EPILOGUE

A beachfront resort along the Florida coast. A couple was checked in under the names Ben Reilly and Nellie Bly. A gentle breeze blew in through the open double-doors that led directly out to the beach, carrying with it the smell of the ocean and the rhythmic sound of the waves kissing the shore.

The young woman brushed a strand of her blonde hair back behind her ear. She snuggled closer to the man in bed next to her and nuzzled her nose against his ear.

"You still awake?" she whispered gently.

"Yes," he whispered back. He slid an arm around her and pulled her close.

"I thought maybe I tired you out," she giggled.

"It will take a lot more than that to wear me out," he replied, playfully.

"Oh, is that so?" she asked. She traced her index finger along his chest. "Well let's see what we can do about that..." She leaned in very close. Her lips hovered a mere inch above his. "You know what I think, 'Mister Reilly'?"

He stared at her soft, tempting lips.

"What's that, 'Miss Bly'?" he responded.

"I think... we need..." She leaned in even closer. Her mouth was so tantalizingly close to his that he could taste the warmth of her breath. "...more champagne."

She leapt out of bed, leaving her mate yearning for the kiss he had just been denied.

"Ohh, that is mean!" he said, getting up to chase after her.

She threw her head back and laughed, prancing across the room to the half-empty bottle of champagne that sat chilling in the bucket of ice next to the double-doors. She wore his t-shirt and nothing else, the shirt proving to be barely long enough on her petite frame to provide a modest covering. It left little to the imagination, but just enough.

She picked up the bottle and promptly filled two tall champagne glasses. He joined her beside the doors wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. He took one of the glasses and smiled at her.

"What should we drink to this time?" he asked.

She thought for a moment. There was a gorgeous sunset out on the horizon, painting the sky brilliant shades of orange and pink.

"Well, if it's up to me, I say we drink to you. My dashing rescuer," she said. "I'll never forget how it felt to wake up and find myself in your strong, safe arms, leaping out of an exploding building and swinging out over the city as it came crumbling down behind us. If it wasn't for your incredibly quick acting, I'd be dead… again! So, I say we drink to you." She raised an eyebrow. "Unless you have something better?" she challenged him.

"Hmmm." He thought for a moment. Then he gently took her hand in his. "How about... to a future of endless possibilities."

She smiled, her eyes squinting and nose crinkling as she did. She raised her glass. "I will most definitely drink to that. Cheers, my good sir!"

They clinked their glasses together. They each took a long, lingering sip of the bubbly champagne. The bubbles tickled her nose. She giggled again and innocently licked the sweet wet foam from her lips.

Then something else in the room caught the young lady's eye.

"Hot tub!" she cried. The large, heart-shaped tub in the corner of the room did look particularly inviting. She pressed the button on the wall and the water began to churn and bubble as the jets kicked on. "Care to join me?"

"I didn't bring a bathing suit..." he said.

She tilted her head to the side. "Even better," she said seductively.

He grinned wickedly and took another sip of champagne. Perfect. It was all so incredibly, unbelievably perfect. After all he had been through, he had finally gotten his happy ending. Complete bliss with the girl of his dreams.

The young lady topped off his champagne glass, finishing what was left of the bottle.

"I really mean it, you know," he said. "About a future of possibilities. No one will be looking for us. We can make whatever life we want together now."

She laughed. "What do you mean?" she asked. "No one will be looking for me, sure. Chloe Sullivan is supposed to be dead, after all. But don't you think people will notice if Peter Parker, not to mention Spider-Man, just vanishes from the Big Apple never to return?"

He paused. "Chloe..." he said slowly. "Oh, wow. I thought you knew. I didn't realize. Chloe, honey, I'm the clone."

She gasped. She stared at him, confused at first, taking a minute to understand. Then she shook her head and laughed. "The clone. Wow. No, I didn't realize that. I thought you were the real Peter Parker all this time."

"You sound disappointed!" he said.

"Well... I am!" she replied.

