The Emissary looked over the odd assortment of troops that stood before him. His massive frame shifted slightly as he looked over the rank and file. His posture indicated that he had no use for those who stood before him, yet use them he would. Autocrat had decreed it so.
The mutants, despite the fact that no two looked similar, let alone identical, all possessed a certain uniformity in the way they held themselves. None moved beyond the occasional uncontrollable twitch, each standing at rigid attention -- afraid to move. The broken remains of one of their own bore mute testimony as to the reward for not moving quickly enough to obey an order.
After a moment, the Emissary spoke.
"You already know what is expected of you in the coming battle. I have one additional requirement. Should anyone try to deter me from my goal, you are intercept them. I expect many opposing metahumans will try to attack at once. You are to cull the lesser members of that group and eliminate them. I will deal with those that remain."
He paused for a moment, letting his commands sink in, then turned and walked toward the portal...
Death On Two Legs
Zodiac swept ahead of what remained of Team Alpha, waves of power emanating from his alien body, crashing over the mutant horde that opposed them. The team had been beset by all manner of attacks; several of their members had fallen before even laying eyes on the Emissary -- on Avatar, their target.
Already weary from fighting, Knock-out was also in the vanguard, forcing her way through the Royal's army by brute force. The young meta had seen Mechani-gal, the robotic woman she'd met at the Council, smashed to pieces. She'd watched as Stretchin' Gretchen had been horribly over-extended and felled by a pair of mutant giants, and as the recently pardoned villain Barricuda had been knocked out of the fight by a white-hot energy blast that had left him clinging to life. Fully a half-dozen other meta-humans hadn't made it, and there was one man, a man very important to Knock-out, who's fate was uncertain.
Maestro -- Alex St. John-Smythe.
Recently, Sarah and Alex had become intimate -- powerfully so. There was a bond between them, a connection that somehow extended beyond the physcial, beyond even the emotional. When Sarah had seen her friend swept away in the tide of battle, her heart had nearly stopped, but a call for assistance to hold the line from Zodiac meant that she hadn't been able to check on how Alex was faring. Now, with the Emissary in sight, the core of Team Alpha pressed onward, intent on engaging the most potent enemy on the field. Yet still -- somewhere, somehow, Sarah knew Alex was holding his own.
Surveying the war raging before him, the Emissary hung motionless in the air, his dark eyes peering from behind his ornate helm, glowing softly and dangerously. As his foes fought their way to him, he felt his blood rise. Victory was within reach -- the Elite would win this day, and Autocrat's will would finally be done. The time was nigh.
Speading his arms wide, the Emissary loosed a shout across the battlefield that split the air and shook the ground for miles around. Instantly, the mutant armies understood, falling back and regrouping behind the Emissary's impressive physique as the echo of his voice faded away, rolling through distant hills like thunder.
"Avatar," Zodiac called out, leading the twenty-plus remaining metas making up Team Alpha forward. "You time at Autocrat's knee is past. Remember your station; recall your position in mythology, in history. Yours is not to punish the innocent, but rather to protect them." The two remaining psionicists on the team -- Mezmera and Psi-chic -- focused all of their considerable mental energy on the Emissary, desperately trying to break whatever hold the Elite had over him. "Remember!" Zodiac shouted, his voice more passionate that anyone would have imagined possible.
The Emissary smiled. Lifting his palms towards the alien and his companions, he spoke in low tones as he prepared to unleash the full fury of his divine power. "That age is gone, as motes in the wind, old friend. Autocrat's righteous rule is at hand. Hail Autocrat -- Lord of the New Order!"
An instant after the Emissary's declaration, power surged through his body, power primal and utterly devastating. His opponents disappeared, engulfed by ripping winds, searing energies and stone-shattering concussive force. When the ancient warrior ceased his attack, no one was left standing. The air crackled and sparked as arcs of remnant energy played across the ground and through the air. When several members of Team Alpha stirred, the helmeted godling frowned.
"Your attack has failed; your armies are even now losing ground, losing faith. Surrender is your only option. That, or death."
Paragon, long-time teammate of the personified Babylonian diety, was first to gather himself, nanites scuttling and scrambling to repair the damage caused by the Emissary's initial onslaught. His arms transformed into massive cannons as he spoke. "Avatar, we know you are not yourself. We also know that you must be stopped." Twin beams of dazzling light lanced out across the Irish landscape, striking the mind-controlled hero full in the chest, piercing his breastplate and even his flesh.
Zodiac rose into the air as Paragon poured it on, his multi-spectral lasers burning into his teammate -- who hung defiantly in the air, apparently uninjured, and, more impressively, unconcerned. With the loss of the last two mentalists on the team, the de facto leader of the Protectorate knew all hope of turning Avatar back to their side was lost; instead he joined the attack, adding his own cosmic barrage to that of Paragon's. Soon colorful, surreal explosions rocked the countryside, bathing the scene in vibrant hues unfamiliar to human eyes.
Mike Musselman, one of the lenses in his small-framed eyeglasses shattered, helped Knock-out get to her feet as the three metas warred. "Looks like this is getting serious," he commented matter-of-factly.
Knock-out shielded her eyes from the blinding battle, looking away as she answered the huge man at her side. "What can we do?" she half-shouted to be heard over the din.
