War Waged At
The Stroke Of Midnight
Part Two: Longest Night - Chapter
Follows events in The Twilight War,
Forged Before Nightfall, and Part One:
Continued from Part Two: Longest Night Chapter One
Night fell upon the city of New York, but it is forever night on the Moon. The lights of civilization sprung up as they had every past evening, lighting the lives of all those living so far below. But though it was the same as it always had been, Doctor Herbert Edgar Wyndham looked down upon his home with a greatly altered vision.
"It all seems so different now. The men and women, they seem like so much more . . . yet so much less. I still cannot decide whether I like what Uatu has said, or whether I loathe it."
"I find this utterly surprising, Herbert. All your life you have known Humanity to be the jewel of the stars, and now your wildest imaginings have even fallen short of the truth. Your race is destined to rule the stars, Doctor, you should be proud. Even my mighty Kree are nothing compared to what Men are, what they shall be, and because of that I am utterly jealous." spoke the Supreme Intelligence earnestly.
The High Evolutionary shook his head, and continued to gaze out at Earth with eyes unfettered by colored lenses. His frozen helmet was gone, and the geneticist hid his face no longer from any that decided to look upon it.
"To me it merely seems too . . . real, Supremor. I had known that men were one day destined to become gods, but I had never dared expect they would become God. Such a possibility was beyond my own conceptions, for who else would have considered this innate contradiction to be reality? I am also frightened, Supremor . . . If I had raised Humanity to its pinnacle, would I have possessed the strength of spirit to relinquish my own grip? Or would I have held fast to my position of power, and become the very monster that the Living Tribunal proves himself to be?"
"Is that a question any but you can answer, Herbert? Is it a question that can ever be answered, unless you are presented with that same opportunity even now? I do not see why you waste your time with the hypothetical, Herbert, when there is so much that can yet be done in the present."
The geneticist was silent in his reluctant consideration of the bloated super-computer's words. Friends had they become in their time together, but at times still found it difficult to cope with such stark advice, especially when spouted from a machine, living as it was.
When the High Evolutionary finally replied, he made no acknowledgement of the Supreme Intelligence's diatribe, "Have you yet come to terms with the paradox this situation creates?"
"If you refer to how God can both be omnipresent yet possess a mortal origin, yes, I have. Isn't it rather obvious?"
The brilliant scientist was ashamed, and his expression conveyed far more than any rejoin could.
A smile split the Supreme Intelligence's inhuman face, "I believe you are still in shock, Doctor. Your judgement has been clouded due to your proximity to the event. I hope your senses shall return in time."
The High Evolutionary's retort was replete with irritation, "Mocking me holds no gains for you, Supremor."
"I am not mocking you, Herbert, only pointing out what is evident. As for the apparent paradox inherent in what Uatu has told us . . . Is it not merely akin to your Earth expression 'the chicken and the egg?' God creates Humanity, who in turn creates God. It is a cycle with no discernible beginning or end."
"Yes, yes I suppose so." the geneticist replied shortly, annoyed by the simplicity of it all. It was true - his identity as a human had clouded his normally keen judgement.
"But there are far more pressing issues which must be resolved . . . Namely, why would the Supreme Being allow the Living Tribunal to so tamper with His origins? One would assume that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent entity would be more than capable of stopping even the Tribunal, for He is surely aware of what is being done."
The High Evolutionary considered for a moment, and was reluctant to answer. Would he appear an utter fool?
"Perhaps the Supreme One treats the Omniverse as a clock-maker does his clock; when the device is finished, and if it is constructed properly, He would have no reason to interfere."
"If the Living Tribunal is attempting to sabotage Him from within, this 'clock' is in no way functioning properly. Yet if the Supreme One is truly omnipotent, then even the Living Tribunal would not be able to alter His origins, and therefore He does not step in . . ."
"Yet what if He does not know of His servant's duplicity? Or what if He is incapable of stopping the Tribunal's actions without jeopardizing His own existence?"
"Then the Supreme One would not really be supreme, would he, Herbert?"
"I suppose not, Supremor . . . To me it appears this question does not have an answer. Are you in possession of some greater insight?"
"I am not, Doctor. Even I must concede that I do have the necessary mental capacities, nor the information, to analyze this specific situation properly. I suspect the only beings who are capable of answering this question of divinity reside in the highest circles of the Omniversal hierarchy."
Soft footfalls became evident as they resounded upon the polished floor.
The High Evolutionary turned to see Uatu as he rejoined, "I believe your conclusion to be a correct one, Supreme Intelligence. To borrow your own words, perhaps it is pointless to pursue this avenue, one that can never end for us."