He laughed and put his hand over his heart, feigning injury. "Ouch!" he exclaimed.

"No, no, no! I didn't mean it like that!" she said quickly. "That's not it at all. It's just, the plan was that the real Peter Parker would rescue me. The thought was that if he managed to break free of his cell, the very first thing he would do was come to Chloe Sullivan's rescue."

"What do you mean, 'the plan'?" he asked, hesitantly.

"Lex didn't leave anything to chance," she explained, her tone slowly shifting. "The plan was that most of the heroes would die in the prison explosion. Lex would kill Superman himself. And me?"

She savagely smashed the champagne bottle against the doorframe, shattering it. Then she stabbed the jagged, razor-sharp edge straight into his stomach like a knife.

"I would kill Spider-Man," she said, calmly.

He gasped and staggered back, clutching at his stomach. His eyes were wide with shock, pain, and betrayal.

"Chloe…?" he choked out, confused.

"Wondering why your spider sense didn't warn you?" she taunted, thrusting the makeshift shiv deeper into his gut. "The champagne was laced with a chemical that neutralized your spider powers. I'll have to send Dr. Warren a postcard letting him know that it worked. Too bad it took so long though. I can't believe I actually had to sleep with you."

She twisted the bottle and the jagged edges tore his innards apart. He screamed, stepping back and slipping on the edge of the hot tub. He lost his footing and stumbled backwards, landing in the tub with a huge splash.

She leapt in after him, clutching the bottle and driving it deep into his abdomen. The water bubbling up from the jets quickly turned red.

"Why?" he gasped out, flailing around and trying to keep his head above water.

"Oh, please," she said, sounding annoyed. "What did you think? Lex Luthor actually let you walk away with me? That I was your reward for a job well done? Or that you actually outsmarted him and managed to take what was his? Wake up, stupid. I'm his last contingency plan, and I'm making sure that all his last lingering loose ends are tied up. And that includes you, darling."

She shoved his head under the water and held it there, keeping him firmly beneath the churning red bubbles as he flailed and struggled.

"Of course, since I was cloned from Chloe's dead DNA, I might only have a few days left to live before I start to waste away like Harry Osborn did," she said. "Which means I don't have much time left to get to New York City and kill the real Peter Parker."

She waited very patiently for him to stop struggling. After several long minutes the thrashing beneath the water finally subsided. Eventually the only motion in the heart-shaped tub was from the jets that continued to blow dark crimson bubbles up to the surface.

The young lady stepped out of the hot tub, carelessly tossing the broken and bloody champagne bottle to the floor beside her. She stopped and checked her hair in the mirror, teasing it a little to get back its trademark flip.

Then she walked out onto the beach, leaving behind red footprints in the sand.

Six months later. The Abu Kubais mountains in Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Curtis Knox pulled his backpack a little tighter as he continued to climb. He checked the coordinates one more time. He was very close now. He had to be. He'd been sure to follow the directions exactly.

Finally he saw it off in the distance, nestled back deep in one of the natural recesses of the mountain. A small dwelling made of black stone. The simple, modest domicile was not at all what he was expecting. It did not seem fitting for the man that it supposedly belonged to. Still, he knew that all was definitely not what it seemed when dealing with this particular individual.

Dr. Knox entered the small house. The inside was just as modest, with very little furniture and only a small stove as a source of heat. As soon as he entered he was greeted by two servants. They bowed to him silently, and without so much as a word took Dr. Knox's backpack and coat. One handed him a cup of tea, which he gratefully accepted.

A third servant stepped out from behind a curtain. "The master will see you now," the servant said. He motioned for Dr. Knox to follow him. He did so.

Dr. Knox stepped through the curtain and was amazed at what he saw. He found himself inside a giant, majestic temple that had been carved right into the face of the mountain itself. The humble stone hut was only there to mask the entrance to the ornate temple. Giant statues and pillars lined the wall. Great treasures from many lost civilizations were on display. Carvings and ancient texts proclaimed the works of the Society of Shadows.

