Warning: this chapter contains disturbing imagery.
The Age of Marvels:
Chapter Thirty Five
Part Thirty Five
During the darkest days of World War II, America stood united against the threat of the Nazi Germany war machine. Our Greatest Generation sacrificed everything in order to stem the forces of oppression from overrunning our very planet, led under the fearless banner of the greatest hero of our time, Captain America. Inspired by his courageous example, and with the aid of his misfit band of Invaders, Captain America led the forces of freedom to victory, changing his world forever.
The home of Mr. Barnes
"I...I can't believe that..." Colonel Fury said, struggling to come to grips with what he'd heard. "I can't believe Ronin could have...become that way. You always talk about how stoic and composed he was. Even under the kind of circumstances you've described, it's just...hard to imagine."
The old man stared at the floor, lost in his thoughts, his voice a frail whisper of what it once was, "War changes people, Colonel. You should know that better than most. No one ever comes home the same person they were when they left. And Logan...was a much more complicated man than he appeared to be."
"On the outside he was a samurai, the product of a different time and a different people. He was a good, decent man who lived his life by an ethical code of honor," Barnes continued, pensively. "But there was another side to him, a side that he kept locked away. I don't know if it had something to do with his abilities or his upbringing or what...Logan never did like to talk much about his past. But there was something...bestial, something primal about him that he could never quite hide from those of us who he was closest to."
"War does horrible things to people," Barnes repeated, now staring straight at Fury. "And it brought out the worst in Logan. But make no mistake, he saved lives that day. It was an ugly, monstrous situation that he found himself in, and maybe he allowed it to turn him into a monster himself, but at the end of the day, his people lived to tell about it...and that's all anyone can ever ask."
"Yeah...I guess so."
During the silence that followed, the Colonel and the old man could still hear shouts of frustration coming from upstairs as mother and child chased each other around the house in a futile attempt to get ready for the day. Amidst the bumps and crashes and commotion, Barnes took a moment to peek around the corner and up the staircase as best as he could from his position in his chair, as if checking to make sure that they weren't going to be interrupted.
"What's wrong?" Fury asked, curiously.
"I...I don't like to talk about this next part," Barnes explained, settling down after confirming that they were alone, and yet still clearly uncomfortable. "I don't want to be overheard. It's not really...appropriate for the rest of the family."
"I don't understand," confessed the Colonel.
But Fury soon wished he hadn't asked, "I'm about to tell you the story of the liberation of Buchenwald."
April 11, 1945
Buchenwald Concentration Camp
The sign on the gate had once read 'everyone gets what they deserve', but now it had been reduced to just a crumpled ball on the ground. Once those words had perfectly and succinctly represented what life at Buchenwald was like...life at the hands of the Nazis. And now, finally, it had become only a memory, a memory that would endure for eternity.
They had received the transmission just a few days ago, "To the Allies, to the army of General Patton, this is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us."
The message had used the word 'evacuate'. But everybody had known what that really meant...a death march. The Germans would herd their prisoners out of the camps and force them to march hundreds of miles across the landscape of Europe without food or water, and often in the harshest conditions imaginable. These unfortunate prisoners who had already been starved and malnourished nearly to death would be forced to travel for sometimes over a week until they eventually dropped from sheer exhaustion and starvation and were left to perish, often being shot or trampled to death in the process.
The Allied sodliers had heard rumors of the camps...of the exterminations. But those stories had not been believed until recently. Nobody had wanted to believe them. It had taken their unit three days to make it all the way from their old position over to Buchenwald, but now that they had arrived, they felt an overwhelming wave of shame that bordered on revulsion with the knowledge that they should have arrived sooner.
As Namor, King of Atlantis, stood within the entrance of Buchenwald, the once ironclad sign laying crumpled at his feet, he could not believe his eyes. This camp was a nightmare. No, it was beyond a nightmare...it was hell. It was as if the gates of the underworld had opened up and somehow bubbled to the surface. Somewhere within the recesses of his mind which were failing to cope with the sight that met his eyes, he couldn't help but recall the Atlantean legends of the afterlife, and the unimaginable horrors and tortures that awaited those who did not follow the ancient teachings. But now it was no longer unimaginable, it was real, and it was staring him right in the face.
He would never be able to purge the images of the Buchenwald prisoners from his mind. Their gaunt, sunken faces. Their frail, skeletal bodies with barely enough flesh stretched over protruding bones. What haunted Namor the most was their eyes. Even the eyes of those who were still breathing were dim and lifeless, serving only as mirrors of the death that had crept within them.
At one time they had all been people. Human beings with feelings and emotions. They had smiled and laughed, lived and loved. They had families and friends and jobs. They had hobbies and favorite foods, and each came along with their own unique quirks and jokes and style. And every night they had gone to sleep, secure with the promise that a new day would soon arrive.
But whatever the Nazis had done to them...they almost weren't people anymore, at least not how Namor had thought of them. Now, as he looked over the camp, all he saw were corpses. The ground was littered with the dead and dying, in some areas heaped up in grotesque piles. But what caught Namor's attention even more were the survivors, the walking corpses, for that was all they were now. They were missing something fundamentally human. Call it hope, or faith, or heart, or whatever you please, but it was as if the Nazis had stolen the humanity from each and every one of them, leaving only an empty horror of a shell, a husk, in their place. A hideous, horrifying, perverted imitation of humanity that shuffled along, constantly seeking something that they could no longer quite place. It was these pitiful, miserable abominations that had once been men that the Atlantean found himself surrounded by now.
Utterly overwhelmed with the horror of it all, Namor found that he could not think straight. He simply couldn't not cope with what he was seeing. His men, soldiers under his command, were swarming through the camp, organizing aid for the prisoners, busy at work all around him. But Namor himself was completely stunned, dazed by the scale of it all, the incalculable misery and death that surrounded him.
He felt something welling up from inside him. A nauseating wave of pure revulsion that he simply could not comprehend. Without warning he doubled over in the middle of the camp's courtyard and vomited over and over in front of everyone present. Again and again he heaved until there was nothing left inside, reduced to a shivering ball of a man where once a majestic monarch had stood. Never in a million years would Namor have ever predicted that his carefully constructed facade of pride and superiority could have been torn down like it had, in front of the humans, no less. But this...this hellish nightmare...who could have predicted this? Who could withstand this level of callous disregard for life? It was abysmal.
Rising once again to his feet, the Atlantean grimaced as the stench and pestilence of the place once again assaulted his senses, hitting him like a brick wall. Somewhere inside his shocked mind he registered that his lieutenant was asking if he was going to be alright, but the soldier's words sounded so far away to Namor, as if they were coming through a dense fog. Instead, the King focused on forcing his legs to begin working again, staggering forward inch by inch under the weight of the horror that bore down on him.
