There was no darkness to conceal its appearance anymore. No more illusions or mists or misdirections. No servants. No masks.
Poised in the shaft of pure white light streaming down from the ceiling overhead, the Benefactor was fully illuminated in the hot white glare; its form aglow and gleaming in the focused sunlight.
Luthor stepped forward, his booted feet crushing the fragments of blue crystal that were all that was left of the dome that had once concealed the being.
"My god, but you are small," he said with an acidic tone of long-felt disdain.
It was not a truly accurate statement. From what little that he could see of its features, there was much of the human and more still of the inhuman: vaguely human in flesh and form and yet it was monstrous in size, nine feet tall or more. It was its other physical qualities that gave it an impression of smallness, of frailty.
Luthor moved toward the creature, noting its hunched back and wizened frame dressed in silken rags that had once been glorious robes of monarchy: royal purple, shimmering with deep highlights, bright with woven colors of black and scarlet, spots and traceries of gold and palest white. It rested upon a slab of sparkling alabaster and black, silken cushion, their luxurious beauty utterly defiled by the hideousness that lounged upon them. It appeared emaciated, each rib of its ribcage gleaming behind translucent flesh. There was no skin or flesh on its stomach; its bones, muscle, gristle and tendons were exposed to the open and were gleaming wetly. He saw tubes and wires holding its organs in place, tying blood vessels together. The tubes he saw leading inward looked to be replacements for parts that might have decayed or otherwise became dysfunctional. Its arms were disproportionately long and sinewy, almost bird-like, possessed of a supernatural flexibility and supple grace. The hands were large with long delicate fingers; disfigured as though by starvation or prolonged illness. Those fingers sported a dozen, bejeweled rings on each of its hands. Its spinal column appeared warped, the legs lacerated and malformed. Its feet were not even of human origin, instead appearing almost cloven in appearance. All over, its flesh was withered and deathly pale – the color of alabaster and water-drowned bodies. In patches were boils, cysts, and carbuncles covering sections of its shriveled skin, as if the corruption inside it sought to be free.
Its face and head were the worst. In its features could still be seen the symmetry of perfection, but Luthor only saw a creature that had tortured him, had sought to best him, who had power and privilege that he coveted. Once it might have been a face to rival Adonis, now it was hideously marred by the accumulation of infirmary. Those once angular features were still intact: the high cheekbones, philosopher's brow, the firm jawline, all bespeaking of a past perfection and symmetry beyond the normal human range. The nose was a collapsed ruin, as though it had been eaten away from a syphilitic disease. At one point its two eyes had either been damaged by injury, disease or age, and they had been removed and replaced by a cluster of sensors: tiny beads of ruby glass, small knots of wire, waffle-surfaced chips of some ceramic material, all bristling and slightly recessed in the deep black holes of the being's head. Wires and relays had fused with the optic nerves directly and led away into the consoles around the hemisphere. Likewise a speaking tube was bracketed to the sides of its mouth, and led away into the chamber. Its pallid lips wrapped around the tube, the mouthpiece held by toothless, yellowish-brown gums, providing the means by which the creature could speak. Perhaps other mechanisms allowed it to project its presence to those areas where its voice intruded. It evidently had a head of hair once, now it grew in patches of white, devoid of health or color.
At his approach, the malformed being shuddered, shook uncontrollably, as though wracked with spasms of some unending excruciating muscle pain. It twisted, but didn't even turn to acknowledge his presence. It remained hunched over, as though it were cowering and afraid. It was cringing in terror, marshaling its waning strength against his approach. Underneath this weakness, he felt currents of its power eddying, swirling resonances of electromagnetic anger and fury. It certainly looked as though it longed to strike out at him but could not.
Power was useless without a mechanism to harness and control it, and the Benefactor's mechanism had long ago deteriorated beyond the point of effectiveness; the being was an chariot without a horse; a mobile without an engine.
Just as he hypothesized, decrepit and demented.
It probably had been this state for uncounted ages, slowly withering, ceaselessly dying by degrees. At one time it might have a conquering titan, vital and leading its followers in armies of conquest from one side of infinity to another. It might even have been the creator of this universe, the one whose hands had shaped the ether into water and dry lands, had drawn the hydrogen clouds and ignited them into suns. But over time perhaps it had grown complacent and withered into infirmary or been wounded in battle or by an assassination attempt from some traitorous lieutenant.
