Written by Warren "Azmodi"
Entros, Edited by E.
This story follows the events in
The Twilight War and Foundations
Forged Before Nightfall.
Continued from Dusk's End Chapter One.
The eternal blank whiteness of the Dimension of Manifestations remained, as it always did, but the majority of the cosmic gathering had been left to whisper and wander in that same distant area, while a select few were granted a further audience with the golden radiance of the Living Tribunal.
"Would not my speaking with Adam Warlock violate your own ruling?" the Closed Circle asked tentatively, closely studying his superior's gleaming countenance, searching for some sign of duplicity.
"A WORD IS NOT A DEED, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT IS SPOKEN ON THE BEHALF OF MYSELF AND THE POWER WHICH I REPRESENT. I HAVE RULED THAT THIS CONFLICT MAY BE ALLOWED TO CONTINUE, BUT I WOULD NOT HAVE IT DO SO INDEFINITELY. A PROTRACTED WAR, EVEN ON SUCH A SMALL SCALE AS COMPARED TO OUR OWN, WOULD EVENTUALLY DECIMATE THE OMNIVERSE ENTIRELY AND EARN THE IRE OF HE WHO STANDS ABOVE US ALL. SPEAKING WITH ADAM WARLOCK WILL ONLY SERVE TO HASTEN THE END OF THIS WAR."
Thanos' burning eyes narrowed as he considered the seated entity's words, weighing his options, probing the Tribunal's intentions. In truth, the Titan did know if the golden judge could read his mind, and he surmised that he could not, for surely that would be a dire violation of his own privacy, one which the Tribunal did not seem willing to commit. Since his ascension to the near-peak of the cosmic scheme, the Closed Circle had come to learn that though there were many beings with limitless power, there were truly none who possessed the entirety of knowledge. Many could claim omniscience to mortals, even himself, but save for perhaps the true One Above All; none he knew of were omniscient. In addition, thusly he gambled as he did and thought his own thoughts, hoping that the Living Tribunal would not dare look inside his mind.
Disturbed, the Titan was by the Tribunal's edict. In the past, Thanos had always believed that shining figure to be impartial, dispassionate, and objective. He had believed that the Living Tribunal possessed no true mind of his own, in the common sense, and that he was merely a living extension of cosmic justice, serving without question He Who Is Never Looked Upon and ruling to the best of his own abilities, without thought for himself. Now . . . the Closed Circle had been commanded to partially violate one of the Tribunal's own rulings, albeit nearly non-existentially so, and Thanos sensed it was for far more than the simple good of the universe. No, the Titan reluctantly believed that the Living Tribunal now had some personal stake in events, and since he could not take a direct action himself, without revealing what this compromise of morals was, he instructed another to do it for him. With his edict the Tribunal had declared himself firmly on the side of the Celestials, despite his own ruling, for any actions Warlock would take were to surely tilt the favor of the war back to the side of Order, and whichever side was victorious in that same conflict would gain custodianship of Earth, and therefore be in control of humanity's destiny; that much was painfully obvious.
Grudgingly, the Closed Circle finally nodded his head, acceding to the Living Tribunal's order; "I shall do as you say, Living Tribunal, but no more, lest your verdict be violated in totality."
"SUCH IS HOW IT SHOULD BE. GO NOW, TITAN, AND ACCOMPLISH YOUR TASK."
Again, Thanos nodded curtly, casting a sideways glance at the two other entities in attendance. The World Devourer, Galactus, did not even bother to meet his gaze, while the Stranger merely stared back coldly. Feeling ever more at disease, the Eternal was gone in a flash, leaving those remaining to look at one other with slight concern.
