EPILOGUE: BRAND NEW WORLD
New York City, August 24, 2009
As the morning sun started to rise over New York City, the silence began to die away, replaced by the usual sounds of the bustling metropolis. With the city now – mostly – repopulated, and the repair-effort underway, things were finally starting to get back to normal.
Carrying a steel girder over his shoulder, Superman flew up to one of the top levels of scaffolding that surrounded one of the buildings damaged by the invasion, and then by Zod's rampage. Hovering steadily, Superman held the girder in place, before he fired his eye-rays at its ends, welding one end into the adjoining girder, and then the other, fixing it in place. His task done, Superman descended, touching down by the foreman. "The girder's in place, foreman; anything else I can assist with?"
The foreman looked nervous. "N-No, Superman, I think we're okay. You and your green pal can head on; we'll manage." With that, he headed off, as his coworkers all inched away, with similar expressions of anxiety.
Watching them move clear of him, Superman's own expression fell; he'd been expecting this, but actually seeing it was another matter. They were all afraid of him, now…
"They're not really afraid, Superman; just…not quite comfortable."
Turning, Superman saw J'onn walk up to him, having finished assisting the cement-workers via his TK. "You don't have to sugar-coat it, J'onn," he answered. "I can see it in their eyes: I terrify them."
The Manhunter smiled gently. "They're only now starting to realize exactly who – and what – was walking amongst them, for the past few years," he reminded. "The fact that Kryptonian science was capable of wreaking such destruction virtually without contest is going to be a sore one, for some time."
Superman sighed. "Yeah; the destruction I brought on them…"
"Which Zod brought on them, not you," the Manhunter corrected. "They just need time to realize that."
Superman was about to respond, but stopped as a familiar sound filled his ears. "We have guests."
Right on cue, a S.H.I.E.L.D. gunship dropped out of the clouds, touching down a few feet away, allowing Nick Fury to hop out. "Kid, we need to talk."
Superman sighed. "I had a feeling we would."
Remarkably, Nick's expression was devoid of anger. "I'm not here to point any fingers, kid; there've been enough screw-ups on both our sides."
J'onn arched an eyebrow. "Such as enhancing a thermonuclear warhead with Kryptonite, and allowing a madman like Lassider access to its firing-codes?"
Nick sighed. "There's that," he admitted, "but there's also letting Zod have access to the most powerful weapon-system in the whole damn universe without a psych-screening. Like I said, there's blame to go around."
Superman nodded. "So what brings you here?"
"The same thing that brought me and Tad by, a week ago: where do we go from here?" Nick said. "This whole planet's gone on it's ear, kid: the secret's out about your polar clubhouse, and now we have a damn Death Star 2.0 over our heads. People are jumpy."
"What do you propose, then?" J'onn countered. "That the League place itself under your command? That Superman deliver control of Sentrius to your government?"
Nick shrugged. "It'd cool a lot of heads in the White House."
Superman frowned. "That would only make the rest of the world even more afraid, General," he said. "Yes, Zod was clearly unhinged and should never have been allowed access to Sentrius; it's obvious now, but at the time, we had no way of knowing! What's to prevent another madman from within your military or government from doing the same as he did?"
Nick closed his eye. "If you have a better idea, kid, I'm all ears."
Superman met his gaze. "There's a UN meeting today, correct?"
"In about a half-hour, yeah," Nick said. "Why?"
Turning to J'onn, Superman nodded. "Keep an eye on the news."
Nick grimaced. "You're about to do the same kinda thing as you did last year, aren't you?"
Superman chuckled grimly. "I sure hope so, General." With that, he and the Manhunter took to the air.
As they flew, Superman felt J'onn's thoughts brush his. 'You're sure about this?'
Superman nodded. 'It's the right thing to do, J'onn; I brought Earth into this, so I'll make it as right as I can.'
J'onn managed a faint smile. 'Clark, this wasn't your fault…'
'Zod was my responsibility, J'onn, and now, so is Sentrius,' Superman replied. 'I made this mess, so now I'll clean it up. Simple as that.'
No-one said – or thought – anything else as they flew on, to meet up with the others before the UN summit. With any luck, one more problem would be resolved, today…
Across the endless desert sands, far from human eyes, the Great Sphinx stood alone, its stone eyes gazing out at its domain, as if standing guard over an evil too great for mortal minds to remember, never wavering in its duty…
Deep beneath the Sphinx's stone belly, through ancient corridors lined with millennia's worth of dust and cobwebs, two figures stood at a massive stone door, carved with the image of a large spider. Walking forward, one figure held up a large, green gem before the door; instantly, the door shifted, and slid away…revealing a third door, bearing the image of a person surrounded by stone.
As Sinister stepped back with the second key, the ancient mutant Ozymandias scowled. "And yet another riddle bars the master's return."
"Now, Ozymandias; we knew there would be a third seal," Sinister chided. "We have been extremely fortunate; thanks to that "General Zod," the Kryptonian and his cohorts were completely unaware of our seizing the third key."
Ozymandias had to nod at that; without any interference, defeating the key's guardian had been simple. "Perhaps, but we at least knew where the second key was; with the third key, we have nothing…"
But he was quickly silenced, as the Master's mighty telepathic voice echoed through the psychic plain, making his will known. Once the command was given, Sinister smiled. "What was that human saying? "Ask and ye shall receive"?"
Ozymandias turned to go. "We must prepare; Lord Apocalypse's return is nigh!" he declared. "We shall not keep him waiting!"
Sinister quickly followed. "We will have to be careful; the third key is quite well-protected by Xavier and his brats. We'll need some time."
Ozymandias' scowl returned, but he nodded. "For our sake, Essex, we had best not take long, for our Lord is not patient."
Sinister grinned. "True," he agreed, "but I think he will find the wait well worth it, for the world is much changed from the one he left behind."
Ozymandias smirked. "That may be so, but it shall still tremble before the might of Apocalypse."
And as they left the Sphinx behind, the faint light from the torches they lit went out…and only darkness remained.
As Piotr led her out of the X-Van onto the Institute grounds, the first sound that greeted Anita was Illyana's voice; the instant she stepped onto the lawn, Illyana made a beeline for her, hugging her leg. "I knew you'd come back! I just knew it!"
Smiling tearfully, Anita knelt and hugged the younger girl, who unloaded a barrage of questions. "You didn't get hurt when those bad aliens came, did you? Where did you go? Why did…"
"'Yana." Piotr's voice was gently admonishing. "Don't you remember what I told you?"