Musselman was about to answer when Zodiac's broken, unconscious body landed nearby in a heap. The alien, normally so aloof, so otherworldly and noble, Sarah thought, now seemed so very vulnerable -- fragile, even. Something about such a powerful being laying on the ground at her feet seemed... wrong, somehow.
The girl's momentary reflection, such as it was, was shattered when a shockwave rang in her ears and knocked her back to the ground. The Emissary had struck a monumental blow against Paragon, punching completely through the android's chest. Dangling from the man's arm, Paragon twitched and shook, dropping hundreds of inert nanites down onto the ground beneath him like ash from a cinder.
"Oh my God," Knock-out breathed. If Zodiac and Paragon couldn't bring down Avatar, what possible chance could she have?
"Hey," a familiar voice sounded beside Sarah. Turning, she saw Blur, the hyper-speedster from the west coast she'd been working on a movie with, come into focus.
"Blur, you're alive! I didn't know if you'd survived that first blast!"
"I know -- this is one seriously cranky dude. Looks like it's up to us to take him down, too. Bummer!"
Sarah was about to agree when the Emissary discarded Paragon's broken form and glided towards the ground. When his sandaled feet touched down, he turned towards the teen-aged girls. "Do you oppose me?" he asked, his voice hollow and brimming with power.
Wind whistled across the battlefield as the two teens struggled for an answer. "Uh... yeah, we do," Knock-out finally managed. Lowering her voice to a whisper, to her friend she added, "we so need a plan..."
Mike Musselman brushed himself off and joined the girls as if on cue. "I've got one, Sarah. Listen closely..."
From the moment they arrived, the fighting was heavy.
Alex had collected and encoded a good supply of heavy metal tunes onto the chips for his mp3 player before they had left. He had started the music playing twenty minutes before Avatar had been spotted and was "fully charged" when they arrived on the field. The chaos that greeted them when they arrived was almost overwhelming.
As furious as the combat had been in New Orleans, it paled next to what he was experiencing now. The enemy he fought here took on a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some wielded high tech weapons, others had the weapons systems incorporated into their bodies. The only constant was that they were doing their best to kill everything that stood in their way.
Almost as soon as they had arrived, parts of Team Alpha were scattered, like leaves in a storm. Before he had realized what had happened, he had lost track of Sarah and his anxieties blossomed into fear -- fear that he might not see her again.
But almost as quickly as it had flared up, the fear subsided. Somehow, he could still feel that Sarah was alive. Even so, he still tried to spot her on the field. The moment he spent trying to locate her was enough for a brutish-looking mutant to slam into Alex, knocking him to the ground. Alex rolled to his feet and spun around with a kick that sent the creature flying a good ten meters away. He only had time to vaguely notice that he seemed to have taken on a silvery, metallic sheen before he was assaulted again.
There were others on the battlefield where he had ended up but they had either succumbed to the brutal attacks thrown at them or had been swept away in the tide of battle. One, called Prometheus -- a meta with an uncanny ability to avoid attacks -- laid silently on the ground, his staff broken, bluish blood flowing from multiple cuts.
Some distance away was an armored figure called Battlemaster, attacking anything that moved in a berserk frenzy. He lashed out with weapons evidently made of some kind of dark energy, even as he shouted in some forgotten tongue. Despite the fury of his attacks and the damage they had caused, it was apparent that he, too, would not remain standing for long.
Alex fought on, trying his best to inflict damage on the enemy while keeping himself whole. His latest musically generated abilities seemed to include greatly augmented strength and density, something that no doubt saved him from the brunt of several direct hits. All the while, he tried to locate Avatar. He thought he'd caught a glimpse of Sarah, her red costume standing out from the muted grays and browns of the field. Before he could confirm this, his line of sight was blocked by a Neo-Fomori, a hulking brute, easily ten or twelve feet tall, wielding what looked, literally, like a cannon-sized firearm.
Alex tried to use all of the knowledge of strategy he had pick up while training at the Ministry but ended up over-analyzing the situation. He found himself hesitating and second guessing his intended actions. His hesitation allowed the brute in front of him to bring his weapon to bear and fire. A beam of energy slammed into Alex, the impact knocking him back and leaving deep furrows where his feet had been in contact with the ground.
Alex shook his head to clear it and rolled out of the way just in time to avoid another blast, the energy scorching the ground he had just occupied. Regaining his feet, Alex let go of his attempts to analyze the fight and just went with the music sounding in his ears. Picking up the rhythm, Alex landed three hard blows in succession. This staggered the massive mutant so much it didn't even see the kick aimed for its head until it was too late.
Knock-out's stomach was in knots. She'd fought tough opponents before -- Mastodon and Hack, especially, but this was likely the singlemost powerful metahuman on the planet, by an order of magnitude. She had no business even talking to him, let along fighting him. Still, Mike's plan was better than nothing, and the fact was that they were all that remained of the force sent to subdue the Emissary.
Musselman himself, deceptively strong despite his size, grappled with their foe, straining as he tried to apply some kind of wrestling hold. The two men struggled mightily, muscles bulging and straining as each fought for position. Expertly executing a quick reversal, Musselman shouted his signal.
"Ready?" Blur asked, already accelerating Knock-out forward.
