Waged At The Stroke Of Midnight
Written by Azmodi,
Edited by E.A. Morrissey
Follows events in The Twilight War,
Forged Before Nightfall, and Part One:
Continued from Part One: Dusk's End.
"What if this present were the world's last night?" - John Donne
Outside the citadel walls, the fire-death of the universe raged like a wounded animal. The stars burned with their last lights, the blackness of space curled and, as if glowing a sickly crimson. Yet inside those sturdy walls, the inhabitants of the stately palace were unconcerned by the looming collapse of the universal boundaries. Their thoughts were on the events that remained recent, despite the mere hours remaining of the lifespan of existence.
In the midst of an emerald-walled chamber, barren and without even the slightest adornment, two beings stood in calm discussion, despite the circumstances they discoursed upon. One was aged greatly, appearing sickly and gaunt, wax-paper skin pulled tightly over bones rounded with the years. Yet this being still carried himself with the greatest of dignities, and in his gentle voice, there nestled great potential for command and power. Throughout his long life, this wizened creature had worn many names, many titles, but as the pages of history grew, yellowed over the years. Only two are remembered: Prime Director of the Time Variance Authority, and the much more grand label of He-Who-Remains.
The companion of this ancient being had lessened his often towering physical form, as he know looked into the eyes of his comrade without staring downward. His body was filled with white stars and from him radiated a great power as well, though perhaps not as great as the emanations which flowed from He-Who-Remains. This was Kronos, Titan God of Time.
In that barren chamber the duo of time-beings talked and talked, plotting strategy with words as well as thoughts, for verbal dialogue cannot fully encompass the intricacies of the fourth dimension. Then, as Kronos responded to one of his comrade's statements, he paused in mid-sentence and looked about as if he had heard a strange noise.
"Did you sense that?" queried Kronos, his pupil-less eyes narrowing to suspicious slits.
He-Who-Remains' reply was quick in coming, though devoid of the concern that the Titan brandished, "Yes."
Kronos' eyes flicked to the curving entrance to the chamber, waiting to hear footsteps falling upon the floor as the intruders swiftly approached, "Then we are in great danger; even I cannot match the Timekeepers' power. We must escape, quickly, they capture or slay us."
The last Prime Director seemed unworried, and replied without a tinge of the heated fear that was evident in the Time God's voice. "There is no need for panic, Kronos; the children of my past self are not threat to us."
"Has age dampened your senses?" the Titan spat back, before he remembered who it was he addressed, "My apologies, I did not mean . . . But even you cannot believe you are a match for the Timekeepers. Aside from the Great Void and Time Guardian, there is no chronal-based being in the Omniverse who is a match for them. We must flee."
Cold steel drifted into He-Who-Remains' tone, as his eyes grew to granite, "We will stay, Titan, it is my will. It is not your place to question me."
Kronos' eyes fell as he contemplated his looming destruction, "I - I understand. I shall stay and battle at your side."
The Prime Director nodded and a small smile came across his lips, a smile permitted only to the old and wise, and one accomplished at playing games. The two time-beings awaited their enemies in silence, both sensing the trio, looming closer and closer with every passing moment, until at last the three robed figures floated into view within the sloping entrance.
"We have been expecting you." He-Who-Remains announced coolly, his dark optics boring into the eyes of the lead Keeper.
The trio drew closer, and the foremost timekeeper spoke as if the Director had said nothing at all. "Though it is not you who created us, you are the same to us as the He-Who-Remains of the previous aeon. We have desire to harm you; surrender and we shall not be forced to harm you or your companion."
Kronos scoffed openly, "You expect us to simply lie down at your feet? We shall die first!"
The Timekeepers never looked at the Titan as they responded their gazes only for their almost-creator; "Your power is nothing compared to ours, Kronos. Neither is yours, 'father.' It would ill befit you both to engage us in battle, for you would only suffer bitterest defeat. Surrender, and no harm shall befall you."
"Your insolence is unseemly." Kronos spoke, anger evident in his voice, his hands rising, "For your opposition to the Living Tribunal's divine will, you must be utterly destroyed."
Power surged through the Titan's trans-physical body, boiling out of his fingertips and slamming into the three bodies of the Timekeepers. Kronos attacked not only their corporeal forms, but their very pasts as well; attempting to reach back and destroy them in every moment the Keepers had ever existed.
The trio floated motionless before the assault for several seconds, as though they were being buffeted by little more than a gentle spring shower. And then chronal energy coursed through their own forms, silenced Kronos' useless assault, and without effort flung him against the furthest wall, striking him on all his numerous spheres of being at once.
Shocked, exhausted, beaten, the Titan slid down the fall and was still. Yet consciousness would not release its painful grip upon him, and vaguely could Kronos perceive the events which followed his humiliating defeat?
The Timekeepers floated closer to He-Who-Remains now, a roiling sea of energy churning 'round them, "To not resist us, we have no desire to injure you. Nevertheless, you must be neutralized; the perversion of the Omniverse that the Tribunal wishes to bring about cannot be allowed, and therefore must all his supporters must be eliminated."
