Foundations Forged Before Nightfall - Chapter 2

Written by Warren "Azmodi" Entros, Edited by E.A.Morrissey
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by Lord Thanos, Wed Design by James Pedrick
Characters are the property of Marvel Comics

Note: This installments follows the events of the Foundations Forged Before Nightfall Chapter 1

***Due to a mix-up of chapters, Chapter 3 was originally posted as Chapter 2.  Below is the correct version of Chapter 2, however.***


Ikaris strode into the throneroom of Olympia, and has he had for the past two days past beheld the awesome sight of the assembled Fifth Host holding court in the Alaskan mountains. The positions of the towering Space Gods had shifted not a hint to his keen eyes; they remained as stoic and unchanging as ever before, as implacable as the Fourth Host had been during its visit.

The Eternal strode quickly across the great chamber, one of the largest in a city formed of impressive halls and homes, and soon stood beside the throne of Thena, current unopposed ruler of the golden city. She favored him with a slight smile, the best she could manage under the circumstances, and then turned back to pondering the image of the Celestials.

Ikaris looked down at her for a few moments, questions forming in his mind, before too turning to gaze the screen as he gave voice to those thoughts, "It's been two days since they arrived, and still we do nothing. Our kind must decide upon a course of action soon, before all chance is snatched from our grasp."

"We wait for the Uni-Mind to return, Ikaris." Thena replied somewhat coldly, the burden of her office obviously weighing heavily upon her brow, "It is the Uni-Mind that warned us of the coming of the Fifth Host, and among is still resides the oldest and wisest of our kind. When those Eternals return and share their thoughts with me, only then shall I decide upon a course of action."

"I hope they arrive quickly, then, for it is said that while mighty Arishem takes fifty years to make his terrible Judgment, it takes Scathan the Approver only five days. And who can say how long the Earth has once he has made his decision? A week, a day, an hour? Our time is already running dangerously short."

Thena eyed him closely then, "What would you have me do, Ikaris, if indeed we decide to side against the Celestials? I have given over to the heroes and governments of the world all the information we possess on the Fifth Host, and that is a paltry lot. Even if all the demi-gods and all the armed forces of this planet stand 'gainst the Space Gods, I would not give a single coin for their chances."

"That I would not be so sure of." Ikaris replied, his voice suddenly dropping, as if he feared that the Fifth Host displayed 'pon yonder viewscreen would hear his words, "The Celestials no longer appear to be the force in the universe that they once were. When Arishem first came here, none dared stand 'gainst him, nor could they. But now... Have you heard the tales, Thena? Twice in a short period Exitar the Exterminator has had his armor invaded by the heroes of this world. Thrice the Celestials in their entirety have been struck down by objects of great power such as the Infinity Gauntlet. The Deviant Blackwulf destroyed their Godstalker, and Captain Marvel later outwitted him just the same. On a distant alien world, mighty Arishem lost his hand! Why, only in a few months past Thanos' fleet of brigands decimated a great army of Space Gods! Can you not see that the Celestials are far from as mighty as they once were!"

The leader of the Olympian Eternals could not help but consider the warrior's words for a moment. But, finally, she was forced to shake her head in disagreement, "I have heard these stories as well as you, Ikaris. Something does indeed seem to be afflicting the Space Gods, and whatever it be quickening of late. Yet I cannot underestimate them; the Fifth Host still possesses more might in its ten members alone than this planet can hope to muster. If we truly wish them to be repulsed, if we do not wish to yet drink from the chalice of true godhood, I can see only one way."

Ikaris' eyes narrowed at Thena's words, but not from anger at her, "The Deviants may already be about it. You know as well as I none of our spies in Lemuria has sent a report in nearly a month. Surely they knew of the approach of the Fifth Host, for they have as many spies here as we did there. If Kro no longer leads, if indeed Ghaur has returned to power, I can think of only one action they might perform in this situation. And where I fought them in past endeavors, now I am forced to consider supporting them."

Thena visibly bristled at this, her tone freezing even further, "If we aid them we court destruction. If we allow the Fifth Host to do its work, who is to say what we shall become? Surely it will be something far preferable to becoming a mindless slave, if not a corpse. But we are not the only ones who live on this planet... The opinions of humanity must be taken into consideration as well."

"Few humans on this planet even know the Celestials exist; it is our decision to make, not theirs. I concur that we must wait for the arrival of our elders, but once that is done I say we choose quickly and stay on that course. I for one wish to be in command of my own destiny, and not have it controlled by those who think themselves too far removed to consider my views."

His already somewhat foul mood obviously beginning to further worsen, Ikaris let that final thought serve as a finale and he quickly turned on his heel and stalked out of the high-ceiling'd chamber, paying no heed to those he passed by.

Upon her throne Thena could not help but smile grimly at the irony the Eternal warrior had just let flow from his mouth. At times she still could not help but think that those in Olympia were not too far removed from the ancient ways of thinking, where humans were naught but talking monkeys who had acquired only slightly more proficient use of that opposable digit.

No, she would wait for the Uni-Mind to return to its world of birth, and speak with those possessed of cooler heads and more learned minds. Yet she feared they too would agree with Ikaris, for had they not opposed the Fourth Host during their time on Earth as well? It seemed that a great many of the Olympian Eternals did not take kindly to having their futures chosen for them, and, Thena was forced to admit to herself, that she was among that number. But how horrible the solution would be if it raged out of control...

She forced herself to turn away from such bitter thoughts as she studied the image of the Fifth Host, pushing her mind to think of more comforting things. Quickly Thena's ponderings turned to distant Kro, who she had not seen in so long. Yet his fate too was in doubt now, and eventually Thena found it much less painful to think of nothing at all.

 

 

Wylig watched with silent satisfaction as the surface of Arcturus burned, the result of his own actions. Almost sickly thin arms folded across his robed chest, the Dark Watcher hovered in the darkness of space, spinning bits of wreckage gradually slowing all around him. Technology was no match for one well-versed in how to use his own might properly.

His expression soured for a moment then, as his long memory was forced to return back to that moment so many ages past, where he had the chance for limitless might, and not taken it. Wylig's eyes narrowed as he remembered how easy it would have been to reach into the broken hull of that ancient vessel, not of any world in the universe itself, and slay its sole inhabitant. But instead he had chosen merely to watch, for that was long before he realized what a fruitless endeavor that was.