A bearded man wearing a black tunic stepped forward, his hands folded behind his back. "Dr. Knox," he said in welcome. "I am glad you could make the journey, my old friend. It has been decades, has it not?"

"Ra's Al Ghul," Knox replied. "It's been nearly a century. And yes, I go by the name Dr. Curtis Knox these days, but there is no need for that charade here. You can call me by the name you know best."

"Very well then," Ra's replied. "Vandal Savage. Come. The others have already arrived."

"Others?"

Ra's did not elaborate. He quietly led Vandal Savage through the temple, behind an altar and down a staircase lit only by torches. They came to another room that was just as large and grandiose as the temple above. Savage wondered just how deep into the mountain they were at this point.

Another servant greeted them at the bottom of the staircase. Ra's nodded to him. The servant bowed and immediately ran off to retrieve the others that Ra's had spoken of.

Minutes later, Ra's Al Ghul and Vandal Savage were joined by three others: Dr. Doom, the armored monarch of Latveria. Erik Lensherr, better known as Magneto, the mutant master of magnetism. And the aptly named Red Skull, a monstrous fiend with a haunting red visage whose horrific acts dated back to World War II.

"Gentlemen," R'as said. "You have each made the long and arduous trip to be here and for that I thank you. I shall keep the introductions brief. I am he who is called Ra's Al Ghul. I represent the Society of Shadows."

"I know who you are," Doom replied. "You and your society nearly destroyed Gotham City a few years ago. You are believed to be dead."

"The Society has a habit of cheating death, Victor Von Doom," R'as replied.

"You're not the only one, R'as," Vandal Savage noted. "Is that really you, Herr Skull? I haven't seen you since 1944. You haven't aged a day."

"I could say the exact same for you, Vandal Savage," the Skull replied.

"You have all been selected because you each possess great secrets, great knowledge, and great power," Ra's explained.

"Then why are you here, Erik?" Doom scoffed at Magneto. "Didn't you lose your powers when the X-Men injected you with that weaponized mutant cure?"

"I'm flattered that you've followed my career so closely, Victor," Magneto retorted. "But your information is sadly out of date." He casually waved his hand as if shooing away a fly. Dr. Doom's metal armor began to shake violently. "The supposed 'cure' proved to only suppress mutant powers temporarily. I was back to full strength in a matter of months. And considering you're dressed in metal from head to toe, I'd recommend taking a more respectful tone when addressing me in the future."

"Enough!" Red Skull snapped. "I did not travel all this way to listen to you miscreants bicker with one another. Let us hear what Ra's has to say."

Magneto lowered his hand and Doom's armor ceased vibrating.

Ra's nodded. "Thank you, Herr Shmidt," he said, using the Skull's real name. "I have gathered you all here because there is an event coming. A catastrophic event being put into motion by forces that are not of this world. Very soon there will be an apocalypse that will threaten all life on earth."

There was surprised murmuring from the gathered men, but they allowed Ra's to continue.

"At this point I do not believe it is possible to prevent this event," Ra's stated. "What concerns me is what happens next. The opportunity to rebuild. To reshape the world in the aftermath of this worldwide catastrophe. Those who are left standing will have the unique opportunity to write the next pages in the book of human history."

He crossed the room as he spoke and took a large book from a dusty bookshelf. He laid the lofty tome on a nearby table and flipped it open to a certain page. On the page were sketches of what looked like six crystals or jewels.

"Have you ever heard of the Infinity Gems, gentlemen?" Ra's asked.

The Red Skull indicated that he had. The others seemed unfamiliar with them.

"Six gems, scattered across the globe," Ra's elaborated. "Each gem grants whomever wields it control over one of the following elements: Time, Space, Reality, Power, the Mind, or the Soul. If one to were possess all six at once, the gems can be assembled to form what is known as the Infinity Gauntlet. With the Gauntlet, one would attain god-like omnipotence and the ability to re-shape the world as he saw fit. I am proposing that we each take the responsibility of locating one of the gems."