"It can never end - unless we receive more information. And I believe the Watcher is more than capable of providing that same data."
"I am," Uatu retorted as he drew closer to the duo of gene-tinkerers, "but I shall not. I have revealed more to you both than I ever imagined I would, and even now, I begin to doubt my decision. Yet, I will not dwell upon it, for there are far more important matters in need of my attention. For a short time I shall be taking my leave of you, but my trip will not be of the duration of my previous departure. Again I leave you both full reign of my citadel. Use the telescopic arrays as you will, Supremor."
With those simple words the former Watcher took his leave, fading away in a slight shimmer and distortion of space. In moments he was gone, again leaving the two scientists alone with their thoughts, and each other.
Nearly a minute of silence followed, not uncomfortable, but merely quiet.
"Perhaps I should look in on the war." the Kree said finally.
The High Evolutionary nodded.
The Supreme Intelligence's eyes grew distant, as he wedded his thoughts to the numerous super-telescopes adorning the rebel Watcher's citadel. He turned their mighty eyes upon the universe itself, and almost no sight was beyond his reach.
"What do you see, Supremor?"
"I see the Elders of the Universe doing battle against Orikal and a large contingent of sentient nebulae, in the nebula I believe your human scientists have named Rho Ophiuchi. The Gardener is unconscious, and all the remaining Elders seem grievously injured, aside from the Grandmaster and Collector.
Nearly a dozen of the nebulae appear unconscious or dead. The Over-Mind - he's closing on the Champion . . ." Supremor's tone grew grim, "The Elder has been struck mightily, and no longer appears in possession of his senses."
Doctor Wyndham shook his head with dismay, yet was silent for a few moments despite the motion, "The Tribunal cannot be allowed to win."
"No," the organic computer replied with earnestly, "but what can any of us do to stop him?"
The High Evolutionary knew that was another question, which he could not answer.
In the midst of the dust-filled galaxy named Centaurus A by the astronomers of Earth, there dwelt two beings of unimaginable power. Yet not even the most powerful of telescopes nor the keenest of eyes ever would have detected these two entities, for so great was the proliferation of dark gases in that twirling galaxy that mere sight was almost impossible. Indeed, even the two who strode about its writhing interior could not bring to bear in full their incredible senses; they were half-blinded by the chaos of nature.
The Dark Watcher was not pleased.
"Is there something worthy of my attention in this swirling dust-ball, Over-Mind?
My time is far too precious to be wasted."
The composite being, a conglomeration of countless masses, did not reply immediately. Instead of speaking he seemed far more preoccupied with glaring about the roiling sea of cosmic debris, as if waiting for something to occur. Had he been a man surely beads of sweat would have been blooming upon the edges of the Over-Mind's forehead, as his eyes whipped about with an almost feverish intensity.
"I . . . merely wanted to show you this place, Wylig. I had considered it an excellent place for an - an ambush."
Wylig's blue-tinged infant features remained a knowing mask of composure, but inwardly he could not help but smile. He too looked about the area now, reached out his senses and found them to be repulsed by more than the now familiar interference born of the fracturing of the Balance, and the trans-Omniversal battle being waged. The entire galaxy was rife with radiation and cloaking dust, and even the perceptions of those of wondrous descent were truly lessened while dwelling within the confines of Centaurus A.
The renegade's harsh tone seemed to lighten, black going to grey, "Yes, Over-Mind, this corridor of space would indeed prove quite suitable for an ambush. Yet the greatest obstacle would be enticing an unsuspecting army into its shadowy folds, only to set upon them hidden warriors. Few cosmic beings would be so foolish as to fall victim to such an utterly evident trap, Over-Mind."
A sadistic grin spread unabated across the composite creature's bearded countenance. Any sign of wild-eyed fear or uncertainty was gone from the Over-Mind, as if a grand flare had gone up which had only been glimpsed by his eyes.
"I agree, Wylig, one would have to be a dullard of the highest caliber to be brought down by such a tactic. Far more subversive measures would be required to entice our victims to their deaths in this spoiled mire."
"Agreed, Over-Mind. Perhaps this exercise has not prove entirely useless after all." he turned his back on the silver armored, blind entity, "But it is time we returned to Limbo; far more important matters beg for my attention."
Arrogant mirth seeped from the overbearing being's voice, "You won't be leaving this place, Wylig."
The corner of the Watcher's mouth twitched. He did not turn to face the Over-Mind, "And why would that be?"
From the composite entity came the harsh bark. Wylig realized only moments later that it had been a burst of abrupt laughter, "Because you are the dullard!
This dust-choked galaxy will be your tomb, Wylig."