Forcing himself back to the present, away from that painful corridor of his mind's castle, he saw the crust of the world below slowly beginning to fissure as fires raged out of control above. Mortal eyes could not hope to glimpse that sight from such a height, but he was no mortal, and he knew it was solely his own actions which had brought about the breaking of that planet.

The distant ground began to further crack and falter before the onslaught from within, as if the molten core of the planet had grown fists and was trying to relieve its imprisonment. Wylig unleashed another barrage of searing energy from his eyes, not out of kindness but growing impatience.

Boiling through the shredded atmosphere the thick stream of cosmic might struck true, shattered even more of the lowly world's crust. Yawning upon now, Arcturus' surface rippled with inward pressure, its tectonic plates surging against each other, long dormant volcano chains now bursting forth with renewed vigor. A roar came from within the dying planet's innards, and it was far from natural.

Wylig felt the awakening of ancient power long before he saw it. His senses saw the cosmic spectrum of existence as well as his eyes saw the universe around him, and like an immense flare his mind processed the re-birth of cosmic might, a new and old ingredient added to the Omniversial cauldron of powers and thrones.

An immense gloved hand shattered the surface and its taloned fingers clawed restlessly at the churning air. All hung still as could be for a moment, the digits tensing with building effort, nature waiting to see if it would survive the next attack.

With a thunderous noise an entire continent, a great prison, exploded before raged which had built for countless generations. The seas steamed as chunks of rock miles in diameter rained down, the remnants of a cage now broken.

The prisoner flew upward in a blanket of debris and steam, moving so fast that it clung to him like fearful children to a mother. A great yell rang from the being's lungs, loud enough to stir the planet below, if only for a moment, from the drowsiness of its approaching doom.

The remains of the continent burned away as the winged entity shot up through the atmosphere, a shell fired from a great cosmic cannon, and when he finally broke the final lock and seal of orbit, he stood full in his splendor before his savior, the Dark Watcher Wylig.

"You, of all beings, I would not have considered of the mind to free me. Has your enmity cooled in the time of my imprisonment, Wylig?" the being said first. Though his voice was not devoid of gratitude, suspicion was forced to reign.

"There was no enmity, Hawk God." the renegade replied coolly, eyes never living those of the avian entity's, "You moved too quickly and angered me, but that is all. Your time of imprisonment has punished you more than I ever could. Again I would gladly call you one of my few comrades."

For a moment the Hawk God kept his silence, considering the words of a being he had long ago considered an ally. When he spoke his voice was a shade less mistrusting, "So you say, Wylig . . . Yet you did nothing to halt my jailing."

"Time has dulled your memory. I was forced to flee due to your rashness, and was the last of our number to be imprisoned."

"Yet now you stand here as if you had never been chained, Dark Watcher . . . "

"My wardens were far less adept than yours. Prisons built by those who do naught but observe are far easier to breach than those built by universal tamperers. It is only through the inattention that your cell had grown so weak as for me to free you from it, and even now I feel weariness coming over me."

Again the Hawk God considered quietly, eyes sweeping over the figure swathed in black and dark blue, taking his measure and trying to discern if those were lies flowing unbidden from his thin lips, "Why have you freed me now, Wylig?"

Grimness fell over the entity's overlarge countenance, "The plan hatched long ago has not come to true fruition. It is now obvious that we shall have to take a more direct course of action, which shall surely be to your liking. The Fifth Host stands in judgment of Earth as we speak."

The Hawk God's eyes widened with abject surprise and horror, "The Celestials cannot be allowed to finish their task. How many days remain to us? Scathan's decisions come so much more quickly than Arishem's . . . "

Wylig nodded in agreement, "Three days, though I cannot say what measures those of Earth shall take against the Fifth Host. If luck rides alongside us perhaps those bungling heroes will buy us additional time. It cannot be much, but I shall not spit upon such a gift either."

"Aye, nor shall I. How many more are there to gather?"

"But two, though the last shall be far more difficult to stir. His prison is much more well-tended than your own, or so I have been told. Nevertheless, I have taken other actions to ensure his freedom before time runs too scant."

The Hawk God took this with skepticism, but made no mention of it. Instead he simply began to move away from the renegade Watcher, wings unfolding to their full, grand span, "Then let us make due haste, Wylig. We mustn't allow all we've worked for in the past to come to naught in the present."

Wylig nodded once, as he did summoning the immense energies at his disposal, "As you say. To Sol, then."

 

 

His eyes opened and the world seemed decidedly different. Those orbs nestled in his sockets were the same, he knew, yet still the realm that had once brought abject terror to his broken heart was not as it had been before. It all seemed so familiar to him now, as if he had resided there for all his life, and in truth he had, for the man that awakened on the Tree of Pain was not the same one which had lapsed into unconsciousness.

No longer a poor pathetic wretch, he cast his once ruined mind about his body, employing his renewed mental process to survey what had become of that once gnarled form. He felt restored vigor as he never had before, though his very seem forged of eternal ice; he was forever cold. The muscles of his body seemed cast of flesh-toned iron, and it was though all excess fat had been boiled off so that he was a whipcord of sheer power. His cheeks were deathly hollow and he knew his scalp to be devoid of all hair.

He looked down and saw that the silver spike still protruded grossly from his chest, but it was not that which shocked even his frozen emotions. His skin had turned a deathly white, as if all life had fled from his body. The veins embedded within his flesh pulsed blue, he felt that it was not blood pumping through them, but some otherworldly ichor.

Yet quickly the surprise faded and accepted wended through his changed mind. It was if all the memories that had been shattered beforehand had once again been frozen together, a solid block of crystal that no longer inspired warm emotions in him. As he perused the events that had shaped him, he felt either nothing, or even more frigid rush of hatred or loathing. He was no longer a man but a dead and frozen engine remade from the ashes of one, and who was now far more deadly than the entity he had been in the past.

He reached up to touch the area around his left eye, now he felt bathed in a deep blue far removed from its former yellow, and felt that the jagged starburst burned around the socket had not fled, but only deepened. That he found a small comfort, the only part of his past life worth saving. He was surprised to see that the flesh beneath his fingernails was also a dark blue, almost black, and quickly he returned to his hand to grasping at the silver spine driven through his torso.

