This story follows the events in
The Twilight War and Foundations
Forged Before Nightfall.
Continued from Dusk's End Chapter Six.
"Son of a bitch, I've got you now." Cable sneered as he lowered a massive cannon into position, optical sensors focusing in on the target streaking across the New York City skyline, drenched as it was in early morning light.
With exhilaration, he lightly touched the trigger, and immediately there was a roar of such immense proportions that it nearly shook the small hover-sled to shambles. Nathan Grey grabbed tightly to a steel railing, steadying himself, as the weapon discharged a glowing ball of plasma. Instantly did the roiling sphere of raw energy seek out its enemy, and within less than a second had impacted upon the ebon-clad figure, which had been hurtling through the air.
The explosion was bright as the plasma scorched the star-forged armor, and for a moment, both Nathaniel Summers' were forced to shield their eyes, lest they be burned from their very sockets. When at last they could look up, all they saw were quickly retreating wisps of smoke, and no sign that their foe had survived the attack, except perhaps as several scattered atoms.
"That had to have taken him out." Nate Grey remarked, scanning the sky with both his optics and his mind, "Even Stryfe couldn't have survived something like that."
Not looking at his comrade, for too were his eyes vigilantly searching the air, Cable's reply was crisp, his voice taut, "He's lived through worse . . . And I've been told we're not just dealing with Stryfe anymore. Something altered him while he was in Hell, made him stronger, more deadly."
Still looking about, Cable slowly lowered the cannon from the railing, laying it to the deck gently, and in its place took hold a large grey energy rifle. Six-barreled as it was, the mercenary checked every chamber, assuring himself that it was fully charged, for he wished to take no chances when dealing with such a dangerous opponent. This time, he had vowed to himself, their twisted blood would at last be ended.
Minutes passed, dragging by like hours as the two mirror images scanned for their enemy. The sun rose higher into the sky, painting their small vehicle in vibrant hues of crimson and violet, almost making it look to be bathed in the ichor of its passengers.
"I'm still not getting anything." Grey said, "He must be dead."
Again Cable disagreed, shaking his head; "No . . . He's still out there. I can feel him."
"Cable, my powers operate on a higher level than yours. If I can't find him, I don't see how you can."
The older man's eyes narrowed, one flashing bright golden, "You haven't dealt with Stryfe like I have. This is instinct, no telepathy. He is alive, and we are not leaving until I find him. It's time to finish this."
Grey gazed at his erstwhile mentor with a hint of suspicion, yet always with respect. He too knew the desire to take revenge upon another, or the desire to end a feud that had dragged on for years. The refuge from another time and place would respect Cable's wishes, at least in this matter.
Turning away, Nate spoke over his shoulder, "Okay, I'll give this another try. Maybe I'll pick something up this time."
There was no sign of recognition, no sign that Cable had even heard him. The former leader of X-Force merely continued his methodical search of the area, using his eyes, his mind, and all the technology at his disposal.
More minutes rolled by in abject silence, neither speaking to one another, each too mired in his own concerns. Cable's face remained a grim mask, behind which festered rage and impatience, while hints of the latter emotion slowly grew upon Nathan Grey's features.
And then, in his young mind, the living weapon felt another presence, and his eyes narrowed to better track it, "I think I'm getting him . . . "
Cable whirled around, eyes flashing, finger resting on the trigger, "Where?"
Nate's optics narrowed with concentration, "Wait... " And then there was confusion upon his visage, "I think..."
His eyes widened with shock and indescribable pain as Grey felt what could only be called a dagger of ice thrust into the very recesses of his mind. Chilling his brain and body, cold fingers slammed across his perceptions, squeezing and twisting at his very soul.
A ragged shout erupted from the young mutant's lungs as he felt every level of his existence being gradually violated by this heinous, unseen monster. From the barrels of Cable's immense weapon there blasted shafts of boiling energy, as he fired wildly about, hoping to knock his prey from wherever the creature was hiding. But to no avail, for the unspoken assault on Nathan Grey continued, as did his frantic screams of anguish and pain.
And then, abruptly, the child's shrieks ended, and from his lungs instead pour panting breaths, as he began to regain control of his body and senses. Gasping for air, Nathan's eyes fixed upon Cable's own, and between them they shared upon a level that perhaps only those two men could, for were they not the same person? In that span they twined their strength, and now both shared the burning desire to utterly extinguish the life of the man once known as Stryfe.
Metal tore loudly as that same being made his dramatic appearance in that same moment of shared thought and purpose, burning his way from the bottom of the craft to the deck itself. His backs to Cable, the Voice of Pain's dead eyes were focused upon Nathan Grey completely. In those cold orbs, there was no malice or hatred, only shadows of the soul that had once occupied them.
Even as Nathan Dayspring unleashed a hail of energy bolts upon Vyer's backside, never did the avatar of Eyalus turn, for so ineffectual were they that not so much as a fiber of his heavy cape was torn. From his cold mind sprang more mental daggers, tearing into Grey's consciousness as surely as the Son of Pain's bloodless fingers dug into the boy's throat, hauling him to his feet.
His throat closing, blackness closing over his sights even as he felt his mind being rent to shards, still did Nathan lash out with the last dregs of his strength? On the mental field, he attempted to push back the cold prongs that Vyer sent across the plane. While in the physical world his eye flashed golden and fired a tight beam of psionic power in the cold beast's very mask of a countenance.
The creature's expression did not change, for he felt no pain from the assault. Though his ornate helm had been blasted from his scalp, the avatar's attack did not lessen in its methodical ferocity, and within moments, all resistance to his own abilities had ceased.
Without thought Vyer flung the limp form of Nathan Grey over the railing of the slowly sinking hover-sled, never bothering to watch as it fell through the air.
Now the beast turned his attention to the warrior still frenziedly firing at his backside. Slowly did the Son of Pain turn, preparing to do away with Cable as surely as he had the youth. But as Vyer's eyes slid across the mirror image of his own countenance, so too, like a glacier melting, did the mask upon his features slip away.
Life surged back to life within the avatar's eyes, and his blue-tinged lips contorted in a snarl of hatred as he easily knocked away Cable's weapon. His hand shot out and latched onto his foe's collar, and Stryfe smiled as he brought his nemesis' mirror-face only inches from his own.
"Now, half-man, we will end this, as you wish it to."
The dormant techno-virus ripped forth from Dayspring's skin as he ceased to suppress it with his mental powers. Channeling them all into a single calculated spear that he rammed skillfully into his clone's twisted mind, as he spat, "Stab your eyes, Stryfe, we will."
The monster's head jerked backwards in surprise in pain, and quickly Cable pushed his enemy over, ramming his armored fist into Strife’s jaw three times in rapid succession. Blue blood trickled from the creature's cracked lip, but again he only smiled.
Cable his visage that an unleashed animal hauled his nemesis up from the cold deck. His eye flickered dangerously, "We will finish this, unwanted bastard. I will finish this, but first - " again he crossed his fist across Strife’s face, " - you will tell me what's going on. Everything is . . . wrong, I can feel it, and you are a part of it. Tell me now, before I kill you, Stryfe."
With madness he smiled again, showing chipped teeth coated in his own putrid ichor, "The Tetragrammaton devours itself, and the chosen people will be enslaved to suit the victor's needs. The past rots away before the future, but never has the past easily been put aside."
Confusion crossed Cable's face, only a moment of inattention. Yet still was it enough time for Vyer to free himself from the mutant's grip and soundly drive his ebony fist in Nathan Dayspring's features. Bone and cartilage crumpled before the immense blow, and brain tissue was pulverized into bleeding pulp in an instant.