Thoughts began echoing unbidden through Namor's mind, as if his subconscious could no longer restrain its own tortured screams. How could this happen? How could the humans do this to each other? How can they consider themselves so superior, so advanced, when they commit atrocities such as this? Why would any Atlantean risk his own life by working side by side with these monsters?
But the one thought, the one damnable, cursed thought that Namor could not banish from his mind, the one that kept repeating itself over and over, was this: rumors of these camps had been circulating for months or even years. Steve had suggested that they investigate those claims, but Namor had shot down the idea at the time. He had reasoned that as far as they knew, these were still unsubstantiated stories, and that every day they wasted on such a wild goose chase was another day Allied soldiers were dying by the truckload when they could have been making concrete progress against the Germans. He had thought to himself, why would a species ever do something like that to itself, anyway? It made no sense. Clearly, the King of Atlantis had severely underestimated the human's monstrous ruthlessness. It would never happen again.
Now the one thought that would torture Namor for the rest of his life was that if it hadn't been for him and his naivete, these prisoners could have been liberated months ago. How many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of lives had been lost because of him? The Invaders could have already saved those people easily. Now all those lives were on his head. Every last one. It was a burden that Namor did not think he could carry.
With his aide still chattering along behind him, the King eventually made it around the side of the next building only to be stopped in his tracks by a sight that he had never imagined. Before him lay what used to be the lavatories for that section of the camp...but now it was nothing less than a mass gave. The ground was littered with the bodies of the dead. Their pitiable, skeletal corpses were covered with blood, urine, and fecal matter as their empty eyes stared, frozen in horror, up at the thick cloud of flies which hovered above the piles of corpses that littered the soiled ground.
Now it was the lieutenant's turn to vomit. Namor's eyes grew wide with terror. It was no secret that dysentery and cholera had run rampant through the camp, especially due to the abominable conditions that the prisoners had been forced to live in. Without control of their own bowel movements, unable to eat, sleep, or find any kind of solace, hundreds of inmates had no choice but to make their way to the lavatories, many of them forced to crawl over the dying bodies of their fellow prisoners, only to spend their last few hours or even days on Earth slowly wasting away, suffering without help or hope atop a growing mountain of human misery and filth.
It was all too much. It was just too much.
But just as Namor felt that he could bear no more, just as he feared that his mind was beginning to shut down from the monstrous revulsion of it all, he heard a faint, frail voice cutting through the fog of screaming disbelief that had consumed him.
"Please...please help me..."
The Atlantean's eyes snapped open. Could it be? Could someone still be clinging to life somewhere within that human cesspool? His soldiers had been finding survivors throughout the camp all morning, was it really so unbelievable that he could have arrived in time to save someone from this deathtrap as well?
"Don't...don't leave me..." the voice pleaded once more.
Namor had made up his mind. Someone was definitely still alive in there. The King strove forward, leaving his wretched lieutenant behind without a second thought. Finally the King had found something concrete to focus on. He had had enough of the feelings of overwhelming despair that he had succumbed to, and now it was time for action. He had drawn a line in the sand. No one else was going to die in this horrible place. It had claimed enough lives, so swore Namor the Sub-Mariner.
"Where are you? I cannot see you!" Namor shouted, desperation evident in his otherwise strong voice.
"I am here..." the voice called back, followed by a fit of coughing.
And then Namor saw him. He was lost deep within the wasteland of death, barely managing to slowly crawled his way through the corpses that blocked his path. He was old, and small...so small, a shriveled wisp of a man. Like all the other prisoners, he was bald and wore nothing but the barest of tattered rags upon his body. There was no telling how long he had laid among the dead, but as he pitifully, excruciatingly, inched his way to salvation, his weak frame trembled and shook like a thin branch in the wind. It was this miserable creature who now begged the King for aid.
But Namor was wasting no time. Heedless of the filth and disease, he charged through the masses of the dead, wading through them almost like a man would wade through a noxious swamp, until he finally reached his goal. Before the frail old man could say anything, Namor had scooped him up in his arms and was already on his way out of the blinding cloud of flies which swarmed over the corpses.
The old man attempted to thank the Atlantean, but Namor would have none of it. As he made his way back to the lieutenant and shouted for a medic, he tried not to think about how disturbingly light the old man was, or how cold and brittle his body had become. Now was not the time to dwell on such things, he told himself. He had promised that he would not allow one more life to be lost that day, and he was going to see that promise fulfilled.
"Where is my damned medic?!" Namor bellowed, his voice ringing harshly through the camp.
His lieutenant nearly collapsed with fright as a medic quickly made his way to their position, "Right here, sir. Is this the patient?"
"I found him amidst the lavatory," Namor explained, holding the trembling old man lower so that the medic could have a look. "What can be done to save him?"
Ignoring his intimidating royal commander who was busy glaring down at him, the medic took out his instruments and swiftly set about administering a cursory examination. The old man seemed to be slipping in and out of consciousness as the doctor looked him over. It was clear that the prisoner was in a bad way, but the King refused to believe that something could not be done for him.
After a while the medic sighed and took a step back, "I'm afraid it's impossible to know whether or not we can save him. The patient is malnourished, severely dehydrated, and suffering from the effects of overexposure, among any number of other issues he may be suffering from. In order to have any chance of effectively treating him, we'd need a whole team of experienced medical aides."
"Then fetch them," Namor barked, still clutching the shivering old man in his grasp. "And be quick about it."
At this point the medic began to look apprehensive, but resolutely hung onto his courage (as opposed to the lieutenant, who was practically wetting himself at that point), "I'm sorry sir, but all of our medics are currently busy with other patients. To be honest, we severely underestimated the amount of medical attention these people would need. We're just not equipped to handle an emergency of this magnitude, sir."
"What do you mean, you're not equipped?" Namor responded in a dangerously low growl.
The medic gulped, but bravely continued, "What I mean, sir, is that there just aren't enough of us to properly treat this many patients. But don't worry, there's another battalion only an hour or so out with their own contingent of doctors. We've sent for them, and they should be on their way now."
Namor thrust the prisoner out for the medic to see, "This man may not have an hour, you incompetent buffoon! Now do whatever you have to do and save him at once!"
Showing remarkable courage, the medic dared to stare the Atlantean straight in the eyes, "As I explained sir, this man is so far gone that there's no guarantee that we can do anything to save him. And every medic we enlist for this task means that one more prisoner we could actually help goes untreated. But I promise, as soon as reinforcements arrive, we will do everything we can to aid your patient."
For a long while Namor stood and glared at the doctor while he decided his next move, "That is unacceptable, soldier. When I return, consider yourself relieved of your rank. Good day."