The Tree is a part of you, as it is a part of me.

The words thundered through the man's brain like a thousand stars collapsing, threatening to shatter the glacier that was his mind. His eyes slammed shut and his teeth grit together at the immense sound. He put his hands to his temples, for it felt as if they were about to burst, and he wished the reverberating echo would mercifully leave the corridors of his head.

Feel the spine jutting from your chest, see how it merges with you flesh.

Again it seemed as though his skull would burst from those booming tones, yet the man did as he was told, for he could hazard more than a fair guess as to who had commanded him. His brain throbbing, though perhaps a bit less than before, he reached up with both hands and tightly grasped the silver spine.

For moments he could feel nothing save cold steel, for his concentration was still fixed upon the great ache pounding his head, threatening to pop his very eyes from their sockets. Yet as the pain began to fade and he shifted his perceptions to his fingertips. He felt the deadly element, with his remade eyes saw the atoms of it knit tightly in his own flesh, silver and skin intermingling in perfect union. Had the Tree grown into him, or he into it?

Now came a strange feeling, almost electric, from the shaft of otherworldly metal. It seemed as if energy coursed through the quicksilver needle, energy which flowed into his own body, or perhaps from it.

Agony now forgotten, he coldly pursued this strange new avenue, reaching out his enhanced senses, sending them through the branch of pain to mingle with the current. It shot across the spine and fed into the great silver trunk of the Tree of Pain, where the mere trickle of living energy grew to a raging river.

He saw thousands of images in his crystalline mind then, and drank them all in their entirety. He saw ages long past and days yet to come, memories that were not his own. All he instantly knew flowed from the countless victims hanging in suffering upon Eyalus' shining sentinel of suffering. Yet in that current he felt himself paramount to all, and reached deeper still, probing for the truth he knew to lie only a breadth away from his discovery.

And then he saw the truth of it - he was the tide of images, the waves of suffering. He was the cold steel of the Tree of Pain, it were his fingers digging into his victims and wracking them agony. He was the cause of their pain, the origin of their screams, the reason they cried out. He was the master of their torture.

For the first time in his frozen memory, he smiled.

Now you understand. We are one. You are the Son of Pain, the Voice of Pain. You shall speak for me and I shall guide you.

He nodded, the words did not harm him. Now the voice beating his ears seemed the same as that electric current, coursing through his body with ease, echoing through his mind. He felt energized as he had never had been before, the deadening cold of his cadaverous form forgotten before the words that commanded him.

His grip tightened upon the quicksilver branch, inhuman strength flowing through his icy fingertips. His thin lips curled in a snarl as the muscles in his arms flexed and he plied his might 'gainst the needle. It bent instantly before his power, fissures quickly formed at the apex of pressure. His teeth clenched tightly together, his veins burned with more deadly might and snapped the branch cleanly, only centimeters from where it entered his chest.

Had he been a normal man the fires of confidence would have built within him, but he was from that, and he remained forever cold as he quickly slithered off the spike, not a droplet of blood dripping from the hideous wound. Another icy smile flickered across his lips as he looked down at it, then the broken remains of the spine which had once held him prisoner, still moored into the trunk of the Tree of Pain.

The fragment still in his left hand, the cold demon reached out with his right and gripped the branch once again. Once more inhuman power surged through him, with even more ease this time, and felt the branch's security falter nearly instantly. He wrenched back violently and the spine tore off cleanly from the trunk, nearly a dozen meters away.

He brought it about in a wide arc until it floated in space well away from the Tree of Pain, and for a moment considered its quiet simplicity, and the potential lurking within. An image flowed together in his mind, a picture of what he had once been, yet far, far more. His left eye blazed to life, blue of that orb glowing bright, and immediately the broken branch conformed to his wishes.

The quicksilver flowed freely as liquid; the needle melted before his eyes and at his bidding. It formed a shimmering puddle in the dark realm and with another crack of thought he willed it toward him. The floating pool of steel did as it was silently commanded, and flowed 'round and about him. It sealed itself around his body, conforming to the old familiar shape he wished it to become.

When at last the otherworldly metal had finished its task and solidified around his form, he saw it to be near identical to the armor he had worn in his previous, save that sloping aegis covering his shoulders was far more pronounced, hanging down like twin hoods nearly to half the length of his bicep. From the top of each sprout three deadly prongs, sharp as those on the Tree of Pain, and terminating not far in height below the crown of his head.

He was pleased, and ordered next with his mind the smaller fragment he had torn from near his chest. It too melted at his behest and flowed toward him, those this time it enveloped his head. Quickly it formed itself into an ornate, paned helm which hid all save his ghostly white chin and lips. As before, it mirrored the helmet of the man he had once been, though its lines were more sharp and curved, and the points hanging down near his neck and far above his eyes all the more wickedly pointed.

Once more he was satisfied, and for the final piece he willed a billowing cape out from beneath the armor 'round his neck. Of fine fabric it was woven, thick and heavy, terminating less than an inch above his feet. It shone of a deep crimson, dark as the blood which flowed through mortal veins, but not his own.

Yet as he beheld himself through the eye of one of those racked 'pon the Tree of Pain, for he learned that was but one of his few new talents, he saw that he appeared too much his old self. That man was dead, and he saw no reason to hold up his memory.

The quicksilver he was swathed in darkened at his mental command, until it turned a shade of deepest black, yet still glistening brightly. Where the light limned upon his armor, it shimmered a dark blue, so ebon was the hue he now wore.

Similarly, the color of his cape would not do, and crimson changed to that same blue, the color of his eye and the flesh beneath his fingernails. At last, he knew himself to be complete.

A single task remains. You have no name.

Yes, the man he had been in the past was long dead. It would be foolish to continue wearing his name. For a moment he searched his mind, looking through his memories for a title to wear, until he realized it was folly to look to the past to find himself.

A word appeared in his mind's eye, both familiar and alien to him at the same time. He knew it to be a gift from the Lord of Pain, and knew well its intended purpose.

"Stryfe is dead." his voice was cold and utterly flat, "Vyer remains."