Illyana perked up. "Oh, right; your voice got hurt, and you can't use it for another week?" Tapping the gauze around her throat, Anita nodded. Illyana just smiled brightly. "Okay!" she chirped, taking her hand.
Smiling back, Anita looked around the Institute, letting out a faint sigh of relief to see that it was mostly undamaged by the invasion, as well as Zod's mercifully brief occupation of Earth. Gesturing for Piotr's sketchpad, she wrote an inquiry. Anything new?
Piotr smiled. "You came back just in time; Scott, Jean, and Alison are graduating, today."
Anita's eyebrows shot to her hairline. Are you serious?
Piotr nodded. "Everyone was getting ready to go, now." He gestured towards the entrance. "I think they would like to see you."
Anita gulped. Are you sure?
Piotr's smile grew. "Very."
Illyana nodded. "Come on, let's go!" With that, she all but dragged Anita into the Institute.
As the trio walked into the Institute, they were almost bowled over, as the entire student body was rushing this way and that, trying to get ready for the graduation. Spotting her, Professor Xavier rolled towards her with a smile. "Welcome home, Anita," he greeted. "How are you feeling?"
Sketching her reply, Anita smiled back. I should be asking all of YOU that.
Charles chuckled. "We managed well enough," he answered, his expression sobering. "Though I fear the next few months will be difficult for some of us."
Anita didn't have to be telepathic to know their mentor's thoughts; she'd heard some of the patients and staff at the hospital grumble about Clark and the League as she'd left. Her smile fell into a frown. Ungrateful philistines, all of them!
"They are afraid, Anita, just as they were of mutants, a year ago," the Professor said. "We won their trust, with time, and so will the League, again."
Anita sighed. I hope so. Her expression turned nervous. Was everyone going to graduation?
Charles' smile came back. "That was the idea, Anita; we plan to meet Scott's, Jean's, and Alison's families, there."
Anita gulped. May I come?
This time it was Piotr who chuckled. "What made you think you could not?"
Anita beamed in response, before she looked about the Institute. With a teasing smirk, she wrote, Where's Blaire? Don't tell me the little twit forgot her own graduation!
Charles' smile turned forced. "No, Anita; I'm afraid that she and the rest of the League have more pressing concerns…"
U.N. Headquarters, New York
"Majesty, please forgive me for saying so, but this is rather unorthodox."
As the rest of the General Assembly poured into the Chamber, T'Challa, in his traditional robes, glanced towards his country's Ambassador with a raised eyebrow. "Given the past week, Ambassador, I would say my presence today is par for the course."
The Ambassador, a fairly young man, flushed nervously. "Sire, I mean no disrespect, but I had believed myself capable of representing Wakanda and her interests quite well unaided; have I given my King reason to doubt..?"
Quietly chuckling, T'Challa patted the youth on the shoulder. "No, Ambassador; you still have the faith of Wakanda's people with you," he assured him. "I am here because I am needed here."
The Ambassador blinked. "Forgive me, my King, but I do not understand."
Looking around the Assembly, T'Challa's expression turned grave. "I fear you will, very soon."
By then, the entire Assembly had gathered, as the Speaker called them to order. "This emergency meeting of the General Assembly will come to order! Is there a motion to address the current state of..?" The Speaker's inquiry was cut off as the doors to the Chamber swung open, letting the entire Justice League inside.
T'Challa grimaced; he'd expected something like this, but he'd hoped he was wrong…
The Speaker was understandably alarmed. "Now see here, you simply cannot interrupt a U.N. meeting without..!"
"We only ask for a minute of your time," Superman said quietly, his expression flat. "After that, we will leave."
The Speaker was momentarily cowed by that. "Very well."
Slowly, the League walked to the center of the Chamber, in the middle of the entire Assembly; glancing about, T'Challa saw the sour expressions of many of the delegates – including the look of murderous fury on the North Korean Ambassador's face – as they glared at the League. They were out for blood, he knew; all it would take was one wrong word…
Superman's blatant remark surprised the Assembly out of their accusatory looks, T'Challa had to note. His eyes downcast, the Man of Tomorrow continued. "Because he was one of my people, I didn't believe that General Zod was capable of doing what he did; I allowed myself to be blind to what he had become. Even worse, I allowed him to have access to even more power – power which corrupted him even further." His expression hardened. "I won't make that mistake again."
Reaching towards his forearm, he removed the single crystal attached to it, the crystal's armband automatically retracting at his touch, before he walked towards the Speaker's podium and placed it there. "This is the only remaining Command Module for Sentrius: it's the only thing capable of remotely commanding her and all of her functions, vehicles, and weapons. It is keyed only to respond to a Kryptonian's touch, and Sentrius herself will only take orders from me. Without that Module, neither myself nor the League can command Sentrius again; without me, no-one here can command her, either." He took a deep breath. "It was our intent to only use Sentrius to defend Earth, and that is what we will do – now, it is up to all of you, the people of Earth, to decide when we will do so." He stepped back. "That is all we wanted to say. Thank you."
As the entire League turned to go, T'Challa's grimace grew. This was what he'd feared and prepared for: what Ororo had warned him about. Never before was he more grateful for his father's words of wisdom: "Think two steps ahead of your enemies, and three steps ahead of your friends."
Three steps ahead; he only hoped that it had been enough…
Royal Palace, Panther City, Wakanda, 24 hours earlier
"You are certain of this, Ororo?"
Her lovely visage fraught with worry, Ororo's image nodded through the video-screen. "I am almost positive of it, T'Challa; Superman and the League plan to visit the General Assembly's emergency meeting, and given how people have been talking about him after…Zod's betrayal, I'm certain that Kal will do something rash!"
Still in his armoured uniform, the Black Panther nodded gravely. "I had my suspicions he might do that, Ororo; I'd hoped I was wrong…"
Ororo flinched. "As did I, my love," she lamented. "Neither I nor the others know what to do…"
"Do what you have been doing, my Windrider. Talk to him; you and the others are his family."
Ororo still looked worried. "And if that doesn't work?"
The Panther's eyes narrowed. "Leave that to me, my love," he answered. "I will contact you once the last repairs in Panther City are complete."
Ororo nodded sadly. "Take care, T'Challa." With that, she ended the call.
