Ain't a British Lady nor am I a comic artist.

This story was the winner of the Large Story Poll, even if it's on the short side for one of those from me LOL. Anyway, I hope you all enjoy it.

This has been edited by kathryn518 and Old One. Hopefully that means that there will not be enough small mistakes to inhibit your joy of the actual chapter.


Chapter 43: Baiting, Trapping, and Big Hammers

The air between the two groups was so tense you could cut it with a knife even as the Emperor waxed amused at Harry and Ororo at the front of the group, with Jean and Hela walking behind them with the Emperor's sisters, Lilandra and Deathbird. Behind them, moving in almost single file across from one another in the hallway, the Custodes and Imperial Guard tried not to look at one another.

The Custodes were attempting to be diplomatic and professional, while more than a few of them, Ben and Alex foremost, were fighting back smirks at their relatively easy win over the Imperial Guard. The Imperial Guard resented the same thing and were angry that they needed the humans' aid.

For their part, D'ken's sisters seemed to be following his lead as best they could. Lilandra, who seemed to be the most diplomatic and polite of the trio, made small-talk with Jean, asking about how the Fantastic Four had become part of the Custodes, likening it to how the Praetorian Watch had grown to become the Imperial Guard. Next to her, Deathbird and Hela tried their best, but neither was mentally built to turn around and be nice to people who had moments earlier attacked them with intent to kill. And unlike Harry and D'ken, neither could act their way out of a paper bag.

Thankfully for everyone involved, it was at least a quick trip. The SOCC was where the magic of running a million system polity really happened, and much like the furiously paddling webs of a swan that moved majestically over the surface of a lake, it was buried directly underneath the palace. The doorways to it were guarded by two more Imperial Guard, both Shi'ar wearing their cut down version of power armor. And several hundred tiny dots in the wall indicated there was some other kind of defense waiting there for any interlopers.

And, once more like the feet of a swan, it was very busy. Thousands of people were spread out around the massive, football stadium-size, seven-story room; a vast cavernous space illuminated by numerous bits of lightning here and there with everything inside but the people being shades of grey. The people themselves wore blue or silver as they sat at their consoles or moved around the room. From Gladiator's memories, Harry knew that every single system that was part of the Shi'ar Empire was represented here. Every large military force, every outpost, every planet, every large scale production facility or shipyard which held strategic importance. All of them had their own dedicated communications system linked back to this one place, consoles covering every inch of wall, and each of them manned at all times.

If this place had been built by humans, Harry decided, they would probably have devised the room to be even larger. It might have been interspersed with bits of artwork, intervening walls, and areas of responsibility separated by runners to take reports to the higher-ups. They would possibly have made each segment circular, to give the impression that everyone was equal.

Here, that was not the case. The whole area was a single rectangle, and everything about it was simply, almost brutally, functional, even the bits at the far ends where the walls looked newer than the rest, likely additions made over centuries, were built in the same manner. The Shi'ar's own planets had a dedicated segment of the room, the topmost two floors. The other races of the empire were thus below the Shi'ar in every sense of the word, with interconnected walkways here and there at every level.

The doorway let them out from the side of the rectangular room's, and ahead of them, rising up from a central crossway between the walls, was a further raised area in the center of the room. It rose from a single steel pillar before spreading out to form a circular dais, almost like an eyrie.

And then there was the noise. A vast susurration of sound, filling the room from end to end. Everyone within was talking into a microphone intermittently, and every position seemed to have some kind of silencer so that the noise wouldn't be as loud as it should have been. Yet even though not everyone within the vast area was speaking, there were still so many people talking that it was like standing inside Camelot's main hall at lunch. The noise was just a massive amount of background noise hitting you the moment you entered.

That sound cut off the abruptness of the guillotine, as the guards on the door announced the Emperor's presence. "All hail his Imperial Highness D'ken!"

As one everyone within that vast room, Shi'ar or not, and there were a lot of other aliens around, stood up or stopped where they were walking to turn in the direction of the door, saluting with their fists to their heart and then raising them at an angle as they shouted, "Majestor Rex!"

The Emperor simply nodded his head once, then moved into the room. By the entrance to the room was a large circular portion cut out of the flooring. "Guardian, if you and your officers will join me, my people will create a presentation on our conflict with Galactus and his Herald."

Harry nodded and followed the man over, noticing that several of his Imperial Guard was also moving with them. "Ororo, Hela, and Mr. Richards and Jean, if you could join us, please?" Harry looked over at Strange, but the other magic user shook his head, indicating he was fine not being involved in the initial discussion. When it came down to planning out the ambush's magical side, he would have something to contribute, not before.

All of them save Jean nodded and moved to join them, but Jean waved him off. "If you're going to talk military matters, I'm not certain I would have anything to add."

Ororo and Hela also stopped before they could step onto the obvious hover device. "That looks rather too packed. I will provide my own transportation, thank you," Ororo said politely, while Hela simply rose into the air. The two flyers – or those currently flying anyway - waited until the circular dais lifted, then began to fly alongside it, joined by more of the Imperial Guard, Manta, Starbolt and Electron, whom Harry and the others knew was second-in-command of the Imperial Guard.

This was the only place in the room where there was anything that wasn't strictly utilitarian, holding comfortable cushions situated around a central area. The center was taken over by a hard light projection device.

As they settled down onto the cushions, Harry noted the Emperor was frowning and wondered why.

And the Emperor was indeed frowning. D'ken had hoped that the earlier moment with his welcome and the sheer size of the SOCC would have overawed the humans. Instead, they seemed to have taken it in stride. Hela had seen larger and more busy areas before. For a few, it was simply the fact that they were not overawed by numbers or size at all, like Ororo and Mr. Richards. For Harry, he acknowledged the size of the room, and thus the size of the Empire. But he also remembered the phrase 'the bigger they are, the harder they fall.' The larger the Empire, the more it becomes vulnerable.

A few moments of tense small talk passed before the humans and the royal trio was joined by a group of four military personnel. Each of them was dressed in a form-fitting outfit of white and silver uniforms of some kind. One, a Shi'ar, wore rank marks or medals on his shoulders and at his belt.

They all bowed to D'ken, then one of them, who looked like he belonged to the same species as Atra, moved over to the holographic device and began to fiddle with it, with Reed watching in interest. Looking at the aliens among them, the man who had been at the head of the group of four stepped forward. He was one of the two oldest Shi'ar Harry had yet met, much like the majordomo who had ushered them into the palace. But whereas the majordomo had seemed to carry with him sort of obsequious dignity, this man radiated grim purpose and military bearing to a level that Harry had seldom seen.

"Humans, I am Star Martial Vin'car, and I am the head of Naval Operations and Strategic Command. With me are specialists who have been involved in putting together all the data we have been able to gather from our battles against Galactus. This constitutes quite a bit in terms of recordings since neither Galactus nor his Herald, who goes by the name of Morg the Executioner, seem to care about us learning anything about them. This level of arrogance would be a weakness if it were not built on fact."

He paused to let his rank and words to sink in before continuing. "You must understand that this crisis is unprecedented in history, as far as we know. Galactus is a threat to any planet he comes across, but this is the first time that he seems to be deliberately heading into our Empire's core sector, rather than simply taking a planet and then disappearing into the depths of space."

"Point of order," Reed interrupting, raising his hand. "Do you have records of Galactus previously preying upon your Empire before this occurred?"

"We do not," Vin'car replied instantly, seemingly taking no umbrage at the interruption. "We do have records of previous empires, previous star-faring polities that were met by Galactus at some point, but no records of the actual battles against him."

"How exactly have you been attempting to fight him?" Ororo inquired. "And how often? How many planets have you lost?"

"We have lost four planets and around one hundred and forty billion people."

Harry gasped at that, shaking his head. "That's impossible. No planet could…"

The man held up a hand, smiling thinly at the foolishness of the people in front of him. "I was talking about total numbers. The planets themselves would have had several billion, upwards of 20 or so I believe for most. One of them had 40 billion. But it was a unique planet, a planet nearly the size of a gas giant but in the life-zone of its star and with several water-bearing moons, most of which were destroyed as the planet exploded. Beyond that, in each attack, Morg or Galactus have wiped out all the defenders in space, both system defense and true Imperial Navy fleets. Add in the local merchant fleets and Imperial Fleet units which ran into Morg between planets, and you come close to the one hundred and forty billion."

The worker by the hologram finished inputting commands, and a map of space appeared, far smaller than Harry knew the Shi'ar Empire to be. It was evident that these people understood the importance of information and were not going to share anything that they didn't have to. But on that map appeared a course, a check-mark almost moving in from the outer edge of the Empire deeper into Shi'ar territory. On the route, four dots pulsed a deeper blood-red light.

Staring at it, Harry asked, "Have you been able to track them through deep space?"

"We have been able to somewhat track the Herald for some time before he arrives in a system and after. But the instant Galactus leaves any star system, we lose him entirely." Another one of the Shi'ar spoke up. "We believe that he is traveling through real space, rather than hyperspace, but doing so far faster than any other real spaceship or design could go. Or he could be using some kind of hyperspace capability that is more similar to teleportation over solar-distances than actual travel between them."

"We believe…" the man stopped, looking over the Emperor, who just nodded once, tightly, indicating he should continue. "Given the last planet that Galactus ate and the route he took afterward, we fear that Morg is making for this star system."

"That does seem rather more pointed than I would have assumed," Reed, scowling. "But we have long assumed that the Herald would have a major impact on Galactus' eating habits. In which case, an analysis of the individual in question is mind might help."

"Beyond his name, we don't have much information about Morg. But we have a lot of information on how he fights and thinks by this point."

The holographic star map was placed quickly by several videos. First was of a streak in the sky of the solar system, then an image of the Herald himself. He was a massive man, easily as tall as Colossus or Warpath, with reddish skin that looked like a mix of skin and clay. He wore dark gray pants and had gray hair falling from the sides of his head, but was bald on the top. His eyes gleamed golden, crackling with power that rose from them in the video as he shouted something. A second later, a tinny audio recording joined the video. "I am the Herald of Galactus, the World Eater! Your planet has been chosen to feed his almighty hunger. Flee or die. Fight, and you will only die sooner."

"That does not match the announcement the Silver Surfer gave us," Mr. Fantastic shook his head in some dismay.

"We knew this one was more sadistic than the Silver Surfer. It stands to reason that he revels in it more than the Silver Surfer did," Harry replied.

Vin'car nodded. "This first time, we had nothing in the way of defenses ready. The local military did its best, but…"

The video again changed at this point, showing a fight in a city of some kind. Its buildings almost uniformly drab and utilitarian, bar a few examples of windows that looked as if they had been made into amazingly different shapes and images, like miniature sculptures almost, designed to not only let in the light, but also to add a certain amount of breathtaking beauty to what would otherwise have been a horribly dull landscape under normal circumstances.

"This was a planet colonized by the Mi'asich people. As you can see, their normal 'artwork' on display," the Shi'ar to an individual looked disgusted, before Vin'car went on. "They are known for being amazing farmers and agricultural experts, so we have allowed them their inadequacies."

The video began once more, showing several hover tanks, planes, and simple infantryman fighting it out with Morg until the video changed, showing Galactus's arrival. Dozens of orbital platforms opened fire on him, but Galactus didn't even notice their fire, moving through them like so much rain hitting a tank's roof. Harry frowned, touching his lightning Starbolt scar thoughtfully. "While I know you won't give me any information on the weapons those platforms mount, could you estimate how much kinetic impact they impart to their target?"

He figured kinetic impact would be something so low-tech that the Shi'ar wouldn't mind sharing it, and would also be a somewhat universal theorem.

This took a few minutes to calculate, but eventually, a number was given. In terms of what Steven, Jean, Hela, Ororo using her magic, or Harry himself could dish out, it wasn't much. But it was a lot more than say Warpath or anyone not in full juggernaut armor would be able to take. The armor would be a great equalizer, though.

When Galactus landed, the orbital defenses attempted to use purely kinetic and even what appeared to be nuclear strikes. It didn't work.

"That's not good," Ororo murmured.

"We weren't actually expecting conventional weapons to be of much use against Galactus regardless," Harry demurred, shaking his head.

"Did those strikes injure Morg at all?" Mr. Richards questioned in a tone that implied he knew the answer.

"No. The orbital strikes didn't hurt Morg at all," Vin'car ground out through clenched teeth.

The video continued to show Galactus creating his energy siphon, the parts coming together out of nowhere.

"Our scientists speculate that he has access to some kind of internal hyper-dimensional shipyard or construction facility that he can call upon it need."

"What we would call an expanded space," Harry nodded thoughtfully, while Reed added that he had seen Galactus do much the same thing.

Throughout this, the orbital defenses, which had mostly been left intact, had continued to fire down at Galactus. Although they didn't hurt the giant himself, this bombardment eventually hit something in the machinery. At that point, Galactus finally took notice of their activities. He barked out a word, and Morg finished toying with a few of the ground forces, rocketing up into the orbit.

The Shi'ar believed in heavily defending their planets via orbital structures. Few systems apparently had much in the way of an actual fleet, but their fixed defenses were normally more than enough to guarantee the planet's safety until the nearest fleet unit could arrive against any normal enemy, a classic example of the hammer and anvil strategy, which Emma had passed on to the others after she had shredded Gladiator's mind, that the Shi'ar were fond of.

But Morg was too fast. He dodged at least four out of five attempts to hit him, and those that did strike him didn't do any damage. Unlike with Galactus, they did knock Morg back, and once spun him around entirely in space. But they couldn't seem to do any real damage. He mouthed something as he brought down his axe, cleaving a space station in two with a blast of energy from its edge. "It took a long while for us to figure out what he was saying bear, but he was shouting, "I am Morg, the Executioner! All of you will die to feed my Master!"

"I wonder how Galactus chooses his Heralds. I would've thought before this that there was some kind of process, but I would've also said that Galactus was not the type to use an executioner as his servant," Reed murmured.

"Let us move on," Storm interjected. "We all know what happens to the planet after that machinery goes active. The planet dies from the inside out. But I have no wish to actually see it occur."

Harry nodded. "There doesn't seem to be anything we can learn here."

The second and third battles were different. Elements of the Imperial Guard Subguardians were able to arrive and battle Morg. These were men or women from races who already had a representative in the Royal Guard or Borderer units, the Imperial Guard's two chief sub-groups. The Praetors were the guards of the Emperor, the group that acted solely on his whim and in extreme situations. The Borderers were smaller units of Imperial Guardsmen who were stationed in varying strength along the border of the Empire, the first line of superpowered defense against alien empires.

"In this case, of course, they were completely bypassed," Vin'car shrugged. "But due to this battle, we have a decent idea of the Herald's abilities."

As he finished speaking, a new video began to play, showing a mid-space battle between Morg and what looked like more than a dozen Imperial Guardsmen. Most of them were of the same variety: the Smasher type of alien, which wore blue and white suits with helmets that had red visors. From down below, Jean reminded Harry that the suit was apparently only useable by this one species, although Gladiator didn't know why. "The man thought they were among the more useless and expendable members of the Imperial Guard if I remember right."

"I think we're about to get a lesson as to why," Harry drawled back, a moment of dark humor flashing across his mind as he looked at what he somehow knew was going to be a massacre.

The other Guardsmen in the video were more varied, composed of a few of the individuals could increase their size dramatically like Titan, and several Shi'ar wearing battle suits like Electron, although none of the battle suits came close to what Harry had seen Iron Man or his own Coyote or Ghigau do. They seemed to rely primarily on flight and energy attacks rather than durability.

This was shown rather graphically when one of them was sliced in half across the waist by Morg's axe. Morg was then grabbed from behind by several of the Titans, but shrugged them off, burning one badly by a blast of the Power Cosmic from one hand, causing Harry to lean forward and stare at the energy thus released. It was the clearest picture they'd seen so far of that, the FF not having had any images to pass on, and he asked intently, "Do we have a reading on the power of that energy?"

While sneering somewhat good-naturedly at the use of the word 'we,' Vin'car shook his head. "No. None of the battling Imperial Guard had such sensor equipment on them, and the local space stations weren't close enough. This entire battle was being recorded by remote control drones after all, which Morg seemingly ignored."

Grunting, Harry turned his attention back to the video, watching as another blast from Morg cut the head off one of the Smashers, and sent another tumbling away through space with its chest burned to a crisp. Two more of the Imperial Guard were thrown away, then Morg hurled his axe at a third, the weapon crashing into him and sinking deeply into the Titan's chest despite his armor.

Thank goodness most of my people are armed with Juggernaut armor or the lighter version, Harry reflected. That axe at least should be stopped by their armor. However, he did not put too much weight on that, since he knew from Jean that Morg had at some point acquired a Phoenix Force-imbued blade. The original Juggernaut armor, which Harry had appropriated for Warpath for this mission, would stop such a blade, and Harry felt the heavier versions of the Orichalcum armor might do the same. But he doubted the lighter armor, based on the armor he had taken from Balthaak, would be up to the task.

One of the Imperial Guard, another Smasher, got in a blow that rang Morg's head for a moment, while another grabbed him, and then activated some kind of booster device. It seemed to overwhelm Morg's own ability to move in space, and they soon slammed into the atmosphere, descending rapidly, both of them turning red from the heat.

But whereas the Imperial Guardsmen began to cry out in pain, Morg simply took it, twisting in his grip. When the Guardsman, a Titan, tried to get away, Morg grabbed the man in a bear hug. He then began laughing wildly as the heat of reentry continued to grow. By the time that Morg slammed into the surface of the planet, another heavily industrialized world, although this one seems to be more factory-based, there was nothing left of the Imperial Guardsmen but a charred crisp. Morg tossed the corpse aside and then screamed as he lifted his hands towards the camera.

The video cut out, and Vin'car explained that the orbital space station which had been recording the device via drone recorders had been annihilated at that point. "It took the locals a truly unconscionable amount of time to put more drones into action under the command of another space station, but that space station had been the center of the command-and-control network for the orbitals."

When the video did come back, the rest of the Imperial Guard had been dealt with. Morg stood among their bodies, howling his laughter to the sky. Seeing this, Storm shook her head. "He is most obviously insane, I would say. It also seems that using only a few types of the same troops hampered the Imperial Guard's ability to combat him. They all had to face him in close combat, where this Morg obviously feels most at home."

"We assumed much the same thing. Normally we have Subgaurdian companies stationed on their homeworlds training, as was the case here. The homeworlds of the Ti'an and the Sh'tral were close to Sethesk Prime. In the next battle, we were able to better bring together a good synergy of abilities. But…" Vin'car paused, looking over the Emperor.