"I do not believe my servant shall allow any harm to befall me, Timekeepers." the wizened being replied easily, his calm stance utterly unfazed by the approach of three beings who sought to capture or end him.
There was cloaked confusion in the lead Keeper's voice, "Servant? If you speak of your Protectroids, they are no threat to us."
Space shimmered behind He-Who-Remains and with a dash of silver from that swirling, yawning rift; one of the Timekeepers fell. The robed entity toppled from the air, steam rising from his chest, and was still as he landed hard upon the ground.
Surprise resounded upon the remaining Keepers' faces, but it did not stop them from reaching out with their considerable powers, and plucking from the air that energetic silver Arrow. Suspended by their might, frozen in time, the Timekeepers stared at their attacker, and subdued terror mixed into their visages.
"Vangaard?" said the lead Keeper disbelieving manner, before turning back to He-Who-Remains, "If he is your servant, than you can only be - "
The former Prime Director smiled, warping his aged features, even as energy coalesced around him, shaped itself about his body and enclosed him. Then, the matrix of transformation still fuming, the conglomeration began to grow, rise taller until He-Who-Remains shattered through the very ceiling of his citadel, and towered over his enemies.
In moments the great metamorphosis was complete, the ancient being encased by a titanic frame of living armor, forged from the very crucible of the Big Bang, and cooled in the entropy of the Big Crunch. Five shining stars orbited his helmeted head, and He-Who-Remains turned glowing emerald eyes down upon the Timekeepers.
His voice was filled with sadistic humor as he addressed the duo of creatures, "Yes, the Great Void, brother to the Time Guardian, and Supreme Being of the time-stream."
"Where is our creator? Where is He-Who-Remains?"
The massive entity did not seem to hear, "I was appointed by the Living Tribunal himself, Keepers, at the very dawn of time. I am the ultimate watchman, the ultimate shepherd, pruning the burgeoning tree of the Omniverse and eliminating all potential threats to the stability of existence." The Great Void is smoldering orbs burned brighter, as if great bonfires had been lit behind his eyes, "And you, Timekeepers, are infinitely dangerous threats to Omniversal stability. To contest with a being on my scale is to court Mistress Death freely."
There was no warning, only action, as the Great Void loosed a maelstrom of chronal power down upon his enemies. The reinforced walls designed to stand until the very last moments of the Big Crunch, shattered like cheap wood before the onslaught, which was not even aimed at them.
Before this hurricane force, the proud Timekeepers could do naught but be scattered like matchsticks. The two conscious creatures were blown backwards, slamming against the nearest wall until that too shattered, and they were tossed further away from the towering figure of the Great Void. Their insensate was sent skidding across the barren ground, all traces of the floor turned to wisps of dust.
In the sea of destruction, the silver body of Vangaard, no longer imprisoned by the will of the Timekeepers, took back his life, and hungrily turned upon the distant shapes of the Keepers. He jetted forward, unharmed by the currents of chronal force, riding them like ocean waves.
It took the Great Void's servant but seconds to fall upon his nearest victim, the smooth-faced male of the group. Vangaard brought his sharply edged staff down repeatedly upon his foe, drawing spurts of inky green ichor with each thrust.
The TimeKeeper shrieked, yet not from the pain of the physical, for Vangaard's assault was as nothing to him. No, the time spanning being screamed because he felt his very past being torn away. He felt his presence in the Omniverse being dulled to nothing by the attack of the Great Void as the armored entity reached further and further back through time, seeking to eliminate his foe when he was weakest.
His mind dying, the Keeper wildly lashed out with the remains of his power, knocking Vangaard away. He reached out to his brother; the only Keeper remaining who had remained uninjured in the harried combat. Together they linked thoughts, shared powers, and willed themselves away from the End of Time, away from the deadly attack of the Great Void, and away from the death that had nearly fallen upon them all.
"Thirty-seven Celestial manifestation bodies destroyed. Eight-two percent of the Wormwoods exterminated. The Thought-smiths barred from this plane of reality. The Nth Man devoured by Alioth. Numinus rendered mindless." Wylig read off the casualty report from the thin cylinder of crystal he had been presented with a handful of moments before, if time had any meaning in Limbo's castle. The Dark Watcher's gaze rose and he stared somberly at Immortus.
"Impressive, is it not?" the Master of Time said confidently, though that confidence began to swiftly wilt as he saw the furor in Wylig's eyes.
"Impressive, Immortus? Our definitions of the word differ greatly. It seems. The Celestials are more than capable of re-creating their bodies at great speed when properly motivated. The Wormwoods are nothing, there power capable of doing little more than destroying planets. Was their leader Balam eliminated as well?"
The former Conqueror's voice was hoarse, "No."
