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 Seven
Clouds painted in pure shades of heavenly white slowly gave way to darker grays as they sped through the sky. The change above was ignored by the trio plus one below as they tensely stalked through the spartan stronghold of the Enclave. The motley inhabitants of the welkin seemed to pause in their trek, peering down through the transparent ceiling, leering at the small inhabitants of the island outpost, waiting.
The walls of the remote laboratory pulsed with scarcely contained energy generated far below, threatening to burst out at any moment and cleanse the entire redoubt of offensive life. Nevertheless, as designed by the collective genius of the Enclave, those featureless walls remained unbroken.
Haunting emerald lights fell across the bolted metal floors, making even Stakar appear a twisted imitation of his normal self. All about the place there was the ever-present throb of unseen reactors, powering unseen experiments and unseen creations.
Kristoff’s gauntlets hummed with a power all their own, threatening to be released at the slightest provocation. He measured each step carefully, as if fearful every further footfall would bring potential death. Never before had he seemed so much the boy.
Quasar and Kismet seemed aged years by the strange, warping light. They strode side-by-side down the twisting corridor, vigilant, yet not so much as for themselves as for their child, who plunged ahead before his parents, daring to plumb the dangerous unknowns ahead before those more experienced than himself.
Fingers of vibrant golden light slowly crept across the steel floor, pulsating from a curving archway. Stakar halted as he neared the source of the divine glow, peering inside, pushing his enhanced vision to its furthest extent. The young hero turned to his parents, "The Enclave are inside."
Quasar and Kismet came to a stop beside their son, their own cosmic powers burning slightly faster in their bodies, in readiness for the combat, which seemed so inevitable.
His cape billowing behind him, Kristoff strode by, not pausing. He was lost quickly in the near-blinding light, and his voice rang out soon after his disappearance into the golden glow, "Members of the Enclave, I am the emissary of Doctor Victor Von Doom, supreme sovereign of Latveria."
Kismet’s golden skin visibly paled and she turned to her husband eyes full of tense concern. Quasar nodded and they were both in the air immediately, jetting into the golden aura. Over his shoulder the new father shouted to Stakar, "Stay here!"
Quasar did not hear if his child replied, as all sensation and sound seemed to alter as he was immersed by the almost palpable blaze of powerful light. The hero blinked his eyes rapidly, sparks clinging to his sight for a few moments longer.
Quasar’s mouth gaped as he adjusted to the strange space - the air was cool in the ellipse of a chamber. The walls were of the same unremarkable steel of the remainder of the laboratory, dull grey, featureless. A deep well was set in the very center of the curving room, upon which rested a massive block, which seemed to house countless shades of shifting color. The bearer of the Quantum Bands brought his gaze up to see the massive device which poured energy down into the towering cube, that golden strobe of dissecting power causing the colors within the organic block to swirl faster and faster. It was from that nearly solid shaft that the golden glow flowed, collecting only within the molecules of air hovering near the chamber’s exit, serving to shield the revels within from all outside view.
Quasar saw the three golden men who could only be the Enclave floating near the vertical cannon, their faces obviously painted with shock and abject rage. Yet his brow furrowed as they spoke, for their voices did not filter clearly through the distorted space - their words oddly subdued, and the hero wondered if his hearing had been somehow impaired. He slowly noticed a dull roar in the background as well, the almost living wail of the cannon, also trapped behind that wall of enforced quiet.
"My master has requested that you provide us with an artificial body, of the same kind that was originally worn by the entity called Him." Kristoff continued, undaunted by the great display of power and ingenuity before his eyes, or the obvious disregard with which he was beheld by the Enclave.
The golden scientists regarded the armored boy with little respect, but their attention was focused almost solely on their returning progeny, "Kismet? We asked for solitude during our studies of the Deviant matter-block. You honor our wishes by not only intruding upon our sanctum, but bringing with you those who do not belong here?"
