Chapter 46 :The Last Hope…

The private jet of Wayne Enterprises flies high above the sea of clouds. After having left Lucius at the Manor to take care of a rather badly injured Bruce, Richard, Lois, and Lee escorted Clark to Wayne's private airport where the small but fast plane was chartered for them. After an arrangement made with the Air Force by Lucius on Wayne's behalf, Richard was allowed to take off and head north with an express authorization to land on a northern scientific outpost not far from North Pole. They should be there in two hours or so.

Clark, tucked under a generous amount of blankets, is shaken by uncontrollable chills. Freezing literally from inside, he feels no pain anymore despite his numerous internal and external wounds, but he keeps this to himself as he understands it as a sure sign of his downfall. Looking at Lee, who's seated at his side, rubbing his back absently, he then gazes at Lois in front of him. His former partner holds his crystal preciously, looking at it with a sad expression. He frowns slightly, then says with a tired, cracking voice, "You both should have stayed at the Manor like I asked you. If I fail…"

"You won't fail!" the two women say in unison, forcing a faint smile on his blemished face.

"Lois, you have to take care of Jason; you have no right to leave him alone. Needing Richard's help makes me feel guilty enough already, and…" He doesn't finish his sentence, strangled by a coughing attack that leaves him out of breath and sweaty.

Lee hugs him while Lois mops his forehead up with a tissue, ignoring his reproof. He's absolutely right though and she feels guilty indeed, but she also has an unspoken reason for being here, despite being at his side selfishly for the most important moment of their lives: after him, she's the only one here to have been to the Fortress of Solitude, and if he happens to pass out before arriving, she'll be the only one able to guide them there.

Lee, on the other hand, has no qualms being here right next to the man she loves; where else should she be, anyway? Her blindness? She'll make sure to not be a burden for her friends, ready even to wait for them and stay behind if needed at any time. Besides, she knows she can be useful; she doesn't know how yet, but still she's pretty sure of it.

Sighing heavily, Clark lets his head rest on the luxury passenger seat, and looks through the window at the dying rays of sun pouring their golden light on the silk clouds. He used to love the sun so much… and the clouds, he loved flying above them… Letting his thoughts wander, he doesn't realize at first that his eyelids are closing, and it's just at the dangerous edge of slumber that he snaps out of it, horrified. I can't let go… I won't wake up again… Grabbing Lee's hand in his cold one, he asks her groggily, "Lee, please… keep me awake…"

Frowning, she rubs his hand vigorously. "I promise, Clark. Just hold on, we'll be there in less than an hour now."

At this time of the year, the Arctic is shrouded in an everlasting dusk. When the plane finally lands on the thick ice sheet, the four friends are enveloped by a freezing wind, chilling them to the bone despite their coats and the equipment they took before leaving Gotham.

The weather station is deserted, of course, and they waste no time, finding some snowmobiles abandoned there by the former inhabitants. Clark wants to climb on one immediately but another wave of weakness forces him to lean on Richard instead.

"Clark!" the assistant-editor says, holding him back from falling, steadying him.

"It's… okay…" the reporter whispers, cursing his weakened state.

"It may be better if I ride, okay? You'll sit behind me and show me the way. The girls will follow us on the other one."

Nodding pitifully, Clark, shameful, lets his friend help him sit like someone would help an old man.

After half an hour of smooth driving in the immaculate immensity, they penetrate a totally different landscape where the monotonous uniformity of snow and ice bathed in the golden light is gradually replaced by a chaos of purple ice peaks and dark gray crevasses crying under the howling wind of a curious, out of place storm.

Scrutinizing the deep, dark void half-hidden in the freezing mist before them, Richard must face the fact that they can't go any further with their vehicles. "Okay, we'll have to walk from now on," he yells through the roaring wind while helping Clark out of the snowmobile. They take their bags and gather together, starting to follow a narrow catwalk along an abrupt slope, the Kryptonian in the lead, closely followed by Richard, the girls in toe, hand in hand.

Clark does his best to hide the growing numbness of his body and the grogginess of his mind as staying awake gets harder and harder. He's not even entirely sure that they head in the right direction, for the last time he's been here by foot was a very long time ago… They walk for another hour until they reach a steep headland overhanging a tortured valley scattered with random piles of frozen rocks, bathed in a dense fog.

Stepping before his tall friend, Richard suddenly gasps, gazing at the strange scenery; what he thought were rocks and ice, are actually giant crystals intertwined and torn through the ice cap. When the stormy wind suddenly blows the fog away, the gigantic mass of the Fortress of Solitude appears like a cathedral among the shattered land. "Oh, my…" he starts when a piercing cry makes him turn around abruptly.

"Clark!!" Lois has just yelled, as the hero collapses in the snow.

They're all immediately at his side, and Richard slaps his cheek gently. "Clark? Come on buddy, wake up. We're almost there…" he says, his cracking voice betraying his fear.

Lee and Lois have gathered around their friend and the red-haired woman now strokes his wet hair with her trembling hands, trying to tame her own angst when she feels more than she can actually hear his erratic heartbeat and ragged breaths. "Clark," she says, lowering her lips to just above his left ear. "Hold on… please." Her voice is just a resigned whisper as, more than anyone else, she knows deep inside how futile her pleas are. She's losing him…

After his continuous battle to stay awake over the last two hours, Clark simply lowered his guard when he saw his Fortress, forgetting for a split second that he had to breathe, this simple exercise even now being a fight in itself. Now laid against the cold carpet of snow, he welcomes it as it echoes with the coldness he feels inside him. His irises are now an impossibly clear shade of blue, his eyes unfocused and his lips move so slightly. "The crystal… Fortress…" he mumbles weakly.

Lee looks up at Richard, her expression mixed with fear and resolve. "We have to go on and bring him to the Fortress!" she shouts through the wind.

Nodding, the assistant-editor hauls the limp Kryptonian up on his shoulders. Staggering slightly under his weight, he steadies himself and starts to walk ahead as fast as he can on the icy ground, followed by the two women.

Half an hour later, they finally step into the monumental structure, passing under a gigantic crystal gate. Crossing the various cold chambers, they progress into the core of the Fortress, stepping finally into an immense chamber bathed in a feeble light, its ceiling opened to the tormented sky and its depth plunging into endless darkness.

Getting down on one knee, Richard lets go of Clark and lays him down on the floor of the central platform gently. "Here, Buddy. We've arrived, wake up," he says, shaking him softly. "Clark?" His voice cracks as blood leaves his face suddenly. "Oh no…" he whispers, trying to find a pulse on his ice-cold throat. Finally, he kneels back in shock.

Clark is dead.