"Y-yeah," Sarah answered, tears forming in her eyes as Blur picked up speed. Shifting and extending her titanium-belted fists, the blonde bombshell squeezed her eyes shut and prepared for impact as the world began to race by at a rate she couldn't hope to comprehend. Propelled by Blur's hyper-speed, the plan was for Knock-out to slam into the Emissary like a missile. Faster than the eye could follow, the two girls sped straight and true towards their target's exposed mid-section.
Then the Emissary moved with sudden and impossible speed, shifting a very surprised Mike Musselman into harm's way. Knock-out struck like a runaway freight train, hitting Musselman full in the back with both clenched fists. As Blur wound around, having just released her friend, Sarah and the man she'd hit tumbled hundreds of meters across the ground, leaving the Emissary far behind.
The mutant hordes howled in glee at the turn of events, cheering wildly as Autocrat's prime soldier turned his attention towards the elusive, speeding teen. With a gesture, the Emissary sundered the ground beneath of the girl, raising tooth-like formations of jagged stone in her path. Blur was able to outrun the eruptions that snaked along behind her for several seconds, but the exploding ground eventually caught her, swallowing and burying her in a cascade of earth and rock.
When Knock-out and Mike Musselman finally rolled to a stop, the young heroine shakily got to her feet and staggered over to the unconscious mogul, hoping to God that he was still breathing. He was, but it was labored. His super-dense, tough flesh had saved him from the terrible blow, but the awful bruises on his body -- his shirt had been torn off in the resulting tumble - and blood leaking from his mouth were sure signs of internal injuries. Kneeling, Sarah took a moment to make him comfortable, whispering, "Mike, hang on - you're going to make it," in his ear as she gently removed the remains of his twisted glasses from his face. When the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, the heroine suddenly realized how quiet it had become. Standing, she swallowed her fear and turned around.
Silently, the Emissary approached, his feet hanging a foot off the ground as some unseen force propelled his stationary form forward. Behind him, his eerie army followed, anxious to watch their champion grind the last of his enemies to dust.
"Avatar," Knock-out managed without a flutter in her voice.
The huge Babylonian stopped not ten feet distant from the young woman. "No. I am the Emissary -- the Emissary of the Royal Elite, rightful heirs of the Earth. Your time is up, young one."
Her chest heaving in anticipation of a battle she knew she had no hope of winning, Knock-out's face hardened as she raised her metal-banded fists. "Let's do it," she growled, launching herself at the one-time hero.
"Let's," the Emissary returned, casually catching the girl's flying fist in his hand before it struck him on the side of the head. A split second later, he'd seized the heroine around the throat and lifted her from the ground. Her attack thwarted and her airflow cut off, Sarah struggled mightily, gasping and choking against the villain's grasp.
Balling his free hand, the Emissary drove his fist into the girl's ribs while holding her fast about the neck. Knock-out's remaining air blew out of her lungs when the blow - a blow harder than any single blow she'd ever received -- landed. Another blow to the girl's side followed, then another, and another. When the Emissary released his grip about her throat, Knock-out dropped heavily to the ground, red-faced, bruised and coughing blood.
Her vision blurred, Sarah stood up and tried to focus on her opponent. She didn't even see the Emissary's next punch, which landed with crushing force on her left cheek. Her body flipped through the air like a rag dog, end over end before plowing into a throng of the ecstatic mutants. As Knock-out got up again, the army parted to make way for the approach of the Elite's super-warrior.
The Emissary's voice was grave as he spoke. "You are strong; willful. But, ultimately, you are doomed. Your death shall be a metaphor for the passing of humanity..."
Gritting her teeth, Knock-out lashed out in reply, trying to land a blow before the man who was once Earth's greatest protector resumed his assault. The Emissary blocked her desperate blow, then delivered a crushing back-hand that send the girl flying.
Again and again they danced the violent ballet, with Knock-out on the receiving end of the brutality each time. After long minutes of punishment that had even some of the demonic armies turning away, the Emissary finally decided to end it. Sarah had gotten back to her feet once more, but she didn't even know where she was or why it was so important that she not give up. Bruises and welts covered her face and torso, she had several broken bones, and blood fairly poured from her split cheek, swollen mouth and thrice-broken nose.
The Emissary approached, divine, unstoppable. When he reached the battered young woman he stopped and raised one hand, which began to glow. "It's time...," he bellowed.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
As the massive form of the neo-fomori hit the ground, he quickly examined the spot where the blast had struck him. The ruined remains of the mp3 player dangled from a tear in the costume. When he realized this, three things happened in rapid succession:
First -- Alex began to panic.
I am so bloody screwed! Without the music...
Second -- He realized that his abilities had not vanished with the music... had not even begun to fade!
Third -- He still heard music, only it was different than before. Instead of guitars, bass and drums, it was... something else. A Song. While the actual notes were different, the Song carried the essence of the music to which he had been listening, as if distilling it somehow, making it pure.
Alex dropped the twisted components of the mp3 player to the ground and began to actively pursue mutants, moving in the general direction he had thought he'd seen Sarah. He continued to move with the music -- the Song of Combat - and found himself doing far better. It seemed that the Song not only included his own needs and the general situation but also incorporated the rhythms and movements of whoever he was fighting. Moving with the Song, he was able to better judge his opponent's intent and adjust his own actions accordingly.
