Waged At The Stroke Of Midnight
Written by Azmodi,
Edited by E.A. Morrissey
War Waged At
The Stroke Of Midnight
Part Two: Longest Night - Chapter T
Follows events in The Twilight War,
Forged Before Nightfall, and Part One:
Continued from Part Two: Longest Night Chapter Two
Fresh snow crunched beneath Uatu's softly booted feet as he strode toward the squatting temple sitting pristinely nestled next to the jagged slope of an ascending peak. On the distant horizon the sun rose, its radiant golden-orange brow just beginning to peak above the craggy cliffs of the mountains festooning the austere yet wondrous region.
Again was the former Watcher glad that he had been chosen to observe and not some other world. The simple, elegant magnificence of the lonely planet astounded him every time he had set foot upon it in the past, and that morning was no different. However, Uatu knew he could not afford to dally, the weight of the future bearing down heavily upon his shoulders. The renegade observer trudged ahead, his natural ability to teleport useless in this altered region. He permitted himself only passing glances at the burgeoning dawn, for fear that he would become transfixed by the awesome sight and halt his journey.
As though his cosmic power had been stripped by the winds beating at his fragile body, Uatu's legs ached as he drew nearer the temple. He felt as though he had fought a thousand battles against Aron the Rogue, or curtailed a dozen super-novae. Yet his only exertion had been to stalk through the rising snowfields, seeking an audience with the being who dwelt within the looming temple.
Snow and ice burned his eyes and Uatu painfully rubbed his optics free of the troublesome scion of nature. Still he pressed onward, feeling his strength ebb to a low he had never before experienced. His gaze lowered to his feet, and he felt the wetness sinking through his boots to soak his very flesh. The Watcher's sight faltered, reeling and spinning now, and only occasionally did he manage to look up toward his destination. His heart rose with the lift of his head, yet sank suddenly as he saw that the temple seemed no closer than it had minutes before. He looked out at the sun and it seemed to waver at that very same point on the horizon, as if unsure whether to continue its ascent or sink once again into the sea.
Confusion wracked Uatu as he pushed himself forward, his steps dragging, and exhaustion pushing its numbing fingers into his muscles. The former Watcher's breaths, which he now seemed to compelled to take despite his lack of need for oxygen, came out as sickening, elderly wheezes with every torturous pace. His sight blurred and tears ran cold down his infant cheeks as the snowflakes bit into his eyes. The wind seemed to laugh and howl in his ears and never before had Uatu felt so alone.
His vision spun and he stumbled, falling head first into the freezing tundra. The observer felt grains of snow in his mouth, felt the cold chatter his teeth. Uatu did not look up at the temple, for fear of seeing that it had not drawn any closer. He lay in the snow, felt his body dying, impaled on frigid spears.
Blackness closed its fingers across his eyes, wielded hammers upon his lids until they were forced to close and his hacking breaths grew to nil. There was silence save for the mocking sound of the wind, and the imperceptible sound of the falling snow. No longer could one hear the life of the man lying dead within the snow.
Moments passed, perhaps days, hours, or centuries. The sun lingered on the horizon, vacillating and quavering until it heard the crisp sound of crunching tundra beneath purposeful strides. With renewed purpose and glowing radiance the celestial orb continued its ascent into the sky above, shining its living rays down upon all those who wished to partake of their gifts.
The winds died suddenly, silenced by a secret voice, and a stranger approached the fallen form of the Watcher. His features hard but somehow still compassionate, the stranger looked down at Uatu and his fathomless, unknowable intellect shifted, considering. Then a silent whisper brushed past his ears and the stranger's mind was satisfied.
He stooped and placed a warm hand upon the rounded bulb of the Watcher's great skull. The heat radiated freely from him, infusing the suspended body with much needed life. Uatu's spirit slaked its thirst on the energy given to it, and grew strong again under the beams of the kind sun.
Slowly the observer stirred, and he raised his massive head from the frigid snow. Ice crusted his eyes, and the figure before him was a dark shadow. His senses were numbed as his body, and he could not feel the essence of his benefactor.
"Who are you?" he said dryly, blinking repeatedly as he tried to clear his sight and lift the cloak from his eyes.
"What are you?" said the spectre, "Why have you come here?"
Uatu licked his lips, searched for words, "I am Uatu . . . I seek the being who dwells within that temple."
"Temple, Uatu? There is no temple. There is no being. You grasp for smoke."
"No." the word was strong, stronger than the rest, "The One told me of this place, told me of - of Elorkhaios. He lives here, lives amongst his greatest creations."
"Elorkhaios? There is no such being. What are you, Uatu?"
The renegade Watcher felt the warmth in his limbs, and tried to rise. He feebly slumped to the ground again, a great foot bearing down between his shoulder blades, "Elorkhaios is the name he is called, the name he has used since the Prime Divergence. It has been explained by the divine word of The One, wisest of all beings in the cosmos."
"Wisest? If he is the wisest then why do you seek another?"
"Elorkhaios . . . he created this sphere, all the Omniverse. Perhaps he can . . . set things right once again. He can protect Humanity from the Living Tribunal and his Antithesis."
"Ah . . . you seek an element of the Tetragrammaton. They have no names, they are not beings - they simply are. What are you, Uatu?"
The renegade's brow furrowed, and still he could not shake the snow from his eyes, "I am, I was a Watcher."
"What are you now?"
"I am myself, stranger. There is no time for these games, I must speak with Elorkhaios soon, before events grow even more grim."
"You are as you were, Uatu, you are as little as I am. Which is better - to live as a man, or to live as an entity?"
The rebel Watcher sighed, "Please, I must reach - "
"I - to live as an entity, stranger. I prefer to live as I am."