The golden-skinned woman floated in the air, her gaze shifting from Kristoff to her creators, and then back again, "I apologize Morlak, but had no viable choice in the matter."
The scientist with blue body piping regarded his creation suspiciously; he gestured expansively about the chamber, indicating Quasar and Kristoff, "You were forced by these beings, who are so inferior to you?"
"I am inferior to no one-" the Latverian began, but his thought was frozen by a mere gesture from Morlak, all molecular movement in his body ceasing.
"Silence, boy." the scientist spat, a cruel smile on his face.
"There can be no good reason to have intruded here, Kismet." said Maris Shinski, "Our work is of greater import than all other things. Leave here immediately and do not return until you are bid. You have sorely disappointed us."
She shook her head, "No, you must-"
"Go!" shouted the final member of the trio, Carlo Zota, his eyes flaring dangerously with cosmic power.
Kismet stood her ground firmly, "I will not leave, until you have at least heard why I have come here."
Quick glances passed between the Enclave. It was Shinski who spoke, "Speak quickly - the Deviant re-awakening is nearly at hand."
The being formerly called Paragon eyed the matter-block warily, but swiftly pulled herself away, focusing on her three creators, "There is a war in the universe, one I know little about."
"We have sensed it." Zota replied tersely, "It is of no importance to us."
Kismet’s eyes narrowed, and she pressed on, "Yes, it is. Kristoff tells me this war is being fought for possession of the Earth - whichever cosmic faction wins gains dominion of our planet, and everyone that lives here."
"You trust the words of Doctor Doom’s lackey?" Marlak spat.
"He claims to have been told this by the Watcher himself. And even if he is lying, it is obvious that this war must be brought to a swift end, before the universe is destroyed."
"How does this involve us?" Shinski questioned.
"A small group has gathered to end this conflict - Kristoff and the Watcher are among them. They hoped to add Adam Warlock to their number, but he has been killed by an emissary from one of the cosmic factions. Yet his spirit lives on, and now we require a body for his soul to inhabit. You created Him, made his first body, so we came to you for help. Will you?"
Again the Enclave communed in silence, and it appeared they shared far more than mere glances.
"We will provide you with a body for Him’s soul, Kismet, one identical to your original form, and his. But then you will leave us - all of you."
She eyed the Deviant cube worriedly once more, but refrained from mentioning her concerns, "I will do as you wish. Thank you."
The tension relinquished its iron grip on Quasar’s chest as his wife spoke those simple words, and one of the Enclave began to float towards the chamber’s exit. The hero turned to follow the shining scientist, and it was then that he saw the emerald blur near the height of ceiling-mounted cannon.
Quasar turned and shouted, his voice still unnaturally subdued by the strange acoustics of the room, but it was too late - the long steel appendage erupted into flame, exploding outward far too quietly.
Burning machinery spurted across the chamber, as if spat from a giant’s mouth. A huge fragment, alight with bright flames of quivering orange and yellow, drove Shinski down into the chamber’s floor, his body landing limply.
An armored figure became apparent, standing upon the undulating surface of the cube, the weapon he held in his hand making him appear a futuristic shadow of the Thunder God.
"Ronan the Accuser!" Quasar shouted, instantly recognizing the Kree warrior by his distinctive armor, and the arrogantly regal bearing with which he so easily carried himself. Despite being surrounded by his enemies, many more powerful than himself, the soldier did not seem daunted.
The Kree did not reply with words but instead with a bolt of force fired from his Universal Weapon. Moving with greater velocity than the hero had anticipated, Quasar failed to dodge the searing bolt and was driven into the far wall, his senses spinning, a ribbon of spoke curling from his chest.
"He’s trying to steal the Deviant matter-block!" Morlak cried, declaring the obvious as he rushed through the cool air, heading for the intruder’s position. Beams of cosmic power issued from his fingertips yet the scientist remained unpracticed in combat - Ronan dodged easily. Morlak landed, fists swinging at the Kree, leaving streaks of burning air in their wake.
