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 Eight.
Tantalus’ steps were measured and his features carefully controlled as he stalked across the marshy ground of the Florida Everglades, the humidity in the late night air more than oppressive. As he passed the towering device, now useless, the image of his Vimana exploding burned back into his memory. His teeth clenched at the remembrance, and he fought back a sneer and guttural snarl. A man, a mutant, had destroyed his greatest warship with nothing more than a clench of his fist, and Tantalus had been unable to stop him.
Magneto's interference had been utterly unforeseen, uncalculated, unexpected. The Armechadian lord and priest Khult had attempted to factor every variable into their plans, account for every possible intrusion. Despite his aid during the previous Celestial invasion, Tantalus had simply not expected the Master of Magnetism to rush to Earth's aid once again. Now, he would pay the price for his lack of foresight, for it was he who had been appointed leader of all Deviant forces and was responsible for their success.
Still striding toward the appointed meeting place, his mind fastened on the size of his failure. Without the evolutionary device, nothing save worthless trash now without the Vimana's power core, the Deviant race could not be evolved. Wylig's forces would be alone against the overpowering might of the army of Order, and the Living Tribunal.
From what Vyer had told him the Dark Watcher was a schemer and strategist of the highest magnitude, on par with the Grandmaster and Thanos, but even he would be hard-pressed to defeat such overwhelming odds. The renegade observer had gathered quite a force, so Tantalus had been informed, including the likes of the Shaper of Worlds, TimeKeepers, and Trinity of Ashes, yet it would not be enough. Wylig himself had estimated the Tribunal's allies to number more than twice his own; an evolved Deviant army would be a necessity to at least stalemate the great judge's army long enough for Wylig to somehow forever end the Living Tribunal's threat.
Like a hammer that final thought fell upon the Deviant, and he nearly faltered in his steps. How the Dark Watcher planned to deal with the most powerful being in the Omniverse, Tantalus did not know; such privileged information was apparently only shared with the true cosmic entities comprising Wylig's inner circle. All he knew was that the Reality Gem was required for him to accomplish this mysterious miracle, and that he had been unable to re-take it without possible dying in battle with Thor and Beta Ray Bill.
As his pace ground to a halt beside both his friend Khult and the Priest-Lord Ghaur, standing patiently in wait for a single individual, Tantalus considered that perhaps it would have been wiser to risk his life in combat, rather than face the Voice's wrath when he arrived.
The astronomer turned in the darkness to the tall Armechadian, "Are you well, Tantalus? You do not look it."
His eyes flicked to Ghaur's expectant, hungry expression before making his reply, "Well enough, Khult, well enough."
Despite the situation, and that he too saw the possibility of even bothering to continue the Deviant plan to be futility, the Lemurian ruler smiled and said, snake-like, "Surely you cannot have fully recovered from the Vimana's destruction already, Lord Tantalus. It's scarcely been an hour, hasn't it? Losing your greatest weapon must be a truly wrenching experience."
The Armechadian replied without humor, without favoring Ghaur with even his gaze, "Not nearly as wrenching is must be to lose an entire city, Priest-Lord."
The Lemurian's sly, mocking expression melted to cold hatred, a hatred he had no longer bothered to mask since Tantalus string of apparent failures. He fell silent, not bothering to reply, turning again to wait for the arrival of the Voice of Pain.
Khult knew his friend too well to believe his words, but nevertheless did not press the subject, "Did you inform Vyer of the Reality Gem's loss during your brief mental communication yesterday?"
Tantalus' face grew grimmer still, yet still he replied, albeit with a tone indicating the danger of the discourse, "No. The Voice's communiqué was one-way, only informing me when and where to await his arrival."
The astronomer's thin eyebrow arched with suspicion, Khult obviously not believing that the Armechadian had shared the whole truth. But again he saw the state his friend was in, and did not press the issue, choosing instead to fall into silence as Ghaur had, and do nothing save anticipate the Son of Pain's eventual appearance.
That appearance was not long in coming, as only several tension-filled minutes slipped by before the space nearby crackled with immense energy. Space soon warped and distorted, forming a roiling gateway into another realm, from which stepped the being that had all being awaiting - and fearing.
The Voice of Pain was not alone; slung across his shoulder, between ornate helm and scathing spines, there was the unmistakably shining form of the Silver Surfer, emptied of all resistance, and perhaps even all life.
Without care Vyer dropped his prisoner to the ground, obviously not concerned that Norrin Radd would rise of his own accord and make good an escape attempt. The avatar's cold gaze focused solely on Lord Tantalus, and it was as if Khult and Ghaur were not there, as if they did not even exist.
"Wylig has gathered his forces within the Nexus of Realities; we are now ready to proceed." the Voice of Pain said in that dead, flat tone, "Give me the Reality Gem and ready the device to begin the evolutionary ascension of the Deviants."
For the first time in his long life, Tantalus felt true feel, clutching at his heart. Staring into Vyer's corpse-like countenance, he could not move himself to reply.
Eyalus' avatar extended his obsidian hand, "Give me the Reality Gem."
Unable to delay any longer, the Armechadian drew in a life-sustaining breath and pressed on, "The Reality Gem was stolen from me during the siege of Lemuria. I have been unable to locate it."
The Voice of Pain did not reply, his expression unchanged; he seemed a demonic statue carved from black ice.
"Further, Magneto has destroyed the Vimana and its power core, making the evolutionary device inoperable, unless an alternative source of energy can be found."
To his surprise, Tantalus no longer felt the crushing weight of grim anticipation upon his chest. Now he could only wait for Vyer's reply, and hope he would still live in a short matter of moments. Those moments dragged by with agonizing sluggishness, seeming to take hours before they reached their conclusion. But finally they did, and the Armechadian found he still lived.
Another second passed and then Vyer was gone, tearing upward into the sky without a word of explanation, searing cosmic fire arcing out like a comet's tale behind him. Within another second he was gone from view, heading toward whatever destination he had chosen.
Tantalus let out a breath he had not been aware he'd been holding, looked across the camp, seeing the surprised and fearful expressions written across his troop's faces.
"Return to work now, all of you." he said, confidence and authority quickly seeping back into his voice and bearing.
Ghaur's eyes narrowed as he thought out loud, "Surely he has gone to seek out the Gem stolen from you, Tantalus . . . What are we to do now?"
For the thousandth time since arriving on Earth he wished to decimate the bothersome Lemurian, and on this occasion he nearly gave into the urge, "We will continue to prep the evolutionary machine for use, in hope of finding an alternative power source. And we will wait for Vyer's return . . . and the ascendance of the Deviant race."
This final statement was delivered with something far less then certainty of Tantalus' part, but he whirled away with a fluttering of his cape and began to stalk away before a reply could be made. Ghaur watched the retreating giant, until he judged the Armechadian to be far from earshot.
"He is a beaten man, Khult, even you can see that now."
The astronomer eyed him with derision, but not with disagreement, as he strode away, leaving the Priest-Lord alone with his own thoughts.
High in the night sky, nine heroes looked down on the Deviant encampment, and prepared themselves for the battle to come.
"I wish I could shed some light on the bigger issues behind all this, Thor," Doctor Strange said to the Thunder God, "but since this ruling of the Living Tribunal's that Warlock informed me of, I have been unable to contact the Vishanti, or any other mystic beings. Whatever is happening, however, is as serious as anything Thanos has ever plotted. The universe itself seems to be coiled as tight as a spring, only waiting to be released. When it is, I can only hope we survive the firestorm."
The Last Son of Asgard nodded in agreement, "Aye, Stephen, I should have expected anything large enough to involve the destruction of all the gods of myth to be duly crucial and worthy of great concern."
"I believe we should take our minds off the bigger events right now, Thor." Beta Ray Bill interjected as he stared down at a small clearing in the Everglades that revealed several stark grey structures, "Earth's defenders obviously aren't a part of the larger equation this time, and as such I think we should only be concentrating on what we can do to stop the Deviants."
Again, Thor nodded, "Aye, friend Bill, aye."
Red Norvell took a deep breath from his position near the back of the Magical sphere, and for one of the few times since leaving the Avengers Compound spoke to the other heroes, "So, uh, guys, are we almost ready to go? We've been waitin' here for quite awhile and Vyer hasn't shown up yet. Anyone else think we should just get this over with?"
Thunderstrike shook his head, "I still can't believe Cap chose you to come with us, Red."
The new Thunder God's face fell, "Why? You think I haven't got the stuff to make it in this hero biz?"
"No, Red, it's just that you're inexperienced, still. We're dealing with some pretty serious stuff here, some pretty powerful guys. I'm just not sure you're ready. Remember, I know what it's like to have all that power but still not be able to use it right, yet."
Hercules clapped a hand on Norvell's shoulder, smiling proudly, "He'll do fine, Thunderstrike. We'll make sure nothing bad happens to you, Red. Just stick with the Lion of Olympus and you'll be fine!" And then the scion of Zeus' bluster faded as he remembered that the glorious mountain stood no longer, and he fell into a cold silence, his hand slipping away from his fellow's shoulder.
"Cap's been different since that mob attacked him the last time Thanos screwed with us." the Hulk said, huge arms crossed over his equally immense chest, "He's still the same old patriot, but . . . tougher somehow. I almost thought he'd make Quasar come with us even though he's havin' a kid."
"I don't know, Bruce." Iron Man disagreed, "I think he just wanted us to have the maximum amount of force for such a small group. Red here may not have much experience, but he's more than powerful to be an asset nonetheless."
"Would the Cap you're used to go ahead with this attack, even after we lost the whole friggin' government, and even Goddamn Nick Fury? Hell, he doesn't even seem to care that Reed might be dead. You'd think he'd have us help clean up the mess in New York and Washington before going after these guys . . . "
Iron Man's tone grew defensive, "This attack is going to make sure the Deviants can never do anything like that again, Bruce. And Colonel Fury . . . rumor has it he was at NORAD during the attack, or in orbit. He's probably so bogged down he just hasn't had time to contact us yet. Reed's still missing, the same with Doom, but that doesn't mean he's dead either. I think you're getting way too cynical, Bruce." But his voice grew less certain as he replied to his comrade's final statement, "And the cities . . . Cap and the others can handle it."
The Hulk dismissed the Iron Avenger with a wave of his colossal hand, "Yeah, whatever . . . "
"Shhhh . . . " Doctor Strange whispered suddenly, motioning for the assembled heroes to grow silent, "I'm detecting a mystical occurrence, and cut off as I am from the Vishanti, I need total concentration to pinpoint it."
"Yeah, well I can do it without too much trouble." Banner said, pointing a thick finger down at the encampment, and a swirl of brilliant energy, which quickly manifested into an unmistakable spined shape.
"Vyer . . . " Red Norvell whispered, naming the dark entity.
"Great." the Hulk said, though his own voice's loudness had dropped considerably, "We sat up here talkin' for so long he had to show up eventually. Now we gotta deal with his shit too."
"We will prevail, Hulk. The Avengers always prevail." Namor said simply, his own vision focusing on the distant Voice of Pain. Silence fell then across the cloaked sphere, as the nine heroes watched Lord Tantalus discourse with the shadowy figure, and watch for several tense moments as the avatar said nothing in response.
