Written By Darren Burr and Doug Bookey
*The Dock, Muir Island, Scotland*
Dawn across the island was Mikhail's favourite time of day to take a walk. The crisp chill air reminded him of home, and due to his frequent visits back to the Motherland, he operated more on Moscow time than local time. Early mornings off the coast of Scotland were little hardship to him.
Unlike Forge, Mikhail noted with a slight smile. The inventor seemed to still be operating on U.S. Eastern Standard Time, his natural insomnia not withstanding. This left the early hours in solitude, just how Mikhail liked it.
Still, he had grown fond of the mutant shaman, and was beginning to believe he could truly have a home here. Despite his love for Russia, each trip back only reinforced how much he had changed since he first served his country as a cosmonaut; proving that old American adage that you can never go home again. He had seen too much, been corrupted by too much insanity to ever return to the simple life of a farmer. Such a destiny belonged only in the pages of a child's storybook.
The spray from the waves crashing along the rocky coast moistened his skin as he turned to look out to sea. Nothing on Earth could be more different to the Ust-Ordynski Collective where he grew up when he faced this direction. Still, considering the exotic locations he had seen since his own mutant abilities had manifested, Muir Island still had the sense of familiarity, of home. Here, where the fury of the Atlantic surged into the North Sea, the by comparison tranquil waters of Lake Baikal were a world away, but at least it was still the same world and it was good to be back.
Here's hoping that feeling would never fade.
As dawn broke to the east, Mikhail felt a sense of impending... something. His mastery of energy and force enabled him to peel back the various layers or 'skins' between the dimensions to create his portals. Manipulating the subtleties of quantum spin, Schumann resonance, the levels of microwave background radiation and numerous other forces yet to be named by human scientists demanded the Russian possessed senses undreamt of by even the most open-minded scientists, senses that rivalled those of the fabled heralds of Galactus.
Thus the eruption of a wormhole close to the research centre could not go unnoticed.
What was curious, Mikhail noted as he ran back towards the cluster of buildings, is that the signature emission felt like flags fluttering in the wind. No, not flags. Flags were rectangular in shape; the vibrations they created were quite distinctive. This was a different shape, pointed. Two points in fact.
With a smile, he increased his pace, doubting that Forge would yet be awake to greet the arrival.
The incessant beeping woke the Maker with a start. Forge thumped his alarm clock, only to discover that failed to silence the noise.
"What now?" Muttering under his breath, he pulled a shirt around his shoulders and tried to establish a more awake and alert frame of mind. Having stayed up for the previous few nights as he worked on methods to duplicate and mechanize Mikhail's powers, with the intent to launch observation probes into neighbouring dimensions, and maintain communication with them. Even with Mikhail's co-operation and his own mutant talent for invention, the progress had been slow and frustrating. Thinking back to Dallas, Forge had to bitterly smirk. It was far easier to seal a rift than open one, especially when relying upon technology rather than the capricious whim of demons and trickster gods.
The irritation of the shrill alarm continued, derailing that train of thought thankfully before the guilt could rise up and swallow him. Forge needed a focus, and seeking a way to support the Excalibur team as they ran errands for Otherworld seemed as good a goal as any. Being present as a sounding board for Mikhail was turning into an unexpected pleasure as well; watching as the Russian slowly pull his damaged psyche back together. He admired the Russian's current self control. To hear the tales of his beloved wind rider, Mikhail had spent years in another dimension as little more than a raving lunatic: a tool of the Dark Beast and prey to a parasitic entity native to the Hill. This parasite had been apparently been removed under the tender ministrations of Tempus at the behest of Kang. Mikhail had told him that the giant had stated the former cosmonaut had otherwise made 'an unsuitable vessel' for the Conqueror's purposes.
In order to control Mikhail's power and create a collision between this reality and another, Tempus had trapped Mikhail in a dream world, a vision of life back at the agricultural Collective that had served to replace much of what Mikhail had felt he had lost. It seemed that this dream had been so much like paradise to the Russian, it had done him a world of good; but it had taken the efforts of Rachel Summers and Martinique Jason to break him free of it.
Forge wondered where Martinique was currently. She had promised to return, but stated she had a little personal business to take care of first. Both statements had been delivered with that coy smile of hers, like she was planning all forms of mischief behind her facade. The fact that the shaman found this appealing troubled him to no end.
Why was he always surrounding himself with fractured personalities? He had fallen for Ororo when she was adrift, separated from the embrace of her mother planet due to spending months away in space. Then there had been the tension between himself and Mystique, in the latter days of his tenure in X-Factor when the team had begun to fall apart.
Shaking his head, Forge focused on the sound of the beeping as he struggled out of bed. Fulfilling his role as Maker, he had installed all forms of sensors and alarms around the complex and each one had its own unique sound. Slipping his feet into his sneakers, he rapidly listed the various alerts in his mind. This one was for, was for...
A space-time distortion!
Adrenalin rushed through his system and the world snapped into focus. He rushed towards the outside door, as a monitor in the hallway directed him to the source of the alarm. Grabbing a sidearm he kept hidden in the hallway behind the coats, the Maker flung open the door and was buffeted by the chill North wind, which immediately caused his eyes to water in response.
Blinking, Forge could make out an emerald-green dress, topped with a bushy mane of blond hair whipping in the wind. For a moment the shaman thought it was Brian standing next to her, but it was another member of the Corps who held her arm. Of course, Brian was still with the away team.
"Your stop, I believe, my lady," the Corpsman uttered with a smile. Forge noted the pair were surrounded by long tapered flags that flapped in the wind in time with Meggan's hair. It appeared that the pennants were suspended in mid-air, but Forge suspected that the flagpoles remained on Otherworld. The flags themselves were only partially visible, whipping in and out of visibility at the whim of the wind. With a start, Forge realised that he was seeing them more with his spirit-sight than with his physical eyes. There seemed to be no discernible difference between the technology of Otherworld and the more spiritual forms of magic. If only that factor could be incorporated into the design of his probes.
"Thank you, Captain Anglia," Meggan replied, smiling. "You have been a wonderful escort. Maybe you can entertain me with your tales again upon my return to the Citadel."
"With pleasure." Anglia swelled with pride, gave Meggan a wink and stepped back, fading from view.
"Meggan," Forge greeted her, noting that somehow she appeared quite different. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was a quiet confidence in her movements; so different to the angry and petulant woman who had left for Otherworld the day before.
"Forge!" Meggan beamed, before a look of concern passed over her face. "Is Brian, uh, are the others back yet?"
"No," Forge admitted. "There has been no word from them since they left, but then that is really to be expected."
Meggan stepped in from the wind, although she seemed oblivious to the cold. Mikhail's heavy footsteps could be heard squelching in the distance as he ran towards the complex. "Well, that's a problem I'm sure that can be sorted. I'll talk with Saturnyne when I go back."
"I take it your conversation with Roma went well then?" Having met Roma in Dallas, Forge still had to suppress a smile at the thought of the young mutant wagging her finger at the Omniversal Majestrix. He wasn't really sure whose shoes in that encounter he'd least like to be in. Still, it certainly seemed as if Meggan had gone through some form of transformative experience.
"It went," Meggan paused, her composure slipping as her childlike nature broke through. "Oh Forge, it was incredible. I've got so much to tell Brian, but I'm not sure I can keep it all in until he gets back. Would you both like a cup of tea and a chat? I know it's early, but..."
"The hour does not trouble me," said Mikhail as he shouldered his way into the porch. "as for our American friend, I'm not so sure."
"I was about to get up anyway," Forge lied reluctantly, and then grinned. "So, did you tell Roma everything that was on your mind? Did she acquiesce to your demands?"
Meggan bit her lip. "Not exactly, no,"
Forge snorted. "No, I didn't imagine that she would."
