When the ball of blue mist passed through the thick dome surrounding the tiny nation of Symkaria, its people were overwhelmed simultaneously with shock and hope. They did not know what the cascade of sparkling energy was – for all they could tell it might have been a biological hazard! – but they didn’t really care; what struck them was the fact that something, something seemingly tangible, had penetrated the source of their imprisonment.
The energy seemed to settle within a small forest, and a few of the country’s braver citizens cautiously made their way to where they thought the mist had stopped – but to their surprise and dismay, they found nothing. Had their eyes deceived them? Had they simply seen a trick of the light, the reflection of the blue sky against the impenetrable dome? They did not know, and they did not have the means, or the strength of will, to investigate. They turned, left the forest and returned to their lives.
The people of Symkaria had observed an unusual form of energy passing through the heated dome; there was no deception, at least not by their own senses. The mist had been what the Exiles were becoming all too familiar with – the energy that accompanied them, the energy into which their bodies were now accustomed to being transmuted into, as they were pulled from one dimension to the next or their vague mission of exploration and education.
They had, indeed, materialised within the forest as suspected by those who witnessed their appearance – but it was a simple, almost instinctive task for Aleta to wrap her teammates in a sphere of light that matched the angle of refraction of the dome itself, rendering them entirely invisible. It was only after the brave souls who investigated their arrival were fully beyond her view that she allowed the sphere to dissolve, exposing her allies to the bright light of day.
But… they weren’t all her allies, or all of her allies. One of the men she had come to call her friend was gone, perhaps forever, to be replaced by what she assumed was and always would be nothing more than a hated foe.
“Nightcrawler!” Joseph snarled as he and the other Exiles, realised that the teleporting member of the Crimson Circle had followed them through space and, perhaps, time. “Don’t move!”
The figure, actually named Nachtgleiskette, paused, giving the Exiles a chance to really observe him – they had only seen him in the relative darkness of the Crimson Circle’s lair a moment earlier. Each of them was surprised by his jet black skin and glowing gold eyes, nostrils and lips. He remained still, letting the sunlight, filtered through the dome, wash over him.
“You have again confu–” he began to say, in a heavy German accent.
“Monster!” Ph-Eros shouted. He lunged at Nachtgleiskette, his hand outstretched, but Scamp jerked him aside. He calmed almost immediately and looked his friend in the eyes. “He killed Daywalker.”
“No, he didn’t,” Scamp said softly. “It’s not his fault.”
Ph-Eros opened his mouth to protest, but as looked closely at Scamp’s face his eyes came to rest on the two puncture marks adorning her neck. He remembered – and it shocked him that he had not remembered sooner, since the actual event had taken place only minutes earlier – that Scamp had allegedly been bitten by one member of the Crimson Circle and turned into a vampire.
“W-where’s the Stranger?” Firefly asked nervously.
The Exiles, as well as Nachtgleiskette, all peered carefully into the dark foliage of the forest but found that they could not see or hear anything. Aleta, at least, was certain the Stranger had appeared, unconscious, in the forest beside the rest of her companions – she distinctly recalled the extra effort it took to bend the light around his unusually massive form.
She wondered, briefly, where he could have gone – then decided, coldly, that she did not care. While Ph-Eros chose to blame Nachtgleiskette for Daywalker’s death, Aleta clearly recalled what actually happened; that a mad Doc Savage – the almost uncontrollable, beast-like alter ego of the Mysterious Stranger – had slammed Daywalker’s body hard against the machine that was the source of the Crimson Circle’s power. He had killed a friend, whether he meant to or not, and it was going to be a while before Aleta would forgive him.
“We don’t have time to worry about him,” Joseph spoke, calmly saying what Aleta knew she could not. “We need to find shelter. We cannot risk exposing Scamp and Nightcrawler to the sun any longer. Once we have somew–”
“Stop,” Nachtgleiskette interrupted. “I have something to say.”