The stranger nodded gravely, "Good, very good. You must live as an entity - a being - not as a man, a mortal. You cannot choose, you can only be one - we all must choose to be what we are, or to become something else. We must fight outside influences and remain true to ourselves, not become pale reflections of those beings that serve and look upon us with wonder. In time, in the dim future, it will be us who look upon them with awe and astonishment. We must live as we wish them to one day live, for who else shall they pattern themselves after? We cannot stand to be polluted or changed - we must remain stolid and pure, above all other things, for the good of the future that is destined to come."
The former Watcher paused, thought, considered, vaguely saw what was, "Yes."
The Stranger nodded, taking Uatu's hand firmly in his own and pulling the observer to his feet, "For the first time in all your long years you can see, Uatu. I will take you to Elorkhaios."
Kristoff sipped carefully from the glass, taking care not to dribble his beverage upon his armored features. Beneath his frozen mask the Latverian grimaced, "No finer vintages, Captain America? I am used to wines taken from the vineyards of my homeland, not this swill."
The patriot was not amused, "What do you want, Kristoff? Where is Doctor Doom, where is Latveria, and where are the Fantastic Four?"
The boy-king turned and looked out the expansive window, watching the smoldering orange sun rising over the jagged teeth of countless skyscrapers. Clouds were already coalescing high in the sky, fingers, which would soon grip the sparkling welkin in their grey grasp. He was uncomfortably aware of the threadbare couch he was forced to sit upon.
"A beautiful sunset, is it not? A shame it comes during such dark days."
Captain America's eyes narrowed, his patience frayed, the memory of Dane's paralyzed body lying floors away in the infirmary searing his mind, "Answer my questions, Kristoff."
Slowly the heir of Doom turned back and fixed the old veteran which an arrogantly calm gaze. He sat in silence for a few moments, watching as the hero's rising irritation blossomed even further into life, and then began.
"My master would be speaking with you now, Captain, but other matters concern him. I was sent in his stead."
"What happened to Latveria, and its people?"
Kristoff made a dismissive gesture, "Latveria is utterly safe, as is its populace. The master would never allow any harm to come to his subjects. You see, Captain, Doctor Doom knew of the Celestials impending arrival long before any of you did, for the technology he gained months ago came from the Space Gods themselves. He knew those armored creatures to be far from benign, and used their own wondrous machines to transport the entire nation into a pocket dimension. There it rests, safe and untouched."
"And the Fantastic Four?"
"Our guests in Castle Doom. Richards succeeded in breaching the energy barrier, but was not match for the master's guile. I assure you, no harm has come to him or his teammates." Kristoff's tone grew hard, "I believe I've answered all these questions already, Captain. I do not enjoy having my time wasted with idle recounting."
The veteran held his tongue, tried to retain his patience. His tone was neutral as he continued, "Why are you here, Kristoff? What does Doom want with the Avengers?"
Again, that irritatingly dismissive gesture, its agitating quality only bolstered by the fact that it was used so freely by a child, "Nothing, really. He has interests in a few of your more powerful associates, but that is all."
"Adam Warlock, Beta Ray Bill, and Thor. They are required to meet with the master immediately; their aid is required."
"I can arrange for you to speak with Thor and Beta Ray Bill. Adam Warlock was recently slain in combat with the entity called Vyer."
Kristoff's eyes seemed to blank for a moment, as the news hit him like knuckles. His armored finger tapped on the arm of the couch lightly, as he thought and planned. He had all the knowledge of Doctor Doom, but in those moments the child seemed incapable of using it.
"That is - unfortunate." he said finally, "But I still need to speak with the Thunder God and his false reflection."
"When will the Fantastic Four be allowed to return to Earth?"
"That I cannot say. Perhaps the master will release them when things become less . . . hectic."
Captain America's brow furrowed, and he adjusted his position on the chair as the golden sunlight pierced his eyes, "You keep referring to great events, Doctor Doom being occupied. Jack of Hearts has spoken of some sort of cosmic conflict raging outside the solar system. You even mentioned of informing us of some important matters. What are they, Kristoff? All these things, they are obviously connected."
The boy nodded, his insufferably arrogant veneer seeming to slip away as he replied. His tone was instead touched with naked awe, and perhaps a tinge of fear, "It is not important that you know the details, Captain; your kind, you 'heroes' have already played your part in this conflict. There is a war going on, Avenger, between the greatest powers in all the universe, and the ultimate prize is Humanity. There are two sides, Captain - one believes in ordered, controlled evolution, and the other the natural course of nature. Then there is a smaller third side, one which is a part of neither the armies of Order nor Chaos, and is moving to end this conflict before all existence is consumed. This is the side that the master, and therefore myself, has sworn allegiance to. I assure, you Captain, I am acting for the greater good of all living things, and so shall any who join me."
Captain America's tried to latch onto Kristoff's vague description of a war out in the stars, and found he simply did not care. He had had his fill of cosmic Wars, demi-gods seeking to extinguish all life, monsters vomited forth from the abyss. For once, the veteran was glad the boy had spoken the truth, and hoped that the Avengers' role in whatever this nebulous conflict was had already been played.
The patriot simply nodded.
Kristoff stood, arrogance already returning unabated to his stature and poise, "It is time I met with Thor and Beta Ray Bill. Take me to them, Captain."
Grudgingly, the veteran accepted the blunt request and stood, beginning to lead the boy-king out of the hastily furnished room. For several minutes mired in awkward silence the two opposites strode through the corridors of Four Freedoms Plaza, footfalls sometimes stirring those light-sleepers from their respective slumbers.
The arrived in the living area of the massive tower, and there they found the two warriors, gods out of time as sat at the counter and on a couch, discussing some great battle.