Either would have resulted in its current state. Luthor did not care how the being had been reduced to this. He was more interested in how its current state could be properly exploited.
He stared up at the occulus in the ceiling, and saw how it had been directed to strike down upon the being in continuous stream of light. Like Superman, perhaps this being derived some additional benefit from sunlight? He traced a finger across one of the conduits, and the strangely-hued liquids that quickly and efficiently surged through them. It is feeding on whatever nourishment was running through these, and the wastes were drawn away. Without these, it would likely perish.
Should he pull the cords free and watch as the beast choked? He weighed the matter in his mind. Would he be satisfied with that? Would he be content simply with its death, or was not there the possibility of something more, something greater?
He stood contemplating this new development, and how it could be incorporated into a plan that been formulating in his brain ever since his escape from the chambers of projected memories. From the battle, he deduced that the primary function of the armor was to absorb and discharge energy. And in the past, Luthor had constructed many devices for the purpose of making use of various forms of energy-all kinds of energy..
...even the unique bio-energy of superhuman entities.
Most of the time he created machines to direct and project such energy, but he had also designed ones that siphoned it and could transfer that energy into the body of another; instilling that second being with whatever abilities the first being possessed.
If he could just.
It was all so clear now. He knew what had to be done next. He had decided everything with the speed and the thoroughness of a super-computer. Like every extraordinary mind, he could perfectly recall those plans, those blueprints and concepts of the device he required. Mentally, he visualized the necessary components for such a device and sent the commands from his thoughts to his suit. He had seen how the servitors functioned; how they were able to change and reconfigure themselves to produce whatever tools were needed for the task at hand. If the armor, whose parts it had come from, was as highly adaptable as he hoped, it would accede and change itself to conform to his thoughts. When it was finished, it would serve a much greater purpose, perhaps the greatest purpose imaginable.
Originally he had intended to to use it to steal the abilities of Superman, but here was a far, far greater prize. Though he did not want any of its possible psychological or physiological frailties, he could make a great deal of use of its power; the power that had bent reality to its fiddle, had built this Citadel and bridged universes. It was there to be tapped by someone brave enough, ingenious enough.
What seemed like an eternity passed, filled only with the unmistakable sound of construction, as dozens of mechanisms altered the interior of the armor's chest-plate. All the while he could hear the delicious pleas of the cowering creature before him.
"Please!" The voice was desperate and hesitant, not coming from the figure itself, but transmitted through the speaking tube to the furthest-most of the large chamber. "Please, Alexander...I am begging...I beg you..."
"Yes!" he screamed joyously, spreading his arms wide as though preparing to embrace the cowering creature. "Beg!" With a triumphant hiss of hydraulics, the chest-plate of his armor opened up. Tendrils of steel suddenly erupted, wrapping around the Benefactor, bonding to its flesh, into its brain, reaching into the core of the being, seeking the energy that seethed there.
The chamber shuddered as though with an earthquake as the Benefactor let out a high-pitched keening like the wail of a thousand lost souls and the shrieking of ten million imperfectly-tuned instruments of music.
A bright, multi-hued light began playing around the shriveled form, growing brighter with each moment, incalculable cosmic energies had at last been unleashed.
As it reached its peak – when the light became too unbearable to gaze at – it suddenly flowed from the Benefactor's body, into the tendrils extending from Luthor's chest-plate. The pulses continued onward, streaking through the connections leading into the armor. Charts and graphs flowed across his vision, recording the flux of energy flowing into his armor, into his body. Without pause, it flashed inward, into the armor and into Lex Luthor.
In that instant he felt what was at once in intolerable ecstasy and unbearable agony—and transcending both. His body convulsed into rigidness as the energy of the cosmos thundered through his being. A silent scream died upon his lips, as he felt a seething river of force and strength flowing into him.
The light grew brighter around him, even as it dimmed around the Benefactor. What must have been its sweat crawled away into the floor, the beads starting to boil and evaporate. Its body convulsed as its innards were sucked out, its hide desiccating, decomposing with remarkable haste. Flesh boiled, rose, blackened, rapidly developed gaping cracks and festering caves.