 

 

"The project proceeds well on your side, Annihilus?"

The insectoid overlord of the Negative Zone nodded solemnly, the dark crennels of his eyes looming huge on the viewscreen, "Yes, Priest-Lord Ghaur. We are ahead of schedule. Our anti-matter siphon shall be completed before the day is done."

Sitting back within an expansive obsidian throne upon a raised dais of emerald marble, the master of Deviant Lemuria replied easily, "So is it with our device. My technicians estimate four to five more hours of construction, no more. Afterward we shall move the channel into position over the Diablo Mountain Range, and open a dimensional corridor and connect the two machines."

"And afterward my armies can move into position and join with yours. Earth shall be ours." Annihilus replied, his voice and visage far too alien for the Deviant to even hazard at reading.

Ghaur raised an apprehensive finger, as if to the caution the denizen of that distant dimension, "Ah, not until the Dreaming God has been awakened. Only then shall your army makes its crossing. I will not have the Black Celestial feel threatened by otherworldly forces the instant he is freed from his slumber."

"There would be no threat, Ghaur. I wish to work with your Lemuria to conquer Earth, not against it. There is no need for such concern."

The Priest-Lord shook his head, long man of blue hair not moving with the effort, "I understand what you say, Lord Annihilus, but the Black Celestial will surely be... disoriented when he awakens. He has been imprisoned for millennia, and I doubt he will tolerate the presence of any save loyal Deviants when he regains his freedom. Neither of us would like to see your military decimated due to a misunderstanding, would we?"

Had Annihilus possessed eyelids, surely they would have narrowed at the moment. But he did not, and as such no telling expression took place. That implacable insectoid mask remained as ever firmly in place.

"I find it dubious that even a Celestial could see easily destroy my forces, but I shall take your word on the subject nevertheless. I will send my army through the channel after it has been removed from the area of the Dreaming Celestial's crypt."

Now Ghaur nodded in agreement, "You are reasonable as always, Annihilus. I knew it would not be a mistake to call upon your aid in this endeavor."

"I have learnt to covet the power of cosmic entities, such as the one you serve. So close was I to gaining the might that Thanos of Titan held not long ago, yet that opportunity burned to ash within my grasp. Now, my ambitions are far smaller; now all I desire is the aid of such a creature, not the possession of that being's power."

"A wise decision. I too once sipped from the chalice of omnipotence. It is... a difficult vintage to keep down. Men such as us are meant to rule, but only not as gods. Let the stars be strode among by those with the desire, and leave me only a kingdom rule and a world to conquer."

"So I am forced to agree, Lord Ghaur... " the ruler of the Negative Zone responded, albeit with a tinge of hesitation in his inhuman voice, "I must take my leave, now. There are other takes which require my attention, aside from the coming conquest of Earth. With Blaastar gone, his empire is ripe to be plucked."

Ghaur forced a smile, showing gleaming sharp teeth, "Luck be with you, Annihilus."

The strange creature gave a curt nod and the large screen blinked to blackness, leaving the Priest-Lord alone with himself, and all his myriad followers in the massive chamber. He sat upon his throne for a few moments, silently considering what had been said, allowing the dozen priests situated behind his throne to whisper amongst themselves as well, though their mutterings were of no true import.

Finally, when he had taken his fill of pondering, he turned his head sideways and spat an order, "Bring down the prisoner. I would show him the future."

A robed figure bowed low in the darker shadows ringing the throneroom and quickly scurried off to do his master's bidding. Soon he returned bearing a tall figure clad in full armor, but it was not meant for his protection, but those in chamber he now shared. His arms were bound tight between his back, the harness welded to the armor's torso, and he could only move with the greatest of effort.

"Put him down before my feet, where he belongs." the Priest-Lord commanded easily, for his tongue was well-used to being obeyed.

The priests did as they were bid and set the prisoner down at Ghaur's feet, making sure he was on his knees and his head was bowed before taking their leave. He made a guttural sound his throat at being treated so, by men who had served him such a short time before, but he made no move to resist.

A cruel smile curled the master of Lemuria's blue lips and his tone was biting when he addressed the prisoner, "Have you been enjoying your stay in the cells, Kro? I'm sure you now wish you'd renovated them when you had the chance... "

The former ruler of that same realm raised his head and fixed Ghaur with a harsh stare, seemingly fearless of whatever retribution could be brought to him, "Do you have something worthwhile to tell me, Ghaur? If not, I much prefer the company of dank walls to your own."

The Priest-Lord ignored the jibe, his expression never faltering, "I am sure you will be pleased to know that our plans to awaken the Dreaming Celestial progress swimmingly. Our god shall walk this pathetic once again in no more than two days."

Now it was Kro's turn to smile wickedly, and he barked a laugh, though it was devoid of humor, "You are a fool, Ghaur. The Black Celestial is dead, killed by Reed Richards and his ilk far in the future. Look on his crypt yourself; you'll find nothing but a crater."

The Priest-Lord's voice dropped ominously low when he replied, the smile slipping away to reveal deadly earnestness, "You are the fool, Kro. The Dreaming God still slumbers. Your tale is true, but it did not happen, for the Fantastic Four erased that timeline. The crypt was once a crater as you said, until the space/time continuum reorganized itself to fit these new boundaries. Our lord shall again reign, spreading chaos through cosmos, and we will sit proudly at his side."

Skepticism was still evident in Kro's features, and it was obvious that he was not entirely certain the Priest-Lord spoke the truth. Nevertheless, he seemed intent on wringing all the information you could from the braggart, "Have you formulated a scheme so quickly? It took millennia to complete your last, failed, attempt."

Ghaur's eyes narrowed dangerously, "Before being freed from the abyss, I had a great deal of time to ponder things, paramount among them the resurrection of my god. But don't think that was all I contemplated, Kro. I have dreamt a thousand tortures to inflict upon you, the least of which shall be your leading of the party which shall free the Dreaming Celestial from his imprisonment."

Kro arched a thin black eyebrow at this, "You truly believe I'll do such a thing?"

"Of course not, but your wishes have no import in the matter. An enhanced Brain-Mine shall prove more than capable of subverting your will long enough for the task to be completed. And think what a quandary Thena shall be in if she decides to interfere, and sees her beloved Kro to be chief among her foes?"