The Emperor scowled but then waved one hand airily before using that same hand to point to one of his sisters. Lilandra grimaced but took up the tale. "You must understand that Sethesk 5 was at one point a very important planet to our people, the homeworld of the rightful heir of the Empire when he was ousted by a corrupt cabal of his father's ministers. It was home to many of our history museums, and the site of an Imperial Vault called the Vault of Shame. Things had been put there which our race wished to forget, but which could not be destroyed either due to their importance to our lineage, or simply because we lacked the means to do so. One of them was a sword, imbued with power from some kind of fell hyper-spatial entity, one which our people banished long ago."

"She's either lying or no one ever actually realized that Rook'shir was an avatar of the Phoenix Force. I'm not certain that's believable at all, or where this whole hyperspatial entity thing came from. Although considering how they believe that imagination is a sign of madness, perhaps they just don't like the idea of any force as primal as the Phoenix Force existing," Jean mused, still listening in via Harry's senses.

Sending Jean back a feeling of agreement through their connection, Harry nodded blandly to Lilandra even as he felt Jean turn her attention to something else. "I presume then that this Vault of Shame was then found, and this sword discovered. And that Morg can use it?"

"Correct. We had protected the sword as best we could, creating a death trap within the vault, but Morg survived it all easily. As easily as Gladiator would have. It was that act which made us realize that even the full might of the Imperial Guard with Gladiator at its head couldn't face off against Galactus and his Herald. We then made the decision to send Gladiator to the Fantastic Four, but our conflicts with Galactus and Morg did not end there."

The video began again, showing groups of tanks, flights of planes, and dug-in infantry attempting to fight Morg. This was an exercise in futility. Morg, coming out of a giant crater with his skin marked only here and there by burn marks and with his new sword in hand, simply ignored their fire. Closing quickly, he laughed as he cut tanks in half, split jet fighters, or simply stomped or pounded infantrymen into so much paste.

Storm looked away, shaking her head sadly. Taking her hand, Harry kept watching, staring hard at the sword and noting that Morg seemed to use it just as well as his axe. The sword was even larger than Morg's axe. Indeed, it looked like what Harry had heard called a Buster Sword, a sword equivalent of a BFG. The weapon seemed almost as long as a polearm, and the blade was at least as wide as Morg's two hands pressed end to end.

The blade glowed a dark, pulsing red and black as Morg used it to hack and slice his enemies apart, enjoying himself immensely as the blade turned darker and more pulsing with each life taken. It was an orgy of destruction, of blood being spilled for no purpose other than to sate Morg's hunger for blood and strife.

"He could have simply called in Galactus, and attacked those people who came after him or attempted to interfere with his master," Hela scoffed. "Tis a bad servant who puts his own desires ahead of those of his master."

"Agreed. Instead, Morg uses the time before Galactus arrived to basically wipe out every military base on the planet. When Galactus did finally show up, Morg had just begun to target the orbital stations." Deathbird of all people spoke up. The most warlike member of the Imperial Family stood there white-knuckled and fingering her odd claw-like weapons as she stared into the video.

"As horrifying as this is, it does give insight on Morg's personality. Do you have any illusionists among the Imperial Guard? People who could play with his senses?" Harry asked. He knew they did, but he didn't want to give away the fact they had telepaths strong enough to break Gladiator's natural mental defenses.

"We have one or two individuals with limited telepathic abilities, like Oracle, who you apparently dealt with earlier," Vin'car interjected, taking over the meeting again at the Emperor's nod. None of the Shi'ar looked very comfortable with that idea, which Harry felt was fair enough - many humans were wary of telepaths. "But whatever power Galactus has given him has made Morg immune to mental attack."

"Damn," Mr. Richards scowled, shaking his head. "I had hoped that that was an ability that only the Silver Surfer retained. He had a low-key empathic or telepathic ability of his own. But I suppose it makes sense that those abilities come included with the Power Cosmic, as Galactus calls it."

"It might even explain something of this Morg's lust for battle and blood." When the others looked at her, Hela shrugged her shoulders, reaching upwards to tap her half-mask thoughtfully. "If he is a psychopath, someone who enjoys causing pain and death to other people, then his ability to actually feel those emotions more, to feel their fear or despair in agony, would simply push him to ever-higher levels of barbarity."

Everyone there, even the Emperor, looked a little sick at that thought, although Harry knew that the Emperor himself had quite a few psychopathic tendencies. Still, Harry kept his mind on the important things. "But you don't have anyone who can create, say hard light illusions? I know that you have that one girl who tried to blind us earlier during the fracas. Has Morg dealt with that kind of attack before?"

At the mention of the recent battle in the throne room, D'ken's seeming concentration on the matter at hand slipped. He glared hard at Harry and the other humans, while Deathbird's teeth bared as she knelt down slightly, her arms to either side as her claw-weapons slid over her fingers. But Vin'car just kept speaking, and as he did, the royals' anger started to ebb away once more. "No, but it is an interesting line of speculation. This next video covers the third battle, the one where we put up the best fight we could against Morg."

The video began with Morg closing in on another planet. This one was home to an Imperial fleet and a Subguardian training cadre. Dozens of Imperial Guard were there, and the fleet and the Imperial Guardsmen who could operate in space met Morg before he could gain atmosphere. These included many of the types of attackers that Harry and the others had fought earlier, but none from the race as the girl who had attempted to create a blackout for all of them, nor the one with blue hair and skin who Harry knew to be Oracle.

Physical assaults didn't do much at all to Morg, imbued with the Power Cosmic as he was. But they did knock him backward, holding him in place, and eventually even beginning to wound him slightly. But at the same time, the Imperial Guard didn't close with him with other super-strong members, and without that, couldn't pin Morg down. Space was a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree environment, and thanks to the Power Cosmic, Morg could fly a bit faster than most of the Imperial Guard, bar the group of aliens from the same species as Manta. The Imperial Guard also came under counterbattery fire from Morg using beams of energy from one hand while sending out cutting waves of force from his sword.

That attack was very different from the normal energy attacks that Morg could launch from his offhand. The blasts of Power Cosmic were mostly white and silver, blooms of diffuse energy. The energy blasts from the blade were far more concentrated, thin cutting beams of energy that gleamed purple and blood red.

Jean hissed internally as she saw the blade through Harry's eyes, shaking her head. Those kinds of blasts were close to those she could use as an Avatar of the Phoenix Force, but they didn't have any of the light red or pink hue of her own original telepathic powers to augment them. They were a brute force thing, without any of the control Jean brought to the powers of the Phoenix Force, but that was about all Jean could tell via a video recording from a camera drone.

Despite that lack, the blade's energy was certainly potent. As Harry watched, the energy attack slashed right through a Shi'ar battleship and an Imperial Guardsman in one go while Morg raced in. Despite giving as good as he got long-range, Morg wanted to close with his attackers. Harry made a note of that, then, watching closely, frowned. "Hold it there!"

The command in his voice had the Shi'ar tech obeying before he even realized it, and when he looked up in chagrin, Harry smirked at him before asking, "Can you rewind it thirty seconds, please?"

Somewhat bemused, the man did so, and Harry and the others gathered on the Imperial Dais watched. Vin'car instantly saw what Harry had noticed and nodded sharply. "Neutron's Zeta's ability."

Harry supposed the number designation was meant to signify one individual of that odd race serving in the Imperial Guard from another.

On the video, the Imperial Guardsman Neutron reeled back, before twisting in space, his arms thrust out toward the enemy. The resulting blow crashed into Morg, sending him tumbling through space for a time as his mouth opened in a cry of pain. But then he righted himself and slew another Imperial Guardsman at long-range, and when Neutron Zeta attempted to charge forward, Morg used the Phoenix Force-imbued sword to cut him in two. Whatever ability to absorb and reflect energy the Imperial Guardsman contained was overcome in an instant.

"Ouch. Still, that's a start," Harry murmured, and the video resumed. Soon, the defenders' inability to actually hurt Morg became apparent, and the battle turned against them. They couldn't stop Morg from hitting the atmosphere, and he soon landed on the planet. Once on the ground, Morg did whatever it was that Heralds did to attract Galactus. A spherical silver ship flashed into being in midair over Morg, and a moment later, Galactus descended on a staircase of golden light.

After that, the battle became academic. The defenders tried. They tried their best, and despite his loathing for D'ken and the Shi'ar Empire, Harry had to mentally salute their courage, with Hela going so far as to do so physically. Imperial Guard or local military, they all fought their hardest, trying everything up to and including orbital bombardment on Galactus. But nothing they had could even slow Galactus going about his business of creating the energy siphon, which would allow him to feed on the planet's raw energy.

"Do we have any videos or scans of Galactus actually fighting? It just seems as if you couldn't even get his attention," Storm questioned, her tone commiserating as they watched the video continue to its macabre conclusion. "Mr. Fantastic has given us an idea of his defensive capabilities, but not so much his offensive ones, beyond energy projection."

"Only at the end of the next battle." Vin'car nodded to the technician, and soon another battle began to play in front of them. "Although I will warn you, we don't have much more than that."

The fourth battle was solely against a portion of the Imperial Guard. Like the third battle, a group of Guardsman with various abilities had been brought together. They included several like Mammoth and Smasher, who took the battle to Morg in close combat. But this basically played into his hands, and Morg cut through them, his mouth open in a soundless laugh caught by the many camera drones.

The rest of the Subguardian team fared little better, not having any member of the odd, space-black and star-spangled species that Neutron represented in the Imperial Guard. Without that ability to absorb the Power Cosmic, none of the Guard could fight Morg on an even footing. Many had a surprising amount of durability, but not enough to take more than a few blasts of the diffuse Power Cosmic strikes which Morg could send out from his hands, and none could stand against Rook'shir's blade. However, they retreated in a planned maneuver rather than in a panic.

The drones continued to watch as Morg moved on the planet. There he destroyed several of the orbital stations, both defensive and civilian, before landing. Once more, he made the speech, and then Galactus' ship appeared.

However, this was the point where the battle began to differ from the previous fights. First, the Imperial Guard began to attack Galactus while the local ground forces took up Morg's attention. More, Harry felt, because he simply wanted to kill them all rather than because they were a real threat. At the same time, groups of ships which had, according to Vin'car, retreated out of the way of Morg the moment he entered the system came back. And they were Imperial Fleet battleships, just like the ones in the previous battle.

These ships were nowhere near as large or bulky as their Kree counterparts, built for speed as everything the Shi'ar built seemed to be. They had sleek lines, looking like a mix between a falcon in flight in terms of their wings, but wider of body, with guns extended forward from wide, gaping 'mouths' which thrust forward and up from the rest of the ship's superstructure, with a minimal amount of broadside capability.

The battleships started to rain fire down on, not Galactus, but the slowly appearing energy siphon. This did make Galactus notice them, but that proved to be a very bad idea. First, Galactus raised a hand from where he had been directing the bits of technology creating the siphon from bits stored in his ship. Then from each finger flashed a beam of Power Cosmic, each of which hit a different member of the Imperial Guard around him, incinerating them all. Then he turned his attention to the fleet in orbit. His eyes flashed white, and the video instantly went to static.

"The entire fleet was incinerated, as was the planet's moon, all of the orbital industry and the few Imperial Guard who had remained in space. All in an instant," Vin'car declared coldly. With the briefing over, the Star Marshall now directed a sneer toward the humans. "There is a reason we felt that even with Gladiator at its head, we could do nothing to Galactus. Galactus is a force of nature. He can only be endured. Killing the Herald might be possible, but even that will not be easy."

"Agreed. However, I think we can do it. Or else me and my Custodes would not be here." Harry held Vin'car's eyes for a time, then, when the Shi'ar man looked away, gestured for Reed to speak. "Reed, tell them what you've learned about Galactus and his thought processes."

Reed nodded, then moved forward, gesturing to the hard light projector. "May I?" he requested politely. When the technician nodded, Reed used the device to put Morg and Galactus's images side by side. "I am going to start by explaining what I have discovered about Galactus. You are quite correct in that he is more correctly thought of as a force of nature. However, that does not mean that he cannot be beaten off or tricked. Because he has the one thing that such forces of nature don't often have: a mind and self-preservation instincts."

From there, Mr. Fantastic described how he and Fantastic Four had been able to trick their way aboard Galactus's ship thanks to the Silver Surfer's help. There they found the power source that they used to create a weapon Reed threatened Galactus with. "And as we told your Emperor, we don't have that power source any longer. However, that is where Harry and his special abilities will come into play."

D'ken scoffed, shaking his head. "Superstrength has proven to be less than useless against the Herald, let alone Galactus himself. And while your ability to create some kind of robot from the ground is interesting, that does not convince me you could harm Galactus."

"My power goes far beyond that," Harry answered simply, smiling thinly.

"And what exactly is this power?" D'ken barked.

"You won't believe me if I use my name for it." When the Emperor simply kept on glaring at him, Harry sighed. "I call it magic."

The Shi'ar all looked at one another in confusion, their translation software giving them a translation of that term, but the meaning of the word was so far outside of their own understanding of the universe that none of them could figure out what he really meant. No one in the Shi'ar Empire had ever heard of magic. Indeed if someone had, they would well have been killed due since imagination was seen as a sign of insanity among them.

Harry watched the Shi'ar work at it for a moment, then shook his head. "Nevermind. Suffice it to say that I have an energy power within me that I can use in various ways, which allows me to match powerful beings up to and including enemies like Galactus. Facing him will be the task of myself, our telepath/telekinetic, and others. But before that, we need to defeat the Herald. And I think given what you have told us, we can make a plan for that, and a way to drag Galactus into a battle which will be to our advantage."

While this discussion had been going on, Jean had been doing some careful telepathic investigation. The first thing she had discovered was that, while Oracle did, as they had known from Gladiator's mind, have telepathic powers, from what Jean sensed from her, the woman's powers were paltry in comparison to her own. Indeed, even Betsy would be a match for the woman. Moreover, while many of the courtiers had technology-based defenses against telepathy, the Imperial Guard did not. They seemed to trust Oracle for that task, which, given the woman's power, was more a statement of the kind of enemy they normally dealt with than anything else.

Among the Imperial Guard was one woman that Jean was kind of interested in - the woman that Hedwig had dealt with so quickly, Nightside. She was a young woman, somewhere between Jean and Ororo's age perhaps, with the trim, fit build of a soldier, which carried up into her chest, which, while at least the same size as Jean's were even tighter. her skin was slightly greenish, and her eyes opaque white, like Ororo when she used her mutant power, marked out on a thin, but lively face by black tattoos of some kind.

And from what they had seen in Gladiator's mind, Nightside's powers looked ideal for helping them trap Morg, and possibly even Galactus himself. If, that is, the World-Eater had other things to contend with at the same time. Moreover, Emma had passed on the fact the woman was seen as a problem by Gladiator for not going along with the Emperor's desire to bed her.

Slowly, hesitantly, Jean reached out to her mind. First, she made certain to shut down the woman's mouth, after all, a shriek or gasp at hearing a mental voice that wasn't your own was a perfectly understandable reaction, but one that she could not allow at the moment. "Hello, my name is Phoenix, what's yours?"

The woman at the other end of this dialogue responded far faster than Jean had expected. Her eyes widened, then she looked away from her fellow Imperial Guard, staring up at the Imperial Dais instead of letting any of them notice her shock. "Since I don't even know what a Phoenix is, can I assume this is some kind of telepathic communication? You don't sound like Oracle, either."

"No, I'm not Oracle. I'm the one dressed all in red and gold. It goes with the full Phoenix theme, seeing as that is a firebird, a mythological creature on my world."

"And you're also keeping me from shrieking in shock, interesting trick," the woman replied, her mental voice now a growl. "What the fuck do you want?"

"I just think that you and your Emperor don't seem to be on the best of terms, that's all. I'm mostly an empath before I'm a telepath. I felt your revulsion at him when we were in the hallway earlier. The fact that you've kept at least two of your Imperial Guard between you and him at all times is another kind of clue," Jean replied drolly. It was sort of a lie since Jean hadn't felt the other woman's emotions at the time, being unwilling to test the range of the royals' telepathic protection. But her observation of the distance was true.

At that, the woman stilled, then barked harshly, "What's it to you?"

"Your powers are going to be important for the plan Harry and the others are evolving," Jean replied. "I want to know if your head will be in the game frankly."

"What do you mean you need my powers? Won't you all be doing most of the fighting?" Nightside questioned, her interest piqued.

"Even the most powerful people have to see," Jean teased gently. "And whatever else the Power Cosmic does to people, it doesn't give them extra senses outside of a bit of telepathy. And trust me, I'm going to be blocking whatever telepathy that guy has very quickly. So yes, you're going to be a major part in that battle, provided you can project your powers far enough."

Nightside hummed in thought, then sent the mental equivalent of a nod. "I can see that, I guess. As for range, I can only project Dark Force around four hundred feet away from me."

"That's going to be annoying, but we can work with it, I think. And the fact you're talking to me at all makes me think I was all too accurate about why you are so uneasy about the Emperor," Jean replied gently.

Nightside twitched at that, then sent a shrug sort of image back along the link that Jean had created. "I suppose it doesn't take a genius, does it? The Emperor has an entire harem full of women who are eager to see to his desires, and yet he's lusting after me and keeps on doing it despite my continued refusals. And my co-workers don't seem to care enough to speak up for me. It's enough to make me wonder about my place in the Imperial Guard."

"How do you all choose who is going to be among the Imperial Guard anyway? I understand that there is an organization called the Borderers, then the Subguardians, and then all of you Praetors, but how do you make the jump from one group to another?"

"By being the best at your species' special ability. I'm the best when it comes to my people's connection to the Dark Force."

"The Dark Force? You named it that earlier, but what is it?"

"It is an energy source, an energy source of pure darkness. Strangely enough, I think that the bird who disabled me somehow used it to teleport. I've never heard of the like for a living being, but it felt sort of familiar. We can use it for multiple things such as displacing projectile attacks or blinding our enemies. If the enemy has a weak mind, the Dark Force will instill hallucinations in the target's mind so long as they stay engulfed," Nightside replied, one hand moving up to gently rub at the raccoon-like markings on her face for a moment.

"Is it just blindness, or is it total sensory deprivation?"

