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
Follows events in The Twilight War,
Forged Before Nightfall, and Part One:
Continued from Part Two: Longest Night Chapter Five
The Supreme Intelligence's great lakes called eyes slowly opened, his matchless intellect spurred from a stunted slumber by a familiar ringing. The Kree super-computer the warm light of the living machine's intellect. "My contacts have indicated a large artifact matching the description of the Deviant matter-block was discovered in the outer reaches of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Unfortunately, it was later salvaged by an identified group consisting of three unknown individuals, apparently returned to their homeworld."
"My powers ebb with each passing minute we remain in contact, Ronan." Supremor said wearily, yet with the unmistakable tone of assured command, "The interference caused by the cosmic warfare taxes even my abilities. Speak quickly."
The Accuser's brow furrowed, confusion passing momentarily across his cold features like a slight ripple in an otherwise placid lake. The Supreme Intelligence's admission of weakness struck the Kree soldier far harder than he ever would have thought, and it took a moment for his composure to return in earnest.
"The planet specified as the origin of this trio is Earth." said Ronan finally, and bluntly.
Supermor seemed unfazed by the surprise, "If the Deviant matter-block is indeed on Earth, that will make it all the harder to retrieve. Your contacts are reliable?"
The Accuser nodded, "They have yet to provide me with unreliable information - I pay them well."
The Supreme Intelligence debated internally for a moment, the Kree's stoic image flickering in his mind's eye. Finally the organic super-computer said, "You will have to move stealthily, and without the benefit of your starship, as it will prove too easily detectable. Your goal will be to transport the matter-block to the High Evolutionary’s outpost on Mars. You have a small group of individuals you can trust to aid you in this task?"
"Yes, Supremor. Captain Atlas along with Doctor Minerva will prove more than capable in assisting me."
Supremor's expression was nakedly suspicious, even as Ronan's image begun to shudder more violently, the colors and stark lines of his armor distorting as the Supreme Intelligence fought to maintain their contact over the troubled light-years. Despite the growing interference, the Accuser recognized the dangerous cast to his leader's countenance.
"Both have proven utterly loyal since we retrieved them from their backwater hiding place." the Kree assured. "At first Atlas was more than ambivalent toward your far-reaching plan for the Kree Empire, but Minerva has since convinced him of its innate rightfulness. Once more they are your loyal soldiers, Supremor, as much as I am."
"I should hope you are correct, Ronan." The Accuser's visage became nearly incomprehensible, fading, "Make your way to Earth with due haste. I can maintain this conversation no longer."
"We are nearly -"
The Kree's response died in mid-thought, though its remainder was obvious. Ronan's voice trailed off into a whispered memory in Supremor's mind as the living machine's great eyes slowly slid shut once more. The sensations of the physical began to slip away as he fell once more into slumber, regenerating the energies he had expended through extra-galactic communication. The great computer's mind remained partially alert, however, waiting for further word from his comrades, though the Intelligence hoped those words would be long in coming. It was rest he desired now, more than anything.
The dimensional fabric, already taxed, gave way before the incessant prodding of the insect within its fold and expelled the nuisance into black space. The silvered form of Victor Von Doom materialized within the war-torn scene, the stars near and far flickering like candles nearly depleted of wax and wick.
"By Odin’s blood!" Thor exclaimed as he regained his vision, "The universe itself doth bleed!"
Indeed, to the Asgardians mystic view it did appear that the raven cloth of the heavens bled. Great rakes tore across the ebony carpet, and within the gashes, reality throbbed crimson and purple, as if great muscles lay beneath the black skin that so readily presented itself.
"The war of the cosmic beings is doing untold amounts of damage to the Omniverse." Doom pronounced coldly, though even his voice betrayed a hint of subdued fear, "In areas such as these, where numerous battles have taken place, the tapestry that comprises existence is dangerously frayed, revealing the inner workings of the universe beneath."
A sun beat weakly nearby, a dark black splotch marring its face, where a great deal of its energy had been harshly removed to serve solely for the purpose of killing. All about the trio, the universe seemed to breathe with a discernible rattle, and the great ship of life creak ominously.
"Where are we?" Beta Ray Bill questioned, unable to identify the system. Massive, jagged pieces of debris floated all about them, fragments of smashed planets and the technologies born upon them. There was only carnage, only destruction on a scale that had never before been seen.
The Latverian peered across the tumult of wreckage, searching with eyes along with his pilfered cosmic senses, "We are in the primary Shi’ar system, or what remains of it. This area has obviously been heavily contested by the various warring cosmic factions. We must act quickly to enact Thanos and Uatu’s plan, otherwise the entire universe will suffer a similar fate."