The energies continued to pulse from the Benefactor's wasted and decrepit form. Streams of silver electricity rolled downward along the outer plates of his armor. A crack of thunder rumbled across the ceiling above him. Crescent-shaped beams of light blasted forth from his joints. Light of many hues glinted off of its surface.
His head swam drunkenly and then instantly cleared. His senses sharpened; his vision expanded to 180 degrees, hearing, smell, all the senses flared into new intensity such as he had never known before. He could feel and sense the energies all around him, feel the enormous power surges that were suddenly so real they took on an almost physical form, as if he could just reach out and take hold of them and bend them any way he wanted. It was a tremendous, exhilarating, heady feeling, a rush of strength and power beyond belief. Similarly, he felt his senses expanding to encompass everything in the room. He could read the information from the machines directly, translate their ions into a language that he could understand. He could count each dust mote in the air at a glance, and hear their normally silent collisions.
When the transfer finally ended, the tendrils of metal retracted into the chest-plate, which closed with a silent hiss. He looked about himself, and saw that he floated, without consciously willing it, above the floor. Wisps of energy flickered from his eyes like the coronal streamers of a mighty sun.
This was the moment for which he had lived and fought – so long to see happen. His entire body hummed with infinite vitality, his muscles swollen with power; an intoxicating sensation, sensuous... divine.
Before he thought the power of the armor was impressive, but this...
The Benefactor's energy was like an old wine – the wine of omnipotence, aged to perfection. Useless in the possession of its former owner, but renewed and pulsating in Luthor's, singing in his blood. He could taste it against his tongue.
The warsuit itself shifted and changed. He had merely to think of it and the change occurred. The enormity of power flowing into him allowing for him to change its gunmetal black visage into something more appropriate to his new status. The armor's surface bubbled as though it were re-forging, and its color shifted from dull black to emerald green and royal purple. Smiling he added needless elaborations to its surface: stylized Ls and Ds as well as the ancient symbols for alchemy and mathematics, physics and thermodynamics: all the great sciences that led him to this glorious moment, all the concepts and knowledge that he had cherished. None of it was necessary, but it pleased him to do it.
The raw energy unleashed during the transfer had devastated the surrounding room, collapsing the shrine upon itself. The vast dome exploded upward and outward.
Rising though the extended occulus, the bier upon which Luthor stood was now exposed to the larger chamber.
He turned his attention to the now defunct master of a universe, finding only the rags that had been its robes, the tarnished metal of its signet rings, and garish jewelry lying in a small heap. Whatever force had animated its wasted frame had fled its body, leaving nothing behind, save a scattering of crystalline, bone fragments and glittering golden dust that had once filled its veins and arteries.
"Witness. Look upon the strength of a man. Yes, I am a human being, just that. I was not only smarter than you are, I was the stronger. And today you have paid dearly for attempting to imprison your better. Paid painfully. Paid with your life.
He wished that the Benefactor was still existent in some form, so that he might hear his unspoken taunt. For a split-second he considered rushing forward and exultantly scooping up of its remains - its jewelry and tokens of office – to let them dribble through his fingers. No, that was what the Luthor of old would have done. He would no longer need to lower himself to such base avarice.
Now he was the lightning. He was the frenzy...the power, the glory...
"No..." he said aloud, a whisper. "I am more than he ever was."
No longer a man. Now a god.
The concept frightened and exhilarated him.
He stared around, finding himself standing atop the bier that had once held the wasted form of the Benefactor. The metal ramps were still intact, but now the insane, multi-leveled structure had collapsed. Heaps of rubble and chunks of stone lay scattered and broken about the floor like the grave makers for a race of titans.
Beyond the rubble, he stared with a keenness of eye that an hawk would envy, able to see every crack and facet in the walls. Figures appeared in the distance, familiar figures: Brainiac, Bizarro, Nimble, Snart, and all the others, and he could see every pore on their faces, and even beyond to see through their flesh, to the strange white bones, webbed in pulsing veins and long, glossy muscles.
Obviously the tremors that rocked the Citadel during the transfer of energy had freed these prisoners. Or perhaps with his new abilities he had subconsciously brought them here as witnesses. It didn't matter. They were here now and that was all that was important.