Nightside shook her head. "I can't block out hearing. But if the person has eyes or any kind of optical receptors, the Dark Force will blind them. Beyond that, you already have that one fellow who was throwing out sonic sounds, and we have someone with a similar power. His codename is White Noise. Between us, I bet we could easily block the Herald from seeing or hearing anything that we didn't want him to!"

"That's amazing and proves that you'll be almost invaluable against Morg. Heck, that kind of thing might even work on Galactus for a certain value," Jean enthused, glad the woman was willing to work to them.

Jean then paused, pulling back from Nightside's mind for a moment, as Oracle looked in her direction. Nightside nodded to the other woman, who nodded back, then looked up towards where the discussions were going on. The woman practically radiated grief and anger in equal measure, which Jean supposed was fair enough. From Gladiator's mind, they had learned that he and Oracle had been lovers, although Emma had thought it was mostly a physical thing from his perspective. But from Oracle's emotions, it certainly didn't seem that way.

She watched Nightside closely, but as Jean had predicted the woman would, she made no effort to signal Oracle or any of the others that she had just been contacted by one of the humans. Instead, she waited for Jean to reconnect.

The first words out of the telepath's mental mouth addressed this. "And you didn't tell Oracle about me. Interesting."

"I'm waiting for you to get to the real point about why you're contacting me," Nightside replied in a mental drawl.

"All right, let me ask, how loyal to the Empire are you? If we gave you a way out, a way to leave the Imperial Guard, maybe even leave the Empire behind… would you take it?"

"If you had asked me before I was part of the Praetor, I would've been certain my loyalty to the Empire was absolute. But that was before I was ordered to bed the man by my own comrades!" Nightside almost shuddered before getting control of herself.

Jean got the impression that she had even been ordered by someone else but wasn't going to inquire further, seeing as it was very obviously a touchy subject. "Good, stay alive, and when the time comes, we might be able to, well abscond with you if you want."

"I want!" Nightside growled, her mental voice firm, almost desperate before she gave Jean a bit of a shock by admitting what Jean had only suspected. "When my own family believes it's a high honor to sleep with the man, and my mother practically orders me to, I think it's time for me to leave."

Jean soothed the woman, promised that they would get her away and that Nightside wouldn't have to fight her fellow guardsmen, which she would still have a problem with. After that, Jean pulled back from Nigthside's mind.

Instead, she began to feel out the emotions of the people around her subtly to get a better overview of the rest of the Imperial Guard. The two androids Jean couldn't get anything from, but everyone else had quite a bit of anger as well as a feeling of slowly ebbing humiliation going through their minds. They didn't like how they had been manhandled. This was accompanied by some arrogance. In particular, Manta and Oracle felt that if the full Imperial Guard had been there, they could've overwhelmed the Custodes.

Given their powers, Jean didn't think they would have much of a chance. They didn't seem to have anything that could deal with her, Hela, Ororo, or Harry.

The main problem came from the Praetor's leaders. First, Electron, his anger and growing annoyance with the humans' very presence there. Then there was Oracle, whose grief was broadcasting out from her thanks to her telepathy. Those two are completely set against us, Jean thought. Something we're going to have to take into account during our battle plan, let alone afterward.

She reported this to Storm, who was no longer taking part in the conversation above them. She didn't want to risk jogging Harry or Hela's elbows by contacting them or risk the telepathic defenses detecting her use of her powers somehow. After all, alien technology might be more advanced or more sensitive than the human equivalent.

"One convert is enough, Jean," Storm replied, warning Jean to stop her probing of the guard. "Still, it's good to know that the Imperial Guard might be looking for a way to stab us in the back even before they are ordered to. That could make the fighting against Morg and Galactus difficult."

"You become certain of that too, I take it?" Jean sent back with a mental image of a scowl. "I have to admit that I am somewhat less than happy about Harry's overall plan now that I've met and talked to Nightside. There are some good people in this Empire."

"You haven't even seen how they fight for their own planets," Storm replied. "There are certainly good people among the Empire, but the Empire itself is corrupt, racist, and evil. Regardless of what Emperor or Empress sits on the throne, that's not going to change. And they will turn on us the moment Galactus is dealt with. I can't even blame them beyond the Emperor himself. It's simply realpolitik as they understand the term."

At Jean's feeling of confusion, Storm explained. "We can't compare the Empire's leaders to politicians of the world as it is now. We have to think of their entire society as being around the same social level as existed back in World War I or even before. Nationalism, or in this case, imperialism, trumps everything else. You are lesser because you are foreign. Thus Harry's plan of doing onto them when they betray us is really the only plan that makes sense. I still don't like it, but he's right."

Jean frowned, but eventually sent back an acknowledging nod and went back to listening in on the planning session going on above them. She did so just as Harry shot down a plan from the Emperor, staring at the man in horror.

"That makes no sense," he said with a shake of his head. "First of all, if we use a heavily populated planet, it's almost certain that you will lose thousands of civilians, maybe more for no real purpose. Reed and I just explained that we can re-create the signals needed to convince Morg that a desolate planet actually has some kind of life on it."

While Harry was willing to release the equivalent of a virus that would destroy their empire's communication and computer network and wreck their infrastructure for decades at the least, that wasn't the same as willingly putting a few billion Shi'ar civilians into the crosshairs of their ambush for Galactus. Especially since if push came to shove, Harry would have to use a Bloody Insane spell, perhaps even two. And if he did that, nothing on the planet would survive.

"But you have stated that you're not certain if those abilities will indeed fool the World-Eater or his Herald." The Emperor was somewhat amused at the human's squeamishness. After having shown such ruthlessness in cutting off Gladiator's hands, he now balked at the idea of sacrificing mere civilians?

"That might be true, but sacrificing a planet is still not a necessity," Storm intoned, speaking up for the first time since Reed had begun to speak about their plan and the background information about Galactus. "Unless you will tell these people that they are going to be sacrificed, and they accept that?"

"They are my citizens. If I want to sacrifice them, I will do so!" The Emperor shouted back, before subsiding, going on in with a wry grimace on his face. "Given the losses already suffered against the World-Eater, I do not think another planet too high a price to pay to see him ended."

""And I say it is not necessary!" Harry growled, getting to his feet. The Imperial Guard on the dais all stiffened, and Electron stood up quickly, ready to interpose himself between the human and the Emperor. But Harry simply glared down at the Emperor, making no move to get closer to him. "We humans have this thing called morality, which implies that someone in command, a leader, is just as loyal to his people as vice-versa! It is a societal compact, and if you do not believe that, then perhaps you do not need our help to deal with Galactus and Morg!"

At that, Deathbird and Lilandra, who had been whispering to one another in tones that, though he couldn't make out the words Harry recognized as quite frosty, broke off, looking at one another than at their brother. They both nodded as one, and the one called Deathbird leaned over, whispering in his ear. After a few moments, the Emperor nodded grimly. "Very well. As Deathbird just reminded me, public opinion would indeed be an issue after such a move. So we can go with your plan, but only if you can prove that your illusions and these decoy signals of yours can at least fool our technology. If they can do that, I will agree to your request that we do not use a living planet as bait."

Jean had listened in to this, and Hela, linked into the same telepathic web as the others, asked her archly, "And do you still believe that Harry's plans to deal with this pestilential race are too much? I note that none of his advisors have actually argued with him on that point, even those who aren't genetically Shi'ar."

Jean replied with a shake of her head on the mental plane.

The plan was to basically fool Morg into finding a world for Galactus that didn't, in fact, have any kind of sentient life. Lilandra had found one near where they estimated Morg could be, an ancient mining world that had long been abandoned. Originally it had been a penal colony. But when the resources had dried up, so did the impetus to keep bringing in prisoners to work the mines.

Normally, such a place would be overlooked by Galactus. The Heralds were supposed to lead Galactus to worlds with a high population or massive amounts of life and tectonic energy.

To solve this problem, Reed, using Harry's work on his bio-energy runic arrays, discovered the correct 'signals' that the Heralds used to discover living planets. With that, Morg could be fooled into entering the trap, after which Harry and Steven's use of solid-state illusions would enable them to fool his senses until Morg was on the ground.

Once he was faced with combat, Morg would remain to fight even if the planet wouldn't to Galactus's liking. "Taking him out once the message has been sent but not before he can break the illusion could be tricky, but I think with sufficient military forces on hand, and chosen members of the Imperial Guard, I think we can keep his attention so much that he won't even care once the illusion breaks."

Harry clicked his fingers suddenly and looked over at Lilandra, who had been the one to volunteer this planet for their plan. "What kind of star does that system have?"

"A red dwarf star," Lilandra replied, her brow furrowing.

"Why does that matter?" The Emperor asked curiously.

Harry smiled grimly. "How would you go about slaying something that eats planets?"

That confused all of them, and Vin'car replied bluntly, "Speak plainly, human."

Not addressing that point, Harry continued to outline the plan against Galactus. "Among my Custodes, there is a young lady who can interact and control tectonic energies. Tectonic energies, along with life force, make up what Galactus eats. With an attack on the energy siphon and her ability to manipulate tectonic powers, I believe that we can give Galactus the equivalent of massive indigestion. Then, myself, Phoenix, Strange, and Storm will attack using our various powers."

All of the Shi'ar looked a little bemused at that, still uncertain what Harry's exact powers were, whereas Jean at least had been explained away as being a monstrously powerful telekinetic. Still, the Emperor waved that off. "Before that, you still have to prove that you can trick our technology to even have a chance at this."

Harry nodded, then concentrated, and an image appeared. Then Harry began another spell underneath that image, a golem rising from underneath it, shifting to fill the image, which was a doppelgänger of the Emperor. A few more spells and Harry was finished.

By this point, D'ken was fuming, glaring at Harry angrily. But Harry merely shrugged and gestured. "This is an illusion. Can you tell me if it would fool your technology?"

Vin'car looked between it and the Emperor, then slowly reached forward to push his hand into the illusion, only stopping when his hand hit something solid. "What the!"

"A Gollum underneath the illusion. I could create thousands, hundreds of thousands of such given space to work with. The illusion aspect would take longer, but even so, my part of this would be relatively simple, if time-consuming," Harry explained. "I can even create heat to make it seem even more real."

Vin'car barked out a command to one of the other technicians, who quickly moved to the side after glancing at the Emperor getting a nod in reply. She came back with a handheld sensor, which she ran over the illusion, frowning. "It's, it's fooling everything! It's even reading as having heat like the human said!"

Deathbird looked between the two emperors, and her older brother glared at her. "You're about to ask something stupid like 'which one is the real one,' Deathbird. If you do so, I'm going to send you to a penal legion."

"The thought never crossed my mind," Deathbird replied dryly, before looking over at Harry thoughtfully. "And you say that this, combined with Richards's engineering knowledge, will be able to fool even Morg and Galactus?"

"Yes," Harry said simply before adding a caveat. "Or rather, we can certainly fool Morg. Galactus will know the truth the instant he starts setting up his siphon device, I think, though I would wager even he will have trouble up to that point."

"Excellent!" Vin'car spoke up, giving his own approval of this idea while the Emperor still looked annoyed, glaring at Harry. Yet he too nodded, then thrust out a finger towards his body double.

Before he could even open his mouth, Harry had dissipated the spell work, smiling beatifically at the other man.

"Enough poking at our new allies. Now it is not the time for a flyting contest, my Seidr Man," Hela murmured, gripping his wrist slightly, before looking around at the others. "Do you now believe that we can provide you with at least the cheese to bait the trap?"

"You still haven't proven that you will be able to fight Galactus, but that isn't exactly something that we could test anyway." The Emperor scowled, then looked over at Richards. "What do you need to create the technological part of this?"

"Access to quite a lot of high-end technology, and a factory of some kind. We'll have to essentially build radio towers, to be mounted across the world and create the signal of a living planet. I have done the calculations, and I believe that one tower for every two-hundred miles or so should do it," Reed answered.

"That will still be quite a few towers, but once we have the schematics for what you intend, we will be able to build them quickly enough," Lilandra murmured.

"You mentioned Nightside, and wanting at least two hand-to-hand combatants to help you against the Herald. I would say that we should also add at least a few others, such as White Noise, and anyone else who can perhaps help in blinding or confusing the enemy. With your permission, your Majesty." Vin'car added hastily, looking over at his Emperor. No one in their right mind forgot the Emperor's presence at such a time.

"Agreed. Let it not be said that we, the Shi'ar Empire, did not stand beside our new allies against Galactus at this moment. In fact, let us double down," The Emperor announced magnanimously. "We will issue orders to the Subguardians to send us their best super-strong members to join the battle. With that, we should be able to overwhelm Morg, if you are certain that you have among you those strong enough to stand against him?" he questioned Harry.

Hela nodded firmly, fielding the question before Harry could speak. "We do. I will be leading that aspect of the battle. That will allow Harry to keep up the illusion, right up until we don't have to, and also to create a series of magical surprises for Galactus with Storm's aid."

At that, Deathbird was up again as she looked between Harry, Hela, and her brother. "That brings up an interesting point. The plan is that of these humans, and much of the abilities we will be relying upon. But this is a threat to our empire we are facing, and this is our space. Surely, that implies that Electron, or perhaps Neutron or Starbolt should be in overall command."

"No. Under no circumstances will my Custodes serve under anyone besides officers I personally choose," Harry growled, leaning forward, his emerald eyes spearing Deathbird to her seat. "And you mentioned it yourself just now. Without us, there would be no ambush. Without us, the Herald alone would be beyond you." Especially with that sword. "By any stretch of the imagination, we are the largest guns at this party. That implies I should be the one in command."

"Unacceptable!" The Emperor, Deathbird, and even Lilandra shouted back.

Sighing, Storm leaned back, exchanging a glance with Reed as Hela and Harry began to argue their points. It looked as if this was going to go on for a while.

OOOOOOO

While Harry was arguing reality versus precedent and pride, the group of infiltrators had moved away from the palace and out into the vast, rolling acres of its gardens. E, Morph, Betsy, and Nikolai had moved away from the palace. They had run into a few issues because the palace grounds were patrolled by aspects of the Palace Guard, all of whom were Shi'ar, a sharp change from the Imperial Guard. These men were meant to be seen, not to be a credible threat against superpowered adversaries.

Thanks to the Disillusion arrays wound into their uniforms, and E's ability to create a chameleon cloak on his body, they could avoid being discovered. But about forty minutes into their slow, careful trek, E had the bad luck of walking around a piece of shrubbery right into an Imperial Guardsman, who had been loitering there. The two of them crashed into one another, with the palace guardsman being bowled over by the android. He stared up at what had been nothing and now was shimmering into an individual, raising his rifle quickly.

Then Betsy was there kneeling behind him, her psychic blade forming around her hand as she pulled back his head, holding it at his throat for just a moment. That brought her enough time to reach into the man's mind and start scrambling the last few seconds of his life so badly that he wouldn't know left from right. "Help me stand him up," she ordered.

E nodded and picked the Shi'ar soldier up as if he weighed nothing. He then leaned the patrolman back against the bit of shrubbery he had been leaning against before.

"Good, now skive off." Betsy waved her free hand at the others, her other hand still holding onto the back of the alien man's head, a conduit for her telepathic powers. The others raced past her, then Betsy swiftly let her telepathic powers fade and quickly slid around the bit of shrubbery, then looked down at her hands, willing the camouflage charm to come back, grimacing as she felt the first pangs of hungry hit her. The Dissillusion array was amazing, but it was starting to eat into her bio-energy reserves.

From behind her, she heard the Shi'ar soldier mutter, "What in the… That is the last time I go drinking with Shrie'af. Beautiful voice or not, that girl has a cast-iron liver!"

That caused Betsy to nearly burst out into laughter, but she kept it inside with difficulty, watching as her hands slowly began to disappear once more. She stayed there as the man started his patrol again before standing up and looking around for the others. She saw a slight shimmering in the air, as two robotic fingers suddenly appeared above a piece of tree, which had strangely enough been cut to look like someone's head. It was one of many in this area of the grounds.

Making her way in that direction, she found E and the others hidden behind the group of heads. Nikolai was staring down the row as Betsy joined them, shaking his head. "I'm Russian. We are not strangers to the heights that self-aggrandizement can reach or even near-idolatry of our fellow man. And yet, the sight of these hands, each of them a different Emperor, that bothers me quite a bit."

"You want to know what's even stranger? This whole place, I've been mapping it as we go," E shook his head. "It's laid out in a checkered pattern. That's it. There are no attempts to landscape, there's no attempt to pretty the area up a bit. It's just the original terrain, plus these heads laid out in a checkered pattern."

Everyone else looked at E in surprise. "What are you talking about?" Betsy asked.

The android that had patterned himself on Admiral William Halsey Jr, when he commanded from the carrier Enterprise, shrugged. "I might be a robot, but I am also an artificial intelligence who has based itself and its underlying mental pattern upon humanity. This place is… I believe the proper expression would be creepy."

Everyone else there chuckled, as Nikolai very firmly nodded. "Got it in one, my fine mechanical friend. Have you begun to map the interior?"

"I did. I had to make my infiltration nanites minuscule, the size of mites, but they are out there now marking out the place, and its hundreds of video cameras and security apparatus. With that, and what the others will send on to you all once they're back aboard the ship, we'll have a full map of the palace soon enough."

Nikolai nodded. "Good. Now let's find a place to set up camp. Then, Morph, you're going to have to start practicing your alien face."

Morph chuckled, and his face slowly morphed into the features of the Emperor who had been immortalized in the shrubbery next to him. Complete with green-seeming skin. "Heh, I think I'd pull this look off a heck of a lot better than the guy in question. What do you think?"

The answer was a chorus of groans, even E groaning at him, which caused Morph's grin to widen quite larger than the face he was currently wearing.

OOOOOOO

After what felt like hours arguing the necessity of putting the people who actually came up with the plan thank-you-very-much in charge, it was decided that while Harry would be in overall charge of the trap, Deathbird would be in charge of the Shi'ar portion. It was also decided that portions of the Imperial Navy would also be sent to make the planet seem even more normal. The Shi'ar had long-range bombardment ships, massive ships that were built around single energy weapon systems. They had yet to try them out against Morg, although Vin'car knew they probably wouldn't do anything against him, let alone Galactus himself. But their use here would appear as if they were attempting some new strategy. A few more Mammoth types - their species were called M'outac'k - whose homeworld was nearby, would also be used in that initial engagement and sacrificed in so doing.