"It is unlike you to follow the orders of another, Doom." the Thunder God said pointedly, "But you seem to serve the Watcher and the Titan with little resistance."
"Doom does not serve anyone, Asgardian. In this situation I have allied myself with beings who are more knowledgeable than even myself - I will not allow my universe to come to ash, as yours did, Thunder God."
Thor’s teeth gritted at the mentioned of his ruined homeland and his features grew tight with anger. The Latverian gave him a piercing look.
"Now you see why what I do."
"We do not have time for this," Beta Ray Bill broke in, "as Doctor Doom pointed out." He inclined his mystic hammer at a distant starburst, far brighter and more violent than any mere sun, "That must be where the Soul Gem is."
"The location of that cosmic upheaval is very near the Shi’ar homeworld, Chandilar." Doom said, already beginning to head toward the massive disturbance.
"Then we must move quickly!" Thor shouted in the void, "We must put an end to the conflict, and help any survivors."
The dim stars in the distance began to blur as the trio slipped momentarily into Hyperspace. Despite the tumultuous surroundings of that energy dimension, Doom turned and said to the Thunderer, "There will be no survivors, if the battle is taking place so near the planet. It is unlikely the Shi’ar homeworld even remains intact as a celestial body any longer."
"Even if that is so," Thor retorted, tirelessly and nobly optimistic, "we shall still do our best to help survivors, if there are as such."
Doom did not waste his breath again, and allowed the Thunderer to believe what he wished.
The chaos of Hyperspace faded quickly as the unlikely trio dropped back into the normal pathways of reality, having traversed light-years in little more than a small handful of moments. Nevertheless, the disorder they had experienced sojourning through that realm paled before the destructive ataxia which reigned in a deadly crescent around the Shi’ar cradle-world of Chandilar.
Thor and Beta Ray Bill’s mouths gaped open with naked wonder as they raised their eyes to behold the towering giants who warred far above them. The remnants of the energy they expended raining down on the planet below, searing life away wherever a burning droplet touched. Below, the screaming of the dying masses howled inaudible in the void, though their suffering was evident - the continents and seas were charred and boiled, great acrid clouds of black smoke blanketing the scarred atmosphere. A twisted halo of debris encircled the mortally wounded orb, shattered remnants of the wondrous stations and habitat-rings that had proudly crowned the throne-world.
All about, the night-void was filled with sizzling energy, the cosmic droplets burrowing into the fabric of space, tearing the eternal tapestry. Again there were the great throbbing gashes which ran through the ether nearby, but these ragged wounds glowed with even greater intensity, bleeding deep shades of purple and angry blue, painting all in that same dour palette. Around Chandilar, there was only death and carnage, a palpable roar which was deafening to the most perceptive of senses, a background clangor that promised even greater atrocities as time slipped slowly by.
"’Tis the Black Celestial!" the Thunder God exclaimed, pointing at the armored giant who contested many miles above the Asgardians helmeted head.
Doom nodded, his mask concealing his expression, even as fire bloomed near the towering shape of the Space God, glinting off the Latverian’s polished aegis. The monarch’s attention turned to the Apostate’s foe for the first time, "Contesting against the Phoenix, the protector of the Shi’ar."
The flaming bird shrieked in the vacuum, pouring a river of cosmic power from its maw, attempting to burn the very armor from Tiamut’s stolid steel shape. The Celestial remained implacable and emotionless as ever, retaliating with slow, deliberate efforts, driving his fist into the Phoenix’s beaked visage, or releasing a torrent of force from his artificial features.
Floating ‘round the great form of the Dreamer, firing away impotently with hundreds of blazing turrets. There hovered what remained of the majestic Shi’ar armada - several dozen dish-shaped battle-craft, outfitted with the firepower to lay a small planet to waste, but proving ineffective a gnats against the defenses of the Great Renegade.
Occasionally a stray blast from one of the massively minute craft would strike a portion of the Space God’s armor, which had been chipped away by combat with the Phoenix, and Tiamut’s reaction would be instant. The battleship would explode in flaming debris, willed into death by the Celestial’s anger. So it went, bloodily, as the trio watched from below, and so it had gone for far, far too long, as the sector see-sawed back and forth between the control of Wylig and the control of Eternity.
"Where is the Soul Gem?" Beta Ray Bill finally asked, able to tear himself away from the fascinatingly terrible conflict.
Doom snapped from his own reverie, painfully, his own senses far more embroiled in his observance than the false Asgardians had been. He inclined his sight down toward the blackening planet below, "The Gem is somewhere on Chandilar."