Forge choked at the thought, spluttering the coffee he was sipping all across the Formica surface of the table. Although Moira MacTaggert had spared no expense in equipping her laboratories, the Mutant Research Centre had come under repeated attack over the years. Replacing the domestic furniture had fallen as a priority as Moira raced to find a cure for the Legacy Virus. Her estate only covered the maintenance of the physical laboratories, as the rest of it was held in trust to support Moira's extended family, such as the young Rahne Sinclair.
Brian had been granted custodianship of the Island, but he was also of a similar mind, having witnessed many of the battles that had scarred the island. The communal areas had a certain utilitarian feel, furnished purely for function, although the bedrooms had thankfully been given a little more attention and comfort.
"Betrothed is the word she used," Meggan corrected, as she absently reached over to the sink and grabbed a cloth to mop up the splatter. Out of the three, Meggan had the most right to call the centre home and she treated it as such, although even she had to admit preferring the luxury of Braddock Manor. "You should meet this guy. He seems really quite, well, uptight when you first meet him, but he's supposed to be some Lord of Time, and he has this crystal that bends time like paper. And a really big purple hat. He showed me things....."
Meggan's voice trailed off as Mikhail raised his eyebrows at Forge. The shaman leaned forward over the table and prompted the young mutant, as she appeared to have wandered off into her own thoughts.
"Meggan, what was his name?"
"Immortus," Meggan replied. "Apparently he normally lives in a castle in Limbo, but it doesn't sound like Belasco's Limbo. Anglia told me Roma disappeared from the Citadel after receiving a report from Saturnyne's Dimensional Development Court, and then returned a few days later with Immortus. Anglia was there, he said that Immortus and Roma were talking as if they had known each other for years."
"If this Immortus is a time-traveller," noted Mikhail, "then that is more than likely possible. I lost many years myself in a similar fashion."
"I know that name." Forge drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Back when I was running X-Factor for Cooper, I had access to some of the Avengers earlier files. That name rings a bell. I think I need to make a phone call. Do you know if Brian has Dane Whitman's number?"
"Mister Whitman? I'm not sure if you will remember me, but this is Forge..."
"Sure I remember you," the man commonly known as the Avenger Black Knight replied, his voice clear through the phone line. "You're one of the X-crowd. And you're calling from Muir? Has Brian restarted Excalibur?"
"Not intentionally, from all I gather," Forge joked, hoping to put Whitman at ease. Relationships between the Avengers and those who wore the 'X' varied between cordial and strained to adversarial. As far as the shaman was aware, even after the recent imprisonment of Professor Xavier, relations were currently at the better end of the spectrum. SHIELD was working with the former X-Men, one of them was even standing for a Senate seat. "But essentially, yes."
"So what can I do for you?" Dane asked. He sounded tired, but that was a quality Forge could appreciate. "Please tell me it is not another alien invasion or cosmic scale threat like the last times we met?"
Forge and Dane met during the great rout of the Dire Wraiths in Rom #66, and during the events of the Infinity War and the Infinity Crusade.
"Nothing so grandiose," Forge answered. "At least I don't think so. A name has come up, that I seem to remember from Valerie Cooper's files that you encountered during one of your periods as an active Avenger. Tell me, what do you know of Immortus?"
"Oh man," Dane sighed. "Cosmic level again then. That guy is bad news...."
As his eyes recovered from the blinding flash of Stellar's mode of teleportation, Colin struggled to make sense of just what his eyes were seeing. The leonine mutant blinked, and out of habit his hands rested high, ready to grab the twin swords from his shoulder scabbards in an instant.
Surrounded by tall white buildings of an alien design, what he had first taken to be the sun in a starry sky resolved into the form of a familiar blue-green pearl. Of course, he corrected himself. If that were the sun, then he would not be able to see the stars. The light was coming from his right, not from the orb above, and as it reflected from the buildings it gained a bluish tinge that made his fur appear far darker than normal.
As he became away of his colleagues and the agents of A.R.M.O.R. stood around him, he whispered to himself, although he feared he already knew the answer to his question.
"Where are we?"
"Some place I had hoped never to see," Rachel replied sourly. "This is where my mother was neutered, and on your earth, died. The first time at least. This is the Blue Area of the Moon."
"We're on the Moon?" Trance exclaimed, somewhat breathlessly. Adrenalin was still pumping through her system in anticipation of the attack from the Infected forces of the Blood King.
"What do you think that is above us?" Sunfire asked caustically.
"We're on the moon," Trance repeated to herself, her eyes wide as she looked around. Her amazement faded when she realised they were surrounded by a collection of beings, many staring at them with expressions that ranged between mistrust and outright hostility. Some were human; others only humanoid, with variations of form more extreme even than the members of the Gene Nation group she had learnt about at school.
One of the more human of them stepped forward and approached Uncle Sam. Clothed in green with a slightly bulbous green helmet, this one reminded Trance of everyone's least favourite teacher. Maybe it was the pencil thin moustache, but Trance realised it was more the expression of disapproval as his eyes scanned the new arrivals, taking in every detail and finding it wanting.
"You risked the planet below for these?" The man sneered. "They look weak, hardly capable of adding to our defences. They are untried and unknown, yet you bring them here, revealing our sanctuary? I would have thought better of you Rogers."
"Even worse," a woman with long brown hair stepped forward, "these are known associates of Braddock. At least that one is."
Blue light reflected from her metallic shoulder pads, which Kylun assumed would be golden under normal light. These framed a blue bodysuit with darker stripes forming a v-shaped pattern from the shoulders down to her groin, completed by matching metallic forearm and wrist guards and thigh-high boots matching the insignia. It took Colin a moment to realise that these would be red in daylight, and that this was a variation on the uniform of one of Magneto's Acolytes.
"You should send them back, Stellar," the man in green commented. "The risk just rose from unacceptable to intolerable. The King has been quite specific in his orders."
"Everyone just hold on!" Sam held his hand out to placate the pair. "Karnak, Amelia, they are not from round these parts. That was the whole point to our investigating their arrival, remember? Transdimensional egress signature, remember? These are who we found."
Seemingly ignorant to the battle of wills between Uncle Sam and the man in green, Rachel looked shocked. "Your timeline had an analogue of me?"
"Yeah," confirmed Stellar, whom Rachel could clearly see was indeed the analogue of Lila Cheney, the singer and mutant teleporter of her adoptive world. "Mutant hunting hound from the future, tapped into the Phoenix Force, one of the tribe of Summers' kids. Abandoned Earth just as the Infection broke out. She was seen heading into space and no-one has seen anything of her since."
"Huh!" Rachel digested this for a moment. "In all of our travels, Excalibur, we never once saw another version of me."
"As for Braddock," Kylun added dryly, "we brought our Braddock with us. We came here to help you people, and your boy there killed him without a second thought."
Suddenly the focus of attention, Gomi shrugged apologetically. "He was Braddock," the teenager explained. "What was I supposed to do? Wait for him to infect us all with his weird blood?"
"I don't think the Blood King would have been taken out by your powers," Queen sneered. "Otherwise someone would have done it long before now."
"You said you came here to help us," Karnak prompted, his general air of disapproval now seeming more like disbelief.
It wasn't that he didn't believe their intentions, Rachel realised. The word of Uncle Sam was enough to placate him, aside from his natural wariness that must only have been amplified by the plight this world found itself in. It was that now he simply did not believe her team to have the capability. Maybe she could give him a little hope by demonstrating the muscle Excalibur had behind them.
"We come her at the request of Roma, Omniversal Majestrix, daughter of Merlyn, Goddess of Otherworld and sponsor of the Captain Britain Corps," she stated firmly. "We are here to assist you in evacuating to a safer reality, away from this Infection."
The Acolyte called Amelia snorted. "She didn't do much to protect her boy Braddock here, or to stop him. Why should we believe you? Or trust her intentions for that matter?"
"Because she could have left you here to die," snapped Kylun.