"Thanos trusts no one, even now," the Ravager of Worlds said with deadly earnestness, "It may have been a mistake to bind him to yourself, Tribunal. If he discovers the true nature of things, he could be a far greater enemy than an ally. Perhaps it would have been better to simply slay him when he was but an infant compared to those he now stands among as an equal . . . "
"THE CLOSED CIRCLE WILL SERVE FAITHFULLY UNTIL HE IS NO LONGER NEEDED. HE BELIEVES HIMSELF TO BE TRULY BORN FOR THE POSITION HE NOW OCCUPIES, AND AS SUCH HIS LOYALTY IS GUARANTEED. WITH THANOS' EXISTENCE, FUSED WITH THE 'INFINITY EQUATION' AND BOUND TO MY OWN, I HAVE DOUBLED MY OWN MIGHT IN THE ONLY WAY POSSIBLE, FOR THERE WAS NO WAY FOR ME TO DIRECTLY POSSESS ANY OF THE REMNANT ENERGY REMAINING FROM THE PRIME DIVERGENCE."
"Power only necessary if Wylig and his allies succeed in rousting a force long dead . . . " the Stranger commented grimly, "Even though Wylig is aware of that . . . thing's existence, there is no guarantee he will manage to re-awaken it. Your gamble with the Titan has been a very dangerous one, Living Tribunal. And perhaps unnecessary as well."
"A SAFEGUARD, STRANGER, FOR WE CANNOT AFFORD TO HAVE MY POWER NULLIFIED WHEN THE CONFLICT REACHES ITS PEAK. FOR YOU THE RISK MAY SEEM GREAT, BUT FOR ME IT IS LITTLE MORE THAN A TRIFLE. THAT NOW BRINGS ME TO YOUR REASON FOR BEING HERE. YOUR STATUS AS THE GREAT UNKNOWN MAKES YOU INVISIBLE TO ALL FORCES WITHIN THE OMNIVERSE, FOR ONE CANNOT TRACK THAT WHICH IS TRULY UNKNOWABLE."
"And you would have me do what with my 'uniqueness'?"
"FIND THE ONE WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CREATION OF ALL THESE MYRIAD SPHERES, AND ASCERTAIN HIS VIEWS UPON THIS WAR. HE HAS NEVER INTERFERED BEFORE, BUT HIS OWN MOTIVATIONS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN CLOAKED IN MYSTERY, AND I WOULD ATTEMPT TO KNOW ALL PARTICIPANTS IN THIS GAME NOW THAT IT HAS BEGUN IN EARNEST."
A cold smile crept across the Stranger's face, "Ah, but as I am undetectable to nearly all cosmic senses, for I must ever remain a stranger, so too are my motivations similarly Byzantine. Is it not a risk sending me to find this crucial being, for who is to know what I shall tell him if a confrontation does take place?"
"IT IS A NECESSARY RISK, STRANGER. YOUR UNIQUE POSITION MAKES YOU THE ONLY ONE CAPABLE OF TRULY SURPRISING HIM WHERE HE HAS SETTLED HIMSELF, AND YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE CAPABLE OF CONCEALING YOUR TRUE INTENTIONS FROM HIM. IT IS BOTH YOUR BOON AND YOUR CURSE TO EVER BE A STRANGER."
"As I have always said, Living Tribunal, I shall do as you ask, but I cannot promise results. Never before have any of us encountered this creature, save yourself, and you have always spoken of him being . . . somewhat difficult to understand."
"HE IS MIRED IN MORTAL MINDSET, FOR IT IS AMONG THOSE MASSES THAT HE HAS CHOSEN TO LIVE AMONGST FOR COUNTLESS AEONS. AND AS WE HAVE ALL LEARNT, IT IS EXCEEDINGLY DIFFICULT TO ASCRIBE LOGIC TO THE ACTIONS OF MORTALS."
Galactus nodded his massive helmeted head in agreement, and spoke words he would surely speak to any other being within the entire cosmic spectrum save the Living Tribunal. For once he seemed less an unstoppable force of nature, and more the man Galan he had once been, "Truer words have never been spoken, Tribunal. Oftentimes I find it ridiculous that our very existence is due to those same small creatures we treat with such arrogance, and I must wonder, is it they who are truly small in their perceptions . . . or ourselves?"