"Six gems, yet only five of us?" Savage observed.

"Ah," Ra's said, stepping away from the book. "There is a sixth member of our secret society, my friend. He has chosen to wait until the right moment to reveal himself. I believe he will be joining us... now."

They all turned as one more individual made their way down the staircase as joined the group.

Lex Luthor looked extremely tired. Thin. Sickly. He was wearing a slimmer, sleeker design of his green and purple battlesuit. This one did not seem designed for combat. It seemed, even at first glance, that it was quite possibly the only thing keeping him alive.

Despite this, Dr. Doom showed absolutely no restraint in attacking him. "You!" he roared. He let loose a flurry of photon blasts from the gauntlets on his wrists.

Lex was barely able to raise his arms in time to generate his force field. The photon blasts hit the emerald-green force field and dissipated, but Lex was still knocked back nearly off his feet.

"You dare to think you can kill Dr. Doom?" Doom bellowed, charging straight at Lex. "That some low-rent hitman could actually assassinate me?"

Magneto once again raised his hand and froze Doom in place, immobilizing him by capturing his armor in a powerful magnetic field.

"Let us hear what Mister Luthor has to say, Victor," Magneto suggested.

"You lowly mutant!" Doom snapped, spitting out the word as if it were a vile epithet. "Unhand me this instant!"

"Let him go, Erik," Lex insisted, nodding to Magneto.

Erik Lensherr hesitated for a moment, but did release Doom from his magnetic hold. The monarch rushed at Lex again, ready to attack him.

"I'm sorry, Victor," Lex said. Dr. Doom stopped in his tracks a mere foot away from Lex Luthor. An apology was the last thing he'd expected to hear. "I truly am," Lex continued. "I tried to kill you in order to cover up my crimes and keep my presidency. That was obviously all for nothing. I'm dying. The crisis that Ra's Al Ghul spoke of is very real, and it's my fault. I want to make things right before I leave this earth. The Infinity Gauntlet may be our only way to ensure the survival of mankind."

There was something in his voice – sincerity mixed with desperation – that gave Dr. Doom serious pause, especially coming from someone like Lex Luthor. For once, the great Dr. Doom was speechless.

"Say we agree to your plans," Magneto spoke up. "Six gems. Six of us. We each retrieve one. Then what? We all decide together how to rebuild the earth?" He scoffed. "Somehow I doubt that we all have the same vision for the future." He looked at the Red Skull as he spoke. Vandal Savage wasn't the only one who remembered him. Erik knew that ghoulish face as well. He'd seen it once before, many years ago when he was but a young boy in a concentration camp. It had haunted his nightmares for years.

"Of course not, Mister Lensherr," Ra's insisted. "I'm sure that each of us would use the Gauntlet very differently. In fact, I fully expect that as we begin to locate the gems we will turn on one another. Indeed, we will most likely eventually kill each other. In the end however, one of us will be left standing over the ruins of the apocalypse with the Infinity Gauntlet and the ability to reshape the world as that individual sees fit. I expect that the man left standing will be me. I'm sure each of you feels the same about yourselves. In that case I say may the best man win." Ra's stepped forward and extended his hand to the group. "What say all of you?"

Lex Luthor did not hesitate. He stepped forward and extended a hand as well, placing it on top of Ra's Al Ghul's hand. "To the future of mankind."

Vandal Savage stepped forward and placed his hand on theirs. "The future of mankind," he repeated.

Magneto was the next to step forward, though a bit more hesitantly. He slowly extended his hand and placed it with the others. "To the future... of mutant kind," he stated. He looked at each of them, making it clear that he had different plans for the Gauntlet if he should be the one to obtain it. Ra's smiled, clearly reveling in the challenge.

The Red Skull sneered. He looked at the other men and shook his head. He stepped forward even more hesitantly than Magneto. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. The thought of working with these others, particularly with a mutant, disgusted him. But the power was too tempting. Very reluctantly, he did extend his hand and place it with the others. "May the best man win," he said flatly.