As Ororo's face vanished, the Panther turned to find his sister waiting for him. "Brother, your guests have arrived," T'Shondra reported. "They are waiting for you in the Main Hall." Nodding, Black Panther followed his sister through the corridor, heading for the Main Hall.
Arriving in the Main Hall, the Panther found Namor, along with two Atlantean guards in rebreathers, and Black Bolt and Medusa, her hair now mostly re-grown to chin-length, with two Attilan security personnel, waiting for him. Reaching up, T'Challa removed his cowl. "King Namor of Atlantis; King Black Bolt and Queen Medusa of Attilan," he greeted with a polite nod. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me."
Namor's eyebrow was arched. "Forgive me for saying so, King of Wakanda, but I'm sure you can understand our surprise; outside of our alliance against the invaders, and later Zod, we have little in common."
"I am afraid I must disagree, King of Atlantis: I believe we four have a great deal in common," T'Challa said. "As sovereign rulers, we, perhaps, have a greater understanding of the responsibility of leading our respective peoples." His expression turned sad. "And more importantly, we have a deeper understanding of what Superman and the League endured in dealing with General Zod; an understanding which many others lack."
Black Bolt nodded, while Medusa frowned sadly. "All of us were taken in by Zod; no-one could have anticipated what happened," she said. "Furthermore, he was Superman's family; of course he would have trusted him!"
Namor sighed. "I admit, I too was fooled by that madman," he confessed, before his eyes narrowed. "The other surface-dwellers' witch-hunting, however, comes as no surprise!"
"Indeed," T'Challa agreed. "And that is why I called you all here: to ask you – no, to beg you – to help me avert a potential tragedy."
Medusa blinked. "What do you mean?"
Namor's frown grew. "I fear it is quite obvious, Queen of Attilan: the General Assembly obviously intends to demand control of Sentrius – at the very least – and Superman will not contest it."
Black Bolt's expression matched Namor's as he gestured. "If that is so, what can we do?" Medusa translated.
"I believe that, if we act swiftly, we may be able to stop this from happening," T'Challa answered. "I have a plan, but I cannot implement it alone."
Namor was intrigued. "I am listening."
Black Bolt and his wife nodded. "As are we," Medusa added. Looking relieved, T'Challa leaned in, and began to outline his plan…
As Superman and the League headed for the door, T'Challa quickly looked towards the Atlantean delegation – where Namor stood – and the Attilan delegation – where Black Bolt and Medusa waited; nodding to each of them, he turned his attention back to the Assembly.
The Speaker looked quite frazzled as he gazed at the Module resting in front of him: the key to the deadliest weapon any mortal mind had ever conceived of. "Is…is there a motion to…to decide how to utilize this…this device?"
The U.S. Ambassador was instantly on his feet. "Motion to have this device analyzed by NORAD."
Almost a quarter of the Assembly rose in response. "The West intends to decode the device and use the weapon on its own!" one voice shouted.
Indignant, the North Korean Ambassador got to his feet. "It is the people of North Korea who have suffered greatest at the hands of Zod! We demand control of this device in reparation for what we have endured!"
As the entire Assembly went up in shouting, T'Challa saw Superman lower his head at the noise…and knew it was time to act. Slowly, patiently, he stood up…and kept silent, focusing his gaze on the Speaker.
Frantically, the Speaker pounded his gavel, gradually silencing the din. "Is there a motion from the Wakandan delegate?"
The Ambassador nodded. "The King of Wakanda wishes to address the Assembly."
At Black Bolt's nod, Attilan's Ambassador rose. "Attilan seconds!"
"Very well," the Speaker said. "All in favour?" After a few minutes, the votes were tallied. "Motion carried!"
Nodding, T'Challa gazed out at the Assembly. "Honoured delegates of the United Nations, I have heard many of your people condemn Superman and the League for their role in Zod's attack against our world," he said. "I cannot help but wonder: is that fair?"
That question caused the League to pause at the door, turning around.
"You're joking!" the U.S. Ambassador shouted. "Superman let that monster out! If it hadn't been for him, we wouldn't have ever heard of General Zod!"
For once, the North Korean Ambassador agreed. "He brought this destruction upon us!"
T'Challa's eyes were hard. "I think we will find, Ambassadors, that it is fruitless to obsess over hypotheticals," he said coldly. He turned to the North Korean. "For instance, Ambassador, one could wonder if Zod would have attacked you if you had not provoked him…with weapons that your leaders swore up and down the Korean Peninsula that it did not have."
Flushing, the Ambassador quickly sat down.
His eyebrow arched, T'Challa turned to the U.S. Ambassador. "One could also wonder, Ambassador, if Zod would not have escaped on his own…since it was a clandestine agency in your government that was performing experiments on his containment-cell; experiments which could have destroyed the entire planet, had the Justice League not intervened, I believe?"
Now the U.S. Ambassador sat down.
T'Challa looked back to the Assembly. "This brings me to another point: how many times have the Justice League acted in our best interest? Ten? Fifty? A hundred? More?" he asked. "And yet with one mistake – a tragic, costly mistake – all of that is forgotten; are we truly so fickle?"
His face hardened. "I say mistake, of course, because of a few facts that you do not know, and should," he snapped. "To begin, you all were unaware that, in its final years, General Zod was Krypton's most decorated commander – a hero to Krypton's people. More importantly, he was a dear friend to Superman's own father, so much so that Zod was named his godfather, charged with raising him should anything befall his father."
The Assembly went silent.
T'Challa raised his hands in a shrug. "Who among us can truly say they would not have done as Superman had?" he asked. "He had been reunited with a long-lost family member, who was supposed to have his best interests at heart; of course he trusted him!" He sighed. "We all rail over how Zod betrayed us all…but the most bitterly betrayed one here is Superman himself."
His expression turned firm. "You begin to see now, I hope: Superman was faced with an impossible choice, and yet chose to, again, act in our best interests, this time going against one of his own people, who was also his people's supreme military commander; put simply, my friends, Superman may have committed treason against Krypton to save us."
None of the Ambassadors dared to speak at that.
T'Challa kept going. "We say we have suffered under Zod's betrayal, but what of Superman?" he asked. "His faith in his own people has been rocked to its foundations – you all heard him say so – but his faith in us is as strong as it ever was! Why else would he have relinquished the key to Sentrius? He believes that we are capable of doing the right thing! Are we all going to so blindly throw that away? And for what? A weapon that none of us can even wield, without his consent?"