Ph-Eros rolled his eyes. “You don’t get to speak.”
Nachtgleiskette smiled. “Not even if it is to tell you how to save your friend?”
The castle that formed the seat of political power in Symkaria was overrun with activity as reports of the mysterious blue mist that seemed able to penetrate the energy dome came flooding in. Even as those who saw the event for themselves rushed to report their sightings to government officials, the political authorities in Symkaria made their own observations, using sophisticated equipment designed specifically to analyse and record events involving the dome.
They knew that the mist had arrived within moments of its arrival – but they had no idea how it had passed through the dome when nothing else could, leaving scientists scratching their heads as Prime Minister Sakrova entered the main monitoring laboratory.
“What news?” she asked coolly.
“Nothing,” replied once scientist. “Witnesses tell us the mist settled in a forest just south of… wait! What’s that?”
The scientist pointed to one monitor, and one of his companions rushed to scrutinise it. What he saw was a large, lumbering, apparently amphibian-looking monster lumbering through the woods. It seemed dazed and unfocused, pausing only to crush trees and brush that got in its way.
“Despatch the Wild Pack. Capture the beast,” Sakrova said. “Whatever it is, it came through the dome.”
“We don’t know that,” the scientist replied.
“Yes, we do,” Sakrova responded, “unless you are telling me your monitors have missed it all this time?”
The scientist swallowed hard. “N-no, Prime Minister,” he said. “But must we capture it? Silver Sable would – ”
“Silver Sablinova is dead,” Sakrova told him, “and her authority to – how did she put it? – ‘have dibs’ on matters of a superhuman or supernatural nature died with her. Bring the beast to me. It may hold the key to bringing down the dome!”
Sakrova turned on her heel and marched out of the laboratory as the scientist summoned the Wild Pack – Symkaria’s elite, formerly-private battalion of superhuman mercenaries – to the castle. Like it or not, they were going to engage the monster in battle, and there was not a thing he could do about it.
“Dr. Rikova?” another scientist stared at him. “Are you okay?”
“No… I certainly am not.”
“What?” Joseph asked. “We don’t have time for this. Either tell us how to restore Scamp or leave us.”
“I’m fine,” Scamp whispered, but no-one seemed to respond.
Nachtgleiskette rolled his eyes. “Do not think you can threaten me, human.”
Joseph smiled. “Human? I’m anything but. Now – how do we cure Scamp?”
“I’m fine,” Scamp repeated.
“You are not human?” Nachtgleiskette stared at Joseph. “You certainly look human. Perhaps – ”
Ph-Eros leaped, and struck the side of Nachtgleiskette’s head with the back of his hand. The jet black man staggered back, then turned to face Joseph again. “You use the child to fight your battles?”
“Tell us how to save Scamp!” Ph-Eros snapped.
“I’M FINE!” Scamp shouted angrily. “Listen to me! Whatever that bite was, it hasn’t done anything to me. And even if I wasn’t… Nachtgleiskette isn’t to blame!”
Aleta stepped forward and put one arm around Scamp’s shoulders, but the younger woman shrugged it away. She took a few angry steps away from the group, took a deep breath, then turned to face them again – but she did not speak.
“If Scamp is fine,” Joseph said, “then you have nothing to offer us, Nightcrawler.”
“For the last time: I am not the person you think I am!” Nachtgleiskette was becoming visibly angry – and as his anger increased, his German accent seemed to decrease. “What ‘Scamp’ tells you is true – she is unharmed… now.”
“Then – ” Joseph began to speak, but Aleta raised a hand to interrupt him.
“If Scamp is fine, then what did you mean about saving our friend?” Aleta asked.
“I was referring to the Daywalker,” Nachtgleiskette replied. “You think he is destroyed, but – ” His voice quickly transformed into a whisper. ” – do not move! Woman, transform the light around us once again!”