The sickness of that wretched smile still on his face, Stryfe kicked his enemy's body away violently, with such force that it tore through the railing and began its plummet downward. The monster pulled himself to the edge and watched with keen sight his nemesis' final flight. As he watched, absently did Stryfe bring his bloody fist to his mouth and lick away the remnants of flesh that Cable had left upon his armor.
When Dayspring was no longer in eyesight, the beast pulled himself to his feet. With a flick of his wrist he called his dispatched helmet to him and placed it upon his head. He looked about, considering what new avenue to pursue.
The voice of Eyalus tore through Strife’s mind like razors, hacking away at any resistance he could muster, calling to Vyer. Jagged shards of ice crushed down upon him, and the clone of Cable was forced to his knees.
Teeth gritted in pain, unable to see wildly the man lash out at his attacker. His blows were pitiful and harmed the Lord of Pain not in the least. Strife’s mind was battered bloody as he raged against his usurper, even as that usurper still sought to crush him.
Tears ran from the man's eyes as he felt his strength flee from his mind, felt himself again being pushed below the frigid ice, unable to breath, unable to think, only able to . . . watch.
Vyer stood mechanically. Without thinking he willed away the tears of a stranger, healed the wounds of another person. Silently he launched himself from the dying craft, and fixed his far-reaching sights of an individual speeding through the ether between burning stars.
Tantalus said upon the purloined throne of the Priest-Lord, intently watching the massive viewscreen with his keen sight. With those bloody eyes he saw the irregular shapes of a fleet of war approaching swiftly, ready to conquer the city he himself had only recently come into possession of.
Alongside those stark grey craft flew multitudes of airborne individuals. All clad in motley costumes, both ornate and simple in design. At the head of the quickly nearing armada, there hurtled a single figure, obviously the leader of the bristling force.
"Black Bolt of Attilan." said the astronomer Khult flatly, for he too watched those enemies, though his position was at the right-hand of Tantalus, denoting his favored status as the Armechadian's one, true friend. He continued on, methodically, naming those heroic presence's he recognized, "Thunderstrike. Phastos. Iron Man. Vision. Quasar. Sersi. War Machine."
There were far more that he knew neither the names, nor had even glimpsed before in his long life.
"An impressive display." Tantalus said, smiling slightly, "Nevertheless it is nothing save impotent when compared to the forces I command."
"The forces that we command, Tantalus." snapped the winged insectoid standing to the Armechadian's left, "Do not forget that your stolen army is bolstered my own Negative Zone denizens."
The desire to roll his eyes at the so-called "Living Death That Walks" was nearly unbearable, but Tantalus rigid self-control silenced the urge quickly.
"Of that I am fully aware, Annihilus. How do you wish to proceed?"
Had the alien conqueror's shell of a face been capable of expression, surely his features would have been touched with utter surprise. Even so, it was a moment before Annihilus replied, " . . . A simple strategy. Allow the heroes to land within the city unopposed, while Lemuria's defensive batteries keep the larger vessels out of weapons range. Once the heroes have progressed far enough into the city without conflict, our armies shall jointly attack en masse, crushing them."
In silence, Tantalus considered the plan, making it seem as if he truly cared and was foreseeing all its ramifications. In truth, the Armechadian cared little whether the City of Toads was sacked and burned to char. As long as the stronghold in the Everglades remained intact, the Reality Gem was kept in his possession. The supposedly "hidden" evolutionary machine Ghaur had been constructing remained safe; he would name his short reign as ruler of Lemuria a success.
Tantalus had but one suggestion to make to the appeased tyrant of the Negative Zone, "A fine stratagem. But we must make sure the device being built by Ghaur's remaining lieutenants remains unharmed. Though he thinks to use it for his own purposes, I must have it for my own. I propose tripling the guard 'round the device in order to insure its safety. "
Annihilus seemed slightly irritated by this suggestion, as if his own authority and competence had been challenged, "Did you not already send a similar machine with Ghaur to the Everglades? What is the need to defend this redundant machine, when you do not require it at all? I will not have the lives of my men wasted, even as we provide your unwilling minions with the energy necessary to active the that same device."
Speaking slowly and patiently, though the shining fleet drew ever closer with every breath wasted, Tantalus explained his motivations to The Living Death That Walks, as if the insect were naught more than a babbling child.
"The mechanism my own men are building in the Everglades requires the engine of the Vimana to provide it with power, while Ghaur's does not. Would it not be better for me to favor the device that does not necessitate me dismantling my own flagship? Yet is it not also wise to remain building the first machine, in the event the other is destroyed? Surely, you can see why I do what I do, Annihilus. One shall serve as a decoy."
Unfortunately, the monstrous Deviant knew his beloved warship, the mightiest in Armechadon's entire fleet, would have to be butchered in order to power the evolutionary mechanism. Annihilus could no longer be trusted to provide the necessary power, and the melee to remove the device from Ghaur's minions after its activation would prove too dangerous. Only Tantalus held the key to make the machine being built in the Everglades function, and as such, it was safe from the troublesome Priest-Lord's scheming. Nevertheless, the Lemurian's treacherous second device would prove to adequately dissuade the heroes from pursuing the matter, once the discovered its purpose. As he had told the irritating insect, Ghaur's foolish attempt at rebellion would prove the perfect decoy.
The master of the Negative Zone peered deeply into Tantalus' sockets with his own ebon eyes, before acceding to the other despot's wishes, "I will order my guard bolstered around the specified area."
Again Tantalus smiled, but without humor, "Good... Now." He turned to look at Khult, and then glanced back at Annihilus. "The three of us are the mightiest in Lemuria, and our power must be spread across the city, distributed to critical areas." I shall remain here, within the throne room."
"I shall position myself near the faux device." The Living Death That Walks interjected, "There I shall find myself in conflict with the greatest number of heroes, and shall slay them all with my unparalleled Cosmic Control Rod."
The Armechadian lord nodded, "With that I am in agreement. Go now, Annihilus. The Avengers and Inhumans approach with great haste."
Once more seemingly annoyed that he was being issued an order, the golden rod mounted 'pon Annihilus' chest glowed ominously. For a moment it seemed as if he would disagree with Tantalus in not only words but with actions. Yet that moment passed fleetingly, and soon the lord of the Negative Zone was stalking through the heavy doors exiting the throne room.
Tantalus eyed the space Annihilus had once occupied for a few moments, the disdain he felt for the loathsome creature becoming evident upon his features.
"How that . . . 'thing' gained mastery of the Negative Zone I cannot fathom. His imagination is void, his power exaggerated, and his arrogance stifling. My hope is that the heroes do away with him, so I will not have to."
"Fools such as he are ever meant to be bested, Tantalus." Khult replied, "His death will be one borne of stupidity, I assure you."
Drawing himself away, the Armechadian turned to his solitary friend, "I would have you journey to the reactor core, Khult. Fight if you wish, or let them destroy it, I care not which. The fate of this city does not concern me in the least."
The astronomer made a slight bow to his supposed master; "I shall do as my instincts instruct."
With a flash of light, Khult was gone, leaving Tantalus to his own thoughts, even as he watched the fleet of heroes jet into striking distance. Upon the viewscreen, he watched as the automated defenses 'round Lemuria quickly sprang to life. Immense cannons fired burning bolts of super-heated plasma at the hulks of the war-craft. Fighters dart across the sea depths in swarms alongside ocean-troopers, who blazed away with small guns.