And with that, the King of Atlantis unfurled the small, powerful wings attached to his ankles and shot up into the sky like a bullet, clutching the old man close to his chest. Namor was done feeling helpless. If the old man's fate rested in the hands of the reinforcement's medics, then Namor would do whatever it took to get him there as soon as possible, even if it meant flying the patient himself.
As the soldiers and prisoners below gaped in awe at the sight of the King soaring through the sky, Namor continued to ignore them, focusing instead on flying as fast as he thought he could, considering the fragile, sick soul in his charge.
Held securely within the King's arms, the old man was dreaming. Somewhere deep within himself, he wondered how this could be. It had been so long since he'd had any dreams...at least any dreams about anything other than a drop of extra soup, or bread, or clothes. It was as if he had forgotten what real dreams were. He had forgotten the stuff dreams were made of. But now, inexplicably, he found that he was immersed within a dream, a lovely dream, one which swept him away with sensations and emotions that had become only the distant whispers of shadows. And before he knew it, he was in his past, watching as the happy memories of his childhood were brought to life before him like a curtain parting to reveal the opening act of a play.
His earliest memory was of sitting on the hill watching the birds. The sun was shining and beautiful white puffy clouds were slowly meandering through the sky. The hill was only a ten minute walk from home, and from it, he enjoyed a wonderful view of the whole village spread out before him. But that wasn't what drew the little Jewish boy there. No, what he liked the most was the birds.
The edge of the forest which overlooked the hillside was home to hundreds of little songbirds, and when the summer months arrived and the weather warmed, he used to spend hours upon hours of his childhood sitting on the hilltop gazing with wonder at them. There was something about how they flitted from tree to tree, sometimes singing to each other, sometimes darting through the sky, all the while fueled by a kind of exuberant joy which captivated the child. He used to sit there on that hilltop, that special place that belonged only to him, and dream about what it must be like to fly, free and wild, belonging to no one but himself, carried by the wind high above the world spread out beneath him. Oh what he would give to fly like that, just for one day, through the clouds and the treetops. What he would give for that glorious, rapturous freedom. Maybe one day, the little boy thought to himself, one day he would know that that felt like. And what a day that would be!
But one cannot remain a child forever, and soon the boy's carefree days of sitting on the hilltop and watching the songbirds became a thing of the past. But as he grew, he kept the memory of those times alive in his heart, and they became a secret part of him that no one could touch. A special place that belonged only to him.
This was a sharp lad, quick as a whip and twice as spry. His agile mind and ready smile made him a good candidate for whatever field which he chose to apply himself. And he decided to follow his passion and become a scientist, dedicating his life to the study of birds. When he was ready, he applied for and was accepted to one of the most prestigious universities in Europe, and for years he studied his ornithology texts most intently.
It was during this time that he met his future wife. She was everything he had ever wanted. They fit together perfectly, and like two pieces of a puzzle, once they were joined it was impossible to separate them. As far as the young man was concerned, she was the most important person in the whole world. They had met during one of his frequent birdwatching expeditions, hit it off immediately, and were married less than a year later. He would always consider those times some of the happiest days of his young life.
The following years were kind to the boy who had now grown into a man. The life of an ornithologist suited him, and he soon became a renowned and respected name in his field. His wife had born him three sons, and they were his pride and joy. He found that the time that he was able to spend by himself, just listening to the birds and watching them fly by his study window, was far too infrequent those days, but he didn't mind so much. For what more could he ask for than his loving family?
Unfortunately, it was at that time that a dark cloud began to form on the horizon.
They had called it the war to end all wars, and as far as he was concerned, it was a most apt name indeed. The Kaiser, in his madness, had declared war upon all the world, and in the process had ripped a bloody swath across Europe that had nearly wasted an entire generation. The optimistic middle-aged ornithologist had thought that when that war ended, his country had seen the end of its suffering. He had never been more wrong.
The war had left his neighboring nation, Germany, destitute and hopeless. Strict international laws had been passed that had crippled its economy and stifled its people. The entire nation was in a state of disarray, but over time, with the rise of its new leader, that same poverty and hopelessness had first been turned into anger...and then insanity.
Germany's new leader was both eloquent and passionate, and within only a matter of years he had whipped his country into a frenzy. This was a new Germany, a proud Germany, a nation that sought to rebuild itself on the rubble of its crushed enemies. War was in the air, the ornithologist (now quite a bit older and wiser) had felt it before. Dark times were approaching, but even he could not perceive what came next. No one could.
It was no secret how the new regime felt about the aging ornithologist's people, the Jews. Ever since the close of the last war, the Jews had served as a scapegoat for the angry and desperate people of the Rhineland. They had been blamed for everything from the ruined economy to the moral decay of society. And now, with the hateful propaganda of their new regime coursing through their veins, the Germans no longer had any reason to disguise their thinly veiled disgust for their Jewish neighbors.
Fear began to grow within the heart of the old man. Rumors abounded concerning the claims and promises of the new Fuhrer. German Jews had been slowly stripped of their basic rights and freedoms. They lived in constant danger, at all times fearing the wrath of their German countrymen. The Fuhrer promised that Germany would soon be returned to its native sons, and that all of the impure foreigners that poisoned it would soon be cleansed. These Jews, he had promised, would be purged from their nation no matter the cost, so that the Nazi party could rise and spread to all corners of the world.
These words seemed to freeze the old man's very blood. It was not the first time that his people had been threatened with empty words such as those, and so he decided that there was no reason to panic at that time. The Jews would weather this storm as they had all the others. Their teachings promised that their faith would deliver them, and so it was in God that they placed their hope. Like his friends and neighbors, the old man had also reasoned that they would be safe from the hatred of the Germans in their home country of Poland. After all, the Nazi leader would never dare to violate the borders of another sovereign country...would he?
The old man's cozy illusion of safety was soon shattered, however, as news spread through his nation like wildfire of the Kristallnacht...the night of broken glass. The genocidal promises of the mad Fuhrer were coming true before the old man's very eyes. The entire land of Germany had been consumed with riots against their Jewish population. Jews were being murdered in the streets by angry mobs while the police looked on in passive approval. Homes and businesses, churches and schools were put to the flame, burned to the ground, or smashed to pieces. Those Jewish families that had not fled the country or been killed outright were being hunted down, rounded up, and sent to the camps. Rumors of these camps had already been circulating for months, and while some maintained that they merely served as temporary housing while the Nazis looked for a new home for the Jewish people, other, more disturbing rumors claimed that those Jews who entered the camps were never heard from again. The rumors claimed that these were not relocation camps...that they were instead death camps meant to totally exterminate the Jewish people from the face of the Earth. However, one thing was clear, it was now illegal to be a Jew in Nazi Germany.