"There must be more cosmic beings battling below." Thor volunteered, already making for the beleaguered sphere. As if to cement the Thunder God’s assertion, a sudden golden spark exploded from beneath the thick grey nimbus. With it came a shock wave of palpable power - such raw and reckless output could only be produced by entities born in the higher echelons of existence.
The horse-faced swad was not far behind his friend, both fearless, perhaps foolishly so. The Latverian hesitated for a moment, glancing back at the conflict above, just as the Phoenix swept a fiery wing across the Black Celestial’s armored skull, momentarily staggering the giant.
The power Doom had stolen from Galactus’ Worldship suddenly seemed infinitely less than it once had.
Orange sunlight streamed in through the expansive picture windows, pouring into Wendell Vaughn’s honeymoon suite. The cosmic hero was awakened slowly by the fingers of color, which touched his closed eyelids, painting his sleep with vibrant, bloody streaks and shades. The sunlight carried not only warmth, but the reflected images of what transpired far from the secure confines of the Sol System.
Quasar awoke with a start, the images conjured by his own mind wedded to the palpable dread which had sat squarely in his stomach for days. An iron weight which he carried within every moment of day and night, inescapable even in sleep. He sat up in the bed, looking out across the cityscape, seeing the sun, which not shone in far too long. The guilt gnawed at him even as he gazed out at the serenely cold vista - he was the Protector the Universe! His place was at Epoch’s side, even if that duty would take him into the very heart of the greatest conflict that had ever occurred.
Wendell looked down at his wife’s slumbering face, her delicate yet strong features held in a halo of her starblast mane, spread out as it was across the rumpled pillow. He sighed - that was why he could not journey off into the depths of war and risk his life.
The sound of running water drifted slowly to Quasar’s ears, and his gaze turned to notice that the bathroom door was open, a single strobe of weak light pouring through, splaying across the thick carpet. A shadow move in the midst of the singular shaft, a shadow in the shape of a man.
There came the slight squeak as the faucet was turned off, and the barely perceptible noise of feet padding on tile, and then on the thick carpeting. A figure strode out of the bathroom, wearing a simple blue bathrobe, his brown mane wetted and hanging down not far past the line of his strong jaw. His appearance was that of individual in his early twenties.
Appearances are often deceiving.
"Hey Dad." he said, seeing his father was awake.
"Hey Stakar." Quasar replied, almost sullenly. The fact that his own child nearly looked as old as he still took him by surprise every time the hero saw his son. Such was the curse and blessing of being married to an artificially engineered mate. In only days the offspring of Quasar and Kismet had grown exponentially - it was estimated by would reach full maturity by the end of that very day.
"We gonna go out and . . ." Stakar trailed off, searching for the correct word. He had devoured dictionaries and textbooks as soon as he had been able, giving himself an education in days that would take any normal man-years. Still, at times, Stakar drew a blank when it came to the simpler things in life.
"Patrol." Wendell finished, "Sure, we’ll go out and patrol today."
Stakar smiled widely, but not boyishly, "Great, I still need to work on my flying and aim. Remember yesterday, when I was aiming for the rock and almost hit that cow instead?"
Wendell nodded, stifling a laugh, remembering he’d never seen a bovine move so fast as when that burst of energy had come rocketing dangerously close to it. Quasar’s chagrin faded as he felt a disturbance in the fabric of space/time, a disruption that stood out from the constant background noise caused by the distant war.
Stakar’s fists glowed with power and were trained on the very spot his father pointed at by the time the figure had materialized in full.
"Don’t move!" the young warrior shouted with surprising power.
The emerald clad intruder casually put his gauntleted hands in the air, regarding the shouting youth with abject contempt.
"Doctor Doom?" Quasar said at first, before swiftly correcting himself, "No, Kristoff."
The interloper nodded slowly, as if he was afraid Vaughn would not catch the gesture if he performed it too fast.
"Yes, I am Kristoff Vernard, heir to the throne of Latveria and adopted son of the Lord Victor Von Doom. I have come here at his behest."
"What does your master want?" Kismet asked, her eyes still closed, her position on the bed unchanged. Of them all, only the boy-king seemed surprised, and even then only barely so. His recovery was instant.
"We require the location of your creators, known as the Enclave - you were the last one to spend time in their company, Kismet." Vernard explained, "The Master has a task for them."
The golden-skinned woman sat up in bed now, fixing the boy with a piercing, penetrating gaze, "What does Doctor Doom want with the Enclave?" she questioned, "Nothing good, no doubt."
"I cannot reveal that." Kristoff sneered.
Kismet’s golden pupils were intense, "You will, if you wish me to share with you the information you require."
"You know, then?"