"If the Eternals of Olympia want your plan stopped, my presence alone will not be enough to deter them. And what makes you believe that the awakening of the Great Renegade will stay the hand of the Fifth Host, for that is why you seek to awaken him is it not? Even such a power as his cannot hope to slay ten of his brethren."

"The Dreaming Celestial is mightier than you will ever know, disbeliever. His eminence stands below none save the One Above All himself! He is the equal of Arishem! What chance has the Fifth Host against such a force? He shall decimate those foes and then, together with Lemuria ,subjugate this and all other worlds. None in the cosmos can stand against his power."

Even in chains, his mind dulled by long days in the darkness of the City of Toads' cells, Kro saw the futility of arguing with the Priest-Lord, "We will just-"

A voice rang out in the chamber, equal parts awe and loathing, "High Master Ghaur, the Uni-Mind has returned!"

The Priest-Lord made a noise in the back of his throat, but his steely composure did not turn tremulous, "Put that monstrosity on the main screen."

One of the robed clergymen did as he was bid, and the formerly dark screen lit with life, displaying a scene bother familiar and strange to the overlord of Lemuria. The spires of Olympia rose high in the night sky, nestled between the gigantic peaks of distant mountains. They remained grand and staggering even the ebon gloom.

But it was not the abode of the Eternals that drew Ghaur's rapt attention, but the glowing behemoth form floating above the tallest tower, pulsating with life from within. A strange and alien countenance, bloated with knowledge and power, the Uni-Mind was a fearsome sight to behold, if only for the Deviants who had once felt its wrath.

"Valkin and his ilk return as they said they would." Ghaur stated to himself more than any other, "Now we can only wait and see which course they encourage Olympia to take. Shall they stand with the Fifth Host... or against it?"

 

 

"You did what, Wylig?" the Hawk God spat as the two entities churned through the depths of hyperspace, the very stuff of the universe nothing save roiling lines passing outside an insubstantial protective bubble, "Any decision to name another member to our 'cause' should have been mutually decided upon by all our number, not you alone."

The renegade eyed his compatriot coolly, no ire raising in him. His voice remained maddeningly neutral in reply, "At the time, all our number was either imprisoned or indisposed, and those that weren't did not have views worthy of considering. In the past, I always tried to work subversively, but if it ever came to open warfare, the majority of us decided that Eyalus would prove a great asset, and if I recall correctly, you were among that number. He possesses an advantage that none of us do, and that is the innate chaos of his being, and that unpredictability makes him infinitely dangerous."

The avian entity was struck mute for a moment as he was forced to remember words spoken millennia ago, the memory dimmed by his countless years of imprisonment. When he spoke again it was with considerably less bravado, "Time has . . . dulled the annals of my recollection, Wylig, but now I see things as you say. Yet how could you be sure that the Lord of Pain even supported our views? He is eternally silent. No one, not even the Tribunal himself, knows what he thinks."

"It was a risk, I shall not deny that . . . It was a suspicion I've had all along, I can say no more than that. Perhaps my feelings shall become clearer in the days to come. But you cannot say I erred in judgment, Hawk God. We have a powerful force backing us a now, one which gives even the Celestial Trinity pause. And better still, his is an eye for an eye. The Tribunal stole one of our number, now we have taken one of his in return. A fair bargain."

The Hawk God's countenance was laced with skepticism, as were his words, "Yes, but you neglect to remember that the Lord of Pain cannot speak. His father struck him dumb because he feared that if the Silent One could give voice to his intentions, he would join with others and attempt to subvert life itself. How can we communicate with a being who has been forced to become an enigma?"

Wylig smirked coldly, "I remedied that condition not long ago. I plucked the suitable host for Eyalus out of Mephisto's Hades, one whose spirit and mind seems perfectly attuned to serve as the Silent One's Voice. As we speak Eyalus binds the man to him as he hangs on the Tree of Pain, or so I surmise. Even my eyes are not capable or glancing into that realm."

"Few are."

The Dark Watcher nodded reluctantly, "Nevertheless, when our task on Earth is done, I am sure that the Lord of Pain's avatar will be more than capable of serving him to the fullest of his abilities."

"And thusly another is added to our camp . . . or perhaps two, if you count this fleshly child. How many does that bring our paltry band to?"

"I cannot say . . . It has been millennia since we stood together. There are the two of us stalwarts, and the two more which we go forth to confront even now. Aron the Rogue seemed amiable to our views, but he has fallen before my apathetic brethren. The demonic hosts do not know the truth of things and thusly they cannot be depended upon, and of the Demiurge I know little. He may remain as aloof this time as he was active the last."

"I find that highly doubtful, Wylig. Much he engendered stands at stake."

"I hope you are correct, Hawk God. His astonishing might would be a great boon to us."

"Do we still command the Deviant armies?"

"Of course, though the majority of them are unaware of it as of yet. That shall change in time. It was Tantalus himself who awakened me from my slumber when he detected the Fifth Host bound for Earth. When war comes, he shall command our temporal forces; that is all but assured."

"He still lives? I had thought such a blood-thirsty conqueror would have died upon a forgotten enemy's sword long ago."

"Survival of the fittest, Hawk God. Is it not you who represent that most base and primal instinct? Tantalus remains because he is strong. Leave it at that."

The embodiment of that every same named urge nodded in agreement and looked away from the Dark Watcher for a moment, at the same time feeling the very fabric of the universe with his great senses.

Yes, he could feel the building tension, even as they soared through the innards of space. The iron strings that bound reality together were pulling tight, like fingers clenching into a great celestial fist. He believed he could almost see the Living Tribunal sitting in his distant courtroom, the mightiest of them all but also the most impotent, for he could not act unless now all four of his Faces agreed upon a course. Surely that new strength would also be turned to their advantage when the time came.

"We have arrived, though our journey took far longer than even I had hazard to guess." Wylig said as he willed the myriad ribbons of color all around them to cease, the blackness of space spring up with familiarity before them both, "Curse that both our powers had yet to recover from our imprisonments."