The old man and his family spent the next year shrouded in a fog of false hope built upon fervent, willful ignorance. While war loomed ever closer throughout Europe, the Polish Jews continued to feverishly console themselves with talk about how the perceived coming catastrophe would blow over any day. Surely the worst of it was already over. After all, how could the Fuhrer possibly hope to deliver on those absurd, unrealistic promises of his? Whatever fate had befallen the German Jews was indeed a tragedy, but now that the Nazi's hatred had been appeased, at least the rest of the Jewish people were safe.
The thin illusion of peace the old man had concocted for himself and his family was rudely shattered only a year later when the German army crossed the border into Poland as part of a massive military campaign that would sweep across the whole of Europe. The old man and his family were caught completely off guard as the rest of the world looked on in disbelief. In the span of only a month, the Nazis had conquered his entire country. The Polish army hadn't stood a chance.
The old man would later marvel that even then, with Nazi troopers marching down their streets, enforcing their curfews and staying in their homes, he had told his family not to worry. The worst was surely over with. They were going to be okay. The German soldiers seemed polite and well behaved. Some of them would even show them what appeared to be real kindness on occasion. But this was not to last.
Little by little, the life that the old man knew began fading away. Never before had he felt so helpless in the face of such implacable and ruthless evil. All he could do was hold his family close, soothing them with false assurances as their rights were slowly dissolved before their very eyes. One by one the orders came: no Jews out after curfew, Jews were no longer allowed to worship in their synagogues, Jews were no longer allowed to operate their own businesses, and then finally the worst...all Jews were required to wear the Star of David on their clothes at all times.
Their little village, which at one time had felt so safe and secure to the old man, had now become a dangerous cage. Every day new rumors surfaced about how a Jewish family had been executed or carted away to the horrible camps. Food was becoming scarce, and it had even gotten to the point that it was dangerous to simply set foot out in the streets. And even still, the Jews told themselves that it wasn't so bad. They could endure this. Surely it couldn't get any worse.
The old man never forgot the night that the order came. All Jews in his village were to pack their belongings and be ready to be escorted to the newly constructed Jewish ghetto on the outskirts of the village. Refusal to comply with these orders would result in immediate termination.
It broke the old man's heart to leave his home, the house that he had built with his beautiful wife, the place where he had raised his children. The home that had been their last vestige of security in an increasingly dark world. As he left it for the last time, his eyes lingering on the picturesque house, it struck him how tragically empty and hollow it seemed as his family staggered down the street, burdened as they were with all their possessions.
Despite it all. Despite the fact that they were now confined to a large, glorified prison, the overwhelming opinion of the resident Jews was still optimistic. Yes, their homes had been taken from them, along with most of their money and belongings, but at least they were all together, and in a way they actually felt much safer than they had in the community at large. At least in the ghetto they had nothing to fear from anti-Semitic hate crimes or discrimination. Many of them were happy to spend the rest of the war there in the ghetto, reasoning that eventually when the Nazi regime was finally toppled, they would be rescued and able to resume their lives where they had left off. The old man went along with these rumors just like everybody else, using them to placate the fears of his family, but in his heart he feared the worst. Some of the younger people had even grown overconfident, saying that if this was the worst the Fuhrer intended for them, that he could bring it on. There was even talk of open rebellion amongst the more brash, youthful Jews.
But the old man, along with many of the other respected elders, knew all too well the cost of rebellion. Countless lives would be lost to the Germans, who were far too well equipped and trained for them to defeat. No, it would be wiser for them to bear the situation for the time being. They had everything they needed to survive, and what they still lacked, they could often negotiate with their captors for. After all, despite everything, the Nazis were still reasonable, intelligent people, and the Jews were not entirely without their powers of persuasion or resources.
It seemed that just as they were getting used to their meager life in the ghetto, they were ordered to leave. The old man and his family were forced to join all the other Jews in the ghetto square, and after hours of tense waiting, were concisely and swiftly marched out of the ghetto and loaded onto the trains. Before they knew it, and without a peep of protest, the old man had left every last thing he owned in the middle of the square along with everyone else's belongings. Their last vestige of hope had been shattered. They were on their way to the camps.
The train ride itself could have been worse. At least, that's what the old man told himself over and over as he huddled with his terrified family in a corner of the car. He, along with a massive herd of other Jews, had been loaded onto what appeared to be a cattle car and packed so tightly together that they could neither move nor sit. It was in this miserable, sweltering condition that they traveled for hours upon hours, to an unknown destination. Amidst the weeping and praying of the train ride, the only consolation for the old man was that at least his family was together. If he had his family, he had everything he needed.
But sadly, even this illusion of safety was not to last.
After years of despair and all of the cruelty they had already been subjected to, the old man's worst fears were finally realized when he was roughly thrown from the packed train and herded with the rest of the crowd to their final destination...Auschwitz extermination camp.
As the old man made his way inside, desperately clinging to his family with all his strength, he realized that they were descending into a nightmare. Half starved, barely clothed men were busy working backbreaking and menial tasks under the harsh supervision of their Nazi handlers. Disease, malnutrition, and death permeated the entire atmosphere with an acrid stench. The camp itself was heavily guarded and well constructed, creating an impenetrable cage of misery which would be impossible to escape from. And looming above the entire facility were two enormous smokestacks, billowing clouds of black soot that the old man could only pray were not what he feared they were.
Truly, this is where hope went to die.
Before he knew it the mass of prisoners was being separated into two lines, men on one side, women on the other. The old man looked into the eyes of his beloved wife, their heartbroken souls mirroring one another as they steadily approached the juncture. Quickly, his body trembling from anguish, the old man held her close one last time, whispering the only words he could think to say to her...
"Remember always that I love you. Stay safe, and I will come find you when this is all over."
Weeping uncontrollably, with tears streaming down her face, his wife reached out and shared a final kiss with her husband. For one passionate moment they were together again, two souls intertwined as one, with the rest of the world forgotten. Then they were ripped apart as the guards seized his wife and the old man was savagely beaten to the ground as punishment for his emotional outburst.
That was the last time he ever saw his wife, as she was dragged away screaming and weeping for her dear family.
The old man was carried along the long line of prisoners by his three sons, who desperately attempted to quiet his futile shouts and soothe his broken heart. After the pain had subsided, the old man found that he had become strangely numb to the horror that surrounded him. One by one he and his sons were processed, dehumanized, and made into nothing more than glorified animals by the men who were out to destroy their people. Their clothes were taken and replaced with rags, their hair (their last semblance of individuality) was completely shaved away, and even their names had been painfully replaced by the cursed number that had been branded into their arms. This was what it now meant to be a Jew.