The Accuser ducked the flurry of blows and drove his weapon into the scientist’s stomach and face in rapid succession, knocking the novice backwards. Morlak tottered on the edge of the cube and was put over by a blast from the Universal Weapon. He fell and landed hard, yet was recovering instantly, his body far too resilient to be so easily injured.
Wasting no time for his foes to regain themselves, Ronan extracted a thin disc from his gauntlet and attached it to the top of the matter-block, even as a dual assault from Quasar and Kismet put him off-balance, leaving ugly blotches of char on his emerald armor. The Kree brought his gaze up to his face his foes, both speeding toward him. A green and white blur knocked Kismet from her course and her husband slowed, concerned as he saw his wife set upon by a second Kree warrior, this one dressed in the more pedestrian fatigues of the ordinary military.
Ronan leapt from his position and landed hard on the distracted hero, sending them both to the ground. Before Quasar could recover the Accuser wordlessly drove the Universal Weapon again and again into the Protector of the Universe’s head until it was painted in a deep coat of red.
Quasar moaned, blindly firing weak quantum blasts at his enemy’s chest plating. The practiced warrior seemed not to notice, continuing his relentless assault until the hero’s pathetic struggles were quieted.
The blue-skinned soldier paused in his efforts for a moment, looking down at his helpless enemy. Ronan stood and turned away from the beaten Quasar, studying the Deviant cube. Infrared displays born of the special lenses inserted within his eyes indicated the presence of three more discus affixed to the matter-block, each pulsing with expectant purpose. Only a single side remained untouched, and the distorted shadow-shape, which swiftly weaved through the battlefield under the cover of artificial cloak insured that situation, would not remain so.
The Accuser smiled proudly yet with a touch of guilt as he watched the shape go about its secret work, undisturbed by the surrounding combat. Proximity sensors flashed red and he turned his head in time to see an unfamiliar form barreling toward him fist outstretched.
Ronan toppled before the sudden attack, falling hard to the floor. His jarred vision saw in a jumble the crushed form of Shinski slowly rising from his transient tomb, and Kismet slowly getting the better of her enemy. His haphazard observations were ceased by the jarring impact of cosmically powered knuckles tearing into his chiseled features.
"I’ll be there in a moment Stakar!" the Kree heard Kismet yell from far away, and he looked up and saw the recognition in the eyes of his youthful assailant.
The blows fell with greater rapidity from the powerful child, his eyes blazing with fury, the blood of his father cleanly reflected within them. Ronan shook with each impact and when it finally seemed consciousness would flee him, the Kree moved his head as one of the boy’s fist’s crashed downward. It bit with a crunch into the metal below.
The Accuser drove his knee up into the surprised hero’s groin even as he blasted the boy onto his back with the Universal Weapon. Ronan was on his feet in a moment despite his injuries, deftly dodging the attacks from the two remaining Enclave, which rained down upon him immediately.
The Kree’s gaze flicked to the cube and he saw the final disc in place, the lights on its side beckoning him forward. Ronan made for the block instantly, swinging the Universal Weapon in a wide arc, defending himself while keeping his attackers at bay.
"Atlas." the Prime Accuser said calmly to the other Kree, who responded instantly, throwing Kismet off to jet towards the vicinity of the Deviant cube.
The Captain landed beside Ronan, strobes of power spraying from his gauntlets, pushing back the swift approach of Kismet. The Accuser turned and touched a button on the disc and with a blink of space he was gone, along with the cube and his allies, visible or no.
The tempests of Limbo seemed to quiet, as if in expectant mourning. Inside Castle Limbo, the Infinity Equation throbbed silently, forgotten in a dim corner as Wylig stood over the form of his son. Uilig lay prostrate across the floor of Immortus’ throne-room. The ugly wound leered up from the Watcher’s chest, laughing at his father, the burnt raw flesh taunting the renegade.