"And so I took mighty Mjolnir and struck a thunderous blow 'gainst the spear stuck in dark Fafnir's hide and - " the Thunder God trailed off as he turned to look at the newly arrived duo. His tone was much changed as he addressed the green-clad Latverian, "Kristoff Vernard? What has brought this imp to the home of his greatest enemies? What has become of the Fantastic Four, whelp?"
The boy-king sneered, "There are alive and well, Thor. As for why I am here . . . it is to ask for your aid, and for your comrade Beta Ray Bill's as well."
"Aid in what, Kristoff?" the horse-faced warrior said suspiciously, obvious well acquainted with the would-be Doom.
"Aid in ending this cosmic war before the universe is destroyed or all Humanity is enslaved."
Thor was equally distrustful, "Why should we help you, Kristoff? You and your master?"
"Would you rather it be that Adam Warlock died in vain? That your father and all the Norse gods were slaughtered and you did nothing to stop the war this action precipitated? You were involved the day you attacked the Deviants trying to revive the Black Celestial, Thunder God. It would be dishonorable to desert a war until it is ended."
It was obvious that Thor did not enjoy making the response he did, "Aye . . . my Father would look down grimly from Valhalla if he were to see my shy away from such battles. So run I shall not, for never does the Odinson flee from conflict. Though your words may be false and only a mask hiding dark intentions, you shall have the aid of Thor, until your duplicity is exposed."
Kristoff nodded stiffly, turning his eyes next to the Thunder God's companion, "And you, Beta Ray Bill?"
The crimson jewel beat like a living heart upon his brow, "My allegiance is yours, Kristoff, unless you prove unworthy of it. There is a great deal more afoot than any of us would guess, and the truth behind this conflict must be revealed."
"And so it shall be, when we return to Latveria. But one more task remains: I require the six Infinity Gems the Infinity Watch is in possession of."
Beta Ray Bill and Thor exchanged a glance upon hearing the request, and it was the horse-faced one who replied, "Even if I could give you all the Gems, I would not, Kristoff. Both you and your master have been known to hunger after great power in the past, and that these jewels have in abundance."
The boy-king sniffed arrogantly, his patience waning, his face beginning to screw up with irritation behind the mask, "I assure you, the master has more than enough power. He has no need for the might inherent within the Infinity Gems."
The false god's suspicion had not been diminished, "Why are they needed?"
"You will learn, in time."
"Then you may receive them, in time."
Kristoff made a sound in the back of his throat, and he sounded more than boy he was than the man he professed to be, "As you wish, Bill. Nevertheless, the Soul Gem is integral to Doctor Doom's future intentions. We must return to Latveria with it."
"That is not possible. The Soul Gem was stolen off Adam Warlock's body by Vyer. I would assume it is currently in either his position or in the hands of his masters."
Again there was that contemplative silence, one that Captain America remembered well. Kristoff stood statue-like, his brain again frozen by sudden indecision. The boy-king did not react well to unexpected events.
He drew in a breath sharply, "Another development I was not prepared for . . . The master will not be pleased." Kristoff rallied, drawing himself up, and acted as if he had never shrunk before his own weakness, "Nevertheless, we shall return to my homeland immediately. Doctor Doom must be quickly informed of all that you have told me."
There was another knowing exchange between the two warriors, and in unison they stood, twin hammers hanging ominously from their ornate belts.
"Let us be off, then." proclaimed Thor boldly, striding past Kristoff and out into the hall. As he passed Captain America there was another knowing exchange, one old comrade warning, the other assuring.
Kristoff stood silently as Beta Ray Bill strode past, following his friend. As the would-be Doom began his exit, he saw a deadly warning in Captain America's shining eyes, and was glad of the mask he wore over his boy-features.
"Have long have you been here, Stranger?" Uatu queried, as he looked about the modest temple's interior. The place was as simple as its exterior had portrayed it, composed of apparently only two rooms. The one the two cosmic beings paced in now was austere to the extreme, without adornment or even windows, lit only by twin torches burning near the far doorway.
"What meaning does time have to those such as us, Watcher?" the enigmatic being replied with his characteristic bluntness.
"I am a Watcher no longer, Stranger. My brothers excommunicated me after I slew Aron the Rogue."
"Titles do not matter, Uatu, you are still a Watcher. Since being expelled what else have you done in your citadel?"
The renegade found he had no profound answer for the Stranger's question. He felt like a child being taught a lesson by some overbearing adult, whose wisdom far surpassed his own; it was not a position Uatu relished.
"I have been here since I arrived, Uatu. Temporally speaking, not long at all. Elorkhaios proved exceedingly difficult to find, until I looked amongst the throngs of his greatest creation. Even then he masked his presence among Man well."
"And you have not returned to the Tribunal's side, despite his decree?"
The Stranger eyed him warily, "You know a great deal for one who professes to no longer be a Watcher, especially considering the sorry state of the omniscience of those such as ourselves."
"We all have our ways, Stranger." Uatu replied simply, cryptically, his optics focused on the far door. His patience with the idle conversation was growing thin; he wished to meet with Elorkhaios soon, "When will I be allowed to speak with him?"
"In due time, Watcher. Elorkhaios will summon you when he sees fit, and not before."
"He dallies despite the dire situation his 'children' are in?"
Uatu noticed the Stranger smile for the first time he had ever known the mysterious creature. It was a strange expression, small as it was, to be set upon the Stranger's cold and hard features, "You will find Elorkhaios to have an outlook on events far removed from our own. He sees things differently."
"You seem quite enamored with him, Stranger. Never before have I seen you stray from either duty or your studies."
The smile faded to dust, "There are few times beings such as ourselves can learn at the knee of an entity who is wiser than we can ever aspire to be. It is a humbling and uplifting experience. But, in time, I shall return to my more routine pursuits."