They were made to turn in all their clothes and any valuables that they might still be in possession of, on pain of death. Any who were too old or sickly or frail were further separated from the group and led away under pretenses of 'special accommodations'. They were never seen again. The old man didn't even have the presence of mind to thank God that he and his sons remained together, so demoralized and shocked had he become.
Then the camp warden approached the group. He spoke in a voice that resembled that of a reasonable man, even a man who could perhaps be capable of kindness, but all such lies that had previously shielded the Jewish inmates had already been stripped away. The man said that everyone in Auschwitz would be given a fair deal, and that deal was this: work hard, and they would be treated well. Laze about and slack off, and they would be culled from the herd. It was as simple as that. The Jewish people needed to start earning the German's hospitality, and any that failed to do so would suffer the consequences. But the old man was under no more illusions, the ever present smokestacks which presided over everything that occurred within Auschwitz had made sure of that. They were being worked to death, pure and simple. They were going to work until they were all dead, until the Jewish people were extinct. These were to be their final days on Earth. The old man cursed his long life. He cursed God for allowing him to live to see this day. How could a merciful God let this happen? Where was He now?
Despite everything, it didn't take the old man and his sons long to acclimate to life at Auschwitz. Every day they were subjected to long, tedious, and painful drills, during which they were made to stand at attention for endless hours, regardless of weather conditions or physical ability. Those that could not endure these drills were taken away, sometimes amidst screaming pleas, begging, or weeping, never to be seen again.
Everyone would then begin their work. The old man was lucky. As a well known and educated Jew, he was allowed to tutor the Germans and their families on weekdays, but on weekends he was still forced to perform exhausting physical labor. It was long, backbreaking, heavily enforced work, and he could soon feel his body wasting away under the unbearable burden of it all.
The food didn't help. Their rations consisted only of extremely watered down soup and a bit of hard, crusty bread. Prisoners would do anything, no matter how menial, degrading, or disgusting, just for a few extra crumbs of bread, as they slowly grew thinner and thinner, until eventually they became little more than skeletons, whose sunken, greedy eyes did nothing to hide the fact that they would betray and kill their own flesh and blood for just another mouthful of food.
The old man's two oldest sons were sent to work at the local factory, making munitions for the German war effort. But his youngest son was not so lucky. He was particularly well built, and so he had been assigned to man the furnace.
The dreaded furnaces were the last stop for every Jew that passed through the gates of Auschwitz, and it was within those flames that the old man had come to believe the ultimate fate of his people waited. The youngest son's job was simple. Men and women by the thousands were marched through the inescapable gates of Auschwitz, robbed of their humanity, and then taken to the gas chambers. They were often told that these chambers housed showers, used to keep the camp clean of lice and disease that any newcomers may have brought with them. But this final, despicable lie was exposed when the chambers began spewing deadly toxic gas.
The old man's youngest son could hear every plea for mercy, every scream of terror, every prayer for deliverance, and every shriek of utter horror, as day after day, more and more people met their ends at the hands of extermination. Then, after the last body had hit the floor and the gas had been cleared, it was his job to go into the chamber and collect all the corpses so he could then feed them to the furnace. In only a matter of minutes those bodies, which had been frozen in their last moments of blind terror, would be incinerated and their ashes pumped through the giant smokestack, creating a cloud of death that would fall upon the entire camp in a macabre, dense fog. The very air that the incarcerated Jews breathed was the noxious remains of their own people, and this thought was never far from the mind of the youngest son.
It only took a few weeks for this torture to break the youngest son. The old man, still lost in despair, would never forget the last day he saw his son as they each trudged off to their separate jobs that morning. He had barely given his son a glance as he walked away, but for the rest of his life he wished he'd taken the opportunity to hold him one more time and tell him that he loved him. It was a mistake he would carry with him forever.
It only took a moment to happen. His son was surprised at how sudden the epiphany had struck him. As always, he couldn't help but listen as the deadly gases slowly filled the chamber, but this time he had heard a little girl crying out for her mother, over and over, before her voice suddenly stopped and was replaced with only silence. Later, when he entered the chamber, he found the body of the little girl collapsed in a pitiable pile in a corner. There were deep, panicked scratch marks against the wall above her body, and blood trailed from her fingernails.
Without a word, as if in a trance, the youngest son bent down and tenderly picked up the frozen body of the terrified little girl, and slowly walked her back to the furnace, ignoring the other workers who were moving much larger loads. Ordinarily, he knew that disobeying orders like that would get him immediately reported and punished, but it was as if his brain had shut off completely. The trauma of the past few weeks and months had finally hit him in its bleak totality, and he found that something deep inside himself seemed to have broken.
As the youngest son carefully placed the body of the young girl in the furnace, he marveled at how quickly the flames ate at her, as if they were starving for nourishment just as much as any of the prisoners themselves were. He found himself wishing fervently that there was a Heaven for the little girl to go to, hoping that he had been wrong to have given up his faith in it. And then, without warning or pause, the youngest son simply collapsed into the furnace. He had given up. He had lost the will to live. The madness of this Holocaust had completely overwhelmed him until there was nothing left inside, and in the blink of an eye his life had been extinguished. One moment he was there, and the next, without a sound, like a vanishing dream, he simply wasn't...almost as if he had never even existed at all.
When the old man heard of his youngest son's death, he wept bitterly. He felt a renewed anger and rage building in his heart. A rage which he couldn't help but project the only way that was still available to him, towards his God, who he had followed without question or doubt for his entire life, but who had nevertheless allowed his son to die. The old man would never again believe in anything...except for the unquestionable, relentless power of the Nazis.
However, this new anger over the loss of his youngest son seemed to somehow awaken the old man from his depression. He realized that although he had lost much, his other two sons still remained. As their father, it was his job to look after them and protect them as much as he could. They were all he had left, and as long as he had someone to look after, he knew he could find the strength to keep going...for their sakes.
From that time on the old man was possessed of a driven determination, or at least as much as he could during those dark days. He would do everything he could to keep up his strength, and by using his great intellect and resourcefulness, he was sometimes lucky enough to be able to gather enough supplies or food to help his sons enjoy extra rations, or better clothes, or easier work. Over time, the old man became a source of inspiration and comfort for his sons and many of the other prisoners besides. Even some of the German guards were fond of him. But despite the fact that his poor excuse of a life went on for many months and even years, the old man eventually began to feel his age catching up to him. He was no longer the strong young man that he had once been. His body had wasted away to practically nothing, and utter starvation was never far away. His remaining two sons were slowly withering as well, and one of them especially, was showing signs of a fearful and savage desperation by the time things finally began to change.