Aleta concentrated and slowly flexed her wrists. Again, the light in the area bent around the still bodies of the Exiles, rendering them invisible to any type of light-dependent sensor – including eyes – that may have come across them. She waited nervously, focusing on maintaining absolute perfection in her illusion; until something struck the back of her head, hard.
“Aleta!” Joseph snapped.
“Don’t move!” a voice shouted from the trees. “Put your hands up!”
“No way!” Ph-Eros replied, and he, too, was struck unconscious by an unseen blow.
“Surrender, intruders!” the voice shouted again. “Put your hands up!”
“Exiles…” Joseph said. “Raise your hands. They have us.”
The undersea kingdom of Atlantis had experienced many setbacks in recent months. First, an energy wave separated the royal palace and several surrounding buildings from the rest of the sunken city and, days later, containers bearing the markings of a surface nation dropped from the surface to spill a noxious liquid into the ocean, poisoning half the population.
However, Prince Namor had not been aware of any of this, having been held captive by the Mandarin for close to a year. As he swam through the murky depths toward his shattered kingdom, he passed many decomposing Atlantean bodies and, finally, swam headlong into the impenetrable energy field that divided the realm.
“What is this?!” he demanded. Through the field, he could see one of his dying followers, at first delighted to see his master, and then desperately pointing to one the containers that had settled into the soft seabed. Namor stared at it intently, scrutinising the symbols on its side. “???????? Symkaria,” he muttered. Then, more loudly: “Symkaria! Such an act against our kingdom can not go unanswered! Though I must confront them alone, the people of Symkaria will know no mercy from the avenging son! Imperius Rex!”
The Exiles walked calmly through the densely decorated halls of Castle Symkaria, the Wild Pack marching, guns ready, several feet behind them. Their leader, a man of Russian origin and wearing a tight-fitting red and black striped costume and carrying a rectangular shield had identified himself as Battlestar. He explained that the Exiles were in no danger but demanded that they allow themselves to be escorted to the castle for debriefing.
Joseph had agreed, but not before demonstrating the ease with which he could disable his captors’ weapons if he chose. He used his control over magnetism to twist then straighten the barrels of their guns, and warned them that the moment a bullet or any other projectile was aimed at his friends, he would do more than disable the Wild Pack’s weapons.
But still, the Wild Pack carried their weapons before them, more to assure the castle staff of their own safety than anything else. They walked quickly and purposefully into the main meeting chamber occupied by the Prime Minister, who rose as the Exiles and the Wild Pack entered.
Battlestar stepped forward and briefly bowed before the Prime Minister.
“Prime Minister Sakrova,” he said. “While pursuing the amphibian, we found these six congregating in the forest. At least two of their number have displayed superhuman powers, and we found this – ” he pulled a small, perfectly round sphere from his pocket, which Joseph immediately recognised as the one presented to the Exiles by Spratt days earlier ” – in the undergrowth nearby.”
Sakrova nodded, then turned to the Exiles. “Who are you?”
“We call ourselves the Exiles,” Joseph replied.
“And we’d like to say this isn’t the welcome we expected,” Ph-Eros said, rubbing the back of his head, “but we’re getting used to this sort of thing.”
Sakrova nodded again and produced a large photograph. She handed it to Joseph, who only needed to glance at it once to identify its subject as Doc Savage. “Are you associated with this creature?”
Joseph handed the photo back. “He is an associate of ours. The Mysterious Stranger.”
“Then you passed through the energy dome with it,” Sakrova concluded. “You can assist us.”
Joseph frowned. “What is this about?”
“Two months ago,” Sakrova explained, “a dome of unidentifiable energy surrounded our nation. We have been able to pass anything through it, and it has entirely halted our communication with the rest of the world. Even Battlestar, a teleporting mutant, has been able to penetrate it.