The Watcher was pessimistic, still strongly eyeing the doorway. The flickering orange torches seemed to mock him, leering smiles growing with every passing moment, "You assume that you will be able to continue your pursuits, Stranger. If this conflict is not stopped, whoever is victorious shall surely impose a decidedly different order upon the Omniverse."
"It is not my concern, Uatu. My own powers are not formidable enough to influence the war, so I shall put it from my mind. It would advise you do so as well."
"You must be aware that the very reason I have come here is to convince Elorkhaios to join my efforts to end this conflict before it destroys us all. His insights and immense power are necessary for our success."
"You will be sorely disappointed, Uatu. Elorkhaios has no interest in the outer world of the cosmology any longer. For longer than any of us have lived he has existed among Humanity, studying them, observing the evolution of the coalescent being he was once a part of."
"We will see, Stranger. If he is so fascinated by Mankind, then surely he will wish it to be preserved."
The light being thrown from the torches seemed to grow exponentially, illuminating every inch of the simple chamber. The ancient door creaked on its hinges and swung open, revealing darkness within. The message was obvious, and Uatu's response immediate. The Watcher's thin legs were carrying him towards the threshold the instant his massive brain had processed the occurrence.
In his own private darkness, the Stranger watched silently as Uatu quickly strode into the gloom. He said nothing.
The Watcher found himself in a room much similar to the one had only just exited. Its dimensions seemed exactly the same, though running down its center was a parallel row of three simple columns. In-between each mortared cylinder there sat a fat torch, burning brightly. At the very end of the small chamber there was a squat throne, enameled dark grey. Upon it sat a small boy, dressed in a loose robe of the same pallor. He was unremarkable, of cherubic face, and a small cap of dark brown hair.
His eyes were wholly different, plucked from the sockets of a god and pushed into the skull of a child. The irises shimmered with contained glory and power, shimmered a bright golden orange, like twin rings of fire.
The boy emanated palpable eminence, unfettered by the presence of the Watcher.
Uatu found his mouth to be nearly dry, "Elorkhaios." he said, without complete assurance.
"Yes." replied the child simply, his voice disturbingly adult in sound, "I have been expecting you, Watcher. Or a being in the same position as yourself."
"Then you are aware of why I have come here."
"Perhaps, Uatu. My senses are not as reliable as they once were. Enlighten me as to your purpose for visiting my temple."
The Watcher took a deep breath, though he did not require oxygen, "This war must be stopped. Neither side can be allowed to be victorious. The Living Tribunal cannot be permitted to enslave Mankind, and Wylig must be held accountable for his actions, which precipitated this conflict. In his desire to stop the Living Tribunal, he has caused the murder of millions, be they mortal or immortal."
The boy smiled, shaking his head as would a parent, "No."
Uatu's brow furrowed, "No? You will not aid me in stopping this war?"
"No. No, you do not see the full measure of things, Uatu. The death of millions, the death of an infinitude is not important, unless they are Men. You think Wylig dangerous when he is not. It is the force that he has unleashed that must be halted, not Wylig himself. Mahonim would treat Mankind even more harshly than the Tribunal, should he vanquish his sibling."
"The Antithesis. Belial. Talwar. Satan. Lucifer. My Brother has been given a thousand, thousand names since the Prime Divergence, and inspired countless more. None are applicable, but how Mankind enjoys labeling. No, Uatu, you must fight my siblings and their followers, or there will be more put in jeopardy than even you can imagine."
"Will you join us, Elorkhaios?"
The boy ignored the Watcher's question, posing his own, "How many have you informed of the knowledge you pilfered from The One?"
"I did not pilfer - The One gave freely of himself."
"How many know the true face of this war because of you?"
"I… Two. The High Evolutionary and Kree Supreme Intelligence. I told them that Humanity's destiny is to form -"
The boy’s orange eyes flickered ominously, "Do not finish such a sentence, Watcher. Labels have no meaning, and no weight. The force I once was has no name that can properly describe Him - do not be so arrogant to think a word is an identity, or ever seek to ascribe one to Him. You have observed Mankind for too long, Uatu. Humanity is my greatest achievement, but not without flaws. Even I must admit that. If you must so name that force, can Him nothing more than 'Creator.'"
The Watcher's chest was tight, his optics almost blind with nervousness. He could not summon a reply for a few torturous moments, "Yes - yes Elorkhaios."
The boy's momentary ire slipped away as quickly as it had appeared, and he smiled affably, "How many have joined your cadre?"
"There are four of us, including myself, currently. I have yet to meet personally with two of our number."
Elorkhaios seemed duly fascinated, "Yes, of that I am aware. Have you devised a method to defeat your enemies yet? You shall be facing forces that truly defy all description save my own."
Uatu felt breathless, weakened by being questioned by a creature of such easy majesty, "A basic plan has been discussed, but it has not been solidified. That shall come when we meet as a group - in person."
"Why else have you visited me this day, Watcher?"
"We cannot meet, Elorkhaios, and I believe it is because of your doing. Strangely, none of the effects of the broken Balance, nor from the war, have impacted upon this solar system. It is like an unseen hand is keeping this small sector of space safe from harm. It seems that great-unseen hand is keeping beings of certain eminence from entering this solar system. Similarly, I doubt it is possible for one of great power to exit, either. As such, two of my allies will be incapable of meeting at my citadel, and I unable to exit the solar system with them."
The child smiled warmly, "I shall consider making an exception for your comrades, Uatu. However, I make no guarantees, as these are often of ill repute. You shall discover how deserving I feel these two beings are of their tarnished auras in due time."
"My thanks, Elorkahaios." the Watcher managed weakly, feeling his last reserves of energy draining away with every further mouthing, "What of your decision to join us?"
The boy leaned back in his small throne, "That too you will know in time, Uatu. Return to your home."
"Yes, Elorkhaios. You have my thanks."