Rumors that the end of the war was eminent had been circulating for months. The front lines of the conflict were rapidly approaching the camp at an almost alarming rate. Sometimes the explosions were so loud that they could be heard coming from just over the horizon like a distant thunder.
There was an electricity in the air, an excited kind of expectation that the old man hadn't felt in years. It took him a few days before he could finally put his finger on this elusive feeling...it was hope. What he was feeling was hope. Hushed talk was whispered throughout the camp that it could be any day now before they were free. Any day they would see the armies of the Allied forces crossing over the next ridge, intent on liberating them from their persecutors.
But the Nazis weren't about to have any of that.
The old man's heart sank as the Germans soon made an announcement that instantly squashed any fledgeling hope of rescue. They were going to be evacuated, immediately, to another camp far from the front lines of the conflict. Before the old man knew it, he and his sons, along with almost the entirety of the camp had been emptied. Only the very sick and injured had been left behind without food or water, helpless as the relentless machines of war slowly, inevitably bore down on them.
For a moment, the old man had allowed himself to dare to hope that he and his sons might find a place to hide within the camp, to stay behind so that they might be rescued, but the Nazis had already thought of that. To deter anyone from staying behind, they announced that the camp was to be bombed as soon as the evacuation was complete, incinerating in the blink of an eye anyone fool enough to stay behind, and to erase any evidence that the camp had ever existed. If the prisoners had any hope of survival, they would submit to the evacuation. They were promised that their destination would be a far more lenient camp than the one which they were fleeing.
Without another thought of resistance, and compelled by the heartless, armed guards, the old man and his sons were 'escorted' out of the camp. They didn't know whether the Germans were going to follow through with their promise to bomb the place, nor did they believe that the next camp was going to be any better than the hellhole they had just left, but there was no question in anyone's mind that this would most likely be their final journey.
They'd heard the rumors. They'd talked to the survivors. When the Germans said the word 'evacuation', what they really meant was 'death march'. They would be traveling hundreds of miles, on foot, across the span of Europe, until they reached the next camp. They would be provided no food or water, and would be given very few breaks. The journey may take days, or over a week, and any stragglers would be shot on sight or trampled beneath the apathetic feet of the rest of the herd. The old man fervently wished that he still believed in God so that he would have someone to pray to, because despite all the death that he had been surrounded by for the past few years, he had never been more scared than he was at that moment.
The march across the snowy fields of Europe was everything he had feared. They jogged along at the mercy of the German guards for hours upon hours upon hours. Those that stumbled or fell were immediately killed, for as the march dragged on, shots were fired over and over again, each one ending another life, leaving a trampled corpse to lie in the middle of the road, abandoned and forgotten.
Soon the old man lost all feeling in his feet and legs, and the rest of his body presently followed. He began to lag behind at the back of the group, quickly losing sight of his two younger, stronger sons. He hadn't even the strength to call out to them for help, but somewhere deep inside his numb heart, he felt a growing sense of sorrow because not once did they ever look back to check on him. They were too far gone, his two sons. After several years of torture, he no longer even felt like their father. They rarely spoke, or hardly ever even made eye contact. They were men no longer. They didn't even feel like human beings. They were numb to the world, numb to the victims they had spent years living with who were being shot down in their exhaustion as their trek continued. The old man found himself staring at a body on the ground as he passed by, not even recognizing that it might have been all that was left of a friend until he had already gone, and even then, he had been unable to find a place in his heart that could still care.
After three days of travel, with no food and few breaks, the convoy (which had become alarmingly smaller) stopped in an abandoned village. The guards took no notice of the prisoners as they surrounded the town in order to keep watch, while the old man collapsed where he stood in the snow and a deep, troubled sleep claimed him.
He awake hours later, in the dead of night, to find that many of those that had followed his example and dropped in the snow to sleep had frozen to death. They no longer had the strength required to awaken, and had passed away in their slumber. Now they were merely cold, emaciated corpses, half buried in the fallen snow.
As the old man painfully rose to find shelter, he realized that whatever the village had been before, it had now been transformed into a ghost town. It was impossible to tell who was alive or dead among the hordes of prisoners who had collapsed in the streets, for not a single one of them still moved. The snow seemed to mute any noises that were made and the moonlight, illuminated by the snowbanks, cast an eery glow on the bony bodies that littered the tiny village. The old man shivered uncontrollably as he made his way through the back allies of the town. It was as if he could feel the specter of death itself, patiently stalking him, waiting for his time to strike. But the old man tried to focus instead on finding his sons. He had to know whether they were alive or dead. He had to.
A fair distance from the hamlet's main roads, the old man began to hear noises, as if from a struggle, coming from one of the smaller houses on the outskirts of the village. As quickly as he could, he made his way to the house, stealthily peeking in through the window in case there was danger about.
What he saw haunted his dreams for the rest of his life.
The small house was infested with the bodies of the dead. But if the blood which covered the floor was any indication, these men had not died of exhaustion or starvation. No, their lives had been claimed by a fierce conflict, one that both his sons were now inextricably involved in.
Of the nearly dozen men that had stumbled upon the house, only the old man's two sons were still alive, and they were now locked in a barbaric, murderous struggle that clearly only one of them could walk away from. The old man cast his eyes around the house in an effort to discern what had caused the fight, until he saw the small hole in the floor and the food hidden inside that had been spread about by the prisoners who had discovered it.
There wasn't much food to be had, and it was obvious that the fight had started over the few edible morsels that had been preserved within the small hole. Almost certainly it had been squirreled away by some poor family who had been desperate enough to go to such lengths to save some meager rations of food from the ravenous, insatiable mouths of the Nazi armed forces who still marched across the land. Now almost a dozen men had lost their lives over a savage, maddened struggle for only a few scraps of bread and rotten meat. And if he didn't do something quickly, one of his sons would be counted among their number.
But it was already too late. As the old man rushed to the door, the intense cold forgotten in his blind panic to save his sons, he saw one of them stun the other with a crushing blow. Unable to recover soon enough, the old man watched helplessly while his oldest son killed his own brother by mercilessly reaching around and snapping his neck with a savage jerk. The old man felt tears welling up as he beheld his eldest son as he fell upon the scraps of food and wolfed them down with a wild, animalistic glint in his eyes. He hadn't even waited for his brother's body to hit the floor, for he had already forgotten his sibling. His brother's memory had already been completely erased by his desperate need to survive.
The old man stared on in horror. How had it come to this? How could this have happened? Had his son really killed his own brother in cold blood, over a meaningless piece of bread?
Fraught with grief and heartache, the old man turned and staggered away from the grisly hovel as fast as he could, his mind feeling as if it was about to shatter from the images which played through it again and again, as he collapsed in a snowy ditch next to a barn for the rest of the night, sobbing uncontrollably in his miserable, shivering state.