Through this hail of fire the heroes dodged with practiced ease, weaving between the sizzling shafts of light to strike down their owners, and draw closer to the City of Toads. Behind them Inhuman ships buckled under the concentrated assault, but their formations held and slowly the dull vessels inched forward, beginning their fusillade.
The throne room rocked as the warships launched missiles down upon Lemuria, and Tantalus saw and heard emergency sirens dawn. He remained unperturbed, watching impassively, where most would be panicked, frightened, or angered. For him, minutes, which would have seemed torturous hours to most, seemed to assume their correct span of time. Upon Tantalus there was no pressure, no worry, only near-serene contemplation.
Like sharks dozens of ebony shapes wheeled out of the depths, sleek shapes accustomed to flight into both air and water. De-cloaking, catching the Inhumans by surprise, the Deviant fleet attack came from all sides save the one facing Lemuria. Energy lances burning through the brine, tearing into steel sides and ripping them agape. Beneath the sudden offensive the legions of Attilan seemed to buckle, as ships exploded and formations broke, and it appeared early victory would go to the lords of Lemuria.
And then came a noise, one, which startled even the stoic Armechadian from his impassive reverie. Like a hound from Mephisto's Hades, it sounded as, yet a thousand-fold worse. A gut-wrenching, teeth-shattering shriek, which sought to engulf the world itself and shatter it to, pieces. Even the crushing pressure of the ocean did not seem to lessen the impact of that horrific voice.
The entirety of the City of Toads shook under the vocal assault. Armaments exploded to pieces before the deadly scream; soldiers were reduced to gelatin in their suits of combat. Structures buckled and fell, and for a moment, all combat paused before the awesome might of this war cry and the single entity that had dared brandish it.
Slowly did the siren of oblique destruction begin to fade away, massacring all in its path even as the bloody call subside. When at last silence reigned once again, all eyes were forced to turn to the bearer of this deadly voice, one heard so few times over the years that its true potential had nearly been forgotten.
His attention now focused as he sat uncomfortably straight within the hard ebony throne. Tantalus' eyes narrowed as he cast his sights upon the lone figure that had dared threaten his indifference had awakened him to the actual possibility of defeat.
Tantalus looked upon the solitary form of Black Bolt, and within his breast he felt rage coil like a serpent awaiting an opportunity to strike.
Before two doors of towering steel, there waged a waning battle between armored Deviants, a warrior-king draped in ebony, and two hammering wielding heroes. With thunder in their hearts they fought, and before their combined power there was little the enemy throng could do save fall.
"See?" said Thunderstrike as his inhumanly strong fist crashed into the visored visage of a soldier, shattering tempered-metal like rotten wood, "Just like I said when you're dealing with these evil minions: hit and repeat."
Red Norvell nodded with surprising good nature as he dashed two of the Deviants' heads together with a tremendous crack, "I'm gettin' it, I'm gettin' it. Ya'know, this hero biz might not be so bad after all." He replied as the two senseless men fell to the floor, "Haven't even had to use my hammer yet, either."
Thunderstrike's mace knocked a trio of soldiers to the ground with a single blow, scattering broken bits of weapons and armor about the battlefield, "Don't worry Red, you will. These guys must have a powerhouse somewhere around here, waiting for us."
Bolts of elemental lightning flashed out from Norvell's Ebonsbane, hurling perhaps a dozen soldiers into the nearest wall, instantly extinguishing in them any desire to continue the battle; "I kinda hope so. This is really gettin' kinda boring."
With even more accomplished ease than the two false Thunder Gods, the Inhuman Black Bolt tore through the Deviant masses with practiced, focused skill. In silence, he cut down warrior after warrior that charged or leapt at him. Sizzling beams of power did little to scorch his costume, let alone the king inside. His fists were blurs of deadly black, smashing down all the foes that rose up before him, and soon there remained no additional enemies to smite.
"Looks like we're done with the cannon-fodder." Thunderstrike remarked as he brushed a small amount of singed flesh from his arm, leaving but a small patch of angry pink, "You doin' okay over there, Bolt?"
Never his lips even moving to begin to speak, the ruler of Attilan turned and shook his head in negative. He turned away then and looked up at the truly massive steel doors, which stood before him. Searchingly he laid his fingertips upon its surface, and instantly there came a rumbling, and not of the same variety which constantly shook Lemuria now from both without and within.
Taking his hand away, Black Bolt watched in silence along with his fellow heroes as the titanic doors slowly ground inward, revealing that lay within the adjacent chamber. What the Inhuman saw was a towering machine, taller in fact that the doors that had housed it, and seemingly rising up high into the ceiling. From it extruded all manner of pipes and cables, arranged in almost a haphazard manner, as if the device was little more than a hastily modified contraption.
Surrounding the motley creation was a squadron of two dozen winged beings, energy rifles clasped tightly in their pale green hands. Their beady eyes stared at the heroes with mindless hatred, but they did not attack, for only the word of their master could, they act.
Thunderstrike's brow crumpled in confusion as he looked up at the being hovering above his foot-soldiers, "Annihilus? Since when are you involved in this?" His sight fell below, and even more surprised dawned upon Eric Masterson when he saw the apparent ground-leader of the troops, "And Ulik the Rock Troll?"
The stout creature smiled widely as he began to stride forward, fingers clenching tightly around the twin pounders which were his weapons of choice, "Annihilus and I have been allies since we were both cast into the Negative Zone. First I aided him in conquering that realm, and now I shall aid him in conquering your world as well!"
Had The Living Death That Walks been capable of an expression similar to the one his lieutenant wore, surely he would have dawned it. "First I shall crush your miserable offensive with the unparalleled might of my Cosmic Control Rod, and then I shall take rightful dominion of Earth itself!"
That selfsame rod upon the insect's chest glowed to life, and from it suddenly began a hail of deadly bolts composed of cosmic power.
"Destroy them, my minions!" Annihilus shouted as he increased the intensity of his barrage, causing the heroes to flee from the burning strobes, disrupting their natural formation. His great wings flapping, the insect conqueror dove low, clipping Thunderstrike with a glancing blow to the side of his head. The hero fell, even as a beam of power strike him squarely in the back.
Masterson shouted in pain, but quickly that exclamation was followed with orders, "We have to get organized! Black Bolt, you handle Annihilus! I'll get Ulik! Red, take care of those Bug-things!"
"You got it!" Norvell shouted in reply, for he had already begun to wade into the small legion of Annihilus' minions, knocking them about with deft waves of his enchanted hammer. But unlike the Deviants, these near-mindless beings were far more persistent, and repeatedly they rose up to attack the beneficiary of the power of Thor.
A second bolt of searing energy lanced into Thunderstrike's fallen form, this time burning into his chest as he turned over. Over the din of war, Annihilus shouted at the hero, "Useless mammal! Your Magical weapon is no match for my own might! Your death shall be without satisfaction for me, whelp. You are not worthy of my efforts!"
The Rod glowed bright, preparing to let forth a burst of power that would perhaps even slay Masterson, but never did it have the opportunity to be fired. A bolt of obsidian sped by, knocking Annihilus away from his target.
"Who dares?" shouted the creature, as a fist crashed into the side of his skull. There was no answer from his attacker, though had there been surely the entire chamber would have been reduced to utter wreckage.
Grappling in the air, Black Bolt aimed ringing blow after blow at his enemy's frozen features, only serving to enrage Annihilus. With a shriek, one of the insect's wings came about, batting the Inhuman's head to the side. A blast from the Control Rod further pushed Black Bolt away.
"I see your power is great - but mine is far greater!" shouted The Living Death That Walks. Within his hands, there glowed a spear of energy, which swiftly solidified, into a silvery staff, "The Annihilator shall spell for you a quick doom!"