Wylig only stared down at his scion, blank-eyed, for one of the few times in his long, arduous life his mind not teeming with thoughts and ideas. He looked past the fallen body of Uilig, past the scale of life and death that he rested precariously on, and back into his own past.
The Dark Watcher was mired in self-doubt, indecision born of thousands of years of sacrifice that remained without reward, born of the realization that all his actions conspired to bring about perhaps an even grimmer end than the one they had been designed to avert. Wylig felt hollow as he stared at his son, barely alive, yet as the memories of times past filled his barren mind, the Dark Watcher began to swell with such sweet joy that a single tear came to the corner of his eye.
The liquid crystal rolled slowly down his cheek, drying slowly as it ran. The dream enveloped him, the same dream that he had lived since rebelling against the Brotherhood millennia ago. Yet it was not complete - perhaps it never had been. It was translucent now, visible yet not, free for Wylig to take in a final cold embrace, or to shatter.
The disquieting noise of footfalls came gradually to the Dark Watcher’s ears. The dream quavered before him, beckoned. Wylig looked away from his child, saw the familiar shape of the Voice of Pain approaching. His gaze slid back to Uilig, and for the first time he noticed his son’s placid features to be painted in shifting, dangerous shades.
Cosmic thunder drifted to greet his senses harshly, the sound of war and death, of a battle un-foretold. The stench of charred god flesh flowed to his nostrils and the metaphysical sensation of chaos and suffering riddled through him. He shuddered, and the tumult of war threatened to overwhelm him.
Eyalus’ came to a halt several feet from his commander, and spoke in the strange voice he had recently manifested, an odd mixture of the tone of an insane man and a dead god, "The Great Void and Time Guardian have attacked without warning. Our forces rush to the defense, by the garrison is weak - our army is spread throughout the Omniverse. I have sent a distress call to all our allies, but it will be long before they can extricate themselves from their own battles. Your orders?"
Wylig gazed intensely down at Uilig’s slack features, "There are none - I do not know what to do."
Even the frigidly calm Vyer was taken aback by the naked weakness of the Dark Watcher, "You have no orders for your army? They cannot defend Limbo much longer, without cohesive strategy, they -"
"I told you, I have no orders. Let them fight as they will."
The Voice of Pain remained in the dimly lit chamber, frozen in place by his own leader’s indecision. Wylig did not seem to notice him, standing stalk-still only a scant few meters away, a cold statue worked in black iron. The curdling noises of combat faded into the mists of Limbo once more, phantom sounds which no longer offended the Dark Watcher’s ears.
The shifting dream beckoned to him, beckoned to return to the fold and regain the throne of cunning and calculation that he had once occupied so well. It promised clarity and focus, and a hammer with which to destroy the failures of the days behind. The dream called to him, a siren song that would not end until it was accepted or destroyed, drowning out the cries of mourning from without the castle walls.
Wylig looked into his chaotic mind, confused since he had awakened at the same moment that the Antithesis had, and into the shadows of his past. It seemed so distant, a dark island on the horizon that threatened to slip behind and disappear for all time. Yet a thin chain tethered the floating aged hulk to the present, a chain that tore the dream, walled it away. It was rusted and it creaked in the howling winds of time, but it held - it held through the fortitude of a single link.
The dream screamed in his mind, raked at the back of his eyes, its death rattles shaking the Dark Watcher to his very core. His gaze was only for Uilig, the younger Watcher’s hollow features covered in a slight sheen of painful perspiration.
Wylig drew a deep breath and the rancid smell of death seared his nostrils. The dream screeched as the chain creaked and the winds of time howled in the familiar voices of the past. The ancient steel of the single link frayed and buckled the isle teetered on the horizon, threatened to be engulfed in the setting black sun.