"Then the effort was a waste. In addition, the Thought-smiths . . . all but non-factors as well. Only our victories over Numinus and the Nth Man are of any import." Wylig's tone grew harsher, "Understand, Immortus, results such as these will only make our deaths more prolonged. The Living Tribunal's forces outnumber as more than two-to-one, and their leader is an accomplished general and tactician. Our army must move more quickly and strike with greater precision, or all shall be for nothing." The renegade turned away from the Master of Time; "It appears I erred in making you my general. Your battle savvy is greatly diminished since your days as Kang. From this time forward I shall take a far more direct hand in these affairs."
Immortus silently fumed at this, his chest growing tight, but he refused to give into his most base desire to snuff this very being's life. He dared not, for he even if he was successful, the master of Limbo knew he would be destroyed by Wylig's other allies immediately.
"Perhaps I would prove more effective if I saw the point of this idle battling. Whoever wins the conflict between the Antithesis and the Living Tribunal will determine the outcome of this war; the power of both those beings is greater than the combined might of both armies."
The Dark Watcher shook his head, as if Immortus was a student who had failed him. "The victor in the great struggle between the golden judge and his dark opposite shall be infinitely weakened by the conflict, and more than susceptible to a blitzkrieg by the remaining cosmic forces." He turned back to again fix his subordinate with that penetrating gaze; "Do you see, now? We must win the so-called 'War of the Cosmic Beings' so that if the Living Tribunal proves victorious over his Antithesis, he can still be eliminated. If the Tribunal survives, all we have done is for nothing, and he will control the Tetragrammaton the next time it manifests."
Immortus gulped, "I - I see… now. What are we to do now, then?"
The Dark Watcher replied, taking his eyes from the lord of Limbo, "Move offensively, and maximize the usefulness of our army's talents. This is not a war of conquest, only destruction, and so we must act accordingly. Our forces shall travel in groups of no more than two and return either here or to Eyalus' dimension immediately after their goal is accomplished."
"What of our defenses?"
"All that need be defended is Limbo, for since the start of this conflict the Lord of Pain's realm has become all but impenetrable, as he has become frighteningly powerful, so much pain and suffering has he fed upon. You still have your Space Phantoms patrolling Limbo's Borders?"
"Then they shall prove the necessary notification if we are attacked, and few would dare, and even fewer are capable, of such an action."
"But if one does, Wylig? Rarely are there more than a trio of entities here at a time; the realm would fall instantly to any formidable invasion."
The Dark Watcher considered a moment, his machine-like mind coming up with a suitable solution almost instantly, "A bridge shall be forged between the two dimensions, so that the army can move between them freely and quickly. Does this satisfy you, Immortus?"
From the Master of Time, there came no reply. His eyes had lost focus, and he stared out into space glassily.
Wylig's own optics narrowed suspiciously, "Immortus?"
He shook his head, awakening from the daze as quickly as he had slipped into it, "The Timekeepers… they require my aid to return here. They were attacked upon arriving at the temple at time's end . . . they no longer possess the strength to breach the barrier separating Limbo and the time-stream."
The renegade was truly surprised, "The Timekeepers reside in the upper echelons of the cosmic hierarchy, and I had thought them second only to the Great Void and Time Guardian in the chronal corridors. If it was He-Who-Remains who struck out against them, he is far more powerful than I ever hazarded to guess."
Immortus' voice was etched with concern, even as his tone grew distant and his brow knit with concentration, "It matters not, I must retrieve them from the time-stream and bring them here, err they shall perish soon."
The Dark Watcher nodded and said no more, well-aware that any extraneous mutterings could possibly cloud the Master of Time's judgement, and cause him to do more harm to his masters than good. In silence Wylig looked on as Immortus' fingertips crackled with chronal energy, and he willed open a roiling rift in the very stuff of Limbo.
A trio of dark shapes was evident in the swirling maelstrom. Three shapes which began to draw steadily closer with every passing second, until at last the aperture vomited them out onto the floor of the castle, and sealed itself up handily.
Both Wylig and Immortus cast their gazes down on the Timekeepers, and were shocked to see the sorry condition that they were in. Only one of the three remained relatively uninjured, the least human of the trio. His flesh was singed and burned and his robes frayed and blackened, but otherwise he was unharmed. The female, along with possessing all the wounds of her sibling, had a gaping burn-mark upon her chest, while the final member of the Keeper had been violently slashed in the torso numerous times. His wounds were crusted over with a viscous substance, which was taken to be his very lifeblood.
Quickly the Master of Time helped the single conscious TimeKeeper to his feet and helped him over his own throne, in which the robed being freely sat.
"Never so close to Death have we ever conceived of being. Even the journey through the Big Crunch pale before the ardor we have only barely survived."
"Who attacked you, my lords? Has He-Who-Remains sided with the Tribunal?" Immortus said, looking over the grievous injuries of his other masters.
"No," replied the Time Keeper, "our father's status remains unknown. The Great Void took his form and attacked us. We were unprepared . . ."
"Did you face only the Great Void?" questioned Wylig grimly.