The rebel observer sensed before he saw, sensed multiple presence's quickly manifesting themselves out of the gloom, familiar signatures expressing power far greater than his own. Fleeting seconds faded by and the numerous visages were soon glowering at the Dark Watcher.
"I would not have expected you to be such a fool, Wylig." boomed the massive insect called Agamotto, clearly the leader of the force, which had rapidly sprung up, amongst the drifting dust clouds. "Unfortunately, your army was so paltry that it would have been suicide to question the motives of any who wished to enlist.
So now does your useless insurrection some to an end, Watcher; without you the other renegades will crumble and the rightful order will be restored."
The first Sorcerer Supreme turned his massive, bulb-shaped eyes toward the gleaming, armored bodies of two twin Beyonders, "Seize him."
As one the duo of beings nodded in accidence and advanced on the placid renegade, who made no move to resist. His features remained smooth, his eyes slowly sweeping over the small crowd of cosmic beings, weighing, judging.
Hands roughly grabbed Wylig's shoulders, as the Beyonders began to force their prisoner toward the massive form of Agamotto. However, after no more than one reluctant step, their grips were both broken, as cosmic might surged through the Dark Watcher's body, and with ease he twisted from their silver fingers.
Moving like some type of celestial, space-born master of the martial arts, Wylig's thin hand swung out, charged with not only cosmic energy but the blood of the mystic as well. The first Beyonder's own shock toppled his defenses, and his own reflexes were far too dull to repel Wylig's sudden assault.
Stiffened fingers laced with power jabbed into the center of the Beyonder's physical body, even as a lance of might tore into him on countless other levels of existence. The surgical strike was done in an instant, and even as the Dark
Watcher was turning his attention to the second Beyonder, the first felt his multilevel status of being somehow undergoing an inexplicable compression.
Agamotto's surprise and abject confusion was obvious. He did not bother to lash out against his enemy, or defend the second Beyonder, who was soon under the same mysterious spell. Instead, as wise beings such as he often did, the first Sorcerer Supreme pondered, this time aloud.
"The Crimson Bands of Cytorrak? I had never dreamt they could be utilized in such a way . . ."
Both Beyonders screamed as the mystical scarlet prisons compressed them entirely into the physical realm, restricting omnipotent energy to the spatial body.
Such a paradox was not meant to be - the twins in silver armor exploded in a wash of ambient, burning viscera. Space shrieked at being violated so, yet somehow managed to maintain its own cohesion in spite of the wrenching destruction of two such mighty beings.
Numerous searing beams churned across space, fired from the fingertips of the likes of Mirage, Sorrow, and Origin. Deftly Wylig weaved between them, bending space, bending time, and raising shields that shuddered when struck if he could not avoid the attacks of his enemies.
The glowing dish that symbolized the entity called Anthropomorpho the Prime Manifestor swiftly cross the dust-filled lane of Centaurus A, positioning itself no more than a meter above the Dark Watcher's massive skull. A quick burst of power from the Watcher did nothing to dissuade the hovering creature, whose epicenter began to glow, sun-like.
"You shall be imprisoned by wall after wall of living fractals. This shall be a cell you will never escape, Wylig."
The Dark Watcher smiled, as he looked up and saw the great hovering disc of Anthropomorpho was rocked by a beam of raw, coruscating power. The thick stream smashed into the massive being's topside, scattering jagged bits of steaming debris across the already littered battleground. Anthropomorpho tipped dangerously to one side, the same direction the sudden attack had originated from, and began to slip quickly downwards, the glittering light inherent within the broke disc swiftly dying to a pathetic flicker.
Agamotto wheeled around, eager and horrified to see the source of this second ambush, though his senses already gave him a dreaded inkling. His eyes confirmed what he felt: the glittering, razor-bladed form of Eyalus towered high above even his head, and like avenging angels there hovered near the Lord of Pain the unmistakable bodies of Cytorrak and Charnel.
Origin and her comrades whirled to face their new enemies, clearly as surprised as their leader. Wylig's hands flickered with energy and soundlessly Sorrow was impaled upon a spike of sparkling energy, her defense momentarily misappropriated.
"You will not escape, Watcher." growled the basso rumble of the Over-Mind, as he locked the rebel observer tightly into a cosmic bear hug, though such a description pales before the truth of the event. On all levels, the Over-Mind attempted to squeeze the very life from his enemy, before Wylig could mount a formidable defense.
The Unbeing reached out with his considerable powers, sought to erase the Lord of Pain from the very spectrum of living. He failed, his own might as nothing compared to the misery-swollen stores that Eyalus had gathered since that dreadful cosmic war had began. Oblivion's servant died with a single sustained shriek, and dissipated across the murky space.