The woman raised an eyebrow, "Maybe. Why do you want to speak with them?"
The boy debated, torn between how best to serve his master. He finally said, "The Master wishes to commission the Enclave to construct a new body for their first creation, Him - Adam Warlock."
Kismet’s interest was grimly peaked, "They would certainly be capable of performing such a task . . . But why? Adam is dead."
Kristoff made a dismissive, petulant noise, "It is highly unlikely that Adam Warlock is dead - perhaps his body is dead, but his spirit lives on."
"How do you know?" Quasar questioned, "Even if he did escape into Soul World, the Soul Gem was stolen seconds after his death."
The boy sighed and rolled his eyes, as if tired of explaining the mechanics of quantum theory to an infant, "A signal has been detected, emanating from the Soul Gem. Can there be any greater proof? Even now our allies go forth into the universe to seek him out, and retrieve his soul. When they return, a body will be needed to house Adam Warlock’s spirit once more."
Kismet considered the arrogant Kristoff’s words for a few moments, attempting to decide if they were true.
"I think he’s telling the truth." her husband said.
"Me too." her son seconded.
"Your family is not as foolish as they appear. Now tell me where the Enclave are." the boy said with surprising intensity.
Kismet looked over her new family, and then back at Vernard, "Majority rules, I suppose. After our encounter with Khatylis and the Silver Surfer, the Enclave and myself eventually returned to Earth. I became re-acquainted with Quasar, and my creators resumed their studies. When the Celestials returned and threatened the planet, the Enclave realized first-hand how powerful they were, and developed quite an interest in their genetic handiwork - they became particularly by the blood DNA structures that the Deviants displayed."
Wendell and Stakar listened intently, for it was a story Kismet had never shared with them before; she had always remained rather guarded of her time with those who had made her.
"Eventually, the Enclave became aware that the majority of the Lemurian Deviants had been fused into a single block of matter, and cast out in space. They agreed unanimously to go out and seek this treasure trove of genetic information. I have not seen them since."
Kismet hesitated for a moment, before the intent gaze of her new husband pushed her onward. "Not long ago they contacted me telepathically, indicating they had located the Deviant matter-block, but required my aid to move it back into their laboratory in the Pacific. I aided them as they asked - they remain there still, studying and learning from the Celestials’ handiwork."
The Latverian child scoffed, "All this time wasted when the Enclave were right before my very eyes . . . I must seek them out immediately." The insufferable child made to leave, but was stopped by Kismet’s words.
"I wouldn’t advise that, Kristoff. My creators made it clear to me they would appreciate no intrusions during their research. If you approach them you’ll have a fight on your hands, and one you won’t be able to win."
Kristoff stroked his armored chin, "Perhaps if I utilized only my own resources you would be correct, but I possess a vessel crafted by the insurmountable genius of the Master himself. That alone shall guarantee the cooperation of the Enclave."
Quasar chuckled, "I wouldn’t be so sure of that, bud. I seem to remember Doom not being able to beat the Dazzler, once. How great can his intellect be?"
"That was an impostor, a Doombot." Kristoff spat, venomously.
Vaughn put his hands up, feigning innocence, "Oh . . . sorry to tarnish your armor, kiddo."
Kismet smiled, but made a gesture indicating she wanted silence, "My husband tells me the universe is in a very sorry state. Is Doctor Doom trying to alleviate this situation, or merely capitalize on it?"
"The Master has all the power he desires for now - he has no wish to rule over ash and corpses."
The golden woman nodded, obviously considering the situation, "Though they will be angry with me for revealing their location, the Enclave will be much more likely to help you if I accompany you to their island."
Stakar and Quasar’s heads snapped around in unison.
Kristoff’s brow furrowed, and he said defensively, "Your help is not necessary, I-"
"The three men who compose the Enclave all possess cosmic power that is equal to my own! If they do not wish to speak with you, your death will be a quick one, no matter what type of combat vessel you bring. However, Doom’s reputation is well-known - if you fail, I know he will get what he wants from my creators, even if it means disposing of them in the end. The Enclave are good men - they’ve made mistakes in the past, but they still don’t deserve to come to harm just for swatting an annoying insect. And I know that’s exactly what will happen if they hurt you and Doom becomes aware of it."
The boy-king was silent. He could not argue.
"Besides Adam Warlock and I are like brother and sister - I would like to see him walking among the living once more, and for solely that reason, rather than whatever you have planned for him."
"Fine," Kristoff said wearily, sick of the useless moral talk, "We will depart for the Eteocles immediately."
"Hold on there just a minute, bud - I’m going too." Quasar said, turning to Kismet "I’m not leaving you alone with him, even if he is just a kid - he’s Doctor Doom’s kid, after all. He probably has some Matchbox tanks that shoot real missiles . . ."