"Kronos fought at his side, but was below our notice."
"So the majority of those controlling time have sided against us . . ."
"It is worse than you know, Watcher. The Great Void claimed to have been appointed by the Living Tribunal himself, far in the past. He has served faithfully in that post since time itself began."
Wylig shook his massive head in dismay, turning away from his companions to look out into the roiling winds of Limbo. "He is even more the manipulator than I had expected . . . The Tribunal appointed the Great Void to destroy any timelines from which might spring forth any being capable of challenging his plans for Earth. Only because our origins lie in the original universe do we still live . . ."
He turned and stared down at the battered bodies of the Timekeepers, "Is it possible to heal these wounds quickly?"
The lead Keeper nodded from his seat upon the throne, "Though they extend far beyond the physical, yes, but we will need the Time Twisters' assistance. Only they possess as intimate a knowledge of our physiology as our own."
Wylig nodded, stride away as he did, "I shall fetch them myself, and afterwards I shall meet with the Over-Mind; I have been informed he wishes to speak with me. I also require time to . . . consider this newest revelation."
He was gone.
As they had for many days past, the High Evolutionary and Kree Supreme Intelligence stared out at the intoxicating sight of the shining gem called Earth. They spoke in tones that indicated these two genetic masters had indeed become friends in the time they had spent together.
"The genetic seed of Humanity must be truly potent, for events to have unfolded as they have." said the massive super-computer. "What kind of power are you men heir to, that the greatest cosmic powers in the universe war against one another with such fervor?"
"Has there been more, Supremor?" replied Doctor Wyndham, even more somber than usual since Vyer's brutal attack on the Avengers compound, and the death of his prodigal son.
"Yes, Evolutionary. Only minutes ago I received a transmission from Ronan indicating a large-scale upheaval in the Denaris Cluster. Immediately I used
Uatu's observation arrays to confirm my soldier's report."
"It seems fortunate you have been in contact with your Accuser since that failed scheme proposed by Apocalypse… What did you see?"
"I saw the Celestials, the Third Host under Bekrashem, and watched as a force consisting of the Demogorge, Ego, and the Hawk God smashed their Host-ship and burned their shattered armor in the pyre they made of it. Though the Watcher's scanners told me it was only the armor destroyed, still did the ensuing explosion tear a hole in the very fabric of reality, leaving the entire Denaris Cluster as a single gaping singularity forty-five million light-years across. That is not even the worst of the battles I have witnessed. What can be worth this, Herbert? When this war is finished, our universe will be nothing more than a pile ashes, and a minefield of spatial disruptions."
"I suppose we shall never find out, Supremor. The Fifth Host is gone, and with it, any chance that I might see the unbridled potential of Mankind unleashed.
Perhaps you shall, Intelligence, but I will not, for never again will I dabble in changing things that are not mine to change. Now it seems, I can do nothing but watch."
"We have spent far too much time here, my friend. Uatu's apathy has infected us both; we are little more than voyeurs now, creatures of action made to observe endlessly. Again I will take up the task of building my people's empire, but it seems you shall never be what you once were. Have you seen too much, Edgar?"
The High Evolutionary chuckled at this, and his mood seemed to lighten, if only slightly, "Perhaps I have, Supremor . . . I believe henceforth I shall leave Earth to its own course, and meddle only with my own experiments."
"And does that mean you've further renounced the Celestials and their artificial machinations?"
"Of them I cannot say how I feel . . . It is not my place to tamper with my fellow men, for I am one of them . . . But the Celestials, they are gods. Who can say if what they do is for the better, or for the worse?"
"To me it seems the Space Gods had not the best intentions for Mankind when the Fifth Host descended upon them, as so evidenced by Uatu's abrupt departure. Nevertheless, when, and if, he returns, perhaps we shall know definitively. Until then, we can do naught save speculate."
"Then you shall do so no longer." replied a calm and complacent, yet familiar, voice. The eyes of both the High Evolutionary and Supreme Intelligence swiveled to confirm what they already knew, and they saw who they expected.
"Welcome back, Uatu," said the human geneticist, "Things are as you left them."
The Watcher nodded grimly, "In my citadel, perhaps, but not in the universe at large. Events have proceeded as I feared they would, yet hoped they would not."
"We have watched solemnly, as you taught us so well, Uatu." the Supreme Intelligence responded, "I would query you to where you have been since your sudden departure, but I would not expect an answer."
"Under most circumstances I would agree with your assessment, Supreme Intelligence, but this occasion's circumstances remain far different from most. I went forth to learn, and from the greatest source of knowledge available in the Omniverse. There was another who subscribed to a similar train of thought."
"And what did you learn, Watcher?" asked the High Evolutionary, unable to keep a hint of anticipation from his voice.
"Many things, Doctor Wyndham, things even I had never dared suspect. The inner workings of the Omniverse have been laid bare before my eye, and I am not certain I like what I see."
"Tell us, Uatu." the geneticist, said with great seriousness, "Tell us the why of this war. Tell us . . . tell us why Warlock had to die."