Easily Wylig slipped out of the Over-Mind's powerful but unskilled grasp, and with a single directed strike paralyzed the turncoat creature. Tendrils of cosmic and mystical force spread like ravenous wildfire along his astral body, inhibiting him from doing nearly anything save merely existing. Somehow, the Dark Watcher felt pity for the Over-Mind's gruff stupidity, and decided against ending his existence.
Charnel's inhuman, toothy grin widened exponentially as he slashed his deadly crimson claws across Origin's body, drawing plumes of roiling energy from his shuddering victim. Baron Strucker V smiled as he watched his enemy cringe before his brutal attack, taking sadistic pleasure with every blow he landed. Origin struck back feebly, but it was to no avail; though her powers outstripped Charnel's, Origin's combat experience was paltry, and her bloodlust non-existence.
Agamotto looked about worriedly, seeing his comrades die peripherally, even as he used his immense powers to subdue the hulking mystical entity Cytorrak. The master of the Juggernaut fought valiantly and wildly, but his own might could not surmount the sheer power and expertise of his enemy. Within moments Cytorrak was bound and silenced, unable to stymie Agamotto remotely sufficiently.
With a blaze of bloody crimson Sorrow was blasted to atoms, and the towering form of Eyalus turned his withering gaze down upon the first Sorcerer Supreme. The Lord of Pain had no need for words, no need for translators in that grisly combat - he only had need of his own overwhelming power.
Again the wicked might born from the suffering of his brethren churned from the Silent One's sockets and poured down upon Agamotto in a scarlet tide of destruction. The gigantic caterpillar shuddered beneath the crushing onslaught, feeling his mystic defenses weaken with every fleeting moment. He rifled through the planes of reality, seeking a weakness in Eyalus' multi-layered defense, but could find none.
Humiliation of defeat's acceptance weighing heavily upon his shoulders, Agamotto willed himself away from the corpse-laden battleground, his last sight that of the dreaded form of the Lord of Pain staring down at him.
Where once there had stood majestic, rugged mountains and quaint, turn of the century villages, there was now a blank wall of unknown force. The massive energy barrier hummed like some great insect, like some great bee, and pale purples and oranges flickered across its snow-white surface. The towering wall was perfectly flat, and appeared no less solid than stone, but not one hero dared touch it.
Meters away, the Avengers Quinjet sat frog-like on the ground, a prince degraded in the presence of a king. It seemed to cringe away from the magnificent energy field, as if wanting to escape of its own volition.
Like insects the four masters of that sterling shuttle slowly approached the marbled barricade, some holding out before them various instruments, as if they were going to ward off some mythological demons with their talismans.
The Vision was without accoutrements, but he had no need of their extraneous bulk; his eyes provided all the data he required.
"The forces at play are truly incredible. The sustained level of energy inherent in this wall is amazing. Few beings in the universe are capable of such a prolonged output, let alone machinery."
Captain America edged nearer the barrier warily, his eyes flicking now and again at the horizon, watching the boiling sun sink down below his sight. The grass was painted in the splendor of the dying light, cast in purples and oranges far starker than those present in the static wall.
"What could be causing it?" Jack of Hearts queried, drawing close to the field without fear. He was confident in his own powers, and heedlessly reckless since his meeting with Ganymede. Like an angry adolescent Jack was now, confused and drifting. He knew this, saw what the state he was in, and embraced it freely.
"I would theorize the energy wall is being maintained by Celestial technology. Doctor Doom salvaged a small portion of it shortly after the Celestials were attacked in orbit, before S.H.I.E.L.D. could stop him. But I did not think even a genius such as Doom would be capable of manipulating such advanced machinery so deftly." the Vision replied, obviously both fascinated by the forces at play, yet disturbed by their import.
Iron Man disagreed, coming to stand beside Jack of Hearts, examining the Latverian border more closely, "I wouldn't put it past him, Vision. The only man I've ever seen even come close to Doom's intellect was Mister Fantastic, and he was able to utilize both the Watcher's and Galactus' technology."
"Why would he do this, though?" the cosmic hero asked, gingerly touching a finger to the wall. He pulled it away quickly, feeling a slight pulse of electricity run unabated up the length of his arm, "Why hide your entire country?"
"Our most reliable reports indicated Latveria disappeared not long before the Celestial Fifth Host made itself known on Earth." Captain America responded, joining the trio only a foot or so away from the barrier, "One thing Doom has always been is a man who cares for his people. My guess is that he shielded his nation from whatever the Celestials were planning."
The Vision nodded in agreement, "I believe you are correct, Captain. Being in possession of Celestial technology most likely provided Doctor Doom with information regarding the Celestials' intentions that we did not have; I surmise that did not wish either himself or the Latverian populace to be evolved against their will."