To the Emperor's shock, Harry didn't argue the point. Instead, he simply nodded his head and agreed. The Emperor looked at him in surprise, and Harry smiled grimly. "I'm not a bleeding heart, Your Excellency, who thinks there shouldn't be any kind of sacrifice no matter how much more dangerous it makes the actual endeavor. I simply believe that there is a difference between asking soldiers, who willingly put on the uniform, to sacrifice themselves, then sacrificing millions, perhaps billions, of civilians on the altar of expediency."

The Emperor stared blankly, not understanding his point, although to Harry's surprise, both his sisters seemed to, and they shared a glance, as the meeting adjourned.

The moment they were back with on the Long Voyager, Jean reached out telepathically to the group of infiltrators, certain now that she could keep Oracle from figuring out anything was going on in the telepathic plane. "Nikolai, how are you all doing?"

"Tired and hungry at the moment," the infiltration team leader sent back. "These Disillusion charms we have on our uniforms work, but they take a lot of our bioenergy. I feel like I've been on a ten-day march and the others are no better."

Jean commiserated with the man, but then reminded him that the infiltration team were carrying a lot of food with them. "Do you think you'll be able to hide out for a while?"

"Easily," Nikolai answered as Jean slowly reached out to the others of his group, bringing them all into the mental discussion, having already pulled Harry, Hela, and Ororo in as well. That was a little more difficult to hide than a single connection, but she was able to do it. Unless Oracle was extremely good at playing possum, she just didn't have the telepathic strength necessary to find Jean. "Will we need some kind of password to get into the Strategic Operations Command Centre? And any faces you think would be good for Morph?"

Jean supplied several of the SOCC technicians' faces that she had seen as well as the passwords and codes they would need to use to enter the SOCC. She'd lifted the information from their minds, again without Oracle being able to sense anything. Even here in the center of their Empire, the Shi'ar understood security, yet they hadn't taken the concept of telepaths to their logical conclusion. "You'll need to find a daily schedule, it changes randomly apparently, and you'll have to do something to the actual person too."

"Remember, this must be the blackest of black operations. They literally cannot figure out where this virus comes from or have any records of humanity being involved in this whole affair at all," Harry cautioned. "That's just as important as the virus itself."

Nikolai nodded firmly. "Understood. Do you have any last orders?"

Harry shook his head. "No, other than what we've already talked about. Wait for my signal, and then release the beast."

When this was relayed to him, E chuckled at that because it was a very apt concept. The virus that Dr. Doom and Reed Richards devised between them was perhaps the vilest computer virus that the universe had ever seen. It wasn't artificial intelligence, neither mad scientist (and E was certain Reed did qualify in the strictest sense of the word) was willing to go that far: creating a computer sentience like E himself whose underlying orders were to destroy an empire's infrastructure, but it was a bare slip below that. "Do not worry. It will be ready."

After Nikolai passed that on, Harry nodded at that, and after exchanging good lucks with the infiltration team, Jean cut the connection, looking around at everyone else. "So, thoughts, impressions? Anything anyone wants to say at this point?"

Hela and Thundra both made to speak, then looked at one another in surprise. Thundra nodded graciously, having come to respect Hela's strength and personality over their interactions. Hela nodded back before turning to Harry. "Deathbird. There is something off about that woman. And it has little to do with the fact she seems something of a throwback in comparison to her siblings. She is watching D'ken all the time, not like someone wary of an older sibling with a bad temper, or even an Emperor with a bad temper. Rather, there is a certain amount of calculation going on behind those eyes. No fear. Not a hint of it, unlike Lilandra, who is afraid of her sibling, a bit."

"Agreed. Deathbird reminds me of women back in my own dimension, those who were always plotting to get ahead. And given what we know from Gladiator's interrogation, we know she is ruthless."

Frowning, Harry nodded. "Ambition and ruthlessness are not a good combination. Does she want to make a play for the Imperial seat, do you think?"

Jean spoke up before the others could. "If she thinks that, she's very good at hiding it. None of the Imperial Guard have any thoughts on that matter. Although with the number of them which had electronic protection against telepathy, I couldn't tell you if that was the case in the court."

"But she is the sister who's most involved in military affairs, right? Then perhaps she would not need to suborn those closest to the throne," Ororo mused.

"The Borderers and the Subguardians," Harry nodding, understanding what his love was getting at. "Yeah. And I would wager that she would be perfectly willing to use us in some manner. Hmm… we're going to have to be aware of that in the future. And then make certain that it's D'ken who ends up trying to stab us in the back at the appropriate time." He smiled over at Alex, although there was nothing humorous in that smile. "It would be such a shame to leave that madman still in charge of the Empire after we leave, regardless of other circumstances."

Ben began working the ship's controls, and the ship slowly took off as Harry turned to Reed. "Any problems on your level?"

He shook his head quickly. "No, not at all. The bioenergy signal towers will be constructed quite quickly. I think we should have enough to start with in a few days of our arrival at the target planet."

"Did they give us the course?" Harry inquired, looking over at Ben. He nodded, and Harry smiled. "In that case, take us out. The sooner we get this over with, the better."

It barely took three jumps, around six hours to get to the planet Lilandra had discovered that would be perfect for the plan. How close that meant Morg was to the homeworld of the Shi'ar was appalling and showed why they were concerned enough to work with the humans.

The planet in question was small, between the size of Mars and Earth, Harry estimated, although it was in the life range of the red dwarf star it was circling. Despite that, it hadn't developed life, but there were still bits of mining towns, jails, and scattered brown vegitation, showing where the miners had been allowed to grow some food. Of course without maintenance, the greenhouses had become overgrown and broken out into the surrounding environment, which had eventually killed what was within. But they were still there, and Harry could work them into the illusions.

The Voyager settled down to the planet as everyone read the atmosphere. It was still breathable for Shi'ar and humans, but extremely hot, the kind of hot you got in deserts, no moisture in the air, just heat that slammed into you the instant you left the ship. Harry warned everyone totake a lot of water with them before going on to specific orders. "Storm, Hela, Dr. Strange if you would start laying out the runes? Reed, you and Banshee are on mapping the planet for your towers. Jean, you will play opposing force for the others for a few days for everyone else, but don't push them too hard, two battles per day."

Thundra snorted. Of all of them, she had worked directly with Harry the least and was the one to ask the obvious question. "And what will you be doing?"

"Working on a final project before I start laying out our illusions with the other magicals," Harry answered easily.

"What project?" everyone said as one.

Harry smiled at Thundra and Ben. "Fitting those two for Orichalcum armor. We brought enough of my supply to do it, and I think we need everyone in this fight to be as armored as we possibly can make them."

OOOOOOO

The Emperor was once more back in his throne, although he had not recalled his full court. Instead, only his two sisters, Vin'car, Electron, Oracle, and the Admiral of the Home Fleet, P'ster were there. For several silent minutes, they watched the human ship, abnormal vessel that it was, leaving the system and then jumping to hyperspace, on a hard light screen projected from the roof of the throne room.

As the ship vanished into hyperspace, D'ken turned his gaze on those around him, his face set in a snarl. "These humans have angered me! They have angered me since the moment they showed up! Who do they think they are to dictate terms to me? To the Emperor of the Shi'ar Empire!"

Lilandra attempted to cut through his anger with a bit of cold reality. "They're the people who defeated Gladiator. They are the people who have a plan to deal with Galactus. Something that we do not."

"But it is based on abilities that they call 'magic'!" Deathbird scoffed. "How backward can they be? I can't deny that their ability to fool our sensors is both impressive and concerning, but still, the arrogance of them is unconscionable."

"Exactly!" D'ken growled, looking over at Adm. P'ster. "You were told where the trap for Galactus was being placed. You will move two-thirds of the Home Fleet to a nearby system, where we can jump into Paralis 4 and be prepared to attack either the humans when they prove that their arrogance is justified, or Galactus after he deals with them."

"I do not think that this is wise. If the humans can deal with Galactus, does that not tell you they will deal with our regular forces easily? They certainly proved to be a match for our Imperial Guard." warned Lilandra.

Oracle stiffened, and Electron growled out, "With respect, Princess, they merely faced those of the Royal Guard on duty. That is a far cry from facing the full might of the Imperial Guard. I believe that we could overwhelm them with sufficient numbers. Especially after they battle Galactus. Whatever their 'magic' can do, I refuse to believe that they will be walking out of a fight with the World Eater unscathed."

"And if you were wrong? Or if that ship can evade us? We will have made a dangerous enemy. After having lost our strongest, most powerful superpowered being," Lilandra cautioned, still attempting to keep a lid on everyone's anger. "I well understand why you are angry and insulted, brother, but this is a moment to put the good of our Empire above our own..."

"Enough!" D'ken growled. "You have made your point, Lilandra. We will only attack them if the humans have lost enough of their people for us to finish them off with conventional forces. Meanwhile, Oracle, you will be involved in bringing in as many Borderer and Subguardian units as you can together here in the palace without severely weakening the defenses of our Empire's borders. We will hide them here, waiting for the victory ceremony."

Vin'car nodded at that, not giving his opinion on it. He was merely the strategic advisor, he did not make policy. "I had wondered why you had requested them to return for a victory ceremony, Your Majesty. You mean to ambush them."

"Might I suggest your Majesty, that on top of gathering further Imperial Guard, we manufacture as many anti-telepathic circlets that we can and hand them out to every Imperial Guardsman we can? I believe there is a telepath among them. Their fight with us seemed far too coordinated and organized," Oracle interjected, making her agreement with this plan plain.

Everyone else there winced at the idea. No one but Oracle's people were used to the idea of telepathy, to the fact that someone could reach into an individual's mind and discover their secrets. There was not a power that the Shi'ar, in particular, liked to contemplate.

On top of that, Deathbird added a word of caution. "I do not think that numbers will help us overmuch against Potter. He proved that he was able to simply make an army with a wave of his hands." Deathbird was still having trouble with that, and with the whole 'magic' concept, as were all of them. It simply was so illogical, so based upon imagination, in something that could not be scientifically proven, that it attacked their basic belief on how the universe worked.

"True, but this is where subtlety comes in." D'ken smiled, a smile of reminiscence tinged with old anger and hate. A hatred that had been added to today. "They are, after all, humans. And I well remember the concoction of various invisible gases and foodstuffs that we were able to use to keep that human woman malleable and responsive."

The women present all looked slightly uncomfortable at that, but Deathbird nodded, understanding his point.

Lilandra, on the other hand, was still shaking her head. "This is madness. I agree they are arrogant. I agree that they are obstreperous and vain in the extreme to think themselves our equals. But without the humans, we could well be facing Galactus here, in our home system, soon enough. And they have already proven their powers and their ability. I will not be a party to this."

"You don't have to be! You're part of the diplomatic corps, and the time for talk is over," Deathbird sneered, before turning back to D'ken. "Although I too would prefer to attack them on the heels of the battle. Fighting them here in the Imperial Palace is a little too risky."

After a moment of ruminating, D'ken pointed at his warlike throwback of a sister. "It will be your call for how we ambush them, Deathbird. You will be in charge of the fleet that we will send in as part of baiting this trap. You will command the space-based portion of the battle, and it will be you who decides whether to call in the rest of the fleet. But understand me. If you do not, then the plan to ambush them here in the palace will go forward! I will have revenge for Gladiator's death and our humiliation today!"

Deathbird nodded, bowing deeply to the Emperor as did the others, even Lilandra. Lilandra knew that to do otherwise would be a step too far. She had objected, but since she would play no part in this action, that was as far as she could go. "Hail Majestor, your will be done."

OOOOOOO

For all of his vast intelligence, knowledge, and power, Galactus' thoughts were often very simple. This was due to the Hunger: the need for the energy of planets to sustain himself. The Hunger ate at him, drove his every action. And because of that, he was well pleased with his latest Herald.

He had chosen Mort because he was a ruthless, pragmatic sociopath. Someone who, when faced with his own death, had turned on his people and began to execute them for treason against their conquerors. He well understood where he stood with Galactus and had no sense of empathy to get in his way of finding planets that could feed Galactus' vast Hunger.

Morg had found more planets in a shorter amount of time than any of his other Heralds. And they were planets which fed Galactus' bottomless Hunger to a greater degree than most. Only Terrax came close in terms of planet type, and he had not found nearly as many in so short a time.

The fact that those planets belonged to a space-faring empire did not register to Galactus. Not because he didn't know, it was obvious. No, he just didn't care. Shi'ar, Kree, Skrull, Baodoon, humans. It didn't matter who owned the planet, who lived on it. All that mattered was feeding to allow Galactus to continue existing and to retain his purpose. Nothing else mattered but the purpose and the Hunger.

OOOOOOO

About half a local day passed before the first group of Shi'ar arrived to add their own portions to the trap. These included many of the Imperial Guard, led by Neutron, the man whose ability to absorb and then redirect the Power Cosmic had caught Harry's attention. Indeed, several of his race, the Re'An, arrived, men and women who had the same space black with stars skin as the first one the Custodes fought. A few Smashers, several aliens like Kyte, and more arrived.

They were mostly standoffish, remaining in orbit aboard their ships, but Jean taunted them into practicing to fight her along with Warpath and the rest of the Custodes. Eventually, the Imperial Guard decided these exercises served a point and joined in, but even so, they mostly remained to themselves.

Meanwhile, the magic users were busy, spreading out, creating illusions on thousands of golems that were then hit with a series of spells that made them read to modern sensors as if they were alive and, of course, laying traps. Harry was determined to take advantage of the choice of terrain as much as possible. A series of binding, gravity, energy-draining, and disorientation arrays were set up all across the planet. This was slow going because with runes, you had to be very precise. But thanks to Ororo, Hela, and Dr. Strange, the work proceeded apace. Harry joined them after a day spent crafting Thundra and Ben's armor.

The two FF members were very happy to have their magically imbued armor. With both of them so equipped, Jean began to have a more difficult time as Ben took charge of the opposing force. He would be acting as Hela's second in command for that aspect of the battle. The Imperial Guard would be led on the ground by Neutron, although Deathbird would be in overall command of the Imperial forces.

Banshee, whose part of the battle would be relatively simple, helped Reed map out the planet, flying him around in the ship while Reed used a mathematical formula he'd developed to mark out places where the towers that would hopefully fool Morg into attacking the planet would be placed.

Late in the first full day on the Praxis 5, the first of these towers arrived from the Shi'ar's homeworld. A set of one hundred had been completed since Reed had handed over the tower's blueprints, although Reed did spend a long time going over each of them in turn. There could be nothing that could detract from the signal of this planet, or else Morg might well bypass it, heading for a real life-bearing planet.

The towers were large, ten-story tall constructs. Filled with electronics, each of them broadcast a signal of biological energy, powered by an internal set of batteries. Praxis 5, after all, no longer had an energy grid.

Because of that, the towers were so heavy the Shi'ar either had to bring in special equipment or the towers had to be lifted out of the ship by Jean or a few of the teams' super-strong members. To their chagrin, many of the Imperial Guard found themselves relegated to this menial labor, removing the towers one by one around different segments of the planet, after which they helped to emplace them while Reed went over the electronics.

Reed checked out the first, and then walked several dozen teams of Shi'ar technicians through the process. As more of the Shi'ar arrived, the work sped up dramatically.

In orbit, more Shi'ar arrived, first in the form of Imperial Guard units. These were more long-range combat specialists, which could fight in space before pulling back.

The bombardment ships also started to arrive in divisions of three. The Shi'ar apparently believed in using a base three system when dealing with capital ships. They were accompanied by divisions of destroyer-like ships with two long-range weapons and lots of close combat weapons.

But the majority of what arrived in those first few days were cargo ships. Some were loaded with army units, tanks for the most part, more defenders to prove to Morg this planet was as inhabited as it would seem to him. Others tugged orbital platforms into place. A few of them were of civilian-make, just more bait for the trap. Others were purely defensive platforms, heavily armed and ready to do their part.

All of this preparation made Harry question his decision on their preemptive strike once more, but he reminded himself of how the Shi'ar dealt with people outside their empire. He reminded himself of Chris Summers and his wife. Of Gladiator and his immediate reaction to being challenged in Sol. He remembered and hardened his heart for what he would have to do. Yes, there were no doubt good people throughout the Shi'ar Republic, but their very system was built on arrogance and treating those outside the system as less than slaves.

Besides, if I smash the system, he thought, as he pushed those worries to the side to finish an illusion of a forest, perhaps the rest of the races which make up the Empire will make a bid for freedom. That, and making certain they can't bother Earth in the next thousand years or so, is enough of a reason.

Preparing an entire planet to be a trap took time, no matter its dimensions. Because of this, news reached Harry and the others six days after they had arrived on the planet that Galactus had found and devoured another planet elsewhere in the Shi'ar's Empire. This merely added to the desperation the Shi'ar felt, and more technicians, towers, and military might arrived at an ever-increasing pace.

Finally, nearly two weeks after Harry and the others had initially arrived on the planet,the last of the Shi'ar's forces arrived. Around the same time, the last of the magic-based traps were prepared.

OOOOOOO

On the bridge of the flagship, Deathbird stared in shock at what her eyes were trying to tell her of the planet below. Deathbird knew the reality of Praxis 5, she had read reports on it. She knew that that planet had little to no life on it, not having nearly enough water to sustain any kind of biological life. And yet, here it was, vibrant and alive with cities, forests, and even a series of small landlocked oceans. With that, the industry she was seeing, the orbital stations, and everything else she could see through optical or even heat-based scanners, it looked as if the planet was as alive as any other Shi'ar world.

"They haven't started up the towers yet, Lady Admiral," her sensor specialist intoned, using Deathbird's current military rank rather than the more political 'princess'. "They're waiting on our word. Beyond that, what they have done so far has our optical scanners fooled completely. Even our heat scanners are having difficulty seeing through the illusion. With those towers added in, this planet would even fool us, and we know it isn't real. I think we can assume that is going to fool Galactus's Herald."

"Then give the order," Deathbird answered firmly, nodding her head. "The die is cast. Let us bait the trap, and hope that it works."

Within moments, all of her fleet's scanners told her the same story: that the planet below her was a fully industrialized Shi'ar planet. That it had a population in the billions, and that it was even sending out the proper radio waves and everything else that it should. When she was satisfied with that aspect, Deathbird turned her attention to her own portion of the trap. She had a fleet to whip into shape, and her own late arrival to this system was going to hamper her ability to train the ships to be a proper combat force instead of simply a thrown together shambles. And no one knew how long they would have until the Herald took the bait.

