A single slice from a Kryptonian dagger ended Diana's life. She gazed into the cold and calculating cerulean eyes of her beloved as the life fled from her.
It was done.
The killer allowed himself a momentary smile before letting the lifeless husk slip from his grasp. He glanced at the Amazons, who had shaken off their horror and were already armed and rushing toward him with deadly intent. They stood no chance – he knew it and so did they – but further killing was not his purpose.
He graced them with a single, sardonic grin before leaping skyward, saying nothing and leaving them to suffer in their anguish as he mocked their pain with a bubble of derisive laughter.
Kal-El sat straight up, terrified by his nightmare. His heart pounded in his chest, a rhythm of fear that he had to work hard to bring under control. Sweat beaded on his brow and torso, and he took a deep, shuddering breath before finally regaining his equilibrium. That alone should have clued him to the fact that something was horribly wrong. A Kryptonian, perfectly able to control all emotions, should have had no difficulty bringing to heel something as prosaic as fear.
It was the smell, though, that would break through his distraction.
The scent of blood is ineffable.
His hands were covered in it. Even in the dim light, at least dim to human sight, he could see it dripping through his fingers, puddling on the sheets.
His heart hammered again, a staccato beat of onrushing horror. Diana slept next to him, but he couldn't hear her heartbeat: that metronomic sound, as individual and glorious as her face was stilled. With dawning realization, he turned to look at her and realized the terrible truth.
Diana no longer slept next to him. Her head nearly torn from her body, face frozen in shock, answered all questions.
She was dead.
He bowed his head in silence. For a moment, he almost lost himself in his Kryptonian logic and rationality, letting the painful emotions slide away and off of him like water on glass. He almost took the coward's route of hiding and dividing himself from his grief.
He would not allow it.
He cradled her corpse and wept; great, racking sobs. He cried out once, the building shaking from his scream of pain. Her blood smeared his face.
It was the shout that woke up the neighbors. It was the shout that impelled them to call the police. It was the shout that brought him to justice as Officer Daniel Murphy of the Metropolis PD found Clark Kent holding the mutilated corpse of his wife, Diana.
On the witness stand, Officer Murphy recalled that it was a scene from an abattoir. Blood was everywhere; the bed, the walls, the floor. Even the ceiling held splatters and clots. Murphy was as hardened a beat cop as the force had, and he'd almost lost his coffee and donuts at the crime scene. His shudder of disgust and dismay might have been what sealed Mr. Kent's fate.
Still, it hadn't been a sensational trial. True, it was a crime of unusual brutality and fury, but it wasn't as if one of the Five Hundred, a member of the powered criminals and heroes, had committed the crime.
It simply involved a lowly blogger cum journalist and his plain French teacher wife.
What did raise the public's interest in the case was when Clark Kent, on the day before sentencing, managed to escape from prison. A murder, however terrible, was simply one death. An escaped killer, though, now that was salacious. For viewers fed a steady diet of reality TV, this kind of television was the most compelling of all.
For a few short weeks, the hunt for Clark Kent dominated the airwaves. Eventually Kent was found and cornered. The police had had no choice but to open fire when Kent, who had stupidly carjacked a bigrig tanker with a full load of gas, tried to ram the police barricade. The truck had instantly gone up in flames when a bullet ricocheted into the tanker, setting off a chain reaction. Clark Kent's crisp and thoroughly burned body had been found in the wreckage once the flames were put out.
Things settled down after that, and the world moved on, this time noticing the strange absence of both Superman and Wonder Woman.
On this subject, the Justice League was strangely silent.
Kal stood before the assembled members of the Justice League at the Watchtower. He met their eyes; some were still in shock; others furious and looked to be in a killing mood; a few were steadfast and unwilling to believe in his guilt. One however, looked on with the narrowed and hardened eyes of a born detective.
Batman, Bruce Wayne, gazed at his friend, no doubt trying to decipher the mystery that had nearly shattered – and might still – the Justice League.
