When in his green amphibious beast-man form, Doctor Stephen Strange – more commonly known as the Mysterious Stranger – was often called ‘Doc Savage’. In actuality, the name of his alternate form was Xin’garoth, and it was the host of a non-sentient demonic entity of the same name. None of that was relevant; however – all anyone who met Xin’garoth needed to know was that he was tough, difficult to control, and powerful beyond measure.
Having spent several hours wandering the forests of Symkaria, Doc Savage found himself wandering along the side of a river, his mind focusing on nothing in particular. It was not the beauty of the scenery that caused his mind to relax; it was, instead, a mystical barrage that had assailed him shortly before his arrival in the world he presently inhabited*.
[ – back in #7 – Adrian ]
Doc Savage slowly waded into the water, oblivious to the attempts of the current to slow his journey. The river proved to have significant depth, and Doc Savage soon found himself entirely submerged. Again, he was not bothered by the change in environment; his amphibious nature rendered him immune to the effects of being underwater.
However, something did cause his body to react, even if his mind remained unaware of what was going on around him. A putrid chemical permeated the aquatic atmosphere and attacked his thick hide, not causing any specific injury but still causing him to slow and to weaken. He tried to push through it, but instead began to stumble as his legs suddenly lacked the strength to support his forward momentum.
He fell, hitting the riverbed face first and did not rise.
Ph-Eros could not believe the words that he had just heard spoken by his young teammate, Firefly. They seemed to hang in the air between them, as if somehow tangible, like a poison which, if not cleared quickly enough, would permanently and severely damage them in some manner.
“You’re upset,” Ph-Eros said. “I understand. But there’s no way either of us could take on Doc Savage, and even if we could… look, kid…” He stared at Firefly for a moment, taking in his emotionless expression, and wondered how serious he was. “Just go to sleep. Forget about it.”
Firefly shook his head. “What do you mean we couldn’t take him on? I’ve seen your power. You can calm him down – control him.”
“Go to bed, Firefly. Now.”
Firefly shrugged, turned, and walked out of the room. Ph-Eros let out a deep sigh and slid down into his bed, wrapping the covers tightly around his body. He thought briefly of Firefly’s position – he was the youngest member of the team, perhaps the least mature, and he had been overlooked for the majority of the time they had been together. He could understand the boy’s frustration; dragged from his own timeline and across a number of unknown worlds. But Ph-Eros also realised that he and the other Exiles had also endured the same experiences.
I don’t need to deal with this, he thought to himself. I was fine on my own… then I got dragged into this mess… and, of course, stupid me develops an attachment to the first guy to bite the dust. And Firefly… no. I’m not here to babysit the kid.
His mind wandered and began to be taken over by thoughts of the seemingly close relationship between Joseph and Aleta. The two oldest Exiles had appeared to come together almost immediately and had not been separated for more than a few moments at a time since. He wondered if anything special was going on between them, and inevitably his thoughts drifted to Scamp and Daywalker.
During the night spent in Daywalker’s world, Ph-Eros had noticed Scamp entering their teammate’s bedroom… and she didn’t come out. He could only guess at what had gone on, but from Daywalker’s intense fear of her being in any way harmed*, he felt safe in his suspicions. All she seemed to care about now was defending Nachtgleiskette, and he didn’t want to hear any of that.
[ * – also in #7 – Also Adrian ]
No… he had been okay on his own for a long time, and that’s the way things were going to stay.
Firefly’s Symkarian dress fell away from his body as he shrunk to the size of the insect whose name he bore and thin, translucent wings sprouted from slits in his back. The wings began to beat so quickly that a dull buzzing sound radiated from them, but he knew that while the sound was loud to him, it was almost imperceptible to almost everyone else; it was this ability alone that enabled him to slip past the armed guards he had seen standing at each exit of the wing of the castle that the Exiles were allowed to rest in.
He buzzed through the castle’s corridors, ignored by the building’s security cameras like any other insect. He was searching for something, and while he knew which room it was likely to be in, he did not know where that room was.
He flitted past talking officials and patrolling guards, but it was some time before one of them mentioned ‘the weird ball’. The guard explained to his friend that it was being studied by scientists only a few rooms away; Firefly buzzed off, and it was not longer before he squeezed his way through a narrow opening into a laboratory where the ‘weird ball’ – the orb Spratt had given the Exiles shortly before they departed the year 8162 – rested in a glass case, observed by half a dozen scientists.
Savage knows what the orb is, Firefly thought to himself. Maybe he has some connection to it – maybe it can help me find him!