T'Challa took a deep breath. "I ask you all now – not as a king, or a diplomat, but as one man of Earth to the rest – are we all worthy of that faith? Are we truly worthy to inherit Krypton's legacy?" he asked. "If so, then now is the time to show it!"
The Speaker piped up. "Does Wakanda have a new motion?"
T'Challa nodded. "Wakanda moves that this body return control of the Sentrius Battlestation to the Justice League, on the condition that its future deployments and day-to-day operations be regulated by an international oversight board, consisting of five delegates from this body – including one from the Security Council – and one representative from the Justice League," he said. "In the event of another such attack, the League may deploy Sentrius as necessary to repel the invaders, and stand down once the attack is repelled, while also submitting a full report of the deployment to the board. Deployments against any terrestrial-based threats will require a unanimous vote of approval from the board, and the extent of the deployment will be approved at that time."
At a nod from Namor, the Atlantean Ambassador rose. "Atlantis seconds!"
The Attilan Ambassador wasn't far behind. "As does Attilan!"
"Very well," the Speaker said. "May we have a vote?"
As the Ayes and Nays echoed through the Chamber, T'Challa quickly tallied them in his head. Most of the African delegates would follow Wakanda's lead, but the North Korean delegate wasn't satisfied, and would swing several of his neighbours; it was going to be close…
Once the final vote came back to him, the Speaker banged his gavel. "Motion carried!"
T'Challa let out a sigh of relief.
Taking the Command Module, the Speaker held it out to Superman, as he and the League slowly walked back into the Chamber. "In that case, Superman, I believe this is yours."
Slowly, Superman started to smile as he took the Module back. "Thank you," he whispered. "We promise, we won't let you down."
The Speaker nodded, before tapping his gavel. "Inasmuch as this issue is concluded, if there is no new business, I move we adjourn!" Nobody objected, prompting the Assembly to begin to dismiss.
As the delegates started filing out, T'Challa and his co-conspirators began to walk towards the League. Seeing him approach, Superman's smile grew. "You…planned this?"
T'Challa shrugged. "I merely gauged the attitudes of the Assembly and acted accordingly," he replied. "Given how some elements in the Assembly would have taken advantage of this crisis, we had to do something."
Green Lantern arched an eyebrow. "You mean, you all were in on it?"
"Leave a weapon of Sentrius' caliber in the hands of surface-dwellers, Corpsman?" Namor asked, his dry tone contrasting his knowing smile. "Do you think us suicidal?"
Aquaman laughed. "Sure, Namor; that's why you did it."
Medusa softly chuckled. "No matter what you all may think, there are still people on this planet who have faith in all of you," she said.
Inching closer to Superman, Power Girl giggled. "Told you."
Superman beamed. "I…I don't know what to say," he murmured. "All of you…thank you."
T'Challa's smile was wry. "You may not say that after this oversight board convenes for the first time," he warned.
Namor snorted. "Indeed; dealing with Zod might be preferable to dealing with such…remoras."
Hawkgirl sighed. "He's got a point."
T'Challa's expression turned serious. "Regardless, right now my advice to all of you is to hide that Module somewhere safe, where no other greedy hands can see it."
Superman nodded. "Don't worry about that, Your Majesty; we'll put it somewhere safe." Slowly, they turned to go. "Again, thank you; thank you all for believing in us."
Black Bolt gestured, as Medusa translated. "It is all of us who should be thanking all of you: had it not been for all of you, Earth would not be here."
Flash groaned. "Tell that to half the planet."
T'Challa smiled gently. "They will see that, again," he promised. "In time."
Superman sighed. "I hope so, Your Majesty." With that, they headed out.
His expression grave, Namor turned to T'Challa. "I certainly hope you know what you're doing, King of Wakanda," he warned, "because you've dragged all of us into it with you."
T'Challa chuckled. "Such is life, King of Atlantis," he replied. "Such is life."
With its infirmary long since emptied, its patients discharged, the Fortress of Solitude was again pristinely silent as the entire Justice League gathered in its Main Hall, in front of the memorial statue of Von-El, bearing his sword in his hand. Summoning the holo-interface with a wave, Superman raised a simple crystal shelf-pedestal from the floor in front of him. Placing the Command Module on the pedestal, he then removed the star-crystal on his collar, placing it next to the Module. "Since I won't need to be a Station-Commander until the next time we need Sentrius, I won't be needing this at the moment." Tapping a holo-glyph, he raised a green-tinged octagonal force-field around it, with a holo-dock at each face of the field, before taking an electronic key from his belt – one of the keys he and the original seven members of the League had used to activate the Watchtower. "Dock your keys, and place a hand on the field."
Drawing their own keys, the rest of the original eight inserted them into the docks, before touching their respective faces; at their touch, each face turned yellow, before they turned their keys as one, turning the field red. Once they withdrew their keys, the pedestal sunk back into the floor, safeguarding the Module.
Green Arrow arched an eyebrow. "And we're sure it'll be safe here?"
Superman nodded. "If somebody's capable of breaking in here, Arrow, we'll have more immediate problems than just the Module's security."
Spider-Man scratched his head. "Yeah…that's not really makin' us feel better, Big Blue."
Supergirl blinked. "So…what do we do now?"
Superman checked the time. "I can't speak for the rest of us…but I think Alison needs to get back in time to graduate."
Power Girl paled. "Oh, CRAP!" She turned to go. "I am so beyond late! I'll see you guys in there! Later!" With that, she darted off.
As Power Girl flitted away, Superman's communicator started to beep, prompting him to check it: the Institute was rerouting a call to him. "Hello?" he answered. "Lana? What's going on? Is everything…"
Her response nearly knocked him flat. "W-W-What?" he exclaimed. A massive grin almost split his face. "Oh my God…oh my GOD! That's…that's fantastic! I'll be right there!"
As Superman ended the call, Batman arched an eyebrow. "Good news, I take it."
Superman laughed. "The best I've heard all week!" he exclaimed. "I'll meet you all back at the Watchtower!" With that, he darted out of the Fortress, taking to the air in a blur.
This past week had been tough, but now finally – finally – things were starting to turn around…
Deep space, 10 light-minutes from new Kree Empire Border
To say the mood on the lone Kree Cruiser was somber would have been a colossal understatement.
As the Kree vessel, still near-mortally damaged by the Sentrius Battlestation, barely emerged from step-through near the Empire's new border, Ronan didn't bother to move from the command chair as the XO made his report. "Lord Accuser, that last jump nearly blew out our main engines – we can't attempt another jump, so we'll have to head to the border via the conventional drives. We should be at the border in several hours."