He didn't know how many hours had passed until he rose again. He couldn't know. He had lost all sense of time. But at some point, long hours after the last tear had creased his cheek and he found himself unable to shed any more, the call came up from the German guards surrounding the town, and the old man rose, unthinking, automatically, from his spot in the snow.
He did not know why he rose up, for he no longer had the willpower to keep going. The old man had just spent so many years mindlessly responding to orders that his body had risen without his permission, and was now staggering towards the mass of other survivors in the center of town.
No one in the pathetic, starving, ragged band had noticed when the train had arrived, or indeed that there had been train tracks running through the town at all, but when the guards motioned for them to enter, they did so without a second thought.
Years ago, when the old man and his family had arrived at Auschwitz, they had done so in a car so packed with people that they had not been able to move or sometimes even breathe. This was no longer the case. Now only a bare dozen people had been herded into the car with the old man, and each had more than enough room to sit and stare while their energy slowly drained from their exhausted, malnourished, skeletal frames.
As the last leg of their journey began and the train lurched into motion, it took a while for the old man to realize that his last remaining son was staring at him from the opposite end of the car with dark eyes that glittered soullessly from the shadows. Each of the remaining men had collapsed into a sitting position in their respective corners, but not a word passed between them. The old man felt nothing but revulsion and hatred for his eldest son now. He found that the apathy which for so long had fallen upon his heart had now been replaced by an unrelenting, passionate hatred. His eldest son had killed his brother before his father's very eyes, over a measly piece of bread. And the old man could no longer restrain himself from cursing his one remaining family member with all the fire he still had left within his heart. He no longer cared what God wanted, he no longer cared what people thought or what useless morals dictated, he cursed his son, hoping only that when he died, and he would indeed die along with them all very soon, that he would go straight to Hell, forever to burn in its flames for all eternity in punishment for his unspeakable, unforgivable crime.
As he stared at the one who used to be his son, he found that he could no longer find any shred of humanity within his eyes. Where once there had been kindness, compassion, and empathy, there was now a black void, without any feelings or emotion. It suddenly struck the old man that he'd seen eyes like that before, those of the wild dogs which had sometimes roamed through the village of his youth. Those mongrels had been savage, half-starving beasts, monsters who would have done anything, anything, no matter how barbaric, for just a single scrap of food. And as he gazed into the dead eyes of the last of his family, the old man knew that his son had been turned into just such a monster...and the old man wondered if he was so very different from his son after all.
During the train ride they were scheduled to make one stop at a still flourishing city on the way to the camp. The prisoners had not eaten at that point for almost a week, and so they were shocked out of their stupor as scraps of bread were thrown into their car from the outside, among the jeering and cruel laughter of the villagers.
In an instant, the atmosphere of the car changed as the desperate prisoners leaped into action, each coveting a different scrap of bread. Before he could think or do anything to stop himself, the old man, nearly driven out of his mind by hunger, found himself scrambling in a mad fury for a single piece of stale bread, slobbering over himself as an uncontrollable rivulet of saliva dribbled down from his mouth.
The old man yelped in surprise as he was forced back by a painful, sudden blow to the head. He had been just about to reach for the bread scrap, but he had now collapsed back to the floor, shocked out of his mad panic by the unexpected attack.
The old man's eyes widened as he saw that the one who had struck him was his insane son, a wicked grin spread across his face and his red-veined eyes wide with madness as he stared down at his crippled father and reached for the scrap of bread. But just before he could take that first precious bite, his body shuddered and his eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed beside the form of his father, dead at the hands of another prisoner who had sneaked up behind him and was now eating the bread like a dog, curled up in a defensive position with his eyes nervously darting back and forth, on the lookout for any further challengers. All the bread was gone now, consumed within only the span of a few seconds, and as the old man groaned and picked himself up, he stared apathetically at the lifeless form of his last son, wondering if there had ever been a time when he had been able to feel anything for him at all as his eyes lingered upon the look of shock and surprise still etched upon his own murdered son's features.
Before the train continued down the tracks, the guards ordered the bodies of the dead to be thrown from the car. The old man himself picked up the body of his final son and helped take it to the door. He stared down at his son with a scowl as he prepared to pitch him over the side, and found that he did not even recognize the face he was looking at. As he watched his son's frozen corpse hit the sidewalk, try as he might, he felt not a single instant of pity for him. He no longer recognized his own son...and he no longer recognized himself.
The old man had no memory of how much longer the train journey lasted, all he remembered was that his entire existence had been consumed by one singular feeling. He felt alone. Truly, utterly alone in a nightmarish, twisted world of hatred and death. As his mind began to drift further and further away from reality and his strength finally began to abandon him, he realized how ironic his situation truly was. All his life he had believed in the hollow and empty promises of God, the same kind of promises that he had repeated over and over again to his own family. Promises of safety and love. Promises of protection and life. Ultimately...promises that he had no power whatsoever to enforce. He had once had faith in God, just as his family had once had faith in the old man himself...but no more. No, the only one the old man still had any kind of faith in was the Fuhrer himself, for of all the promises that the old man had been privy to in his life, the Fuhrer was the only one who had never broken any of them. They were all going to die, just like the Fuhrer had said.
By the time the old man finally marched through the gates of Buchenwald concentration camp, he had become deathly ill. They had remained on the train only about a day longer after the death of his last son, but that was all the time it took for his body to begin to fail. The old man could barely stand and could only walk for short distances. A high fever had taken hold, causing him to sweat and tremble constantly. Luckily, with the front still moving closer every day, the guards were panicking, and weren't enforcing the usual labor with their standard cruel efficiency. It was obvious to the camp inmates that things were beginning to unravel for their captors very quickly...but it was already too late for the old man.
Over the next few days he began to have trouble controlling his own bowel movements, and to make matters worse, he was regularly slipping in and out of consciousness as well. Eventually the other prisoners in his barracks were forced to move the old man in order to get rid of his disease ridden stench, picking him up out of his cot, which he had long ago soiled, (having been forced to live in a growing puddle of his own filth), and carrying him out to the lavatory, which at that point had been so cluttered with the bodies of the similarly dead and dying that they could no longer even come close to getting the old man inside to use the meager and filthy facilities.
Knowing full well that they had just condemned the old man to an indescribably horrible and lonely death, but unable to find it within themselves to care for the stranger, they dropped the body of the feeble, sickly elder atop the disgusting pile of corpses surrounding the lavatory. The old man had tried to protest, but his feeble voice could barely rise above a whisper, and he no longer had the strength to drag his emaciated frame away from the overwhelming stench of death that now surrounded him. And so he had lain there, atop the growing pile of corpses, utterly alone and abandoned for days as he slowly but surely succumbed to the darkness.