Stakar glanced at his father, and proclaimed, "Then I’m coming too."
Wendell gave him a stern look, but his son pressed on, "Dad, you know I’m powerful - probably as powerful as you are right now. All I need is training, and this is my first real mission. I’ve gotta do it one day . . ."
Quasar nodded reluctantly, admitting, "Well . . . I guess I knew this day was coming - I just wasn’t expecting it to happen a week after you were born!"
Stakar smiled and agreed, as did Kismet. Kristoff merely rolled his eyes.
Thanos stared off into space, lost in the deep, unfathomable crennels unique to his own mind. He ruminated in silence, as he often did, for there were few beings with whom he could converse as an equal. The Titan had surrounded himself with nearly all those individuals in this case - unfortunately, most had been dispatched on errands - another was, momentarily, deceased.
His patience with gazing out into the featureless void waning, Thanos turned and strode towards Uatu and Orikal, who conversed openly and freely, as if they had known one another for many years. Both regarded the Titan as he approached, but did not discontinue their interplay.
"… I am surprised the barrier allowed me through." the former prisoner of the Troll King said, "I had thought you had spoken to Elorkhaios about only allowing through Thanos."
"I had, Orikal." the Watcher replied, "I was unaware that you were accompanying him until your arrival. Elorkahios is obvious in constant contact with his barrier and is aware of all beings who approach it."
"Orikal was a last-minute consideration on my part." the Eternal volunteered, coming to a stop between the two entities, forming a triangle of guile, cunning, and power, "Nevertheless, he shall prove exceedingly important in the future."
"How so?" Uatu questioned.
"He is the greatest weapon-smith in the cosmic hierarchy, capable of altering energy and molecular structures to maximize their effectiveness in combat. Our numbers are small - we will require all the advantages in raw power that we can acquire."
"It is unfortunate, but true . . ." Orikal admitted, "The Troll King used me for the same purpose, though in that case I created weapons to war against Asgard. However, Thanos has convinced me that these circumstances are quite different - his explanation of the true purpose of this war further swayed me into joining his cause. It was then a simple matter to escape from Eternity’s sight."
"Simple?" the Watcher questioned, "I was not aware shedding the greatest artifact in the Omniverse was an easy task."
Thanos’ eyes shone, "When the enemy has all the necessary information to split the Infinity Equation off from one’s spirit, it is quite a simplistic task. Nevertheless, I still find myself adjusting to this mortal sphere once more. This transition has proved far more difficult than the period after my separation from the Infinity Gauntlet, due to the differences in how long I possessed each font of power."
"That leads me to a question that has festered since you explained the truth to me." Orikal inquired, "What are the Infinity Gems? They cannot be what Death’s Infinity Well made them out to be . . ."
Uatu and the Titan looked at one another, and were instant agreement. The Watcher shared, "As you know, during the Prime Divergence, the Supreme Being was split into four separate but unequal portions, each representing a different dominating aspect of the Omniverse’s Creator: justice and service reflected in the Living Tribunal, jealousy and self-interest embodied in the Antithesis, the creative urge embodied in Elorkahaios, and the remainder of the Supreme-Consciousness incarnated within the Divine Remnant, which exists outside the borders of the Omniverse - the same entity which the Living Tribunal both reviles and serves. Nevertheless, the fracturing caused by the Antithesis’ rebellion was not a clean break - remnant energies existed, which were not absorbed into the four main divergences. These remnant spheres eventually manifested into familiar forms such as: the Infinity Gems, the Infinity Equation, the Ultimate Nullifier and the Infinity Well."
"The Infinity Well possessed the truth, but merely saw it in an incorrect light." Thanos said, "The Infinity Well is aware of more than even it knows - over time its memories have warped and changed, those shifts in recollection often caused by the trauma of surviving the final cataclysms which end each aeon and begin a new another."
"Fascinating . . ." Orikal admitted, for it was an unlikely statement for a cosmic being to mouth, "The Infinity Equation is the most potent of the remnant energies?"
Thanos nodded, "Forged by the Tribunal himself, and meant for enhance his own power, so he would possess a decided advantage if the Antithesis rose again. Unfortunately for him, the Tribunal did not foresee his polar opposite absorbing all other timelines and multiverse's aside from this one, making them equals once more. However, that action has also compressed each of the aforementioned artifacts into this realm, reviving their potency. Where before, due the natural tendency for divergences, the Infinity Gems could affect only a single reality, they can now affect all realities, due to the situation the Antithesis has caused. The Reality Gem alone is a formidable weapon."