Alex discovered that he was being hit far less and landing more devastating blows. Also, as the situation changed, he was able to instinctively change from hand-to-hand combat to ranged combat, throwing bolts of energy at will to pick off targets that were too far away to punch. The experience placed him on the verge of intoxication.
Then everything seemed to shift into slow motion.
Almost as if a hand had reached down and parted the mass of combatants, the ground cleared around Alex. He looked up and saw that it was indeed Sarah who he had caught a glimpse of earlier, standing about 20 meters away. But something was terribly wrong. There were massive bruises forming on the left side of her face, and blood was running freely from her nose and mouth. She was standing on wobbly legs, trying to assume a defensive stance against... Avatar!
The Babylonian was throwing another punch at Sarah, even as Alex began to move toward them. The blow landed, catching Sarah on the other side of her face and knocking her even farther away. Avatar was already moving toward her before she had hit the ground. Something inside Alex snapped.
Before he could take two steps, the tide of combat swept in again and Alex found himself once more in the thick of the fighting. Desperately, he began moving toward where he'd seen Sarah land, even as he saw the Avatar's helmeted head moving to the same location.
Flinging adversaries left and right, vaulting over one, kicking and trampling another, he made his way, cursing his lack of speed and fearing he'd be too late. Again the tide of battle fell away, only this time, it was a sense of self preservation that caused the enemy units to get out of his way. As the sea of combatants parted, the scene before Alex caused his heart to skip a beat.
Avatar, standing rigidly, looking down at Sarah as she struggled to stand, had begun to glow -- enough to make those in the immediate area very nervous. As Alex fought against those who barred his way, he noticed the glow form around Avatar like a mantle, taking on the shape of a warrior from ancient times. More of the light coalesced into the shape of a jagged, crackling large spear. It's point was aimed directly at Sarah.
The Babylonian slowly raised the spear, the intensity of it's glow increasing.
Alex intensified his own efforts to reach her, the Song in his ears changing to match his intent. Those few that still stood before him saw the look on his face and fell to the ground hoping to escape his notice. Avatar, the spear having reached its zenith, shouted something in a language he had never heard and began to thrust down with the weapon.
The Song of Deliverance sounded loudly in his ears and Alex's speed increased dramatically. As Avatar's spear descended, Alex rushed in and pushed Sarah out of the way, enveloping her in a cocoon-like field to soften her landing. Alex was relieved to see Sarah land safely out of harm's way, even as the tip of Avatar's spear erupted from his chest, a brightly blazing shaft, smelling of ozone and burnt flesh...
Through Avatar's eyes, Harbinger saw the spear bury itself in Maestro's body and winced in spite of himself. He could almost feel the pain that Avatar had just inflicted.
However, he also felt somewhat relieved that Avatar had dispatched the musician. During the few short days he had spent with Alex, he had gained some insight of the kind of power the young Englishman could bring to bear. He took some comfort in the fact that Alex would no longer be coming after him.
Avatar, on the other hand, was proving more difficult to control. From the reaction of the Mindscape, it seemed that the realization of what had just happened seeped into the Babylonian's subconscious. The Mindscape roiled and twisted as the demigod's resistance was bolstered. Avatar was breaking free.
Harbinger was faced with the choice of struggling to maintain control of Avatar, and possibly failing, or moving to secure Abattoir's entrance to the Keep. The choice was a simple one. Harbinger released the now tenuous hold he had over Avatar, severing the tendrils of thought that connected them.
He refocused his concentration on Abattoir...
From where she'd landed on her back, Knock-out watched in horror as Alex convulsed and shook, Avatar's mighty weapon pinning him to the ground through the thickest part of his body. Avatar's arm trembled as well, the look on his face behind his helmet growing grave.
It struck the girl that there was something otherworldly about the scene, something unreal. Beyond the haze of her grievous injuries, beyond the shock of seeing her friend and lover appear from nowhere only to be struck down by her invincible foe, something permeated the air, the very space between seconds.
Where the din of battle had just thundered, an eerie silence now swept over the blackened landscape. The sky seemed a different color, and everything before Sarah's eyes shifted slightly out of focus, like she was somehow watching her own distant memories.
Placing his foot on Maestro's back, Avatar narrowed his eyes and twisted the spear, ending his victim's suffering with violent certainty.
As Alex went limp, a single note rang out, louder than human ears could withstand. The wave of sound that spread out from Alex's body was almost visible. The armies of the elite were knocked forcefully to the ground, struck by a sonic force powerful enough to bring even Avatar to his knees. Amazingly, it had little effect on the allied units that still remained. Knock-out could feel the sound more than she could hear it, and though it lasted but an instant, it was an experience the young heroine would never forget.
When it was over, a gentle wind blew in from the sea, tentative, almost reluctant to tread where the momentous aural event had resounded moments before. Creatures here and there stirred, and Avatar slowly got to his sandaled feet, his eyes fixed on the corpse in front of him.
"What have I done?" he whispered, his huge shoulders sagging. He didn't see Knock-out get up, didn't see her approach, and didn't see the look on her face -- one of abject rage.