She had just begun to put her fleet through the fourth of five series of exercises she had planned for the first day, when her sensor specialist walked up to her, saluting quickly. "Lady Admiral, our sensors are picking up something else moving away from the planet."

"Is it the human's ship?" Deathbird demanded quickly, wary of betrayal. If they abandoned the Empire now…

"No ma'am, it's not their ship. Their ship is still on the planet. No, this is something else, an odd gravitic anomaly, coupled with some kind of…well, air bubble. If one of our recon drones hadn't been making a flyover of that specific part of the planet, we would have missed them entirely.

"Get me a visual," Deathbird ordered, and as the recording drones littered across the orbit of the planet shifted on a new heading, waited impatiently. It surprisingly took the drones over two hours to catch up to the target, and when they did, they were almost immediately destroyed in a burst of telekinetic fire. But not immediately enough to stop them from sending out the images to send the images back to their ships.

When the image came up on her viewscreen, Deathbird burst out into laughter, shaking her head. "Never mind," she said, to a quietly chuckling bridge crew. "That doesn't seem to be anything we need to be concerned with."

OOOOOOO

With all the work done, Harry had ordered everyone to rest. This included himself, and after consultation with the others, Harry decided to take Jean out on a date. Jean enjoyed being in space far more than Hela or Ororo, so, with a conjured sofa and a conjured floor set in the middle of an air bubble, the two of them set off for a jaunt through the star system.

The two of them moved through space, staring out at the stars, and talking quietly about the number of races that made up the Shi'ar Empire while eating a meal that Harry had prepared earlier that day alongside Ororo. Harry's first lover was also out on a date with Hela back on the planet. Harry had initially thought they would all go out together, but Ororo had demurred when Hela refused. She was still enjoying their courtship too much to jump further into the physical side of things, and both she and Ororo knew that Jean wanted some more physical type loving, having missed out on such for the past few months.

As the drones exploded under her telekinetic powers, Jean smirked, then turned to Harry only to find him reaching for her already with a small, tender smile of his own. Jean smiled in reply, nuzzling into his chest as Harry twisted them both to the side, putting his feet up onto the sofa as Jean lay out on top of him. "So, where else do you want to go?"

"Hmm, are we talking about this system, or in general? Because I would love to see a nebula before we go back to Earth. Heck, the only thing that's keeping me from begging for it is the fact we left Emma behind. Can you imagine," Jean mused aloud, looking dreamy as she grabbed up a grape and plopped it into Harry's mouth. "Having a picnic like this, in the middle of raw star-stuff? I know nebula aren't as dense as Sci-fi would have you think, but it would still be a sight to see."

"Heh. Sounds as if you would love to be captain of the Long Voyager," Harry teased. "Reed has been chomping at the bit to launch a purely scientific mission for months."

"Ooh, don't tempt meEEE," Jean started, then moaned a bit as Harry nibbled at the spot behind her ear that was extra sensitive. "I would so love that. I know I'm not as smart as Reed, Doom, or even Sage, but I have loved the idea of space travel for so long I can't remember a time I didn't think about it somewhere in the back of my mind, even before you freed me from Charles' well-meaning but idiotic mental blocks."

"Heh, well, I just helped. You and the Phoenix Force were the ones who came to such a great understanding with one another." Harry waved off her phrase, before repeating his earlier question.

The ball of air and its occupants moved around the star system, looking at a few asteroids, and what Jean felt was the remains of a gas giant, then near to the red star itself. Unfortunately for Jean's space-lust, this system had been chosen precisely because it was boring and worthless to the Shi'ar.

Her normal type of lust however had been well stoked by the time the meal finished, as Harry had continued kissing at her neck and shoulder between bites and comments. Finally, as the ball of shielded air hovered near the star, she very purposefully kicked out, sending the small table a bit further away from the sofa before arching her back, grinding her rear back into Harry, causing him to groan in appreciation.

"Had your fill, have you?" he murmured, nuzzling into her neck, kissing up from her jugular to her mouth, then quickly pulling away before Jean could deepen the kiss to nibble at her ear.

Jean rolled over and sat up, her legs to either side of Harry's waist, as she slowly started to grind her core against Harry's rising erection, tearing his pants off with a telekinetic heave. "My fill of food anyway," she murmured. When he pulled away from her ear, she swooped in, kissing him deeply as she moaned, "I love you, Harry!" through their telepathic link.

Down below on the planet, Ororo and Hela were having perhaps the oddest picnic of all time, including the date Harry and Jean were currently on. They were sitting on the edge of a lava flow, which had been covered with the illusion of a river, although that did nothing about the heat of the magma. Yet that didn't bother either woman: Hela, because of her Asgardian heritage, and Ororo because of her spellwork. The two of them were sharing wine, fish, and some chips as they talked about the upcoming battle, what might be going on back on Earth, and what they were looking forward to in the future, segueing into an argument about what Hela's eventual wedding with Harry would be like and where it should take place.

Ororo had long been convinced by Hela to go with a traditional Norwegian wedding from the time when the Asgardians were worshiped, even if that meant Ororo would be doing a lot of research on such, but she held out on where it should take place. "I agree that there is a certain amount of logic to your hope to have the ceremony on fortress Mars. Yet I maintain that a wedding should be in a beautiful place, not just have a beautiful ceremony. Camelot could do for that, or perhaps somewhere in France. Or," she laughed, somewhat tipsily, "In Rome someplace, throwing the reality of your existence into the Church's face."

"While I am b-, f-, fully behind that idea, I would rather my wedding not devolve into a battle, as it would, since I could not stop myself from attempting to, to do somethin' to the Vatican. Given what happened to Harry and the idol that, that giant-headed creature had, it's certain that the Church retains items w-, which can har, har, hurt, me," Hela retorted, sounding more than a bit drunk.

The two of them had almost finished two entire bottles of fire-whiskey between them, and though Hela was a God, she had never been a big drinker. The magical properties of the fire whiskey offset her own heritage to a certain degree. "No, if we are going to hold it on earth, then shim, shy, symbolism must come into play someplace in Norway. Or Greenland. Someplace where our Viking worshipers roamed."

"Roamed-hic, not reaved?" Ororo taunted, her taunt broken by an attempt to stifle a hiccup. She endeavored to thrust her nose into the air haughtily but nearly fell forward off of their precipice before reeling backward, flopping onto her back to stare over at Hela. "Your believers were not exactly known for being g, genck, nice to their neighbors, and while, ex, explorers, they were also conquerors and reavers."

Hela scoffed, poking Ororo's nose and cheek. "You used reavers twice, and I well know it. Indeed, I am proud of it! Back then, that was how the world worked. Or are you going to stick your nose in the air about your vaunted Christian conquerors? Your crusades, for example, were simply conquest by any other name."

"Not mine! I worship Mistress Gaia, and she has never taken part in war! That is a wholly human thing." So saying Ororo opened her mouth and nearly caught Hela's finger in her mouth, but ended up only kissing the tip rather than attempting to bite or suck on it. Even Ororo couldn't tell you which she intended at that point.

"Are we getting off-topic?" Hela asked, popping the last of her perfectly prepared fish into her mouth. Mmmm, my Seidr Man spoils me so well, it makes me eager for the day when I can…spoil him in turn, she thought, before looking down at Ororo's face framed by her silver hair, making her chocolate-colored skin stand out all the more, her blue eyes gazing back into Hela's violet eyes. Ororo had a small nose, high-cheekbones, and perfectly smooth skin marred only by a single little scar on her chin, something that added character in Hela's opinion. Her lips were full, devoid of any lipstick like Hela's own red-tinted ones, but extremely inviting for all of that.

Hela leaned over her closest friend, the woman who would become her sister-wife, breathing in the scent of her as her previously poking finger began to trace a pattern along Ororo's collarbone and neck, causing Ororo to hum appreciatively. "Whatever the topic, that is enough talking for now."

As Hela leaned down, Ororo tilted her head to one side and raised herself on her elbows to capture Hela's lips. The two of them had kissed occasionally before this, but this kiss was different. It was much more intensely sexual, their tongues questing into one another's mouth for a moment, each of them tasting fire whiskey on the mouth of the other. Hela then found herself pressing down chest to chest against Ororo, whose hands began to move up and down Hela's back.

But despite her inebriation, Hela was still mindful of her desire to not go too far before walking down the aisle with Harry, and after a few minutes of intense kissing, she slowly pulled away.

Ororo let her do so, but then followed her, sitting upright before her hands reached out to touch Hela's mask from either side. Hela stiffened, and Ororo stopped, smiling gently at her. In the face of that wordless assurance and love, Hela nodded slowly, and Ororo pulled Hela's half mask off, setting it to one side.

Most would have assumed that there was some kind of odd mark or scar there. And there was indeed a scar, coming from just above her eye then around and almost back to her nose. But that did little to take away from the beauty of those violet eyes, or the blush of her cheeks, or anything else really.

Looking at her, Ororo shook her head. "Why bother with the mask? That little beauty mark is nowhere near enough to take away from how gorgeous you are."

Blushing at the praise of a woman who herself possessed beauty worthy of a goddess, Hela shook her head and looked away. "I, it's partly psychological, I suppose. And partly well, it, the mark it, it was once a symbol of far worse things…"

Ororo shook her head and pulled Hela to her. But instead of kissing the other woman on the lips, she kissed the scar, lips lingering as she moved along it. Shuddering, Hela mumbled something about Ororo and Harry being a bit too alike, and remained there, hugging Ororo in turn.

Elsewhere on the planet, the rest of the Custodes were also taking it easy now that the work of setting up the track had done, and everyone had trained as much as they possibly could. The Imperial Guard might not have, but Ben, who most of them had come to respect over the past few days, had organized a cookout of traditional Shi'ar food as well as human food, then a series of physical contests. Volleyball with the Titans going against the Re'An and Alex took place on a field which to everyone's eyes looked as if it was a beach, instead of the black basalt that it actually was.

In return, the Imperials had organized a pickup game of a sport that looked as if high-tech basketball had mated with rugby. A shooting and driving competition organized among the tank commanders took up hundreds of miles to either side of the main basecamp, while an arm-wrestling contest for both genders among the superpowered portion of the defenders rounded out the events, accompanied by vast quantities of alcohol.

Seeing his girlfriend beating out a female Smasher after defeating two more of the Imperial Guard, Ben laughed, pausing his run to watch. He only remembered that he was a part of rugby's unholy offshoot when Warpath shouted, "Mind in the game, Ben!" just before the ball came rocketing towards him.

He grabbed it and resumed racing forward, twisting around and through several Smasher, Earthquake, and Starbolt type Imperial Guard before dropping the ball, a heavily reinforced tungsten and titanium composite, to his feet. It bounced once off the ground before Ben kicked it towards the hovering circle that acted as the goal. There the ball bounced off, only to be fielded by Starbolt, who counter charged, racing past Ben towards the other goal.

Elsewhere on the planet, technicians piled into shuttles heading for space. Cargo ships began to leave orbit, heading away and out, carrying more technicians and other nonessential personnel away. Soon, only those that would be participating in the battle to come would be here. Even the civilian orbital structures would be empty within a few hours. Regardless of when Morg arrived, he would face only warriors rested and prepared as well as they could expect to be, no civilians of any kind.

Later that night, as the Custodes and Imperial Guard began to drift off to sleep, the Custodes leaders found themselves in a somewhat impromptu meeting…

Harry and Jean returned late in the local night to find Hela and Ororo curled up next to their picnic area, snoring drunkenly. The two of them had then used telekinesis and magic to carry them back to basecamp, where they entered the ship. Ororo was placed in Hela's bed with her to sleep it off, after which Jean followed Harry into their own room, a little too tired out to continue their earlier exertions. Indeed, given all of the exertions of late, it didn't take her any time at all to fall asleep, curled up next to Harry.

But instead of waking up to an alarm, Harry and Jean found themselves opening their eyes someplace else. Almost instantly, Jean knew this was some kind of mental projection or summoning, but not any type she was used to. It felt sort of like when she projected herself into the realm of the Phoenix Force, but she certainly hadn't done any such thing now. Moreover, the place the two of them found themselves in was nowhere she had ever seen before.

The two of them were in a room, one that seemed small yet also vast at the same time. The room was white, or it was white at first glance. But when Harry looked closer, it looked more like someone had flattened a rainbow into crystal, before making a room out of it, the colors mingling so much they turned into white. There was a deep thrumming noise in the background, like the heartbeats of a trillion stars.

Wondering why that phrase had sprung to his mind, Harry looked over at Jean, cocking an eyebrow. "This is new, is this something you've been working on?"

"Don't look at me," she exclaimed, shaking her head. "I didn't bring us here. This isn't my head or anywhere on the astral plane. This is someplace else."

A moment later, Hela appeared there, and upon opening her eyes, the Asgardian goddess of Niflheim looked around, startled. "I feel as if I should be feeling a headache of some kind, and also looking at Ororo or perhaps my alarm clock," Hela mused. "Yet I find myself here, my mind clear of its recent inebriation. The two of you look surprised, which means that you were not involved in bringing my astral self here either. So, is this a mental attack? It would have to be an incredibly powerful one to get through my defenses, but I well know that such things are possible. You being here, Jean, implies something else entirely."

Ororo joined them a moment later, then to the intense surprise of everyone else there, Emma appeared as well. "What in the fucking hell!? I just got to sleep after twenty-four hours of meeting hell, and this is what I dream!?"

While the others were staring back at her in surprise, Hela gaped, pointing at the woman. "Now I know that this is some kind of hallucination! No power of magic or divine could reach across the distance between us now, not when it is better described in terms of galaxies spanned than anything else!"

Jean, though, took this in stride, getting an idea of what might be behind this meeting, if not the reasons for it. "What was the first thing you did to me that showed you might be interested in me?

"I smacked you on your ass when I arrived at the Xavier mansion. Then we took to almost flirting until we laughed about the absurdity of it all," Emma replied promptly.

Jean moved over and took the other woman in her arms as Emma returned the gesture. She then held out a hand towards Harry, who also came towards her hugging her tightly. "I have no idea what the hell is going on, but I'm happy to see you all! Having you out of the system has not been easy at all on many levels! If not for Piotr, Sage, Mary Jane, Dani and Steve, I would be pulling my hair out!"

"Sorry love, but you know that no one else could do what we are going to be doing out here, and removing both the Shi'ar and Galactus as threats to earth is worth it," Harry murmured into Emma's hair, holding her and Jean tightly against him while Ororo moved over to join the hug. Seeing this, Hela rolled her eyes, yet was also smiling at the moment of tenderness despite her unwillingness to join in just yet with all of them.

"It is what you are this far away from Earth to do that we have brought you here to talk to about," a voice intoned. One which Harry and Jean recognized almost immediately.

They ended the hug, turning to look as a flame appeared moving out from the wall, then forming into the shape of a woman, with eyes of white fire, and wings of red and gold that spread to either side of her like those of an angel. "Phoenix Force," Harry acknowledged with a respectful bow from the waist, while Hela backed away quickly. She wasn't concerned about the Phoenix Force attacking her, but it was a fact that Hela worshipped and followed the Phoenix Force's opposite number.

She stopped as another presence appeared on the opposite side of the room from the Phoenix Force. As if summoned by Hela's worries, Lady Death stood there like she had always been there, cocking her head to one side as she looked at one of her most faithful servants.

"My Lady!" Hela murmured, going to one knee and bowing her head. "I knew that the World Eater was a massively powerful and dangerous individual, but is he so important that it demands this direct intervention?"

"Yes," Phoenix answered, while Lady Death merely nodded. The fire-woman sent a smirk, almost invisible against the backdrop of her fire form, towards her silent opposite number, before winking at all the mortals. Well, mortal for a given value anyway. "I will be doing the speaking for us since my friend over there very much prefers to be silent."

Lady Death stared across at Phoenix Force, then deliberately shook her head very slowly from side to side, as if lamenting the other woman's sense of humor. Then she pointed at Harry and intoned, "YOU CANNOT KILL GALACTUS."

"That is a very odd thing for you of all beings to say," Harry said, frowning. "I would've assumed that you would not care one way or the other if he lived or died. After all, everyone dies sometime, don't they?"

Lady Death gave the impression she was nodding at that, but the Phoenix Force took up the tale. "It is not so much that you cannot kill him. You are perfectly correct in your assumption that Galactus has a certain amount of weakness to magic that might allow you to battle him on an almost even footing. And I well know not to underestimate your intelligence or preparation. But Galactus, while not on the level of my counterpart or I, is an important piece when it comes to the stability of what you all call the galaxy at large."

"How?!" Ororo was aghast. "He eats planets! And not just any planets, but those that have life on them. Surely planets which can sustain life are not so numerous that such predations are part of some kind of extra-galactic cycle of life!"

"There are actually more life-sustaining planets and moons than you might think, but that is not the point. Galactus needs to eat, but he does not need to eat planets with sentient life. If you can convince him in some fashion, to restrain his Hunger, he will agree to that. But Galactus also serves a purpose." Phoenix Force seemed to sigh, then moved deeper into the room. "Did Mr. Fantastic ever discover anything about his origins?"

"No, how would Reed have discovered anything of the sort?" Harry shrugged his shoulders in mild derision. "It isn't as if Galactus or even the Silver Surfer was free with that kind of information."

The being of living fire tsked, then decided to put it as bluntly as she could. "Galactus came into being when the Big Bang started this universe. And as the last universe died, three of its gods survived, driven mad by the experience, they are of such destructive power that they make Galactus seem weak in comparison. Galactus was empowered by that moment of ultimate destruction, and he, and his ship, the Kiln, contain those gods within."

The Phoenix Force shook her head. "If you kill Galactus, in so doing they will be released, and what Galactus does out of necessity and uncaring ego, they will do out of spite and joy. And they will not have Galactus' weakness to magic. They will be full gods, stronger, more powerful than any that exist in this galaxy today. And there is no chance, Harry, even if you had already ascended or found the route to Titan-hood, that you could face them. Not even with my Avatar by your side."

"You're saying that we have to let Galactus go even if we can get into a position to kill him?" Harry scowled. "I'm not happy about that."

"We do not ask that you be happy about it," the Phoenix Force shot back, moving forward to prod Harry in the chest with a fiery finger, causing him to stumble a bit. But he didn't look away from her eyes, and the Phoenix Force backed away after a moment, though she did not turn her own gaze away. "Yes, Galactus is evil, but Galactus is by far the lesser of two evils. And for the good of the galaxy, he must continue to exist. And, as Mr. Richards will no doubt have told you, he is a being of his word. If you can force him to agree to not consume planets with sentients on it, he will abide by that decision as much as possible."