The crackle of power from the staff was so bright that it drew even Thunderstrike's attention from the floor. Greatly did he pay for his inattention as a Uru pounder knocked a bloody tooth from his mouth and brought ebony specks before his eyes?
"You are a poor substitute for the Thunder God!" yelled the Rock Troll as he aimed a second attack at Masterson's wearied body, "Never would he divert his attention during battle!"
Ulik's fist passed through air as it came down, and he pitched forward with his own momentum, expecting to have found a target.
"Yeah, well, I don't Thor would've used that trick either." said Thunderstrike from behind his foe, as he brought his mace across the Troll's shoulder-blades, "Good thing for me I'm not Thor, huh?"
Ulik grunted in pain, wildly lashing out as he turned, but again he missed. Lightning emitted from the Uru mace burned into his chest, hurling him into the wall only inches away. Shaking his head, the Troll's eyes slowly opened, only to glimpse four knuckles quickly speeding toward his own eyes.
"Night... night." Masterson said without humor as his fist crashed into Ulik's inhuman visage, at last, ending his struggles. Paying no attention as the Rock Troll's limp body slid to the floor, Thunderstrike looked up to watch as Annihilus brutally slammed his Annihilator into the side of a beleaguered Black Bolt's head. Before bombarding him with twin blasts from both the staff and the Cosmic Control Rod.
Concern etched itself upon the hero's face, but he forced himself to look to Red Norvell, making sure his protege was able to handle himself. Indeed, though the newest false Thunder God was being set upon by the entire remaining horde of Negative Zone creatures, less than half their number remained as a threat. Soon, few would, Masterson knew.
His decision an easy one, Thunderstrike launched himself from the ground, his mace carrying him upward at a rocketing pace. The head of the enchanted weapon smashed into Annihilus' mouth, drawing a cry of surprise and pain from the loathsome insect.
Emerald blood dripped from his maw as The Living Death That Walks spoke, "Even together you cannot best me. Your feeble functions are no threat to Annihilus." The end of the Annihilator jammed into Thunderstrike's already scorched chest, drawing a shriek of pain from the hero. Yet already he was forgotten, beaten away absently by one of the tyrant's wings as he surged forward to put an end to the still reeling Black Bolt.
Sensing weakness and near-victory, Annihilus viciously struck the Inhuman across the face with the butt of his weapon, then drove it into the king's middle-section. As he doubled over, energy angrily arced out from the tuner mounted upon Black Bolt's forehead, and traveled into the insect's eye sockets.
Searing pain shot across Annihilus' nerves and for a few fleeting moments he could see nothing save white agony. But still did he feel peels of mystic lightning strike him between his wings, and heard the shout from behind.
"He's on the ropes! Finish him now, Bolt!"
The insect felt a trio of blows crash into his weakening cranium, heard the cracking buckles of his own exoskeleton. In frenzy, he lashed out, raw beams ripping from his Cosmic Control Rod and Annihilator, hoping to drive away Black Bolt until he regained his senses.
For moments there came no new attacks, and as his vision began to finally clear Annihilus felt renewed strength surging through his limbs. Yet then came a single, shattering impact upon the side of his skull, a cold steel crushing his hardened body as though it was weary mortar.
Reeling, consciousness now only half residing within him, The Living Death That Walks could do nothing save hover lazily in the air, before a second impact utterly shattered his senses to nothingness. His countenance now little more than broken ramparts and oozing jade blood, Annihilus crashed to the ground and made no further move to struggle.
With his jacket Thunderstrike began to wipe the green ichor from his mace, remarking as he looked at the insect's fallen body, "Didn't think we we're gonna have to make it that messy . . . "
"Yeah . . . " echoed Red Norvell simply, he too attempting to clean off Ebonsbane. Black Bolt had no reply for them, and he made to move to clean the various wounds, which now abounded his body. The Inhuman stoically wiped the crimson smearing his face, and then looked up at the great machine still dominating the chamber.
"I wonder what we should do with this thing." Norvell said, he too noticing he immense device, "Trash it?"
Thunderstrike shook his head wearily, "No, better to keep it intact, so someone can analyze it."
Red Norvell nodded his head, still looking up at the machine with almost the amazement of a child. Such was the look most new heroes had when they had begun to embark upon their long careers of greatness and tragedy.
Though it throbbed nearly a mile distant, still was Lemuria's main power core an utterly imposing object. Vaguely did the immense chamber rumble, not only with the output of the glowing emerald cylinder, but with the constant attacks being throne upon the city from without. Yet none of this could be glimpsed immediately by Adam Warlock or his ilk, for the disorientation of teleportation threw their vision to haze, if only for a few fleeting moments.
When his opaque eyes had cleared, quickly did they fall upon the tall, robed presence of the priest-astronomer called Khult? Upon his weathered face, there was no fear, only sly cunning. A smile did he wear as well, even as his long fingers began to slowly crackle with building energy.
It was not the leader of the small away party, Warlock himself, who first addressed the well-dressed figure, but rather the Deviant Kro. Though his own powers were somewhat paltry when compared both Adam Warlock and the Eternal Ikaris, still did his voice betray no hint of apprehension or self-doubt? He was confident in the abilities he possessed.
"The priest Khult," Kro spat with evident distaste, "had it not been for your machinations, Tantalus would never have regained his memory, and later forced us into these actions. You are the cause for this crisis."
The impish smile widened ever so slightly, "Lord Tantalus and myself are but servants of greater forces. Defeating us shall do little to stop them. Perhaps you shall succeed in momentarily hampering their efforts, yet far from permanently. You embark upon a mission of utter futility, Kro."
A sudden strobe of energy lanced, with dangerous proximity, past the Deviant's ear, striking Khult squarely in his sallow features. With far more surprise than true pain, the priest stumbled back a step. Yet within a moment his balance was regained, and his fists crackled all the brighter with deadly energy.
The smile now fled from his countenance, Khult's eyes focused darkly on the figure that had launched the attack. When he spoke, the Deviant's voice was utterly devoid of humor, "Ah, Ikaris the Eternal. Still do I see rage burning brightly in you? Come to slake your thirst for revenge, or are you still running from that which you fear?"
Ikaris' normally serene feature's blushed a shade of scarlet, and with fury, he hurled another bolt of deadly power at Khult's distant shape. His mind was a roiling tumult, and truly in those moments, he could not have been considered a sentient, but rather a truly primal beast. Ego and super-ego had been stripped away, and the darkness of the Eternal's raging id stood supreme.
Even as the shaft of energy glanced harmlessly from Khult's outstretched hand, it was not the Deviant that Warlock looked at with concern, but his comrade. In the motivated hero's mind, he believed the Eternal warrior to be by far the most dangerous of the four individuals dueling in the grand chamber.
Kro seemed far less worried over Ikaris' condition, however, and doubled the assault upon his foe. The former Deviant overlord's own fingers glowed to life and silently he charged in, preparing to soundly and utterly collapse Khult's elongated skull.
Without even looking at his enemy, the priest's long arm swiftly raised blocking Kro's burning fist. Power surged from one Deviant form to the other, and Kro left forth a cry of pain, as he felt his salmon-colored flesh beginning to char. But ever the warrior and tactician even as he leaped back Thena's lover delivered a kick to Khult's midsection.
The blow took the astronomer by surprise, and in pain he grunted, doubling over. His eyes wild, Ikaris saw the opportunity and dove into the fray. With a clap of thunder, the Eternal drove his elbow into the back of Khult's skull, at the base of his neck.