Nodding absently, Ronan returned to his wallowing, uninterested in whether they returned or not; he had no reason to come back. He was defeated, disgraced, and now utterly destitute.
He should have just let the Kryptonian or the Czarnian kill him…
"My Lord, we are detecting an energy-buildup on the bridge! S-Something is happening..!"
The officer's warning was drowned out as a white-rimmed spatial rip tore open in the middle of the bridge, echoing with a loud BOOM! As the rip stabilized, two figures emerged from it, both of them apparently human: one was an elderly female, fairly tall, and stout, with long grey hair, clad in some type of armorsuit with a cape, while the other was a middle-aged male, in a more ornate uniform, with short, dark hair, and a monocle framing one of his cold eyes. "Who are you?" one Kree guard shouted. "How dare you board a Kree Imperial vessel! Identify yourselves!"
The woman frowned sadly. "Oh, dear; these little Kree are being so mean to poor Granny," she crooned. "We will have to punish them, won't we, Vermin?"
The male – Vermin – scowled. "That is for our Lord to decide, Goodness."
Her eyes narrowed, the woman – Granny – was about to retort, but she and her cohort gasped in alarm, before they bowed, moving aside…as a third figure stepped through.
Until then, Ronan would have said that the sight of Sentrius would have been the most terrifying sight he'd seen. Now, he knew better.
The figure standing before them now was over seven feet tall, all muscle, his grey skin harder than rock, his infernal power leaking out from cracks in his granite flesh as blood-red light. His muscled physique was clad in black-blue armour, with steel-soled boots, and lethal gauntlets, his head encased in a simple, curved helmet, leaving only his face exposed…including his eyes, those terrible red eyes that bored into his soul, promising unending torment fo those who dared oppose him..!
He knew who this was; somehow, on some instinctual level, Ronan knew just who and what this being was..!
One of the crew voiced Ronan's fears. "Oh, gods…he's real! He's REAL!" the crewman screamed. "The Shadow Lord is real, and he's HERE..!"
The dark entity did not so much as move, but his eyes blazed, firing a deadly red beam; the beam shot ahead of him…and then turned towards the crewman that had spoken, utterly disintegrating him. But the beam didn't stop there; turning again, it annihilated two more crewmen…then three…and then four, twisting and undulating until every last Kree was gone…
As the Shadow Lord calmly walked towards him, Ronan tried to move, to flee, but he could not; he knew, somehow, that there was nowhere for him to run that this being could not find him.
Stopping directly in front of him, those deadly eyes met his in a glower, turning his spine to jelly…but not as much as his words did. "You have information I require."
His words sounding like a wind from hell, scratching over hot coals, the malevolent entity known only as Darkseid smiled cruelly. "And you WILL tell me." Frantic, Ronan tried to inch away, shaking his head as his tormentors grew closer…
His scream echoed through the entire ship, and through space itself…but there was no-one to hear it.
Which was just as well – no-one could save him, now.
New York General Hospital, New York, Earth
"Where is he?"
The instant she heard his voice, Lana steeled herself, stepping out into the hospital corridor…in time to see a plain-clothes Clark stumble around the corner, crashing into a pile of hospital-scrubs.
She knew that Clark maintained a pathologically clumsy public persona, but she somehow figured that this little blunder had more to do with him being excited. "He's over here, Clark."
Bearing a goofy grin, Clark half-ran, half-stumbled towards her, skidding to a stop. "W-When?" he stammered. "H-How?"
Lana's smile became a bit forced. "Lex first regained consciousness about a week ago."
Clark managed to catch his breath. "W-Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because it took this long for him to start talking again, Clark!" Lana reasoned…but Clark was already in motion, heading through the door. "Clark, wait! There's something you need to..!"
But it was too late – Clark was already through the doors, laughing as he found a fully-conscious Lex there, in a hospital gown, sitting in a wheelchair. "Lex!"
Slowly, Lex turned his wheelchair around…and stared at him blankly. "Yes, I'm Lex Luthor," he said. "And who are you?"
Lana could only cringe as she saw Clark's expression completely collapse. "I'm…I'm Clark, Lex," he murmured.
Lex arched an eyebrow. "Clark..?"
Clark looked like he was barely suppressing tears. "Kent."
Quickly, Lana jumped in. "Lex, Clark is with the Daily Bugle; I told you they would want to interview you, remember?"
Lex sighed. "Oh, right," he muttered. "Well, Mr. Kent, I'm afraid you'll have to wait for your interview; I have physio, right now. In the meantime, why don't you look into what the government intends to do about Superman and his cohorts; they damn near got us all killed!"
As Lex rolled away, he glanced back over his shoulder, managing a smile. "Well, it was nice meeting you, Mr. Kent!"
Clark half-smiled back. "It was…nice meeting you, too…Mr. Luthor."
Once Lex was out of earshot, Lana sighed. "That's the main reason I didn't tell you until now, Clark; Lex has extensive selective amnesia. He remembers almost everything, except you, his friends, and anything related to you…including your secret. He almost didn't remember me!"
Laning back against the wall, Clark sagged to the floor. "He…he hates me, now…"
Lana looked guilty. "Only because he doesn't have the whole story, Clark; the doctor said there was a good chance his memory could come back on its own, eventually!" She managed a smile. "Especially if I do whatever I can to jog it!"
His expression lost, Clark looked up at her. "Why?" he murmured. "His memory of you's just fine; why would you bother?"
Lana looked away guiltily. "Because…because I was wrong, okay?" she asked. "The past few days – God, the past few months – have made me…re-think things." Looking up, she met his gaze. "I…I was wrong about you, Clark," she finished. "And…I'm sorry."
Clark's expression didn't lighten. "A lot of people would argue with you on that."
"Then a lot of people would be wrong, Clark; they'll see that, eventually," Lana insisted, smiling. "Just like I did."
Finally, Clark started to smile again. "Thanks, Lana." Slowly, he stood up, fishing out his phone. "Well, I guess I'd better call Ma; she's probably been worried sick, all week." He promptly dialled his home-number. "Hey, Ma? It's…Alfred? What are you doing at my Ma's..?"
Suddenly, Clark went ghostly-pale, flipping his phone shut. "Clark? What's wrong?" Lana asked, worried.