The former Watcher paused from a moment, gathering his thoughts; "The Celestials have been nothing more than unwitting pawns of the Tribunal since their creation at the dawn of this aeon. Only the One Above All and perhaps the various leaders of the Hosts were aware of their subtle manipulation. Though it is true they exist to evolve and empower various races, therefore further enhancing Eternity, they were also unknowingly searching for a single species, one with a spark which would outshine all others."
The answer was obvious, "Humanity." the Supreme Intelligence said bluntly.
Uatu nodded and continued, "They were tested and determined to possess the inherent seed signifying them as the heirs to the supreme power in the Omniverse. And that is the power that the Living Tribunal covets above all else, and since that day of discovery he has sought to gently control their evolution, which has earned the undying enmity of Wylig and various others."
The former Watcher turned away and began to stride toward his own chambers, saying over his shoulder. "That is what this war is being fought over, though it appears very few of the participants supporting the Living Tribunal are aware of what they fight for."
"And what are they really fighting for, Uatu?" the Supreme Intelligence said piercingly, "The Living Tribunal is already the greatest force in the Omniverse, there is no power which surpasses his own. What you have said makes little sense, Watcher."
Uatu came to halt as he listened to the Kree's words, more intently they he would ever have dared admit. In silence he stood for a few moments, organizing his thoughts, weighing his choices, deciding what he would say.
Finally, turning his head only enough to see the Supreme Intelligence and his companion peripherally, Uatu said, "In all the centuries I observed your world, Doctor Wyndham, I had always known Humanity to be a special race. However, it seems I had never quite grasped how special. Had I been aware . . . " he broke off, for a singular moment, nearly overcome. "There is one power in Creation that surpasses the Tribunal, a power only whispered of, even in the highest echelons of the hierarchy. Known by a name by nearly every inhabitant of Earth... Had I been aware that Man would become that power. I would have broken my oaths as a Watcher long ago."
Moreover, with those shocking words, those words that sent the minds of the High Evolutionary and Supreme Intelligence reeling. Uatu strode away in silence, and was soon embraced by the shadows of his lunar citadel.
"Is it wise to travel so near this black hole?" questioned Avatar, as she nervously eyed the raging singularity, which existed dangerously close to the path her creators, and herself traveled upon.
"No," replied Master Hate, "but it would even less wise to attempt direct teleportation to the Dimension of Manifestations in these times. The Balance is a faint memory, and our senses are ruined. The battle the Living Tribunal and his fearsome enemy fight even now only further throws our perceptions into chaos. We dare not travel outside the corporeal realms for long periods at the time, for free of falling into the numerous fissures which have opened due to that tremendous conflict."
"And it matters little, Avatar," Mistress Love added, "for we travel many times the speed of light; we shall be past the singularity in seconds, and it disrupts the senses of any entity who dares observe us. We are perfectly safe."
The woman was unconvinced, "Perhaps for you being sucked into a black hole wouldn't be much more than a minor inconvenience, but for me it would be the end. Remember I'm nowhere near as power as either of you."
"Of this we are aware, servant." Master Hate responded, his patience obviously nearly ended, "Now fall silent, for in these times it takes concentration for even those such as us to travel so near such a large singularity without our course being altered."
With a look of distaste on her features, Avatar fell quiet, her eyes studying the darkness of space and the distant stars as she was carried along by the immense powers of her master and mistress. But as her eyes crossed along the horizon, she caught sight of what looked strangely like a man in her peripheral vision, yet when she turned to see him he was gone, and momentarily she doubted her own facilities.
"Did you feel a disturbance?" queried Mistress Love, as she reached out her senses, only to have them stymied by the proximity of the raging, inverted star.
The pace of the small group began to slow, "I did, Sister."
As there is no sound in those dark ether depths, no noise accompanied the searing bolts of mystic energy, which suddenly fell like hale upon the trio. Avatar recoiled before the sudden attack, pain bursting up all around her. Wildly she sought her enemy, firing blindly off into space, but she could see no one.
"Can you see them?" shouted Hate as he wildly swept his surroundings with searing blasts of cosmic power; "The black hole dampens my senses to near-nothingness!"
"I cannot, sibling! They strike with impunity against our blindness!"
The streaks of mystic energy continued to fall, weak stings quickly growing to irritate the two cosmic beings, thunderous blows swiftly robbing Avatar of consciousness. Her creators seemingly uninterested in her fate, their servant began to drift unerringly towards the sloping horizon of the black hole.
A tremendous and concentrated blast rose up and strikes solely at the Avatar's insensate body, careening her towards the raging singularity. In a moment all sight of her was lost in its blazing exterior, and still the two entities seemed unperturbed, as the lances power resumed their impotent battering.
"Shall we retrieve our servant or learn the identity of our attackers?" asked Mistress Love as she continued to peruse the darkness.
Already moving off in the direction of the blasts' origin, Master Hate's response was quite predictable, "Another avatar can be found; we shall make those responsible for our ambush pay with their lives."
