Polania the Contemplatrix sat in a deep trance as she used her powers to view the key players in the coming events which would decide the fate of the universe.
On Hala, the former renegades, now the rulers of the Kree empire, were addressing a crowd of their most loyal subjects, those who were filled with anticipation for the summoning of Garero.
"In mere moments," said Captain Atlas, "the sacred ritual shall commence!"
"And Garero shall walk among us, leading us to victory against all who oppose us." said Minerva.
The crowd began chanting Garero’s name.
Polania turned her attention to the Avengers, Helkon, and an army of air and ground centurions, all marching toward the Deathlands, from whose ground Garero would emerge unless they could prevent it.
Thor and Helkon were holding a conversation.
"...and that is why no other gods could accompany us." said Helkon. "The corrupting influence of Garero is such that only the purest of heart may resist its invitation to sink into the lowest depths of the darkness within every soul. The centurions, being as they are of the living dead, hath no souls to corrupt. Unfortunately, that also doth leave them as little more than cannon fodder."
"If he art thy father, as thou sayeth, wouldst thou not be particularly susceptible to said malign influence?" Thor inquired.
"Aye," replied Helkon, "that is why the Avengers must face him. Myself and the centurions do accompany thee for the sole purpose of holding off Garero’s acolytes. Most art merely a motley crew of demi-gods and minor demons – the only true threats are my half-brother Vultro and the sorcerous Tigin the Trickster."
At Helkon’s mention of Garero’s acolytes, Polania shifted her view again, this time to the bleak, darkness-shrouded Deathlands, where the acolytes were preparing the mystic ritual to liberate Garero from the realm of death. As the necessary artifacts were arranged and symbols drawn on the ground, Garero’s other son Vultro, he of the coarse black hair and considerable bulk, turned to the cowled, long-fingered Tigin the Trickster.
"Hath our worshipers on the mortal plane commenced the sacrifice?" asked Vultro in a voice like an automobile exhaust.
"Yes, yes," replied Tigin in a nasal voice with strange inflections, "see for thyself, thou brute of little faith." Tigin waved his hand and a ball of light floating above the palm appeared. Inside the ball, Vultro and Tigin observed as the new Kree rulers tossed the bodies of the civil war’s many wounded into a giant brazier.
"Excellent!" said Vultro. "Let the ritual commence, before my hated half-brother doth arrive and attempt to disrupt us."
Tigin raised his hands and began chanting incomprehensible incantations while Vultro and the other acolytes watched the mystic circle from which Garero would emerge if they succeeded.
Polania shuddered before shifting her view one last time, towards the players in this drama who were oblivious to the shattering events now unfolding. She simultaneously observed the approach of an interstellar pirate armada towards the border worlds of the Kree empire, and a Titanian starship stealthily following the armada while concealed within sub-space.
Within the starship, Eros of Titan, also known as Starfox, and the former Pyreus Kril of Xandar, now known to all as Firelord, sat in the pilot and co-pilot chairs respectively. They nervously awaited the best chance to reveal themselves.
"I grow impatient, Eros." barked Firelord. "Too long have we lain idle while Nebula continues to spread death and destruction. Her victims must be avenged..."
"...and you’re the one destined to carry it out. I know, you’ve only told me a hundred times." muttered Starfox warily. "But if we’re not cautious, we may both end up among the casualties. Might I remind you that she stole a Negative Zone weapon from Annihilus himself?"
And in the pirate armada’s flagship, presiding over the bridge, was Nebula herself, the terror of a thousand galaxies.
She turned to her right-hand man, Gunthar of Rigel, and said, "With the power of the Negavator, we shall be unstoppable as we conquer the Kree empire."
"Overconfidence could lead to disaster." replied Gunthar. "This is, after all, the Kree we are talking about."
"Ha!" said Nebula, "the Kree are a fading shadow of their former selves as long as the Supreme Intelligence continues to rule them. Of course, I would rather return to my original goal of conquering the Skrull empire, but they have grown far too strong during the time it took me to free myself from the Negative Zone and rebuild my armada."
"Border patrol directly ahead!" alerted Gunthar.
"Superb." said Nebula, grinning wickedly. "Any excuse to activate the Negavator is a good one."
At her command, a gigantic laser cannon attached to the flagship made a single clean sweep, and every ship of the Kree border patrol exploded in a string of red and orange fireballs.
Nebula laughed as she exulted in the destructive power at her fingertips.
Over in sub-space, Starfox and Firelord were left temporarily speechless by the morbid spectacle. "It’s worse than I feared." said Starfox. "Our best option is to head for Hala; Mar-Vell showed me the planet’s safe zones on clandestine voyages we made there; then we’ll formulate a plan."