The Tribunal turned his stellar skull to fasten those blazing star-blast sockets upon the World Devourer, "HAVE NOT ALL OF YOU QUESTIONED YOUR OWN ACTIONS SINCE I REVEALED THE TRUTH TO YOU LONG AGO? BUT THOSE ARE THOUGHTS WHICH MUST BE PUSHED ASIDE, FOR AS YET HUMANITY DOES STILL STAND FAR BELOW US IN THE COSMIC SCHEME, AND IT IS YOUR DUTY TO GUIDE THEM TO GREATNESS AS YOU PRIVILEGED FEW SEE FIT." His head turned back to look down at the Stranger, "GO NOW, TO YOUR TASK. THERE IS NO TIME FOR PHILOSOPHY IN CIRCUMSTANCES SUCH AS THIS."
The Stranger considered the Living Tribunal coldly for a moment, demonstrating little of the reverence that nearly all the other cosmic entities did while in the presence of that gleaming arbitrator of celestial justice. Perhaps it was because he had once been offered a position as the Fourth Face, or perhaps it was because he remained unknowable to even the Tribunal's senses . . . or perhaps the Stranger's reason for acting as he did would remain forever unknown. Nevertheless, when a space of what could be deemed a few mortal heartbeats passed, the Stranger nodded curtly to the cosmic judge and willed himself away. No grand sparkling of light heralded his departure, for the Stranger did not often revel in such displays. Instead one moment he was there, and the next he was simply gone, leaving only the mighty Galactus and the Living Tribunal in that corridor of the Dimension of Manifestations.
"What is to be my task in things, Living Tribunal?" Galactus questioned his dispassionate attitude returning as he spoke perhaps one of the few true questions he had asked in his immense lifespan that he did not already know the answer to.
"YOU ARE MERELY TO ORDER YOUR CURRENT HERALD TO LEAVE HIS POST AT YOUR WORLDSHIP AND FIND YOUR FIRST AND FOREMOST SERVANT, THE SILVER SURFER. THOUGH I CANNOT DIRECTLY ACT DUE TO MY OWN INDECISION, I HAVE CONJECTURED WYLIG'S PLANS, AND WOULD HAVE THEM STOPPED. YOUR HERALD IS TO PROTECT NORRIN RADD WITH HIS VERY LIFE, AND SEE THAT HE DOES NOT FALL INTO INAPPROPRIATE HANDS."
Now for a moment those same thoughts which had occurred to the Closed Circle flashed through the limitless intellect of the World Devourer, though to a much smaller degree, and with much less insistence. He allowed them to burn brightly for no more than a moment before extinguishing those dangerous considerations and answering the Tribunal.
"I am forced to echo the sentiments of Thanos, Living Tribunal. Are you not violating your own ruling, however insignificantly, and sacrificing your own impartiality?"
"I AGREED TO WYLIG'S PLEA SO THAT THE OMNIVERSE WOULD NOT BE CONSUMED IN A WAR BETWEEN COSMIC FORCES, BUT I CANNOT ALLOW A TEMPORAL CONFLICT TO CONTINUE INDEFINITELY EITHER. ADAM WARLOCK SHALL COUNTERACT ONE PORTION OF WYLIG'S SCHEME, AND YOUR HERALD SHALL DEAL WITH THE OTHER. THIS IS HOW I HAVE DECIDED TO DEAL WITH MATTERS, GALACTUS. DO NOT SEEK TO IMPUGN UPON MY JUDGMENT ANY FURTHER."
The World Devourer bristled; both out of sudden realization that his probing might have earned the displeasure of the Tribunal, and that even the golden judge would speak to him in such a manner. Nevertheless, Galactus was no fool; arrogant as he sometimes was, and knew his own limitless might was as nothing compared to the Living Tribunal's. Now he could do nothing save nod reluctantly before turning to vanish from the Dimension of Manifestations, leaving the shining arbitrator alone with his own inconceivable thoughts.