The patriot looked up the side of the curving barrier, which sloped and bulged with Latveria's own borderline. The barricade ascended high into the sky, satellite estimates indicating well over two miles.
"Is there any way we can gain entrance? Break through the shielding?"
"I do not believe so, with our current resources. Yet even if we could, I have come to the conclusion that doing so would not lead us to Latveria."
Captain America turned, questioning, "What?"
"I believe this barrier not only shields Latveria from the outside world, but the outside world from Latveria. Judging solely by these readings, it appears to me that the entire nation has been shunted into an entirely different dimension. The energy field is keeping a massive fissure from opening in our own reality because of the transfer; such a fissure would surely destroy Earth and perhaps the solar system as well."
Jack's brow furrowed, "So how are we supposed to get in and rescue the Fantastic Four, if we risk blowing up the planet in the process?"
"That is a question I cannot answer at the moment." the android replied smoothly, his mind obviously elsewhere, "It will take a highly focused assault to breach the barrier without nullifying its overall effectiveness."
"So we'll be needing Thor and his like." Iron Man said.
"Yes, though the Silver Surfer would have been ideal. Unfortunately, he was lost during the battle in the Everglades."
Captain America shook his head, "We should be getting back, then. There is no time to waste."
"Assuming the Fantastic Four are still alive, Captain." the Vision said, with a matter-of-factness that would have been chillingly cold coming from a human being.
The patriot did not favor him with words, only a harsh look as he stalked past, heading for the Quinjet. The remaining Avengers dallied for a few moments more along the edge of the barrier, but like schoolyard children they were soon following in their leader's footsteps, leaving the towering phenomenon behind.
A tired child, the sun dipped below the horizon, bathing the pasture in the dark of night, even as an amplified voice suddenly rang out to the retreating Avengers.
"Leaving so soon?" it mocked.
Captain America's eyes flicked to both Iron Man and the Vision - they did not nod in reply. The armored warrior's repulsors charged silently as he slowly turned, and the android's solar jewel gleamed to life. As one the trio wheeled to face the mysterious speaker, even while Jack came about with a flourish.
"Who's there?' the cosmic hero shouted in the gloom. His fists glowed brightly with natural power, and his intentions were obvious.
"I am not detecting any additional presence's." the Vision whispered, sending directly and only into Captain America's ears, "The voice is most likely originating from the barrier itself."
"Your powers of detection are extraordinary, android." intoned the voice, its almost child-like haughtiness seeming to nearly double.
"Who are you?" the patriot questioned suspiciously, keen eyes carefully running up and down the thick column of energy.
"Surely you can't hazard a guess, Captain?"
The leader of the Avengers' eyes narrowed, "Show yourself, Doom. We don't have time for these games."
From the shimmering wall came a slight chuckle, and then a man-shaped warping at the base. The painted white energy shuddered and warped, twisting to release a familiar armored form. The plate-mask revealed no hint of expression, yet somehow it seemed to smile chillingly at the heroes. The caped figure strode several paces away from the humming pillar, and came to a halt. He crossed his arms across his chest and spoke again.
"Greetings, Avengers. I am surprised it took so long for yourselves to find your way here."
"What've you done with the Fantastic Four, Doom? If you've hurt them, the price you'll pay -"
The Vision addressed Captain America, cutting off his words, "That is not Doctor Doom, Captain."
Again came that arrogant child-chuckle, from the armored Latverian.
"If not Doom, Vision, then who?"
"Judging by the armor, his ward and heir, Kristoff Vernard. He is little more than a child, but possesses the same intellect and many of the memories of Victor Von Doom himself."
The mask mocked again, even as the caped figure's gauntleted hands came together to clap with slight clangs, "Well done, android. Ultron built you well."
Captain America's tone did not change, and he seemed unmoved by the sudden shift of identities, "Where are the Fantastic Four?"
"They are alive and well, Captain, no need to worry. Currently they are our guests in Latveria. In time, perhaps, the master will see fit to return them to Earth."
"'Master?'" repeated Jack, "You mean Doctor Doom?"
Kristoff's head turned and he glared emasculating at the cosmic hero, "Ah yes, the misfit Avenger, Jack of Hearts. I had nearly forgotten you were here. Yes, my master is Victor Von Doom. He is the only man I would ever give such reverence to."
"Where is he?" queried Iron Man.
"He is occupied, at the moment. Matters of much greater . . . import concern him. Nevertheless, there will be time to speak of this later. I shall accompany you back to Four Freedoms Plaza."
"Why should we take you with us, Kristoff?" Captain America said, once again obviously wary.