And then Vyer was gone in a plume of shining cosmic power, rocketing into the night sky, passing only several dangerous meters from the small group of defenders. All breathed a sigh of relief, even the Hulk, as he disappeared amongst the stars, hopefully never be looked upon again.
"He must be headed for Avengers HQ." Iron Man said at last, when it seemed the danger had finally made its way from earshot, "We should warn them. The Reality Gem . . . "
Strange shook his head, though not without reluctance, "No. They will detect him long before he arrives. And the Reality Gem is in the possession of Adam Warlock, who also has the only object that has apparently been able to fend off Vyer: the Soul Gem. We must focus on the task at hand, and quickly, before he returns." The former surgeon turned to the stoic Thunder God, "Thor?"
Odin's favored child nodded, stepping to the forefront of the assembled heroes, "Beta Ray Bill, Thunderstrike, Red Norvell, wed the powers of your mystic Uru weapons to my own, and led the mighty storm soon be unleashed."
Thor raised his Rhinegold-laced hammer high aloft as did the others raise their own enchanted artifacts. Held gently together, immediately energy sparked across the union of such wondrous weapons. Sparks grew to thin bridges of lightning, which quickly strengthened into crackling bolts, looking like divine serpents waiting to be unleashed upon the sinful.
His voice barely audible above the roaring thunder, Thor shouted, "Drop the shield, Stephen, and let the storm be unleashed!"
There was no change in the view of things, no visible sign that Doctor Strange's invisibility barrier had been lifted, but to a being so in tune with Magical forces as the Thunderer, it was as if night had blossomed into day. He lowered his hammer, violently swathed in the armaments of perhaps the greatest lightning storm in history, and let loose a war cry over the suddenly howling winds.
A beam of light, purest holy white tinged in cobalt blue and nearly as wide as Thor was tall, erupted from sacred Mjolnir. It arced down onto the clearing, raising Deviant eyes bathed in horror less than a moment before the barreling engine of force impacted on the ground.
The Earth shuddered before the incredible blow, and the sound was as if God had smited the world with his own holy instrument. Deviants were flung about, knocked utterly senseless and barely alive by the attack, as their equipment was reduced to smoking rubble or utterly atomized out of hand.
A thick column of grey smoke rose from the site of impact, rising high into the dark sky, blotting out the twinkling stars. Yet quickly it began to disperse amongst the dying winds, revealing a gaping crater in the wet ground of the Everglades, a crown of destruction ringed with the pearls of trees blasted parallel to the ground and covered in white ash.
"For Asgard!" came the spirit shout once again as the Thunder God surged downward upon the ravaged landscape, smaller bolts of mystic lightning already escaping from his mighty weapon. Not far behind followed the false Thors, beams of force flowing from their own instruments as well. The Hulk leapt down to the Earth like a cannonball, reaching the ground before even the Thunderer, leaving a small crater in the wake of his violent landing. A roar escape the emerald behemoth's lips as he charged forward, massive fists easily knocking away the dazed Deviants who dotted the remains of the camp.
Iron Man tore through the sky, flying low below the treetops, picking off fleeing soldiers with brief bursts of repulsor fire from his gauntlets. Namor and Hercules worked as a team when they reached the surface, no single soul proving a match for their immense strength. With ease they battered through the blasted area, and then set about clearing the more wooded spaces of conscious Deviant life. Wary of his own abilities, for without the flow of power from the Vishanti he was far from a true Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange remained in the air, watching, but more than ready to come to the aid of any hero truly in danger.
The Deviant soldiers, now disorganized and truly frightened of the vengeful gods who had suddenly reached down from the sky to burn them in the same pyre, were little match for the drive and power of the heroes. Fists and hammers crushed Lemurian armor as if it was little more than fortified cardboard. Laser weapons singed harmlessly on immortal flesh. Within no more than a scant handful of minutes, the confrontation was at an end.
Dozens of senseless Deviant forms were rounded up from where they had fallen, and piled amongst the burn hulks of shattered aircraft. Yet among those bodies, some barely breathing, there was no trace of those leaders the defenders had sought to capture. Lord Tantalus, Lord Ghaur, and Khult had not been taken, and it seemed not even engaged.
"So where the Hell are these guys?" the Hulk said as he dropped another half dozen bodies to the ground, and wiped the dust of combat from his jade palms. He looked suspiciously through the Woods, his motions exaggerated, "Gotta be in there somewhere."
"They are cowards, Hulk, base cowards." Thor announced, "Tantalus and his minions fear to battle those they cannot defeat in fair combat, and as such they fight not at all."
"We should try and find them." Iron Man interjected, "Neutralizing the Deviant leadership was the main reason we came down here." He looked about the blasted and broken area, "Now why they came down here . . . "
"There can be only one reason the Deviants took control of this are, and fortified it so heavily." Doctor Strange responded with assurance, "Nearby lies the gateway to the Nexus of Realities, the crossroads of all the Omniverse. They were probably planning to do something with the Reality Gem when they arrived there."
"Aye," said Thor, as he looked with concern on the shining form propped against a nearby tree, "but what did they have planned for the Silver Surfer?"
His own voice laced with the same concern, Doctor Strange's own eyes fell upon Norrin Radd's prone body, "That, Thor, I do not know . . . "
The cannon-fire hurried being expelled from the Avengers Compound was nothing more than a gentle summer shower as it dashed harmlessly against Vyer's cold ebony armor. His speed continuing unabated, the avatar crashed headlong into the steel and concrete-reinforced A-frame of a building, battering his way through floor after floor of machinery and living quarters and until he ceased his descent in a long, plain hallway.
The Voice of Pain reached out his senses, sending his fathomless mind free to search for the unmistakable energy signature of the Reality Gem. For moments, his consciousness roamed the corridors of the broken Avengers Headquarters, looking on the crippled bodies of the civilian government agents he had inadvertently slain while entering. Vyer's roving eye paused momentarily on the unconscious, bruised form of the Eternal Sersi, her impressive powers still as nothing compared to those of the Son of Pain. Briefly, he considered snuffing out what remained of her life, before deciding against the waste of effort and sending his senses probing onward still.
Halls bathed in crimson emergency lights now he wandered down, and his mind glimpsed dozens of heroes running about wildly, some rushing towards fallen comrades, others trying to find the intruder and end his existence. They were insects, not worthy of his notice or concern. The mightiest among them could not hope to harm him, much less truly interfere in his objectives.
At last, Vyer detected the telltale sign of what he sought, just as an armored form rounded the distant bend at the end of the hall. His metallic second skin coated in the scarlet of the throbbing lights, he raised a gauntleted hand and from his aegis-laden wrist a small, dual-barreled cannon extracted itself.
The hero spoke to himself first, notifying his comrades that he had located the interloper, "This War Machine to anyone who's listening. I've cornered Vyer on level 2-Gamma, sub-section R. Will engage long enough for back-up to arrive."
As if Iron Man's contemporary was not there, the Voice of Pain began to stalk forward, knowing well the fastest way to gain access to the lower levels of the structure. Making use of pre-existing modes of transportation would now be far swifter than smashing down through dozens of meters of vibranium-laced bunker.
"Hold it right there!" War Machine shouted, his voice amplified ten-fold through his helmet, "You're not going any farther!"
Vyer's pace did not slacken, his expression not changing as he came within several yards of his insignificant enemy.
Fire flashed from the barrel of the armored warrior's cannon as it spat out hundreds of shells at the obsidian form still stalking forward. Bouncing harmlessly off ebony aegis, the casing rattled to the floor and steamed, as if full of rage that they had not been capable of slaying their target.
"Dammit." Rhodes said tensely as he began slowly backing away from the Voice's still-advancing figure, two heavy energy cannons swing up and over his shoulders. War Machine raised his palms, repulsor-covers sliding away, and released a four-way energy barrage onto the silent form of his implacable foe.
Vyer did not truly feel the impacts of the heated beams as they slammed into his body; it was as if another person was being attacked, and he only watched from some distant post. There was only the cold, the cold everywhere, and the incessant whispering of Eyalus in his ears, a voice he could not deny.
The avatar's pace quickened slightly and reached War Machine, batting him into the wall with a simple backhand as he turned the corner. Jim Rhodes careened into the side of the corridor as if hit by a charging train. Slowly he slid to the ground limply, the entire right side of his helmet crushed and torn, revealing a terribly wounded face within.
Eyalus' minion had no concern for War Machine's fate, his eyes instead immediately focusing on the elevator shaft only scant meters away. Only after spying his target did Vyer notice the presence of three more enemies, all-weak and insignificant. One carried a blazing sword and was dressed in some bastardization of Medieval knight armor. Another, a woman, had crimson skin and her entire body crackled with energy. The final opponent, yet again female, seemed ordinary, but the Voice of Pain sensed her Inhuman genes, and judged them too to be harmless as well.
He continued on, the pace consistent, as the modern-day knight shouted, pointing his energy blade, "For the Avengers! Take him down!"
"Crystal and I've got 'I'm, Dane." the energy-woman said as he unleashed a blast of stellar power from her hands as she slowly approached the cold, dark figure. Her assault was soon joined by shards of jagged ice hailing down from some unknown location. Their frigidity was as nothing compared to the black abyss that the Voice of Pain constantly dwelt within.
"Press him hard, Binary!" Crystal said, too carefully pressing her attack, "We've seen how powerful he is! We can't afford to let him get past us!"
Vyer's booted steps landed hard on the ground as he single-mindedly strode for the mechanical doubledoors. The two heroines began a reluctant and cautious retreat as they saw their attacks having no effect. The intensity of there shared barrage increased, but it was still nothing, a light breeze scrambling to topple an ancient oak.
"We can't let him get near Warlock!" the Black Knight shouted as he charged forward, skillfully avoiding the streams of energy, raising his glowing weapon high. The blade swiped down onto Vyer's frozen armor, and its energy crackled and died the moment it touched the cold ebony.
Panic crossed over the Avenger's features as the Voice of Pain's fingers reached up and clenched themselves into warm, weak flesh. Still stalking forward, with but his left hand Vyer lifted Dane Whitman from his feet and hurled him headlong into the nearest wall, upon which he impacted with a sickening crunch. His neck bent at an odd, grisly angle, the Black Knight slid to the ground and was still.
"Oh my God . . . "Crystal said, her attack ceasing as she looked with horror at Whitman's broken body, her hand going to her mouth.
Binary's teeth clenched and she snarled at the black beast as she surged forward, hands balled into fists, "Butcher!"
A freezing beam of force erupted from Vyer's left eye as he came within a foot of the elevator door. It struck a glancing blow off Binary's face, knocking her head aside and sending her body crashing to the ground, obviously unconscious . . . or far worse.
The Voice of Pain did not favor Crystal with a glance as he forced upon the steel doors, and took psionic control of the elevator. In seconds, he was gone, leaving the Inhuman Avenger alone in the hallway littered in carnage. Tears streaming down her cheeks as she remembered the monster who had stood before her only moments ago, and then looking at Binary and Dane, she stumbled backward and slowly slid down the wall, taking her eyes away from the horrible sights.
In the blank whiteness of the Dimension of Manifestations, there existed four beings of incalculable, infinite power. To mere men such towering entities would have seemed utterly equal in their great might, but to those more acquainted with the highest echelons of existence, it was evident that the golden one who dwelt in the center of the three far outstripped their own eminence. Truly, infinity was limitless, but that gleaming judge's infinite might was bounds above the omnipotence wielded by the remaining trinity.
