When I compare
What I have lost with what I have gained,
What I have missed with what attained,
Little room do I find for pride.
I am aware
How many days have been idly spent;
How like an arrow the good intent
Has fallen short or been turned aside.
But who shall dare
To measure loss and gain in this wise?
Defeat may be victory in disguise;
The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Loss and Gain
Prologue: The Raft
The scene before him was chaos. He couldn’t help but venture the tiniest smirk of admiration, imperceptible to most of those present as they were swept up in the mayhem before them. Through the barely open position of the massive doors, he and his guards could now plainly observe what they had been able to hear as soon as they breached the interior of the facility: there were approximately 100 unruly prisoners loose and gathered in the dining hall, the only area of the prison which allowed for enough uninterrupted space for them all to congregate. Peppered among the rampaging inmates were other creatures, both humanoid and not, presumably here by the same invitation as he was--although, perhaps their presence had been requested less...forcefully, he thought with a dismissive sneer. In all, the celebrants numbered around 400, their hoots and whooping coupled with the physical destruction of the surrounding furnishings and minor infrastructure forming a deep, slow thrum of noise which radiated through the walls like a beating heart.
At the head of the room, a makeshift stage had been erected from the few surviving dining tables, along with various other materials at hand in the sparsely decorated interior. Onto this tenuous surface stepped the supremely confident figure of their host, a sight which served only to further incite the unbridled rage and ecstasy of those closed within the walls that barely contained them. He was lithe and tall by human standards, and he was swathed in the gray, shapeless uniform that marked him as one of the recently incarcerated among their ranks. He drank in their attention like a life-giving draught, seeming to inhale their enthusiasm as he beamed at them, hands outstretched as if welcoming them to an opulent feast of his own design. The step was familiar, the observer realized, as the speaker crossed as closely to the front of the admiring throng as he could pass while still remaining on his swiftly-cobbled elevation. The unbroken alabaster of his skin betrayed his superhuman origins, and it reflected the fluorescent lighting with a dead sheen. The sharp, metallic extensions at the tips of his fingers were new, however. It made him more intimidating than he had been when last the watcher had known him, less human than he had ever been-- although he had only been barely that in the first place.
The host used his hands to indicate he wished for silence in which to address them, and, after a lingering moment, the crowd complied. He spoke a few rapid words just loud enough to be heard by all those in the room, and a handful of their number responded zealously. Most of those present did not comprehend the alien language, and so they merely waited, soundlessly. From the stage left corner of the table came the translation for the crowd: “Welcome, free beings of all origins!” These words resulted in the anticipated rapturous applause. Again, the host motioned for silence, which he grudgingly received. Outside the room, the observer felt one of his escorts tighten the feverish grip on his bicep, clearly in anticipation of their approaching entrance.
The pale figure extended his arms again in the semblance of a warm greeting; however, the penetrating and unholy red of his eyes greatly reduced the softness of the gesture. There were more words, the language guttural but elegant, followed by the translation: “I have invited you here to fulfill a promise. Our Masters have sworn that there would be a Reckoning, when the forgotten and the enslaved would rise…” The translator paused as if he were being deeply affected by the words, his voice quivering with the weight of his swelling emotions. He was an odd creature himself, to be sure: he was fundamentally humanoid in nature, but his hide was so pink that he seemed to have been skinned, and his elongated face and sharply pointed nasal ridge made him appear decidedly rat-like. His fingernails were long and curved, sharpened until they had the perfect likeness of claws. He was also clad in the gray garb of the prison.
The pale man continued, as did the echoed interpretation: “Today they have struck the first blow in this conflict, freeing their brothers who were sentenced to waste eternally in this dungeon beneath the waters of Earth…” The rat-man paused to let the host continue, his gaze never wavering from its worshipful guise. “...and they have brought us, as restitution for our unjust incarceration…a mighty gift!” The pallid figure pointed to indicate the entrance behind him of a great hulking beast of a creature in similar dress, his enormous hands cradling an object covered in a plain, white cloth, his grasp as gentle as if he held the body of a sleeping child. His height was nearly twice that of the host--even from his perch on the table he had to look up to the man-like beast--and the width of the creature was such that those assembled needed to step back several paces to accommodate his girth. Again, this being was well known to the one who was waiting at the door.