"Plus do you have another method of transferring to an alternate Earth?" Sunfire's patience evaporated, the strain of this world was chipping away at his natural self-assuredness. Unlike Kylun, he had little feeling regarding Brian's death, but he was beginning to become concerned about his own. The longer the team stayed here, the more likely that fate became. "I don't see your Doctor Strange here in the crowd gathered. Nor your Reed Richards or even Tony Stark. Not even a man in an AIM uniform. All of which would no doubt have joined your welcoming committee to investigate us on arrival were they here. Or would you prefer we leave you to your fate?"
"No," stated Karnak firmly, with only the very slightest hint of apology. "The King will wish to see you. But you must forgive us our suspicions. If you are who you claim to be, then you have little to fear from us, but you cannot expect us to simply welcome you with open arms. You are aware of our situation, and I doubt even you humans would act in a different manner. Let us arrange an audience for you."
"You were supposed to know we were coming," added Rachel. "But yes, we understand, and we are at your disposal."
Let's hope those are not fatal last words, Hope thought to herself, feeling a little confused. Humans? This Karnak guy seemed as human as she was.
The throne room was an impressive chamber. The light was more natural in here, and the room was shaped so that it could easily fit up to two hundred people, yet seem fully occupied if there were only a dozen or so present.
Such was not the case today. The room was packed with a great variety of beings. The Inhuman Royal Family stood gathered upon the dais, although the aquatic Triton was missing. Rachel hoped that he was simply absent rather than having fallen to the Infection, but she refrained from scanning the family's minds out of curiosity. There was no telling if one of the Inhumans possessed telepathic abilities and was shielding the Royal Family, and such an act could be construed as aggressive. The Inhumans were isolationist at the best of times, and if they had indeed lost their cousin, they would hardly be disposed to view Excalibur kindly.
The A.R.M.O.R. agents and Excalibur stood in front of the platform, watching the family in deep discussion. Karnak and the cloven-hoofed Gorgon seemed to be arguing, Queen Medusa and Crystal doing their best to keep the two men calm, while Black Bolt silently stood watching his kin. No sound issued forth from the dais, Rachel assumed their was some form of sonic dampening field that granted them some privacy in their deliberations.
Looking around, Rachel smiled as she noted Shiro pointing out each of the members of the Royal Family to Hope. Although on their world the Inhumans remained secretive, there had been moments when they had come to the publics' attention. Additionally, the Japanese mutant had been active as a hero for so long that he was privy to many of the secrets the super-hero community kept to themselves. Despite his caustic attitude, Sunfire was a celebrated hero of Japan and was a man of honour. He may disagree with the young Trance coming on such a mission as this, (and rightly so, she added to herself), but he was not taking it out on the girl. Trance so far had dealt better than anyone could have expected, her few outbursts more testament to her strength than her weakness. When called upon to act, Hope had performed diligently, and kept her minor breakdowns to moments of relative safety. Rachel could forgive her that, Hope had been fortunate not to share a childhood of living on the run from mutant-hunting killer robots like herself, and this was a totally new situation to the teenager.
Heck, it was new to Rachel! The telepath had never been fond of 'zombie apocalypse' movies, once she had arrived in a world where there was the time to sit and watch such movies without constantly looking over one's shoulder; but here was the same fear and sense of impending doom that she had experienced during her adolescence.
She shook her head to free herself of those memories, and turned her attention to the crowd that had gathered in the chamber. As to be expected, it was dominated by the Inhumans, but she also recognised many other races present. There was a smattering of human refugees, but also some Deviants and even a couple of subterranean Moloids who cowered in a corner. Rachel thought she recognised the Lord Kro, who stood with this worlds' iterations of Darkstar and Cloak. Easily identifiable were Locus of the MLF and Silhouette of the New Warriors. This worlds' Illyana Rasputin stood with a young black girl that Rachel recognised as having been a student of Alpha Flight, although her name escaped her.
Much like Lila, sorry, Stellar; Illyana stood glaring at Rachel, unflinching as Rachel returned her accusative expression with a faint smile. It had no effect, and Rachel was forced to recall the fate of her Illyana, who had fallen under the domination of the demonic side to her nature.
The Royal Family spread out into a line facing the audience, which immediately fell to silence. Black Bolt took his seat on the throne; Medusa standing by his side while the other three took seats set around the throne to the rear of the stage.
"The King is aware of your claims, Excalibur," Medusa began, "but he would hear them through your own mouths. You stand condemned by your association with Braddock, yet you claim to be innocents from another timeline. We have granted you temporary sanctuary, but should you be found to be liars, you will not leave this place alive. The King bids you speak."
At the mention of Braddock, Rachel felt Kylun bristle at her side, but laid a restraining hand upon his arm before stepping forward.
"Your Majesties, I beg your indulgence, but you are incorrect on both counts."
This elicited a gasp from the crowd, and Rachel was aware of a great shuffling, as the stronger of the crowd worked their way to the front, weapons or powers ready to be unleashed, while the weaker of those gathered sensibly backed closer towards the exits.
Black Bolt held up his hand, ordering in one gesture the cessation of hostilities, and in another bidding Rachel to continue.
"We are not innocents caught up in your disaster. We came to this world with full knowledge of what was occurring here, although I fear none of us appreciated the severity of the peril you find yourselves in. It has been hard, and we have already lost one of our number, not to the Infected but at the hands of one of your own agents."
"He was Braddock," muttered Gomi, his embarrassment now turning to irritation.
"But not your Braddock," Rachel replied, shooting the teenage A.R.M.O.R. agent a glance before returning her attention to the King. "He came here as we did, with the intention of offering you sanctuary on another Earth. We come here with the authority of Omniversal Majestrix Roma; who in her grace has arranged for your evacuation to a suitable planet, an Earth which is less densely populated than average, that is mutant dominated so that your people are not forced to hide themselves away, although you will be welcome in that worlds' Attilan. Your safety and sanctuary has been guaranteed by their government, led by a particularly agreeable incarnation of Magneto, who has achieved the world of equality that so many of his analogues strive for. You were supposed to have been made aware of this prior to our arrival."
"The King would seek bona fides to your identity, Excalibur," Medusa replied after glancing towards her husband, "but you raise an important issue. Why were we not aware of your impending arrival?"
Black Bolt's fingers moved faster than Rachel's eyes could follow, but his wife obviously caught his meaning. "Bring the one called Gamesmaster to us, if any should be able to verify your story, then surely it would be him."
As one of the Inhumans nodded at Medusa's order and took to the air on butterfly wings, Ariel stepped forward, her sharply angled sunglasses flickering as they reflected the many light sources within the room. "Hey, luscious locks! If I can see a picture of this new Earth, I can open a portal to it and we can send a team through to investigate."
Karnak stepped forward, his face twisted in anger. "Do not speak to our Queen as such!"
Medusa smiled. "At ease, Karnak. Dear Ariel has more than proved her worth. What respect she lacks in her words she has certainly demonstrated in her actions. A certain latitude can be granted."
Obviously dissatisfied with his cousin's response, Karnak nevertheless returned to his seat, as Medusa looked Rachel directly in her eyes. "Summers, you are a telepath are you not? Can you show Ariel our destination?"
"Erm," Rachel hesitated, fidgeting uncomfortably. She suddenly realised just how ill prepared the team had been for the most essential part of the mission. "No, your Majesty, I'm afraid I cannot. I have not seen it. I only know it is designated Earth-563, if that helps?"
The Inhuman Queen stiffened. "So you intended to arrive here, promising us sanctuary, on a world that you have very little knowledge about and have not investigated yourself?"
Rachel caught something in Medusa's eyes, and realised that her answer had better be a good one, as the Queen was bound by the rules and traditions of her people. "Excalibur is but a part of the operation, your Majesty. We expected to have support here; Forge back home continues to provide us with technical support as soon as we activate his Micro-Widget, and the ruling bodies of Earth-563 await your arrival. I have no reason to distrust Roma and I believe her word is sound."