She could practically see the gears in Clark's head grinding. "She…she said she'd been seeing someone…" he murmured. "I…L-Lana, I have to go! Right now!"
As Clark hurried off, Lana could only blink with bewilderment. 'Okay…what was all THAT about..?'
Shaking her head, she quickly cleared it; she probably didn't want to know…
"It's been quite a year, hasn't it?"
Sitting in the Watchtower's mess-hall, at a table next to a window gazing down at the Earth, Batman calmly sipped his tea, before meeting Wonder Woman's gaze. "I suppose."
Her ebony eyebrow arched, Diana gave him a wry smile. "You "suppose"?" she asked. "In the span of a mere year, eight of us came together as a team, constructed this headquarters, gained a reputation across the entire globe, expanded our ranks by four, including Clark's cousin – the rescue of whom was an adventure in itself – recovered a colossal space-station, and repelled two invasions in the span of a week! And you do not think that is of much merit?"
Batman just shrugged, and took another sip.
Diana sighed, her eyes looking skyward. "Merciful Hera, I give up," she lamented. Her expression turned somewhat nervous. "There is another matter we have not discussed."
Batman looked up, waiting for a response.
Batman quickly looked back to his tea.
Wonder Woman frowned. "Bruce, not even you can be so obtuse as to ignore it, now!" she accused, before calming herself. "Deny it, Bruce: deny that there is something between us beyond mere friendship."
Looking her in the eye, Batman started to open his mouth…and closed it again, quickly looking away.
Diana took a deep breath. "You do," she said. "And it terrifies you, doesn't it?"
Batman's fist clenched and unclenched.
Diana smiled gently. "Do you think I am not frightened, either?" she asked. "I came from an island of only women, Bruce; for hundreds of years, had anyone suggested to me I might entertain such a notion about a man, I would have called them mad!" She met his gaze. "But I am willing to at least explore this, Bruce," she finished. "Are you?"
For a moment – just a moment – the ever-present mask of the Dark Knight slipped. "Diana…"
"Bruce, we need to talk!"
Her expression going mildly murderous, Wonder Woman looked back at Clark as he walked into the room. "Can this not wait, Clark?"
As she saw Clark's distraught expression, Diana immediately felt guilty. "No, Diana, it can't!" Clark exclaimed. "Bruce, did you know that Alfred was dating someone?"
To Diana's dismay, Batman's expression was firmly back in place. "I don't think my butler's social-life is any of your business, Kent," he growled, taking another sip of tea and gazing out the window.
"It is when he's dating my MOTHER!"
At that statement, Batman – the unflappable Batman, the unphasable Dark Knight – nearly gagged on his tea, spraying a fine, caffeinated mist over the window, his eyes bugging out as he coughed. "WHAT?"
Diana knew she was a horrible person for doing so, but she simply couldn't help it. Bursting out laughing, she ingloriously toppled out of her chair, landing on the floor as she held her sides, tears leaking from her eyes, she was laughing so hard.
Her laughter did little to help Clark's distress. "This isn't FUNNY, Diana!"
Trying desperately to control her laughter – and failing miserably – Diana managed to giggle out a reply. "I'm…I'm sorry, Clark!" she guffawed. "But…but it really is!"
Batman, however, was far from amused. "Where?" he growled.
Batman's eyes narrowed. "You. Me. Javelin-One. Now." Clark didn't argue; at once, he and Batman headed towards the vehicle-bay, leaving a still-giggling Wonder Woman behind.
She might not have been able to get past Batman's barriers – yet – but seeing him completely lose his cool was just as good. 'Bruce Wayne, with Aphrodite as my witness, there's hope for you, yet!'
Kent Farm, Smallville, Kansas
With its stealth-mode engaged, the Javelin-One silently dropped out of the clouds, touching down behind the Kent farm's barn, out of sight. As its main hatch opened, Clark and Bruce – having since exchanged his uniform for a black business suit – both stormed out of the jet, making a beeline for the farm house. Reaching the house first, Clark scanned the first floor – finding nothing – before he headed upstairs, with Bruce hot on his heels. With his hearing picking up faint noise from – God, he hated to even think it – his mother's room, Clark headed to the door, grasping the knob. His eyes scrunched shut, he opened the door, before they both strode in…
There, lying in her bed, was Martha Kent, in her blue bathrobe, her hair in curlers, casually knitting; lying next to her, utterly nonplussed, was Alfred Pennyworth, in a simple white undershirt, his reading-glasses rested on his nose, with a crossword puzzle in his hand. Glancing up, Alfred looked to Martha, and then back to both of them. "Forgive me for being rather blunt, Master Kent, but in circumstances as these, it is customary to knock, first."
His expression warring between shock, incredulity, and outright nausea, Clark found his voice. "MA!" he cried. "What are you two DOING?"
Martha sighed patiently. "Now, Clark, at this point in your and Alison's relationship, I don't think I should have to explain "the birds and the bees" to you."
Bruce's eyes were narrowed. "Alfred. Explain yourself."
Alfred's eyes never left his crossword. "I should rather think is situation is quite self-explanatory, Master Bruce, given that I have encountered yourself and most of Gotham's debutantes in similar circumstances, over the years," he remarked. "And if memory serves me, I did mention to you that I had been seeing a charming, delightful woman, recently."
Martha beamed. "Oh, you old flatterer! Shame on you, making me blush!"
Clark nearly fell over, his stomach doing flip-flops. "You never mentioned that it was my MOTHER, Alfred!"
Martha's eyes narrowed. "Now you stop that right now, mister! You're my child, not the other way around!" she scolded. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with two grey foxes like us having a little December-romance in our twilight years!"
Bruce kept calm. "So you've both been seeing each other since…since April?"
Martha shook her head. "A little slow, isn't he?"
Alfred nodded. "I fear Master Bruce's…extracurricular activities are somewhat physically demanding; blows to the head are the norm."
Clark's head was spinning. "I…I can't take this," he murmured. His legs wobbly, he walked out of the room. He was planning on heading back to the Javelin, but his legs wouldn't cooperate, so he decided to take a breather in the kitchen.
Several minutes later, Martha came downstairs, still in her robe, her expression regretful. "Oh, sweetie," she soothed, sitting in the chair next to her son. "I didn't want you to find out this way…"
Clark's hands went to his head. "Ma…how could you do this..?"
"Clark, I didn't do this to hurt you!" Martha exclaimed. "You and Alison are so happy together; is it so much to ask for me to want to find what you two have with someone? Even if it's only for a little while?"