“Juggernaut…” he said wistfully, not realizing that he had spoken out loud--albeit in a whisper--until his chaperones reacted with a reverential look. For all the theatrics about the notorious inmates who had been freed from their incarceration this day, those presumed to be dangerous to the residents of this feeble planet, he was the only one among them who was of any true threat. How had they managed to contain him in this place for so long? It was almost laughable to think that S.H.I.E.L.D. could have restrained a being of that strength and enormity...surely they were working with technologies far beyond what they had dared reveal to their precious team of Avengers. He chuckled gently to himself at the thought.
“A gift...of great power!” the disparate voices continued in their own languages. “Power that we can wield to punish those who have sought to unjustly punish us!”
As if on cue, the lumbering giant removed the covering from the item in his ample palms, revealing the object to the watchful crowd. The simultaneous intake of breath from all those assembled seemed to extract all the air from the room. There were murmurs among them in many languages, both alien and terrestrial, but one phrase was predominant above all: “the Cube…”
The hand on his upper arm dug noticeably into his flesh. Despite the discomfort, the watching figure formed a leering smile.
The awed murmurings of the crowd continued for several minutes, until louder exclamations began to dominate, their tone dissenting. Finally, a voice called out clearly above the throng: “But is it not useless to us? None of us can control it!”
The pale figure looked greatly pleased by this response, his lips pulling back into a cruel but jovial smile. The action resulted in a baring of his metal, spiked teeth, an effect that was unsettling at the least. The throng had grown attentively silent, curiously awaiting his response. His mysterious words hung in the air for a weighted moment as the rat-man had become so entranced by the powerful object that he had ceased to interpret them. He shook off his stupor, and said, “This is true: there is no one now among us who can wield it!” The host’s ghostly claws hovered over the ethereal blue of the cube, as if he much desired to touch it but would never dare dream himself to be worthy of the privilege. “There is one who can!” he finished, his eyes locked on the glowing object and glazed with unfettered lust.
There was a sharp, insistent nudge just below the waiting man’s shoulder blade, an unmistakable prompt that this was his time of his entry. Two of the creatures who accompanied him stepped forward to heave open the large metal doors through which they had been observing, a third tugged him roughly forward by the chains which bound his wrists, and the fourth remained steadfastly beside him, pinching his shoulder callously between his thick fingers with more force than was plainly necessary. When he did not immediately start moving forward, the creature at his side landed a sharp blow to the center of his back, propelling him forward without argument. The fettered man would not give his guards the satisfaction of seeing him stumble, however, and he caught his step gracefully, advancing with his posture erect and seemingly composed.
All heads turned to mark his approach, a reverent hush falling over the audience once again. Each being regarded him carefully, their eyes wandering over his form and brazenly studying every detail to deduce his identity. The prisoner felt exposed before them with so many roaming gazes falling upon him in his restrained state, probing him for all of his secrets. Fortunately, the cowl of his thick cloak obscured his face and mercifully restricted him from having to meet any of their looks directly. Let them be tormented for a while longer, he thought with a clandestine sneer. Perhaps it’s better if they don’t know what they’re actually in for.
When the ‘guest’ and his escort reached the foot of the stage, the pale man knelt to greet him. The host’s smile was predatory, and he brought one slender digit to rest upon the chained man’s face, the pointed metal scraping just lightly enough to keep from drawing blood. “Welcome, Kaal,” he whispered intimately in his native tongue. “It has been too long. Still, your fortunes haven’t changed much…” He eyed the shackles that bound the prisoner’s hands with a wicked gleam, his lips parting into a depraved grin which revealed how much he was enjoying the other man’s current position. The expression bared nearly every one of his glinting, unnatural teeth. The hooded figure understood every word that the had been purred directly into his face, but he did not shift a single muscle of his countenance in response.
“This is Kaal!” the pale man announced, spreading his arms wide, one pointing to the indicated personage and the other to the frenzied crowd at his feet. When he spoke this time, it was in the English language of Earth, which most among them could comprehend. The translation changed to the tongue of the pallid one’s birth, the rat man struggling only minimally with the alien tongue. “A...friend...” Their host choked on the word like the foul lie that it was. “We knew each other from a previous incarceration. Far from here…” His words trailed off, and he paused, lost in a trance-like state, his eyes hardening like dull steel at the memories.
