill, Red Norvell, Hulk, Quasar, Hercules, and Namor. I am not ordering any of you to partake in this mission, only asking you to. Together, I believe the eight of you, together, stand the best chance of neutralizing this installation before it grows into something larger. Of this group, I would now like a show of hands as to which of you will partake in this excursion.
Swiftly, a large jade palm was held high aloft, immediately followed by a trio of enchanted hammers, and one mystic mace. Hercules' hand came up soon as well, along with Namor's. Only Quasar seemed unwilling to participate, unwilling to raise his hand, and swiftly all eyes fell upon the young hero.
Wendell Vaughn's features were awash in both fear and regret as he nervously saw the multitude of optics turn to scrutinize him. He swallowed hard in his throat, and did his best to keep his voice firm as he addressed Captain America, "Cap . . . I . . . "
The light suddenly shimmered near Quasar's right hand, and glinted off a golden object. For those that saw, their thoughts naturally assumed the Quantum Bands to be the culprit for the impromptu light show, but on closer examination, they proved to be utterly false.
The young hero's resolve seemed to bolster, and his confidence grew, "Cap, Kismet and I . . . two days ago, right after the siege of Lemuria, we got married. And . . . well, I guess with her advanced physiology things tend to move a bit . . . um, faster."
"C'mon kid, spit it out already." The towering Hulk said from nearby.
"What, what I'm trying to say here, Cap, is that Kismet's . . . Kismet's eight months pregnant already and I don't want our child growing up without a father. If things were any different, I'd join up in a heartbeat, but everything seems so . . . so much more real now. Do, do you understand?"
A small smile came to the patriot's face, and it was reflected generously around nearly the entirety of the chamber, "I understand, Quasar; congratulations."
The hero beamed, "Thanks, Cap."
The joy seemed to drain from the veteran's face like water, however, and almost instantly, he was back to the far grimmer business at hand. "Due to Quasar's impending fatherhood, I would ask if Iron Man would volunteer for the mission."
"I'll be there." Came the response from the armored Avenger, without hesitation.
"Good. Before leaving, your group of nine will be joined by Doctor Strange, who has some experience in dealing with the are you will be intruding in. If there's nothing else, it seems this meeting is ajour-" Captain America's announcement ended abruptly, as Nicholas Fury's shout rolled cleanly over his words.
"We've got incoming, Captain! The Vimana has just decloaked in orbit and its powering weapons. If they know about Lemuria's conquest, Avengers HQ is a likely target. I would advise all of you to take shelter immediately, as the orbital defense grid hasn't powered-up yet."
Around the massive war room viewscreens lit with the bristling and ominous form of Lord Tantalus' flagship, hanging high above the Earth. Row after countless row of energy barrels glowed in the cold ether, their intended victims unknown.
"Compound computer system, prepare to receive defensive instructions." Captain America said to apparently no one, his eyes focused on nothing in particular. All about the expansive chamber, the numerous heroes looked at one another, unwanted tension raising itself like one of Hydra's many heads.
"Avengers computer system ready to receive defensive instructions." The war room suddenly said, its voice surprisingly like that of the Avengers' stalwart and ever loyal Butler Jarvis. Despite the menacing beast of the Vimana floating upon the myriad viewscreens, nervous chuckles still managed to rise from some of the defenders seated about the great cylinder.
Captain America's tone was terse as he tore off a ream of commands, all from memory, his voice never wavering, and "Active maximum level forcefields around the entire complex Raise structural integrity fields to maximum effectiveness. Have medical droids and the trauma ward readied for injuries. Initiate enemy targeting scrambler systems and missile countermeasures. Initiate EMP nullification nodes and laser deflection systems. If the integrity of the complex is breached, begin purging of all data files, on authorization Alpha - Beta - Carter - Two - Two - Cobalt Patriot."
"Understood. All ordered functions will be carried out in three . . . two . . one . . . initializing."
The very air seemed to shimmer in the war room, charged with almost palpable energy. Both far and near the keen senses of the assembled heroes could hear the rumbling of defensive systems sliding into place, feel the power inherent in the massive and formidable shelter which was now their refuge.