And there appeared, without fanfare or grand song, a creature that existed between these two planes of infinite ability. Equal to the combined three he was, yet far would he have to reach in order to comprehend the eminence of the high judge. Nevertheless, he did not shrink before the star-blast eyes as he strode forward, earning glares of disdain and concealed jealousy from the trinity he considered as a whole his equal.
Eternity nearly sneered at the new arrival, "Returned from your errand at last, Thanos. What do you have to report to us?"
The Titan appeared to pay no attention to the words of the universe embodied, instead focusing himself on the megalithic Living Tribunal, who towered above the others, even seated as he was upon his throne of judgment, "I do not report to my subordinates, Eternity, only the singular entity in the Omniverse who is my superior." He looked up into those blazing orbs, but did not flinch away or feel inspiring awe, as most would; he knew the divine judge for what he truly was.
"Wylig's forces have begun to congregate in the vicinity of the Nexus of Realities. During my short observation, I counted among their number Eyalus, the Shaper of Worlds, the Time Keepers, and Charnel. It appears their plan is nearing its completion."
The Living Tribunal's voice was as thunder in the hollow, empty dimension, "AND ARE YOU AWARE OF WHAT THIS PLAN IS, CLOSED CIRCLE? HAVE YOUR LENGTHY OBSERVATIONS OF WYLIG AND HIS MINIONS REVEALED HIS INTENTIONS TO YOU?"
Uncertainty touched the Titan's thoughts for a moment as he formed the reply within his head. As before, the risk of lying to such a being was more than dangerous. Though the Tribunal's omniscience had been severely weakened by the growing chaos spreading throughout the myriad multiverse's, Thanos was not aware of exactly how much the great judge was still capable of discerning. Nevertheless, he pushed on, revealing part of what he knew, yet far from all of it.
"I am, Tribunal. The words and veiled references of the Dark Watcher proved more than enlightening, when taken as a whole."
"Only words, Titan?" the Devourer of Worlds said accusingly, "I would have considered one as deceptive as you to have focused on Wylig's thoughts, and not his idle mouthing."
Thanos smiled wryly, as he fixed his own silver gaze on Galactus, "Again it is demonstrated how little you cosmic entities know of warfare, even unspoken as it is. The renegade Watcher is crafty, World Killer, by far one of the most cunning foes I have faced. It was not worth the risk of him detecting my mental intrusion when his words sufficed to inform me of what his machinations shall lead to."
Galactus' glare was cold, but he did not reply.
"THE INTERVENTION OF WARLOCK AND HARQABE HAS FAILED, THEN. WYLIG'S SCHEME IS NEARLY ENDED. IF ACTION IS NOT TAKEN SOON, THE RECONSTITUTION AND AWAKENING WILL BE UNDERTAKEN AND COMPLETED SUCCESSFULLY."
"If you do not wish this creature to be unleashed upon the Omniverse once again, Tribunal, I would suggest acting personally, and with haste. Wylig awaits only the arrival of Vyer and the Reality Gem to begin the final stage of his plan."
The divine judge was silent for a moment, as if his unfathomable intellect was selecting a course of action, actually thinking and considering what to do. His answer was like a clap of thunder, falling heavy upon the dry earth, "NO."
"No?" Thanos repeated, with obvious disbelief.
"I HAVE RE-EVALUATED THE SITUATION AND DETERMINED A NEW COURSE OF ACTION. THE AWAKENING WILL BE ALLOWED TO BE COMPLETED. THE BEAST WHICH WILL BE SUMMONED WAS ONCE MY EQUAL IN ALL WAYS, BUT NOW WITH THE ADDITION OF YOUR POWER, CLOSED CIRCLE, HE IS NO LONGER. I WILL DESTROY HIM FOR ALL TIME, AND THEN PASS JUDGMENT ON THOSE BEINGS WHO DARED DEFY DIVINE LAW."
"There is only one punishment for the Reconstitution of the Living Tribunal's Antithesis . . . " Galactus said grimly, with perhaps even a touch of all-too human sadness in his voice, "Purging from the Omniversal Template. They will be erased from the memories of all beings within the Omniverse save that of the Tribunal's. All their actions will be nullified. It will be as if Wylig and his minions had never existed."
"Fitting punishment for those who dared slay my own meditations. And more than fitting for the Lord of Pain . . . " Eternity said with vehemence, his half-moon face contorting with anger.
Thanos' brow arched, "Of this punishment I was not aware. It seems the Tribunal has deigned to share knowledge with yon Trinity that he has not imparted to myself . . . "
"So it should be, Titan." the universal embodiment said, "We comprise all reality, are integral to its survival. You are but an extraneous element, 'leader of the cosmic army,' created to serve in the very crisis which now looms before us. You are nothing more than a henchman, Thanos, and one I still cannot truly fathom the purpose for, aside from providing the Living Tribunal with more excess power in the event the Antithesis would rise again."
"You illuminate the very reason for my existence with your ignorant words, Eternity." the Closed Circle snapped back, his patience with the entity obviously nearing its end, "Most of the cosmic hierarchy is content, apathetic, having served so long in their respective posts that they no longer possess any ambition. When a force comes along which seeks to topple them from their perches, such as myself, you are so slow to move and unversed in the ways of combat that you fall easily. I, on the other hand, was not born a cosmic being, but a mortal, and strove to gain the might I now possess. I will hold tight to my position, and am well-acquainted in the ways of war. That makes me stronger than you, and a fitting leader."
"Stronger, Thanos?" Galactus questioned, for perhaps he was slightly intrigued by this line of discourse, "In what way?"
The Titan smiled widely, but it was not a warm expression, "You all are might with your cosmic energies, but remove them and what are you? You are nothing - nothing without your power. Remove my energies, however, and I remain Thanos of Titan, still a force to be feared throughout the Omniverse. I am more than any of you, with the possible exception of you, Devourer, who too was once a man, long ago."
"HIS WORDS ARE TRUE, CELESTIAL TRINITY." His burning sockets peered down on the Titan, "NOW, CLOSED CIRCLE, IT IS TIME TO FULFILL THE SECOND PART OF YOUR DIVINE PURPOSE. GO FORTH AND GATHER THOSE COSMIC ENTITIES WHO HAVE NOT YET JOINED WYLIG INTO AN ARMY OF THEIR OWN."
Thanos' brow raised in suspicion, "You do not believe you will be successfully passing judgment on the Dark Watcher's forces?"
"THEY MAY PROVE AN OBSTRUCTION DURING MY CONFRONTATION WITH THE ANTITHESIS. IF THEY DO, YOU WILL ELIMINATE THE OBSTRUCTION SO THAT THE MORE IMPORTANT TASK CAN BE CARRIED OUT."
The Titan barely inclined his head toward the being who towered above his powers by countless planes, "Understood."
Galactus spoke solemnly, "An unknown party recently gained access to my Worldship and siphoned off a great deal of its power, much the same as Korvac once did. In the process this entity gravely injured my herald, thereby impairing his ability to suitably protect the Silver Surfer." His tone was blatantly suspicious, "Do you have any information on who this being may be? He must be located quickly; any entity possessing such power cannot be allowed to freely run amok."
Thanos sneered, "None of us are omniscient or omnipresent any longer, World Killer. I do not know who robbed your vessel of its power, nor do I care. Even if this entity allies himself with Wylig, his power is not great enough to be a deciding factor. The issue can be dealt with once the Dark Watcher has been subdued."
The World Devourer's gaze was cold, his eyes dark marbles. The visages of Eternity and Death were likewise harsh.
Beginning to stride from the gathering, the Closed Circle craned his head about and questioned the Living Tribunal a final time, "What of the Stranger? Surely I would have been made aware had he returned."
"HE HAS NOT, CLOSED CIRCLE. THE COURSE OF ACTION MY SIBLING WILL DECIDE UPON, IF ANY, WILL REMAIN UNKNOWN FOR SOME TIME LONGER. THUS IS THE NEED FOR A RESERVE CORPS OF BEINGS FURTHER REINFORCED. GO NOW, CLOSED CIRCLE; TIME CAN NO LONGER BE WASTED WITH IDLE TALK."
Thanos favored the judge with a curt nod before again turning, and with only a few more steps, he was gone from the Dimension of Manifestations.
"I still do not trust him, Eminence." Eternity said, his single eye still focused on the spot the Titan had formerly occupied, "There is no telling how much he learned in his observations, nor which side he shall support if matters worsen."
"HE KNOWS ALL THAT YOU DO, ETERNITY, FOR THAT IS ALL THERE IS TO KNOW. THE FIFTH HOST'S MISSION TO EVOLVE HUMANITY INTO ITS FINAL DIVINE STATE SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN INTERRUPTED, AND THE MISSION WYLIG HAS EMBARKED UPON TO ELIMINATE ME AND MOVE ON WITH HIS OWN PLANS FOR MAN MUST BE HALTED. HIS LOYALTY IS ASSURED BECAUSE HE BELIEVES HE WAS BORN FOR THE ROLE HE OCCUPIES, NOT MERELY THE FINAL VICTOR IN A CONTEST OF MORTALS WHICH HAS EXISTED SINCE THE DAWN OF THIS AEON. NOW FALL SILENT, ETERNITY; I REQUIRE SILENCE TO FOCUS MY ENERGIES FOR THE CONFRONTATION WITH MY ANTITHESIS."
And though he would not have done so at the behest of any other, the universal embodiment did indeed fall silent, and realm was again deafeningly, maddeningly quiet.
The emergency sirens blared loudly in the war room as it sat bathed in crimson, but the noise was distant to the ears of Adam Warlock. He remained composed as he gripped the Reality Gem firmly in his fist, felt the temptation to use its power, and quickly suppressed it. The risk of further rupturing the fabric of reality in such trying times was not worth the risk. The Soul Gem had proven a formidable weapon against Vyer in the past, and it would serve to do so again.
Gamora's body tensed as she listened to the tell-tale sound of the elevator speeding down its narrow shaft, soon to be landing only meters away from the conference room. She shot a glance over at her comrade, searched for emotion in his face, and saw none. Since her brief talk with him in that same chamber days before, they had spoken little, his presence causing dis-ease in the emerald warrior where they had only been warm hope before. He no longer seemed the same person to her, and Gamora's was inescapably smaller because of this new perspective.
Warlock did not return her gaze.
"Are you ready?" Eros asked, also casting the golden hero a quick glance before moving his eyes back to the door.
The High Evolutionary's prodigal son did not reply.
"How about you, Vision? Do we stand a chance?"
The android's response was nearly immediate, "Considering the power Vyer has previously manifested, I am unfortunately forced to say 'no.' However, the addition of Warlock's Soul Gem to our armaments will possibly give us an advantage."
Starfox nodded weakly, even as he heard the sound of the elevator car landing lightly on the bottom of the shaft. The Titanian Eternal breathed deeply as the door slid open with the typical artificial hiss, and booted footsteps soon resounded heavily upon the floor. In the shadow of the doorway there soon manifested a far darker, far more menacing ebon shape, one in the form of a mockery of man.
Gamora slowly drew a knife from her metal belt, never looking as she checked the edge of the wicked blade, her eyes and thoughts concentrated wholly on the Voice of Pain. The monster's strides carrying him forward a methodical pace, and as he came from the blackness of shadow and was bathed in the scarlet light, the Voice of Pain appeared even more to be a demon spawned from the very depths of Hell.