Even as she said this, Rachel realised that it was not the entire truth. Why had Roma sent them to this world without informing them of who their contact should be? Merlyn's daughter was known to be as manipulative as her father; the episode with Necrom and the Lighthouse chain had only served to demonstrate this.
See Marvel's Excalibur #50 for details.
Karnak leapt up from his seat again, having detected the telltale micro-expressions that revealed her thoughts. "She's lying, she does not believe in Roma's word!"
Medusa arched an eyebrow, not seeing the need to enquire further, letting her silence be the question. A lesson she had learned from her husband that had served her well over the years.
"Okay!" Rachel held her hands up in surrender. "Okay. It's true; I don't really trust Roma's word. She has screwed with me, and friends of mine, in the past. Yet it has always been with the purest of motives, and I trust her actions, as infuriating as they may be. She always has her eyes on the best possible outcome, tending to the multiverse as a farmer tends his crops. Thanks to the Infection, this universe is scheduled for destruction, no, for deletion. The Dimensional Development Court will eradicate this entire timeline. If we don't get you anchored into another timeline, you will not only die with this universe, you will never have existed in the first place. So I may not trust her word on personal matters, but I trust her word on this!"
Medusa turned to look at Karnak, who reluctantly nodded. "She speaks the truth now."
"Very well." Medusa fixed Rachel with an imperious glare. "Please be advised, do not risk half-truths purely for the sake of brevity. As you can see, we do not need our telepaths to detect falsehoods. My cousin is gifted with the ability to spot the weak points in anything, and that includes an argument. Now, where is the Gamesmaster?"
"Here!" A voice rang out from the rear of the chamber, and the crowd parted to reveal the butterfly-winged Inhuman woman pushing a human youth along in a wheelchair. His head closely shaved, this Gamesmaster looked tired and drawn.
Rachel gasped, when she saw a metallic collar around the young man's neck. It brought back a flashback to her earlier life. "An inhibitor collar!"
"A necessary evil, I'm afraid," the young man said, hearing the outrage in her voice. "If we were to conceal our presence from the Infected, it was imperative that my powers be limited. You have felt the presence that lays behind the Infection?"
Rachel nodded, numbly, finding it hard to accept that any telepath would voluntarily allow their powers to be shut down.
"If my omnipathy was unleashed, then the Shadow King would easily have located both myself and anyone who sheltered with me. I have no idea if my powers would stretch to the planet above us from here, but I have worn this collar since before my arrival, and I do not wish to find out. Surprisingly, this experience has taught me a little more empathy for my fellow man!"
Hope had given up trying to follow the cut and thrust of the discussion, one minute it appeared that the refugees would accept their offer, the next it was refused. Instead she found herself fascinated by the beautiful woman with the butterfly wings. She reminded Trance of her friend from the Graymalkin School in Genosha, Megan. No offence to Megan, but the butterfly wings were infinitely more beautiful than the fairy wings that adorned her Welsh friend. Crowned by blond hair, the woman's eyebrows had also grown out to appear like butterfly antennae. Hope did not know if this was a mere affectation or if the antennae served some purpose, but the visual effect could not be denied. It was stunning.
"Fortunately," the Gamesmaster continued, "this collar works incrementally rather than in a binary fashion. I can release my power a fraction at a time, to operate purely within Attilan. With your permission, I will do so, to verify your story."
"I have nothing to hide," replied Rachel, unused to being the recipient of such examination. "But are you sure that you can do so and keep this city obscured from the presence behind the Infection?"
"Wait, what?" The man's words had finally sunk into Hope's awareness. "He wants to go sifting through my mind?"
"Trance!" Kylun sighed. "Are you such a stranger to this? You were a student at Graymalkin School in Genosha for god's sake! Your team mate here is a telepath."
"My professor, and the sister of one of my former teachers, both X-Men," Hope replied testily. "Not some stranger from another world!"
"Suck it up, Hope," Rachel instructed.
"The entire city has is bordered by S.H.I.E.L.D. Psi-Bafflers, designed specifically with the Shadow King in mind," Amelia Voght informed the Excalibur team. "These should serve to disguise our location."
"Those bafflers are complemented by similar devices of Inhuman design," commented the elemental Crystal from her seat on the dais. "Psy-veils that reinforce the vibrations that human technology left open. If the Gamesmaster lets his power cover this room, there is little risk of discovery."
"Very well, I accept." Rachel stepped towards the man in the wheelchair. "One last thing, each of us is carrying a memory crystal and a USB memory stick with details provided to us by the DDC. I would have mentioned this earlier, but the conversation rather got away from us."
Rachel rooted around in her pocket and pulled out a small milky white crystal and a bright blue memory stick, and handed these to Amelia. "Colin, could you also give yours to Ms Voght here. Shiro, Hope, keep hold of yours just in case there are any other survivors we need to convince anywhere."
"There are no more," muttered Illyana bitterly from behind the former Acolyte. "Your analogues helped take care of that."
Rachel ignored the surly young Russian sorceress, and knelt down before the Gamesmaster. "Is this close enough?"
"That will be fine," Gamesmaster replied with a smile. "Very pleasant. Entirely unnecessary, but quite enjoyable. I'm Jeremy, by the way."
Rachel smiled, and opened her mind as the man's hands crept to his collar and he slowly twisted dials on either side of his neck. As the effect of his inhibitor collar receded, colour flowed once more into Jeremy's cheeks, and his unhealthy pallor seemed to clear.
Leaving the two telepaths to their own devices, Kylun stepped forward to address the Royal Family. "Assuming we pass your test, you will find a message from Roma herself within the crystals and in the memory sticks. Additionally, we have with us a replicating chip that would construct the portal, that Forge has christened the Micro-Widget. It can act as a focus for our team mates back home to construct the portal, or direct and amplify the powers of any teleporters within your ranks."
"Widget?" Uncle Sam sounded unsure. "I have mentioned already our belief that Kang was behind the Infection, and Widget was constructed by Kang. Now you want us to use his technology to escape here? That strikes me as unwise."
"The Micro-Widget's are based on the idea of Widget, not the design," countered Shiro. "We will need access to certain raw materials, so that the device may construct itself. The original Widget would have used matter as fuel and additionally generated its own portals, not utilise those of a living teleporter. As brilliant as Forge is, he cannot hope to compete with technology from the Fortieth Century and beyond."
"The list of what we need is on the memory stick, although I have it on paper somewhere," added Kylun, checking his remaining pouches.
Rachel was impressed; she could barely feel Jeremy's touch upon her mind. As the young man sat back in his chair and smiled, Rachel tentatively reached out, and asked if she could see what he could see. After all, they still had to locate just who was supposed to have been their contact here.
Jeremy agreed, and his mind reached out across the city to find any mention of Roma in the minds of the refugees. Yet other than the witnesses within the audience chamber, there was not one soul in the city who was familiar with the power of the Majestrix.
"So who was our contact then?" Rachel whispered, more to herself than expecting any answer.
"I can only assume whoever it was fell to the Infected," replied Jeremy, resting his hand on her shoulder for reassurance.
"No," Rachel shook her head. "If that was true, then the Infected would have been aware of us in advance, and they were not. After all, they may appear bestial, but they are operated by a group mind, are they not?"
"Then your contact must be dead," said the butterfly-winged woman, whose name Rachel realised from Jeremy’s thoughts was Iridia.
"I wonder," Rachel mused.
*Earlier, Romania, Earth-342*
The gruff voice broke the damp silence that hung over the church graveyard. The air was chill, but to the two figures waiting by a graveside in a manner that little resembled patience, the temperature was the least of their worries.
"It's about time," replied the smaller of the two, an excitable young Asian girl dressed in a long yellow coat and matching boots, large sunglasses covering her eyes even though the sun had set at least two hours previously. "We're too exposed here. The Infected could catch up with us at any minute."
"You're the one who promised me this man had information we can use." The taller man leant deliberately down towards the girls face. "You better not disappoint me, girl! Though what secrets the soul of an artist can reveal to us, I truly question."