He laughed, his great voice booming out like a trumpet call.
An almost unknown feeling seized him: it was contentment. It was only fitting that they should be here, only right that they should bear witness to his ascension. He turned around to face them, finding that some of the Legion were on their knees stock-still and eyes riveted upon his now-luminous form. A few of them shielded their eyes from his glory, the way a child would look upon a first gaze upon the sun. Grodd watched through slitted eyes. Cheeta moaned and covered her's.
He felt as if he knew them all intimately, for their minds were laid bare before his new omniscient senses, splinters of thoughts and emotions that came to him in mutters and flashes. He could sense their hungry desires, their envious thoughts, and realized how petty and small they truly were, compared to this godlike power that roared through him. It seemed incredible that he had shared their minuscule, limited experiences. Now he could feel their fear and their awe as he looked up at him. Perhaps only Brainiac had the capacity to understand; the android would make a fitting seneschal in the coming kingdom.
He had won.
Despite every obstacle the Benefactor had thrown in his path, despite every illusion, every torment he had worked, Luthor had triumphed!
He had fought and clawed and struggled against insurmountable odds to obtain this, and now the entity was well and truly defeated, its power stolen and now in Luthor's capable hands. Its former domain was his to do with as he pleased. This was all like Christmas. All the things he had ever wanted and never truly expected to have.
But to what purpose? He had the ability, and there were countless channels into which he could direct it. And as such, he must have a goal. Was killing a single hated enemy, no matter how mighty, enough for one of his potential? His magnitude? No, there had to be more. He knew that the League were now no more than gnats to be smashed together with the clap of his gauntleted hands; barely worthy of even his malice. Yes, there had to be something more.
He recalled another quote, something that he had read long ago and now thought appropriate. "What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course. Except war. If a man lives in the sphere of the possible and waits for something to happen, what he is waiting for is war - or the end of the world."
Yes, he thought. War. There must be war.
Plans unfolded in the profound depths of his expanded consciousness. Before his secrets had been drawn from him, now he was replenished with strong thoughts, detailed and baroque architectured in their design and grandiose in scope. His thought processes racing faster and faster as the godly power within him became further integrated with his own being. He knew for a fact that there were people of a sort here, he had seen them and even battled some of them. From these they would forge an army of conquest, whipping them into formation with monstrous threats and sweet promises of reward. He would arm them with fantastic weapons drawn from his ingenious imagination and given existence through the judicious use of his new omnipotent might. Once his power was known, men would fight beneath his banner willingly.
He would lead this new Legion of his back. He would not need their help to do so, but he would indulge them, allowing them the blessing of following him as his entourage. He would conquer and he would rule. Just as he had sundered the veil to the throne, so too would he sunder the fabric of the dimensions. He would put the false Superman and the witch-entity that had nurtured him for so long in the proper place: on their knees before the newly erected throne he would build in the charred cinders of Metropolis. Too long had that place been tainted, too long had its name become synonymous with his profane existence. Luthor would raze it to the ground, brick by brick, and then build it again all in shining lines and perfect symmetry. It would truly be a city of tomorrow then, and a stately capital for his empire. Then he would lead the peoples of the Earth, ones who had for so long scorned and mocked and imprisoned him. He would accept the burden of being lord to those masses, even though they were not worthy of his rule, having proven themselves unworthy through their continued rejection of him. He had always been reviled, but this new power would make him feared; never again to be driven like a hunted wolf. Images of gratification in every form jumbled for space in his brain. He saw himself as a king with the remnants of a shattered humankind subservient to him. He saw himself topple cities and rebuild them at his command. He saw himself order the building of vast fleets of star vessels launching onto the vast sea of space to conquer the stars in the name of Luthor. He saw himself dressed in his armor of emerald and royal purple, a giant holding the two universes en-globed. Power and glory forever and ever.
He looked upon the Legion, all standing stupidly before him, and he smiled at their bafflement and their unspoken thoughts. They wondered what he would do next, and if his next act would involve them. They were now spellbound, a few like Sinestro made halfhearted attempts at preparing defense at this new threat. He smiled as benevolently as he could. There was no longer any need for apprehension. They could not harm him now, nothing could. The collective might of the Legion was an ember compared to the sun that he now was.