His face intense, Eros leapt from the ground and barreled toward his enemy, even as a searing bolt of force fired from the Vision's solar gem. The orange beam was extinguished as it hit the raven aegis, as too was the assault Starfox had launched on Vyer's pleasure centers. The Titan's mind recoiled at the dark consciousness he touched, and as he landed upon the ground, his blow did not possess the power he had hoped it would.
The avatar did not flinch as Eros' fist impacted upon his chest; his dark blue eye still staring forward, his own clenched hand slammed into Starfox's countenance, taking the hero off his feet, and sending him skidding backwards across the floor.
The Vision floated forward, increasing the intensity of his attack, but did not dodge quickly enough to avoid the hellish spear of dark power that tore his android body in half, and hurled the pieces across the chamber.
"Help us Warlock!" the Eternal shouted as he got to his feet, wiping the deep crimson gushing from his mouth. He flew forward again, only to be knocked from the air by a blast of energy from the Voice of Pain's dead eyes. Eros landed hard, denting the steel plates, and was still.
"Warlock!" Gamora shouted as Vyer loomed ever closer.
The hero seemed oblivious to her words at first, seemed to be in another world, utterly detached from the suffering and defeat surrounding him. And then Adam Warlock felt again the steady beat of the Reality Gem within his grasp, and he appeared to re-awaken to the world around him. Spiritual force erupted from the Soul Gem perched upon his brow, burrowing directly into Vyer's forehead.
The Voice of Pain faltered, his steps losing their methodical pace, as the glacial ice crystallized around his mind began to thaw before the beam of the jade jewel. Yet he pushed on, pushed closer despite the pain which quickly sprung up to wrack his body, the cloaked figure of Adam Warlock drawing nearer with every weak stride he took.
Warlock's feature's contorted with strain as he felt a thin rail of power tear deeper and deeper into Vyer's addled mind. Vaguely the golden schemer felt memories rise up and take hold of the avatar once again, dislodged from their prisons by the purifying bolt of spiritual energy.
"End this, Nathan Dayspring Summers!" he suddenly shouted out to the Voice of Pain, "Re-take the body and mind that is rightfully yours! Fight Eyalus' influence!"
Vyer's teeth gnashed as he drew closer, his fingers curling to frozen claws as the war raged within his mind. He felt warmth now, radiant, true warmth that he could barely remember. The previous assault by the Soul Gem had been nothing compared to this, an illusion compared to this new reality.
Warlock felt the alien structures, the prisons, chains, and shackles with had so held sway over the Voice's mind begin to give way beneath his attack. The cleansing beam tore away the cold ice of the Lord of Pain's influence, which had grown during his dominion, and revealed the truth, which lay beneath.
The artificial hero pushed further, past the re-emerging consciousness of the Summers clone, pushed his attack into the frozen, night-black corridor in the back of Vyer's mind. Warlock sought to do more than free the Voice of Pain from his master's malevolent influence; he sought to destroy the master himself.
Warlock's siege of the mental passageway linking Eyalus and his avatar continued unabated for several moments, and Vyer's steps grew to a crawl that threatened to stop, his features growing ever more haggard. And then came the backlash, the roaring torrent of horrid power that flowed so freely from the being of the Lord of Pain, beating back the golden hero's attack.
Adam Warlock's own mind threatened to explode before the vigor of Eyalus' counter-attack, tears springing to his eyes as he valiantly fought to keep from being destroyed by the silver entity's incalculable power. Gamora saw the sudden strain put upon her distant comrade, saw the staggering Vyer beginning to re-gain his strength even as Warlock began to falter.
The woman warrior hurled herself at the ebon demon, her knife flashing down upon the exposed flesh of Vyer's mouth as she descended upon him. Dark blue ichor flowed from the wounds like rivers, and the Voice of Pain growled at the attack, feeling the vaguely remembered sensation of physical pain. Still dizzied by the combat being waged within his very consciousness, the beleaguered avatar's fist swung out at his attack, but without the amazing speed he normally demonstrated. With ease Gamora dodged, ducking below the missed blow, and delivered a deadly kick to her enemy's mid-section, useless against the cosmically enchanted aegis Vyer wore.
Pain shooting up her leg, Gamora limped backward, re-formulating her strategy. A quick glance revealed Warlock to be nearing defeat, his eyes shut with the intense effort to continue his failing attack upon Vyer. She imagined he clung to the hope that he would free the Voice before succumbing to the Lord's attack, for Warlock would not take such a risk of self-destruction without great potential gain.
The moment of inattention was a costly one for Gamora; as her head turned to face her enemy, she caught a glimpse of an eye alight with re-born hatred as she felt a heavy impact upon her chest. Smelling her own flesh beginning to char even as she toppled to the ground, Gamora landed hard upon the floor, feeling the lifeblood flowing freely from her.
Warlock's gaze shifted to the fallen form of his comrade, the beam of energy ceasing from the Soul Gem. A look passed between them, between the cold eyes of Warlock and the clouding eyes of Gamora, and for a moment mutual understanding seemed to dawn upon them both, before the golden hero too toppled to the cold steel, a fresh wound steaming from his chest.
A burst of energy surged from the Soul Gem, reached out to Gamora, and when it had abated she was without life or motion. The jewel crackled with power as Warlock looked up through broken vision at the man towering over him. And then it was all gone, lost in a flash of crimson and emerald.
Rivulets of sweat dripped down across Stephen Strange's sharp features as the slowly rising sun renewed the brutal heat which so often abounded in the Florida Everglades. Yet it was far more than the returning temperature which caused the Sorcerer Supreme to perspire; it was the strain of weaving such an intricate spell of protection without the formidable aid of the Vishanti, that trio of mystical beings he had for so long depended upon for support. Gone were they, now, cut off from their servant by the all-encompassing ruling of the Living Tribunal, one of the few beings even the Vishanti dared no disobey. And so, despite his disadvantage, Doctor Strange pressed on, duty surmounting the weariness he felt now in his bones, the near-madness caused by sitting motionless beside a fetid bog for hours on end.
Leaning 'gainst a twisted tree, several feet back from the quiescent magician, the Incredible Hulk looked on in silence. His concern for the small man was evident despite the wall of ill-tempered bluster he had erected around himself in recent times. He heard the heavy footfalls approached from behind, and he turned to look upon the intruder with his usual penetrating stare.
"Does the Doctor do well, Hulk?" asked the God of Thunder, his eyes too looked on the form of the Sorcerer Supreme with naked concern as he stopped beside the massive behemoth, "He has not moved in hours, nor shown any sign of life."
"I'm not sure, Thor, but he's probably fine. This gateway to the Nexus 'll probably be sealed up so enough. And that reminds me, since when is this place the gateway to the Nexus of Realities? I thought it was the Nexus of Realities . . . "
Thor shook his maned headed, "Nay, friend Hulk. How anyone ever came to think of this slowly swamp as the Nexus of All Realities I shan't ever fathom. Perhaps a misunderstanding, or perhaps careful subterfuge; I cannot truly say."
"Yeah, well, I guess it doesn't really matter . . . As long as the Doc's spell works and Vyer doesn't gain entrance, we'll all be fine. I wonder how they did back at Headquarters . . . Vyer hasn't been back yet."
"The Avengers fought well, for they would do little else. Mayhap we will not even have to deal with that dark foe 'gain, for perhaps our comrades have succeeded in ending his terror."
The Hulk nodded, "Let's hope so . . . " His emerald brow furrowed as the Goliath looked off into the darkened Woods, and seemed to catch sight of a nebulous shape, perhaps even the form of a man, "Is that . . . ?"
Light flashed out from amidst the blackness of nature's cloak, and rammed into the Hulk chest. Steam rising from the festering wound, Banner staggered backward from the impact, and fell upon the tree he had formerly been leaning upon. With a cracking of aged would the great leaved giant toppled beneath the great jade giant, and both landed loudly upon the damp earth.
"Coward!" shouted the Thunderer as Mjolnir blazed to life and let loose a shower of elemental lightning upon the area where the assault had sprang from, "Come and fight in the light of day, where you shall face the son of Odin and his comrades on equal footing! To me, my allies! The Deviants launch a final desperate attack on us! Doctor Strange must be protected!"
"We'll take care of it, Thor." Thunderstrike replied as he and Red Norvell rushed past the true Thunder God, and took up guarding positions around the still-unmoving figure of the Sorcerer Supreme, "We'll leave these losers to you!" Masterson caught sight of Namor heading toward the darkened trees, and beckoned to him. Reluctantly the Sub-Mariner broke off and moved to join the two false gods in guard service.
"Aye!" shouted the Thunderer in response as he charged for the now burning Woods, bolts of force still flying with frenzy from his mystic mallet, "For Asgard!"
Cruel laughter floated from the attacker's hiding place; he had not moved an inch, despite the great power which had been showered down upon him, "The Golden Realm is dead, Thor! As you soon shall be!"
"Nay!" Thor roared in reply as he threw himself headlong at his towering opponent, sending them both to the ground. He raised Mjolnir high in the air and brought it down repeatedly upon his enemy's face and chest, "Death to you, Tantalus! Death to you and all you seek!"
Tantalus' fist hurtled up to strike a mighty blow against Thor's visage, but it did nothing to stymie the Thunder God's frantic attack. Again and again did re-forged Mjolnir fall, drenching the Deviant's snarl in a bath of his own ichor, as the Black Celestial's minion sought to stem the tide of deadly blows which fractured his defenses.
The fanatic fire in his eyes, the thought of broken Asgard in his thoughts, Odin's child did not notice two robed shapes rising up on both his sides, did not notice as their long fingers crackled with mounting power.
With a flash, the Thunderer was thrown from his enemy, meters away into the ground, his body smoking with the power of the blast.
Khult extended a hand and helped lift Tantalus to his feet. The adopted Armechadian's features were broken, deep gashes and cuts covering his face with their flowing scion, but his voice and bearing were unaffected by the beating he had received, "We must get to Strange quickly. Vyer will be arrived soon."
"Good!" shouted the Prince of Power as he struck a thunderous blow on the back of Ghaur's head, pitching the Lemurian forward, "The Lion of Olympus shall deal him a great defeat as well, then!"
"You cannot stop the inevitable." Khult said as he raised his hand to fire upon the Olympian, only to be stymied as twin repulsor-blasts seared into his chest. The astronomer moved back but a step, as a towering shape rose up behind him, and a massive green fist crashed into the top of his head. So strong was the assailant that though the Deviant remained consciousness, he was driven up to his very waist in the ground, where a quick kick of the giant's foot rendered him insensate.
The Hulk smiled widely, "Who's next?"
Tantalus knocked Iron Man yards away into the distant forest, his impact bringing the sound of breaking tree trunks, followed by the noise of those slumbering giants falling to the moist earth. He began to advance on the jade hero, before a thick arm wrapped around his throat from behind, and Hercules' bearded, grinning face rose up behind the Deviant's shoulders.
"I shall hold him still, Hulk!" the Lion shouted, obviously straining to keep his hold on Tantalus from faltering, "You strike the final blow!"