He landed on a polished metal surface and watched for what seemed like hours – but, a clock on the wall told him, were mere minutes – as scientists bombarded the orb with a variety of forms of energy, none of which affected it in the slightest. It was not much longer before all but one of the scientists left the room, and Firefly saw his opportunity. He flew across the room and hovered just behind the woman’s head; he waited; she turned, and a very narrow stream of fire arced from his hand into her ear.
It was not enough to cause any significant injury, but it was enough to hurt.
“ARGH!” she yelped, as she ran from the room clutching her ear.
Firefly smiled as he turned back to the orb. He returned to his normal size and approached the glass case, which smashed as he slid it off the pedestal on which it stood. The orb rolled towards him, and he picked it up. He returned to insect size and began to fly again, grateful for the tendency of Pym particles to allow their users to retain their normal strength regardless of their size, and carried the orb outside of the castle and into the nearby forest.
Aleta sat at the end of a long, lavishly-decorated bed, trying to make sense of the events that had taken place since the last time she had had the chance to relax. Despite her recent determination to do whatever she had to get back to her own life*, she found recent events – the death of Daywalker, the team’s capture – to be a little more than she could bear.
[ * – in #6. – Adrian ]
What’s worse, she no longer had Spratt’s orb, which seemed to be essential to the group’s mission.
Even worse than that was the knowledge that she was, in many ways, alone. Away from the Guardians of the Galaxy, away from Kristoff (the man she loved), away from Vance (the man she used to love), and even somehow separate from the rest of the Exiles, as she remained the only one to hear the sporadic instructions from their mysterious master.
Daywalker’s death, the sudden jaunts through time and space – that, she realised, she could deal with… if given enough time. But being alone… that was something else entirely.
She stood and made her way to the room next door, where Joseph lay spread out on a bed identical to the one in Aleta’s own room. His eyes were closed, but his breathing was too shallow for him to have been sleeping.
Of course, that’s something I would notice, Aleta rolled her eyes as the thought entered her head. I’ve slept with enough men to know when they’re really down for the night.
“Joseph…?” she whispered from the doorway.
Joseph sat up and saw her, then motioned for her to enter. Aleta stood beside his bed then, after a moment, sat down and looked Joseph in the eye.
“What is it?” he asked. “Did you have another – ”
“No, no commands this time,” she told him. “Maybe we’re here just for the chance to rest?”
“I think we deserve it.” Aleta saw Joseph’s lips begin to curl into a smile, but they quickly reverted back into his usual, flat-line grimace. It occurred to her that Joseph had never really seemed happy; not overly upset, either – he, more than anyone else, seemed to be ‘rolling with the punches’ as far as adapting to their new situation, but he did always seem like just one more thing could tip him over the edge, and she wondered whether it was fair to him to do what she was about to do.
She took a deep breath. “It has not been long since we were all brought together. I’m not sure, because of all the time-hopping, but I think it has only been two, maybe three days?”
“Close to three,” Joseph confirmed.
Aleta nodded. “Right. During that time, we’ve formed our own groups… you, Firefly and I. Scamp, Ph-Eros and Daywalker… and the Stranger… But I think, if we were all brought together for this mission – to learn what we can in order to change our own worlds for the better – then we must have been chosen for a reason. With all that’s been going on, we haven’t really tried to learn what we have in common, and what that reason might be. It seems we’ve all been deliberately secretive, putting walls between us when we should have been bringing them down.”
“I agree,” Joseph said.
“I thought… perhaps the two of us could set an example. Make the effort, and bring the team together… because it is just too much, now, for any of us to try to handle everything on our own. We’re so exhausted that we haven’t even…” Aleta’s voice trailed off for a moment, then: “Nachtgleiskette!”
“What…?” Joseph wondered.
“We’ve been so overwhelmed, so exhausted, that we haven’t even spoken to Nachtgleiskette! He was going to tell us how we can save Daywalker!”
Joseph stood, and took Aleta’s hand. “Then let’s speak to him now. Together.”
“Wake up, you monstrous mal – ”
Namor stopped speaking as Doc Savage’s eyes fluttered open, and the great beast coughed, spilling lungfuls of toxic water onto the ground beside him. Namor smiled at the stranger’s recovery.
“You are amphibious. Are you one of – ”
Doc Savage stood and began to walk, cutting Namor off in mid-sentence as he pushed past him.
“You dare ignore me?!” Namor shouted after him. “I am Namor, scion of Atlantis! No creature that breathes water can defy my will!”