"Organic steel mutant artist," the girl corrected, "and quite tasty too, as you no doubt recall. I assure you, before we caught up to him, Peter learned of a way off this forsaken mudball, away from the Infected. I believe we will find new hunting grounds, and now that he shares our thirst, I think the Russkie will be only too happy to help. It will be worth it. It's just we are so exposed out here."
The man laughed, a cruel sound that pierced the gloom. "Says the woman coming out in a brilliant yellow coat."
"You have to make certain sacrifices for style," she replied with a grin, running her tongue over an extended incisor. "Anyway, you can talk, Xarus. Like scarlet red armour is any less conspicuous!"
Xarus' hand was around the girl's throat before she even saw the movement, and he lifted her from the ground. "I am your Maker, Jubilation. And even if I wasn't, you will speak to me with respect. You will address me as Lord Xarus, as befits my station."
"Sure, whatever," Jubilee stared defiantly into the vampire lord's eyes. A rumble in the earth behind him caught her attention. "Looks like last night's dinner is waking up."
"Go fetch the child we found," Xarus instructed. "How that weakling survived so long alone here amazes me, but the Romanians have always been a hardy people. Succulent too."
"Yes sir!" Jubilee saluted irreverently and vanished in a wisp of fog. She returned a moment later with a struggling bundle in her arms, wrapped up in bedclothes."
The Earth heaved, and the X-Man Colossus erupted from the ground with a roar, his skin dully reflecting the moonlight as dirt fell away from his face. Xarus swelled with pride when he saw the gleaming fangs protruding from the Russian's snarl.
A crazed look in his eyes, the X-Man looked from side to side, then glared at the pair who had waited for him. With a nod from Xarus, Jubilee stepped forward, unwrapping her parcel to reveal a child of about twelve years old, bound and gagged and large enough to slake the vampire's first experience of the thirst. The child whimpered in terror, and began to struggle all the more.
Jubilee held the boy out at arms length, then laid him on the ground before her former teammate. Colossus fell upon the child with a roar; his fangs sinking in to the boy’s neck and a slurping sound immediately ensued.
Within a few moments it was all over, as the life and terror faded from the boy's eyes. Colossus pushed himself from the ground, wiping his mouth with his sleeve and drawing himself to his full height, towering over the two vampires.
The gigantic Russian was obviously warring with himself. His eyes showed that his birthing bloodlust had been only mildly sated, but as the realisation of his new condition came to the fore, horror crept across his features.
"How could you do this to me?" His cry of anguish was obviously aimed at Jubilee. "We trusted you!"
"Hey what's not to like?" Jubilee shrugged playfully, but keeping a wary eye on her new brother. "You're gonna live forever, Petey. Would you sooner have ended up as one of the Infected?"
"You are as much of a disease as they are," Piotr snarled in response. "Thanks to you, I am as much of a disease as they are. I should feast on your blood!"
He launched himself at the younger former mutant, but was still unused to the changes coursing even through his organic steel body. There was no stake that would penetrate his heart, Jubilee thought with a laugh as she whirled out of his reach. "Now you're getting it, big guy! Go on, let it all out! Maybe, if you behave, I will let you have a sip someday. I got a thing for bigger guys!"
Colossus roared in frustration as he tripped over his feet and struggled back to standing. Within an instant, Xarus stood before him, fixing the steel vampire with his hypnotic glare.
"Enough!" At Xarus' word, Piotr found himself unable to move. "We do not have the time for this. I am your Maker, Russian, and you will obey my every word. Be still."
Piotr growled and bared his teeth, but did not move another muscle. Fear began to build inside of him, quelling his rage but doing little to quell the disgust he felt at what he had become. Had Illyana had these feelings, as Belasco stole her soul piece by piece? Bloodgem by bloodgem? How had she balanced remaining who she was with who she had become?
If his sister could do it, so could he.
"Now, I make no apologies that this will cause you pain," Xarus sneered. "You and yours managed to cause enough pain to myself and my father when your heart had a beat. But you must remember your last few days under the sun. Your young friend here claims you were told of a way off of this world, away from the Infection that has claimed the Beaters and the Still alike. Is this true? Are there some knights in shining armour coming to our rescue?"
Try as he might, Piotr could not resist his Maker's questions. Through gritted teeth, he grunted, "Yes."
"And how would you find these saviours?" Xarus asked in surprise, finally allowing himself to hope. His mind naturally worked along devious channels and already he was planning a strategy to co-opt this evacuation.
Unwillingly, Piotr raised his arm and pulled back his sleeve, to reveal a copper torc, which carried an opaque moonstone set in the band. Touching the gem, Piotr recited the mantra that Roma's vision had etched into his mind.
"Through the power of Avalon, by the will of Roma," he chanted.
Xarus snorted. "Avalon is long dead. This is a waste of....."
The son of Dracula found himself stunned into silence as the gem began to glow, and project a small hologram of a massive chamber, filled to the brim with Beaters of all shapes and sizes. A woman with long red hair that moved of its own accord, flanked by a monk-like man and another who seemed to be a cross between a satyr and the Hulk. This small grouping was holding audience, while before them to the front of the court stood four individuals who each were surrounded by an aura similar to the texture of the moonstone itself.
"Where is that?" As Xarus demand hit Piotr's ears, the image scaled up, revealing a futuristic white city suffused with a blue glow. Jubilee crept closer to examine the hologram, but caught her Maker's eye and shrugged.
"No idea," she admitted. "Petey?"
Colossus ignored her.
"Answer her," Xarus demanded. "Do you know that place?"
"Yes," Piotr replied, cursing the pair with every word. The image spanned out again, showing the barren surface of the Moon. "It is the Blue Area."
"The Moon?" Jubilee exclaimed. "How are we gonna get there?"
"That makes sense," Xarus mused. "You remember how we were forced into Subterranea to feed, before the Infection drove us out to the surface again? There was a legend, a rumour among the Moloids, tasteless little creatures that they were, of rescuers from the Moon, who would take them to the Blue Land."
"You could talk to those critters?" Jubilee appeared disgusted.
"I drank their blood," Xarus snapped. "And I read their memories, simple as they were. Just as you could have done."
"I wasn't really paying attention," Jubilee shuddered. "Horrible little creatures. Anyway, the Moon. How do you intend we get there?"
Xarus smiled. "The Moon is no problem. My father may be dead, but his alliances live on, and they answer to me. Jubilee, let me take you on a journey. I would introduce you to Lilith, the Mother of Demons, as we seek out the Magus Sword."
Jubilee did not understand a word of what her Maker said, but he made it sound like an honour, and so she was pleased, if a little puzzled. She threw a questioning glance to her former teammate.
Still bound by Xarus' command, Colossus was unable to respond.
Immortus found the Goddess Roma in the observatory that dominated the central tower of the Starlight Citadel, staring at the Altar of Existence like she was saying goodbye to an old friend.
Either side of the Lord of Limbo stood two dutiful members of the Corps, their staffs crossed, barring his passage into the chamber. Until the day of the wedding, certain formalities still had to be observed, and although betrothed to the Omniversal Majestrix, his presence remained unfamiliar to the Corps and his status was that of merely a visiting dignitary of another power.
Truth be told, Immortus rather appreciated the tight security that surrounded the Starlight Citadel, and the loyalty of the Corps to their Goddess was endearing. Had he been a native or a longstanding ally of Otherworld, then he felt assured his treatment (and access) would have been different. But the Corps had no idea just how much time he and Roma had spent together in the few short days she had been absent from her home; although they were only too aware of his chequered past as the conqueror Kang. Many of the Captains had fought either his younger self or iterations thereof, and many many more had fallen at his hand. It was a history that Immortus did not dare to tamper with, lest all of his later actions to protect existence and humanity come undone.
As a result, the two guards of the entrance to the Celestial Observatory held fast with their staffs and viewed him with suspicion.