The Watcher favored the great entity with a unsure bow and quickly made his way from the chamber, hoping his legs would not give way while in such a divine presence.
He turned, drawn back by his name, "Yes?"
"I told you Wylig was not dangerous," the strange being smiled knowingly, "I lied. Think on what you learned from The One, for now you know him better than any other. Open your mind to strange possibilities, coincidences, conjecture as to what could occur as the struggle draws to an end as you have scripted it . . . And then you will see."
The Watcher frowned in thought, but he nodded and turned once more, completing his journey from the chamber. As he left the door swung shut behind him, leaving Elorkhaios alone with that strange smile still set within his young face.
"The seizure of reality will eliminate us both?" the shining, silver entity simply called Orikal asked, his voice flat and metallic.
Thanos nodded, "Along with the third being I have chosen as my personal man-at-arms, Toth, the last of the Particulates. None of us will survive."
Despite the grim description of his impending demise, Orikal seemed more than resigned to his destined fate; he seemed to be looking forward to his own final death, "I understand, Closed Circle. I have accomplished the tasks you set for me. I have re-arranged the molecular and energy configurations of Kosmos, Kubik, and Veritas the Sayge in order to maximize their combat potential. I speculate their offensive abilities have been enhanced by at least two-fold."
The Titan's eyes glimmered, "And this is not the full measure of the alterations you could have enacted upon them, Orikal?"
The former prisoner of Gerridour shook his pronged head in the positive. The inter-dimensional traveler's quicksilver hide shone with the otherworldly light of the Dimension of Manifestations, and his scarlet eyes glowed. The oracle seemed a far less deadly reflection of the gruesome appearance of Eyalus; it was a resemblance Thanos found he could not often shake from his mind.
"Yes, Lord Titan. Had I employed my full capabilities I estimate that their abilities would have been increased by nearly six-fold."
The Closed Circle smiled coldly, "Excellent, Orikal - your skills as a weapon-smith are truly beyond compare."
"It is not a skill, but a burden. As a prisoner and servant of the Troll King I was used as an instrument to bring nothing save death. Upon gaining my freedom I find I am relegated to the same role. It is disheartening to believe that my only value lies in the destruction of one's enemies."
Thanos' interest in his allies woes was distant, his mind crystallizing with thoughts of the battle looming in the dark future, "You will be released from your burden soon enough, Orikal. I require time to commence the final coordination's of the attack on Wylig - it is time you made your own private preparations as well."
The thinly veiled directive was obvious. The oracle inclined his head slightly towards his superior, and began to back away, his gleaming frame beginning to fade into the white, "As you wish, Thanos of Titan. I shall be at your side when you call for me."
Orikal was already nearly forgotten. The Closed Circle did not bother to acknowledge his comrade as he faded away, his thoughts already turning to consider the next entity he was to converse with. This task, he knew, would prove to be far more taxing; the World Devourer was no great admirer of Thanos of Titan's.
He waited, and considered how much little time remained in his tenure as such an overpowering force within the Omniverse. Only the Living Tribunal and his limitless brethren surpassed the Closed Circle's power. Since abandoning his obsession with Death, the Titan had sought only the might and eminence of the position he now occupied. Thanos had desired to stride freely amongst the gods, as equals. He had surpassed even his own greatest expectations - the cosmic gods did not stand alongside him, they bowed to him.
The divine shock of such stature had faded quickly, a toy swiftly losing its sheen of recent attainment. He had expected to take joy in reigning over those same entities that had once spit upon him and battle against him, but he learned it to be a tedious task. The cosmology had proven a startling disappointment as a whole, acting more like spoiled children then beings of such fathomless stature. Their company had grown stale quickly, as had his status as the Living Tribunal's lapdog. Even the unraveling of all the Omniverse's greatest mysteries through his own omniscience had proven unsatisfying in time.
Thanos would be glad to be rid of his divinity.
The greatest wisdom the Closed Circle had gained during his tenure was not relating to the great sphere of existence, but to the far smaller orb of his own soul. In those moments of silent self-contemplation, Thanos knew himself better than he had ever had in the depthless past, better than Death, better than Adam Warlock. At last, the Titan realized what he truly desired, what even his golden-skinned ally had never known, that it was only the path that mattered.
His life painted in vivid colors of failure, Thanos realized his failures had been successes. His journeys had been completed, his destinations reached. The stale taste of supremacy made it clear to the Closed Circle that he did not take well to static dallying in a single state - always would there have to be a quest, a goal, a road to travel. His self-conscious flaw had been corrected, the proof of that radiating throughout him in those moments of reverie. He had held fast to ultimate power, and now had the greatest wish to discard it. Such was the next path he had assigned himself to walk, and stride upon it proudly he would. The past would be no bar, no burden to him any longer.
Featureless fabric warped and bent, soon giving birth to the familiar and grand form of the World Ravager Galactus. The synthesis of man and might stalked rapidly toward his superior, fire blazing in his eyes. In recent times it seemed that the man had begun to re-emerge in that great being.
"My time is limited, Titan." the Balance said sharply, tone indicating he would brook no extraneous chatter. "Tell me how you intend to use the Hunger that gnaws even now at my soul, for I know that is why you have called me here."
"Your assumption is correct, World Killer. As it was used against me in the past, now shall your Hunger be plied against Wylig's stronghold."
"Limbo or the Realm of Pain?"
"Eyalus' domain, Galactus. Around it exists a barrier of immense power, constantly reinforced by the Dark Watcher's forces. Attempting simply, to shatter it would put undue strain on the already fractured shell of existence. Instead, you shall devour that cosmic shielding, allowing us entrance into Wylig's base of operations."
The Third Force was more then skeptical. His eyes, deep and shadowed, smoldered, and his feature seemed haggard and raked with growing anguish. The World Ravager was tired, exhausted by conflicts both within and without.