"Target all offensive weapons onto subject: 'Vimana,' located in high Earth orbit. To not fire until fired upon."
Captain America nodded, eyeing the crowd carefully, feeling pride as he saw how stoic and composed everyone remained. The old patriot reminded himself that they had no reason not to maintain their composure, for all had experienced far worse threats than the glistening monster hanging high above.
A slight smile came to the veteran's lips, but it quickly faded as his eyes unconsciously cast downward and he caught sight of his own hands, clenched so tightly around the steel podium that he could now feel the metal beginning to buckle beneath his grip.
Immediately he loosed his hold upon the metal, clenching and unclenching what he now realized to be fists sore from the effort. When the Vimana had first appeared he had felt no worries. When the Deviant warship had powered weapons, Captain America had not felt a twinge of fear. But now . . . now he did sense that cold specter of doubt clawing its way upon from instinct to take firm hold of his heart in its frigid grasp.
The patriot's eyes could do naught but look across at the face of young Quasar, and Captain America could do nothing save wait for the inevitable.
In space, it has been said, "no one can hear you scream." In most cases, this is true, but on Earth, the circumstances are far different.
There was no sound as the Vimana powered its numerous weapons banks, nor any hint of noise as it began to rain searing bolts of plasma miles long down upon the verdant sphere of the world. But there was indeed great, terrifying sounds as those streaks of energy found their targets, the will of the Deviant warship's captain, relayed to him by Lord Tantalus.
Those organizations responsible for the capture of Deviant Lemuria and theft of the Reality Gem were to pay - dearly. And so they did.
Explosions rippled across the United States' East Coast, monuments and treasured buildings becoming ash in New York City. Shrieks of terror and cries of fear and agony went up as people saw the rubble crashing down upon them, and then were silenced as surely as their lives were snuffed.
Thousands died within seconds of the initial assault, as the Vimana poured its vengeance down upon the grimy metropolis. But the inhabitants of the wearied city were not the target of those twisted Deviants; they were merely in the way, and as such were swept brutally aside. Not even the Avengers Compound was truly ravaged, its shields deflecting the small number of bolts hurled against it, almost as an afterthought. No, the true thrust of the attack fell upon the towering United Nations building, something that could hurt, something that could be killed with little effort on Tantalus' part, yet still strike a blow that would be felt worldwide.
Delegates from around the planet could do nothing as the strobes of power fell upon their place of work, shattering concrete and steel as easily as children topple their toy blocks. The structure went up in a debris-filled plume of fire, which quickly turned to choking smoke, rising high into the morning sky.
None survived the deadly and calculated mass-murder, although it had lasted no more than a handful of seconds.
Washington DC fared no better, as its treasured monuments and trademarks were put to the ax at Tantalus hateful whim. The Washington Monument was but a broken spear after a jab of cleansing light landed no more than meters from its white heights. Lincoln, sitting solemn upon his chair, died his final death.
The heads of the United States government were shattered to bloody bits and burned to char as they ran for cover. The White House and Capitol Building were little more than broken dreams and crushed stone only moments after the Vimana opened fire.
Tantalus' anger next turned to the hovering S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, cradle of the organization, which had helped bring down his both native, and adopted homeland.
The thick defensive screens of the massive and bloated machine were as nothing before the superior technological might of the Armechadian Deviants.
Three spears of simmering light cut through the side of the carrier, leaving gaping, blackening holes. For several fitful seconds the dying ship seemed to meditate upon its state, wallow in its pain. And then the craft shuddered, almost weeping, before exploding entirely, raining death and destruction down over the ocean it had hovered above only seconds before.
Olympia and Attilan fared better, far better, for their wondrous devices proved nearly a match for the evils of Deviant science. The Vimana's bolts of hate cascaded across powerful shields, weakening them, but rarely breaking through. Only a small number of towers fell in those two cities, and even fewer inhabitants died, their great powers keeping them away from Death's cold clutches.