Polania was satisfied with what she had seen, and dared to hope she would not have to interfere. For if she did, there was the possibility it could cause a disaster even worse than Garero’s triumph.
"...and then Bianca and I went to 54 and..."
The Black Knight set down his cards, got up from his seat, and spoke up.
"You know, Janet, we’ve made a lot of changes to the base since the last time you were here. Why don’t I show you around? The others can continue the game without me."
"What a SPLENDID idea, Dane." replied the Wasp loudly before turning coy. "Of course, you always have splendid ideas. Have I ever told you that?"
"Right this way." said Dane awkwardly as he led Janet out the door.
"Boy, that was weird." remarked Ant-Man warily.
"Hey," said Hellcat, "Isn’t Dane dating Jennifer?"
"I have not been privy to the recent romantic entanglements amongst the Avengers set." replied Beast crisply.
"Janet’s lucky that Jennifer’s not here." said Hellcat. " I’ve heard she’s the jealous type and she has the worst temper. And aren’t they supposedly best friends? If my best friend tried..."
"Uh, in case you haven’t noticed, Hellcat," said Ant-Man, "Beast and I are guys. Playing cards."
"Right," said Hellcat, smiling tightly, "so, how about those Mets?"
Some distance away, Dane led Janet into the medical center where Monica still lay in a coma.
"Terrible." said Janet with zero conviction. "Just terrible."
Terrible was the word for how Dane felt at that moment. Something was freezing Janet’s heart, turning her into someone far different from the winsome Wasp everybody knew and loved. But for the life of him, he couldn’t come up with an explanation that made any sense to him.
He ushered Janet out of the medical center, and they headed for the heart of the machinery that ran Hydrobase. Inside, a young woman whose shortish hair was growing out awkwardly was busy at work fine-tuning the machinery.
"This is Rita," said Dane, "she’s become our official mechanic as has been a great help..."
"IT’S YOU!" screamed Janet. "YELLOWJACKET!"
Rita cowered in fear as Janet’s fists began blazing in preparation to fire a bio-electric blast. Dane immediately got between them and grabbed Janet by the wrists, suffering minor burns on his hands and lower arms.
"Janet, no! She’s reformed! She’s under house arrest here at Hydrobase. We made all the arrangements, and it’s worked out really well. Plus, her computer skills saved the Avengers and the entire world from the Fixer’s plans."
"What kind of a team have the Avengers become??" cried Janet.
"How," inquired Dane, "is Rita any different than Clint, Wanda, Pietro...?"
"I CAN’T TAKE THIS!" yelled Janet, running into the nearest bathroom and locking herself inside.
For the next fifteen minutes, Dane pounded on the bathroom door, begging and pleading for Janet to come out. Then the alarm rang, summoning Dane to the control center. Dane turned to Rita and said, "Watch that door."
"I will." Rita replied meekly.
Dane rushed off, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. When he arrived at the control center and saw the monitor, the weight felt heavier.
"A time/space flux pulse in Washington, D.C." reported the Beast. "It appears to be an invasion of highly evolved apes from an alternate timeline."
"Their leader!" exclaimed Hellcat, pointing at the monitor’s screen. "He’s very much from THIS place and time! It’s my old enemy, the Mandrill!"
"Looks like Mandrill has watched ‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ too many times." Ant-Man quipped drily.
"Hellcat, you say you’ve faced him before. Was this with the Defenders?" asked Dane.
"Yes. Twice." said Hellcat.
"Then you’ll be field commander." said Dane.
Hellcat’s eyes widened, followed an instant later by a wide smile. "Yes, sir!" she gleefully replied, giving a salute.
Dane and the reservists ran to the nearest quinjet.
As the skies grew ever darker in the Deathlands, and the Avengers and their companions reached their quarry, Thor and Helkon looked at each other. They didn’t have to say a word – they already knew they were too late.
At the site of the ritual, white fire erupted from the ground, followed by billows of the blackest smoke, and finally, the rising of the imposing, intimidating, armor-clad, impossibly muscular figure of Garero. Within Garero’s horned helmet, two evil eyes glowed like hot coals; the rest of the evil god’s face was hidden, lest it horrify to death those who glimpsed it.
"LET ALL WHO LIVE BY THE CODES OF WEAKNESS CHOKE ON THEIR TERROR," declared Garero in a voice deeper than the deepest abyss and which echoed for untold miles, "FOR I HAVE RETURNED TO CONQUER THE UNIVERSE!"
"All hail Garero!" exclaimed a kneeling Tigin the Trickster like some demented evil preacher.
"I bid thee welcome, father!" said Vultro, kneeling as well. "The time for battle is nigh."
Vultro received an unexpected response from a familiar voice.
"Closer than thou dare imagine, perfidious ones!" said Helkon, as he and the Avengers and the centurions stood atop the nearest hill.