"You've avoided all contact with us," J'onn, the Martain Manhunter noted. "One wonders why this might be."
A derisive laugh escaped Kal-El's lips. "I wasn't in the mood, J'onn. My wife is dead, murdered in our bed, and I stand accused of that crime. I've got other things on my mind."
"We are your friends," J'onn said. "Could you not have turned to us for help."
Kal gazed at the other members of the League. Shayera had her mace near to hand, looking like she wished she could punch it through his head. Good luck with that. Zatana and Canary were among those certain of his innocent. Captain Atom and Steel didn't bother to hide their fury. They wanted to put a hurting to someone. Flash…in some ways Wally was the heart of their team. From him, Kal saw anger and a desire to put his killing speed to good use. The Flash had been betrayed by the one he looked up to as a hero. Ironic: a superhero with a hero.
The Manhunter was inscrutable as always, as was Bruce.
"I saw no need. I have no means to explain the state of our apartment or how she died."
"Her skin was under your fingernails," Wally snarled. "Not much to fucking explain, is there, Kal?" he asked.
"You ripped out her throat, you bastard," Atom whispered, his body shaking, probably from the suppressed need to attack the man who had once been the mightiest and most noble of them all.
Kal bowed his head. Their words etched into his mind like acid, fraying and tearing at who he had always thought himself to be: a good man. He looked at the assembled League, gathering the tattered shreds of his pride. "I cannot be imprisoned on Earth," he said.
"You expect us to let you go free?" Wally shouted. "Fuck you! If I could, I'd cut your damn heart out right here, right now."
"He doesn't mean that Wally," Bruce said, softly. He turned his granite gaze to Kal. "Do you, Clark?"
Kal shook his head. "No. One of you must transport me to the Phantom Zone."
Canary and Zatana gasped.
"That's a one way ticket," Canary said. "You'll be imprisoned for all time."
Kal sighed. "Some crimes require no less."
"Then you really did it? You really murdered Diana?" Zatana looked utterly bereft.
Kal closed his eyes, replaying the entire lurid and vicious scene. All he could remember was a dream of killing Diana, slicing her neck open with a dagger, emblazoned with the symbol of House El. Then waking up and discovering her mangled corpse.
Had he killed her accidently? Ripping at her neck in response the terror of a nightmare? He'd witnessed stranger things in his life but none as horrific.
Kal shrugged. "I don't know," he said, finally.
"Murderer!" Zatana shouted. All respect for him fled from her eyes. "I curse you with all that I have. Curse you to never forget what you did! Curse you to never be without pain. May you live forever in torment in that hell to which you're going." She collapsed, sobbing as she and Canary huddled against one another.
Kal smiled wanly. "I wish it were so as well," he whispered. "I only know what I remember." He explained the dream he had had and the scene when he had awoken. "Whether I murdered her or killed her accidently, the end is the same: Diana is dead. Justice is needed."
"So it was all just an accident." Wally smirked. "And I'm the King of Spain. Nice try, asshole."
"It is the truth. It is all he remembers," J'onn replied. "He has opened his mind to me. I see and know all that he does of that night."
"It doesn't matter," Steel disagreed in a growl. "Like the man said, justice is needed." He glared at Clark. "I don't know if Zatana's justice is the right kind or not, but I do know one thing: I don't believe a goddamn thing you say. If I could, I'd end you now."
"Amen," Atom chimed.
Kal's eyes hardened, and he let them see the red. Enough. The hell with being nice. What had it ever gotten him? These little pansies wanted to rumble? He'd break their bones. And then he'd start being mean. Right now was not a time to mess with him. "Try it boys, and there'll be two empty positions in the League." His gaze swept them all. "My fate is my own. My punishment is my own. Deal with it as you will, but my course is set." He turned to Bruce. "Will you send me there?"
Bruce nodded. "My pleasure."
"Still say he's getting off easy," Wally muttered.
Easy? Kal sighed. If only that were true. The scent of Diana's blood still filled his lungs.