Energy washed across Doctor Banner from his left as he started forward, the flow of power coming from the hands of the Priest-Lord. A golden hammer flashed into his face and his assault was ended, Ghaur's body falling limply to the ground even as the mystic weapon returned to Beta Ray Bill's hand.
The Hulk's fist was swift as it swept out to shatter Tantalus' ribs, yet somehow the tall Deviant swung his body about, forcing the blow to land on the right side of Hercules' own rib-cage. The Lion grimaced and his grip slipped, as Tantalus heaved his wracked body onto the startled Banner.
"I have heard your words, varlet!" shouted the Thunder God as he charged back into the fray, "Vyer shall return! What has happened to my fellow Avengers!"
Even as Thor's mighty fist knocked his head to the side, Tantalus still managed to reply, arrogance and mad anger in his voice, "Dead, Godling, dead! The Voice has killed them all, even as I shall kill you now!"
The Armechadian's back-fist was viscous, drawing blood even from the lips of the Asgardian. Yet Thor fought back with feral rage, all the hate, all the anger, all the pain he had repressed since the destruction of his homeland pouring through his fists, pouring through his hammer. Where before in Lemuria it had taken both the Thunderer and Beta Ray Bill to stand against Tantalus, now Thor alone battled the monstrous Deviant on equal footing.
Sensing the nature of the conflict, the horse-faced warrior warned the others back from the combat, saying to them, "To not intervene in this, for this is a battle that Thor must fight alone. He edges dangerously close to the Warrior's Madness, and it would benefit us all not to be too near him if he becomes truly enraged."
All the heroes save Iron Man seemed sincerely disappointed by the prospect of no longer plying their strength against such a formidable foe, but they listened well to Bill's words. Even the Hulk was taken aback at the sheer power of Thor's blows, making the sound of thunder as they cracked against Tantalus' tough hide. And his eyes . . . his eyes were devoid of the humanity he had learned in all his years on Earth. In the broken and burning forest, there was only an Asgardian warrior and his enemy; no mere man fought in those heated moments.
The Deviant's leg buckled partially as Mjolnir fell with true potency on his shoulder, and Thor drove down with even greater fury now, feeling victory to be his. Thought fled from the god's mind and his strength grew and grew, until his attacks shook the very ground itself like infant earthquakes. Yet still Tantalus refused to fall, no longer counter-attacking but only defending, his stance failing with every further assault landed upon him.
Thor raised Mjolnir high and its Rhinegold veins pulsed with life, lightning radiating out in all directions, "I say thee fall!"
With a tremendous gale born from the pure force of the blow and a roaring crack, the hammer landed upon Tantalus' forehead, driving him to the ground. The Madness clearing from his eyes, the warrior looked down at his defeated foe, saw the blood pouring from the countless wounds that had been afflicted upon him. For a moment fear touched Thor, fear that he had slain his enemy, but it faded as he spied the sparse rise and fall of the Deviant's chest.
The Thunder God wiped his brow, and as he felt crushing fatigue assail his body, whispered, "'Tis finally ended . . . "
"Yes, Thor, it is." said a cold voice flecked with repressed hate.
Heads turned to see an ebony shape hovering in the sky. Before they could smite the intruder his arm rose and unleashed a blast of power so raw that it screeched as it burned through the air and struck Thor where he stood.
His body already weakened to exhaustion by the battle against Tantalus, the Thunder God could do naught but be born into the ground by the viscous assault and lay still, and mimicking the very foe he had only moments before defeated.
Vyer landed swiftly on the ground, and began stalking toward the prone form of the Silver Surfer, still propped unconscious against a tree. Hercules and the Hulk attacked as one, their blows filled with rage, but they were matchsticks in the wind. The Voice of Pain's lips curled as he brutal rammed his fist into Banner's face, drawing a spray of blood and the distinct sound of cracking bone. The Hulk sank to the ground and did not rise again, as Vyer back-handed the Lion of Olympus through the forest, to land seconds later nearly a mile away, and far from capable of continuing the conflict.
He continued on and hoisted up the Silver Surfer as lances of repulsor energy fell upon him like gentle ran. Vyer's clouded eye flashing, he turned to face Iron Man and knocked him from the air with a bolt of force. The condition of his foe not a concern, the Voice of Pain trekked forward, toward the still motionless body of Doctor Strange, and his trio of guardians.
Namor fell first, no more than one foot put forward before being burned into the ground. Vyer continued his advance, his hand still out-held and charging to smite the two false gods before assailing the Sorcerer Supreme.
"We shall strike as one!" came a shout from the air, Beta Ray Bill whirling Storm Breaker high above his head. And as one they did strike, the three wielders of Asgard weapons hurling those Uru implements at once at Vyer.
The sound was mystic thunder as few times had been heard before, but the Voice's pace did not falter. His teeth bared, Vyer cut down Thunderstrike and Red Norvell with a sweep of unfocused energy, before knocking the horse-faced warrior from the sky with the same assault.
The Son of Pain strode up to Strange's side and without stopping knocked him to the ground with an absent blow, before focusing on the energy sequence necessary to open the cosmic gateway. He sensed the strands of enchanted force surrounding the entrance to the Nexus, an enchanted barrier nearly-completed. With relish he tore them away, and willed the pathway alive once again.
Divine light flashed golden in the rising sunlight, and Vyer strode over the waters, the murk not touching his ebony-booted feet, and was gone, he and the gateway disappearing with an all-too similar flash.
"The majority of your machinations were based on chance . . . " Chthon said with more than slight mix of wonder and confounding.
"Not chance, Elder God." replied Wylig, as he surveyed his growing forces gathered 'round the roiling Nexus of Realities, "My scheme, hatched so many millions of years ago, was based upon the assumption that the Living Tribunal would not eliminate us immediately, so as to lure out those few potential dissidents and act against them in the open."
Chthon looked about the stormy space, still wracked by the cosmic storms born of the upheaval, which raged in the Omniverse entire. The In-Betweener, the Enchanters, Magnir, Brona, and Enrakt, the Shaper of Worlds, and so many others, "And now we are here. He has freedom to destroy us all now, without suspicion from any other entities."
"No." the Dark Watcher disagreed bluntly, his mind obviously far from totally focused upon the situation, "What we are soon to embark upon is the greatest sin that can be committed within the Omniverse, the revival of the Tribunal's Antithesis, that arrogant and self-motivated creature which fractured the Tetragrammaton during the Prime Divergence in the Omniverse's earliest Aeon. For such an action, if it is truly attempted, there can be only one punishment: erasure from the Omniversal Template. Everyone who dared act against the Tribunal's authority will be remembered by none save himself."
The Elder God's crimson eyes grew distant as he contemplated the possible ramifications, "It will truly be as if none of us ever existed . . . And without any beings to remember us, there will no doubts that the way of the Fifth Host, and their secret master, was the right course."
Wylig nodded as he eyed the recently re-constituted Tyrant warily. The creature was powerful, yet so filled with mindless hatred. He would be an unpredictable factor in the days to come, and possibly a dangerous one, for both sides.
"You see the truth of things, Chthon. Few would dare pilfer from the mind of The One, and had it not been for my own bitterness I too would not have. Without us to break the lies of the Living Tribunal, no one will stand against his secret enslavement of Mankind through the Fifth Host's forced evolution, for none will know what Humanity is destined to become, and none will know there is such a grievous crime being committed. This small group is all that stands between the Tribunal and his goal, and if things go poorly we shall be the last group that ever stands against him, for if Humanity reaches the Godhead while under the influence of the Celestials, the golden judge shall truly be the ultimate power in all the Omniverse. He will be lord of all, and servant to none."
The Elder God seemed utterly enthralled, for few times in his long existence had he chanced to meet an entity as wise and well-informed as he was, "And this . . . all this you learned from the thoughts of The One? How could the repository of the Watchers be aware of such a great deal? Even they surely were not permitted access to the Tribunal's private thoughts, did not exist in the first Aeon to witness the Prime Divergence."
"The One carries far more than the accumulated knowledge of this Aeon’s Watchers; he carries in his mind the observations of all the previous Omniverses' Watchers, transmitted to this Aeon by the Time Keepers. But more than that, in the early days of each Aeon the Tribunal contacts The One to be re-acquainted with all the events of the previous epochs, for the contraction of the Omniverse is a traumatic experience even for one such as he. Yet as a part of his duty, his service to the Divine Remnant and the Omniverse, he is forced to endure, for he is the keeper of this and all other spheres of being."
Chthon fell silent as he again considered the ramifications of what the renegade Watcher had stated with so much ease and nonchalance. He had thought his knowledge of the Omniverse's order to be nearly complete, yet now he found it to be sorely lacking. This thought both rankled and hungered the twisted Elder God; eagerly he would seek to expand his stores of information. The Demiurge had imparted to him and all the other Elder Gods the secret knowledge of Humanity's potential, and he had thought himself lucky to be privy to such a awesome and important secret. Yet now that single secret seemed a paltry lot, when compared to the other vast stores of knowledge that Wylig had gleaned from The One. Even that single bit the Demiurge had fed him had come from the mouth of the renegade Watcher, for it had been he who informed the Earth's sentient biosphere of the great potential which would be born from that very same planet.
The Dark Watcher was not concerned with the Elder God at his side. He saw the creature not as evil, but a necessary evil. Without him and the beings like him, the Living Tribunal's victory was inevitable. To Wylig there was not the normal "black" and "white" perceived by many mortals, only eternal "grey." Good he sometimes considered to merely be a perception of selflessness, and evil a perception of selfishness, and as such, in those moments of quiet introspection he re-assessed himself, and the renegade observer declared himself to be "good."
And in that space of time he also knew his foe to be truest form of "evil," for what was worse than purity rotting to wickedness?
Coolly he looked over his burgeoning army, saw Ego the Living Planet, saw Terminus and his Cyclopteans, saw the Other, and saw their power. It would not be enough, not without the addition of the Deviants. Even then, . . . doubts plagued the Dark Watcher.
With ease the Closed Circle could, and would, muster an army at least twice the size of the one he perused. That army would count among its members not only the Closed Circle himself, but his constituents, the Celestial Trinity. True, Eyalus' immense power, his birthright, would serve to somewhat temper the Tribunal's advantage, but it was tenuous temperance. Certainty was not what Wylig possessed, only conjecture. Yet he conjectured with a wise mind, for did he not know the past well, perhaps better than only a handful of entities? The renegade had always believed the past to be the architect of the future, and if one could understand the past, so too could he accurately predict the future.
He prayed to a dead God, a God caught between being and non-being, that his belief, his assumption, was correct.
Wylig knew Chthon was speaking again, asking questions like a child, but those words fell upon the ears of other. The Dark Watcher remained lost in thought, freely following his mind down whatever avenues it chose to pursue.
He considered Thanos of Titan, leader of the forces he would soon clash with . . . or would the Titan lead at all? The past had taught Wylig many things, and he had observed and studied Thanos' past carefully since his re-awakening. The renegade found a being much like himself, an opponent to be respected. The Closed Circle would be a formidable foe on the field of battle, should he choose to fight. Schemers and tacticians both were they, but Wylig was confident that he would prove victorious, should their minds finally come to war. Though the two were unparalleled manipulators, weaving unimaginably complex schemes, the Dark Watcher possessed the only advantage he could: knowledge.