The Pheonix then smiled, a wide, dangerous smile. "Furthermore, Harry, you and Galactus have an enemy in common. The beings called the Celestials. While it will be several millenia before they make another appearance in this reality, you might wish to have Galactus on your side when that time comes. Not even my opposing number or myself can tell you what those beings may do upon their return, given what they have done in the past to mutant-kind, and their decision to kill off wizard-kind on this dimension's Earth."

Harry grimaced, looking away to the far wall of this strange room. That was a telling comment although the 'millenia' bit was just as worrisome. He all too easily remembered the Celestials, his fight with one of their number in the Negative Zone, and how they had set the Dementors of this dimension onto the wizards to wipe them out as an evolutionary deadend. "That… fine. Yeah, I can see your point on that. Fine."

"WE WILL HAVE YOUR OATH ON IT,"Lady Death announced, staring at one and all.

"You have my oath, Lady," Hela said instantly, going to one knee. "I swear to do my utmost to, upon defeating him, make certain that Galactus lives."

Hela loved Harry, her Seidr Man, and she well understood that Galactus was a vile creature, evil on a scale that even what had happened to her and her fellows Asgardians had not prepared Hela for. But her oath, her connection to Lady Death, was part of her very soul and being. Hela could sooner stop breathing than stop being the go-between for Death and those whose souls passed on to the eternal wheel.

Jean was slower. But after Phoenix Force nodded to tell her how serious this was, Jean too gave her oath.

Ororo was next, while Emma chuckled and shrugged. She was in quite a good mood, frankly. Even knowing her lovers were going to soon do battle with a god-like being, just seeing them perked her spirit up. "I'm not part of this deal or situation at all, though I appreciate being here, I suppose."

"I brought you here as a courtesy," the Phoenix Force laughed. "Your relationship is known to both of us, and I felt that you being here would be a nice gesture. Did It work?"

"Yes, it did," Harry sighed. It was proof that the Phoenix Force, and indeed Death in a certain way, cared about them as individuals even as they told Harry and the others to care about the galaxy as a whole, rather than the enemy directly in front of them. To set aside righting wrongs that Harry and the others understood to look at a picture so large, it was beyond most mortal's understanding. "This whole explanation of why Galactus is necessary is too big a picture for me, but if you cannot trust in the personifications of death and life and rebirth to tell you how it is, then who can you trust? We will not kill Galactus if we get into a position to do so. Although that is probably putting the coach before the horse in a huge way. Still, we'll do what we can."

Both Eternal Powers nodded and then turned to stare at one another. Eventually, Death nodded again and held out her hand as the Phoenix Force did the same. In those hands, there appeared a rune of some kind, ones which Harry instantly somehow knew he had never seen before.

Turning to Harry, the Phoenix Force smiled. "We are not asking you to forgo killing Galactus if you are in a position to do so without payment. These are Runes of power. Runes of power which will help you follow the path of the first Titans. Creating these would've taken you years. With them, your continued attempts to sidestep the issue of ascension will be much easier."

Harry nodded, holding out his hands. The two symbols flew to him, and he stared at each in turn, committing them to memory via Occlumency, dedicating two books in his mind to each in turn.

As he did so, Death turned away. She locked gazes with Hela, then gestured. Hela's sword, which before this had not been at her side, appeared. The blade hovered in midair between them, and Death then clenched her hand. The blade glowed black and green for a second, before disappearing.

Saying nothing, Hela bowed deeply to her patroness, and Death nodded once more before disappearing.

Chuckling quietly, a sound like a happy campfire, the Phoenix Force turned to the others. "Good luck, all of you. You will need it. Fighting Galactus even with an advantage in your magic will not be easy. It will test you, it will push you to your limits and beyond, but, I trust that once more you will all rise to the challenge."

Sensing that this moment was coming to an end, Emma went to each of her lovers, and even her prospective one, giving them a hug and kiss. "Good luck. I'll see you all when you get back."

The next instant, Harry's eyes blinked open, staring up at the ceiling in his room, as he wondered if that had just happened or was some weird dream. Then he looked inside his mind, into the tower that was his memory, and found the two books containing the runes that Lady Death and the Phoenix Force had given them. Staring at them, he smiled thinly, whispering into the dark of the room as Jean started to stir next to him. "Well, I like their optimism, at least."

He turned to jean, leaning down to give a her a kiss before slowly pulling away, getting to his feet. "Come on love, get up. We need to go talk to Stephen, and to read. If we can't kill Galactus, then we're going to have to start making plans for talking to him after the battle."

OOOOOOO

Morg soared through space, looking for the next planet that he would feed to his master, for the next planet where he would feel the ecstasy of battle to the death and the despair of his victims. The Shi'ar were a good source of energy, Morg felt, since they regularly populated planets well above what his own people would ever have considered acceptable. But then again, my people were not conquerors but conquered. The weaklings! And they expected me to care who was in charge?

Morg followed the strong because in so doing, Morg was always allowed to have his fun. There was always a need for an executioner, for someone who enjoyed watching blood flow. The more blood, the better. Power Cosmic or executioner's axe and simple physical strength, his fun never changed.

Suddenly, Morg paused, halting in deep space for a moment as he twisted his head to one side. Morg didn't understand how it worked, but whatever Galactus had done to him had given Morg extra senses which he could use to discover planets that teemed with biological and tectonic energies. It was planets that held both in abundance Galactus wanted to feast on. All planets had some level of tectonic energy, that was the easy part. Leading Galactus to planets teeming with life was the hard part. Lifeforce was the necessary garnish, as it were, to the main meal of the tectonic energies. That need led directly to Morg's fun since life normally meant sentients who he could enjoy slaughtering while waiting for his master to feed.

And just now, his extra-senses had just found a planet that shouted out the presence of a densely populated, highly industrialized planet, one which even had more tectonic energy than most too. Yes, there. It might not be in a direct path in the direction I was following, but what matters that? It reeks of life, and so both my master and my own needs will be met. I will feel their despair, their pain, soon, yes.

OOOOOOO

Deathbird raced onto the flag bridge and barked out, "Shut that klaxon off!" With the suddenness of a guillotine, the alarm klaxon which had roused her and her primary flag crew from sleep cut off instantly, although it did continue throughout the rest of the ship and on every other ship of the fleet as men and women were called to battle stations. "If that was caused by anything but Morg's arrival, I will personally flay you alive, Sensors," she snarled. And it was not an idle threat, as her whip-claws were always at her side.

Gulping, the man pointed at his screen, enlarging the image and quickly sending it to the main screen. "Morg has been spotted by the sensor platforms we scattered across the outer system and is coming in on a heading from below the ecliptic at a 270° angle from sunward."

Those sensor platforms were a necessity. Normally a ship's hyperspace footprint was easy to spot, and once spotted, the ship could be locked onto by gravitic sensors. But not only was Morg just a little over Shi'ar-size, but he also didn't seem to travel between star systems via hyperspace.

"Following your orders, general quarters has already been called across the fleet, Lady Admiral," her tactical officer added, saluting from where he had stood up from his station. "The armada is moving into combat formation. I've also taken the liberty to call the Imperial Guard elements that will be fighting with us in space."

"Excellent. Once the Guardsmen join the destroyer divisions, the fleet is to move to engage, Plan Alpha. We will keep the range open and snipe at him from a distance with our bombardment ships. The destroyers will close and engage at short-range with the Imperial Guard."

At that point, everyone knew what to do. Deathbird was simply officially giving them the orders they were already following. With that done, she leaned back in her chair, watching as the fleet moved forward, splitting into two rows almost, with the capital ships in the back row, and the destroyers leaping forward, accompanied by the Imperial Guard units led by Starbolt.

Ahead of them, Morg slowed, seeing the destroyers' lights and the Imperial Guard coming towards him through space. The destroyers started to open fire, accompanied by the larger weapons of the bombardment ships. These were massive death rays larger and longer-ranged than anything else in the Shi'ar Empire's arsenal. Indeed, they even had a greater effective range than the Mauler cannons that were the primary weapons of the Kree and Skrull super-dreadnoughts.

Although they were also much larger. The bombardment ships were the size of Kree dreadnoughts and were the largest ships in the Imperial Navy, yet they were built around a single weapon system, with no secondary weapons and light armor for all of their size.

When the capital ships' energy beams flashed towards him, Morg dodged most of them, laughing all the while as he shouted out, "Futile, futile!" although none could hear him. Then one of the blue-purple beams slammed into Morg, engulfing him from head to toe and blasting him backward. He howled in pain, the strike hurting more than anything else the Shi'ar had been able to do to him. Yet as the beam cut off he raised his sword, which began to glimmer black and blood-red, and he slashed it forward.

The bombardment ships were too far away for the blade's energy to reach, but the destroyers were fair game. One of them was sliced in half, as another Imperial Guardsmen fell, an Onslaught who was unable to dodge fast enough to avoid the Power Cosmic burst of energy. A Neutron, this one a woman, took another blast from the Power Cosmic, ducking in front of one of the other long-range heavy hitters, taking the blow and returning it, causing Morg to snarl in fury and renewed pain.

He closed fast, using the Power Cosmic to push his speed through space further than he had before. The destroyers backed away quickly, but while they could operate in space, the Imperial Guardsmen were not all that quick in terms of sprinting speed. He got in among them, and only a few survived the energy attacks he launched from sword, fist, and at one point foot to retreat.

Snarling in mixed delight and annoyance at the slaughter occurring, Deathbird waited, then as one of her tactical officer shouted 'recharge complete' belted out, "Fire! And I had better see a higher strike-on-target percentage this time, or heads will roll."

"Firing!" came the reply, as every bombardment ship opened up again. That was another problem with the death rays. They were extremely slow to cycle, being so energy-dependent and producing so much heat. Efforts at miniaturization and solving these problems had failed hitherto, but there was no doubt of the potency of the weapon.

This time six beams hit Morg one after another, and he screamed in pain, but as a third was about to impact him, Morg got his sword up in front of him in a defensive position. The massive sword took the blast of energy, which eddied around the Executioner to either side of him.

Then the destroyers were there again, swooping in to fire at him before moving back just as quickly. That time he couldn't even tag one of them, and Morg roared aloud as he charged forwards, ignoring the destroyers now and even the remaining Imperial Guard to try to close with the distant ships. They weren't a real threat to his life, judging by what Deathbird could tell from the swooping video drones, but Morg evidently wasn't willing to just let the Shi'ar hammer at him without responding.

Deathbird waited until he closed the range about halfway. In that time, he had taken another two blasts from the death rays of her fleet, showing he was getting better at being able to dodge them, even as the destroyers and Imperial Guard started to encircle his position. Stars take him, that creature is learning too fast. Still, we've planned for this. "Full reverse, bring us about. Open up the range again," she ordered calmly.

With the battle engaged, Deathbird had to project an air of calm control, not let her own bloodlust take her. That wasn't her part in this battle. And even with the predator blood of her ancestors pounding through her veins, Deathbird knew that there were bigger predators out there than she.

Under her calm control, the disparate portions of her fleet moved back through the system. The bombardment ships halted in place three times more, hammering out beams of ravening power, enough energy to slaughter a Kree or Skrull Battle Fleet.

But Morg began to show growing immunity to the death rays. His skin started to turn redder and redder, and an aura of white started to make him glow in the video cameras, so much so that it started to hurt the eyes. At the same time, the destroyers of her fleet were paying a high cost. Of course, those ships were made to be sacrificed like this, and Deathbird wasn't going to shed any tears for such. But their losses in their quick hit and run assaults meant that Morg could more easily ignore them and the Imperial Guard accompanying them. Two more, both from the fiery B'tor people, died. This left only the Royal Guard's Neutron, Starbolt, a female Re'An, and one strange, octopus-like alien from the Subguardians whose species Deathbird had never had to deal with before.

As she watched, Morg suddenly halted in space. He took another blast from the death rays of her fleet, but cut them apart with the sword he had taken from the Vault of Shame. The blade too seemed to be glowing further a harsh red and black, somehow standing out still further against the vastness of space as Morg raised it over his shoulder in one hand, the point forward like it was a spear he was about to hurl.

Deathbird had a split second to hope that would be the case when Morg's mouth opened in a soundless roar as he thrust the blade forward. From the tip of the massive blade came a concentrated blast of black and red energy, so thin it looked less than a hands-width wide. It crossed the distance between Deathbird's capital ships and Morg stabbing straight through one of her bombardment ships, coring it from one end to another.

The ship quickly exploded, damaging one of its nearby ship sister ships, Deathbird her mask of calm gone, shrieked, "Open the range! Open the range! Spread out the fleet."

Deathbird's fleet tried, but Morg's new technique had one more trick: it homed in on the target. Deathbird watched as it curved through space to follow a wildly evading bombardment ship, smashing into it's and out the other, the armor and shielding doing nothing to stop the beam of ravening energy.

The capital ships began to die, and Deathbird grimly pulled back her flagship. She had no desire to die here, that was what the fleet was for. At one point, she had to order one of the ships to sacrifice itself, holding position while her flagship and the rest of the fleet retreated quickly. And as that ship died, it was with a start that Deathbird realized that she had lost around two-thirds of the two-hundred-and-forty-three ships that she had started this battle.

She had barely eighteen destroyers left, several of them retreating out of the battlefield with significant damage, having somehow been able to barely dodge an attack from the Power Cosmic blasts that Morg was now tossing out only occasionally, concentrating most of his energy on killing her capital ships. The others were still fighting, but Deathbird sensed that their crews were close to panicking. It was one thing to fight an enemy that was bigger and tougher than you were. That was what destroyers were for. It was quite another to face an enemy that basically could ignore everything you tried to do to it and then would attack you so haphazardly yet so destructively at the same time, treating you like bugs it could crush at its leisure.

Meanwhile, her capital ships were taking a heavy pounding. Morg's new technique meant that the dreadnaught-sized bombardment ships just no longer had a monopoly on long-range, and nothing they had could stop his attacks. Out of eighty-one capital ships, she now had barely sixty remaining, and as Deathbird watched, another died for no effect.

Every time they had fallen back, the fleet had retreated towards the planet. Now, as Morg moved forward almost unimpeded, the first of her bombardment ships entered orbit, turning at bay and firing once again towards Morg. But once again, Morg used the sword of Rook'shir to defend himself before launching his own long-range attack.

Four more ships died, and then Deathbird decided they'd done their part. "All ships, pull back, repeat, pull back. We're done here."

At that order, the orbital platforms were left to their own devices as ships began to retreat all around the planet's orbit, putting the orbital platforms and planet itself between them and Morg.

Morg laughed as he settled into orbit, idly cutting two of the orbital platforms in two before blasting another with the Power Cosmic as he slowly descended towards the planet. It was an odd kind of color, he decided, red and brown, with only a bit of blue here and there, rather than the normal predominantly green color of most living planets. But he could see the cities, he could see people running, he saw more tanks and other military units moving this way and that on the ground below, and planetary defense shuttles coming towards him. They died just as easily as their fellows did as he continued his descent, his teeth bared in an almost exultant smile.

OOOOOOO

The Custodes Mundi waited. They waited while the battle in space went on with none of them or the majority of the Imperial Guard on hand taking part. They waited as the battle in space inevitably turned against the defenders. And they waited as Morg had his fun in the atmosphere, slaughtering every shuttle that attacked him while destroying many of the orbital stations, using the time to get into position, their movements hidden under the illusion that covered the planet from one pole to another. Some were still out of position, though, thanks to a last-minute change of direction, Morg moving to land directly inside an illusionary city rather than the army base he had previously been aiming for on its outskirts.

Still, when Morg touched down, those who could began their own part of the ambush.

"Hela, you're up," Harry intoned from where he was sitting on top of a vast runic array thousands of miles from the action. Nearby, Stephen and Ororo sat on their own portions of the array. The illusion was still in place, fooling Morg despite Morg now standing on the planet's surface. Illusionary citizens ran and cried or died under his attacks, and illusionary towers toppled as Morg idly destroyed them. That was why the three of them were stuck there: they had to keep up the illusion, as well as make changes to it to fool Morg's senses, enough so that he never realized what was going on.

Not even Harry or Stephen, with their vast magical powers, could do such a thing and attack at the same time. Morg might be a fool and have never run into magic before, but his senses were near-godly thanks to the Power Cosmic within him. The illusion had to keep fooling him and Galactus both until the World-Eater was almost finished setting up his energy siphon.

At the same time, Jean was standing nearby, her arms crossed as she glared into the distance, using her own powers of telepathy to help fool Morg's very limited telepathic senses. As they had assumed, Morg, like the Silver Surfer, had been gifted with an empathic ability, but Morg used it in a very different way from the Silver Surfer, who had been rather humane for all his alien nature. Morg was a psychopath to make the most horrific serial killer go 'oh I say!' But for all his power in the physical realm, Morg's empathic ability was easy enough to fool, even if Jean couldn't get through his mental defenses. It was an odd dichotomy, but Jean wasn't going to question it right now.

As Morg began to assault the regular Army units who were part of the trap, Hela moved into position arrived above them. The illusion faded around her as the Imperial Guard did likewise from all around Morg. "For Honor and Victory!" she howled, leaping down towards Morg, her blade in hand as she slashed down with a magical cutting spell of her own creation, the blast of magic dark purple and even darker green.

Morg twisted away from an attack from one of the Re'An who had just appeared out of nowhere to his senses. But despite that surprise, he somehow felt this new attack in time to see it coming towards him. His eyes widening, Morg instantly decided he did not want to feel what it would do to him. He dodged, then found another Imperial Guardsmen rushing towards them. This one seems to have rocklike skin, underneath a kind of reddish armor with a large blue Four painted on the chest plate.

The Thing howled out his own warcry as he charged forward, Thundra on his heels. "It's Clobberin' Time!"

His blow slammed into Morg's chest but barely staggered the creature. Ben dodged his return blow before grabbing Morg's outstretched arm, twisting around, and heaving him over his shoulder in a perfect shoulder throw to slam spine first into the ground just as Thundra arrived, twirling her massive flail down in his face. Ben knew that flail had been magically enhanced by several gravity runes to hit like a falling mountain too.

Morg took the blow in the chest, howling in rage and fury as he broke Ben's grip. "Bringing new members to the party will avail you nothing!"

Then Warpath and the others piled in. Warpath's massive axes slammed into Morg's hastily raised sword, shattering, but Warpath continued on, dropping the haft of his axes to grab Morg by the throat with both hands, holding him off the ground for a second to be pummeled by several others, while Hela dove down towards him.