Apparently, Doc Savage could, as he continued walking along the riverbank, heading nowhere, in particular, seemingly oblivious to Namor’s presence.
Elsewhere in the forest, Firefly zoomed between branches and eaves, the strange orb glowing intermittently in his hands. He was not sure why it was glowing, but he continued to hope that it was, somehow, guiding him towards Savage.
He had been flying for hours, and was beginning to tire – but somewhere inside, he knew he had reserves of strength; the kind of strength kept aside for the moments that really mattered… like trying to kill a monster more than twice your size in revenge for killing someone you hardly knew while in an uncontrollable rage.
Okay, so when phrased like that, it didn’t sound too rational.
The left side of the orb pulsated, and Firefly quickly turned to his left and saw, a few feet ahead of him, a large clearing that sloped down towards a river. Two men walked along it: one was pale and wore a black, tight-fitting suit with gold highlights; the other was Doc Savage.
Firefly increased his speed and shot straight into Savage’s back, allowing himself to grow as he did so. With the increased weight came increased momentum, and he found himself colliding with the behemoth’s bulky frame with such force that Savage fell forward. Firefly settled on the ground and retracted his wings, then tossed the orb away.
“You’re dead, Savage,” he said simply.
Namor rushed to Savage’s side. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked angrily.
“Stay out of this, sir!” Firefly demanded. “This monster is a killer, and he needs to be punished.”
“I am Prince Namor of Atlantis, and – ”
“Atlantis? As in, underwater?”
“Yes. I – ”
“I think this will really hurt.” Firefly raised his left hand and pointed towards Namor. A thick jet of bright orange fire shot from his fingertip and covered the Atlantean monarch, but rather than growl Namor let loose a roar of thunderous rage and began to march closer to Firefly. With each step, he became visibly weaker, and before he covered even half the distance between himself and the young Exile he found he needed water, quickly. He dived into the nearby river the surface of which, polluted as it was, burst into flame behind him.
Firefly turned his attention to Savage and began bombarding the other Exile with flame. At first, Savage seemed completely unaware of the added heat, so intense that even his thick skin began to blister and boil. After several long moments he took a step back, and then another, but Firefly pressed his slow attack and, as he realised that it must be hurting Savage – despite the lack of any visible response to such pain – he began to smile.
Suddenly, Firefly realised that he had started to grow – and the intensity of his flame had grown with him. The long black hair burned off Savage’s head, and with his increased height Firefly could clearly see the burning scalp underneath; and, beyond Savage, the strange orb glowing furiously.
Before Firefly could do anything, a figure so dark he was almost invisible stepped out of the shadow of two trees and scooped up the orb. It was Nachtgleiskette, and as the sphere settled into the palm of his hand he smiled, and Firefly could clearly see his golden mouth widen.
“Exile,” Nachtgleiskette said. “You must stop your attack.”
“No!” Firefly cried angrily, growing still larger. “He killed our friend!”
“He was out-of-control,” Nachtgleiskette told him. “You saw that for yourself. He did not choose to kill the Daywalker.”
“But he did kill him!”
Nachtgleiskette frowned. “You need to end your assault, Exile. The monster is subject to a condition beyond his control, and should not be punished. And even were that not the case, this device seems to want to communicate with you.”
Firefly closed his hand, and the flaming barrage stopped. Savage still burned, his hair and skin having been thoroughly ignited, but without the continued assault, the flame was bearable, and he continued his slow walk by the river’s edge.
Firefly returned to his normal size and crossed the clearing to where Nachtgleiskette stood, and took the glowing orb from his hand. His mind flashed with images of Savage, but they were all images he had already seen: the barren wasteland, where Ph-Eros first used his own powers to turn Savage back into the Mysterious Stranger; the blow which called Daywalker. They repeated again and again in his mind, making no sense, giving him no reason to change his mind about Savage. Then, just as suddenly as they had started, the images stopped, and the orb’s glow dulled.
“Hmmmm…” Nachtgleiskette mused.
“What?” Firefly asked. He turned to follow Nachtgleiskette’s line of sight and saw, walking by the river, not the burnt green form of Doc Savage, but the pale, lanky, pink body of the Mysterious Stranger.
NEXT ISSUE: Sanctuary!
AND IN EXILES DX #1: Meet Valour. Meet Airwave. Meet “crazy armoured guy”. Meet the first clue as to what brought the Exiles together… and why..
Written by Adrian J. Watt’s of SoftPixels