Desaad crouched low over his Master's prone form. Darkseid, Lord of Apokolips slept on. It had been three days since the Great and Grim Tyrant – he'd acquired a new title a few months back – had last strode the halls of his palace. Even more disturbing was unaware Darkseid was of his surroundings. He could not be awoken. He could have been killed a thousand different ways in such a condition.
The unconscious state, be it natural or not, was when one was most vulnerable, even if one was safely tucked into bed in one's own home. Darkseid was home and in his own bed, but safety on Apokolips was an unknown commodity, even for the forbidding planet's equally forbidding tyrant.
Desaad clucked. What to do? What to do?
Desaad was wise enough to know his own limitations. There were those who wondered if he, Desaad, were the true power behind the throne. It was laughable. The Master allowed such rumors to exist because it forced uncertainty into the minds of the Lord's enemies. Should they attack Darkseid and overlook the true threat? Or go after Desaad and risk exposing themselves to the Master's lethal vengeance?
Desaad was not a power to be reckoned with. He was crafty and old and skilled in the use of subtly, all of which were a power of a sort, but all that Desaad had was reflected glory from the Master. Without Darkseid, Desaad was nothing. Less than nothing for when the next ruler of Apokolips made existent his or her poisonous ambition, no doubt, they would come prepared with their own advisor; they're own version of Desaad.
What need would the new ruler have for the current chamberlain? None. Desaad's future would be the Pit and the venomous embrace of that disgusting fiend, Granny Goodness.
Desaad realized all this in the space of a few seconds.
The Master's unnatural 'sleep' must remain undisclosed. He, Desaad, would secret the Lord's body off-world, somewhere safe and on some inscrutable mission that required Desaad's presence. Once the Master awoke, all would be set aright.
Until then, Desaad needed to act quickly to ensure the Lord's safety, and by extension, Desaad's.
Desaad smiled. He knew just the place. Rumor had it that Superman had gone missing.
Kal and Bruce flew in silence, the dark emptiness of space looming beyond the viewscreen of the Javelin.
"Are you sure about this?" Bruce asked.
Kal shrugged. "Does it matter?"
"It does not, murderer from the House of El," Hippolyta said, her voice cold and imperious. Diana's mother was present to ensure that justice would be meted out to her daughter's slayer. The word of the League had not been good enough. She had told the other members, straight to their face, that they would lie to her to protect Kal. She had let it be known that while it was not in her power to kill Kal, the same didn't hold true for the other League members. Themiscyra would go to war unless the Queen was personally assured the appropriate justice was meted out to the slayer of the princess.
Hippolyta's presence was not a whim but a forced necessity.
Bruce eased back on the throttle. "Your stop," he said.
Kal unstrapped himself. He stepped past Hippolyta, his mother-in-law, the woman who held all men in contempt, but who'd nevertheless accepted him into her home, coming to believe that perhaps this one man was worthy of an Amazon's love, her daughter's love. He felt he should say something, anything in this his final moment, but no words came.
He shook his head and went to the airlock.
"Kent." He turned back at Bruce's voice. "I don't what happened, but I'll figure it out, and when I do…" Bruce nodded. "Someone's going to pay."
"So be it," Kal said, too weary to muster up the desire for vengeance.
"He is paying," Hippolyta said, no trace of forgiveness or compassion staining her face. "And as the Gods are my witness, he will pay for all time."
"As you wish it," Kal replied.
"Transdimensional key activated," Bruce said. "Take care Kent."
"Take care of yourself, Bruce," Kal replied, stepping forward into the void. For Hippolyta, no words were needed or wanted. Allowing her to watch him descend into the gaping maw of the Phantom Zone would probably be the most comforting thing he could do for her.
A rip opened in space, the slitted mouth of a beast designed to rend. Blacker than the empty space around it, it was the true void. It was the only entrance to the Phantom Zone, the tachyonic prison from which escape was impossible. Those rare few who had been freed from the Zone spoke in hushed tones of its horrors. They spoke of the Warden.