"I will not simply be allowed to freely feast, Titan. Wylig will retaliate as swiftly as he can."
"Such is to be expected, Galan. He will strike back, and as his army rises to meet to your assault, I shall the Tribunal's forces against those of the Dark Watcher's. Our numbers, coupled with my own might, will prove the deciding factor. If Wylig escapes with his life, his army will be in shambles and no longer a threat."
Galactus seemed to sigh jaded, "Again I am a tool to be used to destroy others. Such it seems is my lot in the grand weave of what is."
Thanos' orbs sparkled with questioning, his tone prying as he asked, "You have been conspicuously absent from our gatherings, World Killer. You do not fight, you do not defend, and you do nothing save think. What could be of such import?"
The Balance's eyes glimmered dangerously, "It is not for you to know, Titan. Your own feelings regarding my inner turmoil have been made quite clear in the past. I have no desire to hear you repeat your baseless accusations."
The Closed Circle smiled, "You have not yet denied them, Galan. Watching Mankind be toyed with cosmic giants must grate harshly on your spirits."
"Galan is gone, Eternal - there is only Galactus. There is only Hunger. I do not have the time to waste with these useless mouthing."
The World Devourer turned without another word and strode heavily away from the being he so despised. His head was bowed as if in acknowledgement of some greater power settling over him, some palpable force, which he knew, he could not control.
Galactus was gone, faded into nothingness.
Kristoff landed lightly on the Hungarian soil, his boot-jets touching the strands of grass and blackening them to char. At both his sides descended the massive, hulking forms of the Thunder God and Beta Ray Bill, both obviously still far from trusting their impish guide.
Like a frozen waterfall the barrier surrounding Latveria's Borders stood proud and aloof, the ground still slightly throbbing with its ever-present hum. There seemed a greater rainbow its surface now, vibrant oranges and purples dashing just beneath its opaque exterior.
Even the horse-faced warrior was momentarily taken aback by the sight, and the immense power it indicated, "Words cannot describe the magnitude of such an achievement. Doom's power and genius are truly wondrous to accomplish this feat. Few times in my travels have a chanced upon such a spectacle, and the sheer might it portends."
Thor seemed decidedly less impressed, "Aye, Bill, 'tis a great miracle, but a pittance when compared to the true power of the Celestials. Doom is but a thief using power which is not rightfully his own."
"The master has gained might which will make the Space Gods themselves tremble, Thunder God." Kristoff declared adamantly, striding closer to the slowly pulsing barrier, "Your power is nothing compared to his."
"Did you bring us here only to sing the praises of Doctor Doom?" questioned Beta Ray Bill, almost father-like.
"He has many praises to be sung, alien, but that you already know." Experimentally the boy touched the glistening shield, felt the reassuring serpent of gentle energy rush up his arm. He turned to his reluctant comrades, "End this dallying; the master awaits."
The almost insurmountable urge to throttle the pup was shared by both the Asgardian warriors, but they held their tongues and hands. The hammer-wielding duo approached the humming shield warily, knowing well from experience that trusting a former foe implicitly was no wise course.
"Follow, gods. The dimensional translation is short and painless."
Without fear or apprehension, Kristoff stepped into the shimmering column of light, and in a blink he was gone, the only proof that he had been being the burnt grass several feet away.
Had he been a man, Thor would have shrugged, "The path of cowards was deserted long ago."
The Thunder God strode ahead and was through with a single bound.
Beta Ray Bill hesitated for only a moment longer before he joined his comrade in the void of uncertainty.
Much akin to its appearance, walking through the glistening barrier was like stepping through a gentle waterfall. A brief wave of soothing cold passed across Beta Ray Bill's alien body, moving swiftly from his nose to the back of his head. His eyes saw countless layers of ethereal silver curtain, which had passed through in as rapid a succession as the sheath of frost held his frame.
Moreover, it was ended as quickly as it had come. Sight returned to the warrior's orbs and normal sensation regained its hold on his large form. He heard now the barest rustle of wind, the chirping of soaring birds, and the familiar sound of people hard at work. His eyes saw peasant farmers dressed in simple garb, tilling fields planted before their modest houses. The sky above seemed almost too blue, too concerned with being true.
"No time for gawking, Beta Ray Bill." came the irritating crisp voice of the boy-king, returning the alien to the moment, "There remains a journey by air to Castle Doom."
"Our patience with your insolence is waning, imp." said Thor threateningly, "Take us to your master now or incur our displeasure."
Kristoff made a sound of arrogant disgust and lifted off into the air once more, jetting high into the sky and then setting a dead path south, toward the capital of Doomstadt and the domain of its namesake. Beta Ray Bill and the Thunderer were soon at his sides once again, ensuring that the boy would not even consider base trickery.
The air sang in their ears as they sped through the air. Soon Beta Ray Bill looked downward and saw the village of Schondstadt, quaint and peaceful. The small town was gone soon after his eyes grabbed hold of it, but the horse-faced sward did believe he had heard the boisterous sound of a joyous working chant rising up from the village.
Before long the rising baroque peaks of Castle Doom were jutting up into the air, looming closer, like a dragon rising from its ancient cave.
Deftly Kristoff steered himself and his allies downward in a lazy spiral, to land softly on the highest tower. Upon it stood the unmistakable form of a man both feared and respect all across the planet Earth, and many realms beyond. Dressed in a sleeker variation of his recognizable aegis, the ruler of Latveria seemed to emanate even greater authority than was the norm. An almost palpable aura of power seemed to surround him.
His facade of pretentious arrogance dying a quick death, Kristoff nearly ran toward his master, and prostrated himself at Victor Von Doom's booted feet, "I returned as I could, master. With me I have brought those you asked for, Thor and Beta Ray Bill."