"Aye." the Hawk God replied simply, ranging out from the remains of the protective curtain to survey the area where that had willed themselves to be deposited. Like a wall of molten fire the sun Sol rose up before them, boiling away in the darkness of space, its face sometimes mottled with darker spots. Within lay their quarry.

But the primal beast was not so easily satisfied and he looked about behind him, his eyes confirming what his honed senses already told him to be true. He gazed past the insignificant specks of Mercury and Venus, for they were of no import, and fixed hard eyes on the massive vessel sitting like a hen in orbit of gleaming Earth.

"The ship of the Fifth Host," he spoke with venom, "and within it sits the master of the Space Gods. Should we not slay him now? Surely the beast will die the instant its head has been lopped off."

Wylig shook his great head slowly, edging towards the burning star even as he replied, "The time is not yet right. Our powers are still not all they truly are, and the cancer we laced the Celestials with long ago has not taken as firm a root as any of us hoped. Battling the One Above All will only bring about our swift demise."

The Hawk God was forced to agree, even though his very being yearned to again feel the thrill of combat, to see who among the stars was truly fit to live, and who should be weeded out and left to rot.

"I sense the Eternal Uni-Mind has returned as well. What course shall that composite creature take, I wonder?"

The Dark Watcher was nearly engulfed by the boiling plasma surface of the sun now, but his voice rang out loudly all the same, "I cannot say. The Eternals are an unknown quantity whose path even I cannot predict. If they aid us, so much the better. If the stand with their creators, let them burn in the same pyre.

Again the Hawk God saw the wisdom of the renegade's words, and was thankfully to have him as an ally in place of a foe. He knew himself to be a mighty warrior, perhaps the greatest in all the cosmos and the universal pantheon, but rashness too resided in him, though he was loath to admit it, even to himself. He was all the greater force when his fire was tempered with ice, and that latter was the cold logic of the exiled Watcher.

"Come now, Hawk God." Wylig's voice shot from the tumultuous celestial body, his own form now invisible to the naked eye, "I would have you with me when I speak with our compatriot. I believe he still supports our cause, but their is no wrong in being cautious nonetheless."

The primal being fixed the distant Earth with a look of longing, and the Hostship too, feeling the presence of the One Above All secreted within its confines. And then the Hawk God turned, exhilaration of potential combat slipping from him, and followed the Dark Watcher in the corona of the roiling tempest of plasma.

 

 

"The Uni-Mind has conferred during our long journey here, Thena," Valkin the Polar Eternal said as he stood before the throne of Olympia, "and we believe that though the Celestials created us, they no longer possess the right to guide our destiny. We recommend that you throw the full might of the Eternals against the Fifth Host, and stay the hand of Edrashem the Transmuter. If the people of this planet do not wish to become gods, the Space Gods have no right to impress such a 'gift' upon them. Let evolution take its natural course. Even Ajak, so loyal to the Celestials in the past, concurs."

Thena considered her elder's words for a few silent moments, and as she did so she looked over the faces of the few she had assembled in the expansive thronechamber. Ikaris was nodding at his uncle's words, his support obviously wholehearted. Makkari was seemingly less sure of what course to take; his usually care-free face was written over with conflict. Last of all, Karkas could do naught but agree with Valkin's edicts, for surely all the Deviants of Earth would die just as humans and Eternals alike were raised up to the heavens.

She chose her words carefully when she replied, taking care to keep her tone even as she spoke, "I am forced to agree with what you say, Valkin, and it seems a great majority of Olympia is of the same mind. If we wish to move against the Fifth Host, their will be little to no opposition from the Eternals of this city. And surely, though we have fought them for so long throughout the ages, the Deviants too will aid us in striking against the Celestials, before Edrashem can complete his task."

"Already we have detected movement in the City of Toads." Ikaris interjected, "Since the late hours of last night, after the Uni-Mind arrived, they have been stirring. Surely they will soon move to free their Dreaming God."

"But can they? The Priest-Lord's last attempt was a failure, if barely so." Thena questioned out of necessity.

"If backed by the full might of the Eternal Uni-Mind, I doubt the Great Renegade will remain in his crypt for long." Ikaris replied bluntly.

It was as if he had spoken blasphemy, though surely he had been aware of the reaction it would cause. Surprise dawned on the faces of all those assembled, save Thena's and Valkin’s. Even the guards in the shadowed corners were shocked at what their greatest warrior had said.

But the leader of the lot seemed unperturbed, "It is a dangerous gambit we play, Ikaris. I told you this yesterday and things have no changed. If we allow the Fifth Host to perform its task, we are raised to godhood. If the Black Celestial is awakened, we all court utter destruction." She turned to Valkin, "Is it truly a risk we are willing to take?"

He considered quietly for a moment, even such a hardened tactician obviously needing some time to mull over such a dire decision. Yet in the end he nodded, "The Fifth Host counts ten among its number, while the Dreamer is only one, though a powerful one at that. I doubt he possesses the might to slay the entire Host by himself, but perhaps if his strength is wedded to that of the Uni-Mind, we can prevail. And then, while the Black Celestial is weakened from his battle, we can turn and slay him as well, ridding the Earth of two dire threats in one stroke. It is truly the best course of action."

"The same Uni-Mind did not acquit itself nearly so well when it faced the Fourth Host in days past, Valkin." Thena reminded Ikaris' uncle gravely.

"Ah, but we have had a great deal more time to learn the mysteries of that divine union while traveling in space. I assure you, our Uni-Mind is far more deadly instrument now than it ever was before. It will prove more than adequate to wipe this planet clean of both the Fifth Host and the Great Renegade." His voice suddenly dropped and leaned close to the ruler of Olympia, as if he feared he would be heard, "Something gnaws at the Celestials from within, Thena, and I cannot say what. But nevertheless we shall take full advantage of it. Their powers fluctuate wildly. The time when the Space Gods stood at the pinnacle of the cosmic hierarchy is long past. I doubt that this Fifth Host will stand as strongly as the one before it; the power of the Fourth Host here on the Earth was a fluke. Never had I seen them as powerful before or since."

"You chance much on this assumption, Valkin. If you are wrong, the Uni-Mind may be so utterly shattered that it can never be re-formed again."