The boy-king was already striding confidently toward the Quinjet, "There are matters which should be brought to all of your so-called 'heroes'' attention."
Iron Man shot the patriot a questioning look, but grudgingly the Avengers' nodded and reluctantly fell into stride behind Kristoff. The others soon followed, Jack coming last. Raw anger boiled him, but the hero felt somehow hollow as well.
The Latverian's simple, mocking words had somehow carved a great crevasse into him, and even more he felt like so much useless fodder.
Brilliant emerald clouds streaked across the verdant purple sky, as if painted by a lazy giant. An otherworldly sun shone down on the surreal landscape, radiating not wilting heat but only a gentle warmth. A slight breeze blew and rippled the blue leaves of twisted trees, and the world was at peace.
A savage roar split the air, suddenly, shattering the calm.
Autolycus halted in his careful steps, keen eyes flicking about the rocky terrain. Great spires of shot up, high into the sky, jagged mountains formed from the teeth of a beast long dormant. The soldier motioned the small legion behind him to stop, his fingers speaking rapidly to them in hand-talk. The three dozen Black Knights, brandishing primitive spears and swords, heeded their leader's order.
The blue-hued general whispered to his friend and ally, "That is him, Adam. Only Kray-tor would have so much rage, so much anger, in a paradise such as this."
Adam Warlock nodded grimly, his own optics carefully surveying the mountainous landscape. Quickly he picked out a dark orifice, set in the side of a sheer wall of mystic ice. It was a cave, deep, dark, and ominous.
The horrifying sound, steeped in furiously mournful pain and loss, bellowed out again; it came obviously from that cave.
The two allies turned to one another and nodded silently. Warlock began to advance, Autolycus at his side. More frenetic hand-talk, and the Black Knights followed closely behind, warily keep their crude weapons at arm's length. The feel of the murderous staffs and hilts in their fingers almost seemed to burn, so alien had the thought of weapons become to them. Such was the affect of a long stay in Soul World.
The minutes passed, creeping by as steadily as did Warlock and his allies. The golden schemer felt the tension of impending combat, the heavy burden of looming battle, but despite the circumstance he felt so alive. Warlock's death had brought him life again, lifting the ice which had slowly consumed his soul, rekindled his appreciation for being, seeing existence no longer in such stark terms as failure and success. He was an individual once more, in that tiny emerald jewel, a faceless Defender of reality no longer.
Among friends, Warlock had a taste of an emotion that had long since fled him - happiness.
Quietly the large group approached the cave. Autolycus and his reborn ally flanked the cave's entrance, each positioning themselves along either opposite side of the gaping aperture. Warlock looked on silently as the Black Knights' leader flashed them his enigmatic finger-signs, and as one they dashed into the dark cavern, entering and then quickly flattening themselves against the wall. Further and further the ebony-clad warriors penetrated the space, until fifteen stood vigilantly upon each rough side.
Together Warlock and Autolycus stepped into the cave, and rapidly stalked into its depths, passing the line of Knights as they did. In succession, as their leaders passed, the soldiers fell into step behind, forming two long lines, weapons held at the reluctant ready.
Treading carefully forward, the group rounded the cavern's numerous and sometimes unexpected bends, expecting always an attack every time they could not see what lay beyond the next corner. In fact, a deadly assault did come, just as the heroes thought there would be not battle at all.
Kray-tor's embittered, blood-curdling roar issued from behind the Black Knights. The warriors turned and were set upon by the massive creature, crimson eyes flashing, sharp teeth tearing through insubstantial flesh.
Magical light burned before Warlock's eyes and seared outward in a great glowing sphere, sending both him and Autolycus to the hard ground, steaming. The surprise of the assault faded quickly and Adam Warlock looked up in the gloom, and saw the face of his attacker, illuminated by the slowly fading light.
"Loki." he said, without surprise or emotion.
"And not alone." announced a familiar voice from behind the God of Mischief, a sleeker parody of Warlock's own tone. Out of the growing shadows stepped a dark reflection of the golden hero, silver hair knotted tightly back. He smiled,
"How good to see you again, my . . . shade."
Adam Warlock slowly got to his feet, eyeing both his enemies closely, measuring them. The Magus flickered immaterial in the faint light; he was no threat, an insubstantial specter. The Asgardian, one of the last of his kind, seemed nearly unhinged. Loki's optics crackled with a barely controlled energy, and he appeared on the very precipice of insanity.
The din of combat echoed about the cavern, as the Black Knights fought valiantly against their enraged opponent. They stabbed at Kray-tor with their blunt weapons, drawing rivers of ichor that only seemed to infuriate him further. With great ferocity the Judge hurled his enemies into the walls, pounding their bodies to pulp with mighty fists.