“Days after the dome was erected, the body of one of our most celebrated citizens, Silver Sablinova, was found hanging from a tree just outside the dome, with a Latverian flag strung across her body. We naturally assume that Doctor Doom, the ruler of Latveria, is responsible for creating the dome, but that does not help us to disable it.
“You, however, seem to have passed through it.”
“We did,” Joseph responded, “but we cannot help you. The means by which we travelled here are beyond our control.”
Sakrova nodded, then shook her head sadly. “In that case, I am afraid you must remain here until our scientists can find a way to control it.”
“You can’t keep us here!” Firefly yelped.
“Yes, I can,” Sakrova told him. “Even if I could not, you cannot leave the confines of the dome. You are trapped anyway. At least this way, you have the full support of the Symkarian government during your time here. You look tired. Rest, eat, and tomorrow my scientists will find out how you came to be here.”
The Exiles faced one another and realised Sakrova was right. They could not escape, and even if they could, they had nowhere to go – and it had been so long since they had had a full, good night’s sleep or anything substantial to eat. One-by-one, they allowed Battlestar to show them to finely-furnished quarters and went to sleep.
Late that night, Scamp made her way into Ph-Eros’ room and gently shook him awake. The naked Ph-Eros pulled his sheets tightly around his body as he became aware of Scamp’s presence. He looked at her, still clad in her filthy red bodysuit, the skin around his eyes – barely visible behind her sunglasses – dark and sagging. She had not slept.
“Come here…” he said. He pulled her close and wrapped his thin arms around her body. She half-heartedly tried to push him away, but when he did not let go she started to relax and to speak.
“Daywalker…” she said. “He didn’t…”
“I know,” Ph-Eros whispered. “Don’t worry. Just go to sleep.”
He placed the back of his bare hand against Scamp’s cheek and began to whisper softly, using his unique powers to urge her to sleep. But nothing happened. He tried a second time. Still nothing.
“It wasn’t Nachtgleiskette’s fault,” she said. “He – ”
“Don’t,” Ph-Eros said. “I don’t – ”
“We couldn’t help – ”
“Don’t say that!” Ph-Eros snapped. He pulled his arms away, and Scamp bolted upright. She stood, and took a few steps away from his bed. “I don’t care who killed him, Scamp! But Daywalker was our friend, and Nachtgleiskette was one of the people who made his life literally a living hell!”
“You don’t know – ”
Scamp nodded, turned, and walked calmly out of the room. Ph-Eros sat up and began to breathe heavily. He was worried. Not about Scamp, really – she seemed tough, and to be coping as well as most people would under the circumstances. No, he was more worried about why his suggestive powers did not work on her, and what that meant for his other secrets.
He ran one hand across his face and another across his chest, feeling the welts and scars that were usually invisible to everyone but himself. All of the Exiles had been secretive to some extent; no-one knew much about anyone else, although Ph-Eros did suspect that Daywalker and Scamp were closer than any other Exiles. But Ph-Eros had more reason than most to keep his secrets, and he was not going to let something petty like grief ruin his one chance to do what he had to do.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ph-Eros saw Firefly standing in the corner of the doorway, staring at him. The boy was dressed in complicated Symkarian robes that made him look rather like a gypsy, and he seemed more than a little confused about why Ph-Eros was rubbing his skin.
“‘s cold,” Ph-Eros muttered. “What do you want?”
“S-scamp’s right, you know,” Firefly said. “Nachtgleiskette isn’t responsible for killing Daywalker.”
“Don’t even – ”
“Let me finish!” Ph-Eros was taken aback by the force of Firefly’s demand. “Nachtgleiskette may be a jerk, but he didn’t kill Daywalker. We both know who did.”
“Savage,” Firefly said simply.
“So…” Firefly seemed nervous about whatever he was going to say next, and he paused for a long time before speaking again. “Are you going to help me kill him?”
NEXT ISSUE: Savage vs. Firefly vs. Namor!
Written by Adrian J. Watt’s of SoftPixels