To his knees, the lanky Deviant fell of his own accord. Ikaris' knee drove upward, shattering Khult's nose with a spray of blood and the sound of crunching bone. Before the priest could even fall backward, the Eternal's fingers, coated in cold steel, flashed forward and burrowed into the soft flesh around Khult's neck.
The Deviant allowed himself to be lifted off the ground, and managed to give his supposed conqueror and wholly pathetic look. For a moment Ikaris merely stood, as his two companions looked on, peering into Khult's dark orbs with his own. His features were intensely distorted with rage, yet there seemed to be a look of considering as well, as the Eternal decided which course of action to take.
And then without warning, for animals often make their decisions abruptly; Ikaris' cold fingers began to bite farther into Khult's neck. The Eternal's teeth ground together as he felt his digits sink even deeper into the Deviant's grey flesh, watching as he drained every erg of life from his foe.
Suddenly a strong hand fell upon Ikaris' shoulder, a flat voice declared, "No, Ikaris."
With a guttural growl, the Eternal knocked his persecutor away, and then turned to look at Adam Warlock's fallen form. His staff strewn upon the floor, the golden man wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, even as he glared up intensely at the Eternal.
For instant Ikaris' eyes widened as he watched the Soul Gem fire to life upon Warlock's brow, but then they fell blank as a thin beam burned from the jewel. The warrior collapsed to the ground, his spirit departed, along with his near-victim.
Again on his feet, Adam Warlock approached Khult's fallen form. The Deviant was upon his knees, coughing blood from his wracked throat, but otherwise he seemed unharmed by his apparent defeat at Ikaris' hand. He looked up at the caped figure, and once more, his thin lips were touched with a slight smile.
"You have failed, priest. Your ruse has left you weakened, and no longer do you possess the might to best us all. Depart, now, before what little capacity for mercy I have erodes."
Standing, Khult seemed not-to-be threatened by Warlock, he spoke back in a measured voice, and "Failed, synthetic man Were you not forced to take Ikaris' very soul into your paradise world in order to save it? Did he not become a monster?" His smile widened, "I see no failure here besides your own, Warlock."
A cold laugh erupted from the Deviant's lungs as he began to fade from sight. From Kro's fingertips scorched, a bolt of energy, but it did nothing more than pass harmlessly through the Deviant priest's fading body.
When both the man and the laughter had faded both Warlock's and Kro's eyes fell upon Ikaris' inert form.
"How long shall you keep him in your Soul Gem?" asked Kro after several moments of silence.
"For the time it takes for his wounds to heal, no longer than that." the golden man replied. "When his desire for revenge is no longer bolstered by the rage of loss, and he comes to accept the burden of leadership, then will I set Ikaris free. But I fear that singular task of acceptance shall prove a difficult one indeed."
Kro nodded solemnly in agreement, "Aye, he must mourn Thena in solitude, it seems."
Warlock turned to fix the Deviant with a pupil-less stare, "And you must mourn her not at all, Kro, it seems. I have yet to see you shed a tear for the one you loved."
The former ruler of Lemuria's voice grew cold, and his features hard, "There will be time for that later, Warlock. I will mourn Thena in my own way, in my own time." He turned to look at the reactor core, "Come, we must disable Lemuria's power generator."
"Yes." said Warlock said simply in agreement, "Pip?"
Several feet away space warped and disgorged the small form of the troll, cigar as ever clenched between his yellow teeth, "Yeah? We ready 'ta go yet? Thought I was gonna have to sit here for hours while you guys yakked."
"No Pip, though it was to your advantage that you learned a new use for your Space Gem with such haste." Warlock replied as he hefted Ikaris' limp form over his shoulder, "Take us to the reactor."
Kro strode to Warlock's side, and with finality the troll said, "You got it, boss."
With a flash, they were gone.
As the doors adjoining Ghaur's throne room began to buckle beneath the immense blows being thrust upon them, Tantalus calmly bid the technicians and priest occupying the chamber to file out. In silence they complied with his order, and soon the Armechadian lord sat alone, absently weighing a small crimson Gem within his hand.
Upon the screen he watched as dozens of Inhuman soldiers threw themselves onto the shattered remains of Lemuria's defenses, seeking broken crevices through which they could enter the sieged city and last subdue it completely. The pressure of the ocean's depths did little to stymie their efforts as they crawled across the remains of cannons and shield generators. In fact, in only seemed to harry their movements and motivate them to find entrances all the faster.
Floating meters and miles distant were the wrecked hulks of the Deviant war-fleet, blasted to shambles by the Attilan's superior numbers and organization. A handful of vessels still skirmished, yet the war was nearly at an end. The sea was a graveyard of shattered Lemurian hopes and futile Lemurian deeds.
Tantalus raised the Reality Gem to eye-level and contemplated how with a mere thought he could wipe away the defeat of his people. Truly, they were his own kin though he had spent far too little time near them to think of the Lemurians in such a way. Yet, there also lay the risk of disrupting and rupturing the very fabric of existence with the use of the Gem, and the Armechadian's musing quickly faded away.
It was replaced by the distinct impression that he had erred in some way as one of the large doors shattered before the assaults of two hammers. Its remnants clattered to the floor like a rain of shrapnel, revealing a duo of fearsome warriors. As Tantalus beheld the stern countenances of both Beta Ray Bill and the Thunder God Thor, he knew well that he could have been quite mistaken keeping the Reality Gem upon his person.
Yet the time for such considerations was long past he knew, and calmly the Deviant rose from his chair and faced his two hammer-wield foes. Slowly he placed the shining jewel upon his forehead, and looked at his enemies without fear. The red of his eyes deepened as Tantalus called up his immense might, and prepared to do battle with such practiced opponents.
Thor pointed mended Mjolnir, still slick with the ichor of his enemies, at the Deviant and spoke loudly, "You didst best us previous, Tantalus, but then you faced little more than haggard foes. Now do you face two renewed and refreshed Asgardians, and they shall prove your better."
The Armechadian replied flatly and bluntly, "We will see, Thunder God. There are few forces in the universe which have even challenged my might, let alone surpassed it."
"The power of two Asgardian warriors is more than you can match, Tantalus." Beta Ray Bill said, bringing golden Stormbreaker into a better grip.
"Lord Odin himself could not best me, and you believe two such youngling's as yourselves can?" he said with apparent disbelief.
Thor's brow furrowed and for a moment his concentration faltered, "What? Lies, you - "
A boiling blast of energy tore into Thor as Tantalus roared at him, "Of course lies, fool!" The Thunder God hurtled backward into the wall, and bounced onto the floor with a dull noise.
"Treachery!" shouted Bill as he hurled Stormbreaker at Tantalus mocking features, even as he himself rushed in to tackle the Deviant, "Only base cowards resort to such tactics on the field of battle!"
The Armechadian was knocked backwards but a step by the Uru hammer's impact, and he smiled as he replied to his enemy, "Never did I claim to have honor, Beta Ray Bill." The alien slammed into Tantalus' mid-section, seeking to drag him downward, but the towering Deviant did not fall, "In a contest such as this, noble creature, honor must always be the first of the casualties."
Like a crack of thunder Tantalus' fist crashed down on Bill's backside, but the warrior did not flag. Four more times the Deviant rained ringing blows down on his foe's broad back, and by the final strike even Beta Ray Bill could withstand no more. To his hands and knees he fell, yet immediately did Bill search for his footing.
Without mercy, Tantalus kicked his enemy in the jaw, sending several teeth spinning through the air on tails of blood. His fists burned to life and at once showered Beta Ray Bill with such intense energy that the floor beneath began to smolder and smoke.
