Protectors of the Universe #13

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Protectors of the Universe #13
"Aftermath: Part One of Three: Consequences"

(Note: This story continues from Protectors of the Universe #12.  For other stories taking place in this continuity, see the POTU Archive Page.)

For more on the characters in this story, see our new
Official Handbook to Protectors Universe

See "The Story So Far" for information on events in #1-11

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Aftermath Part One of Three: Consequences

“The Story Since Then”: Rune has been returned to the Ultraverse along with the Godwheel, and the rift in reality has closed. The cost to the Protégé was the loss of his Ultraversal aspects. What remains of the Protégé is the man native to the Marvel Universe, now referring to himself as "Reon." The Protectors begin to weigh the implications of a Church without its god…

“Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself over wise.”
– Old Testament, Ecclesiastes, VII, 16

The Grinner’s forces subdued the final bastion of Grand Inquisitors within the Imperial Compound, securing the entryway to the Primal Temple. Skirmishes outside the Compound dwindled as combatants on both sides witnessed the heavens implode. The Godwheel that had loomed only briefly above them from horizon to horizon literally poured out of the sky and into the Temple’s courtyard.*

(*See POTU #12 for events leading to this tale.)

From outside the Compound, Gabriel the Air-Walker and Starglow approached once more. Both seemed battle-worn, but without apparent injury. With the ground-to-air attacks interrupted, they descended upon the entrance to the Primal Temple adjacent to the Bee Hive complex, leaning against each other for support.

The remainder of the Protectors and their allies quickly rallied there, and made their way into the sacred edifice to investigate Rune’s fate. They met up with several Protectors already inside the place of worship. Soon the gathered allies included: Starhawk, Starfox, Quasar, Kismet, the golden being formerly known as Protégé Kireleon, Nova, Jack of Hearts, Ganymede, Gamora, White Raven, Binary, Phoenix, Adam Warlock, Crucible, Ayesha, Him (the Magus), Her (the Goddess), Air-Walker, Starglow, Aleta, Replica, and Brotus. These twenty-two entities had fought and conquered the intergalactic empire that was the Universal Church of Truth. The implications were astounding, and the repercussions were already becoming evident.

Warlock was the first to speak. Addressing Starfox and the altered Protégé, he queried, “I assume everything went according to plan?” Both men nodded grimly in response. Adam noted that Eros was covered in facial bruises and abrasions that were quickly mending themselves. The physiology of a Titanian Eternal was superior in its healing process to that of most humanoid species.

At the Protégé’s signal, the Grinner’s private underworld army evacuated the Temple of indignant priests and defeated Grand Inquisitors alike. Soon, the Protectors and their allies were alone.

Within minutes of the Ultraversal implosion, the planetary defense grid finally came down. Simultaneously, the animated Him and Her entities regressed to a comatose state and slumped to the floor. The Protégé, now consisting of the two halves of the composite entity Gemini that were native to this Universe, explained the reason to those around him. “It was the Shu-Ji energy of the Ultraverse that made the planetary barrier impenetrable to natives of this Universe. It was that same energy that my former selves used to animate Ayesha’s newborn adult twins. As Adam correctly surmised, they will need extensive time to come to terms with their newfound humanity and its dichotomies.”

Crucible and Ayesha lifted their unconscious adult children, one each, and made their way back toward the Bee Hive. Crucible, unmasked during battle, seemed grief stricken. Ayesha seethed with what could only be loathing for Adam Warlock and his machinations. No one attempted to stop them. None could dispute the fact that they had earned the right to tend to their young.

After their departure, the newly incarnated Phoenix spoke. “I sense that the loss of sentient life planet-wide was in the hundreds. Though each life is to be cherished, given the scope of the conflict, the casualties were light. Still, thousands lay wounded about Sirus X. I am attempting to extend a healing aura about the world, but alas, my efforts against Bubonicus and his plague have drained me.”

Kismet stepped forward and took the Phoenix’s hand. “We have ample power among us if we cooperate.” One by one, those with superhuman powers held hands, even the recovering Starhawk who could barely stand on his own. The Phoenix energy flowed with the energies of body, mind, and spirit that were shared in the circle. Soon, an immense fiery bird form rose from the Primal Temple and encompassed the globe. Within instants, every wound that had not proven fatal was healed throughout Sirus X. Soon, the firebird retracted back into the new physical body of the Phoenix.

Starhawk’s stature straightened as he too felt strength return to him. Kismet turned to Adam. “Do you think the healing aura will help the Goddess and the Magus?”