But Morg twisted his body violently, breaking Warpath's grip on his neck, kicking out hard to cause the powerful mutant to stumble as he raised his hand, blasting up at Hela with the Power Cosmic. Something about the woman told him that she was the most dangerous one here. The blade in her hand screamed at something within him, something coming from his own blade, whose energies began to flow into his body more than ever before.

As Hela dodged, Morg hacked with his blade to one side. Warpath took the hit with a grunt, Morg's blade halted by the Juggernaut armor despite the blade being imbued by the corrupted Phoenix Force fragment, yet the impetus of the blow sent him flying backward. He righted himself quickly, landing on his feet and charging forward again.

A Titan from the Imperial Guard brought down his joined hands on Morg, but Morg thrust up his hand once more, catching the larger man's hands easily. A blast of Power Cosmic seared the larger man's hands into nothing, then Morg launched himself into the air, kicking off Titan's face, turning his head into paste as he used the impetus of that movement to bring Rook'shir's blade around at Hela.

Hela dodged, using a spell to lash at Morg's leg as she passed. The spell, her own version of Sectumsempra, sliced into Morg's leg and bypassed his durability somewhat, opening up numerous cuts and slashes there.

"YOU BITCH!" Morg screamed in anger, and she couldn't dodge his next attack of Power Cosmic, which slammed into her, hurling her through one of the so-called buildings. Hela didn't actually hit anything and righted herself in midair. But to Morg, it looked as if the woman had crashed into the building and had been buried by the rubble.

So he was very surprised when he cut a Smasher-suit wearing Imperial Guardsmen in half, only to see Hela came charging out of that rubble, her sword lashing out towards his head.

This time Morg was forced to block Hela's thinner broadsword with his own buster-sized sword. The power of death and corrupted life energies met in a blast of power that hurled both of them away, cracking the ground for several miles in every direction, hurling everyone nearby off their feet.

Being at the edge of this area, Warpath blinked, then shook his head and leaped forward, landing on top of Morg before he could get back to his feet. Two hard blows shattered Morg's nose, flattening it and smashing a few teeth out of the alien's mouth. But then Morg twisted, slamming Warpath into the ground and getting to his feet as two more Smashers crashed into him from either side

One of them lost his head, Morg's hand crushing his skull as the other held his arm back for just an instant, allowing the Thing to land on his back, hammering several blows into the back of Morg's skull. But despite the Juggernaut armor enhancing his already incredible durability, Ben just didn't have enough strength to actually hurt Morg. Warpath did, on the other hand, and a rising uppercut broke a rib, causing him to howl in agony. 'You will all die!"

At that point, the rest of the group assigned to deal with the Herald finally arrived, blasting into them from every angle. White Noise enveloped the Herald in his power, causing Morg to stumble, staring around him as he lost the ability to hear anything but a high-pitched screeching sound that slowly started to drill into his brain. Havok and the few surviving long-range hitters from the Imperial Guard started to take him under fire from every angle. Their attacks really didn't do much, but they still served to disorient and cause Morg to stumble occasionally.

At the same time, Nightside landed nearby, where she was immediately enveloped in the illusion of a collapsed building, the false image reaching out to her almost like a living thing. She could vaguely see the shape of it like a haze all around her, even as she targeted Morg with her power. Dark Force rose all around Morg's feet as he fought with Warpath, another Titan, and several more Imperial Guardsmen, having hurled Ben away. Ben was already on his feet and coming back in with Thundra on his heels, his girlfriend being a little slower to get up from the clash between Rook'shir's sword and Hela's.

Morg screamed aloud as the energy enveloped him, blinding him utterly. "What is this!"

Even as he said that Morg's Power Cosmic started to seep out of his skin, as it had earlier in the space battles. While it did nothing to help Morg regain his sight, the aura further enhanced his defenses. He barely flinched at Hela's magical strike then lashed out with a wild blow that caught Warpath in the shoulder.

Warpath stumbled into one of the Imperial Guard, and both of them were blasted off their feet by another wild blast of Power Cosmic, while Hela was forced to duck under a stream of red and black energy from the sword. Nightside squeaked in shock as the attack continued on towards her, but Ben thrust himself in front of her, the illusion no detriment to the defenders, each of whom had been read into the wards. He grunted as the attack slammed into him, pushing him backward and into Nightside, but at least the woman was still alive. "You alright, girl?"

"Ye, yes, thanks," Nightside replied, shuddering even as she kept up her attack. "Ohhh boy, I am so out of my weight class here!"

"Heh, most of us are, girl. And this ain't even the main fight yet!" Ben grumbled, charging forward.

"Fall most foul of men!" Thundra closed, and her flail again slammed into Morg's side.

Morg barely twitched, and as it rebounded, Morg grabbed at the chain, his hand already moving to the site of the hit with preternatural speed. Before Thundra could do anything, she found herself pulled off her feet. His sword crashed down into her shoulder, trying to cut her in half, and Thundra's shoulder broke under the blow even as the armor meant that the edge of the sword couldn't cut her.

She was thrust to her knees with a cry of pain, and Morg kicked out hard, catching her right in the face. Again, the armor, this time her helmet, held, but if Thundra hadn't thrust herself desperately backward, the blow might still have broken her neck. Yet her last-second dodge meant that instead of dying instantly, the emergency runes that all of the Custodes had on them had time to teleport her back to the ship.

Sensing this, Ororo instantly halted her own work on the illusions, some of them fading out as she raced into the ship. They had prepared for moments like this, and Ororo's healing spells, unlike most of the spells that she had learned from Gaia, could be used away from Earth.

Roaring in fury at the possible crippling of his girlfriend, Ben slammed into Morg, then flipped himself upwards, using his acrobatics to lash out with a kick that caught Morg in the face. The blow re-shattered his nose and sent him sprawling backward, but Ben still couldn't really hurt Morg, and soon he was flung away again, although the Herald, in turn, couldn't really harm Ben.

Nor could he put Warpath down for the count, which was shown dramatically as Warpath rumbled into him, crashing bodily into him while Havoc halted his own attack, shouting at the other long-range attackers to do the same. The Apache warrior bore Morg to the earth where the sword was pressed down with one hand, as Warpath pummeled Morg's face with his other fist before he was flung off the man, as dozens of the Imperial Guard and Hela took him from under fire from afar, joining their efforts to Havok and the others.

Hela's spellwork slowly began to tell once more through Morg's Power Cosmic aura, and Morg's attacks began to become even wilder, Nightside reclaiming him with her power at the same time. But then, the sword started to glow, as did his wounds, and they started to heal as everyone else watched in horror.

The next instant Morg laughed as he twisted to look up at Banshee, who had been about to divebomb down onto him, hoping to use the close-range impact of his sound-based weaponry to mess with Morg's equilibrium and ability to think. But before he could dodge, a blast from the sword lashed out at him, only his own reaction time saving him from being cut in half.

Even so, the Irish hero screamed in agony as his arm was bifurcated before disappearing as Thundra had. Like Havok and Hela's suits, Banshee's used Balthaak's armor as a template rather than the Juggernaut's. Despite having almost as much magical reinforcement, the design was built for speed over durability, and it cost him now.

Another blast from Morg's hand toward the distant attackers scattered them as Alex too fell backward. But he at least survived, the Power Cosmic searing one of his feet into ash before he too was teleported away. One of the Starbolts, a Manta, and White Noise were less fortunate.

"We must get the blade away from him!" Hela shouted, even as she launched further magical attacks towards Morg, wary of coming close to the man.

Realizing her power was no longer having much effect, Nightside gritted her teeth, shouting out, "Where the hell are the rest of the Custodes!? You lot talked a big game, but we are getting massacred here!"

OOOOOOO

The answer would not have brought her any comfort, because around the time that Havok and the other long-range attackers had gotten involved, Morg's call had gone out. And as she asked that question, Galactus arrived.

The circular silver ship appeared where Morg had initially sent out the call. This was about a hundred miles from where the battle had moved by the time Galactus arrived. Its side opened, and Galactus appeared in the opening, descending to the ground on hard-light steps which disappeared as he stepped past them. Alighting on the ground, the giant stood fifteen stories tall. Clad in light purple and dark blue armor, he appeared to be a giant out of mythology, his head slightly larger on his shoulders than a man's, wearing an ornate helmet. His eyes were square-shaped, with square pupils, and his thin mouth was set into a permanently neutral expression.

That changed as his feet touched the surface of the planet, his mouth twisting into a frown as he stared all around him. Something was off about this planet. Something that whispered at his senses but not quite enough to get through. All around him were the usual sights, people running, screaming, trying to fight etc. Their buildings, too, were solid when he reached out to touch it. And he could feel the life force all around him, the tectonic energy humming beneath his feet. A veritable feast to his senses.

Without a word, Galactus began to create his energy siphon, ignoring his Herald not being there. He ignored the fact that the Shi'ar's fleet had returned, and the few remaining orbitals had begun to fire down at him. Nothing the Shi'ar possessed had enough power to matter to him. All that mattered was creating the siphon and feasting once more.

OOOOOOO

From where he was still sitting in the lotus position at the center of massive series of runic arrays keeping the illusions up, Harry grinned victoriously. "The illusions are working! We're fooling Galactus! Magma, are you ready?

Nearby, Magma had waited in one of the Shi'ar shuttles, and now she slapped the bird person on the shoulder, shouting, "Now! Get me near Galactus! The real show's about to start!"

"Ororo?" Harry whispered into his mike.

"Thundra, Alex, and Banshee are stable, but out of it," she reported crisply, stepping out of the ship. "I think only Alex is in any shape to rejoin the fight. He only lost a foot. I had to regrow Banshee's whole arm and heal Thundra's spine."

"Good work, love. Alex, if you can hear me, hold off for now. Ororo, you're free to engage Morg. Jean, move to attack Galactus on my cue," Harry ordered. He looked over at Hedwig. The bird was there, and for some reason, had taken a kind of proprietary attitude towards Nightside. She precked at Harry and disappeared, heading for the young alien woman.

A second later, the two women were in the air, heading after Magma's shuttle, moving slowly to hide their advance under the illusion for as long as possible.

By the time Magma was near enough to see the giant standing like an immovable statue within the haze of the illusionary city, another Imperial Guardsmen had gone down to Morg, and he had trampled what he thought was an entire Imperial tank regiment, while Ben, Warpath, and Hela were now trying desperately to hold him back. Nightside had been pulled out of the fight by Hedwig and was now miles away, hyperventilating. The Imperial Guard put its members through intense training at every level, but this kind of fight was enough to break the morale of anyone.

Or practically anyone.

"We need to get that sword away from them!" Hela shouted, wrathfully sending spell after attack spell towards Morg, her desire to kill the bastard undaunted by their losses thus far. Although she was a goddess of monstrous strength within her sphere, this planet was so far beyond that sphere it wasn't even funny. This had greatly weakened her magical powers, if not her physical abilities, and she was becoming more and more furious at how much the Power Cosmic and the Phoenix Force fragment negated her long-range powers. Despite what had happened earlier when their swords clashed, she was close to deciding her best option was to close with Morg instead of keeping her distance.

"I'm open to suggestions!" Neutron shouted back. He had joined the battle along with Starbolt and a woman of his own species, but the battle on the ground was not going the way he had hoped it would. Nevertheless, he had brought a steadying influence to the remaining Imperial Guard, halting many who had been retreating entirely from the battle.

From above them, Hela heard a sonic boom and turning her gaze upward, saw Ororo appear in midair above them. "Suggestion it is not, but what are your thoughts on reinforcements?"

As Hela spoke, lightning blasts began to rain down all around Morg. They didn't do much damage, but Ororo also sent down attack spells that she had learned from Harry, which did hurt Morg. Once more wounds began to open up all across Morg's body as Ororo, more powerful in magical terms here away from Earth than Hela, bypassed Morg's Power Cosmic. The Phoenix Force within him instantly began to work as well, but he was so distracted by Ororo's arrival that he missed Ben's charge forward until the Thing slammed into his back.

As Morg stumbled, Ben grabbed the sword, shouting in agony as the weapon's energy flashed up through the blade and into his body. But Ben was easily the most durable and most stubborn member of the Custodes, and he continued to grapple with Morg for Rook'shir's blade regardless of the pain. "You ain't beating me, you freaking hunk of metal!"

At the same time, Ororo slammed a massive cutting spell into Morg's wrist. It cut the tendons of his hand even if it didn't sever the entire hand as she had intended, and his grip spasmed just as Hela's sword crashed into the Phoenix Force blade, the Asgardian having charged forward as well. The blade went flying out of his hands, and Morg screamed in fury and pain, grabbing at Ben and hauling him into a blow with Power Cosmic behind it, which sent Ben flying.

He turned and nearly caught Hela in the next second. But then he reeled away from her, beginning to scream in agony as a haze of green appeared around his wrist and several of his other wounds. "What is this madness!?"

Ororo's power over the weather did not just entail big, flashy stuff. She could also condense and change the properties of air to various degrees. She had done this just now, creating acid in places and enough cold to freeze a man solid in others. While these attacks would not have gotten Morg if he had full access to the Power Cosmic gifted to him by Galactus, the shard of corrupted Phoenix Force energy within the sword had pushed into his body, pushing the Power Cosmic down in a way, being better able to deal with Hela's magical attacks.

Even so, Morg pushed through his pain to batter Hela aside even as her blade skittered across his side, opening up another wound as the Power Cosmic rose again within him, his skin once more turning a dark red. A punch caught Hela in the side of the head, sending her to one side, but instead of trying to finish Hela off, he charged after the blade, taking still more wounds from Ororo. At the same time, Neutron, Starbolt, and the other Imperial Guard began to hammer at him from range.

Morg ignored them all, racing through their attacks toward the sword. Despite a transfigured steel wall appearing before him, the Herald was about to reach the blade when Mr. Fantastic grabbed it first.

Reed understood that he had no place in a direct confrontation like this. He had been loitering around the edges of the fight up until this point, and having seen what occurred to his friend, he did not directly grab the blade. Rather, he grabbed up two pieces of rock and used them to grab at the blade, wrapping them and the blade's hilt in his hand before hurling it towards Hela over Morg's head. "Hela catch!"

Hela pushed herself upright using her sword as a crutch, the earlier blow having rattled her head even more than a similar blow from Gladiator. She saw the blade coming towards her and thrust herself upright, bringing her sword around in a cross-ways cut. She timed it precisely, her blade slamming into the side of Rook'shir's blade. Once again, Yin and Yang crashed into one another, the corrupted Life energy of the blade and the energy of Hela's sword sanctified by Death herself.

For a moment, everything went still as there was a thunderous report from the two blades meeting. Energies flicked out in a kaleidoscope of colors on one side, and shades of black from the other in midair, the entire planet rumbling as sound returned.

And then both blades shattered like glass, and Hela was hurled off her feet with a cry of pure agony. "GAAAHHHHHHH!" Her arms were seared and sliced to the bone in places all the way up to her shoulders from the reverberating forces.

Like Thundra, however, Hela had an emergency portkey array worked into her clothing, and she disappeared instantly back into the ship. There Thundra and Banshee, who had not returned to the battlefield, instantly began to use the medical equipment to try and staunch the bleeding.

Morg paused, staring aghast at where his blade had been. Now he turned, blasting at where Reed had been a moment ago. "Damn you, damn you all, I will kill you, I will feed your homeworlds to my master I will…"

"Shut up!" Ororo growled, teleporting from where she had been hovering over the battlefield to land directly in front of Morg, raising a hand towards his chest. A blast of lightning the size of her palm arced out with enough electrical energy to power a planet enhanced further by Ororo's magical strength, the bolt surrounded further in a corona of white and blue. Morg shouted in fury and pain as the attack overcame his Power Cosmic-given durability. "Fall, fall!"

Yet, even so, Ororo alone could not quite put Morg down. As her attack continued, so too did the Power Cosmic keep Morg alive. But while the Imperial Guard had been forced to retreat a moment ago, Ororo was still not alone.

Having been buried under a bit of mountain earlier, Warpath had returned to the fight just in time to see the two blades destroying one another, and Hela disappeared back to the ship. Now he grabbed up the hilt of Hela's sword and raced towards Morg.

He crashed into the Herald from the side, carrying him to the ground where the man, pushed to his limits by Ororo's attack a moment ago, began to output Power Cosmic in waves all around him. His aura was now so powerful that even the Juggernaut armor began to sizzle almost as if it was being burned in the Fiendfyre furnace Harry had used to create his own version.

But the magical armor devised by an Elder God was still proof against the Power Cosmic to a degree that nothing else could have been. Ignoring the heat rising all around him, Warpath pressed down at the back of its head, slammed the broken portion of Hela's blade down into Morg's spine right where neck met back.

Even this would not have killed Morg. The Power Cosmic was just too strong. But the blade did damage bits of the spinal column top, causing him to lose control of his legs and collapse underneath Warpath.

Warpath stood over the body, then began to hammer down his foot into the hilt, trying to drive the blade deeper even as his armor continued to bubble and hiss. Morg was still able to control his upper body, however. He twisted around, and a desperate concentrated blast of the Power Cosmic tossed Warpath aside as Morg shrieked out "Master!" at the top of his lungs.

There was no immediate reply, and Ororo grimly moved forward, her hands moving as she began to create another attack spell in the air above the crippled Herald while Ben also returned to the fight, moving to grab at one of Morg's flailing hand.

OOOOOOO

Elsewhere on the planet, Galactus frowned as he sensed his Herald becoming wounded. The Shi'ar have discovered a means to hurt my Herald, even as he wields the blade he found with the corrupted Phoenix Force fragments? He then felt the destruction of the blade and frowned. Hmm, it would seem as if the Eternal Siblings were displeased with my Herald having access to the Rejuvenating One's power. If Death herself reached out and blessed a weapon to combat it, that could be an annoying precedent. Still, it is to be hoped it is an isolated incident.

He then sensed his Herald was slowly dying. That was enough to pull him from his work on the siphon, and he twisted around, raising a hand and pointing a finger in the direction of the battle around Morg. "Only I have the right to remove my Heralds from this plane of existence."

But before he could do anything, Jean crashed into Galactus. She appeared seemingly out of nowhere, the aura of the Phoenix around her as she lashed out with both hands, a blast of telekinetic power sending Galactus flying.