They all turned and looked expectantly at Dr. Doom. He had not moved since his confrontation with Lex Luthor a few moments ago. He stood with his arms folded across his chest, deep in thought.

Finally Doom turned away from the other men. "Bah!" he shouted, waving a hand dismissively. "Doom does not care for your globe-trotting contest and grand designs. I have no need of it. My hated enemies, Reed Richards and the rest of his pathetic Fantastic Four, are dead. Leave me to quietly rule Latveria and to hell with the rest of the world." Doom began to walk out of the room.

"The Fantastic Four are not dead," Lex called after him.

Dr. Doom stopped in his tracks. "What did you say?" he said, his voice ice cold.

"I said... The Fantastic Four are not dead."

Doom slowly turned around. Though his face was obscured by his metal mask, it was obvious he was seething with anger. "You lie!"

Lex shook his head. "No, Victor. They're not dead," he said, solemnly. "Though I have a feeling they wish they were."

Elsewhere. Another planet. A planet whose surface was covered with enormous pits of eternally raging flame that blackened the skies with clouds of ash. A planet whose citizens toiled in endless labor as they constructed yet another statue of their overlord, the demonic despot known as Darkseid.

Darkseid sat on his throne. His skin was gray and brittle like granite, and his eyes burned red like two embers set deep within his skull. He stared thoughtfully out over the hard-working laborers below as they sweated their lives away at meaningless tasks. Their work was not important, only that it crushed their spirits and kept them docile and obedient. In the sky above, a huge swirling portal cast an eerie purple glow over the surface of the planet. It was the portal to the negative zone that he kept open in preparation for their eventual invasion of the planet known as Earth.

Another man approached Darkseid, an individual as large and imposing as Darkseid himself. He was a citizen of Earth, but he was not considered human. He was a member of the race homo superior. A mutant. Some would say he was the first mutant.

"En Sabah Nur," Darkseid said in greeting. "Have you brought the demonstration that I require?"

"I have, great Darkseid," En Sabah Nur said, bowing respectfully. "I think you will be very pleased with the results. I give you the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse."

En Sabah Nur stepped aside. Four figures slowly entered Darkseid's chamber. They staggered and lurched, their movements seeming inhuman and almost involuntary.

The first figure's limbs hung limp and listless, stretched thin like rubber. The features of his face seemed as if they'd melted away. His eyes were wide, unseeing, frozen in a state of undead horror. "I give you Death," En Sabah Nur said in introduction.

The second figure was a female. She seemed to shimmer in and out of sight at random, shifting in and out of invisibility against her will. Her blonde hair was ragged and ratty. Her formerly angelic face was twisted and violent, her lips drawn back in an evil grimace. "I give you Famine," En Sabah Nur said.

The third figure was a man on fire. The flames all over his body burned a very dark red and gave off a putrid black smoke. Blisters all over his body indicated a heat that had burned too hot for too long and finally begun to singe the flesh of the man who wielded them. "I give you Pestilence," En Sabah Nur stated.

The last figure was an enormous man whose body seemed to be made of rock. Huge spikes and spires of rocky hide protruded from his body. His face was contorted with rage. His massive hands reached out as if eager for destruction. "I give you War," En Sabah Nur said finally.

"You have done it!" Darkseid said, amazed. "You have found the solution to the anti-life equation."

"Indeed I have, great Darkseid," En Sabah Nur replied. "The equation will bend any man or woman to our will, transforming them into the willing instruments of our dark victory. These subjects that the human Lex Luthor provided to us are but the beginning. With the solution to the equation in our possession, nothing will stop us from our conquest of Earth."

"Then let it begin," Darkseid declared, rising from his throne as a terrifying grin spread across his stone-like face. "The Earth is about to experience the Age Of Apokolips."

To Be Continued In... SMALLVILLE/SPIDER-MAN 5: INFINITE