The barrage ended abruptly from above, as the Vimana seemed to stew in its own failure. The brightness in its cannons began to glow once again, however, and soon it seemed Tantalus would launched a renewed, and far more destructive, assault upon broken Olympia and proud Attilan.
But that attack would not come, as the Vimana was suddenly jarred by cutting streams of power, emanating from the numerous orbital defense platforms arrayed around the planet. The Shi'ar pilfered weaponry slammed into the Deviant vessel's shields, searching for the cold steel within, and even further to end the lives of its makers.
The reprisal was swift, and deadly, as the Vimana lashed out against its violent detractors, sweeping the platform with beams of murderous force. Three exploded instantly under the assault, those closest to the Vimana. Five more shuddered and buckled beneath Tantalus' rage, but held long enough to fire a few more shots before too being vanquished by a second wave of Deviant strikes.
Again now the Vimana's cold attentions turned to the planet below as it launched another tidal surge of energy lances downward, only to see them sizzle harmlessly to nothing on the orbital defense grid now activated.
More bolts showered down, faster and faster with even greater intensity, as Tantalus ordered the blitzkrieg onward, his anger growing with every second. Slowly the grid below began to falter, first one deadly strobe getting through, then another, and another.
The Deviant overlord smiled as he saw his victory growing once again, imagined Olympia and Attilan burning. With those two enemy cities destroyed he would then order the Vimana down to the planet, and begin the painful process of dismantling its core, to be used in the evolutionary mechanism he had been ordered to construct.
The blaze of energy being emitted from the Deviant starship ended abruptly, as if a switch had suddenly been flicked by some higher power. Fury rose in Tantalus and questioning in his crew as they searched to discover the cause of their plight. Across the Earth, its heroes and defenders only waited, they too as both hopeful and fearful of what had occurred.
In the darkness of space, a small figure began to manifest itself, silhouetted against the shining planet below. It had been the planet of his birth, but not his home, for he was hated there, believed to be a monster, perhaps the worst Earth had ever forged.
Surrounded in a crackling sphere of energy, his mind tense with the effort of jamming the Vimana's firing mechanisms, the figure began slowly approaching his metal victim. He could hear his own measured breaths in his ears as he saw the growing immensity of the shining beast he held scarcely in check, and again questioned himself as to why he had reached out to a race that so reviled him.
The Avengers' faces were contorted with true surprise as the stranger could finally be made out, and reactions were similar across the globe.
In high orbit, Magneto carried not what people thought or said; he did what he did for his own purposes, and no one else's. Hovering now only meters from the hulking craft, the effort of controlling its weaponry drawing beads of sweat from his forehead, the Master of Magnetism prepared to expend even more of his great energies.
He breathed deep and his concentration grew a hundred-fold as he drew up more power from the core of his being, and plied it against the quavering shape of the Vimana. His hand clutched to a fist as he imagined its Deviant design crumple and die before his will, and did his best to make his dream reality.
At first nothing occurred, Armechadian metals resisting the great strength of Magneto. His teeth clenched so tight he believed they would shattered, the Master of Magnetism drew more of his power forward, and as he threw it upon the Vimana he saw its slowly begin to dent.
His resolve strengthened, Magneto pressed on, and body shaking as he willed the engines of the ship to collapse upon themselves, willed the bridge to crumple and the instruments to explode. That they did, the crew scampering away from their control panels as they erupted in violent showers of sparks.
The mutant's breath coming in short gasps now, knowing his endurance had nearly ended, Magneto surged ahead a final time, a last outburst of innate power. His fingernails biting through his glove and into his flesh now, drawing blood, he watched as the Vimana's engine compartment distorted further, shuddered and exploded in a plume of instantly extinguished flame.
The Master of Magnetism smiled weakly as he led the tension flee from his body, ended his assault, and watched the explosions ripple across the Vimana's hull, soon leaving nothing more than floating debris.
Magneto's smile widened and he dropped to his knees within the shimmering sphere, breathing deeply now, reveling in the deed he had accomplished, and hoping its effects would be those he hoped for.
To Be Continued...
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