Perhaps a handful of minutes later or perhaps a few dozen centuries (who can truly say?), there slowly appeared two figures clad in thick robes of gray. Their countenances concealed by those folds of simple cloth, they glided forward on what seemed a cushion of air, coming to halt but a few steps from the Living Tribunal. His star-blast eyes raised to look into the blackness that was their faces, and as he always did in their presence, he felt true awe.
Gradually, his radiant sockets never leaving those featureless visages, the Tribunal came to his feet. Nevertheless, where he towered above all the entities that dwelt within the Omniverse, his own stellar skull came to no more than shoulder-height of these two beings. The Living Tribunal was indeed the greatest power within the confines of all the myriad spheres of existence, but these two entities were not of the Omniverse; they were above it.
Yet, mighty as these creatures were, he felt no power emanating from their cloaked forms. They were but dead husks, and he saw no life pulsating within their bodies. These beings were not truly alive, had no true life; they were but representations of the force that the Living Tribunal served, for no perceptions within the Omniversal realm could truly due such an enormity of eminence proper guise, and in truth they could not even enter the Omniverse without utterly rending it asunder into shreds, so great and incalculable was their power.
For tense moments, the Tribunal awaited the words of his silent masters, and when emerald orbs lit in those twin ebon cloaks, he prepared himself for the mere experience of being addressed by these limitless beings."HAVE THINGS PROGRESSED AS YOU PROMISED, MY GOLDEN SERVITOR?"
The two beings spoke with what seemed a billion separate voices; all merged into a single hammer-blow of words that the Tribunal threatened would shatter his very countenance and reduce his gleaming body to rubble. Yet at the same time came a divine elation, a soaring of the Living Tribunal's spirits as he heard the merest utterances of this great force, and slow seething resentment that had grown over countless Aeons until it now burned bright within the corridors of his limitless soul. How long he had served this misnamed "Supreme Will," with no reward save further duty.
He let none of this creep into his voice as he answered, "THEY HAVE, SUPREME ONE, ALTHOUGH IT WOULD NOT BE SO FOR YOUR OWN ... AUTHORIZATION, ALLOWING ME TO ACCOMPLISH TASKS I WOULD OTHERWISE NOT BE CAPABLE OF, DUE TO MY OWN SELF-IMPOSED LIMITATIONS. WITH THE SUCCESSFUL BINDING OF THE RESIDUAL ENERGY OF THE SO-TITLED 'INFINITY EQUATION,' MY POWER HAS INCREASED TWO-FOLD. NOW, EVEN IF MY OPPOSITE CAN BE AWAKENED, HE SHALL NO LONGER BE MY EQUAL. MANKIND IS NO LONGER IN SUCH IMMEDIATE JEOPARDY."
"I EXIST OUTSIDE THE TEMPORAL SPHERE ... I AM ABOVE THE BOUNDARIES OF THE OMNIVERSE, AND THAT IS BOTH MY CURSE AND MY BOON. I CAN FEEL TURMOIL IN THE OMNIVERSE, BUT I AM FOREVER BLIND TO THOSE EVENTS. SO TELL ME, AS YOU HAVE ALWAYS DONE SO FAITHFULLY SINCE THE PRIME DIVERGENCE, WHAT OCCURS IN THE REALM THAT IS UNDER YOUR JURISDICTION?"
Had he been a man, the Living Tribunal would have taken a deep breath before continuing, but he was far beyond such a simple fleshly being and therefore had no need, "AS WE HAVE KNOWN THERE WOULD BE SINCE THE VERY BEGINNING, NOW HAVE THEIR RISEN BEINGS WHO SEEK TO PERVERT AND TWIST HUMANITY TO THEIR OWN DREADFUL PURPOSES. THESE FEW BEINGS KNOW THE TRUTH OF MANKIND'S POTENTIAL AND SEEK TO DISRUPT IT, HARNESS THE OMEGA POINT BEFORE IT EVEN FORMS AND THEREBY BECOME MASTERS OF ALL REALITY."