"Unfortunately it is in Wylig’s hands . . ."
The Titan smiled, "For how long, we shall see. With those Gems in hand, we shall be able to sow chaos within the lines of both the Dark Watcher and Eternity, bringing them both to a swift, final confrontation."
"What of the Ultimate Nullifier? The Infinity Well cannot be of any use in combat . . ."
Thanos agreed with the final sentiment, and then said, "The location of the Ultimate Nullifier remains unknown - Doom was unable to locate during his attack on Galactus’ vessel. My assumption is that the World Devourer is keeping it on his person, to insure it will not be stolen. A wise choice on his part - the Ravager has never been a fool."
"The Infinity Equation must also be retrieved." the Watcher reminded, still somewhat weakly.
The Titan eyed his comrade suspiciously, "It shall be, when Wylig’s forces are defeated - we can then use it to destroy the Tribunal and the Antithesis, and assure the Omniverse that this conflict will not repeat itself." He paused, "What ails you, Uatu? Since my arrival you have appeared sickly."
"My sojourn to and from the meeting with Elorkhaios weakened me - for a few moments he forced me into a mortal form, that of a human, and I am still shaken by the experience. His purpose for doing so is one I have not had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time reflecting upon, though I am sure it shall become plainly obvious in the future. It is of little consequence now - my strength has nearly returned in full."
"Good," Thanos nodded, "for what I said before was not a lie - even your power will be required to fight Wylig’s and Eternity’s armies."
"I cannot, the taste of killing another still burns my throat. I will continue to aid you in any way I can, but I will not engage in battle."
The Titan’s expression was grim, "Even with Orikal’s enhancements, the Infinity Gems, and our strategy, we are still outnumbered greatly - a single loss may doom our chances of succeeding. If the time is dire, you will fight."
The weapons-smith broke in, before the confrontation could escalate between observer and manipulator, "Perhaps it would benefit us all if you further explained your intentions, Thanos. So far your descriptions of our goals have remained nebulous and vague."
The hulking Eternal tore his gaze away from Uatu’s dark eyes, and strode idly around the chamber as he spoke, looking out at the stars once again. Both Orikal and the Watcher listened intently, although the latter less so - much of what the Titan said had already been discussed between the two, jointly conjured by them both.
"Eternity’s army remains larger than Wylig’s and with my departure they shall fight with renewed ferocity and organization. However, even Magrashem is not as a capable a general as Wylig; despite the disparity in numbers, the Dark Watcher’s army will remain a formidable opponent. In time, his legions will crumble, despite whatever miraculous victories and upsets he manages - I do not believe any being could win this war in this situation. Unfortunately, the Omniverse’s continuity - strained by the current war and the battle between the Tribunal and his Antithesis - will not survive until the end of this conflict - before Wylig is defeated and executed, reality will break down, and the entirety of existence will collapse.
"I will not allow such an end to come to my universe. A final confrontation must be forced between Wylig’s and Eternity’s forces. We will engineer that confrontation using any means necessary. When it occurs, we shall be present, attacking both factions, eliminating key leaders, and causing both efforts to crumble. There will be mutual destruction, and an end to hostilities. It is then that we will embark on our true task.
"With the distraction of the war removed, we will be able to concentrate on locating the plane of existence on which the Antithesis and the Living Tribunal contest. When it is found, the power of Elorkhaios and the Infinity Equation will be linked and both enemies will be destroyed. So shall end our part in things - events shall gradually return to normal, the Omniverse shall slowly heal, and the tree of reality will multiply once more."
"In the end," Uatu said, "our plans all depend on Elorkhaios. If he does not agree to join us, we will be ultimately unsuccessful."
"Let us hope that does not happen." Thanos said coldly, resuming his position at the far portal, and lapsing into silence once more.
The acrid nimbus of strangling smoke cleared, allowing the trio an expansive view of the remnants of the Shi’ar throne-world, Chandilar. The oceans bubbled as if inhabited by all many of beasts, all of whom seemed to be quite angered and agitated. The seas were tinted countless variations of gruesome shades - black, orange, red, emerald green - and a thick yellow haze seemed to clutch to the surface of the polluted water, killing it inch by inch.
Massive columns of ashen-filled smog rose up into the sky, joining the low-hanging clouds of roiling raven midnight. The small vestiges of welkin remained were raw patches that throbbed angry reds and pinks, as if the skin had been harshly scraped away from the knee of some giant. Through the shattered dome of atmosphere constantly fell the cosmic rain, great streaks of undulating golden color that crashed down into the broken continents, bringing forth renewed bouts of explosion and death.