As they were his audience he must give them something to see, he decided.
With one imperious gesture, Luthor caused the domed ceiling to collapse. Alien stars glittered high above in a crimson filament. They were moving now, circling the Citadel like fireflies, forming and re-forming constellations and the spirals of unknown galaxies. He could hear their music now. In response he made his own song. He had only to will it and it was. This reality was slave to his merest whim. He perceived the motion of sound and it changed to suit his desires: a wondrous song, full of grandeur and pomp, reminiscent of the anthems of fascistic empires.
From within himself he felt the threads of power spinning out across this universe and beyond, a thousand-billion filaments, all invisible yet sufficient to provide the weft and warp of a strong and flexible fabric, the very fabric of reality. He was the master of this cosmos now, its undying autocrat and penultimate power. It was a power that he would use to fulfill the destiny he had been born to do.
It was time, he was empowered, he was a god! A supreme being with mastery over all. He was nearing the end. And it would be a wonderful beginning. And then there would be time enough at last.
Time. There was no time.
Time was sliding beneath him.
The power was running amok!
Pulsing waves of white energy exploded from his body. Where those waves touched; they changed.
Space warped, changed colors sickeningly quickly. Lights flashed, the floor below him shattered and reformed, froze and melted a dozen times beneath his feet.
Nimble's harlequin costume shimmered and he lost all semblance of humanity an instant later; changing into a metal shape, roughly manlike in outline, from which protruded all manner of mechanical parts, as if he were now a sculpture of a jester made from metal odds and ends.
Snart's eyes burned away; he screamed as he grasped his sizzling sockets, cursing Luthor with his last breath as he died.
One half of Brainiac caught the blast and he was bisected, one side of his body stripped of his artificial flash to reveal the metallic skeleton and circuits beneath.
Bizarro was turned inside out, becoming a hollow tube of skin and bone surrounded by internal organs; his heart continued to beat, his more-than-human atoms and organs refusing to die even as this.
The fates of the rest of the Legion were similarly sealed. They shifted, becoming monstrous forms, twisting out of reality, changing into things whose biology was incapable of supporting life.
Luthor found himself transforming into something hideous. His hands became hammer-shaped. His toes hooked claws. His knees grew eyes that had no eyebrows. His tongue was satin. His saliva was glass. His blood was bile and his bile was blood. He screamed as the agony of change tore through him. This should not be. Mentally he attempted to rein in the power, succeeding in stabilizing his form before he became a horror.
The rest of existence was not so fortunate.
With a sound that was beyond sound, the waves flowed upward, higher and higher, searing the sky above. And still they reared higher away and ascended still into the darkness above, reaching towards the glittering stars. Whatever they touched, they either destroyed or changed beyond recognition.
His breath became deafening in the enclosed space of his helmet, ragged and quick. For a moment, his disorientation was almost complete. Stars, as vivid as he'd ever seen them, swept by as he fell through the floor, out of control and flailing.
He plummeted like a comet trailing fire. As he fell, his body continued to emit the wave of deadly, white energy.
Even as he fell, his new omniscience sensed what was happening, relayed ceaselessly to him what was occurring all across this universe. Every star in every galaxy in this universe was supernovaing. Every planet that orbited them was being blasted to pebbles, any life that walked, flew or crawled upon their surfaces was dying and any potential for life was evaporating into atomic ash. It didn't cease there, he could feel the very gluons that held the atoms together fly apart in defiance of every physical law that Luthor knew; but the power of the Benefactor made mockery of physical, and now it was running amok. Entropy seemed to lay claim to all, before even its constants failed and was no more.
And just as the flaming galaxies collapsed into the gravitational pits of black holes, so too did Luthor feel the universe contract into a deadly singularity from which there could be no escape.
There was a lightless flash of utter emptiness, a maelstrom of infinity, without direction, without beginning, without end, with neither sight nor sound nor self-awareness, and then he knew what just happened.
He had killed a universe.
More than that he had destroyed what he had sought to gain, and in doing so had lost everything.
He floated now in nothingness. The solitary survivor in an utterly empty cosmos. Unlike the Bleed, which was saturated by whites and oranges, here there was neither eternal whiteness, or nor was it a black void. The place truly was pure emptiness. Here was simply nothing, an absence of perception, blindness on all fronts.