"BASTARD!" the bloodied woman screamed, slamming her fist into the side of Avatar's helmeted head. When he landed, the Babylonian god's ears were ringing. Peeling off his half-crushed helm as he rose, he cast it aside and turned to face the blonde metahuman who was charging at him.
"BASTARD!" Knock-out repeated, driving her shoulder straight into Avatar's midsection, carrying him off of his feet. The pair impacted against an ancient outcropping of rock with enough force to explode the grey stone in all directions, blasting a good portion of it into powder.
When the air finally cleared, Knock-out straddled her downed opponent and punched him hard in the face with her mailed fist. Fine, chalky dust clinging to her blood and sweat-soaked physique, the woman looked like a marble statue come to life as she began delivering blow after pulverizing blow to Avatar's face. She punched with all her might, then thought of Alex's lifeless body behind her, and punched harder still. "Damned bastard!" she sobbed, her voice cracking and quivering.
Long, brutal minutes later, Knock-out toppled from her perch atop the massive, unconscious hero, exhausted and overwhelmed by everything that had happened. Her right hand throbbed, broken on Avatar's impervious skin shortly after she'd beaten the titanium bands off of her knuckles. Her other injuries were many, but the deepest pain was in the girl's heart. "Alex..." she whispered hoarsely, stumbling over to her fallen companion as tears struck down her dusty cheeks.
Sarah reached the spot where Alex's broken body lay on the ground and half collapsed at his side. She reached out and gently rolled Alex onto his back, almost as if she were afraid to wake him yet desperately wishing she could. Ignoring the massive chest wound, Sarah cradled Alex's limp form in her trembling arms, trying to hold back the sobs.
"Why did you have to do that, Alex?" she asked, half hoping that he'd answer with some witty remark.
Brushing the hair from his face, she looked at him. His face held an odd mixture of concern and relief that might have been comical in different circumstances. Now, in the lull of the battle, Sarah thought she could almost feel his presence, much as she had for the last few weeks.
She briefly allowed herself to see the extent of his wound but quickly returned to his face, the sight of the hole in his chest being too much to bear. Tears flowed freely down Sarah's face, more than a few landing on the face of the young Englishman.
"Oh, Alex..." she said again, shutting her eyes tight, unable to speak any more.
For years afterward, Sarah would wonder if what happened next had really happened at all.
She thought she heard Music. But it wasn't like any Music she'd ever heard before. It seemed familiar but when she tried to identify it, the thought danced away from her consciousness. Then, through her tears, she noticed Alex's body.
It had begun to glow. Or more specifically, it was surrounded by thousands of tiny lights, swirling and sparkling like stars in a night sky.
Alex's body began to rise, gently leaving the mesmerized girl's grasp, slowly drifting up, vertically orienting itself and coming to a stop fifteen feet into the air. The star-like lights began to run swiftly across Alex, moving in time to the Music that Sarah heard on the edge of her awareness. The sparkling motes darted in and out of the wound, running playfully through his hair, seeming to chase each other as they went. Even as she noted this, Sarah could see the terrible wound in his chest closing, as if the lights and the Music were re-weaving his body.
The wound closed quickly, and almost immediately afterwards, the lights seemed to dance with undisguised joy. His eyes opened then, and he slowly lifted his arms, holding them wide. The tiny flecks of light wove themselves together into a single shaft and shot into Alex, suffusing him in a bright glow that didn't quite seem to fade, even as he descended slowly to the ground.1
Alex appeared puzzled for a moment as he looked around. Then understanding came to him and he quickly looked around, searching. He stopped when his eyes fell on Sarah. Seeing the blood and bruises all over her, he moved quickly to stand next to her.
"Are you okay?" he asked, his voice filled with concern.
To Sarah, it seemed that Alex's voice had a slightly otherworldly quality, but she was too dumbstruck with his return to truly notice. Her head swimming, she softly returned, "Alex... you were dead. You were gone... you weren't breathing..."
"Shhh, it's all right now," said Alex as he drew her close. "Things are drawing to a close."
Alex looked about at the landscape, noting the unconscious mutants lying on the field next to the soldiers that had fought to free them. He saw Avatar lying unconscious on the field a short distance away, the man's armor battered and dented and wondered how it had happened. He felt an odd mix of anger, pity, and apathy. The last feeling was the most curious, but somehow it did not feel out of place.
Finally, he looked back at Sarah. He could see, written in the Music of the Battle That Was, that she had been the one to strike down Avatar.
"You did this?" he stated more than asked as he looked in her eyes.
Sarah nodded, still not seeming to comprehend what was happening.
Alex could somehow feel the damage she had sustained in the fight, as though they were sour notes in a melody. Feeling the Song swell within him, he bent down and kissed her.
For the second time that day, a single note rang out. But where the first one had been loud, even destructive in nature, this one was gentle, almost caressing -- an impossibly deep tone, almost like a distant church bell.
And the effect it had on those in the area was even more profound.
Another wave spread outward in a circle from where Sarah and Alex stood. Sarah suddenly felt her legs wobble as a feeling washed over her, a feeling that passed straight through her while managing to somehow touch every bit of her being. Bones mended, bleeding ceased and bruises faded even as the girl's fatigue and confusion were gently cleansed away. Suddenly lucid, Sarah looked down at her arms, watching as the dazzling lights played over her skin, finishing knitting the last of the torn muscle tissue, erasing the last blemish from her skin.