His sibling nodded and quickly they launched into the void, easily surmounting the tide of stinging beams. Soon they could make out the shapes of their enemies, and were surprised to see who they were, for their identities were indeed wholly unexpected.
"The Enchanters?" spoke Love with disbelief; "Such weak creatures test their mettle against us? How were they even capable of seeing past the black hole's disruptive influence?"
Hate leveled a heavy fist at the nearest magician, the one he knew only as Enrakt, "It matters little - they will be dead soon enough."
Cosmic might surge through the weak mystic tide and arrowed directly for its target, even as the whole of the Enchanters turned to flee. Squarely in the back was Enrakt strike, and for a few fleeting moments it seemed his defeat was nigh. Somehow the sorcerer retained some small modicum of consciousness and pressed on, keeping pace with his brothers as they fled from their victims-turned-attackers.
Immediately the duo of cosmic entities tore off after their foes, the inky blackness roiling in their wake. The trio of magicians grew larger in their sights with every passing moment, until it seemed as if their revenge would be accomplished within only moments.
Then there appeared a fourth figure, this one's body swathed in only black and white, an unmistakable bi-polar form. An emerald jewel shining bright and proud upon his forehead, the In-Betweener gestured grandly as Love and Hate careened toward him, and the darkness was split with blinding light.
The duo's frantic pace forward died instantly, as their senses were suddenly bombarded, and Mistress Love shouted to her brother, "What is it? What has he called forth?"
But it was not Master Hate who answered, but the In-Betweener himself, "It is a white hole, dear Mistress, for am I not the lord of all dichotomies? To oppose yon black hole I have conjured for it is opposite, for while the black hole draws all things in, the white hole expels all things, including energy. Farewell, Love and Hate."
As if on Que. the duo was suddenly buffeted by a massive surging of cosmic power, pouring forth from the split in the fabric of reality. Protected by their comrade's power, the Enchanters looked on with satisfaction as their enemies writhed before the countless waves of incalculable force. Watching as Love and Hate's bodies quickly crumpled and were blown to the heavens like so much dust.
With a snap of his fingers the In-Betweener closed the surging white hole, and turned to his fellows, "By the time they manifest new trans-physical bodies, this conflict will be won. This victor is ours, Enchanters. Let us return to Limbo."
Smug smiles plastered upon the faces of the trio of magicians, they nodded their complete agreement and with a second snap of the In-Betweener's fingers they were disappeared, leaving only the broken atoms of their victims behind.
"I tell you this, Eternity, no energy or time will be wasted in reconstituting our lost brethren."
The embodiment of the universe's singular eye, set within haggard features, grew white-hot with unbridled fury, and his was taut with scarcely controlled rage, "Are you a fool, Titan? Wylig destroys much more of our army than we destroy of his."
Thanos' eyes flashed dangerously silver, "Has your memory taken leave of you, Eternity? Are you afflicted by sudden blindness?" The Closed Circle made a sweeping gesture, indicating the massive crowd of cosmic entities milling about the Dimension of Manifestations, "Our forces dwarf those of the renegade Watcher's. There is no reason to waste the time reviving defeated entities when we possess such an overwhelmingly large force. Nevertheless, do not forget that the outcome of this war depends solely on who is victorious in the conflict between the Living Tribunal and the Antithesis. Time is of the essence - we must destroy Wylig's army swiftly, so he cannot support the Antithesis if he emerges the victor, or tamper with the Living Tribunal if he vanquishes his foe. Do you understand now, Eternity?"
The starry being fumed, "And do you propose to do with the remains of entities such as Mistress Love and Numinus?"
Thanos' reply was cold, "Cannibalize them and re-distribute their remaining energy to our army."
Eternity's tone was one of disbelief, and obvious hatred, "You are a butcher, Titan, a monster lacking any conscience. I will not allow this to happen."
The Closed Circle's idly wandering gaze snapped back to bore directly into the celestial embodiment's half-moon countenance. His silver optics were like liquid bonfires as he addressed his subordinate in a deadly tone, "You allow nothing here, Eternity. I have been appointed to this post by the Living Tribunal himself. In addition, if you seek to rebel against even his divine judgement, remember that my power is three-times greater than your own. Perhaps you would like to doom this universe by inciting the Celestial Trinity to attack me, while Wylig overruns our forces? Make no mistake; the Dark Watcher possesses a mind as keen as my own. Had I not been leading this army, he would have divided and destroyed you and your cosmic brethren by now. You do not have the experience or the will to be a general, Eternity. Never forget that."
Without waiting for the universal embodiments response, the Closed Circle strode off into the crowd of cosmic beings, letting Eternity smolder from afar. Thanos passed his foot soldiers and gave most of them little more than a second-glance, but that was more than enough to ascertain their condition.