The Dark Watcher’s hand slowly raised from his waist, its fingers extending slowly of their own accord. Wylig took a second breath, shallow, and his hand shook for a moment, before releasing a single fine beam of power into the blackened maw which lay open upon Uilig’s chest.
The Watcher’s body arched as the destructive pillar bore out his back and a silent scream touched Uilig’s lips. It was over quickly, the young observer lying dead upon the floor, the perspiration dried upon his face, his eyes blank and blinded.
Wylig studied his son for a moment, with eyes suddenly far more keen. The sounds of war sprung back to his ears and he could make out each separate shout, knew the origin of each sizzling beam of force that was loosed. The stir of confusion in his mind was gone, replaced with mechanical purpose, deadly cold and focused. He was fired by the knowledge of the purity of his purpose - which was all that remained within him now, and the Dark Watcher was enveloped and defined by it.
Yet a single thin shaft of light flickered from that sunken isle, poured forth from the ruined remnants of ship that had been found long ago. It flowed into the dream and molded it, as it always had since the first day that dream had ever been dreamt.
The Dark Watcher paid it no heed and turned, fixing a piercing gaze upon Eyalus’ avatar, "You have notified the Lord of Pain?"
Vyer nodded, "He returns as we speak."
"No - he is not to come here. Eyalus is to journey to his own realm and absorb its inherent before it falls, as it inevitably will."
"Ah, yes - yes. He has been informed." the Voice of Pain replied unsteadily.
"He will then travel immediately to the Hasmian Galaxy and await my arrival. He is not to engage any of Eternity’s forces and elude pursuit at all costs."
Again Vyer nodded, this time with greater confidence, "Done."
Wylig did not reply - he was plucking the Infinity Equation from the dim corner and then stalking towards the chamber of death’s exit, not waiting for the avatar to follow. Through the twisting corridors of Castle Limbo the Dark Watcher strode, Vyer almost jogging to keep up with the renegade’s swift pace. The sounds of war grew greater with each passing step, until at last the short trek was at an end, and Wylig stood outside Immortus’ citadel, surveying the destruction of the army he had gathered.
Smoking corpses lay piled at his feet, the charred bodies of supernatural beings and Space Phantoms alike. The air shouted with a cacophony of death and suffering, and the winds of Limbo were silent in comparison to the horrible Armageddon-sound. The sky, once so dour and dark, was alight with countless beams, which rained down like burning droplets. The very structure of Castle Limbo was cris-crossed by ugly marks of char, and the great towers were now little more than broken, impotent teeth.
In the midst of the swirling mass of entities there were the twin forms of the Time Guardian and the Great Void, supreme beings of the time-stream. They only watched as their foot-soldiers, Wormwoods, Particulates, Critics, slowly slashed through Wylig’s flagging forces, the crescent of defense ‘round the Castle shrinking with every passing moment, even though there was no time in Limbo. Occasionally the Guardian’s or the Void’s brow would alight with chrono-cosmic fire and rain destruction down upon the mites at their feet.
"They came from the portal leading to Chronopolis." said the Demiurge, who drew up alongside the Dark Watcher as he observed the carnage, "The Space Phantom defense was inadequate."
Wylig turned to his ally, and saw the humanoid body he occupied to be painted with throbbing crimson streaks. The Demiurge was haggard and pale, thin - walking death. The Dark Watcher’s gaze flashed up again, to see the twin visages of the Great Void and Time Guardian moving upward, only to unleash a blaze of pure, bludgeoning force into a nebulous cloud that nonetheless seemed to have a face.
The Demiurge shuddered as the cloud was pushed back, sinking slowly like a falling moon.
"I am not as strong as I once was, Wylig." the Demiurge said.
Anger rose in the grand manipulator, "I told you never to engage in combat - you were only to heal our forces. Your talents are not suited for battle."
The creator of Earth’s pantheons turned a haggard countenance toward Wylig, "There was no on else - Tempus is shattered, and Alioth occupied. We are dying."