"Base Coward!" Thor yelled as he watched the treatment of his friend and comrade. With ferocity, he hurled Mjolnir at Tantalus' features, hoping utterly decimating them. It seemed as though the Deviant did not even notice the Uru mallet flying towards him, but at the last second he raised a fist and with a sickening crunch managed to knock Mjolnir away.
Though Tantalus hand was now covered in blood, still was Thor's face agape that his foe had managed to deflect his faithful weapon, "By the gods! What manner of creature can knock mighty Mjolnir aside with such ease?" he exclaimed as his hammer returned to his eager hands.
"A creature who will see you soon dead, Thunder God." Tantalus said as he took one hand away from roasting Beta Ray Bill and laid that deadly energy upon Thor. The Asgardian raised his mallet to block the stream of scorching energy, and was embroiled within a brutal seesaw battle in which it seemed there would be no swift victor.
Still under assault from the hulking Deviant, Bill managed to croak from his raw throat, "To me . . . Stormbreaker."
A moment later the hail of power ceased to fall upon Beta Ray Bill, for Tantalus pitched forward off balance. His senses dulled, Bill still managed to reach up and deliver a solid punch to the Deviant's exposed stomach before using all his strength to heave Tantalus' bulk through the air, in the direction of his compatriot.
Soon he felt the reassuring weight of Stormbreaker in his hand and Bill's mind began to clear from the fog of agony. Warily he got to his feet, and became aware of the Gem beating like a gorged heart upon his brow. Instantly Bill fired the Power Gem to life with his own willpower, and felt the sweet sensation of renewed life poured through his veins.
The warrior could now clearly watch as Thor and Tantalus traded thunderous blows. The veins of Rhinegold within Mjolnir pulsed with power every time the mallet struck battered Deviant flesh. Yet, even with his weapon the Thunder God seemed slightly outmatched by the incredible power of the overlord. Though it would surely take hours, Bill surmised Thor would eventually be defeated by his enemy, and such an outcome would not be allowed.
"Hold strong, Thunder God! I shall be at your side in a moment!"
Had he been a less honorable man, Beta Ray Bill surely would have thrown his hammer at the back of Tantalus' skull and hoped to shatter bone like cardboard. But Bill's reputation as a stalwart follower of nobility utterly precluded this option, and as such, he was forced to rush with great speed to his friend's aid on foot.
When he had ended his dash, Bill grabbed hold of Tantalus' forearm as he was bringing down his fist upon Thor's head once again. The Deviant glowered at him dangerously, but the menacing expression was slapped away by the side of mighty Mjolnir.
His patience now exhausted with this combat, Beta Ray rammed his own hammer into Tantalus' ribs, and felt satisfaction as he heard bones crack beneath the tremendous blow.
"Fools!" the Armechadian shouted as he wrenched his arm from the alien Thunderers grip before driving his other fist into Thor's chest, ramming the god back into the wall, "My energy reserves are nearly limitless, but my patience is not!"
"As is mine, Tantalus!" the Asgardian yelled in return as his eyes flashed with feral anger. His teeth clenched together, Thor surged forward, crushing the Deviant's ribs between both his fists. Tantalus bellowed in true pain, and it was sound his lungs were obviously not often used to.
His eyes went wild with rage, his maw frothed with frothy saliva, and the Armechadian's fingers bolted out and hungrily sought Thor's throat. Swiftly they found the Asgardians jugular and began to squeeze, lifting him and pressing him up against the wall as though he were little more than a child.
The Thunderer gurgled as he struggled valiantly against his foe's sudden onslaught of renewed strength. Few times in his immortal lifespan had the Asgardian felt such pure unbridled physical might plied against him, and as he desperately tried to claw Tantalus' from his neck. Thor truly began to wonder if he would be able to free himself from this monster's grip.
Yet within the depths of the Thunder God's consciousness began to stir a storm of berserker fury, one which enhance his strength ten-fold, yet reduce him to little more than a raging beast. Slowly the specter began to raise its ugly head, blacker than the darkness being draped across Thor's vision.
And the pressure was gone, with it the serpent fleeing as quickly as it had come. The Thunderer slid to the ground, breathing heavily. Though his eyes felt as though were nearly about to explode forth from his sockets, Thor forced himself to look, and see why he had been freed.
In double vision, he saw Beta Ray Bill several meters distant, holding some small object between his fingers. The Asgardian could see only the caped backside of Tantalus, as he faced Bill.
His breath coming out in decidedly unhealthy rattles, thick beads of blood oozing from dozens of wounds, the Deviant yet managed a smile as he stared intently at the jewel Beta Ray Bill had suddenly pilfered from him.
"I am . . . too weakened to take that back from you," he gasped, "but you have sealed your own fate. Though I shall pay a great price for failure, the Voice of Pain will extract a far greater toll from you and your heroic ilk. Know well that whatever happens to those you call friend - " Tantalus began then to slowly fade from sight, " - shall be born of your own doing."
Beta Ray Bill made no move to interfere with the Armechadian's retreat, and when he had fully departed, the warrior quickly made his way over to the Thunder God. Swiftly he pulled his friend to his feet, but Thor resisted any further move for assistance.
"My thanks, friend Bill, but of my own accord I am more than capable of walking." His gaze turned to the spot where Tantalus had formerly occupied, "In the end he proved a base Coward, yet flight was not an action I expected from the Deviant. 'Tis truly strange . . . "
Bill smiled tiredly, "I agree Thor, I too was expecting truly a duel unto the bitter conclusion. Nevertheless, it little matters. We have - " he held the Reality Gem up to Thor's eyes, " - something far more than a clean victory."
"Aye," replied, breathless still, "aye."
Wylig looked up at the monstrous presence's towering above him, yet the Dark Watcher felt no awe. Though the crystalline stature of the temporal giant Tempus rose across the entire space/time continuum for entire centuries, it was not overly impressive to the son of Joseg. Neither was the tendriled form of Alioth, reaching out for billions of light-years along the primordial ages, a sight, which inspired admiration in Wylig. The Byzantine mind of the twisted observer was far from the ancient struggle, which played itself out before him - his thoughts were rooted firmly on himself.
Perhaps now, in the burgeoning fires of existence, he could escape this gathering of time-beings and flee to those very moments, which had truly been both the greatest height and most dismal failure of his life. Could he not reach out a hand, subtly influence his infant self to relinquish those oaths, which now meant nothing to him?
He refused the notion with vehemence; Wylig refused to become that very same thing he now battled so valiantly against. A creature that would doom all that was only to free himself of a servitude he had long grown tired of, and believed existence now owed him a debt for his time of toils.
In his mind the Dark Watcher railed against the past, tried to fight it off, but failed utterly. Still did the crushing influence of those final days of true-life weigh so heavily upon him, like an ocean of shadows, which forever haunted him. Never, never would he be free, Wylig realized as he witnessed the Time Keepers gliding toward the swollen shapes of Alioth and Tempus, until his enemy was beaten, the memory of his past failing at last slain.
With great effort, the renegade moved his consciousness away from its reverie, forcing his perceptions to focus upon that which occurred before his eyes. The personal demons, which had plagued him for millennia, would not so easily die. But when given time to rage in the corridors of his head, they slowly subsided, as if fatigued from toying with the being who had brought them life.
The Time Twisters remained silently at the Dark Watcher's side was their brethren approached the warring entities. Both time-rending trios showed absolutely no fear of the gargantuan forces dominating the temporal, for what reason did they have for fright? Mighty as Alioth was, strong as Tempus was, both were less than nothing compared to the power which either the TimeKeepers or Time Twisters could harness, if they so desired.