The great majority of those gathered had already seen combat, and bore the wounds from numerous battles. Kronos still appeared dazed from his failed attack on the Timekeepers. The ebony-skinned, Medusa-haired Marbas remained distraught since he had been separated from his Thought-smiths. Origin still bore the marks of an attempt to reverse the polarity of all her atoms across the cosmic spectrum. She appeared pale and shaken.
Therefore, the lines went, cosmic entity after cosmic entity recuperating from the war effort, before they were to surge off into battle once again. The conflict so far had been little more than haphazard combat, battle after battle designed to destroy the opposing forces.
At least that was how it appeared to those beings less inclined toward military strategy.
The Closed Circle saw the far larger picture, one glimpsed by few others in the godly hierarchy. Perhaps Galactus saw what was occurring beneath the obvious combats, and Thanos was all but positive the Great Void knew it as well. Yet despite Eternity's boastfulness, even he would not legitimately challenged the Titan, nor would his subordinates, and therefore the secret remained just that.
There was the goal of eliminating one's enemies, yes that was the most important and therefore visible part of the fabled "War of the Cosmic Beings." However, there was more occurring, subversive operations being carried out beneath the perception of most involved.
Every victory by Wylig's forces had established a "zone of control" in that particular sector of existence. The victorious cosmic entity would enforce his own will down to the very quantum level in the radius of that area. In that space, that same being would possess a decided advantage over any other entity intruding upon the sector.
Naturally, such actions would have been impossible had the Balance not been utterly shattered, a destruction further increased by the massive upheaval being generated by the battle between the Living Tribunal and his wicked enemy. The two were locked in their own personal struggle, contesting on levels of reality inaccessible to any save themselves. Still did the shock waves generated by their conflict echo down to the lower corridors of existence, and serve to augment the unraveling of the Omniverse's great tapestry.
So far the Closed Circle had not deigned to share Wylig's tactics with his subordinates, and as such most his army had been soundly defeated, for they were unknowingly falling into the Dark Watcher's trap. Their senses dampened, their perceptions dimmed by the destruction of the Balance, most of the cosmic entities did not sense their capture until it was far too late. They were either destroyed or sent running back to the Dimension of Manifestations.
In addition, that was how Thanos deigned the tide of the war would continue, until he was finally rid of his bothersome post. When the Closed Circle at last vacated the position he believed so stagnant, he knew well that Eternity would quickly be informed of the duplicity by the Great Void, and the star-spanning conflict would quickly turn. Indeed, the only reason Eternity remained ignorant of such an important facet of the war was due to the status of his "body," severely damaged since the death of the Balance. Had the Omniversal embodiment been in full possession of his senses, Wylig's strategy would have proven far less effective. Yet, in the end, it would not matter; none of the other entities was a match for Wylig on the field of battle, but their overwhelming numbers would eventually win out.
Thanos smiled inwardly, as he knew he would simply not allow to happen. Since he had intruded upon the sacred temple of The One, the Closed Circle had determined that neither side in that massive, sprawling war would be victorious, and already had he taken steps to make his wishes reality.
Strolling through the crowd, drawing glances of derision that were quickly retracted, the Closed Circle slowly came to a halt before the stoic form of Galactus. The World Devourer spied him coldly.
"You are a puzzlement to me, World Killer." Thanos said guardedly, "I would have expected you to be at the forefront of this conflict."
Galactus replied nearly with contempt, for he was obviously in no mood for discussion, especially with a being he reviled as much as the Closed Circle. "If that is what you believed, Titan, then your knowledge of me is sorely lacking.
Never have I been anything more than reluctant to participate in these matters; I have fought in the past only out of necessity."
Thanos smiled coldly; "You believe fighting for the future of the Godhead isn't a necessity?"
"The future of the Supreme One does not concern me, Titan. When Humanity has evolved I shall be nearly at the end of my life, and then shall care even less than I do now. Leave me, Thanos - there are pressing issues which I must consider."
"More pressing than the survival of reality? I find this highly curious, Devourer."
Deadly irritation became evident in the tone of Galactus, "I have already told you, Eternal, I care not for the fate of Humanity, and see no reason to participate in this struggle. Now leave me."
Thanos refused to accede to his reluctant comrade's wishes, "Your words are hollow, Galactus. You do not act because you do know now how. The World Killer would gladly support the Living Tribunal and decimate his enemies. However, Galan, mortal Galan, is he so anxious to aid a being that seeks to enslave a race so much like his own? And so is Galactus torn between who he is… and who he was."
Without another word the Closed Circle turned and strode away, leaving the mighty Devourer of Worlds to glare at him coldly.
"Things are - well things are pretty wild out there right now." the cosmic hero known by many as Jack of Hearts said, "Never seen it so bad before. Right before Gan and I made it into the solar system we saw the Phoenix dukin' it out with Jakar, that fake Stranger. Didn't see who won . . . but I didn't think those big cosmic-types just up and fought each other like that."
Outside, the sky growled with subdued thunder, and the wind hurled stinging rain violently against the thick glass.