Autolycus moved with great speed, up from the ground and upon his deranged friend in a moment's time. The leader of the Knight's struck swiftly and harshly, the blows of an accomplished shoulder that remained confident in his own abilities.
The Magus chuckled, "You brought this upon yourself, Warlock. Since you used him as a pawn against Count Abyss Judge Kray-tor has been a mad beast, thirsting for your blood. He will have it, soon enough."
Loki grinned maniacally, his fingertips burning with energy straining to be released.
Warlock remained calm, his tone cold and even, "Surely you see this assault is utterly pointless, Magus. This is Soul World, spirits cannot die here. You will accomplish nothing."
The dark shadow's venomous smile widened, "Perhaps Kray-tor is incapable of harming those who dwell here, but I assure you, Loki is not. His soul retains the magical powers he possessed in life, and with them I will see you dead, Warlock."
The golden-skinned hero's sight flicked momentarily to the God of Mischief. He was indeed nearly mad, his own god-hood keeping him from experiencing the peace and bliss of Soul World. The Asgardian did not want to embrace such things; he wanted only to destroy his brother, and that conflict was slowly rotting away his very consciousness.
Warlock slid forward, to the side of Loki. The deranged god flicked out with his magical power, but his accuracy was sorely degraded by his own growing insanity; the only victim of the sorcerer's assault was the icy wall. The bolt of force impacted harmlessly, dying a quick death, fading to smoke and then nothingness.
Adam Warlock slipped in and felled Loki with a single blow to the mouth. The God of Mischief's mind jarred even further and he collapsed to the ground, unconsciousness, caught up wholly in his own dementia.
The gold-hued schemer turned his eyes up, paying the fallen Asgardian no more attention, but saw that the Magus fled. Walls and mountainous caverns were no bar to a half-spirit, at least in Soul World. Uncaring that his shade had departed, Warlock turned to see Autolycus slowly being overwhelmed by the sheer ferocity of Kray-tor's assaults. The leader of the Black Knights bled from a dozen spectral wounds, and his features were haggard with exhaustion. His men lay strewn about the cave floor, senseless.
Methodically Warlock paced toward the howling beast, unafraid, not stymied by the monster's fury. Kray'tor's multi-faceted eyes focused on the familiar golden shape, and his passion for destruction seemed to grow a thousand-fold.
"Warlock!" he screamed, absently slamming Autolycus into the wall as he did,
My betrayer, my tormentor!"
"Hold, Judge Kray-tor." said Warlock as he continued his slow approach, raising a calming hand, "I have not come here to fight you, only to heal you."
The creature borne of Hell charged, multiple arms flailing about like living maces. Warlock did not move, hand still upheld, until the Judge was nearly upon him. Calmly the hero sidestepped, and touched soothing fingers to Kray-tor's seething body.
In that singular moment of contact, all the rage, all the hatred seemed to flee from the Judge's massive form. He collapsed to his knees, and his huge eyes seemed to see for the first time in a great span. Kray-tor's sight flicked back and forth across the far wall, but he saw far beyond it. He saw inside himself, saw the great white spaces where the demons of the abyss had once dwelt.
"Thank you." he whispered quietly to Warlock.
His savior only nodded.
"Revenge, Thanos, we must have revenge!" cried the wearied Agamotto, though his furious bombast had not been tempered by the humbling defeat he had only recently received.
"Yes, Titan, you have led us to nothing but humiliating losses since the beginning of this war!" shouted one of the silver-clad Beyonders. "We stand here, gathered in the Dimension of Manifestations while Wylig's forces prowl the universe and route our armies at every turn!"
"We must have victory, Eternal!" cried Ego-Prime, a roar of agreement rising with his boisterous sentiment.
Eternity was less bitterly enthusiastic, but his cold tone held more threats than the embittered ramblings of all the gathering combined, "You are proving a failure, Closed Circle. Your supposed strategic brilliance has availed us not since this war began. If you do not prove yourself worthy of our allegiance soon, you will have it no longer. I will make a more capable general than you ever have been."
Thanos' face remained an impassive mask as he received the criticisms of his peer, and his subordinates. Beneath his stony facade, which he let slip just enough to make it seem he was truly concerned, the Titan wished to laugh aloud. His respect for the greatly praised wisdom of the pre-eminent powers of the universe shrunk to even more bitter dregs with every word they uttered. The cosmic gods were nothing but blind fools.
The Closed Circle allowed the small crowd of entities to rage and shout at him, waiting for their ire to burn itself out. Moreover, like little children, their protests eventually grew less impassioned, and with a wave of his hand Thanos set the spark of their anger back to smoldering.