Beneath the cowl, Kaal let a genuine smile play upon his lips. His mind also teased out a few images of the mutual time they had shared in that place, but the awful gravity of the thoughts allowed them to only play briefly in his consciousness. Yet their time there together had been limited, as the speaker had been released after a minimal sentence. The true nature of that place had barely revealed itself to the pale man, and still the memories brought his bravado to a grinding halt. Kaal chuckled, his shoulders swaying gently. If he only knew...truly knew. This being was not really from that place--not shaped by it. The hooded figure had tasted that place, felt it in the ache of his bones and the bile in his throat. He had let it own him, encircle him with its anguish and let it press him to his very core. He knew it as surely as he knew himself, every muscle and sinew sewn into his very soul. Its torment had caressed every inch of his skin like a scorned lover and had claimed him over and over in that endless blackness until his soul was laid cruelly bare. The horrific sights and smells--the exquisite suffering--of that place would be folded into the pleats his burial shroud.
This was going to be too, too satisfying.
“Kaal is a sorcerer...a mage of much repute in certain corners of the universe.” The pale man had shrugged off the dark remembrances and had found his rhythm again, crossing the precarious surface with endless grace. “He has intimate knowledge of the Tesseract, and he can wield it --not just as a power source, but as a weapon!” The elated shrieks of the crowd were more forceful now, the walls nearly shuddering with their electric chorus. “He will be the bearer of our retribution!” finished the host, his vile mien turning again upon the bound man. His outstretched arm reached towards him tauntingly, the fingers curling in the guise of a mocking caress. “And all because I asked him soooo nicely,” he finished, the smile on his lips widening with derision. The throng responded with pervasive laughter.
Kaal gave a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgement, his countenance straining to contain the resentment he longed to convey. The manacles on his wrists rubbed rudely at his skin, the itch just enough to remind him of their galling presence. Just minutes more...soon, so soon…
“Kaal, my friend,” the pale man requested. “Would you do us the honor…?”
“It would be my pleasure,” the sorcerer answered flawlessly in the alien tongue. He paused, considering his bound hands. “If you would be so kind…” He held them up to the creature who towered above him, his eyes fraudulent in their imploring.
The host clicked his tongue reproachfully. “Now, now,” he scolded softly. “You don’t expect me to free you, do you?” He chortled to himself. “You take me for a fool, my friend.” He knelt again, taking the line of the prisoner’s jaw gently but teasingly in his grasp. “I like you just like this...” he hissed tauntingly into the shell of his ear. “Restrained,” he finished gloatingly.
The captive twisted his face until his skin slipped from between the pale man’s fingers; it was his final show of defiance. “As you wish,” he whispered in surrender. He took two steps toward the Cube, his hands slightly aloft and unfolding as much as his manacles would allow. He reached out to it, bowing his head and crossing in front of the spectral figure who still knelt on the stage. Kaal kept his stride long and confident to show his audience that he was not daunted by their presence but rather a threat to even a gathering of their number and composition. Let them wonder at what the true measure of his abilities might be, he thought as he neared the object of his attention. Let them be amazed . . .
At least at first.
From the edge of his vision, he caught the presence of one of his erstwhile guardians, a thick, sharp-edged sword gripped steadily in his hands. It was finely honed and hefty enough to suit his purpose, he was certain. The creature who held it was somewhat reptilian with a bipedal frame, its biceps broad with strength but his eyes dull for want of a great intellect. This was good, Kaal agreed to himself; he measured the distance between himself and the blade with dizzying speed as he continued to approach his luminous goal with a proud gait. As he drew close to the Cube, the surface began to darken and become disturbed, swirling with an ominous energy. A few crackling bands of light danced along the outer verge of the Tesseract, and the static pulses it produced released a noticeable scent of electricity which raced like adrenaline through the onlookers.
As he continued to extend his reach towards the turbulent face of the Cube, he studied the etched surface of his bonds, confirming the words of the spell that were written there. It was a powerful charm, intended to restrain his ability to channel his magic for purposes other than the minor manipulation of physical objects of power. Its sophistication made him briefly consider who had conjured it for them, as the intricacy of it betrayed a vast capacity for the craft. However, it possessed a fatal flaw that was overtly present to a master of the art such as himself: the runes were imprinted across the links of the chain between his fetters, and the spell must remain entirely intact to retain its sway over him. He was intended only to give them a show, a dazzling but impotent demonstration of the cosmic havoc that was to come. If it was a show they wanted, then it was a show he could provide, and gladly so. He did love to be accommodating.
The anticipation made his lips curl in fiendish glee.