That made Clark pause; when Ma put it that way… "But…but what about..?"
Martha smiled gently. "Clark, just because I'm with someone else now doesn't mean I'm ever going to forget your father," she said. "You and John will always be in my heart, now and forever; I just thought that there might be a little room, left over."
Clark looked back down. "Oh…okay," he murmured. "It's just…I was just a little upset from hearing that Lex doesn't remember me."
Martha's eyes went wide. "What?" Taking a deep breath, Clark began to relate the details of the day, and then the week, to his mother.
When Clark was done, Martha hugged her son. "Oh, sweetie," she soothed. "You really have had a doozy of a week, haven't you?"
Clark's head drooped. "You can say that again."
Martha sighed. "Clark, you tend to see the best in people, because you always strive for the best in yourself," she said. "When you met another of your people, that tendency went into overtime: you assumed that Zod was like you. I'll admit, most of us – myself included – made that mistake, so I don't want you to blame yourself for it anymore, you hear?"
Clark snorted. "Why would I need to? Half of Earth is probably ready to do it for me."
Martha frowned. "Not from what I just heard, mister! If the entire Earth was so willing to toss you to the wolves, then why did the U.N. vote to give you and your friends a chance?" she asked. "Deep down, they knew you all would do the right thing, so they decided to give you a second chance…and that's all you've ever needed!" She smiled. "And as for Lex, all you can do is be the same best friend you've been to him, all these years; even if his memory doesn't come back, I'm sure you two will be thick as thieves…but I have a feeling that a little prodding is all he'll need!"
Slowly, Clark started to feel better, as a smile crossed his face. "Thanks, Ma," he said. "So…you're…happy with Alfred?"
Martha beamed. "Very, very happy," she confessed. "I honestly never thought I'd ever again…"
Clark's stomach churned. 'Oh God, I'm gonna puke!' "Ma, I get it!" he cried. "I don't need the play-by-play!"
Martha chuckled. "I didn't think you would," she said. "Now…isn't Alison graduating, shortly?"
Checking the time, Clark gulped – there wasn't much time. "We'd better get going."
Martha nodded, leaning in to kiss her son's forehead. "I love you, Clark."
Clark smiled. "I love you too, Ma." With that, he headed outside.
Emerging onto the porch, Clark found Bruce already there, waiting. Clark took a deep breath. "Wow."
Bruce nodded curtly. "Yeah."
Walking next to him, Clark gazed out at the unending fields. "And here I thought facing down Zod was the toughest thing I'd ever have to do."
Bruce was silent.
Clark's eyes scrunched shut. He knew what Bruce was thinking, what he'd been thinking since that day, one week ago, when he'd been ready to…he didn't want to finish. "You're right, Bruce."
Bruce arched an eyebrow.
"I keep thinking back to that day, and everything that led up to it," Clark murmured. "God, there were so many other things I should have done before facing Zod…but when we were in that stadium, I couldn't think of any other options." He cringed. "I know what you're thinking, Bruce: no matter how much I tell myself there would have been no other way, it's still a cop-out, and you're right…"
"Joker gaining superpowers."
Bruce's flat – and seemingly nonsensical – statement drew Clark's attention. "What?"
"Ever since putting on the cowl, I've constantly theorized emergency-situations, worst-case scenarios, so that I might better prepare myself to deal with them, should they happen," Bruce said. "I've managed to conceive of possible solutions to all of them…save one."
Now Clark understood. "Joker getting powers."
Bruce nodded. "I have no possible solution, if that should ever happen; if he ever gains powers, I cannot think of a single way of effectively neutralizing him," he said quietly. "And in that case…all that's left is the unthinkable." He met Clark's gaze. "That's what Zod was to you, Kent: your powered Joker."
Clark was silent at that for a moment. Once he'd found his voice, he reached into his pocket, taking out a small leaden case. "I've been scouring the Earth, these past few days," he confessed. "I found something I'd like you to hold onto for me."
As Clark opened the case, the pale green glow made him wince, forcing him to close it. Bruce's eyes lightly widened. "Who else knows about this?"
"No-one else, not even Alison; if she even had an idea I was doing this, she'd freak out," Clark said. "Last week, I got a taste of what a rogue Kryptonian could do unchecked. If another rogue Kryptonian shows up, and if I can't stop them, I want you to be able to."
Bruce was silent. "Even if it's you?"
"Especially if it's me." Clark looked grave. "Can I trust you to do that?"
Bruce's face was hard. "Can I trust you to never make me use it?"
Clark smiled. "Yes."
Bruce took the case. "Then yes." Putting the case in his pocket, he looked quizzical. "Why me?"
Clark shrugged. "Because I know you'll make the right call."
Bruce frowned. "Don't think this means we're best friends, Kent…and I am not calling you my brother."
Clark laughed. "Good, because I'm not calling you my brother."
"Good." Clark paused. "Still, we can talk about…stuff, right?"
Bruce shrugged. "Don't you have a graduation to watch?"
Clark chuckled. "Yeah, we did," he corrected, as they both walked towards the Javelin. "Bruce?"
Clark couldn't help but grin. "What's going on between you and Diana?"
"Drop it, Kent."
With the football field now fully packed with chairs, each one occupied, before the stage where the graduating class sat, all in robes and caps, waiting to receive their diplomas. Leaning closer to Scott, Jean smiled nervously as she saw her parents and sister in the crowd. "There were times I thought we'd never get here, Slim."
Smiling back, Scott took her hand, subtly gesturing to some of the other members of the crowd: Professor Xavier, Ororo, Logan, Hank, and the rest of the Institute, along with several others, including Madelyn, Alison's father, her Aunt Bridget, Uncle Mike, and cousin Jenny, as well as a plain-clothes Corsair, and an auburn-haired, gold-eyed woman that had to be Mystique. "Because of all the insanity we've had to deal with, these past few months?" he asked. "Well, we made it, Red; if we can get through that, we can get through anything."
Jean chuckled. "I'm glad your father was able to stay," she replied, "but I think the Professor would have preferred if Empress Lilandra had been able to stick around, a little while."
Scott arched an eyebrow, sending his thoughts to her. 'Why?'
Jean's laughter echoed through his mind. 'Why do you think?'
Sitting behind them, Paul and Taryn both inched forward. "Shop-talk, guys?" Paul asked. "Man, after everything, university's gonna be kinda dull for you two, huh?"