Neither monstrosity seemed to take any notice of the three entities as they methodically approached, for both beasts were solely intent upon destroying the other. So it had been since the dawn of time, but so it would not be for much longer.
"Alioth and Tempus," the apparent head of the TimeKeepers called out, his voice louder than the din of temporal war which pervaded the entire plane, "your struggles shall cease so that we may speak."
The giants seemed to take no notice of the minuscule forms now addressing them. The blood-fervor in both their eyes did not grow dimmer, nor fiercer. It was as if both Tempus and Alioth had either not heard the words of the TimeKeepers, or simply deigned not to even acknowledge their trio of existences.
"Alioth, Tempus, your combat will end now." intoned the lead TimeKeeper once again, this time with decidedly more authority. His words seemed to have a power and substance all there own, and their effect on the dueling beasts was immediate, and jarring.
Instantly did the exchange of chronal barbs grow cold between the giant and the monster? Their immense bodies, entangled and perhaps even merged by countless centuries of conflict, tore apart from one another. The eyes of both creatures lost their hunger for the other's lifeblood, and were cast down upon the three TimeKeepers. No longer were those optics filled with hatred and anger; now they were filled with fear, perhaps even bordering upon terror.
The trio of time-controlling entities held their tongues for a few moments, allowing the tension to build even in the impressive statures of Alioth and Tempus. When it finally seemed that the TimeKeepers' reply would be not using words but force, their leader began to speak his piece.
"Across all time and all space their grows a conflict which shall eventually explode across the cosmic scene. It is a war not of arrogance or hatred, but of differing ideologies. That point of view which Wylig represents, which we represent, must be insured victory."
Alioth's thunderous reply, his voice utterly impossible for mortal ears to remotely comprehend, still was slightly tinged with fading apprehension, "What you speak of, Time Keeper, I have felt, even during my struggles. I know nothing of this conflict save that its scope dares to be grand, but that does not pique my interest in it; I would have no part in this cosmic war - it does not concern me."
"Neither does it interest me." Tempus said, "I live only to destroy this twisted monstrosity, before being granted the sweet surcease of death. Such is the wish of master Immortus, and I live only to do his bidding."
The Time Keeper's voice was taut, evidently brooking no disagreement, "Tempus, you serve Immortus as surely as he serves us. Your master does our bidding, and as such, you will do it as well. Disobey us and you disobey Immortus."
From the temporal giant there came no reply for a few moments, as he considered the words of those beings that had professed to be his indirect master. Suspicion was in Tempus crimson eyes, but as he reached out a tendril of thought and dared touch the essence of the TimeKeepers, all doubt was shattered from his spirit.
"I . . . will fight." he said at last, his tone muted, and his features downcast.
The Keepers did not deign to acknowledge Tempus' words of coincidence; their minds were already focused upon Alioth.
"Your foe has seen the wisdom of wedding himself to our cause, will you prove yourself less possessed of such wisdom by refusing our offer?"
Alioth's eyes narrowed dangerously, all fear and tentativeness fled from his roiling body, "There has been no offer, Time Keepers, only an order. I had no reason to aid you before, and with Tempus removed as an obstacle, time is now mine to conquer."
The leader Keeper's voice grew flatter, more harsh, and even from his rather distant position Wylig begin to sense chronal power beginning to surge in the vicinity of that trio of entities. "We had hoped to conserve our energies until they were required, but it seems our abilities must be called into use."
"You do not have the might to destroy me." Alioth stated bluntly, attempting to sound matter-of-fact, yet failing utterly. In his tone, there was no confidence, no certainty.
"Compared to our power you are as nothing, Alioth. Though we would regret wasting any of our potency before the true conflict erupts, your resistance would make such actions a necessity. Your own strength would be a great boon to our cause, but if it is not so allocated, it may be added to the ranks of the enemy. Such a circumstance will not be allowed. Although we dislike such ultimatums, we are forced nevertheless to issue one: join us or die, Alioth."
A rumbled issued from the monstrous entity, a guttural sound that more than made clear that the cavernous beast did not take kindly to threats, not even from those with such awesome might as the TimeKeepers. For a few passing moments, if any amount of time could be ascribed in such a nebulous chronal realm, there came no response from Alioth, save a smoldering glare that he directed at the trio of Keepers.
"Very well," the monster at last relented, albeit grudgingly, "I shall aid you in your efforts, Time Keepers. But be warned, when this war has ended, do well to avoid my presence forevermore more, for you have all earned my undying enmity."
"Your words are hollow, you cannot harm us. Be glad that we have freed you from your endless conflict and fight well, and we shall not destroy you for posing such a threat to the sanctity of time itself." As one the Time Keepers turned, ignoring the dangerous glower Alioth fixed upon them, "Come now, there are other tasks to be accomplished."
Had the Keepers not possessed such incalculable might, and had not they been in the apparent mindset to use it, surely Alioth would have stuck the lot of them down in his blind fury. But, arrogant as the primal monster was, he realized the futility of warring against such implacable foes as the TimeKeepers. In the darkness of his unfathomable mind the creature vowed to remain silent, bide his time, and then at last revenge himself upon this trio that had wronged him.
Again, Wylig's thoughts began to drift away from the occasion, even as he felt his body phasing away from the temporal plane. For a moment, he felt a light discomfort, as if he was being spied upon by some practiced enemy. The sensation passed quickly enough, however, and he afforded it to be little more than side effect of the roiling time-stream, and his own beleaguered mind.
The pouring rain, deluged down from the angry night sky above, washed down upon the rocks, making them slick to the foot. To many men or women, this once simple climb in the Scottish Highlands would have suddenly become treacherously difficult, but to the lone robed woman who methodically picked her way up along the natural path, there was no effort.
The roaring clouds cracked with lightning, bright and brilliant, illuminating the figure, allowing a passerby, had there been one, to see that she wore a heavy cloak which utterly concealed all traces of her identity. Then the light was gone, leaving the wanderer to continue her journey in darkness.
By the time lightning had struck and thunder had peeled no more than three times, this stranger had reached the summit of her travails, and trod quietly to the cliff. Already her keen eyes spied the tall, inhumanly tall, figure that held a solitary vigil at the very edge of the precipice, before rock gave way to tumbling ways far below. He too was garbed in cloak and cowl, along with golden armor, which traversed the massive expanse of his shoulders.
The woman padded slowly to this giant's side and stood silently for a moment, before pulling back her hood, and turning to look at this hulking creature.
"We are the first to heed the summons, it seems." she said with some apprehension, for it had been long since she addressed a member of her nearly dead race, this member in particular.
His head came about and peered down at her with crimson eyes set in a face of grey granite. Though his mouth was covered in a strange muzzle of crimson circuitry and gold armor, it did seem to impede his basso voice, "How else would you think it to be, Gaea? Are we not the only two of our kind to remain on Earth while the others fled . . . or were exterminated?"
Her apprehension in dealing with this entity seemed to have momentarily dulled her senses to the obvious, and silently Gaea reprimanded herself for such a failure. She nodded her head in agreement, before speaking again, "I have heard you have taken the name Scarier, of late. How truly ill-befitting the creature you are . . . and the creature you wished to become."
Scrier seemed unaffected by her now stronger tone, and the thoughts that had been expressed within it, "You may call me as you wish, Gaea. All things to me are transitory, including the lies with which I sometimes cloak myself."