"Let him pass." Roma's melodious voice rang out, although she never once turned away from the Altar. As a former warlord, that piece of Immortus that was Kang thought her stance, standing with her back to the door of the chamber showed a lack of regard for practical security matters. Yet Roma was not without her own power, and was probably as safe standing there as standing anywhere in the room. It certainly explained the guards' stations; maybe she chose her position to make the sentries feel useful. The Altar could be viewed from any position in the room, but he had learnt that the Goddess did nothing without intent and layers upon layers of symbolism and meaning.
Even when she had revealed her human side, Immortus could not help but suspect that that too was nothing but an artifice, a performance of vulnerability designed to achieve her end goals. Everything she did was precise. Both in form and meaning.
He loved her for it. A totally different love than that he held for Ravonna, and one enhanced by the truth that the pair shared mutual goals. They were driven together from where their spheres of influence overlapped.
Maybe she was stood there, engrossed by the images the Altar generated that even Immortus could barely comprehend; failing to turn to greet him and merely acknowledging his presence as a secondary impulse was to demonstrate that her first love would always be the multiverse itself. Immortus was simply a dalliance, a distraction in the good times and a means to an end in the bad.
The irony was inescapable. Now Immortus knew just how Ravonna must have felt and just like the Princess, he was quite content with that. Indeed, he was here with his Ravonna's blessing. As Roma had approached him, Ravonna had encouraged him to accept the Goddess' entreaties. She knew the value of such an alliance even were there not a pressing need, and had chosen this moment to step into the background and pursue some projects of her own. Ravonna knew that Roma would bring Immortus both happiness and empathy, he sometimes wondered just who of them were truly the wisest. Ravonna had issued her blessing and retreated.
"Since I have known you, Nathaniel," Roma spoke without turning, her eyes never leaving the Altar, "I find I have been given a new perspective in my observations. One that you would think would have been obvious to someone as long-lived as my father and I, but obviously not."
Immortus smiled, walking up to stand beside her and gently taking her hand in his. "We live but to serve."
"Never is that more true than in the case of your Space Phantoms," the Goddess noted. "I had thought that my father's manipulations, and mine for that matter, were without equal, but you have shown me new horizons. Does it not trouble you however? Using such pitiful wretches in your schemes, knowing they are disposable and no matter how much pain they create, it is they who will suffer the most?"
"They are what they are," Immortus replied, a twinge of sadness in his voice. "Limbo has drained them of all individuality, of all identity. I grant them new life and purpose, the chance to work for a greater destiny. I am not responsible for their arrival in Limbo, but I can certainly try to give them the chance to make the best of the tragedy that has befallen them."
"Yes," Roma sighed. "That is what I have been telling myself. Indeed, that is what I told myself when I plucked mortals from their mundane lives and made them my agents, before I even knew what a Space Phantom was. But it feels...."
Her voice trailed off, and Immortus chose to finish her sentence for her.
"Distasteful. But only as distasteful as imprisoning an endangered animal within a zoo or safari park, or sending horses and hounds into battle. Unpleasant, controlling, but necessary."
"They do indeed make good agents," Roma added. "And so much easier to forge than shaping your average mortal. Yet they lack a certain spirit, it seems Limbo drains aspects of the soul itself."
"Which is far more your province than mine," Immortus admitted. "But you are correct. Limbo is a hungry realm, and is why I choose to work through chronal, erm, mortal agents as well. Yet the sacrifice made by my Phantoms reminds me frequently of my failures, worlds that have slipped through my fingers or been destroyed by my hand. Or at least, at the hands of my prior selves. It is to that end I come to you today."
"I was wondering," Roma chuckled. "I need to oversee the experiment run by Six, which is what led me to thinking of the poor Phantoms. What can I, or my staff, do for the vaunted Master of Seventy Centuries?"
(For more on the experiment run by 'Six', see the Mists Of Time in JLU2001's Elseworlds Presents and the upcoming War That Time Forgot: The Hybrid.
Immortus could not fail to miss her teasing use of one of his many titles, but rather than finding it an affront, it actually warmed his heart a little. "As you are well aware, great Goddess, magic is not my strong point, nor some of the intricacies of celestial mechanics. I deal in cause and effect. Impetus, reaction and consequence. I am as much a psychologist as I am a scientist, but I am not a sorcerer. What can you tell me about the Blood Curse of the Ebony Blade?"
"That's a family tragedy," Roma exhaled in disgust. "Another one of my father's incomplete schemes. There's an entire section of our library devoted to it. I can assign you a librarian and some researchers to guide you through it. Anything else?"
"Yes," Immortus inhaled cautiously. "I have an interest in where the forces of the spiritual and mystic powers have come into conflict with the designs of the Celestials themselves. Even from Limbo I have been unable to discern the Celestials motives, and even with the assistance of Apocryphus, my investigations have provided little result. The Celestials walk from reality to reality, with no true pattern to their actions. I cannot even determine if they have analogues or merely emit duplicates of themselves."
"And finally, you would like the moon on a stick?"
Immortus grinned, and shrugged. "You see why I am forced to ask. You spoke of perspectives? I was hoping that you would be able to complement my data with your insight."
"Even my father failed to understand the Celestials," Roma explained. "But I can authorise our scholars to advise you. I am only grateful that Otherworld has never come into conflict with the Space Gods, but I can tell you what I do know. Come; let's take some tea. Then I must be away, Six will be needing my guidance."
*The Dock, MuirIslandAV, Scotland*
Forge wandered back to the privacy of his laboratory. Meggan had retired to her and Brian's suite with a great deal on her mind, while Mikhail had taken to wandering around the grounds, looking for maintenance tasks to do. The Russian had mentioned something about securing some loose fencing along the cliff path.
Meggan was not the only one who was troubled. Whitman's revelations regarding the so-called Lord Of Time made him wonder just what game Roma was playing. Rachel had told Forge of some of the Goddess' manipulations; and even Brian, who was devoted to Roma, could not deny how he had fallen prey to her plots. To read the Avengers reports that Dane had kindly forwarded to him, Immortus was even more the schemer.
The episode nicknamed the Destiny War held the greatest revelations of the scope of Immortus' interference with the Avengers, and consequently it was claimed, the destiny of humanity itself. Immortus was responsible for draining Thor's hammer Mjolnir of its time travel capabilities. He was responsible for creating the Vision from the body of the original Human Torch, placing a limiting factor on the lives of the Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man and more importantly their children. Responsible for twisting Iron Man's mind and driving him to murder while the Avengers were assaulted on all sides by Immortus' forces, just enough to keep them off-balance so that when the Onslaught creature was born, they were as blindsided as were the X-Men.
Of course, that was when Immortus was allegedly under the influence of the Time Keepers. Yet when the Avengers had been assaulted by Space Phantom duplicates of Kang and his Anachronauts just prior to the Onslaught, who was to say that the Kang that the Avengers encountered in the Destiny War was the real one. Or one of the real ones, at least. It was definitely the real Supreme Intelligence, it was as a consequence of the Destiny War that the Intelligence mutated the Kree into the Ruul, when they engineered Earth being trapped behind a barrier and used as the galaxy's prison planet. But was this Libra of the Destiny War any more real than this Moonraker individual? Were the Time Keepers the real beings, Space Phantom duplicates of real beings or just complete fictions?
(For further details of these events, see Marvel’s own Avengers The Crossing and Avengers Forever.)
Exasperated, Forge threw his tablet down on the table. This was too much, he simply did not have the capability to analyse all of this. He may both scientist and shaman, but he was primarily an inventor, and a soldier second. Such an in depth analysis of events and motives where there appeared to be no baseline standards, that was not science, that was advanced detective work, psychology, chronal mechanics and spirit-only-knows how many other disciplines rolled into one. His brain was simply not equipped to process all of that. His first stumbling block was psychology. People had never been his strong point.
Of course! He clicked his fingers as inspiration struck. His brain couldn't hope to process it! That was exactly the answer.
His brain couldn't, but he had an idea whose brain could!