Vultro stood up and laughed in the face of his defiant relation. "So, thou hast come for more punishment, my weakling brother!"
"Tis thee who shall be punished for thy deeds!" snarled Helkon. "Punished by DEATH!"
Spurred on by Helkon’s words, the forces of good charged like a modern-day Light Brigade. Helkon’s mace and Vultro’s axe clashed deafeningly as the two brothers enacted the ultimate sibling rivarly. The centurions quickly overwhelmed the acolytes, giving the Avengers a clear path towards Garero, who stood tall, arms folded, eyes radiating evil.
Quasar’s quantum armor was now outfitted like a war machine, with twin guns at the end of each arm and a shoulder-mounted cannon. Quasar opened fire on Garero, hitting the evil god with a barrage of destructive quantum force.
But when it was over, Garero still stood, completely unscathed. His eyes turned from glowing red to glowing white, and he fired the deadliest cosmic beams imaginable at Quasar, who instantly turned away to prevent a direct hit. But merely being grazed by Garero’s beams shattered his armor and left him lying motionless on the ground.
Namor hit Garero high with all his might; She-Hulk hit Garero low with all her might. Both heroes bit down hard to try and deny the unimaginable pain they felt and keep up the attack, but it was not enough, and Garero brutally swatted them away.
"Garero!" yelled Thor. "Turn and face the God of Thunder!"
Garero roared with contemptuous laughter. "ART THOU THE BEST MY SON COULD SUMMON AGAINST ME, GODLING?"
With a berserker’s roar, Thor let his hammer Mjolnir fly with a force he had never before used.
It did no good. Mjolnir struck Garero square in the chest, but the evil god did not flinch...and Mjolnir shattered!
The split second of Thor’s paralyzing shock gave Garero the opportunity to lunge at Thor. The two gods hit the ground with seismic force. Thor, as he had always done in the most extreme situations, began to surrender to the warrior madness, and his punches began to connect with Garero. But even this was in vain, as Garero quickly gained the advantage and within a minute, was back on his feet again, holding Thor aloft. Garero then tossed Thor aside, and the thunder god landed next to Namor and She-Hulk.
Garero then began to use his least physical but most dangerous power – he reached into the minds of the Avengers, in the hopes of making them soldiers in his army. It was Thor he hoped the most he would be able to turn to his side, but Thor’s millenia of hard-won wisdom proved impossible to crack; similarly, Quasar, despite his youth, had seen a lot and unlocked many cosmic secrets, and was also immune.
But with Namor and She-Hulk, Garero struck gold. Namor, in particular, had always been morally ambiguous and had even been an outright villain many times over; his facade of middle-aged serenity was brittle and easily shattered – Namor stood, his eyes glowing red. Next, She-Hulk put up the best fight she could, but her many resentments and her accumulated bitterness, combined with her feelings of persecution, eventually found her standing with eyes aglow.
The severely wounded Thor was barely standing and just beginning to realize what was happening to Namor and She-Hulk, when Garero gave them a psionic order to attack Thor with all their strength. This they did, viciously beating their fellow Avenger until he lay on the ground unconscious.
Garero then sent his new soldiers over towards Helkon and Vultro. They had disarmed each other, and Helkon had Vultro in a headlock until She-Hulk came up from behind and struck Helkon’s head. Momentarily disoriented, Helkon was pulled away from his brother, Namor and She-Hulk holding his arms in a tight grip, and dragged over to where Garero stood.
"THOU HAST DEFIED MY WILL FOR THE LAST TIME, TRAITOROUS SON OF MINE." said Garero. "TO KILL THEE WOULD BE MERCIFUL, AND I AM NEVER MERCIFUL. NO, THOU SHALL FIGHT BY MY SIDE, THE ULTIMATE HUMILIATION FOR THEE!"
Helkon tried to resist, but in the end, the evil flowing in his blood would not be denied. His eyes, which normally glowed red, now glowed white.
In the realm of mortals, on Hala, the new rulers of the Kree had witnessed the entire battle thanks to their cosmic awareness. They knew now the time had come to stand in a circle and use the power cosmic to open a rift through which Garero and his acolytes could cross over. This they did.
When the Kree masses saw Garero standing directly before them, they exploded in reverential celebration. And when Garero motioned for silence, they obeyed.
"HERE WE STAND, ON THE VERGE OF THE GREATEST WAR IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE. FOR WHEN IT IS OVER, THE KREE WILL RULE SUPREME, AND ALL SENTIENT BEINGS SHALL SERVE ME AS GOD OF GODS. A NEW DAY IS RISING – THE DAY OF GARERO!!"
The masses exploded once again in rapture, their chants of Garero’s name echoing through galaxies.
And an all-consuming darkness began to fall upon the universe.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART VIII