And Luthor was trapped here, unable to move from this dead zone. Immortal as any deity, he imagined that if he examined his own tissues under a microscope he would find that they had ceased to die or renewed themselves; reproducing only if they were injured in some way. He could only float unchanging and trapped in his sarcophagus of armor, alone as no other being had ever been before. For he was the last living thing in what was once a universe of trillions of galaxies. Even the voice of the electrical entity within his armor had gone silent, as though it had been stunned into silence over the ultimate atrocity that he had done.
Again and again, he attempted to call upon the power that he taken from the Benefactor, to restore life to his armor, to open a portal back to his home universe, to accomplish anything. He even tried ex nihilo, attempting to re-create a universe from this void. But, all proved futile. Evidently the power relied upon the sculptor's reality in order to function, and here was there was no clay to manipulate. Besides him and his armor, there was no mass, and there was no energy, no light, no X rays, no cosmic rays or the slightest bit of warmth. He had burnt out his new-found omnipotence with his waves of annihilation and there was nothing left.
He was alone. Completely and terrifyingly alone. He had never known loneliness like this before. The shallow emptiness invaded his consciousness. Those who lived in a world of constant noise had never known the awesome experience of total silence. The complete vacuity of sound was overwhelming. The utter dearth of sensation extended to all his senses in this void. There was not even the blinking of lights on his helmet to draw his attention; the universal explosion having damaged the internal systems beyond their ability to self-repair. Mere inches from his flesh, outside the suit that enshrouded him, was an environment more hostile than any else in existence.
For what felt like several days, he wept, the only sound in the omnipresent silence, as he thought of the impossible sequence of events that had led to his being in this place, at this time. It had all happened so fast, leaving not enough time to think, not enough time to devise a solution.
Not that there was a solution. In one brief moment, he had lost every option, every choice, leaving him without recourse. He began to think of himself as a tiny blot upon the emptiness, an unwelcome impurity marring the simplicity and sterile perfection of oblivion.
Once he was a scientist. Once he had compared himself to Prometheus, and like the Titan of mythology, he had crossed the void to reach a high Olympus to steal its fire. But found that upon stealing the fire, he had lit an inferno that burned Olympus to the ground, had destroyed everything he had known. All that had gone before had wound toward this, spiraling in a mad rush toward this lonely conclusion he had never seen coming.
Everything was gone. All hope was gone. He wept bitterly, crushed by the unfathomable magnitude of what he had lost, of what he had done. It was all gone. Everything.
After his failure he turned his thoughts to suicide. Again and again he battered a fist against the transparent helmet, attempting to expose himself to the hostile environment of the void. In this too, he was a failure. The armor was impregnable to all things, including itself, and so Luthor remained alive.
He then turned his mind inward, attempting to remember every word of every book he had ever read. After he did that, he attempt recall the tune of every song that he ever listened. He then thought of the proofs and theorems of physics, mathematics, biology, and all the sciences he had ever studied, coming up with several novel solutions to problems that had previously baffled him. The joy of discovery was short-lived as he realized that there was no one alive in which to share the knowledge with, no one even to gloat to.
Everyone was dead.
Finally he did what he had never done in the entirety of his life. He did now what he never would have considered doing in any circumstance except in this, the end of all things.
He did not know to whom or what he prayed. Perhaps he prayed to himself. Having so recently become God, it seemed appropriate.
"Please," he whispered. "Please say that this has not happened. Please. I'll do anything."
It was then that he felt a coldness, an iciness touching the center of his forehead, not in the least painful, but horrible all the same. At first he thought it was a sliver of the void that had entered his helmet through a flaw in its construction, but it was not.
Instead, it was a voice, a soft whisper inside his head.
How many times have you been in this exact spot, said these exact words, and thought these same exact thoughts?
Just in the center, the ghostly tendril held itself fast; it is hardly a pain, yet it bored a fine, dead-sure gimlet, towards the center of his brain, and at the touch, the void blinked away, sweeping away his words, his thoughts, sickening him in the transition.
In that instant he remembered, knew again where he truly was, what really had happened to him and how he had come to be there.