Wylig knew Thanos as well as the Titan knew himself, knew the history of all the Omniverse's Aeons better than any save The One - and these were two advantages that Thanos could not counter, for Wylig remained unknown, nebulous and enigmatic. Surely all the Closed Circle knew of the Dark Watcher had been the scraps doled out by the Living Tribunal, and those scraps were conceivably quite sparse, for it was quite obvious the Tribunal did not desire the Titan to truly understand the war he was to fight in. Thanos was to be nothing save a blind soldier, albeit a devastating one. If the Closed Circle knew the whole truth, Wylig surmised he would not be aiding at the Tribunal at all - and this was a fact both he and his foe were keenly aware of. And the Dark Watcher knew well that the Titan had been doing his own investigating, had let him watch events from afar, and would be coming to his own conclusions eventually.
Despite all his knowledge of the past, all his study of the mystery named Thanos of Titan, Wylig truly did not know what conclusions those would be.
As he felt the warping of reality, signaling the arrival of a being most welcome, the renegade determined he would be best suited pushing onward, and dealing with the Closed Circle harshly only if such an action became necessary.
The roiling space of the Nexus churned even further with dimensional upheaval, and soon expelled a victory dressed in night-black armor. The beast radiated murderous power, an implication confirmed by the silver form slung across his shoulder.
Eyalus' mouthpiece wasted no time, ignoring the various glances given to him by the cosmic assemblage, and heading directly for the Dark Watcher. Within moments, he was across the seething space, and speaking to Wylig in a cold voice that betrayed great tumult beneath.
"The Silver Surfer is yours," and he dropped the former herald at the renegade's feet, and opened his hand to reveal two sparkling Gems, "as are the Soul and Reality Gems."
Wylig raised a thin brow, "You were not instructed to retrieve the Soul Gem. If this has been the cause for your tardiness I am displeased."
Vyer seemed to almost flinch at the comment, but his tone gave no hint of his inner pain, "Warlock guarded the Reality Gem with his very life; I slew him and took his jewel to make the process go all the more smoothly. Now our spiritual broadcast across the Omniverse will be enhanced a thousandfold."
Wylig eyed Eyalus' avatar with smoldering serenity for a moment. The Voice of Pain was damaged, that much was obvious. There would be no time to replace him in the coming conflict, but if they survived a suitable replacement would have to be found.
The Dark Watcher took the shining Gems from Vyer's hand, nodded to him, and then strode for the center of the Nexus, the storm growing as he reached the point between polarities. All about the gathering, hushed silence fell, dozens of eyes turning to watch what their leader would next accomplish.
Had there been more time Wylig would have fanned the flames of their anticipation, further ensured their loyalty with maddening suspense. Yet there was no time, and the Dark Watcher soon spoke out across the mighty assemblage, his voice causing even the storms to cower as it boomed across the Nexus like divine thunder.
"The Voice of Pain has delivered the final pieces of our design. It is now time to begin." He beckoned the In-Betweener, "Step forward child of Chaos, scion of Order." His gaze turned to the Vyer, "Bring forth Norrin Radd, first and foremost herald of the World Devourer."
Both beings complied, knowing well what was to occur. Almost palpable energy crackled from the sheer maddening expectancy of the gathering as the Son of Pain released his grip on the Silver Surfer, and delivered him into the twin-shaded grasp of the In-Betweener. Then, almost gingerly he placed the sparkling Soul Gem on the being's brow and then stepped back, his part momentarily complete.
The bi-colored entity gave a final look at Wylig, and the rebel observer made a nod of confirmation. The In-Betweener turned back at his task, and lifted the Silver Surfer up by his forearms, so that the glittering demi-god seemed helplessly crucified in his tormentor's grip.
Radiant emerald power erupted from the Soul Gem, and lanced through Norrin Radd's backside, between the shoulder blades. The Surfer convulsed as his unconscious mind railed against the force assailing it, but his meager defenses were naught before the primal power battering his very spirit.
The thin beam's intensity increased, growing in size as a flicker of a smile crossed upon the In-Betweener's lips, and Norrin Radd looked up into the sky of the Nexus with blind eyes. His silver skin churned with conflict, as the In-Betweener's power over dichotomies, focused through the Soul Gem, worked its cruel task on the former herald's soul.
A stark line cut down across the Surfer's body, and momentarily half of him grew to blackest ebony, and the other faded to purest white. A wordless scream erupted from Norrin Radd's lips as he felt himself fission, felt himself break into two.
Light flashed obsidian and snow, blinding even the mightiest members of the audience, if only for a nanosecond. The In-Betweener was the sole witness to the exorcism; only he watched as the midnight-black portion of the Silver Surfer shrieked and then was expelled, bolting quavering ghost-like into the space of the Nexus, and then to parts unknown.
Instantly the burning flash was gone, and the In-Betweener dropped his helpless victim as if he was so much garbage. A proud, arrogant smile twisted the being's bi-colored lips, and he addressed the Dark Watcher with greatest haughtier.
"It is done, Wylig. I have separated the darker tendencies from Norrin Radd's soul. He is now the purest spirit in the universe, the ultimate virtuous being that he has so often made out to by the likes of men and demons alike."
The renegade nodded, but there was no humor in his features, "My thanks, In-Betweener. Place now the Soul Gem upon Norrin Radd's brow and step back, for the summoning of the Antithesis' scattered components are nearly at hand."
Again, the In-Betweener obeyed without questioning, plucking the emerald jewel from his forehead and placing it upon the Silver Surfer, exactly as he had been instructed. The child of Chaos and Order then stepped backwards, moved far from the polarities of existence, and joined his cosmic brethren in their silent vigil.
"We have need of you now, Lord of Pain." Wylig addressed the blood-eyed creature, "Only you, mightiest of our number, can survive the mingling of forces that shall come to pass 'round the form of Norrin Radd."
Wordlessly Eyalus complied with the Dark Watcher's wishes, gliding forward to scoop up the Silver Surfer's prone form in a razor-bladed palm, and hold him high aloft. The Lord of Pain's crimson eyes smoldered with dark anticipation, as Wylig himself exited the area, stopping only when he felt he had moved a safe distance.
The rebel's mind reached out across the burning void, and touched the Soul Gem. He spoke with the sentience within, spoke to it in its own vampiric language, and within seconds the negotiation had ended. The murderous being would do what had been asked of it.
"The spiritual broadcast to all the myriad realities in the Omniverse shall begin when my word is spoken. Bring to me now the Reality Gem, Voice of Pain."
Eyalus' avatar moved swiftly through the churning space, and dropped the Gem within Wylig's open palm, before once again moving back.
The Dark Watcher placed the jewel upon his brow, tested it and found the Gem's operation to be as he had remembered it. Wylig's eyes moved up to gaze upon the insensate form of the fissioned Silver Surfer, and when he spoke he felt as though he was in a dream, "The word is given. Let the call ring out to all the corridors of reality, and all the denizens who inhabit them."
Instantly there erupted from the Soul Gem a blazing light, a rainbow-beam of color with encompassed all the spectrum. As though, shot from a massive prism the divine blast sprung out, cutting across the space of the Nexus and arcing out into the distance.
A roar sprang up, as though a great beast had been awakened, and the cosmic winds grew deadly strong. The Soul Gem drew upon the purity of Norrin Radd's cleansed spirit, and refracted that purity all across the Omniverse in a single great annunciation. Any being who wished to have such a soul, wished to control it, know, or even destroy it, would be inextricably drawn to the source of that communication.
For moments that seemed like hours, there was only the great roar and howling, wounded wind. Even those great cosmic entities looked away for fear that their senses would be burned, or simply could not see so far into the divine spectrum. But the Dark Watcher looked on wordlessly, buffeted by forces that would crush a similar being, yet were suppressed by his own indomitable will.
And then there came the first visitor, a scarlet specter that raced across the illuminated void, and instantly descended upon the prone body of Norrin Radd. The shape moved too quickly to be made out, only appearing to be a crimson ribbon. It feasted hungrily upon that pure soul, for it had waited so many long years to do so.
The first ethereal body was followed by a second, this one putrid jade. It joined its fellow and gorged itself on the innate goodness of its victim.
More followed, in packs now, swarms of different colors which all seemed somehow tarnished despite their shade.
Blue. Black. Red. Green. White. Gold. Silver.
All of them came, and more, until the very place was alive with this teeming, ravenous spirits, all setting upon the helpless soul of Norrin Radd like jackals. The whole Nexus stank now, with the stench emitted from the very rotted spirits of these dark creatures. These were basest beasts, considered darkest evil by all but the most subjective of beings.
In their great marching hordes and as they descended viscously upon their hapless meal, the faces of those horrific beings could be made out by those cosmic entities who dared look at the preponderance of dark deities.
Mephisto. Satannish. Zaciel. Thog. Belasco. Marduk Kurios, known by far many more as Satan. Llan. D'Spayre. Dweller in the Darkness. Scarecrow. Forcas. Nightmare. Sammael. Rimmon. Blackheart. All of these twisted, blackened demons and far more descended and feasted on the spiritual flesh of Norrin Radd, and all were unwitting pawns in the game Wylig so skillfully played. From across the Omniverse entire they flocked, not only the demons born from the core timeline, but all their divergence as well. Nearly every wicked monster from myth and scripture had come to this great banquet, prepared by a host they did not know nor cared to.
The Dark Watcher observed with repressed disgust as the unholy beasts attempted to devour every scrap of the Silver Surfer's soul. He took no pleasure in watching such a being suffer, he merely thought of it as a necessary action. He acted not for himself, but for the good o the entire Omniverse.
Crimson energy bloomed on Wylig's brow, the Reality Gem coming alight and alive at his mental urging. He concentrated and from the jewel arced a thick beam of power, which lanced directly into the feeding frenzy, which boiled around the beleaguered Norrin Radd. The demons seemed to take no notice of the intrusion, their minds solely set on their prey. In these moments, their sentience had soundly gone to coma, id and animal instinct moving them only.
With delicate mental fingers the Dark Watcher reached out through the Reality Gem and touched the essences of those putrid creatures. On that higher, spiritual and mental plane, he saw what he had so long expected and planned to see: in such close proximity, their minds dormant, the demons were mingling. Their souls interwove sloppily of their own accord, trying instinctually to reform the ancient entity, which they had all been born from at the moment of the Prime Divergence.
Left to their own devices, the demons would eventually grow sick of their feast, realizing they were merely champing on bloated illusions created by the Soul Gem. Only a small portion of Norrin Radd's essence did they devour, but enough to continually whet their appetites. In time they would regain their senses and violently wrench their spirits apart and be on their way.
Wylig would not give them that time.
The Dark Watcher suddenly pulled on the cords delicately connecting the monstrous demons, drawing the beasts closer together using the power of the Reality Gem. Their essences fused further, but still did the creatures frolic, still were they individuals.
Again he tugged, with greater determination this time, and Sammael and Satannish were merged into a single murderous creature. This new beast's hunger was far greater than its components' ever had been; this new beast wished to be whole.
The rebel Watcher watched with a mix of triumph and abject horror as his ancient plans at last came to fruition. The demon set itself upon its brethren, and began devouring them as hungrily as they still sought to gnaw upon Norrin Radd. With each successful digestion the monster grew stronger, began to remember more of what it had once been, and sought all the more mightily to regain its former stature.