"AND HOW DO THEY SEEK TO DO THIS, MY FAITHFUL SERVANT?"
"THEY HAVE ATTEMPTED TO DISRUPT THE EVOLUTION OF HUMANITY, SO THAT WHEN THE NOOSPHERE AT LAST FORMS, IT SHALL BEND TO THE WILL OF THOSE FEW GUTTURAL CREATURES. NEVERTHELESS, MY OWN FORCES HAVE MOVED TO STOP THESE SAME BEINGS AND IN THE CONFLICT, THE COSMIC BALANCE HAS BEEN SEVERED. WAR IS SOON TO RAGE."
There was naked concern in the voice of those two robed beings, who were truly the same tremendous entity bound up into twin temporal forms,"THERE CAN BE NO GREATER SIN THAN TO INTERFERE WITH THE NATURAL PROGRESSION OF THE CHOSEN RACE ... I SHALL ALLOW YOU TO LET THIS WAR RAGE, IF IT MEANS THE SALVATION OF HUMANITY. IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE LIVES OF THESE SUPREME BETRAYERS ARE EXTINGUISHED, USE YOUR OWN LIMITLESS AUTHORITY SO THAT THE OMNIVERSE IS NOT RENT PERMANENTLY ASUNDER. THAT IS WHAT I WOULD HAVE YOU DO NOW, IN THESE DIRE CIRCUMSTANCES."
Fierce triumph burned in the spirit of the Living Tribunal, and he knew himself to be close to obtaining that one goal that had become nearly an obsession for him in the later Aeons of his immense lifespan. Yet he knew he could not allow himself to consider victory to be his own yet, for even now this entity could destroy him with but a thought, and as such he kept his tone even and focused as he replied to his single superior.
"I HAVE RULED THAT THE CONFLICT CANNOT CONTINUE ON A COSMIC SCALE, ONLY A MORTAL ONE, SO THE DAMAGE TO THE OMNIVERSE CAN BE MINIMIZED. WITH A MERE WAVE OF MY HAND, I COULD HAVE TERMINATED ALL THOSE MALICIOUS TRAITORS, BUT MY NEWLY CHRISTENED FOURTH FACE HAS SPLINTERED MY JUDGMENT AND MADE SUCH AN EASY VICTORY IMPOSSIBLE. ONLY IF A TRUE AND IMMEDIATE CRISIS COMES WILL I BE ABLE TO SURMOUNT HIS INPUT AND ACT SOLELY OF MY OWN ACCORD."
"THAT IS THE WEAKNESS OF COSMIC JUSTICE, MY SERVITOR; ALWAYS MUST YOU DO WHAT YOU BELIEVE TO BE RIGHT, EVEN WHEN IT IS NOT NECESSARILY THE BEST FOR ALL OTHER THINGS. YOUR ARE A PRISONER OF DUTY. SUCH IS HOW YOU CAME INTO BEING DURING THE PRIME DIVERGENCE."
How the Tribunal wished this being knew what searing truth he now spoke, and how those words threatened to bring utter madness down upon the golden frame of the radiant judge.
"IT IS OF NO MATTER. WHAT IS RIGHT SHALL REIGN OVER WHAT IS NOT, AS I HAVE ALWAYS MADE IT SO IN THE PAST. THIS TIME IT SHALL JUST TAKE SLIGHTLY LONGER."
The emerald spheres within each of the robed forms' dark countenances began to flicker and fade, as did those gray bodies, even as final booming words were spoken,"I RETURN NOW TO THE VOID THAT BIRTHED ME. THE OMNIVERSE MAY BURN AS LONG AS HUMANITY REMAINS SAFE AND PURE; THAT IS YOUR TRUE TASK NOW, LIVING TRIBUNAL. NEVER FORGET THAT."
And then the entity was gone, leaving the Tribunal alone once again to ponder the short exchange, and bathe both in the seething loathing that coursed through him, and the simultaneous joy of imminent triumph.
Continued in Chapter 3
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