Doom focused crimson-lensed optics on the two imposing warriors, even as he spoke to his servant, "Rise Kristoff. You have delivered the two Asgardians; where is Adam Warlock?"
The boy seemed to quake, and appeared infinitely smaller the man who shared similar armor, "Dead, my lord. Captain America told me he was killed by Vyer."
The frozen mask betrayed no emotion, "Where are the Infinity Gems?"
It was Thor who replied, not the child, "Until you prove worthy of our trust, such powerful objects shan't be allowed in your possession, Doom."
"The Soul Gem?"
Again it was the Thunder God's basso voice which responded, "Stolen by the same base villain responsible for Adam Warlock's murder."
Doom was silent for a moment, and Kristoff quaked, filling the awkwardness with inane chatter, "The plans must be altered, master. On the other hand, perhaps the Soul Gem can be recovered. Maybe Warlock's soul is alive. He's - "
"Silence, Kristoff." the lord of Castle Doom said casually, but with iron in his tone, "Measures will be taken. Doctor Doom anticipates all contingencies."
The wind grew and whipped the Latverian's heavy emerald cape against his armored form. He turned without words, and began a methodical stride towards the stairwell, which led down into the great tower.
His cowled head disappeared gradually beneath the stone floor of the tower's pinnacle, leaving the trio considering the strange happening. It was as if Doom had simply forgotten they existed.
"We must follow the master. He shall decide the best course of action." Kristoff said finally, predictably, and set off to follow Doctor Doom's trail.
Again, like two aged and jaded parents, Thor and Beta Ray Bill looked at one another knowingly before falling in behind the arrogant child.
Wylig's eyes narrowed as he reached out in the ether, and found his hand knocked away as if by a disapproving parent. The pocked little orb called Pluto spun slowly, almost within reach. The Dark Watcher could see the pulsing rays of the distant star, Sol, yet it too was far off.
Again the fomentor of Omniversal chaos touched the darkness, and heard a bestial rumble in his ears. His fingers crackled with painfully repellant energy, and his sight went dim for a moment. Wylig stumbled back a step, taken greatly aback by the unseen bar, which stood in his way.
Truly, it was unseen. The renegade's optics saw nothing by ebony space, peppered as it was with atoms and molecules of dust and debris. On all the myriad and motley stratums of existence there was no palpable barrier stopping the Dark Watcher, no shield that he saw protecting the solar system of Earth from the ravages of the multi-universal conflict.
Nevertheless it was there, undeniably steadfast in its duty. The power and guide of the renegade observer had proven impotent to surmount the implacable obstacle, steadfastly resisting his best efforts to breach its insubstantial walls. Wylig had searched the countless corridors, searching for a plane where the barrier did not exist, yet he had found none. The creator of this structure was obviously a being of immense power and vision, capable of bending natural laws to his own will however he saw fit. Merely being confronted with the reality of the barrier's existence was proof enough of its craftsman's skill and eminence.
To most of the cosmology, the architect of such an impressive defensive wall would have remained a mystery, his identity educed to idle musings and chatter. Perhaps they would consider the Living Tribunal, perhaps Eternity, but none would guess the true identity of the barrier's creator. Indeed, most of the highest-placed beings in the hierarchy did not even now this creature existed.
Yet, as he had demonstrated since his re-awakening, Wylig was possessed of knowledge far beyond that of entities who even stood multitudes of planes above his own station. Such was both his curse and his boon. The Dark Watcher had traveled to seek out the very force, which had willed the protective shielding into being.
Since Elorkhaios' intervention during the Antithesis' formative moments, Wylig had been determined to seek out the facet, which had willed into creation the entirety of the Omniverse. It had been child's play to deduce his location, despite the war, which ravaged the whole of reality - or nearly the whole of it. Immortus and Eyalus would prove capable enough generals until the Dark Watcher returned.
Now he was presented with this wondrous, impenetrable field and he was both frustrated and chagrined. Wylig saw his own power and intellect was as nothing compared to even a quarter of the greatest force which had ever existed. However, it was also somehow comforting; so long had he planned from all Angles, looked at every facet that it was reassuring to know that there was an entity he could not manipulate.
The worry Elorkhaios had fomented since making his presence known died away swiftly, rotting to nothing. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and Wylig felt a modicum of freedom from the path he had chosen. A being he could not control was a being he could not waste his time pondering or deserving of his solicitude.
The Dark Watcher turned from the incorporeal barrier and began striding across the depths, each footstep carrying him across numerous planes, closer and closer to the place he now arbitrarily labeled "home."
He lapsed into the reveries, which came upon him in recent times with increasing frequency. He was alone, utterly, having no one to speak with save his own mind. Wylig mourned for the days when he had been capable of sharing with others; they were long dead. He had relinquished his family and his post to seek the destruction of an enemy he himself had nearly become. His wife, his parents, his relatives - save his son - had all long ago descended into the dust. There was no one for him, save himself.
A rainbow of colors spangled across his vision as the renegade passed through a particularly chaotic realm, but he paid it no mind. The ache of his spirit burned brighter in his thoughts than the glimmering shades, a deep grey that seemed to touch all things he saw. Since looking upon the terrifying form of the Anthesis he had been beleaguered and conflicted, as much as the Omniverse itself was. The monster was potentially an even greater threat to Humanity than the Tribunal himself.
What had he unleashed upon Creation? Had he erred so completely? Should he not have merely left the golden judge to his own selfish desires? Would it truly have been so horrific if the Tribunal had succeeded in his goal?
Wylig shook his large skull, clearing away the troublesome pondering - it was not the time for self-examination. He had begun a course, and for good or ill he would complete his journey. Such was all he could do any longer. The Dark Watcher knew he had become a prisoner of his own wants and deeds.