“Unlikely,” responded her foster-sibling. “Their condition is not one of physical harm, but of emotional re-calibration. They were, separately, the Good and Evil within me. Now they must come to terms with bearing both the Good and Evil within each of them, as must I. I have several years’ experience with that, however. What they need is time.”

Turning to Gamora, Adam anticipated her question. “Nor will the aura help us. Our bodies must be adapted to withstand the might of our evolved life forces. I suspect that the Infinity Gems have permanently affected us in some manner. A few months in my cocoons will prove sufficient to align our bodies and souls.”

With the Shu-Ji powered grid-barrier down, the sky was filled with desperate ships, flooding all communications systems with requests for landing and clearance. Simultaneously, hundreds of ships requested departure, causing an air traffic control nightmare that would likely take days to unravel.  

Fortunately for those Protectors waiting beyond the planetary barrier, ship clearance was not a hindrance. Using the Godwheel implosion and the Phoenix entity’s manifestation as beacons, within minutes the Silver Surfer, Mantis, Gladiator, Doctor Strange, Thor and Firelord approached the gathered Protectors in the courtyard of the Primal Temple. Mantis rode on the Surfer’s board, gripping Norrin’s chest firmly from behind.

Starglow felt a twinge of what must have been jealousy at the sight. She was undergoing such emotional and physical upheaval, she was unsure of what she felt anymore. Her power surges and her encounters with Air-Walker only confused matters. She kept her silence, lest she say something she would later regret.

Shalla Bal was not the only one to feel jealousy; Brotus stifled the impulse to pound on the silvery figure that escorted his beloved Mandy. Eros had cryptically referred to the Chief Inquisitor as being “Mantis’ target,” and Gehenna Midas had recently all but confirmed that Mandy and the self-proclaimed Protectors of the Universe were working together. Still, even knowing that their cause had been just, his heart was no less broken by her abrupt and inexplicable departure. The Skrullian Replica’s brief impersonation of Mandy had only served to deepen the wound.

But as painful as it was to see Mandy by another man, his heart bore heavier burdens still. For Brotus had betrayed his god and his solemn oath, and no rationalization would make that fact less true. Despite his stature, he attempted to lose himself toward the rear of the crowd of heroes, hoping Mandy had not yet seen him. Knowing the layout of the Primal Temple well for security purposes, Brotus exited, convinced that he had gone unnoticed.

Replica watched as the Chief Inquisitor slipped between two columns. The young Skrull female whispered briefly into Aleta’s ear, then quickly departed in the same direction.

Before proper salutations could be exchanged among the large crowd of Protectors present, Epoch, daughter of Eon, also appeared among them without warning. The Cosmic Being had sensed the resolution of the conflict and the barrier’s dissolution. With seven additions to the group and six departed from the Temple, the crowd of heroes now totaled twenty-three.

Epoch addressed the throng of gathered cosmic heroes. “Mission accomplished, Protectors. Many of you performed beyond my expectations. Mantis, you are hereby summarily discharged from service.”

Both Quasar and Ganymede spoke simultaneously. “What?!” Quasar felt Epoch’s dictate required justification, while Ganymede felt that such a judgement call belonged to the Spinsterhood’s field leader.

Mantis’ head lowered. “Epoch is right, my friends. I abandoned my post in order to save the life of a single helpless sentient being.”

Gladiator was quick to come to her defense. “Mantis, your actions during the crisis with Galactus mark you forever as a worthy ally and hero in the eyes of the Shi’ar. Do not dismiss your contributions to our survival. Had you not left Sirus X just before the barrier was erected, the drama in Shi’ar space might have unfolded much differently.”*

(*See Marvel’s Galactus the Devourer 4 – 6 for details.)

Quasar spoke up once more. “This team was set up to be a democracy. All in favor of Mantis remaining on the team, say ‘Aye’!” The vote was unanimous among the Protectors present. Aleta, Binary, Phoenix, the Protégé, and White Raven said nothing, not being members of the group.

Ganymede turned to the five non-members. She noted the absence of Replica and Brotus, but there would be time enough to honor them as well. Ganymede thought of her recruitment efforts with Binary. She knew exactly what to do. “You have all proven your worth by our sides. I officially petition membership for all of you. Our Cause needs as much help as we can get.”

The altered Protégé called Reon shook his head. “I am honored, but no, the Universal Church of Truth is in desperate need of leadership. The alternative is civil unrest and possibly war with external forces ready to strike at the merest sign of weakness. I know where my duties lie.”

White Raven took her former lover’s hand and he did not protest. She did not know how deeply the changes in him would run. What if everything she found attractive in him had been banished to the Ultraverse? Whatever the case, she did know that Rune’s departure opened a phenomenal opportunity for her on Throneworld. “I agree, my place is here. Gamora, what about you?”