As the expanding wave touched the allied soldiers, their wounds disappeared in a similar fashion, their limbs restored or made whole. They came awake and slowly sat up, dazed expressions on their faces. For some, however, there was no change, their spirits having fled their mortal existence.
The mutants, who were created by and who served Autocrat, experienced the most profound transformation. As the wave stuck them, they were each surrounded by thousands of motes of light. Each mutant, from the hideously gargantuan to the gracefully winged, seemed to melt without losing their shape, the lights of miniature stars maintaining them. In the brief eternity that followed, mutants for miles around shed their strange and awful visages. Finally, the sparkling motes darted away, revealing the results. The mutants bore no sign that they had ever been anything other than what they were now -- Human.
Alex gazed out, appraising what he had done. A part of him was surprised, but another larger part regarded it differently, as though he was somehow restoring things to the way they should be. Alex briefly wondered what he had used as a basis for comparison.
Then Alex sensed something else, something that demanded his attention, though he could not say exactly what. Then suddenly, as though it were the next part of a familiar symphony, he knew.
"Sarah, I know this is happening very quickly, but there is something that I have to do. It has to do with the ones who attacked the Keep. I..." he said pausing, as he somehow confirmed what he felt, "They were successful, but they need help getting home. I can help them."
Her mind clear and her body strong and vital once again, Sarah straightened her shoulders and looked at the man before her. He'd changed, before her very eyes, and she suspected he'd never be the same again. The thought frightened her, but it also thrilled her. Something incredible had happened to Alex, and in a way the girl knew that it was... right. "Go, Alex," she said, her voice steady. "Go and help them. Let's be done with this."
"Please be careful. Not all of the enemy troops have reverted to normal." Looking at Avatar's unconscious form, he added, "and I think it would be best to let him leave when he wakes up. He has returned to himself, though he will find little comfort in the fact."
Again, Alex had a sense of what was Written, a snippet of a Song that Was To Be. "He still has a part to play in things before this day is done..."
Sarah glanced over at Avatar, who was beginning to stir. "I hope I didn't seriously hurt him," she commented, looking down at her hand. That hand, now smooth-skinned and wonderfully proportioned, had only moments before been a bloody, swollen and broken mess. Looking back up, she met Alex's penetrating eyes. "Better get going, Alex. They need you."
Alex smiled and kissed Sarah on the forehead. Then, without a word, he looked around as if to get his bearings, and then began walking. With each step he seemed to grow, also seeming to fade with each step as well. Before he had gone ten paces, he had seemed to become a giant and, by then, had completely vanished.
Even though he was gone from sight, Sarah again had the same sense of his presence that she'd had since that night at the bowling alley. She found it oddly comforting.
After Alex had gone, Sarah stood for a few moments, trying to sort out everything that had just happened. Despite the devastation surrounding her, she felt a peace in her heart as friends and neighbors all around her, now human again, began helping one another and the soldiers who had come to save them.
Alex might not have saved everyone, but it was clear that the tide had turned -- the Elite were going to be defeated, Sarah was sure of it.
Collecting a radio from a fallen soldier, Sarah's eyes were on Avatar as he rose like a spectre from the grave into which she'd pounded him. Covered in dirt and blood, the man-god approached, slowly.
"Referee," Sarah spoke into the radio as she watched Avatar come closer. "Come in Referee, this is Team Alpha. Mission Accomplished." Releasing the switch, she cocked her head. "Are you alright?"
The light drained out of Avatar's eyes as he surveyed the area, seeing the devastation he'd wreaked. "No," he answered simply.
Knock-out followed his gaze to a dead metahuman by the name of Rail. She was about to offer some kind of consolation when the radio in her hand squawked to life.
"This is Referee, we copy. That's good news, Team Alpha," a voice with an English accent sounded. "This is General Sullivan -- who am I speaking with?"
"Knock-out, sir. Sarah Steiner."
"Knock-out, we have another situation, and no personnel on hand to deal with it. Are you a flyer?"
"No," Sarah answered simply. "What's the situation?"
"A nuclear launch," the General said matter-of-factly. "A single missile, originating from the U.S., launched just as Autocrat and the Elite went down. The transmission of the abort codes have been jammed by the Fortress that is approaching Washington. We're informed that the Fortress will lose power before it reaches the East Coast. Unfortunately the missile will hit before that happens."
Sarah was about to swallow hard and answer when a thunderclap nearly knocked her to the ground. Avatar was gone. "Uh... General?" she said into the radio.
"I think Avatar just went after them."2
Ripples in the Symphony
"...Better get going, Alex. They need you..."
He had kissed Sarah goodbye, and then departed, vanishing from the perceptions of those around him. His name sounded strange in his ears. It seemed familiar, as it should have, but it no longer seemed accurate. It felt... small... inadequate... limited somehow... as though He were now so much more than the name implied. It would be something to consider at a later time. For now there were other things to attend.
After a moment's consideration, He shed his human frame. It would not serve Him where he needed to Travel. As He did so, His senses altered dramatically.