Those same continents were alight with raging, colossal fires, so great in number that the land beneath was nearly indecipherable. As the trio drew nearer, they began slowly to pick out the blackened craters glinting with broken glass - the remains of Chandilar’s proud cities. Strokes of ebony ran across the land, as if painted by that same lazy giant who had skinned his knee.
"It is unthinkable . . ." Beta Ray Bill said with subdued horror, "This planet, reduced to such ashen rubble by the actions of beings that do not even pay attention to the destruction they wreak."
"That is why this cosmic war must be ended swiftly," Doom said coldly, "otherwise this fate awaits all the millions of worlds scattered throughout the cosmos." The monarch’s red eyes focused on a large, jagged, sparkling mass, and he pointed towards it with his silver finger, "That is where the signal is emanating from."
The horse-faced warrior nodded gravely as they began to direct themselves toward the shattered crystal, "Chandilar’s capital city, home of Lilandra’s palace and the barracks of the Imperial Guard. That will be the most secure refuge for survivors."
The wind cut like blades into even the Thunder God’s grim features as they neared, so filled was it with debris. His keen sight picked out the familiar shapes of men battling one another, with both bodies and weapons. Strands of color fired between the two small armies, the major outbursts springing from only a handful of beings. Thor recognized the majority of them quickly, as he and his companions descended still further, the broken spires of the city now casting twisted shadows across them.
"’Tis the In-Betweener and the Elder known as Champion, accompanied by a group of warriors I know only as the Brethren! Moreover, against them struggle the familiar shapes of Kosmos and Kubik, and at their side, can it be, Jack of Hearts and Ganymede? They are surrounded by a group of human-shaped creatures who appear forged from the very wreckage itself!"
Beta Ray Bill was filled with surprised concern, as he saw his allies fighting such overpowering numbers, "It is them, along with another Spinster - Persephone! And more, they fight not only with Champion, but with the wicked Tyrant as well!"
The Latverian was uncaring, "The In-Betweener is in possession of the Soul Gem - we must retrieve it from him and return to Uatu’s citadel with due haste. No time can be wasted in useless combat."
"Nay!" the Thunder God proclaimed with fire, causing the entire group to halt in mid-air, "The son of Odin shall not abandon his comrades in their time of need - we will fight alongside them until their foes are vanquished."
The false Asgardian nodded in agreement, "And we must locate Gladiator and Lilandra as well, see if we can be of any help rescuing survivors."
"Fools," Doom spat, "there is not the time for this! Aiding the inhabitants of this solitary world shall condemn billions more - there will be not wasted effort in this place."
"Nay, armored varlet," Thor said in a low ominous tone, "we shall aid these people. You and I will assist them in battle, while our comrade Beta Ray Bill journeys to the Imperial Palace and learns of what else can be done."
The horse-faced swad was in complete agreement, and wasted no time with words - he was off, jetting through the air, heading towards the glittering heap of rubble he knew to be the corpse of the Shi’ar Imperial Palace. Bill looked back only once, and saw his two allies descending towards the field of battle - it appeared the arrogance of the warrior had proven more potent than the arrogance of the tyrant.
The Korbinite raced through the struggling air, soon entering the dim remains of the humbled castle through its collapsed dome, and he was struck by how much that ruined shard of opulence appeared like a half-closed eye.
In the folds of the artificial darkness, Beta Ray picked out the flickers of dying fires, and corpses - countless corpses. Burned, eviscerated, impaled upon wreckage, suffocated, drowned - how many ways those soldiers and civilians had died the alien did not dare contemplate. The ache in his heart growing with every passing moment, he sojourned on, doing his best to ignore the death, and always searching for some sign of life.
As the charred hallways began to grow more familiar to the Korbinite, so too did the cadavres; Bill’s eyes now saw the faces of members of the Imperial Guard, rather than the soot-stained countenances of strangers. He felt tears coming to his eyes, and let them flow freely, blowing back across his horse-features as he flew, the wetness drying only seconds later.
Another tear came, this one burning out of the sky. It slammed into the wreckage, re-igniting fires and disintegrating the dead and flinging the debris all about once again, finding infinite ways to re-arrange the carnage. Bill avoided the flying shards deftly and carried on in silence, the massive doors which led to the Imperial throne-chamber rising up before him - both were torn down and reduced to metal shreds; curled metallic fingers beckoned the kind-hearted warrior into the obsidian dwelling within.
The air stank of burned flesh and old rot as Beta Ray Bill swept in through the torn doors. His eyes searched the darkness, and the many galleries, which had been filled with eager court-observers, were now eyeless juries of death, their jaws hanging agape, the muscles long ago fled of animation.
