NOTE: This story takes place in an alternate Marvel Universe.
“Replace you as Praetor of the Imperial Guard?” an astonished Smasher asked Gladiator, “Unthinkable! You are the mighty Kallark, and I am but a soldier!”
“You are too modest, old friend,” replied Gladiator as he broke into a rare-for-him smile, “Far more than but a soldier, rather the greatest and most noble warrior of us all. Remember, too, that this is only temporary, while I take time to whip the newly formed Imperial Task Force into shape. Come, let us now enter Majestrix Lilandra’s chambers so that she may make it official.”
The magnificent colossalness of the Majestrix’s throne room always made the strapping Smasher feel very small; he comforted himself with the thought that others, even Gladiator, must feel the same upon entering.
Gladiator and Smasher kneeled at the feet of the Majestrix until she bid them to arise. She then declared, “By the power vested in me through royal birth and the will of Sharra and Ky’thiri, I anoint thee deputy Praetor of the Imperial Guard.”
“I shall continue to serve the Shi’ar Empire to the very best of my abilities.” said the ever-modest Smasher.
Gladiator offered Smasher his hand and said, “Congratulations, my friend.” The two shook hands.
A far different and, it must be said, more familiar side of Gladiator emerged in the training grounds of one of the many moons of the Imperial Throneworld of Chandillar, as he addressed the members of the Imperial Task Force: Frostbite, Obscura, Flora, Sicknessia, Massivus, Piromanyak, Prism, and Q’ill.”
“You are all young and earnest and eager to fight for the glory of the Empire.” he said before raising his voice, “I am here to tell you that you shall have all of that beaten out of you – BY ME!”
All of the Task Force members visibly flinched.
“There is no greater challenge in the Empire that I. Only by defeating me can you prove yourselves worthy of serving the Majestrix. So let us dispense with any further speeches and fight! ON GUARD!”
To no one’s surprise, it was Frostbite, the most impulsive member of the Task Force, who initiated the attack on Gladiator. Within seconds, he had Gladiator trapped in an enormous block of ice.
But with barely any effort, Gladiator burst forth from the ice and, with the speed of thought, flew up to Frostbite so that they were face-to-face, and knocked out Frostbite with one finger.
Massivus saw a window of opportunity, turned to solid rock and charged at Gladiator. But Gladiator’s super-hearing sensed Massivus’ pounding footsteps, and he sent Massivus flying backwards with the shockwave from a snap of his fingers.
Obscura, whose strength multiplied thousandfold the less exposed she was to starlight, tackled Gladiator from behind and put him in a headlock. Gladiator fought back by taking flight and speeding the two of them toward the nearest star. Obscura felt her strength ebbing away and she lost her grip on Gladiator, who sent her flying back to the surface with a blast of super-breath.
Gladiator followed her back to the surface, where, before any of the other member of the Task Force could attack him, Gladiator clapped his hands together, producing a shockwave exponentially greater than the one that had taken down Massivus alone. The entire Task Force lay semi-conscious on the ground.
“PATHETIC!” bellowed Gladiator. “Return to the barracks and lick your wounds. I shall return when you least expect it, and you had better present a greater challenge to me.” With those words he took leave and flew back to Chandillar.
Gradually, the Task Force members regained full consciousness, got back on their feet, and filed back forlornly to the barracks.
“That was a lot rougher than I expected,” pouted the beautiful, alabaster-skinned Sicknessia, “I didn’t even get to use my powers.”
“You knew the job was dangerous when you took it,” said Obscura, “so cease your whining, it makes me ill.”
“Making people ill is what comes naturally to me.” replied Sicknessia sarcastically.
“I won’t tolerate any infighting in my squad.” snapped Frostbite.
“Your squad?” sneered Piromanyak, “Who made you leader?”
“I’m the leader, because I’m the one with the plan that’s going to make it possible to defeat Gladiator when he strikes back.” asserted Frostbite. “Now, everybody listen up...”
“My lover, the Praetor!” enthused Astra. “I really like the sound of that!”
“Deputy Praetor.” corrected Smahser.
“Whatever,” said Astra, “I just know that, by proxy, it makes me more important all of sudden.”
“Our dear Astra, forever the social climber.” quipped Astra sometime friend, Nightside. Her penchant for dry observations was what kept their friendship tenuous.
“If you’d come from a place like my home planet,” snarled Astra, “you’d be a social climber, too.”
“I’ve only heard that line a trillion times.” sighed Nightside.
“Guys,” said Astra’s closest friend, Scintilla, “let’s not fight. This should be a time of celebration.”
Suddenly, the priority alarm rang.
“The celebration will have to wait!” declared Smasher as they ran to the mission control room. “Duty calls!”
Much later, Gladiator swooped towards the moon. As he entered the moon’s atmosphere and set course for the Task Force’s barracks, he never expected to be suddenly confronted by...
What appeared to be the scourge of the universe burned bright in its most familiar form as a giant bird of prey.
Gladiator may have been proud, but he was no fool. He knew that the Phoenix was a challenge even for him. He braced himself for the attack...
...when, without warning, Obscura, using her flight belt, flew up to him and gave him her most powerful punch, which sent him flying out of control towards the nearest star...
...where Prism, thanks to his flight belt, was waiting. Prism changed the color of the light being emitted by the star from yellow to red, the resulting radiation leaving Gladiator temporarily weakened. Gladiator went into free-fall.
Gladiator landed on the surface with tremendous force, creating a brand new crater for the moon. With great effort, he climbed out of the crater...
...only to be rammed from behind by Massivus, who had been waiting for him to surface. Stunned by the powerful blow and still vulnerable from the red star radiation, Gladiator was not prepared for Q’ill to fire quills point-blank at his face. Despite his formidable healing factor, Gladiator was temporarily blinded, allowing Frostbite to pour on his icy attack, leaving Gladiator once again encased by solid ice.
Gladiator, using the last of his strength, broke free from the ice as before, but while his sight was returning, his legs were failing him. He looked up from the ground to see a smiling Sicknessia standing above him. With a wave of her hand, she infected Gladiator with the deadliest microorganisms she could muster. Gladiator vomited bright-green slime before finally passing out.
Later, in the barracks’ sickbay, Gladiator regained consciousness as his healing factor finished mending his wounds and eradicating Sicknessia’s infection. He lifted himself out of bed, put on a new costume identical to the one which had been torn in battle, and went to join the Task Force in the mess hall.
“Which one of you,” he inquired, “planned that brilliant strategy?”
“I did.” replied Frostbite smugly.
“You have definite leadership potential. And which one of you created the Phoenix illusion?”
“That was me.” said Piromanyak.
“Your constructs are convincing indeed.” Gladiator then paused. “But all of you deserve credit, you surpassed my expectations.”
The Task Force whooped triumphantly.
Gladiator grinned ambiguously and said, “Now comes the difficult part, your first field assignment. I shall take command here, as we are about to head to a distant planet named Earth in order to capture the Empire’s most dangerous fugitive...DEATHBIRD!”
TO BE CONTINUED