The landscape was still familiar, but the details He now noticed could not be perceived by human senses. The Symphony continued at its own Tempo, as it always had, at once both reflecting and influencing Creation. The Song of Battle, The Battaglia, that had been played on this ground was all but finished, yet there were still strains of the Requiem of Destruction mixed with the Chords of Chaos to be heard, emanating from a space beyond True Space. Locating the source, He headed toward it, gathering power as He went.
The scene around him shifted, the Song of Transport swelling briefly, conveying him to his destination. The battlefield was gone, replaced by sights and sounds that no one else could detect, or even describe if they could perceive them. There, drifting in the void of the space beyond True Space was the structure that had, in the arrogance of it's builder, been dubbed the Celestial Keep.
The structure was breaking apart.
He moved to the largest piece of the edifice, the piece that contained the valiant souls who had wrought the downfall of the former tenants. It was for them that He had come, to guide them safely home.
The structure seemed smaller now as He reached out to grasp the structure, to steady it. Even so, it took a tremendous effort to keep it together. Though He now had no muscles to strain or bones to break, He felt the strain just the same. The laws that governed in True Space did not apply as strictly here and it required more effort to hold the Keep together than He would have believed.
As He "stood" and embraced the structure, He Sang -- a Song of Strength to maintain his grasp, a Song of Stability to keep the structure whole and, while He maintained the Songs in Harmony, He added and embellished them with a Song of Transport to bring them back into True Space.
The Song of Transport wrapped around the massive structure slowly, weaving it's Melody into the existing Harmony and finally making it's way to encompass Him as well.
As he re-entered True Space, the Cacophony that resulted between the Songs he sang and existing Song of the Antarctic would have been enough to damage the hearing of any who had been there to witness it. Fortunately, even the wildlife, having sensed what was to come, had chosen to distance itself from this place.
He thought it odd that the supposed "lower order" creatures could perceive the Song of Life and Death better than the more "advanced" humans. It hadn't always been so...
He adjusted the Pitch of the Songs that he Sang to match that of the Antarctic and the Discord subsided. As the Keep emerged into True Space, He turned his attention to the skies, to a point above the earth. Locating what he sought, he Sang to it, sending a polite greeting and a request for aid.
The Monolith responded by teleporting the inhabitants of the Keep to safety.
He set the Keep down in the rock, snow and ice. He then took a moment to rest, unseen even by the two individuals who were concealed in the safety of a cave some distance away. Before he could fully discern who the two observers were, He heard the swelling in the Requiem of Destruction, the Chords reaching a deafening crescendo. Singing a brief Chord, He appeared in the skies over Norway and discovered the source.
One of the Elite's Flying Fortresses was heading toward Moscow and several nuclear missiles were, in turn, heading toward the Fortress to intercept. He could hear the trill of the weakened anti-matter core shielding, singing counterpoint to the Requiem of Destruction. The devastation would be greater than the blast that wiped out the Saurians so many millions of years ago. Much greater...
Unseen by the world around Him, He Sang once more and appeared at the point of impact, just as the missiles and the Fortress collided.
The release of energy was nearly overwhelming. It had been His intent to shunt all of the energy off and channel it into the purposes the Symphony dictated. He wasn't entirely successful...
07:17, June 1908.
The closest living people to experience the blast were some reindeer herders, asleep in their tents over twenty miles away from the blast site. They were blown into the air and knocked unconscious, save for one man who was blown into a tree. He later died due to complications from internal injuries.
Over forty miles away, people were thrown to the ground, sometimes violently so, windows were shattered and crockery was knocked off shelves.
One hundred and ten miles away, people later commented on the thunderous noise and the brilliant, sun-like fireball that seemed to hang in a cloudless daytime sky. A fiery "cloud" and deafening bangs were reported as far as three hundred miles away...
Approximately one hundred light years away, in the darkness of space, a hole appeared in the fabric of space-time. Not a tear or a rift, as one might be tempted to call it if anyone were there to witness it. It was more like the opening of a tunnel.
Through this opening poured a tremendous amount of energy, almost as intense as a star, or perhaps more so since it burned brighter than any of it's closest neighbors. One might, if anyone were there to identify it as such, have called it a star except that it possessed nowhere near the mass. Perhaps that is why it only burned for a relatively short time and then winked out of existence with no one to have witnessed it first hand.
Of course, while there were no immediate observers, the light from such an event does tend to travel. Nearly a century after it happened, there were many who gazed into the night sky and saw a new star in the heavens and were disturbed by it. Of all who saw it, there were three men, kings - who many regarded as wise -- who had a different interpretation of this new star. They believed it was a herald for the birth of a king who would be greater than any other on earth. Believing this, they set out on a journey to find and welcome this new king, using the new star as a guide...
Acheus heard the cries of his fellow villagers and ran out to the street to see what was the matter. Emerging from his home, the minstrel looked into the night sky and despaired. Instead of the familiar pattern of stars in the curtain of night, he saw the sky bathed in a deep red glow. He also heard a distant, yet loud rumbling and recognized it for what it was -- the sound of an erupting volcano.
He was unsure what to make of the event. In his many travels, he had been a distant witness to two volcanic eruptions. He had not thought to see another one before he died, yet apparently the Gods had decreed it otherwise. Still, he found it disturbing that the light from this eruption could seen so easily at this distance.