He felt his spirit wrench at the sight and ripped his eyes away, moving with increasing speed toward the throne of Lilandra. Still he sensed no life within the gloomy palace confines, but as he neared the un-toppled throne, Bill caught the smallest signs of continued existence, lurking nearby.
The swad landed lightly before the throne, taking care not to step upon the bodies of the many retainers and guards which lay scattered about the Shi’ar seat of power. In the distance, he heard another bolt of cosmic power fall into the palace’s skeleton, but paid little attention.
Hesitantly the Korbinite moved to the sizable space behind the throne, and saw the origin of those scant readings of life. A large shape sat huddled upon the floor, cradling another within his arms. The man’s shoulders shook with sobs, and the sound of his weeping was audible, if one listened closely enough. His wet cheeks shone in the dust-filled light, and he seemed more boy than man as he clutched the lifeless shape to his chest.
Bill took an experimental step forward, and said, in a whisper, "Gladiator?"
The sobbing paused.
"Kallark?" spoke the Korbinite, this time louder.
The Praetor raised his eyes to Bill’s and they still glistened with unwept tears. Quickly they lit with recognition, "Beta Ray Bill?"
He nodded, "Yes, Gladiator, I have come to help."
"There can be no helping us!" Kallark said with sudden ferocity, "The Shi’ar are dead, the Imperial Guard are dead - Lilandra is dead."
Gladiator released the cold form he had been cradling, and showed the half-face of it to the Korbinite. As he said, it was the Majestrix, half her serene features badly burned.
"There are no survivors?" Bill asked, unbelieving.
"A few." the Praetor said, appearing slowly to regain his senses. He laid his ruler’s stiff form gently on the ground and stood, "They are huddled deep underground, as far from the onslaught above as possible. Then there are those who choose to fight, up in orbit, in the last remaining battleships. A futile endeavor."
"How long has it been like this?" the alien inquired, indicating the limitless ruin, "How long have you been here?"
"I don’t remember . . ." Gladiator admitted, the light suddenly playing across several large gashes, which ran along his neck, "Too long. They came suddenly, and we were surprised - they weren’t even attacking us, but our defenses were incapable of withstanding even the aftershocks of their battle. Chandilar has been dying for days. And I have remained here, guarding my Majestrix . . . If I could not protect her in life, I shall protect her in death, at least until my own time comes."
"You’ve done nothing to help those others who live?"
Kallark’s eyes grew wide, "I can do nothing, Bill. My family is dead, as well as the Imperial Guard I once led. Alone . . . I can only wait to die, along with my people - that is the only avenue that remains for me. My power is nothing compared to those forces above."
Bill was struck by how crushed and weak Gladiator seemed, he being one of the proudest, mightiest warriors the Korbinite had ever encountered - such it seemed was the fate of all men who trifled with those very same forces the broken Praetor had mentioned. Yet an inner fire still seemed to burn in the Strontian’s harried frame, one that would take little to fan into a roaring frenzy once more. If that flame was born of an affront to the warrior’s honor or merely the desire to take revenge, the Korbinite did not care - Gladiator’s strength would be a great asset, and as such Bill sought to sway him with the fewest words as possible.
"Perhaps it is not, Kallark, not enough to stop them. But together, we can bring this conflict to an end, and begin to rebuild Chandilar, and all the other ravaged worlds throughout the universe." The horse-faced soldier extended his hand to the shaken Guard, "How could a man as noble as yourself refuse? Honor requires that we fight, despite the odds, even if it means our deaths."
Gladiator eyed Beta Ray Bill’s outstretched hand with skepticism, finally taking it in a firm grasp, "I will help you, Bill, but it doesn’t matter - if the Phoenix cannot vanquish our enemies, we have no hope to. Indeed, we shall go to our deaths."
The Korbinite nodded gravely, saying, "At least we shall die as warriors." and then launching into the air, not looking back. Kallark watched as Bill hurtled off into the dim grey shadows, and he gave a final glance back at the prone shape of Lilandra. In her blank eyes he saw the dead faces of all those countless Shi’ar who had died, and he followed Beta Ray Bill soon afterward, desperately trying to escape those haunted visages.concentrated despite his own weariness, resolved the cloying static which obscured the high-pitched siren sound. Finally began to twist that ringing it what it truly was, an intricate combination of sounds and images, projected from far, far away.
That familiar ringing became a familiar face and voice, appearing before the boundless screen of Supremor's mind's eye.
"You have located the Deviant matter-block?" the master of what remained of the Kree Empire questioned, though his lips did not form the words, nor say them aloud.
"I believe so, Supreme Intelligence." replied Ronan, his chiseled features flickering in.
Continued in Chapter 7
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