Gamora knew that this moment would come, but given her body’s condition, the answer was clear. “Maybe I’ll decide to stay once my body and mind are fully re-integrated, but for now my priority has to be healing the rift between them.”

Aleta turned to Ganymede, having considered her offer. “I am honored by your nomination, truly. But my place is with the Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Binary and Phoenix looked at each other and at the heroes gathered. Each contemplated the offer of membership carefully.

Binary ultimately smiled at Ganymede. “What I was searching for with the Universal Church of Truth was to become closer with my spiritual self, to rediscover that which had been lost for so long, buried as it was beneath the psyche of Carol Danvers of Earth. Although the Church can provide that to many, its attraction to me was marred by Rune’s sudden return from the Ultraverse. From what little I have seen of your Spinsterhood, I believe I can achieve my goals with you. I accept.”

Phoenix stepped forward as well. “My new human body and mind are an amalgam of the best you Spinsters have to offer. I must learn more about you to better understand myself. Until that maturity is attained, my place is among you.”

Another quick vote among the gathered Protectors and both Binary and Phoenix were officially inducted into the ranks of the Protectors of the Universe, within the subdivision of the Spinsterhood.

Ganymede noted the missing team members, particularly the one who had given her such difficulty at the onset of the mission. She addressed Epoch. “Where are Moondragon, Captain Marvel, and Drax the Destroyer?”

Epoch responded. “Genis is on Earth, having been molecularly bonded to the Terran, Rick Jones. Moondragon accompanies him, having been uncovered by Rune earlier due to her careless arrogance. Rune’s telepaths mind-wiped her of all recollection since before she joined the Spinsterhood. Drax is currently in the Microverse voluntarily. His intellect has become erratic once more.”

“How could such a thing happen?” Starfox asked, concerned for his friend.

Epoch gave the Titanian an impatient glare, but continued. “Numerous mental blocks in Moondragon’s mind await like landmines, possibly causing permanent amnesia or worse if triggered. She cannot be reminded of her service among the Protectors. You can consider her participation ended. Drax asked me to help him mentally forget as much of the past as Moondragon had, fearing he might slip and cause her memories to resurface. I adjusted him, and his fragile psyche did not take the strain well.”

Quasar was incensed. “You ADJUSTED him? What gave you the right to tamper with his mind?”

“I assure you, it was a voluntary procedure, but I see no need to justify my actions.”

Quasar would not let the matter lie. “You sound as Machiavellian as Thanos. I knew my concerns about your mysterious Timeless team were symptomatic of your changing outlook.”

“Oh, you need worry no longer about the Timeless. I have discarded them. The Guardians of the Galaxy were instrumental in eliminating them.”*

(* See Guardians of the Galaxy # 1 & 2 for details.)

“DISCARDED? ELIMINATING?” Quasar’s anger mounted.

Aleta disregarded the tension between godfather and goddaughter at the mention of her team. “Epoch, what has happened to the other Guardians of the Galaxy?”

“Once the Timeless members had outlasted their usefulness, the Guardians drove them back to their native Universes, much as you have done with Rune. As a result , however, the moon of Io is currently immersed in temporal radiation. Thoroughly uninhabitable, though it should clear off in a few Earth months.”

Ganymede’s fists clenched at the reference to Io’s condition. “Epoch, I entrusted you with the Spinsterhood’s Sacred Retreat…” Jack of Hearts attempted to calm her with a hand on her shoulder, but she jerked it away in anger. “And you! Why don’t you go find another goddess to bed!”

Jack’s eyes went wide, but he was struck speechless by the jeer. Epoch briefly turned an eye toward the Spinster, and without a hint of emotion, continued to address Aleta. “The Guardians managed to leave Io safely, and were last observed heading in the direction of the planet Mars. Since they too had served their purpose, I did not inquire further as to their intentions.”

Quasar could tolerate no more. “That’s it. I do want to call a vote for the dismissal of an associate of the Protectors! Epoch has confessed to her misdeeds and shows no remorse whatsoever. She needs to be taught a lesson that her actions have very real consequences among us ‘mere mortals’. Eppy, I’m doing this for your own good. Your parent, Eon, would be ashamed of your behavior. All in favor of Epoch’s involvement in the Protectors ending, say ‘Aye.’”

Epoch was ambivalent to the resounding circle of “Aye’s” in the group. Only Adam Warlock abstained from the vote. Ultimately it seemed merely a minor annoyance to her. “Very well, I have been contemplating leaving the vital interests of mortals to their own devices for some time now. This merely makes my decision easier. I sense a growing phenomenon of cosmic-level concern in the region of space known as the Crab Nebula. I shall depart immediately.”