The pink-skinned Phaedra turned her attention to the stationary targets, and with her Sapphire-Lotus alight with building force, she charged toward the Dark Watcher’s position. She made it no more than a few yards before a blast of night-black force steered her from her course, and into a pile of charred Space Phantom cadavres.
Wylig saw the architect of his unnecessary savior, and beckoned him near. The Elder God was quick in coming.
"How many of you remain?"
"Myself, Scrier, and Gaea." Chthon replied coldly, his own body smoking from a dozen wounds.
"Our numbers shrink with every passing moment." Demiurge said weakly, watching as the Time Guardian neared the roiling mass of Alioth, and began a deadly duel of armor and maelstrom.
Wylig nodded, grimly. His mind reached out and searched for his connexion with The Other. Soon the strange, terrifying mind of the hideous beast was linked with the Dark Watcher, and from that high perch he watched the battle unfold from countless angels, from the eyes of all the entities similarly linked to The Other in mental communion.
His army was dying, destroyed or captured by the advance of Eternity’s army. There was no strategy - there had never been - only desperate combat, a useless attempt to keep the enemy from overrunning the Dark Watcher’s prime stronghold. The Enchanters lay on the ground, their talismans shattered. Immortus was nearby, his skull fractured and bleeding. Champion roared and fought, but his strength waned and he was dragged down by the overwhelming power of Vangaard.
Yet a few remained amid the chaos, tearing down their enemies - surviving. Dormammu, the Trinity of Ashes, the Grandmaster, the Time Twisters and Keepers - they were largely unwounded, though surely they would not continue to be so for much longer.
Wylig’s eyes focused on the Time Guardian as he tore through Alioth like cheap paper, the tumultuous entity shrieking and fleeing with what little remained of its spirit and body. The Dark Watcher nodded to himself, rising into the air as he did, the Infinity Equation pulsing more steadily in his grip. The maze within beckoned, but the renegade resisted.
Following their leader warily into the tempest of force and death above, Vyer, Chthon, and the Demiurge rose as Wylig reached out through his link to The Other. His orders were silent, yet obeyed immediately, and as one those few who remained unwounded ceased their struggles and took to the air, fleeing as destructive beams cut at their backsides. The Runner exploded in fragments of steaming gold as he retreated, yet none paused to look back at his shattered remnants plummeted to the ground below.
As one the Deathwings converged into a single squadron, ominous in the chaotic light of combat. They hovered in the air, organizing themselves according to Wylig’s quiet decree. The Dark Watcher tightened his grip on The Other’s psyche as he rose higher and faster, joining the gathering, which now tore through the shattered welkin of Limbo.
The Other fought now, as Eternity’s and Wylig’s forces alike paused in their struggles, curious as to what occurred. The Time Guardian’s visage turned to regard the fleeting gathering and his displeasure was obvious. An emerald glow surrounded the massive entity as the annihilation of the Dark Watcher and his sky-borne allies loomed in the near future.
The Other fought, not against the Great Void or his allies, but against the unrelenting voice of Wylig. The Dark Watcher ordered all connections severed and ordered The Other forward faster and faster, moving the great grotesque hand swiftly toward the stolid shape of the Time Guardian. The Other screamed into the renegade’s mind, trying to break Wylig’s tireless mental grip, yet even the other could not resist the power of the Dark Watcher’s iron will.
Unrelenting force issued from the Time Guardian’s sockets, tearing towards the paltry gathering of Wylig and his allies. The Deathwings, selfless and mindless now, seemed to blink in space and they were suddenly in the path of the river of destruction, their own numbers burning before the assault of the Time Guardian. They screamed as they died, shattering and melting, falling listless to the cracked ground below.
Wylig moved backwards swiftly, beckoning his allies with him as the massive hand of The Other sped toward the Time Guardian, its two black eyes alight with hate and terror. The Great Void saw and fired upon the strange shape, yet it was far too late. Below, the sacrificed insects of both Wylig’s and Eternity’s armies screamed as a blinding light rose up before collective senses.