Taryn looked worried. "Just tell me you're still going to Bayville U, Jean; how can I possibly find a sorority without my BFF?"
Jean chuckled, glad to have some normal problems to deal with. "Don't worry, Taryn; Scott and I will be there," she assured her. "I plan to do my undergrad there, and then maybe apply to somewhere like Harvard, or Yale." She grinned at Scott. "Although I'm sure I could be…persuaded to volunteer at the Institute as an instructor."
Scott chuckled. "Well, I'm sure you'll have no problem, Little Miss Valedictorian," he teased back.
Paul looked to Jean's left. "What about you, Alison?"
Alison shrugged. "I'm planning on a joint major: Music Theory and Fashion," she said. "After that…who knows?"
Taryn giggled. "Just make sure you're not late!"
Alison pouted. "Hey, I made it here, didn't I?"
By then, Principal Kelly had moved to the podium, tapping the mic to test it. "The first day I came to this school, I can remember the speech I gave: the main point was about how everyone had special gifts, and how they should use them to make the school-year a great one," Edward said, before he chuckled. "Well, if that wasn't the most ironic moment of my life, I don't know what is!"
The audience laughed appreciatively at that.
Edward's expression turned serious. "Almost exactly one year ago, our entire world changed," he said, "and just one week ago, it changed again. This is the world that we now face – the world that these graduates will go out into." His smile came back. "I said that it was up to all of us to use our special gifts to make the school great; well, now it's up to all of you to make the world a better place, no matter how it changes!" He looked back at the graduates. "Looking at all of you now, I am proud to entrust the world of tomorrow to you!"
Moving to the stack of diplomas, Edward began to call their names, one-by-one. "Paul Andersen!" Getting up, Paul walked over, taking his diploma, and shaking Edward's hand.
Several more names were called, and then… "Alison Blaire!" Beaming, Alison got up, and walked across the stage; smiling to her Dad, Aunt Bridget, and Uncle Mike, she anxiously looked around…and beamed as she saw a familiar hint of red-and-blue in the distance.
After Alison had gotten her diploma, several more names were called. "Taryn Fujioka!" Taryn quickly got up to take her diploma, before Edward called the next name. "Jean Grey, Valedictorian!" Smiling, Jean gave Scott's hand a quick squeeze, before moving to get her diploma; as she moved to the other grads, Taryn was there to give her a hug.
"John-Henry Irons!" Standing up, Junker gave Scott a pat on the shoulder, before moving to go get his diploma. "Duncan Matthews!" Hearing Duncan's name, Scott couldn't help but frown as Duncan passed by, fixing Scott with a glare. "Clarissa Redmond!" Walking by, Clarissa gave Scott a friendly smile, before taking her diploma, moving to stand next to John, her hand slipping into his.
Finally hearing his name, Scott rose, and strode across the stage, moving to shake the Principal's hand. "It's been an honor, sir."
Edward smiled. "No, Scott; the honor was mine," he replied, handing him the diploma. Taking it, Scott moved to stand next to Jean. Finished, Edward looked back to the audience. "Ladies and Gentlemen: your Class of 2009!"
At that, the graduates all let out a cheer, throwing their caps up into the sky.
After most of the graduates and their families had left – and after they'd greeted their own loved ones – Scott, Jean, and Alison headed over to the Professor and the rest of the Institute family. Smiling warmly, Professor Xavier hugged each of them. "Well done, all of you," he said. "We – all of us – couldn't be more proud."
Scott smiled sheepishly. "Thanks, Professor…but compared to some of the other stuff that's happened this year, graduating doesn't feel like much," he admitted. "I mean…it's just high school."
"Hey, that's a marathon in itself, Scott!"
Turning, Alison beamed as she saw the rest of the Justice League walk towards them. "I thought I saw you in the distance."
J'onn smiled guiltily. "You all did, really," he confessed. "I simply clouded everyone's mind into thinking they couldn't see us."
Flash scratched his head. "Yeah, we…kinda figured we oughtta hang back a little, so as not to mess up your guys' day."
Jean shrugged. "People will get over it, guys," she said. "It took people a while to warm up to us, remember?"
"Yeah, and now things are reversed!" Spider-Man remarked. "That's some funky kind of irony!"
Superman chuckled. "Still, congratulations, guys; you've more than earned it."
Scott snorted. "Yeah, lucky us; now real life awaits!" he replied. "Something tells me that things are going to be tougher from here on out..!"
As if on cue, Superman's belt started to beep…along with the communicators of the rest of the League. Kitty groaned. "Oh, you've gotta be kidding me!"
Superman's hearing had already picked up the specifics. "Beacon's picking up increased seismic activity just off the west coast; we've got an incoming tsunami!"
Alison sighed, as she tossed off her robe…revealing her uniform underneath. "Here we go again!"
The Professor looked grave. "You had best get going!"
Scott nodded. "Call us if you need backup!"
"We will," Superman agreed, before turning to the rest of the League. "Let's move!" With that, the entire League darted off, either taking to the sky or heading back to the nearby Javelin.
The world had changed all around them, except for one thing: they were still needed.
They had a job to do.
About 3 years ago, I once remarked that The Last Son, Book Two: Reckonings was the biggest piece of writing I'd ever written.
I officially stand corrected.
Without a doubt, this…MEGAcolossus of a story is (up until now) the most massive endeavour I've ever undertaken, but it's been more than worth it. I believe that, over the three years I've spent working on it, my writing-skills have refined considerably.
And that's not even MENTIONING all the support that all of you, my readers, have given me; because of all of you, I've found the confidence to start branching out my writing-interests, both within the field of fanfiction and beyond. To all of you, I have to say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you; without all of you, I would never have made it this far.
With regards to the future, I plan to take a minor step back from the thus-dubbed "Last Son universe," and recharge my batteries; my next project will be the next sequel to my more recent story, "Hanging Ten." Rest assured, I won't be leaving all of you hanging; once that's done, I will begin work on both Crusade and The Smallville Chronicles in earnest. I also plan to do a follow-up story to "A Hero Among Us," taking place shortly after Book Three. Once Crusade and Smallville Chronicles are complete, whenever that may be, I will begin the fourth and final Book of the Last Son Saga: The Last Son, Book Four: Destinies.
In closing, I will say that it's been one wild ride: things may be slowing down, but don't get off, just yet, because the best is yet to come! Until then, take care, all of you! It's been a blast! See you at the next story!