During his increasingly shorter bouts of consciousness, the old man found that his failing mind tended to focus more and more on the past. But his memories were no longer the vibrant window of escapism that they had once been when he was originally incarcerated with his sons. No, these were the mere shadows of his memories, and they offered him no solace or comfort in his miserable, feverish deathbed. For while he tried and tried to recall what it had been like to feel free and happy, filled with hope, surrounded by his loved ones, working ever towards the future, and watching his family grow around him, he found that he simply could not remember what these things had felt like.
He tried with all his remaining, feeble might to remember what he had looked like before, when he had hair, and clothes, and still smiled, and looked like a human being, before he had been branded with this hateful tattoo of random numbers that was all he had become. He tried to remember what his sons had looked like, strong and happy, smiling up at him. He wept bitterly and silently as he strove with everything he had to remember the beautiful, laughing face of his dear wife, with her eyes that glittered with mirth, and the way her hair flowed in the breeze, and the soft sensation of her touch, but though he tried as hard as he could, he found that he could no longer recall any of those things. He could no longer recall the face of his own wife, nor of his children when they had still been people. He could no longer recall what he used to look like, or the house that his family had grown up in, or what it felt like to wear clothes, and eat real food, or feel the sun shining warmly upon his skin, or feel the breeze caress his face, or feel safety, or comfort, or happiness, or hope, or love. Those things had been taken from him. He had lost the part of himself that could still feel those things. He had been transformed into a sad, broken imitation of a human being. All those things which had made up the life he had lived were useless and forgotten now. And this was how he was going to die, as the shambling empty horror he had become.
Hiding in a naked, shriveled ball somewhere inside himself, with no longer any concept of who he was or had been, or even the passage of time itself, the old man suddenly thought he heard something. A noise or sound out in the world somewhere beyond the stink of the bony bodies that was his bed. He didn't know from where his cry of response came from within, indeed, he was barely aware that he had uttered any sound at all. It was a plea, from the last part of himself that could still feel anything. A plea for help. Somewhere deep inside he yearned, ached, to be reunited with his family, and some part of himself had sensed that there was someone close by...someone who offered something that the old man had completely forgotten about...mercy.
Breathing short, ragged, painful breaths, his vision dim and blurry, and his mind almost completely numb to any sounds or sensations at all, the old man was barely aware of the large, well built, stern looking man who waded through the corpses for the lone, sickly survivor. The old man tried weakly to reach out for him, but it was all he could do to barely move the emaciated stick that was his arm. And by the time Namor had picked him up, the old man had once again slipped into unconsciousness, his mind traveling back over all the injustices, terror, and loss that had become his life.
But now, something new was happening. The old man felt confusion within the small part of his soul that was still alive. He felt something odd, a sensation that he could not place. Unexpectedly and unbidden, his mind traveled farther back than it had in years. Deep down inside the vast recesses of his memory, long before he had been a prisoner, before he had watched his precious sons grow up, even before he had met his beloved wife or begun his journey into a man...before all those things, he had been only a young boy. Before the responsibilities and obligations of the world had begun to inflict themselves on him, before he had begun to live his life for others, there had been only him, a young, intelligent, endlessly joyful and adventurous boy, whose kind heart and laughter knew no bounds. A boy whose favorite thing in all the world was to sit on the hill and watch the songbirds as they darted to and fro from cloud to cloud. A boy who felt the most alive, who felt the most at home, when he was dreaming of what fun it would be to join those birds as they flew free and joyful through the sky. And for the first time in an eternity, the old man knew that joy again.
The old man didn't know what exactly it was that had awakened him, but the first thing he was aware of was the wind that whipped across his face. He no longer felt hunger or pain, his quickly failing body was no longer capable of it, but somehow, he could feel that wind.
As his eyes slowly fluttered open, it struck him how very bright it was. He was being carried in the arms of a strong, silent stranger, and they must have been traveling quite swiftly for the wind to be blowing by so hard and so fast.
Looking up, the old man noticed how very near and bright the sun appeared to be. As if it was somehow closer than it had ever been. But what caught the old man's attention the most was what he saw when he looked down.
Below him, hundreds of feet below him, the old man could see the curvature of the Earth itself, spread out before him in all its beauty and majesty in a marvelous panorama that swept his soul away and carried it to brand new heights he had never before imagined. Hills and forests rolled away beneath him, and trees and houses and people were just tiny specks in the distance. The entire world seemed different with this new perspective as the old man felt a vibrant freedom and happiness course through his veins. The clouds themselves were beneath him, and all that separated him from the glorious heavens were a few feet of fresh air that kissed his face deliciously.
For the first time in years a smile creased the old man's wrinkly, hollowed face, and laughter danced within his dim, misty eyes. The old man didn't know what kind of miracle this was or what he had done to deserve this, but somehow, by some divine grace, he had been allowed to know true, pure, blessed happiness one last time before his spirit was allowed to move on. He honestly didn't know whether he was even awake or not at that point, so strange was this situation that he found himself in, but in his heart he didn't care. Somehow it no longer mattered what atrocities he had been through, or the horrors that he had born witness to. This was all that mattered. This was who he truly was, this was his soul, free from the chains and darkness that had bound and poisoned it, free and flying above the clouds, just as he had always dreamed it would.
Namor looked down to see the sunken eyes of the dying old man looking up at him as a thin, trembling smile creased his face, "You...are you an angel?" the old man asked in a barely audible, creaking voice.
"Do not worry, it's going to be okay now," Namor assured him, desperately trying to ignore his passenger's obviously deteriorating state.
"Thank...you..." the old man said, his eyes dimming while his tender smile persevered. "Thank...you..."
"No...please!" Namor pleaded, resisting the urge to shake the old man, while in his heart he knew that it was already too late. "Stay with me!"
But the old man's voice was already fading away into the wind as a final, shuddering breath left his body, "I...am...free..."
No one but Namor was there as the old man passed away. No one was there to see the King of Atlantis as his last shred of composure was torn from him. No one was there to hear his long, tortured wail as he clutched the fragile body of the old man to his chest. No one was there to see the King as he began weeping uncontrollably, the nightmarish visions of the day proving too much for his soul to bear. No one could see the Atlantean hovering above the clouds, holding onto the life of a stranger that he had never really had any chance of saving, weeping great tears of sorrow and grief upon the sickly body of the old man. And no one could see those same tears as they flowed and trickled downwards, dripping off the elder as they began their long descent to the ground, sparkling in the sunlight as they reflected the soul of one small old man whose dreams had somehow, impossibly, finally come true in the light of the setting sun.