It took mere seconds for him to survey his surroundings for what he required, and he did so with furtive glances, undetected by those who sought to control him. It was all coming together so perfectly, just exquisitely so. He focused his strength on the heart of the object, the inner point from where it drew the most catastrophic of its faculties, and it harkened to his extended grasp but could not yet answer its call, the magic at his wrists maddeningly subduing it. Its insides roiled with the potential it longed to unleash, covering its surface with an even more restless force, the sparks roping along its face intensifying. A pregnant hush fell over the gathering, with all eyes bent toward the surging energy source.
It would all need to happen in a seamless instant, he knew, before the muscle in the room could move against him in an organized fashion. His advantage would not be in strength of force, but rather in his swiftness coupled with the element of surprise, an asset which lasted only seconds. With the attention of his wardens trained so heavily on the Cube, they did not notice when Kaal drew his right knee forward enough to gather some momentum. It then propelled backwards, his foot landing a blow squarely at the waist of the guard at his back, and the force caused it to keel clumsily to the floor. The robust staff that the creature had held in its grasp landed consummately across the crook created by the sorcerer’s ankle in its still backwards position. He then propelled the rod swiftly in the air with a powerful upward stroke of his foot, and it landed splendidly in his waiting hands.
His bindings allowed just enough movement for him to maneuver the staff effectively as a weapon, and he immediately put it to use on the beasts who attended him, the blunt end finding the face of the one to his left and the side abruptly side-swiping the skull of the one on his right. As its body fell to the floor with a graceless thump, it unhanded the massive blade that Kaal required. He flung the staff at the pale man who was still gaping in disbelief at the bodies of the fallen guardsmen, and the blow caused him to stumble rearwards into the hulking form of the Juggernaut. Kaal quickly snatched up the sword, wedging the handle between his feet and bringing his wrists heavily down on either side of it, breaking the chain neatly in two. The entire ploy had been accomplished in just a few heartbeats, and yet the sorcerer knew that he must continue to be swift before the only true threat in the room began to stir.
With the saber now in his grip, he easily whirled on the remaining guard, severing his head from his shoulders before he could draw his holstered firearm. The first three attendants were now rising to their feet, shaking off the initial stupor of the sudden attack and replacing it with a palpable rage. Quickly...Kaal urged himself...no time to think. He spun on each of them in quick succession, his motions with the blade so nimble that they appeared as a blurred onslaught with no corporeal force behind them. The trio of reptilians fell in a heap of dismembered limbs and cleaved torsos. He then instantly extended his free hand again towards the Tesseract, and this time it answered his beckoning with full strength. A low rumble began in its depths, quickly escalating to a deafening tremor that shook the ground below them all. The crowd fell hard to the surface beneath them, starting with those closest to the object and then rapidly billowing outwards from its source. As the wave subsided, there were only two beings still on their feet: the mage and the Juggernaut.
Keenly aware that he could not defeat this force with physical strength, the mage knew he had precious seconds to devise a plan. He had overcome scores of enemies--dozens at once, at times--with his agility alone, but he knew that this was a moment for both speed and cunning. No sooner had they locked eyes from across the room than the Juggernaut burst forth, his monstrous arms moving like pistons at his sides. The mage had a split second to react, and he used it to his fullest advantage, driving the point of the solid blade he still carried into the concrete floor, planting a foot atop its firmly ensconced handle, and launching himself nimbly toward the oncoming foe. His foot caught the beast sideways across the temple, causing him to pause more in shock than pain. Kaal then dropped smoothly to the ground and slid across the floor between the giant’s broadly spread legs. Rising instantly to his feet, he extended a hand to grasp the Cube which was now tantalizingly within reach, and his grip closed upon the top face of the object...just as an ashen, spectral hand fell upon his own.
The pale man’s visage drew to within an inch of his. “I’m disappointed, Kaal,” he hissed into the sorcerer’s face. “I thought we understood one another.” As the last of these words crossed his lips, his malicious smile widened further. The lights in the room flickered for only an instant...and then total darkness. He should have anticipated this move, thought the sorcerer. After all, this power was how he had earned his name among the nameless. Blackout…
The Tesseract still hummed with a faint glow, throwing an unearthly incandescence upon their profiles. From his peripheral vision, Kaal could only see a few precious lengths into the blackness, but his other senses were still sharp, and thankfully so. The approaching vibrations on the floor behind him betrayed the approach of his mammoth opponent, although it was apparent that the creature was trying to be stealthy. With his vast size, this was blatantly absurd, of course. Kaal called upon all of his discipline to remain motionless, continuing to maintain the gaze of the demon before him with confident disdain.