The eruption lasted a full two days. There were frequent tremors in the earth that caused several buildings to collapse, including his own home. The people began to speak in not so quiet voices that the End Times were surely upon them.
Acheus did his best to allay the fears of friends and neighbors, but his comforting words sounded hollow in his own ears.
The third day dawned like any other but it turned out to be the final dawn experienced by the island nation. Near sunset, Acheus witnessed a thing that he had never seen in all of his travels, in all the years of his life -- a massive tidal wave. It seemed as tall, if not taller than any mountain he had ever seen during the travels of his youth.
He watched it approach, even as a new tremor began. As he watched, the ground began to open up in many places. The massive wall of water continued it's advance and Acheus, even in the sea of chaos and terror that now surrounded him, felt no fear.
For he heard the Music and took comfort in the knowledge it conveyed -- the knowledge that all was as it should be...
65 million years B.C.
The saurian predator tested the wind one more, catching the scent of it's quarry as it drifted on the wind. The creature began to salivate knowing that it would be eating soon. It waited patiently as the quarry moved closer.
A few more moments of waiting and the hunter struck, powerful jaws clamping onto the neck of the surprised beast. The struggle was intense but brief. The predator began its meal even as a hundred miles away, a massive explosion sent millions of tons of debris into the air...
4 billion B.C.
It had taken hundreds of millions of years for the planet to form. Several million more for it to cool to a viable temperature, for the conditions to be just right. Now, an explosion rocked the new planet's atmosphere, not a large explosion, but one sufficient to release the electrical charge that had been stored in the latest weather system.
The storm would have come eventually, but the explosion caused it to happen sooner rather than later. The lightning that ripped through the air and land interacted with the primordial landscape and the first strands of proto-life were formed...
It was some time before He became aware of Himself again. The first thing He experienced was a weariness beyond exhaustion.
He opened his senses once more to his surroundings. He had diverted most of the energy from the blast to purposes that the Symphony had dictated, yet it was not enough to save the immediate area. The terrain was blasted into uselessness where the impact had occurred. It would be decades before anything would again grow here and the thought saddened Him.
Yet, though the devastation was terrible, He knew that Life would soon return to the Land. For some reason this eased His sorrow.
He pondered this feeling and wondered at it. As he was now, there was no need for him to experience it again. He was once more what he was intended to be -- a Caretaker. It amazed Him that He had ever thought to be anything else.
He let His awareness expand as He had done before and He felt the power of Creation flood into him. As He had before (when?), He laughed as Creation washed away the tension and the aches and concerns that He had borne. Though the period had been brief, the blink of an eye by His standards, the burden had been immense. He wondered still more at how such frail beings could endure such a burden. He knew that he need not worry about such burdens ever again.
The Symphony filled him with a Joy long forgotten, renewed and re-energized Him. The sensation was indescribable. He wondered why He should try to describe it and to whom. He wondered that He had dwelled among the People here as long as He had. He wondered why He had done so...
Then He stopped.
Why do I keep dwelling on that life and those I lived among? What is so important about them? Why should I care?
As soon as the Question was posed, the Answer was laid out before Him.
Because, there is still so much to learn, so much to experience. Though there is Pain and Sorrow and Misery and Hate, there is also Pleasure and Joy and Happiness... and Love. While all of these things are reflected in the Symphony, there is a difference in Listening to the Music and Playing it...
A moment's more consideration and He made his choice. He would return. Because He wished to learn, because the Symphony required it, but most of all because he had experienced Love and wanted very much to continue that experience. If he remained as He was, He would be unable to do so.
His thoughts moved once more to the cause of the recent suffering -- Autocrat and the Royal Elite.
With a thought, the Song carried Him to the place called Ireland. He observed once more the devastation wrought on the Land and its People. Unseen by the those who moved about the battlefield, he lifted His arms.
It was His intent to Sing the Land and the People back to Health, to erase the damage that had been wrought on this portion of the Symphony. But before He could act, He stopped.
What He had initially perceived as damage to the Symphony, had, in fact, actually been a part of it. Without knowing how or why, He knew that it had all been necessary. To erase the result of these events it would be an even greater Tragedy.
Nevertheless, He also felt that something must be done to insure that the losses here were remembered - somehow - for it seemed to be the doom of Mankind to forget.
A lasting monument was needed.
He reached out with His senses, deeper into the Land, taking up the Song, the Character of the Land and its People. Working with the Harmonies, using them as a template, the monument began to take shape. It was large, but not towering; circular with a cross inside of the circle; the "endless braid work" that was so prevalent in Celtic art became a part of the design -- at once intricate and simple.
To this, He added other things:
From the millions of Songs that were the people who had fallen or were victims, he copied the Measures that Sang of their identities, their hopes and their dreams that these things should not be lost.
So that those who looked upon the monument could sense these things, he gave the monument the ability to share this information without being overwhelming.
So that the monument would endure, he made it Permanent, so that it could never be damaged or removed, could never be covered or hidden from sight; a monument to last as long as there were People to view it.
And finally, he added the word, "Remember" at its base and did it so that no matter who gazed upon it, they would know it's meaning.
Still unseen, he left the monument and those who had gathered to see it and went in search of the Song that was Sarah Steiner...
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