Captain America nodded solemnly, "It doesn't sound normal to me, either, Jack. About a week ago, we had a problem with a being like that, called Vyer. He practically destroyed our headquarters, and then disappeared into the Nexus of Realities. My bet is that all this is connected."
The old patriot sighed and pushed himself up from the worn couch, stretching as he idly wandered about the large storage room, which had been haphazardly converted into makeshift sleeping quarters. "I can say that I'm glad you and Ganymede decided to come here, though. Nick told me about your time in S.H.I.E.L.D., and there’s no reason to lose someone like you in some massive cosmic conflict no one else can even comprehend."
Jack Heart nodded, "Thanks, Cap. I still think it is strange that Earth has not had any problems with this, though. We are usually at the very center of the conflict, not the fringe. I mean, this system hasn't been at all affected by what's going on out there?"
Captain America shook his head, "No, before you arrived this morning we had almost no inkling there was a war going on. It's like the entire solar system is an oasis…"
The two heroes lapsed into silence then, the only sound becoming that of the rain steadily beating down on Four Freedoms Plaza. Finally, it was Hart who spoke up again, breaking the rather uncomfortable quiet.
"So, you guys decided to move in here while Avengers HQ is being rebuilt?"
The patriot's pacing did not cease, "We're not rebuilding the Avengers compound - we're building an entirely new one. With the change in government the Avengers’ funds have been given drastically increased, to better protect the planet."
"Right, sorry to hear about that. Can't believe those Deviants wiped out the entire Federal government . . ."
"Yes, it was… I suppose there’s no word that can come close to really describing it. Nevertheless, the country seems to have pulled through okay. America will endure, as it always does… But, after the decision was made to construct a new compound, the Avengers needed a place to stay in the interim, and Four Freedoms Plaza proved to be the best candidate."
"What about the Fantastic Four?"
Captain America paused, "They are still missing. After destruction of the Celestials Reed and the rest went to investigate some strange happenings in Latveria. Since then, they have not returned and we have heard nothing. And, ridiculous as this may sound, the entire country has disappeared off the face of the Earth."
"Disappeared?" Hart repeated with disbelief, "How could something big just up and vanish?"
"That's what we're trying to find out now. With Lemuria under control and its leaders sedated and transferred to the special holding cells in the remains of the Avengers Compound, now we're free to see what's been happening over there. Apparently, Doom was in possession of some Celestial technology, which he salvaged the last time they came to Earth. At the moment, that's the only lead we've got."
"Huh . . . Well, when you're ready, Gan and I will come along, if you want us. Who knows what kind of traps Doctor Doom might have set-up over there . . ."
The patriot nodded, now peering out the large picture window, "Thank you, Jack. Your power may be quite useful if we run into any difficulties while in Latveria. In fact, perhaps you would be interested in leaving in an a hour?"
"Sure, I'm ready to go whenever you are, Cap."
"Good. In most cases I would be far more cautious, but . . . I need something take my mind off things. The funerals were just last night."
Jack nodded somberly, "I understand completely. Just let me know when you'reready."
A few more seconds spent lingering at the window, and then Captain America was stalking across the expansive room, and out one of its many doors. Alone now, for one the few times since his arrival, Jack of Hearts felt discomfort settle upon him almost immediately.
In the months since his desertion of the very planet, he had returned to, the cosmically charged hero had sought out the company of others. All those days spent wandering about his shadowed mansion, the power eating away his body from within, had taken their sore toll upon Jack Hart. In the silence, loneliness came down upon him quickly, loneliness and nagging fear. So long had he spent dying in his ancestral halls that now his association with solitude and quiet was one of looming doom, and it was not a feeling he enjoyed.
No more than a minute after Captain America's departure, Jack of Hearts was up from the thread-bare couch, up and wandering the Plaza, looking for Ganymede.
He found her, in the Four Freedoms living room, mimicking the veteran's stoic stance as she stared out into the storm.
"Gan." he said, stalking up behind her, but there was no reply.
"Ganymede?" he repeated, placing his hand upon her shoulder, "You okay?"
She seemed to awaken from a dream, "What?"
"Are you okay? You're just sitting here like a statue."
"Oh . . ." she placed her hand on his own, and Hart found it surprisingly cold, "I am perturbed, Jack. I feel as I haven't felt since we learned of Tyrant's death."
"Gan, Tyrant's dead. Nothing can survive the Ultimate Nullifier."
"Galactus did. Perhaps he was revived to fight in this war… If Tyrant is alive," she stood, sliding Jack's hand from her shoulder, "I cannot stay here."
The words were like daggers spinning through his stomach, "You mean you're going back to the Spinster-hood? You can't go back out there, Ganymede! Who knows what kind of damage is being done to the universe even as we speak."
The warrior-woman was walking for the doorway, "I am not leaving Jack, I just need to be alone for now."
Before the hero could reply Ganymede was gone, and once again he felt the burden of solitude bearing heavily down upon his shoulders.
Continued in Longest Night Chapter 2
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