He leapt to his secure terminal, and quickly scanned his contacts, looking for the address of a particular proxy server. Connecting, he placed a request for VOIP, ensuring that his encryption was synced in a specific fashion with the server, which should declare his identity to the woman on the other end, if she was online. She was always online, in one fashion or another.
A silky voice burst out from his speakers, and he hurriedly turned down the volume. "What can I do for you, Forge?"
"Good to hear you, Sage," Forge greeted the one woman he knew that could not only keep up with his technical knowledge, but could easily surpass him, if she turned her mind to it. "I take it you survived your journey to Genosha then?"
For details of Sage's mission in Genosha, see Altered Vision's own X-Terminators series.
"Was there ever any doubt?" As ever, Sage exuded a quiet confidence. "Still, I could do with a break from Genoshan politics for a while. I'd sooner have something challenge my brain rather than my trigger finger. What have you got for me?"
"Well, I've always thought your brain was your most attractive feature," Forge sounded like he was jesting, but it was a true compliment, and there was little chance that fact escaped Sage. Flattery will get you everywhere, he thought to himself. "I can't promise you an end to politics, but on a far greater scale than our traditional domestic disputes. How would you like to come work for Excalibur?"
"A greater scale," Sage mused, sounding interested. "Don't tell me it's another clash of intergalactic empires with Earth caught in the middle again, like last time?"
"Nothing so trivial," Forge laughed. Oh, if only she knew! "You know how the X-Men tend to play with alternate realities? Well, currently Excalibur is on the cutting edge of that, and we could use your insight, and skills to co-ordinate multiple projects. It seems like our remit is about to get drastically broadened. Oh, and I can sweeten the deal with a healthy dose of time-travel and the potential of doppelganger infiltration agents working to an unknown agenda: possibly beneficent, possibly malign, possibly non-existent."
"You're making this up!" Sage laughed. Known for her businesslike attitude, Forge was pleased to hear she felt so relaxed around him. Maybe he had caught her on a good day. "Either that, or you're spoiling me. It sounds quite the challenge. When do I sign up?"
"I'll transmit the tickets to you within the next hour. When do you want to get here?"
"There's only so much beach and sun I can stand, how about tomorrow?"
"Great!" Forge slid his chair over to a second terminal, and brought up an airline schedule site. Sage's location tag placed her in Rio; that would be a long flight. As realisation dawned, he slapped his forehead. Rio had a time difference of minus three hours to GMT; increase that by an hour to adjust for British Summer Time...
If Mikhail picked her up at 14:00 local, that would be 10:00 in Brazil, quite a respectable hour. "I'll send someone to pick you up ten o'clock your time. That gives you a chance to pack and have a last night out. Don't worry about travelling light, Mikhail can teleport a large load, so bring whatever you think you may need."
"Rasputin?" Sage asked. "The Gene Nation guy?"
"Not directly," Forge replied, wondering if he should go with the Russian. "Not anymore at least, but yes, Rasputin. Want me to tag along?"
"No," Sage said after a moment's thought. "Ten o'clock is fine. Sage out."
'Hmmph' Forge grunted as the connection was terminated. She never even asked about the money.
Sliding back to his secure terminal, the inventor dialled the Baxter Building. He hoped to discuss with Reed Richards the various methods of scanning alternate realities, so that Excalibur did not have to exclusively rely on Otherworld technology. An awareness of chronal mechanics wouldn't harm either. Cable was as ever unreachable, and this side of Doctor Doom, Reed was the world's foremost expert.
The sky was already crimson when Immortus arrived. Clouds of dust billowed up into the air as he walked, disturbed by his passage. It was incredible that the Lord of Limbo could be late, but the truth of it was that the right time to intercede was once the greatest damage had been done.
The air was thick with dust and carried a bitter taste. It was the familiar taste of burning bodies, the acrid smell produced when human beings were reduced to their component molecules and scattered on the winds. Already five U.S. cities had met such a fate, as an Eternal tormented by forces even beyond her comprehension lashed out.
Immortus feared that this entire mess might have been his own fault, yet another casualty left strewn on the roadside while under service to the Time Keepers. In an effort to forestall the Avengers departing into space, he had engineered Tony Stark's banishment from this era, replacing him with his descendant Arnold Stark from the year 2020, an alternate future of this world that by now had been amputated by the course of events.
Thus the Avengers never ventured into space to slay the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree at the culmination of the Kree/Shi-Ar War, having successfully defended their planet without leaving the Solar System. This world continued to be plagued by both Kree and Shi-Ar agents and the Avengers were forced to become ever more ruthless in their defence of it. As the Eternal Sersi and the Dane Whitman of this world, here known as Proctor, continued to draw closer and eventually form the bond of Gann Josin, a telepathic bond between a human and an Eternal that was akin to a marriage, Whitman was forced to draw greater quantities of blood with his cursed blade, from Kree soldier to Imperial Guardsman. He became driven by the sword's bloodlust, and soon turned his blade against humans. Hydra troopers and A.I.M. scientist alike fell before his fury.
Sersi was already unbalanced, having previously entered into the psionic communion known as the Uni-Mind with another alien race manipulated by the Celestial known as the Brethren. Where the Earth-bound Eternals were evolved from humans, the Brethren were little more than humanoid engineered bacteria. An act of mercy on Sersi's part led to unexpected consequences, corrupted the psionic lattice that held her body and mind together. Scared, Sersi rejected Whitman, but was unable to sever the Josin bond, and so fell also victim to the Blood Curse of the Ebony Blade.
Seen in Marvel's Avengers:The Collection Obsession
Known to the Eternals as the Mah'd Wyr'y, the madness that consumed Sersi was an ancestral curse. It was seen by the healthy Eternals as the victims disconnecting themselves from the collective consciousness that all the immortal guardians of the Celestials shared. But this was not entirely accurate. What actually took place is that those connections with the communal mind were skewed, knocked off balance so that any contact with the consciousness was actually painful. Traces of the Brethren's matrix polluted Sersi's channels, and the Blood Curse amplified the pain that ensued. Her family became toxic to her, only the Gann Josin could salve her pain.
Yet the Gann Josin was also a cause of the pain, and to protect him and save herself, Sersi had to push him away.
Her fellow Eternals tried to help her, but in her insanity she destroyed them, and then destroyed the city of the Eternals, Olympia, itself; including the Reactivation Chamber that would traditionally rebuild any of the Eternals should their atoms be dispersed on the winds.
This did not serve to relieve her pain. There was still a pressure upon her sensitised mind, signals that continued to grate like sandpaper rubbed across her inner eyes. It seemed that despite wishes to the contrary, the Deviants were as much a part of the gestalt as her kin had been, although at a more unconscious (and therefore more unrefined) level. Even the scurrying Moloids could be felt skittering across the floors of their subterranean caverns.
Only once this planet had no sentient life upon it, did Sersi believe she could truly rest. Yet a part of her was unwilling to confront her Gann Josin directly, though drawn to him like a moth to a candle. She headed to the East Coast of America, and slowly worked her way North, reducing city after city to dust before she finally reached New Amsterdam.
Hence where Immortus stood at this moment. It was indeed a tragic story, and the Lord of Time feared the blood was on his hands. Somewhere, the presence of Tony Stark on other worlds had led to a less drastic turn of evens.
Still, out of every tragedy lay the seeds of a greater future, and Immortus was about to do one task that he was beginning to view as a pleasure. He was about to create a whole new world, and hopefully make some atonement for past mistakes.
Stepping between moments to disguise his passage, Immortus walked into the centre of New Amsterdam, his eyes taking in every detail, before coming to rest in front of Avengers Mansion. Five members of the Avengers remained standing as Sersi hovered in the air before them, her eyes on fire with both rage and the cosmic energy that was her birthright. Had Immortus stepped between the instants of time any later, the beam that she had unleashed would have incinerated the five, three of whom Immortus considered to be some of the weaker members of the team, in body if not in spirit. There was no Hulk of any colour, no Asgardian warrior nor Titanian god. Neither Sorcerer Supreme nor a manipulator of probabilities.