She smiled slightly at this, turning to look down at the harried waves crashing far below, "I shall call you by the name you now assume, since it seems you enjoy this charade of being little more than an observer. How ironic is it, fellow Elder, that you are now enlisted to fight against the very same threat you hoped to one day become?"
Scrier seemed to bristle at this, his voice distant as he replied, "Of what do you speak, Gaea?"
Her smiled widened, as watched Scrier writhe before her questions. Surely no other entity, perhaps save another Elder God, had so perturbed the enigmatic giant, "Are not the Tribunal's aims as obvious to you as they are to me? He wants control, Scrier, control of the future, and the surest way to do that is to bend Man to his will. In the end, is not to harness Humanity the path to harnessing all?"
Scrier remained silent, looking away from Gaea as she spoke. His carved features remained neutral, though it seemed he was fighting to keep them as such.
When she saw that the giant would make to response, Gaea pressed the advantage, "All the Elder Gods are aware of Man's full potential, Scrier, for are we not birthed from the same world? Though the father of Humanity is nature and ours is the Demiurge, still can we see the great potential inherent in ourselves . . . and see it utterly eclipsed by that nascent might that lives in all men and women.
Her tone grew less harsh, but infinitely more focused, probing, hoping to uncover the secrets, which lay, buried in the stolid form of Scrier. All apprehension had passed, and it was as if she had not been separated from her divine kinsmen for the millennia that she had, "Did you not covet the position that Man is bound to one day hold, Scrier? You and nearly all the others, like Chthon, Set, Ozrin, and Mogand? Did you not seek to manipulate their past to gain dominion over their future? Does it not perturb you that had the Demogorge not forced you into hidden slumber that it would perhaps be you others would be forced to keep from gaining supremacy, and not the Living Tribunal?"
Scrier remained silent still for a few more moments, his mind reeling beneath the assault Gaea had suddenly unleashed. It had been long, so long that he could scarcely remember the occasion, since any being had dared attack his motivations so, and lay bare his objectives. Indeed, he did not take kindly to such an infraction, but saw that he could salvage perhaps a few shreds of his own dignity before the remaining Elder Gods arrived.
"Who is to say that it shall not be as you speculate, Gaea?" he finally replied, turning to face her once again. "If the Tribunal's gambit fails, who can say that it will not be I who succeeds where he has proven unequal to the task? Perhaps all these events have been little more than subtle manipulations designed to remove the Living Tribunal as a threat, and make the path to supremacy open to one entity . . . to Scrier."
Gaea's smile did not flee from her features, but it seemed to deepen even further as she fought to keep from laughing in Scrier's face, "As ever you are a hopeless and boastful teller of un-truths, Scrier. Perhaps your grand proclamations have fooled the infants you are now accustomed to dealing with, but they will not take you far with a fellow Elder. Your machinations are shattered, Scrier, and now you are forced into fighting what you wished to be because you did not move quickly enough - at least admit your failings."
Whether Scrier would have done as Gaea asked can never be known, although it is quite unlikely, for the sky suddenly roared with an unnatural thunder, and cast down a beam of ebony. From it soon manifested a cloaked figure, which strode to join the two other Elders. From this being emanated great power - and far greater evil.
"Chthon, " Gaea said with distaste, "I am surprised you heeded our father's summons."
The creature's voice was a ghastly mangling of the verbal, a twisted mockery of speech, "If the power of Humanity is not to be my own, I shall let no other being have it."
Despite Chthon's presence, a smile again grew upon Gaea's lips, and she shot Scrier a wise, sidelong glance. He did not bother to return or acknowledge it, instead focusing his attention on the sole member of the Elder Gods who held the title of sorcerer.
"It has been millennia, Chthon. I would have thought you destroyed by one of your countless enemies by now."
"I am resilient and resourceful far beyond your imaginings, as I you shall soon see." the beast replied, "What name have you taken to calling yourself now? I always remembered you to have an affinity for changing titles. Such is the way of the young."
"I am called Scrier by both men and gods now, Chthon." he replied, eyes narrowing as he spoke.
"I did not know you to have such a sense of humor, 'Scrier.' What a truly ill-fitting name."
Again the cloaked Elder God did not have time to reply, for another of his kin chose that moment to make his, or perhaps its, entrance. With a height far greater than even Scrier's, his numerous heads writhing like tentacles, Set made a gruesome sight as he drew toward the quickly growing gathering.
There was no time for pleasantries now, as the handful of Elder Gods began to appear in a much more rapid succession. Baal, Mogand, Ozrin, Folick, Raum, Chous, and several others soon festooned the cliff. For some, the reunion was long overdue and joyous, for they had not seen one another for millennia. For others, it was a time to rekindle old hatreds. Words grew harsh nearly immediately between some, and conflict surely would have begun had it not been stymied by the more pacifist Elders.
Slowly, as the primal gods either conversed or threatened, there began to manifest a vaguely human visage in the roiling strata far above. Its features remained as indistinct as the medium from which they had been forged, but nevertheless the power, which had sculpted that countenance, could not be denied.
The Demiurge cloaked his presence from those children he had little love for, save Gaea, and therefore when he spoke in thunderous tones all were taken by surprise. Motley faces were turned upward to look their creator with awe, loathing, or abject fear, yet all listened carefully and intently.
"Elder Gods, I have called you forth from your hiding places 'round the Omniverse so that you might aid me in ending the Living Tribunal's aggression against Humanity. Though your number is small, your potency is legion, and your help shall be greatly beneficial."
"Why should we aid you?" Chthon questioned, his voice far from quavering, "You sired your son upon Gaea, and then set him loose to slaughter us, your own children. What reason have we to help such a murderous butcher?"
Agreement rippled through the paltry crowd of Elders, an emotion that surely would not have been expressed in the face of the Demiurge had not Chthon given voice to it first.
"Because above all the lot of you have always fought to preserve yourselves. Your schemes are complex, your powers impressive, and your motivations always centered upon the self, frequently at the cost of others. Had the Living Tribunal possessed the means, surely he would have destroyed you remaining troublemakers long ago. Understand that if we do not fight against him now, he shall soon have the means to wipe your existences away with a wave of his hand. In a world ruled by the Tribunal, there would be no place for the chaos caused by yourselves."
Mutters sprang up, the gods whispering amongst themselves. These mighty creatures, despite their great age and wisdom, now seemed little more than suspicious children brought before their father. It seemed they thought with one mind, and none dared break from the crowd.
"What assurances do we have that you will not unleash Atum upon as once again, when our servitude is finished?" Scrier asked now, one of the few who dared remain an individual.
"You have my word," the Demiurge responded, "and the benefit of events. If we are victorious, all our strength will have been sapped by the conflict. It would be long before the Demogorge would possess might enough to hunt your kind once again."
"In your words I do not sense complete truth, Father." Chthon said, "Nevertheless your epithets, and a great deal more you have left unsaid, compels me to join your efforts. I shall fight 'gainst the Living Tribunal and his hordes at your side."
"So shall I." Gaea's reply came, immediately after the twisted sorcerer’s.
"And I." Scrier said, echoing those previous sentiments.
Like sheep, the remaining Elder Gods quickly followed their impromptu masters, and within moments the lot of them had pledged their allegiance to the very same entity who had helped strike down their race.
His goal accomplished, the Demiurge's manifestation began swiftly dissipating, his voice trailing off as he spoke, "Come with me then, my children, for there remain more preparations to be done . . . "
As one, the Elder Gods disappeared from the Cliffside, borne away by the power of the Demiurge, and once again, the only sound that could be heard in those Highlands was that of nature railing against itself.
Continued in Dusk's End Chapter 8
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