"I hear your words, Eternity, and even I must consider that I have not performed as well as I have in the past. Yet that shall all change with our next engagement. Fired by vengeance, you shall fight harder than you ever have in the past. You will have victory, for in a single swipe will destroy Wylig's forces utterly and sweep him from our sights."
"So you've said in the past, Thanos We've only tasted loss, despite your words." Kubik replied logically, without the rage of his brethren, "Our trust in you as our leader must be restored."
Thanos nodded gravely, "It shall be, Kubik. Personally I will lead the next battle, and even if the Lord of Pain is present, we shall be victorious. None in Wylig's army can stand against my power, or that of the Celestial Trinity."
"Why have you not acted so openly before, Titan?" inquired Kronos suspiciously, "This entire conflict would have ended long ago if you could do as you say."
Thanos' distaste for the evolved Eternal was obvious. His words dripped with condescending wisdom, "Using my power in such a fashion will put in danger the already fragile tapestry that is the Omniverse. It has been a last resort, but one that must now be called upon. Pray in that acting against Wylig that which we fight for is not rent asunder as well."
Mutterings fluttered through the crowd, a wave of harsh discussion. Suspicious and even hateful glances were often cast in the Titan's direction. He saw them, but did not return them. Thanos was below the insults of children. He would be glad to be rid of his cosmic "brothers" when the time for his descent arrived.
"How will we struck out against Wylig?" questioned the Great Void, clad in his menacing and massive armor. "His realms were well-protected, and the amount of force necessary to breach their barriers would surely breach the fabric of reality as well."
"Yes, Thanos, how will we draw the Dark Watcher out?" Anomaly questioned, "You already revealed our sole double-agent, and his duplicity proved fruitless. Wylig is no fool - he will not be easily led into a trap."
Thanos smiled coldly, with open disdain for the snake-like creature, "It will be no trap, Anomaly, merely a meeting of two great forces on the field of battle."
"You provide no answer, Titan." said Epoch harshly, "Why will Wylig engage us?"
"Because he will have no choice."
"What do you mean, Closed Circle?" the offspring of Eon continued.
Thanos' eyes flashed dangerously, "You will be made aware in due time. Disperse and those among you who are wounded, heal yourselves. I shall dispatch an emissary to gather those necessary in a short span. Until then continue your routine patrols of your assigned corridors of reality, or simply rest. It matters little to me."
The Titan's emerald orbs flicked up to bore directly into the single optic of star-filled Eternity. The exchange was thoughtless, wordless, but spoke all the volumes necessary. The embodiment of the Omniverse nodded and willed himself away, the startling suns in his ebony body fading away last of all.
Eternity appeared instantly in another quarter of the Dimension of Manifestations, and waited impatiently for the arrival of one whom he truly hated. Thanos was no more than a second behind him.
"What are your intentions, Titan? I will not allow you to endanger the entirety of the Omniverse unless you are assured that this battle will end the war in a single stroke. Even then . . . the danger may be too great. The Living Tribunal's conflict rages on, weakening the bonds holding reality together with every passing moment. If we do not move quickly and their struggle, all will be lost."
Thanos' eyes were glistening silver, "I am more than aware of the state of affairs in the Omniverse, Eternity, for after all I embody it as much as you."
The towering being's eye narrowed, "Tell me what you intend, Thanos."
"The barriers erected around Limbo and the Tree of Pain are too powerful to be easily broken through the application of force. But they can be devoured, and their energy converted to our own needs."
"Devoured? Galactus . . ."
The Titan marveled at Eternity's deductive reasoning, "Yes, Eternity. Galactus will be loosed upon the barriers and begin to sate his hunger upon them. Wylig's army will rally to end the World Killer's rampage, and it is then that we will strike. In one engagement I will eliminate the majority of the renegade Watcher's forces. Those who survive will be no threat, and our attentions can then be turned to ending the battle between the Living Tribunal and his Antithesis."
For perhaps the first time since Thanos had ascended to his current divine status, Eternity's cloak of open hostility and belligerence dropped, and he questioned generally, "How will we accomplish that? I do not even know where we would gain access to the struggle. The Tribunal is warring on planes far above those open to even you or me."
Thanos did his best to hide the uncertainty he plainly felt riddling his mind, "There is a way, Eternity, there is a way. Given time we shall find it."
Somberly the embodiment and manifestation of the Omniverse's totality stared into the Titan's shining, cold eyes and nodded. In that exchange there passed between them a moment of grudging respect, an acknowledgement of the other's great power and eminence.
Then Eternity was gone from the white space, willed away to some other place, leaving Thanos alone to consider his plans in solitude. The Closed Circle was grateful for the respite.
Continued in Chapter 3
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