There was simply a man with a shield, a Russian spy and a man in an anachronistic exo-suit that in the face of the power of Sersi, may as well have been made from tissue paper.
The Avenger's main strength lay in the two individuals that interposed themselves between the Eternal and her former teammates. The first was her Gann Josin, Proctor, his face twisted in an expression of rage and deep emotional pain, as the Blood Curse pulled him in two different directions at once. The sword demanded Sersi's blood for the transgressions she had heaped upon the once noble knight, revenge for the rejection and humiliation he had suffered at her fickle whims. Yet the Blood Curse knew that Sersi was a tool with which it could wipe the planet clean of life, every death she caused funnelled another soul into the blade and it was humming with power.
Paralysed both by his love and his anger, Dane Whitman was effectively impotent.
The only being who could hope to withstand the Eternal's onslaught was the Inhuman princess, Crystal. Immortus could see how she had gathered elemental forces around her, poised to strike as the earth strained under her command, rising up to engulf Sersi while at the same time, clouds gathered above, pregnant with electrical potential.
From the debris suspended in the air in this frozen millisecond, the Lord Of Time knew the Eternal was buffeted by winds of enormous strength. It would avail little however; the Inhuman would be incinerated where she stood before any of these forces could come into play.
Whereas the Princess wielded the powers of the Earth, the Space Gods themselves had crafted the Eternals. They were the step between man and star, and the powers of the cosmos were at their command.
Cautiously stepping into the flow of events, Immortus took a breath and reversed the chronal energies that he had wrapped around himself, and thrust them as a net around the legendary 'enchantress'. Whereas he had walked ignorant of the passage of time in the confines of a frozen moment, now he enveloped Sersi in a solidified sphere of time. The rest of the world would continue turning, but not for this former Avenger. Not for the moment at least.
Crystal gasped as she saw the destructive eyebeams had been heading her way, now twin pillars of solid light suspended in the air, and hurriedly removed herself from their path. "I never dreamt that she would actually...Oh Dane! What have you and that damn sword done to her?"
"What have I done?" Proctor whirled around and raised his sword as if to strike Crystal, but Captain America leapt forward and placed his shield to block its path. "She was the one who abandoned me, abandoned us, and then went on a killing spree!"
Immortus raised his eyebrow when the Captain's shield was successful in deflecting the Ebony Blade. He was not aware that the shield possessed any mystical qualities, which would be the only thing that could hinder the sword's passage; but then he realised there was a great value in even the simplest of symbolisms such as this.
"Stand down, Dane!" Captain America barked, staring the knight in the yes. Once Proctor regained some semblance of self-control, only then did the Sentinel of Liberty spare Immortus a glance. "Immortus. Thank you for saving Crystal. What are you doing here? Is this whole thing another of your schemes?"
"Would that it were so, my good Captain," Immortus replied with a hint of sorrow. "I am here to prevent a great tragedy. I fear you will find me a much-changed man since we last met."
As the Captain lowered his shield, Immortus nodded approvingly. This incarnation of Whitman still retained enough self-control to quell his rage, at least for the minute, and that minute was all that the Lord of Time required. Immortus smiled inwardly, knowing that at this moment, a new Earth had been born. Earth-203374 rose out of the ashes of the dead Earth-374.
And if Immortus steered this right, then this would create new life across the multiverse, creating a domino effect where numerous worlds formally wiped clean of life would spring back into new vitality.
First things first however. Although the irony was inescapable, that once again the Lord Of Limbo was trapped within the sequence of events. It was a strange feeling.
"Whitman, if we are to save your world, I will need your assistance," Immortus instructed the Avenger. "I may be able to undo the damage created by Sersi's linking with the Brethren, but I cannot undo the effect of your cursed blade, and I require your abilities as a Gann Josin to achieve the former. It is most delicate surgery to perform, and I cannot alone attain the correct perspective from which to operate."
"The 'master of time' cannot get the correct perspective?" The Black Widow asked sceptically, the abundance of 'r's in the sentence bringing her native accent to the fore.
"You mean initiate a Uni-Mind between you, me and her?" Proctor mulled the idea over. It was enticing, to be so close to his love again, but after she had betrayed him so, did he really want to? Would she welcome his intrusion? Or would he prefer her blood dripping down his sword...
Shaking his head, he dispelled such thoughts. If she had been affected by the curse, which was undeniable, then it was equally as likely that he had been affected by the Mah'd Wyr'y. Dane was not sure he could trust his perceptions over the last few months. Somewhere deep inside of him, there remained a strong love for the Eternal. And somewhere trapped in the madness that plagued her kind, was the woman he had fallen in love with.
"That is correct," replied Immortus.
"No!" Crystal exclaimed with anger. "Cap, you can't let this savage do this! You've seen what he has done to Sersi already. You are going to let him wander through what's left of Sersi's mind? He's a brute, driven by the appetite of that thing in his hand."
"That's rich coming from you," retorted Proctor. "Little Moon Princess who likes nothing better than to shack up with a mutant terrorist"
"That's enough, both of you," snapped Captain America. Hoping that sensible heads would prevail, he threw a glance at the Widow before turning to the man who had manipulated the Avengers almost since the day of their inception. "Can we all join the Uni-Mind? I don't like the idea of sending just Dane and you in there, given our history."
"History!" Immortus chuckled for a second. "I quite understand, but it is not possible. The pain the Uni-Mind will experience as I attempt to repair her auric systems will be more than a human could bear. Even an Inhuman, I'm afraid. If the surgery is successful, then we can ensure the Uni-Mind broadcasts what it experiences directly to you, but prior to that the shock would kill the four of you."
"I'm quite happy to stay out here," stated Iron Man as he struggled to join the group. His armor was obviously malfunctioning; it had taken quite a beating but the vicious cog design around his shoulders looked as lethal as ever. "I've seen a Uni-Mind before. Freaky thing."
"Indeed." Immortus stepped towards the Eternal suspended in both air and time. "If you will excuse the pun, time is of the essence. Even now I can feel she is trying to free herself. It is only a matter of minutes for us before she does so."
Captain America thought for a moment, the remaining Avengers hanging on his decision. Natasha knew that Steve would be 'listening to his gut' as he always did when the situation was too technical for him to fully comprehend. But she trusted him; Steve's gut had rarely led them wrong.
To the four Avengers left as bystanders, it was as if Immortus and Proctor simply vanished. Sersi was engulfed in a pulsating nimbus of glowing energy which expanded, and coalesced to the form of the fabled Uni-Mind, brain like issue formed in vertical ridges that terminated at the allusion to a protruding brow.
Beneath the brow, two eyes opened from within the stem, also covered in vertical ridges. The four Avengers each took at step back involuntarily, as the eyes began to glow with an expression that they could only describe as malice.
Dark flames flicked in the creation's eyes.
"That isn't good," said Arnold Stark unnecessarily. Suddenly the protection of his futuristic armour felt more like a hindrance. He wanted to run, but his boot jets were still in self-repair mode. He didn't fancy his chances running on foot.
"I knew this was a mistake," cursed Crystal. "So what happens now?"
The question hung in the air, only to be drowned out by the crackle of the rising Uni-Mind.
Excalibur do not have any time to mourn Brian's passing as they attempt to evacuate an Attilan under attack by the remaining forces of the Vampire Nations. And the Infected cannot be far behind. Immortus has made the first move in his great plan, while Roma's remains shrouded in secrecy, but can either bode well for our team?
Meanwhile, the Mutant Research Centre receives an unexpected visitor.
Well, I hope you have enjoyed my run on Excalibur so far. It fell to myself and Doug to complete the previous writer's story, which has served as a springboard for great changes to the Altered Visions multiverse. The story is spiralling on, and is plotted past the twenty-fifth issue, so I'm here for the duration, and would love your feedback.