His voice grew cold, and a moment Thena thought his breath would steam as he spoke, "I would rather be dead than a puppet of the Space Gods. Better the embrace of Mistress Death than an eternity spent being experimented upon by the Celestials."

The leader of the Eternals sighed, but was reluctantly forced to nod her head in acquiescence, "Again I agree, Valkin, though I wish I did not. But though it seems both Olympia and Lemuria now stand united against the Fifth Host, what are the wishes of humanity? Who are we to decide their destiny?"

"The Celestials created us to be the stewards of mankind until they evolve beyond us." the Polar Eternal said, "Let us do that duty and make this decision. Let evolution take its natural course. Let man prosper at his own rate, not in the forced order that the Space Gods impose."

"Deciding the fate of an entire race, and they have no say in the matter . . . " Thena whispered to herself, though the others surely heard as well, "If we do this, we are no better than the Fifth Host we oppose . . . "

"Humanity at large is ignorant of what is at stake, and that is the fault of their leaders, not ourselves." Ikaris said icily, "You must decide Thena, and decide soon. We know that given time, humanity shall prosper of its own accord, while we are not sure what awaits them in the hands of the Fifth Host. We all believe that Edrashem shall mold them into a more perfect form, but what if they merely become a reflection of the Celestials themselves? Surely that would be a grievous injustice to be party to. Let man grow into what he is meant to be, not what the Space Gods wish him to be."

Thena remained silent for a moment, her eyes looking beyond the faces of all who know studied her intently, looking for a sign of what she would decide. The leader of Olympia drew a quavering breath, and when she spoke her voice was nearly tremulous, despite her best efforts.

"May the true One Above All punish me for the decision I have made this day . . . The Eternals shall fight, and with all the strength we can muster."

Ikaris and Valkin nodded in near-perfect unison, and quickly both were off to prepare for the coming war. Karkas and Makkari both looked upon Thena with a mixture of disquiet, pity, and sorrow. Makkari made a move to comfort his liege, but the monstrous Deviant held him back with a single great arm, and a solemnly nod of his great head. Soon they too were gone.

Thena sat upon her throne, alone in the shadow of her office, and never before had she felt so cold as she did on that day.

 

 

Priest-Lord Ghaur leaned forward in his towering throne of obsidian, lacing his long fingers in front of his thin blue lips as he did. Those piercing eyes nestled in his inhuman countenance carefully studied the image shown to him by the great scene situated at the fore of his throneroom. Brought to him by minuscule satellites nestled in orbit, they showed the master of the Deviants the harried efforts of his kind, scurrying about the Diablo Mountains, attempting to awaken their Dreaming God.

Hovering high in the cloud-choked sky were several immense silver vessels, sleek and bullet-shaped, though their hulls bristled with all manner of devices, not the least of which were weapons. From several extended long ribbed tubes which shot across the air and linked together in an abstract shape hovering in the very midst of the gathering. Supported by unseen anti-gravity fields, its bulk floating easily in space.

The mechanism was irregularly shaped, for its form did not impede its function. Long was it, with bugles every so often marring its grey shape. Affixed to one end was a long, deadly needle, tilted towards the ground. The length of the spear coursed with energy, glowing brightly, and from its termination launched a thin stream of power, digging into the mountainside with a great flourish of dust and rubble. At the other end, more oblique and squared, there existed only a faint rippling, small sign of the might it channeled so easily.

For hours the machine had sat suspended, do its work while technicians assured themselves that it worked properly. Never had it once run low of power, for its source came not from any Earth-bound resource, but the infinite reaches of the Negative Zone. In the body of the bloated device that anti-matter was compressed with positive matter, and the resulting energy immediately channeled via magnetic fields into the ground below. It seemed as though the Deviant construction left only desolation in its wake, but that was far from the case.

Nervous impatience coursed through Ghaur as surely as energy coursed through the device of his own idea, and for what seemed the hundredth time in far less minutes, he asked, without turning, "What is the status of the Black Celestial's crypt?" He added, much more to himself than any of the others nearby, "We must have nearly broken through by now... "

"Its outer layers have been breached, Priest-Lord." a gruff voice replied from the shadows in the background, "Estimate one to two more hours before the Celestial prison is completely ruptured and the Great Renegade can awaken and free himself."

The leader of Lemuria licked his lips with a slim tongue in anticipation, but along with it can fear, unwanted as it was. The resurrection of his god would free them of the Fifth Host most assuredly, but what then? The Priest-Lord had always preached that the Great Dreamer would take them into his service when he walked the Earth once again, but what if he instead chose to destroy his offspring?

Quickly, however, his mind saw that there was no reason for such fear. Edrashem would surely annihilate Lemuria even as he raised the other inhabitants of the world up; at least with the Black Celestial there lay a chance of survival.

Again he set to watching his minions scurry about on the rocks, look-outs forever watching for any interference from meddling heroes, S.H.I.E.L.D., or the Eternals. So far they had yet to deal with any interlopers seeking to halt their plans, but Ghaur knew such luck would not last. He worried not, though, for even under the influence of a Brain-Mine as he was, Kro was an able battle commander. He would be more than capable of holding off any threat until the Great Renegade was successfully revived. And if Kro were to perish in the melee, so much the better...

Minutes passed like hours for him, until the dreadful tension was broken by a cry from the back, "Master Ghaur! The Uni-Mind is on the move! Shall I put it on screen?"

Though his servant could surely not see the motion, Ghaur unconsciously shook his head at the question, "No, there isn't need. But tell me, what is the mass of the Uni-Mind? Is it the same as when it first arrived?"

There was a slight pause as the lackey checked his monitors, attempting to answer his lord's strange request, "No, Priest-Lord. It appears to have increased 43.786% in mass. It appears the majority of the Eternals of the Olympia have joined the previous union."

"So I surmised . . . " Ghaur whispered, stroking his chin, "What is the Uni-Mind's trajectory?"

Another pause, although slighter this time, "The projected path of the Uni-Mind will take it to the current coordinates of the assembled Fifth Host, milord."

He smiled, showing pointed teeth, "Excellent. The Eternals shall stand against the Fifth Host after all."

"Priest-Lord," the same voice said, with trepidation, "we are detecting three Eternal presences leaving Olympia. They appear to be heading directly for the Diablo Mountains."