Kal would learn all of this soon enough. He had already cycled through the airlock and floated forward, wearing nothing but a black suit and boots, the sigil of his House chiseled onto the chest. He flew toward that ripped rent, bereft of friends and family. Bereft of hope and love. Bereft of Diana.
His heart was as empty as the world he would soon enter. This was where he belonged.
An interminable second for pain. His body torque and knifed, stretching to its limits.
He was through.
He beheld a grey and dim world, one made of dust and death. It existed at the center of the Zone in a perpetual twilight.
Kal landed upon the heights of one of the cliffs. It daggered toward the no-sky like the promise of a murder.
Murder. How apt.
Grey, unhealthy lichen clung to the walls of the rock faces, oozing a viscous fluid like bloody oil. Kal touched the liquid and instantly drew his hand back, surprised by the pain. It felt like acid burning.
He examined his finger. His skin had been peeled off, burned and throbbing and already red. His powers would soon be gone.
In the far distance, past the knifelike cliffs, hidden by dim shadows, a fortress stood.
The Prison at Time's End. The prison within a prison. The place of the Warden.
He'd have to get there quickly. Dangerous creatures roamed this wasted place of nightmares. He stood little chance of living without the Warden's protection.
That protection came with a price, but it was one Kal was willing to pay.
Better to be a slave than to be dead.
Darkseid brooded, glancing at the basalt black throne at the heart of Apokolips.
The ploy to destroy Themiscyra from several years earlier had been inspired. Failure had occurred, but only because the Kryptonian, the one the humans called Superman had regained his power when all other evidence indicated that he should have been spent and empty.
Even then, with the loss of the fifteen Legions, Darkseid would have decided the cost had been worth it. Both his worthless spawn, Kalabak, and the arrogant so-called God of War had both been eliminated and killed.
Had it not been for the cursed Batman bringing forth Doomsday, freeing the Kryptonian beast from his stasis prison within the Phantom Zone, Darkseid could have counted the situation a victory.
At least of a sorts.
Darkseid growled, the only sound he was capable of making to intone regret.
Doomsday had ravaged Apokolips, landing on the planet and laying it to waste. The massed armies had stood no chance; that was instantly known. Darkseid himself had to enter the fray. Still bloody from the beating the Kal-El of Krypton had laid on him on Earth, a beating no one was foolish enough to voice publicly, he'd fought the beast of fury.
They'd ranged all over Apokolips, leveling mountains and changing the course of rivers.
Darkseid won, and thus, so had Apokolips.
In the moment of his triumph, with his victory restoring faith among his people in their Master's indomitable will to power, disaster had occurred.
Kalabak. His spawn. The worthless sodomite who Ares had supposedly killed had been more cunning than Darkseid had ever imagined.
All this time, Kalabak had played a long game. He had created a clone of himself – the one Darkseid had been so utterly disappointed in. Meanwhile, Kalabak had taken on the form of Desaad.
Darkseid briefly wondered how long the real Desaad had been dead. Perhaps centuries. Certainly decades. Long enough to learn all the secrets that Darkseid had kept hidden. He'd never suspected Desaad of betrayal. Desaad had known the score: without Darkseid, Desaad would instantly be put to death once the new Lord of Apokolips arose.
Darkseid, though, he had grown careless over the years, letting Desaad, or more properly, Kalabak, learn far more than Darkseid had ever intended.
After the battle with Doomsday, with the monster sent back to Earth – let those fools in the League deal with the beast – and with his triumphal march through the capital of Apokolips, Darkseid had known a cheerless satisfaction.
The universe had been set to rights.
It was only then, as he approached his palace that he saw the truth. Desaad shimmered, and there stood Kalabak in his place.
Darkseid's lips curled at the memory.
He glanced at the throne. His throne. Now occupied by another.
"Be sure to clean the floors to a mirror sheen this time, begetter," the Lord of Apokolips spoke. "If there is but a single flaw, the Pit becomes your destination."
Darkseid bent low to the Master. To his spawn. To Kalabak. "Yes, my Lord."