The Other slammed into the Time Guardian, ending the towering being’s assault on the Deathwings instantly. Both shrieked as they felt their bodies and souls devouring one another, mutual destruction rippling across ever corridor of existence. Their forms toppled, breaking as they crumbled, shafts of silver-white light firing from their death-throes.
A crescent of annihilation fired out from the impact, a wave of death that caught all the inhabitants of Limbo in its destructive grip. Those who were strong survived, their minds and bodies ravaged yet living - those who were weakened from combat were engulfed by the deadly tide and their only legacy was atoms.
The wall of devastation swept swiftly toward Wylig’s small group, felling the broken towers of Castle Limbo as it did, consuming the bodies of Uilig and those others who had died. The Dark Watcher’s eyes narrowed as he willed himself and the others away from the spectacle of havoc and ruin, leaving his army of corpses behind.
"It appears we have a new arrival." Autolycus said calmly, calmly pointing at an emerald clad figure in the distance.
Adam Warlock turned slowly, his expression unchanged as he identified the new arrival, "Doctor Doom."
The leader of the Black Knights arched his brow in surprise and curiosity, "I have heard you speak of him on occasion - not the kindest of individuals. What could have brought him to this peaceful paradise?"
"An edict from Thanos of Titan. The Latverian has obviously allied himself with Thanos, and due to the Titan’s irrational fear of losing his spirit, he has sent Doom into the Soul Gem to retrieve me."
"Then, you will be leaving us soon, Adam?" Autolycus inquired sadly, though the answer was painfully obvious to an intellect as keen as his own.
"I will be departing in more than a few minutes, friend, once Doom has shared with me the events that have occurred within the universe during my absence." He looked up into the pale sky, which suddenly seemed to have grown infinitely darker. A great and familiar weight settled upon his shoulders, "I shall miss this place."
"And it small miss you, Adam. Will you be taking Gamora with you?"
Warlock shook his gold-maned head, "No - my own happiness is forfeit, but there is no need to take hers as well. She will remain here, along with Ikaris. In time, perhaps, they will desire to return to the universe, but that time has not yet come."
"Must you always shoulder the burden of your responsibility alone?"
"Yes." Warlock replied coldly, his white eyes still fixed on the distant shape of the Latverian, "There can be no other way - it is my burden. The universe itself seems to have appointed me its protector, and even I do not dare refuse such a duty."
Autolycus nodded in somber resignation, "Shall I accompany you on short journey to meet with our visitor, or do you wish to walk alone that path as well?"
Warlock turned and began his trek toward the Latverian, saying over his shoulder, "I will go alone, in preparation for the times ahead. Thank you, my friend - I will see you again."
Not looking back, the gold-skinned hero and schemer strode towards Victor Von Doom, each step crossing far more of the landscape than seemed possible. Above the clouds gathered and a slight breeze blew up, rustling the verdant fields of grass. Behind, Autolycus and only stood and watched his friend depart, his feet rooted to the soil.
"Can I come with you?" a voice said suddenly, twisting the sound of the wind into a sly, recognizable tone.
Adam Warlock did not pause, "Why should I allow you to leave this place, Loki? You have proven more than troublesome to the universe when you inhabit it. And be assured, if I was to release you and was later to meet you on the field of battle, your fate would not be so good as to find yourself here once more."
The God of Mischief materialized beside the hero, matching him step for step as he neared the Latverian, "All I want is Asgard, Warlock, and to make my brother suffer. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t enjoy seeing him humiliated."
"Your relationship with Thor is none of my concern, and there is no Asgard left to conquer."
Loki nearly stumbled, "No Asgard?"
Warlock raised a golden eyebrow, "It seems I neglected to tell you - Asgard was destroyed by the Celestials in retaliation for the decimation of their Fifth Host. That genocide began the cosmic war that the universe outside the Soul Gem is embroiled in."