Like a twisted spire, more disquietude jabbed into Wylig's mind, more worries he did not welcome. The war went well, and the Tribunal's forces faltered despite their great numbers. It concerned him, for at the helm of the judge's army was a being he consider his equal in most ways: Thanos of Titan.
So far the Closed Circle had proven a disastrous general, leading his army to nothing save bitter defeat in most cases. It was shocking to see a being, so mighty in mortal life, to be revealed such an utter fool in the upper echelons of power. This status was either quite disheartening, even to a respectful enemy, or a careful ruse wrought with potential danger.
The feeling of impending doom crept closer with each victory the Dark Watcher's forces won. The rebel could feel that the Titan was planning something, readying himself to loose a monstrous beast from its cage and destroy his enemies in a single stroke. Maddeningly, Wylig could not discern the course of the Closed Circle's machinations - they followed no rational line of reasoning.
However, the Dark Watcher had learned swiftly as the war began that his understanding of Thanos was not as complete as he had expected. Wylig had believed the Titan would desert the Tribunal's forces upon learning the truth, and perhaps even join his own. Neither action had come to pass, and uncertainty gnawed at the Dark Watcher with every step he took. A great storm lay roiling behind some curtain, soon to be released, and for all his vaunted skills he could not see the trap being readied.
The weariness permeated every portion of his being as Wylig stepped out into the familiar world of the Realm of Pain. How he wished to enter the sweet surcease of slumber, and perhaps never awaken again.
The din of war assaulted his senses immediately. The smell of charred god-flesh, the tumult of the energy spectrums as a great force assaulted the barrier surrounding Eyalus' domain. Wylig looked up into the dark sky, above the towering Tree of Pain, and saw the monstrous countenance of Galactus staring down at him with eyes blinded by feral madness. The horizon was curved beneath his monstrous bulk, making the scene much like that of a curious child attempting to gain entrance to a fishbowl. His fingers crackled as they held fast to the weakening energy shield, as a torrent of energy roared up from the realm and into the World Devourer's maw, slowly satisfying his endless, unquenchable thirst.
Insects steered toward the massive being, and a moment later Wylig realized them to be his own army, so inconsequential before the great force that was Galactus. They fired impotent beams at their gorged enemy, yet he seemed to take no notice. Driven by Hunger, the World Ravager felt no pain, did not shrink away from the harsh attacks upon his form.
A hand both frigidly cold and hotly warm fell upon his shoulder, shifting the Dark Watcher's attention. He saw the Voice of Pain, his features twisted with the agony that he had thought himself exempt from. With every word he spoke, Vyer's timbre changed, swinging wildly from sterile tone to human-like frenzy.
"Thanos attacks without warning! His minions' attacks weaken our barrier while Galactus makes its energy his own! Soon the realm shall be opened, and the Tribunal's forces will pour inward and destroy us utterly!"
Wylig's head swam, his sight careering up to the threatening visage of the World Killer, and back to his beleaguered ally. A bright starblast bloomed near the attacker's haggard features, accompanied by a great roaring of immortal existence being interrupted.
The Son of Pain shouted over the maelstrom of horrific sounds, his voice cracking like old wood, "Lord Eyalus moves against Galactus, but he cannot be victorious alone! The Tribunal's forces surround their ally, protect him from our attacks!"
The Dark Watcher nodded, seeing a second small swarm of flies buzzing about the Ravager's ornate headpiece. From them too issued vibrant streams of orange and yellow, emerald silver, tearing into the other pack of insects. The sky seemed to bleed, and appeared an upended city in the evening, so many varied lights and sounds were there in the cosmic conflagration.
"A small garrison will be left at the base of the Tree of Pain, Termineus and his Cyclopteans, Valtorr, Cytorrak, and the Timekeepers." The renegade was already lifting off into the air, even as he continued to issue orders, "The rest, attack the Tribunal's army. Inform them of this now, Vyer. Go!"
The Voice of Pain nodded hastily and tore off through the energy-laden air, jetting towards those he had been ordered to visit. Wylig himself neared the massive frame of Galactus, his eyes burning like twin suns. The Killer, devoid of thought or emotion in his feeding, seemed at the same time touched with infinite sadness and infinite pain. Even as he sought to destroy his foes, the creature once called Galan appeared drained of satisfaction, and filled with sorrow.
From the corner of his eye the Dark Watcher saw a mystical being scream and then die, disintegrating to ash. Wylig had never known his name.
He saw his allies, the In-Betweener, Tyrant, and the Shaper of Worlds, fight valiantly, tearing into the enemy swarm with all the strength they could must. Sentient Black Stars and Nebulae were torn to ribbons, too slow and combat-ignorant to avoid their attackers. Nevertheless, Thanos' swarm seemed to shrink not at all, every line of fallen entities replaced by another brigade of mediocre cosmic forces.
Then, suddenly, Galactus seemed to blink away his swollen apathy and see once more. His blazing eyes looked past Wylig and his forces, at something infinitely more threatening beyond.
The disruption of the cosmic tide was enough to inform the Dark Watcher as to the identity of the World Killer's foe, but the visual sight was yet impressive. Huge, large as Galactus himself, rose the sharp and elongated body of the Lord of Pain. His eyes throbbed redder than freshly spilled blood, and his massive, razor-bladed wings stretched out across the sky.
Eyalus reveled in the carnage, drank in the suffering and agony of his friends and enemies alike. As easily and surely as Galactus had fed upon his realm, now too did the Lord of Pain feed on the destruction that Hunger had wrought.
Both armies sped away from the massive form of the World Ravager, as the titanic frame of Eyalus fell upon Galactus. It was only then that Wylig realized the full scope of what he had doomed the Omniverse to endure.
Continued in Chapter 4
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