Without even a farewell, Epoch’s physical manifestation shrank and disappeared before their eyes. Emotions were mixed, and many felt that this schism did not bode well for the future of the Protectors of the Universe.

Despite the ominous nature of the Cosmic Beings departure, Adam Warlock knew that other priorities must quickly be addressed. “As I mentioned earlier, Gamora, a few months in my energy cocoons will realign our bodies and souls. We should make preparations immediately. Unprotected, both our lives can be measured in hours.”

Gamora nodded, and asked the logical question, given that not two but three animated bodies emerged from their displaced graves now resting in the Bee Hive. “Adam, what about Pip?”

Replica followed Brotus in the form of a small rodent-like creature. She watched as he entered what must have been his quarters, and managed to enter as well before his door fully closed. Brotus’ quarters reflected the man’s personality. Stark and professional, yet detailed with interesting artifacts from Church history. Most notable was a stunningly crafted ritual sword displayed prominently above the mantle of a makeshift hearth. Brotus carefully removed the blade, lit a small fire within the hearth, knelt before it and began chanting. The words sent a shiver through Replica’s spine. These were chants she knew well, as they believed in the same religion. It gave her a sense of the vast history of her beliefs that the devout knew these hymns nearly a thousand years before her birth.

Replica also knew the meaning of the recited lines.

Still kneeling, Brotus quickly lifted the blade above his head, then turned it so that its point touched his chest at the spot nearest to his heart. He closed his eyes tightly. His teeth ground together, awaiting the pain that was to come. With one final phrase, Brotus used every iota of his strength upon the blade’s hilt to attempt to thrust it quickly through him in ritual sacrifice.

One millisecond passed, then another. Brotus strained upon the hilt, but neither pain nor movement came. He opened his eyes once more to see Replica in the form of a giant exoskeletal creature, clamping its claws on the blade. She spoke from no visible orifice. “I won’t let you do this!”

“Begone, Skrull! You have stripped me of my heart and my faith. Now you would strip me of my dignity as well?”

“Dignity? What dignity is there in taking your own life?”

“Do not presume to judge me. I am a man of honor, and I have been forced to betray that honor, the ultimate sin. Now I must pay the ultimate price.”

“I know that I can’t stop you from killing yourself indefinitely, so I’m going to let go. But if you have to punish yourself, can’t you think of a way that is more constructive to the greater good of the Church? Why can’t you devote your life to bringing the faith to others as penance?”

“To stop the ritual now would be cowardice.”

“To give up and die would be the real cowardice! The Church has never needed your talents more! You have so much to contribute, you can’t just throw it all away! Just think about it. Give it one week. If you can’t find a purpose in which to seek out redemption, you can always resort to this option. The sword will still be here.”

Brotus shook with tension, as tears streamed down the side of his face. “I don’t know if I have anything left to give…”

“Maybe you should let the Protégé decide that, or the Magus when he reawakens.”

Brotus still stung at the name of the god he had been forced to share with an empire. “Give me one good reason why I should stay my hand!”

“The last vestiges of the telepathic rapport that linked your memories with the planet* still linger between us. Let me use it to show you something.”

(* See POTU #10 for details.)

And in Replica’s mind were memories of legends told of the long and rich tapestry of history of the Universal Church of Truth. One of the chief champions of the cause in the post-Cosmic Union millennium was Brotus. Details were unclear, but Brotus protected the Matriarch, the Magus and the Protégé from countless assassination attempts, and in later years would ultimately succeed in a quest to recover the lost  Universal Truths.

“That… that is my destiny?”

“No, it is one alternate possibility. You have to make your own destiny.”

“I… I…” With that, Brotus released his grip on the sword. Replica did not know if the Chief Inquisitor’s facial expression was one of defeat or of relief. He found the words finally. “How can I deny that future?”

Replica returned to Skrull form and gently replaced the ritual blade on the mantle. She slowly removed her ankh from around her neck and placed it around his. Even kneeling Brotus was slightly taller than the young Skrull. “Here, this will serve as a reminder of  the possibilities the future holds.” Replica knew that there would never be a better time to utter the words that had stuck in her throat for days. “I’m… sorry about lying to you and impersonating Mandy. I realize now how much she must mean to you, and how much my actions must have hurt you.”

Brotus’ whisper was barely audible, even to Replica’s keen Skrullian hearing. “I… forgive you…”

Continued in Protectors of the Universe #14

The story continues in Protectors of the Universe #14.  Be sure to also check out our Cosmic Union Continuity Reference Page and Protectors of the Universe Reference Page for other stories in this continuity.  And don't forget to send some comments below!

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