Wylig pulled now at other portions of the feasting mass, drawing dozens of divergent Mephistos, Thogs, and Nightmares together to create another ravenous creature. Together with its brother this beast reached for its past, wished to be reborn as the entity that had birthed it.
He tugged and manipulated more spiritual strands, creating nearly a dozen more famished monsters, and soon the teeming mass of demons had grown to mere shadow of itself in appearance of number. The cosmic entities looked on with grim fascination as the few remaining individual demons tried to escape from being absorbed into the other beasts, but to no avail - they too were absorbed.
Mephisto, the core and true Mephisto, was the final demon to fall, devoured hungrily as he sought exit from the great trap the Nexus of All Realities had become. True horror and fear bloomed on his sallow features as he felt his mind merge with the thousands of this brothers, and was truly no more.
The thirteen misshapen masses formed from the countless demons now threw themselves upon one another, beginning the final stage of that grim rebirth. Putrid and disgusting was the single beating organ that now pulsated between the polarities, dripping and oozing ichor, radiating a stench that stung the senses of all the entities assembled.
And then the solitary, amorphous organ began to grow, occupying more and more space with every wretched pulsation. The Lord of Pain, who had remained stoic during all that had preceded this grisly spectacle, moved back now, the hideous monstrosity quickly towering over even his impressive silver body.
From his post Wylig stepped back, giving the bloated organ room, raising his eyes to look up at the thing as it stretched outward and upward. He beheld the monster, and could not decide whether this was his greatest triumph . . . or his greatest folly.
Cosmic flashes burst wildly against the blank whiteness of the Dimension of Manifestations, signaling the arrival of yet another contingent of various entities. The Closed Circle, who once would have been awed by the sight of such a grandiose gathering, peered out across the masses, ascertaining who had recently joined the ranks of his burgeoning army. A short time ago Thanos would not have been forced to make even the show of "looking" at these beings to decide upon their identities - his cosmic senses would have told him instantly. But since Wylig's gambit had been successful in breaking the ancient Balance, things had gone askew and even the most stable of abilities fluctuated wildly, and prescience and omniscience were covered in a thick haze of uncertainty.
Nearly all the various deities hated this stated of affairs, for their crutches had been taken from them and smashed to pieces. And as the situation further deteriorated, the tapestry of existence further unraveling with every passing day, so too did the entities' desire for the status quo grow ever more ravenous. As such, despite their unabashed detest for the Closed Circle, when he had sent out the order to assemble, any being who had not wedded himself to Wylig's cause quickly rallied 'round the Titan. True, he spoke with the authority of the Living Tribunal himself, but had the situation been different they would have been far more laxidasical in their gathering.
The Titan smiled inwardly, watching as Kosmos bemoaned the state of the Omniverse to her teacher Kubik, who listened intently. Such discussions were echoed throughout the sterile corridor, from the towering Great Void with his halo of five stars to the philosopher Sama-D to the members of the Vishanti, three of only a handful of those Chaos-loving mystic and Magical beings who had not joined the renegade Watcher.
Thanos felt strangely at home once again in the murk of uncertainty, forced to rely on his own ingenuity and guile, not the apathetic omniscience he had received with the Infinity Equation. He had achieved what he also sought, yet quickly the taste of ultimate power was growing stale in his mouth; when the crisis had played itself out he was truly undecided what he would do with his eminent position. The Closed Circle had come to the conclusion that it was not the goal that was truly important, only the path to that goal. He sought not an end, but a journey.
More flashes cascaded across the assemblage, and Thanos ticked off three more names on his mental list of foot-soldiers. Marbas and his Thought-smiths, Balam and his Wormwoods, and Anomaly. The ranks of his army were nearly filled, and he waited only for the arrival of Kronos. When that time-god finally appeared the Living Tribunal's righteous army would be complete, brimming with nearly every entity of note that existed within the Omniverse. It was truly the greatest single brigade ever assembled in history, dwarfing even the massive contingent that had fought against Thanos in his successful bid for power.
The Titan was unimpressed. To him now these beings were little more than confused children, frightened and weak without the immense power that had grown long accustomed to. As Thanos had told the Tribunal, and as he knew several others among the gathering believed, a man with great power was far more than an entity with great power, for take away that power from a man and he is yet a man, but take that power from an entity and he is nothing.
This was a declaration the Closed Circle had firmly subscribed to for many years, and it had only been reinforced since his ascension. Yet, somehow he felt the statement inapplicable in the case of his erstwhile enemy. From his research, Thanos saw Wylig to be infinitely determined, and possessing a spirit unparalleled by nearly any in the cosmic hierarchy. The Closed Circle respected the Dark Watcher for this simple fact, even identified with him, and was momentarily saddened by the notion that he would perhaps be forced to slay the rebel.
But this final thought seemed increasingly more distant, ever since Thanos had paid a visit to The One, and committed the same sin as his enemy. He had not been alone in that hidden temple, and in those moments after earning all the knowledge he desired, the Titan had begun a hatching of schemes that would surely prove to be his most dangerous of all.
Soon the charade would be over and Thanos knew he would be victorious . . . or destroyed, erased.
A final flash and Kronos made his belated appearance. The Titan's eyes gleamed silver as he passed his sight over the assemblage a final time before reaching down to the hilt of the blade sheathed at his right side. He had taken great pleasure in sheathing the Sheath-less Sword, just for irony's sake.
With a grand gesture, for that was all it was, Thanos drew Twilight and held it high aloft, drawing the attention of all his army. His words boomed across the Dimension of Manifestations, and the Closed Circle could do nothing save silently laugh at how ridiculous it all was.
"The final member of our army has at last arrived; at the behest of the Living Tribunal it is time to begin our task. Ready yourselves, small creatures, for we now begin the very event, which you have all feared and prophesied from so many millennia: the War of the Cosmic Beings."
Tension rippled through the crowd at the mention of this conflict, which none had ever hoped would come to pass. Yet now they stood ready to embark upon it, and could do naught but move steadily forward.
Their leader turned and with a broad stroke of his pilfered blade slashed a gash in the fabric of the Dimension of Manifestations. The cut bled burning crimson energy and peeled quickly open as the gate to a hellish castle would open. Within there reigned a searing maelstrom, the very stuff of reality laid bare and perceived by the discriminating godly eye.
Thanos spoke to the tumult, as though it was a creature unto itself, "Chaos and Order, we intrude now upon your domain. War shall be made within the Nexus of All Realities; ready yourselves."
The Closed Circle, without further needless ceremony, made a step toward the fissure in reality, confident that the masses would follow him. To his surprise Thanos could not enter the roaring and raging sea of chaos, as if an invisible barrier had been erected 'tween the gap and shared realm of Lord Chaos and Master Order.
Mock consternation and confusion flickered across the Titan's features, remaining just long enough for the most perceptive of the gathered entities to witness his supposed failing.
"Your entrance shall not be permitted, Closed Circle." came the unmistakably distorted tone of Lord Chaos, even as his misshapen visage manifested from the ocean of strife.
"Lord Chaos and myself have deigned to allow this re-definition to continue." came Master Order's own voice, his human-like countenance rising up beside his opposite's.
"You take a dangerous chance, Master Order. The creature being awakened within the confines of the Nexus is nearly as mighty as the Tribunal himself, and sorely lacking his sense of justice. You many doom the Omniverse itself to eternal destruction."
"We are well-aware of the murderous disposition and power of the Antithesis, Titan." Master Order responded icily, "But it matters little; the Living Tribunal has already appeared and deals with the beast as we speak. The threat of the Antithesis will soon be averted, Wylig's renegade force destroyed, and all things restored to their rightful place."
Thanos raised a brow, "The Tribunal has appeared?"
"He has, Closed Circle, and makes ready to destroy the Antithesis before it even re-awakens fully. Your army has been gathered in vain; it will not be required. Here we are supreme over all save the Tribunal himself, and shall bar your entry until events have unfolded. Such is our judgment." Lord Chaos and his sibling began to fade from sight and perception, but the harshness of his parting words remained undiminished, "Now begone from our realm, Thanos of Titan."
With a sound like a celestial gunshot, the fissure leading to the Nexus of Realities suddenly sealed of its own accord, as though it had never been. The Closed Circle stared at the space pondering for a few moments, preparing to turn and verbosely address the gathered cosmic entities.
As he spoke strongly of his consternation to the entities he sometimes disdained and had never truly respected, he smiled inwardly . . . and widely.
Mounting tension rippled through Wylig's body as he watched the grotesque organ tower higher and higher over the heads of his comrades, dwarfing even the elongated form of the Lord of Pain. Eight times the height of the renegade Watcher was the gruesome thing now, and continuing to grow in not only size but the refinement of its shape.
The organ was no longer truly an organ now, its fleshy innards growing tighter, the burgeoning intelligence shaping its body into what it once had been. Vaguely humanoid had the amalgamation of demons become now, muscular arms evident, though still dripping with mystic mucous. But still did it have no legs, its lower portion still resembling the pulsating sac that the beast was forming itself from.
All the rebel cosmic entities watched with horrible fascination, their eyes and senses riveted upon this monstrous and hideous re-birth. Some did not even feel the shift of reality as another of their kin approached, though to call this entity a sibling of those others would be a disservice; he was far more than they could ever hope to be. But despite Wylig's grim interest, he sensed the disturbance in the fabric of existence moments before the arrival of his enemy, and steeled himself for what was to come, for uncertainty wracked him brutally.
There came a sound then, like waves crashing against the craggy cliffs of paradise amplified a thousandfold, and a flash of golden divine light, which blinded none gathered in the Nexus. Yet still did it seem harmful, for the beating mass throbbing away between the polarities of existence recoiled from the source of that illumination, as if grievously burned.
A familiar timbre rang out across the space, a thousand voices speaking as one. At all times in the past that mingling of tones had been calm, if not serene; now it was angered.
"YOU HAVE ACTED AGAINST MY DIVINE WILL." spoke the Tribunal, and it seemed as though a raging storm of thunder had suddenly descended upon the focal point of the Omniverse, "YOU HAVE AWAKENED THE SOLE POWER IN THE OMNIVERSE THAT CAN CHALLENGE ME, AND FOR THAT YOUR PUNISHMENT SHALL BE THE HARSHEST OF ALL."
The golden figure turned his star-blast eyes to peer at the mass of putrid matter, which sat now nearly as tall as he himself, "THE ANTITHESIS WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO RE-AWAKEN. THE THREAT HE POSES TO ALL THE SPHERES I HAVE BEEN CHARGED TO PROTECT IS TOO GRAVE. THERE IS NO TIME FOR COURT PROCEDURE, NO TIME TO HEAR THE WORDS OF THE CELESTIAL TRINITY OR THE TRINITY OF MAGICK. EQUITY, VENGEANCE, NECESSITY, AND THE FUSION OF THIS TRIUMVIRATE AGREE TO THE DESTRUCTION OF MY SIBLING. SO NOW LET IT BE DONE."
Wylig's mouth gaped open as he heard the Living Tribunal's sudden and harsh pronouncement. He felt as if he had been crushed between two great presses and every ounce of life was being squeezed from his body and soul. All his plans, all based on uncertainty and conjecture, had been shattered with those recently uttered epithets.