Just a few more steps...be patient...be precise. “Oh, but we do,” Kaal purred seductively. “I understand you all too well…”
The mage could feel the brush of wind on his nape, the result of a huge hand being drawn back to strike at him. He had a split second to react, calling the power of the Tesseract to himself instantaneously. The Juggernaut saw his swing pass through the empty air and fall instead against the cheek of the pale man, sending him airborne. He landed against the far wall with an inelegant thump and then slid downwards into a motionless heap at its base. The lighting in the room immediately flickered back to life.
In that moment Kaal could have used the potential energy of the object to send himself anywhere in the universe. Yet he chose to materialize near the entranceway through which he had recently entered (shackled and heavily guarded, he reminded himself) with the Cube still poised gracefully in his open palm. It would not do to leave the throng like this. Not with so much left undone. . .
Juggernaut spun to face him, quickly recovering from the astonishment of his quarry’s sudden evaporation. The sorcerer gave him a perilous glare, a visual warning that to charge at this juncture would be decidedly fatal. The leviathan responded with a move which was unprecedented in his destructive history: hesitation. The corners of Kaal’s lips curled into the most ominous grin, and he elevated the Cube until it was more prominent in the giant’s sight. 'Follow me, and this is your fate', the mage challenged him, his eyes crackling with an accusatory fire. 'Let me go, and you may yet survive'.
Two more beats passed before the hulking man had made up his mind, and he lunged forward with renewed conviction, a threatening snarl escaping his lips with the sudden effort. There were few forces in the known universe which could halt his charge and hence Kaal had been trying to curtail this attack from the beginning. His options had suddenly been whittled down to one.
And, oh, he so desperately needed this to work.
Summoning the whole of his power from within, he instantly fed it into the Cube which responded with a blinding flare of light and energy. A second tremor, more violent than the first, shuddered through the floor, keeping the terrified onlookers in a state of stunned inaction. This convulsion paled, however, to the one which followed when the Juggernaut met the perimeter of an invisible barrier of force, and he slammed against it with a power that rippled through the exterior walls until their very foundations groaned with the weight of it. The giant then took three stumbling steps backwards before he crashed heavily to the ground, motionless. He was merely dazed, the sorcerer knew, and he was unsure if he was prepared to withstand another onslaught. The power he had used to awaken the Cube had drained his reserves to a worrisome level. Furthermore, the repeated shaking and pounding on the building structure was bound to have damaged it irreparably--not exactly a pleasant idea when there was thousands of gallons of seawater pressing in on all sides. It was time to take his bow and leave the crowd wanting more.
With a portion of what little magic that remained him, he teleported the Tesseract to a place of safety with a graceful flourish of his hands. From behind the impenetrable wall of energy, he could see the form of the pale man, seemingly recovered from the earlier blows he had taken. The only evidence was the lavender stain of a bruise blooming along his left temple and the blood seeping from his cracked lower lip. He strode confidently to the invisible barrier, baring his metal teeth in a silent challenge to his rival. His palm flattened against the wall, and he leaned towards the barrier with a look of consummate hatred adorning his cruel features. “Shouldn’t you be running?” he murmured, relying on the sorcerer to perceive the words by reading his lips.
Kaal nodded, wordlessly. He spun on his heel, mustering all of his composure to contain his absolute exhaustion. As he breached the expansive doors at the exit, he turned again to the creature he had known as ‘Blackout’. Knowing that his lips would not be very visible from this distance, the sorcerer projected the words into the head of the demon with ominous gravity. “I can run . . . “ he gloated, then paused to let one final, percipient grin cross his mouth. “How well can you swim?”
The pale man’s glare melted quickly from arrogance to fear as the words settled upon him. As if on cue, the first creak of complaint became audible from the distressed walls around them, and a baleful crack began to open in the concrete behind him. Blackout’s eyes widened in a flicker of panic, which was promptly replaced with a growl of pure rage. His fist met the unseen barrier with a force that was sure to have fractured even his superhuman bones. Kaal did not linger to see the water breach the interior, but he could hear the subsequent rush of the waves at his back as he threw the doors closed in his wake.