"Their identities?"

"Ikaris, Makkari, and Phastos, milord."

Ghaur's eyes narrowed, "All warriors well-acquainted with battling our kind . . . What game is Thena playing at? How long until they reach our encampment?"

"They are moving . . . incredibly fast, milord. Far swifter than the Uni-Mind. Estimate no more than fifteen minutes until they reach Lord Kro's position."

"Alert Kro" - he would not give the pink-skinned usurper the dignity of title - "to the danger, though he is most assuredly already aware of it. I will not -"

Ghaur sensed the disturbance a mere moment before it manifested in entirety. His head whipped around to his left as he saw a bright light suddenly appear in the relative gloom of his stronghold. No larger than a pinprick it glowed painfully bright, and grew with an incredible hunger for the darkness.

That small pinprick soon enlarged to the size of a tall doorway, ovular in shape, its surface still shining, burning away at the Priest-Lord's retinas. Guards flocked around the sudden entranceway, slim discharge-pikes held in sweating hands, ready to fire the instant anyone dared step foot into the throneroom.

An immense shadow appeared in the searing light, inhumanly tall, with strange crests growing from what seemed to be his head. The Priest-Lord could vaguely make out a second shape, a faint outline behind the first, far less impressive in stature. It was not that figure which intrigued or concerned him at the moment.

The towering form moved forward, towards the space of the throneroom, and the multitude of guards readied themselves for action. Another step, and with an ebony flash, Ghaur's protectors were sent reeling about the chamber, their weapons scattered haphazardly, no longer a consideration for the senseless.

The Priest-Lord looked about, surveyed the defeat of his forces with one sweep of his gaze, even as the shadow loomed closer, now seeming only a single step from plunging through into the heart of Lemuria. Fear did not rise in him, but anger, for none would dare such an insult and remain unpunished.

He stood from his throne, upon the black dais, felt the surge of power that was his birthright through his fingertips, and prepared to deal out twice the force what this stranger had proffered to topple the guardsmen still lying insensate on the ground.

The figured stepped through, and as his face became obvious, Ghaur's throat went dry and all the power coursing through him died in an instant, leaving not even a flicker for him to call upon.

"Is this how my kin great me?" the stranger boomed, his basso voice filling the entire room with ease, "With weapons drawn and ready to slay me at the slightest provocation?"

"I, we, were not notified of your coming . . . " he searched for a word with which to address his new visitor. Fear still beat as surely as did his heart, but shock already began to fade from the Priest-Lord, his natural tendencies returning. He would not be made a mockery in his own throneroom, " . . . honored guest Tantalus."

The monstrous former overlord of Armechadon stared back at Ghaur with a guarded gaze, his intentions mute, "I have no need to announce my intentions to any, Priest-Lord. I have taken leave from the war to re-take my world in order to witness the re-birth of my god. Is that acceptable, master of Lemuria?"

Ghaur smiled back and nodded, well-pleased with the courtesy afforded him, even if it seemed feigned, "Of course, Lord Tantalus. Even I would not dare keep such a legend from what he wished to see. Still, many more comforts could I have prepared for you had you announced your intention to visit my city."

Tantalus dismissed him with a half-hearted gesture, "There is no need, Lord Ghaur. I shall be staying for quite a span; all the amenities you wish for me will have due time to be prepared."

Anger flickered across the Lemurian's features, if only for a moment, but he did not give voice to his frustrations. Instead, he chose to watch as a second figure now strode through the gleaming portal, which closed with a flash behind the robed entrant.

"This is Khult," Tantalus introduced, "leader of the Deviant priesthood on my Armechadon, well-versed astronomer, and cleanser of the madness inflicted upon me by the Black Legacy. I should hope any courtesy given to me would likewise be given to him."

Ghaur inclined his head, taking care to do it ever so slightly, "It shall be done, Lord Tantalus."

"I thank you." the recently arrived Deviant priest replied, his features serene, his voice deep, though not nearly to the degree of his comrade's.

Seeming to have had his fill of meaningless pleasantries, for in truth they all rang utterly hollow, Tantalus turned his gaze from the leader of Lemuria and took several steps toward the large viewscreen, focusing on the activity still displayed prominently upon its face.

"How much longer until the Dreamer is freed?" he asked.

"No more than two hours." Ghaur replied, again seating his throne of obsidian, and with that motion feeling command and confidence return to him. The fear that had been so prevalent only minutes ago was now little more than an annoying worm gnawing at the back of his mind.

"And the Fifth Host?" It was Khult who quarried this time, though he had not moved from where he had entered.

The Priest-Lord fixed him with a suspicious gaze, and for the first time felt that this simple friend of Tantalus' was far more deadly than the lord of Armechadon. He vowed to be doubly careful 'round the mysterious astronomer henceforth.

"The exact time of Scathan's Judgment cannot be deduced. However, there should be more than sufficient time to awaken the Black Celestial and commence destroying our enemies before Edrashem begins his damned transmutation."

Tantalus turned his head and peered at Ghaur with another unreadable stare, his crimson eyes molten pits beneath that heavy brow. The Priest-Lord met the earnest look with a hard gaze of his own, and for a moment the two Deviant overlords commenced a silent struggle of unvoiced threats, neither side faltering or giving ground.

A great flash lit the viewscreen, shattering the quiet conflict, drawing the eyes of all assembled and conscious within the thronechamber.

A second bolt of lightning split the sky, slamming into the mountainside, scattering Deviant soldiers and sentries about haphazardly.

"Those are not natural . . . " Tantalus said ominously, stating the obvious.

"Pinpoint the source of the energy disturbance." Ghaur ordered, assuming that his stalwart technician was still at his post.

Apparently, he was, and the screen flickered to reveal the head and shoulders of a being who looked human, but seemed far more. His golden hair hung down to his shoulders, and like a forest a thick beard covered his grim countenance. Above the winged helmet perched his head he whirled a war-hammer, though it seemed little more than a blur in his practiced hand.

"Thor." Ghaur spat, "The heroes move against us, but they shall fail. Kro is an accomplished tactician, more than capable of driving them off."

Tantalus' eyes shifted in their sockets and again he peered at Ghaur, though this time only peripherally.


Continued in Chapter 3


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