Never had he expected the Tribunal to do as he prepared to do now, never had he expected the golden judge to strike down his polar opposite without first convening the cosmic court and following the proper procedures. And had even this not been done, Wylig had been firmly secure in his belief that the Living Tribunal would at least wait until the Antithesis had awakened before destroying him, for with the addition of the Closed Circle's power, what did he have to fear.
The Dark Watcher had counted on the Living Tribunal to follow his own set of inner morals, which had been instilled in him the moment the Tetragrammaton died and he had been created. Those morals, that sense of justice had been law to the Tribunal, and now Wylig believed that his foe had surmounted his own paramount duty as lawful judge, and truly convinced himself that what he did now was firmly in the right.
As the Tribunal's star-blast eyes blazed hotter than any star, Wylig realized that his belief that the addition of Thanos as the Fourth Face would splinter the golden servitor's judgment had been utterly wrong. The Faces controlled the passage of judgment, not the very beings they represented. The Living Tribunal had only made it appear that he was impotent and unable to act because of the Closed Circle's differing views; it had all been a farce.
The towering judge's sockets released from them a force which had been unfelt and unseen since the original war against the Antithesis, in the infant days of the original Aeon. Words are useless and fail to describe the pure power, which the Living Tribunal unleashed upon the pulsing organ, which existed before him.
Instantly all the assembled beings were toppled and scattered from their positions, like matchsticks ripped from their moorings by hurricane winds. They felt their very essences boiling in the face of such unbridled, primal power, and their senses were blinded by the outpouring. It seemed the Tribunal would not need to pass judgment upon these renegades, for their mere proximity to his assault on the Antithesis threatened to scour them clean of their very lives.
Wylig felt consciousness slipping from him in the inky blindness caused by the Living Tribunal's sudden action, recognized the tell-tale signs of discorporation pulled at his body. If the Antithesis was not soon destroyed and the murderous attacked abated, the Watcher knew his physical body and perhaps even his soul would be utterly decimated, never to return.
A small tear ran from Wylig's eye as he considered all his life had led to this failure. The heat dried and burned to a wisp of smoke the instant it was shed, and the renegade wished his existence had been so short.
Though they could not see it, the Tribunal's features were grim as he poured the merest fraction of his power down onto the Antithesis, hoping to shatter the organ back into its component demons, and then smash them utterly.
But it seemed such an event was not be, for the organ resisted his assault, let loose a primal roar that only he could perceive. Had he possessed true physical teeth the Living Tribunal would have gritted them as he increased the intensity of his attack a billion-fold and watched with satisfaction as his corpulent enemy's putrid body began to fester, blacken, and burn.
The moments dragged by and the Antithesis slowly retreated under the divine judge's siege, shrinking as its lifeblood boiled and dried. How the Tribunal wished to simply unleash his true power and eliminate the wicked thing in a short burst, but he knew it was not to be; such an action would have broken the Omniverse to its very components. Even the small deluge of power he unloaded upon the Antithesis was carefully focused, for had it not been all those cosmic entities gathered round would have been obliterated in an instant. Such would not be allowed to come to pass; they would face righteous judgment separately.
The Living Tribunal's raw golden strobe of energy rained down upon the Antithesis, and soon the conflict would be ended. Or rather it should have been.
The festering boiling nearing utter degradation, a second beam of incredible might suddenly cut across the surging ether. Emerald was it, if a color could truly be ascribed, and soundly did it cut through the Living Tribunal's assault and it died utterly.
For the first time perhaps in all the Aeons, surprise was written upon the golden judge's carven countenance, "YOU DARE IMPUGN UPON MY JUDGMENT, ELORKHAIOS?" he nearly shouted across the Nexus, to a being no one can see, "YOU CREATED THESE MYRIAD SPHERES, BUT IT HAS BEEN MY TIRELESS DUTY TO RULE UPON THEM SINCE MY ANTITHESIS' ARROGANCE SHATTERED THE GREAT BEING WE ONCE WERE. I WILL NOT ALLOW YOU TO INTERFERE WITH MY SACRED DUTY."
The Tribunal's star-blast sockets grew bright as novas once again, but when he attempted to begin a second rain of destruction down upon his enemy, there came no stream of power. It was as if a great invisible hand had sprang up and stymied his wondrous and terrifying abilities.
What can only be considered purest fury crossed the Living Tribunal's features as he struggled to the overcome this tampering. Over and over, he tried to break the bonds holding him, and occasionally a trickle of power would issue from his sockets, but that was all.
From far off, his sight regained, Wylig watched with grim fascination, the weights pulled from his spirit. He had never factored the Living Tribunal's other sibling into his plans, had never thought that being would ever interfere with the proceedings assailing his creation. The Dark Watcher counted himself lucky that his two miss-steps had happened to nullify one another.
Soon Wylig realized his eyes were to be better utilized in observing the status of the Antithesis, and not the Living Tribunal's struggle with his silent sibling. The grotesque organ had again begun to grow steadily in the interim since it had been attacked. In fact, not only had its various injuries healed, it expanded with even greater rapidity now.
Nestled between the dual polarities, the Antithesis' growth ended when its height had equaled that of the Tribunal's, though surely it was nothing more than symbolic. And then as it began to again pull itself into humanoid form, those two glowing points of existence started to flicker alarmingly, as though their very essence was being siphoned by the burgeoning creature.
Meters away the In-Betweener shrieked and fell to his knees, cradling his head with his hands. Instantly Wylig was to his side, helping Chaos and order's scion to his feet, even as he kept a wary eye on the fluctuating poles.
"What ails you, In-Betweener?"
For the first time, the Dark Watcher heard fear, terror, in his comrade's voice, "It . . . it is unspeakable, what it does! The beast, it devours the very fabric of the Omniverse! I feel them, feel entire multiverses dying in that thing's hateful maw! And - and with each passing second it grows stronger! We have done wrong, Wylig! We have unleashed upon ourselves the most murderous creature in all of Creation!"
Again, the In-Betweener sank to his knees, weeping as his unique position afforded him a sensitivity to the Omniversal massacre that even Wylig could not hope to match.
The renegade Watcher knew well what was occurring, knew it to be a necessity. The Tribunal's strength had been greatly enhanced by the addition of the Closed Circle, and whatever infant intelligence within the Antithesis had sensed this, and was doing its best to rectify the situation.
Wylig reassured himself that what he had done was for the good of all, not for the good of himself, and looked on, for it was all he could do.
The monstrous organ was gone now, replaced by a figure which had cast shadows in nearly all the myths and stories across all the worlds of the Omniverse. The demons, which had forged this creature, were nothing but pale reflections of him, children to this beast's father.
Tall as the Tribunal, the Antithesis' tone was rotten mix of grey and olive green, mottled here and there by darker spots of black and brown. As was his brother, the creature was the model of humanoid perfection, yet twisted. The Antithesis appeared muscular, but to the extreme. He, it, seemed to have had all the flesh boiled from his body, leaving only sinew, muscle, and bone. He appeared flayed, all the flesh stripped from him, leaving only the gruesome under-covering.
From the monster's back sprouted two massive, sweeping wings, a thin membrane stretched between the preponderance of bony spines twining them together. As if awakening from a long slumber, the Antithesis stretched them out to their fullest width, nearly one and a half times his own height.
But the creature's face . . . though it was not truly gruesome, its parody of human feature drove the stomach to turn. There was no nose, only a gaping triangular hole where that outgrowth should have sat. The opening of his thinly ebony-lipped maw revealed dual rows of glistening, sharp teeth, nestled in gums of midnight. His features were sharp, his bones almost looking as if they could cut.
His eyes had no pupils, no irises, there was only a sea of blackness painting his orbs. But spidering across the Antithesis' optics were thin veins, white as now, though none intruded more than a third of the way into the beast's raven eyes. His lids had no lashes, and never did he appear to blink.
To complete the archetype of primal evil, for that was obviously what this creature had inspired, the Antithesis' head was bald, and without thick flesh seemed truly skull-like. But, as one would expect there to be, two massive, curving, twisting horns grew from the sides of his cranium like ebony antlers, and jetted far and high into the air.
Wylig felt nausea wash over him at the sight of the thing, as the image plucked primal cords inherent in all living things, mortal or no. Again he could not decide whether this was a triumph or a folly, for truly had the Dark Watcher allied himself with the Devil.
The Living Tribunal's struggles slowly ceased as he looked upon his re-animated sibling with obvious disdain, contempt, and emotions that have never been felt by beings human and cosmic alike. The Antithesis' lips moved and he spoke to the Tribunal, but Wylig could comprehend none of it, not until he noticed a slight tugging at the back of his brain, and experienced a blur of memories that he had no called up of his own accord.
Within moments, the intrusion was finished and though the Dark Watcher felt weakened and winded, now could he fathom the words the two great cosmic brothers spoke to one another.
"I WILL NOT ALLOW YOU SPREAD YOUR TAINT ACROSS THE OMNIVERSE, BROTHER. LONG HAVE A I SERVED IN MY POSITION AND FAITHFULLY; I WILL NOT ALLOW YOU TO DESTROY THE VERY THING I HAVE PROTECTED THE ENTIRETY OF MY LIFE."
The Antithesis sneered, "YOU ARE A FAILURE, SIBLING. I HAVE DEVOURED ALL THE MYRIAD SPHERES OF REALITY SO THAT MY STRENGTH NOW MATCHES YOUR OWN. ALL THAT REMAINS NOW IS THE CORE TIMELINE, FOR IT IS THE ONLY ONE OF ANY CONSEQUENCE. IN IT LIES THE GESTATION OF THE SUPREME BEING."
"YOU WILL NOT BE PERMITTED TO TAMPER WITH THE EVOLUTION OF HUMANITY. YOU ARE THE REPRESENTATION OF ALL THAT I AM NOT. YOU ARE ARROGANCE WHERE I AM HUMILITY. YOU ARE SELF-SERVING WHERE I AM NOT. YOUR PALL WILL NOT FALL ACROSS THE OMNIVERSE AGAIN."
The monster let out a bark of a laugh, a bitter, horrid noise, "I HAVE READ THE THOUGHTS OF THE BEINGS GATHERED HERE, TRIBUNAL. YOU CALL ME YOUR OPPOSITE? PERHAPS ONCE YOU WERE, BUT NO LONGER. YOU WALLOW IN HYPOCRISY, BROTHER! THE COUNTLESS AEONS OF THANKLESS SERVICE HAVE FINALLY TAKEN THEIR TOLL UPON YOU. NOW YOUR DESIRE IS THE SAME AS MY OWN. WE ARE THE SAME, SIBLING!"
The Living Tribunal quavered before the grave insult, quaked with smoldering fury. His star-blast eyes lit once again, and his voice was like the roaring of a divine lion, "WE ARE NOT AND SHALL NEVER BE THE SAME, BROTHER. I SHALL BURN THESE NOTIONS FROM YOUR MIND, AS SURELY AS I SHALL BURN YOUR TAINT FROM MY RIGHTFUL PROTECTORATE."
With that, the golden judge, eyes ablaze with almighty power, hurled himself upon his foe, which stood ready to meet him.
Continued in Part 2: Longest Night - Chapter 1
We hope you enjoyed this chapter of War Waged At The Stroke Of Midnight! Be sure to leave us your feedback below or e-mail it to email@example.com. And, if you haven't already, check out The Twilight War and Foundations Formed At Nightfall.
E-mail feedback/submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org