The Asgardians face twisted with disbelief, tainted from within by growing, insane rage, "Asgard destroyed… My kinsmen?"
"Slain, save a for a select few, your brother included. All the other godly pantheons met with the same fate."
Loki was silent for a few moments, his eyes clouded with anger and shock, his breaths coming out in quick rushes, though he had no reason to breathe. His words were tight when he finally spoke, the playfully disarming tone the God of Mischief often employed now fled from his voice, "The Space Gods destroyed Asgard?"
The dying sunlight was now visible glinting off Doom’s polished armor, "So I told you." Warlock replied uncaringly.
The Trickster’s eyes glittered like shards of flint, "In this war, you will be fighting with them, or against them?"
"If my suspicions are correct, I will be fighting for neither of them - those suspicions will be confirmed when I speak with Doom shortly."
Loki came to a sudden halt, and he stopped Warlock with him, the Asgardian placing his grip on the artificial man’s shoulders, "I will help you - For thousands of years I desired to rule Asgard, but never once did I desire to see it turned to ash." His gaze was strikingly intense, "I will not allow the death of my homeland to go unpunished." The Asgardian looked up at the sky, a deep shadow crossing his eyes, and his tone neared frenzy, "And this place, it makes my flesh crawl. I cannot stand to be here any longer - with every passing moment I edge nearer to insanity once more."
Warlock viewed the hands clasped on his shoulders despairingly, and turned quickly, freeing himself from the deity’s grasp. The hero resumed his measured pace, forcing Loki to follow, "You are not to be trusted, but your skill as a sorcerer cannot be denied, nor your cunning. I will free you from Soul World."
A smile twisted Loki’s lips, yet it faded nearly instantly, as the magician’s eyes narrowed, "My freedom in exchange for what? You want more than my help in fighting the Celestials - I offered that freely."
"For one who has just lost his entire race, your spirit hardens swiftly."
"It is how I survive. What do you want?"
"The assurance that I will never have to deal with a threat manufactured by you - ever. Go back on your word and I shall deal with you most harshly."
Loki smiled impishly, "I have no honor Warlock, but I give you my word that we will never meet on the field of battle."
Adam Warlock only nodded and the remainder of his short journey was spent in silence. Doom began to advance as the unlikely duo neared, his tone rushed, "We must return immediately - I have a task to accomplish."
"What task would that be?" the golden hero inquired coolly, not shying away from the Latverian’s natural aura of command.
"The retrieval of the Reality Gem." The monarch’s eyes shifted over to the God of Mischief, "What are you doing here, Asgardian?"
"Warlock has agreed to let me help his cause - your cause, it seems." Loki replied smoothly, as though Doom was little more than a pauper.
"We have no need for your help." the Latverian scoffed, dismissing the magician.
"His cunning and experience will be of help to us." Warlock suddenly reached his hand out, and placed it firmly on the monarch’s robotic faceplate. Von Doom attempted to writhe away, but the master of Soul World held him tight for a few tense moments.
Finally he nodded and released the Doctor from the strange grip, "Thank you - all your recollections of recent events are now known to me as well. My understanding of the situation has increased dramatically."
Doom’s voice smoldered dangerously, "None have the right to defile my personage, even you, Warlock. Were we not allies, your life would now be forfeit."
"Spare me your recriminations Doom, time is far too short, as you said." Adam Warlock’s fingertips began to glow, just a light rain began to fall from the darkened sky. The golden hero flinched at the first touch of the cold drops, but did not discontinue his ritual.
A wave of palpable sadness passed across Warlock’s face and the land itself seemed to sigh as he faded from the emerald confines of Soul World, dragging the spirits of Loki and Victor Von Doom along with him.
In the distance, Autolycus’s head dropped as he saw his friend vanish, and the rain began to pour down, stinging his blue skin.
Continued in Chapter 9
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