As he tumbled through the air, a look of astonishment appeared on his giant face as Galactus realized he wasn't just facing someone who was wielding a blade from Death, but an avatar of the Phoenix Force. Getting his feet under him, Galactus skidded through several buildings, feeling them shatter all around him as he stared up at the woman, recognizing her as a human despite the aura of the Phoenix that appeared all around her.

She shrieked, reaching forward once more with telekinetic power that could have shattered planets. The blow landed, and Galactus grunted but smashed it aside as he intoned, "Why do you interfere with me, Phoenix? Do you not know that my hunger, my place in the galaxy is necessary?"

"Necessary maybe, eating planets with sentients on them, no!" Jean retorted as she kept up her attack. She had to keep the pressure on him for now, just enough for Morg to die, then she could let herself be overcome for a bit before the next trap went into effect.

"That is rather hypocrticial of you, isn't it?" Galactus mocked as he batted aside another attack with difficulty, stumbling backward even as the blast of power was sent skittering through the city, shattering it and the ground beneath it like an eight-point-zero earthquake had just hit it. "The Phoenix Force, complaining to me about the lives I've taken?"

He then reached out via his own considerable telepathy, trying to blast an image into the avatar's mind of what the Phoenix Force acted like occasionally: the great destroyer who wiped out whole galaxies so that rebirth could occur. "There is no difference between you and me!"

The image faltered on Jean's defenses, a wall of odd tentacles empowered further by a directed telepathic power that turned Jean's mind into an unbreakable fortress. Rarely had Galactus ever seen a telepath of such power, and to have one also being the avatar Phoenix Force was very concerning. This was proven as Galactus grunted again as another blow sent him stumbling. He returned with a blast that took Jean out of the sky, but by that point, Galactus's connection to his Herald had disappeared, indicating his death.

Warpath and Ben had not been able to finish off Morg. The man's aura of Power Cosmic had almost fused Warpath's Juggernaut armor to his legs and lower body, the pain nearly causing the Apache warrior to blackout before the emergency teleport array had activated. But between him, Ben and Neutron, they had given Ororo enough time to create a series of spells that crashed straight into Morg's eyes, piercing deep into his brain and finally executing the Executioner.

Scowling angrily, Galactus looked in the direction of the Phoenix Force, and his scowl turned into a deep frown as he realized he could no longer sense where she had gone. That shouldn't have been possible, not with all of his extra-senses. And yet, it has occurred. And my Herald is dead. Still, so long as his body remains, that is not an insurmountable obstacle.

He gestured, and several dozen robots appeared all around his feet, his power using the planet's landscape to create them via matter-transference, as computer brains were teleported into them from his ship. With another wordless gesture, a dozen sped towards where the Phoenix Force's avatar went down, while many more raced towards where his Herald had fallen. "Find his body. Return it to me."

With that, Galactus turned away, moving back to the siphon. He would be able to revive his Herald soon enough so long as the man's body not been entirely immolated. Whatever Death might wish, my technology has defeated her grasp in the past. But first things first. Drain the planet, thus destroying the last of the Imperial Guards and my other enemies here while rejuvenating my power.

Then he would go after the Phoenix Force's avatar if need be. She was human, Galactus thought grimly. A human has interfered with me. This repudiates the agreement I made with the Fantastic Four. And yet, they still do have the Ultimate Nullifier. I must think about how to respond to this breaking of our treaty.

Reaching his hands out to the siphon, he saw that it had finished constructing itself as he fought the Phoenix Force's avatar. Smiling in something approaching pleasure, Galactus slipped his hands into the side of the siphon, where numerous tubes reached out, connecting to partitions on his armor. With those bits in place, Galactus prepared to feed.

This was where things began to really go wrong for the World-Eater.

Magma's approach to Galactus' position had been completely covered by Jean and her one-on-one battle with the giant, something that caused both her and the shuttle's pilot to stare in blank astonishment. So much so that the pilot nearly crashed the shuttle into the ground rather than depositing her on it.

But then Magma was on the ground and reaching down, her tectonic energy form appearing. She felt the energy of the planet as it responded to the siphon. "Oh no, you don't," she growled, reaching through the energy the siphon had begun to collect. To her shock and surprise, she felt the energy within Galactus as well. "Oh my…"

Galactus's body didn't immediately transform the energy he took in into his own power. It remained within him for a time, slowly digesting. That was why normally, he could go for long periods between feedings. He had fed extremely well of late, so much so there was actually a glut of energy within him that had yet been transformed into Power Cosmic. Just like Reed had predicted! she thought victoriously before she shrieked her cry to the heavens. "Now!"

If Galactus had been able to concentrate, he could have beaten Amara's attempts to control the tectonic energy within him and the siphon off easily, despite her home-field advantage. But as she shouted, the illusions came down, and Stephen and Harry teleported into the fight. And as the illusions fell, Galactus realized that there was scant life force on this planet to add flavor to the tectonic energy he was consuming. He looked up as two more attackers appeared, glowing with energy whose source and properties he could not discern, and he began to raise defenses around himself.

Harry's first strike was a barely controlled, furious fist of magical power that resembled a stream of white and gold energy more than anything directed. He had not liked being forced to keep back as others went into battle, and he took it out on the giant before him.

It crashed into Galactus, causing him to stumble even as his hand was still in the siphon. He glared up, and blasted eye-beams blasted out at Harry, who quickly raised a SciathnaBhFéadfadh shield, the strongest anti-energy type shield he could create, in front of himself as Jean reappeared from behind the illusion, which was now slowly dissipating, to attack from one side while Stephen attacked from the other.

For all his power, Galactus was not used to fighting, not really. Nor was he used to splitting his attention between one external threat and one internal. So he didn't even fight back as Magma pulled hard on the tectonic energy within the siphon and within Galactus himself. Much of the energy that Galactus had built up over the past month or so exploded outwards, causing him to bellow in pain as the siphon exploded in his hands, and his own body rebelled.

He stumbled away from the siphon, his hands smoking, seared in places, the armor of his gauntlets cracked as blood started to drip from his clenched mouth. Still, Galactus was barely a biological being any longer. He could control his own body on the atomic level. Ignoring for the moment the two new enemies in the sky above him, Galactus concentrated and began to repair his insides. Yet it was indisputable that he had been injured. He had been weakened. And now, Galactus was furious. "YOU DARE?!"

Stephen was the next to strike. Ignoring Galactus' roar, he lashed out with a spell, calling upon the Gods of Magic, in this case, the ascended Sorcerer Supereme, Aggamoto. "By the fury of Aggamoto, be brought to your knees, Eater of Worlds!"

The beam of magic, far more controlled than Harry's earlier assault, crashed into Galactus so hard that it lifted the giant off his feet and sent him sprawling. Nor had Stephen chosen that angle of attack randomly. Galactus landed in the middle of one of the gravity arrays. It should have made the giant feel as if he was weighed down by at least a hundred times more than his normal body weight, the weight based on how large the individual touching the array was.

But if it did, there was no sign of it, as Galactus surged to his feet easily, blasting out with eye beams and with one hand while the other helped to push him upright. "Humans!" he roared, the sound another weapon, so loud it hurt the ears. "You dare?! You dare fight me here for a world that is not your own?! At the behest of an empire that is not your own! Our treaty is void! After I erase you all from existence, I will journey to EartHH!"

That was as far as he got before a magical lightning blast from Ororo slammed into his face, nearly taking Galactus in the mouth. He roared in anger and fury but not much pain, despite that attack being more powerful than the spell Ororo had used earlier to kill Morg. Injured, he lashed out against her, but a shield shimmered into being around her. The blast of Power Cosmic slammed into the shield as if it was a small ball hit by a stream from a water cannon, sending her flying but doing no real damage while Ororo gritted her teeth, pouring more power into her defense until the beam of Power Cosmic faded.

By which time Harry, Jean, and Dr. Strange were slamming magical attacks into Galactus again from either side, rocking his titanic form. The giant stumbled backward, roaring out, "What kind of power is this? How can humans have such strength?"

Meanwhile, Ben, the three surviving Imperial Guard, and the returned Alex were fighting the robots that Galactus had sent to retrieve Morg's body. They were strong, powerful creations, and there were lots of them, but the robots were being slowly overwhelmed by Ben and the others. Ben was a rock, standing in the center of their line, while Alex bounced from one position to another, shouting out commands to the Imperial Guard, suddenly having taken command of them when Neutron had fallen in battle against Morg. Behind them, the ragtag elements of the surviving tank divisions from the trap moved over the broken, blasted landscape, hammering in attacks over the super-powered defenders into the dozens of androids.

Yet Alex, looking away for just an instant from their own fight, could see the edges of the climactic exchange of energy blasts over the horizon. Even here, the sound was like thunder, crashing into them so hard and fast that it was practically deafening everyone's ears. Alex knew that whatever happened here with the robots was a sideshow compared to that.

Underneath the assault from the three magic users and Jean, the ground underneath Galactus shattered, creating a crater larger than most cities and deeper than a skyscraper in every direction. Runes activated all around him, cutting spells, binding spells, gravity runes. Every rune within the crater activated simultaneously, jolted into action by the change in the ground around them.

The gravity runes were almost invisible in their activation, but the binding spells created thousands of tendrils of magical energy reaching up to grab and bind Galactus. Deadly runic arrays launched human-sized blasts of spells, ranging from simple cutting spells to bowel loosening and other specific attacks. Others had been created by Dr. Strange calling upon the gods of magic, and these blasted out powerful beams of magical energy of various colors.

They all hit Galactus similtaneously from every direction as his return blast towards Dr. Strange went wide, the doctor teleporting to one side. A second later, Harry's magical assault slammed into Galactus's back with such power that it nearly caused Galactus' feet to become embedded in the ground.

Galactus roared, stretching his arms to either side, breaking the binding spells while his legs took several blasts. None of the specific curses could latch onto his beyond-human body, but a cutting spell caught one of his thighs. The wound began to heal slowly as the others watched, however. On the other hand, the gravity runes didn't even seem to slow him down, and Harry realized that they probably weren't. Galactus was used to moving through space and might well create his own personal gravity field, which would cancel those traps.

As for the bio-energy draining arrays, there was no way to tell if they were working or not. They'd been forced to be subtle with those, and Harry couldn't discern their effectiveness through the tumult of battle. On the other hand, they knew that Magma's part of the attack had worked.

He dodged an eye-beam in midair, flipping around and below it, and his hands clenched together, creating a spell between them that looked like charged-lightning spear coupled with a rainbow as he sent it toward Galactus. It was another penetrating spell, which Harry had created on the spot. "Piercing Fang!"

Galactus held up a hand, and an energy field intercepted that blast, while Dr. Strange attacked from the other side, shouting out his own spell. "By the blood of Oshtur, you will feel pain, World-Eater!"

The blast stumbled Galactus, but he hit back hard, swinging his hand around and creating a gust of energy that blasted Stephen out of the sky, sending him crashing to the earth. A hasty magical shield had protected him from most of the damage, but he looked up as another energy attack appeared in midair, coming down towards him.

Then Jean was there, smashing it to one side one hand, while raising another wing, crashing it into Galactus' chest, causing him to roar in pain as he was once more smashed off of his feet. Harry then appeared to one side and above him again, using a teleportation spell to arrive there. Apparition worked very well in midair strangely. A second later, two more spells crashed into Galactus' face, blinding him.

Galactus grunted as those spells hit, Harry having poured quite a bit of magic into that attack. But then Galactus slammed his hands together, creating a shockwave through that caught Harry and the recovered Stephen, sending them tumbling away in midair as the giant got to his feet. The Phoenix was far enough away that she could weather the attack, as was Ororo herself.

When Ororo and Jean swooped in, Galactus slammed one foot down on the ground, and an aura of Power Cosmic blazed out from him catching women. Jean was able to protect herself. Ororo wasn't. Her shield almost faltered, and she cried in pain as the Power Cosmic ate into her armor faster than she could renew her shield with her magical powers.

"Ororo, get out of there," Jean shrieked into her lover's mind.

Her senses reeling from the buffeting energies eating at her shield, Ororo was in no position to comply.

However, Harry was able to see her from his own position and teleported directly behind his lover. He thrust one hand past Ororo's shoulder, his own magical powers creating another shield of SciathnaBhFéadfadh between them as his other arm went around her waist. "You can do no more here, love," he murmured, feeling her exhaustion and the pain Ororo was already in. Closing his eyes, Harry teleported them back several dozen miles, yet still felt the searing heat of the Power Cosmic blasts that Galactus was now raining out in every direction.

"Go help the others," Harry ordered, releasing Ororo from his one arm hug. "They might need your help against those robots that Galactus sent after them."

"And you won't against that, that thing?!" Ororo asked, a little shaken from her near-death experience. The power of Galactus was just overwhelming.

"Oh, I won't deny that we could use the help," Harry replied, grimacing as he felt another wave of power wash over him from where Jean and Strange were still fighting Galactus despite being nearly an entire time zone away. And this is Galactus after we've weakened him!? "But the others might need your help too, and remember, we had several plans for if this battle went pear-shaped. Rest now, come back in later."

"I think it went pear-shaped the moment that Galactus started to take us seriously," Ororo drawled, beginning to calm down again. But she nodded. "I will help the others deal with those robots, then we will head back to the ship. If at all possible, I'll try to get Hela onto her feet again. Between us, she and I should be able to make a difference."

"Just make sure that everyone is on board the Long Voyager and off this planet," Harry emphasized before moving away, saluting her somewhat mockingly, and then racing back into the battle with Galactus. As he did so, Ororo turned to a slightly different angle, racing towards where the blasts of Havok's mutant power and other weaponry could be seen if not heard over the tumultuous main battle.

Harry arrived back within visual range of Galactus just in time to see some kind of energy web wrap around Jean. Her Phoenix form instantly began to fade, and Harry gaped, wondering how Galactus had figured out what kind of energy plane the Phoenix Force operated on. He and Stephen had talked about it, but even Reed had been unable to figure out precisely what kind of energy the Power Cosmic was, beyond 'everything' as the name kind of implied. If they had, they might have been able to come up with magical means of cutting Galactus off from that energy. Just as he had done now with Jean.

But before she had become the Phoenix Force's avatar, Jean had been an Omega level mutant in her own right, with telekinetic powers that had rarely if ever been matched in galactic history, let alone human history. She roared her own battle cry of "Fuck you!" as she tore the energy web asunder, and her Phoenix Force aura blasted back into being around her as she flew along the nape of the earth towards Galactus's legs.

Galactus saw her coming, but he didn't sense Harry, who landed to his left. "Drill of Light!" Instead of creating the hundreds of thousands of smaller drills of light, lightning and penetrating magic, Harry had condensed the spell into a single bolt of drilling energy around the size of his palm boring into Galactus's side. It didn't penetrate his armor very far, but it did crack the armor all around his side, the cracks spreading quickly and causing Galactus to roar aloud in agony, one hand falling to the side in a purely mortal gesture, which allowed Jean to overpower the blast of Power Cosmic he had sent to her, and for Stephen to get in on the attack from the other angle.

At this point, the titanic energies they were all put pushing out began to take a toll on the planet, and the surface of the planet started to further cave in around Galactus. A series of cracks appeared in the ground as the two sides continued to exchange blasts of rending energy. The cracks expanded outwards accompanied by plums of magma and heat escaped from deep within the planet.

There was a rumble in the ground that could be heard over the tumult of battle miles away. Ben and Alex were still directing the mixed Custodes and Imperial Guard in helping the regular troops retreat away from the battle. Ororo had arrived moments ago and had rained down destruction in the form of magical spells, clouds of acid and blasts of wind as if someone had condensed a hurricane down into an area as thin as a finger.

Wiping away some blood from a bit of shrapnel that had caught his cheek – not having put his helmet back on - Alex shook his head somewhat bemusedly. "Right, when the Custodes says someone's one of their big guns, you better believe they mean it."

Ben chuckled grimly at that, but then his chuckle faded as the ground underneath them continued to rumble. "Something tells me that it's going to be the planet that gives first."

"You would be correct in that, if not in the manner you mean," Ororo said as she came down towards them, looking over at the surviving Imperial Guards.

There weren't many of them. All of the eight Titans had died. They were simply too big a target and didn't have enough durability to face someone wielding the Power Cosmic or the corrupted fragment of the Phoenix Force. Two of the Re'An warriors had survived, but not the leader of the group. One Starbolt and a Voltar were the only other survivors of the Imperial Guard.

Or at least, that was all that the Imperial Guard knew had survived. As far as any of her comrades knew, Nightside had died when she had attempted to use her powers on Galactus.

This was not the case. Not having made any such attempt since Reed had warned them all her powers wouldn't work on Galactus, she had been teleported back to the human's ship by Hedwig. Now she was helping with the other wounded among the Custodes with Thundra, who she had strangely enough befriended over the days leading up to the battle.

"Harry has ordered us to abandon the planet," Ororo went on, looking at Ben and Alex, face grim. "We will retreat to our ship, the Imperial Guard to theirs, and pull out."

There was another cracking rumble in the distance, and underneath them, the planet began to tremble, then open as a fissure appeared between them all. Staring down at it, Ben gulped, nodding firmly. "Right." He turned around to the rest of the Imperial Guard and tankies, many of whom had not been able to hear Ororo just now. "Hey everybody, out of the pool, it's closin' time!"

OOOOOOO

Galactus was furious and becoming more so. Even during battle, he had realized the implications of the projection that had fooled his senses. He and his Herald had been tricked, brought into this fight, into a trap! His Herald was dead. Not a sliver of him remained. Although Galactus could not say he was truly sorry that that corrupted fragment of the Phoenix Force had also apparently been destroyed. Yet the effrontery of this, the sheer gall of tricking Galactus into this battle, infuriated him. Who did these humans think they were!?

He never noticed the retreating Shi'ar shuttles racing towards orbit and the capital ships or the human ship retreating from the other side of the planet. Even Galactus could not see through a planet while fighting, and all of his senses were trained on his attackers, trying to get a handle on their weird powers.

The Phoenix Force was understandable. Even the immense telekinetic power of the woman bound to it was something that he could combat. The other two still attacking him? Their powers were very strange, indeed. Those blasts hurt even if his own powers could mitigate them. And his regeneration ability could deal with the damage to his body, but not his armor. Even there, his ability to control molecules and transform matter would have allowed him to repair the damage if he could concentrate on it. Which he could not mid-battle.

Harry stood to one side of Galactus, his feet planted firmly on the ground of the planet as he used his strongest shield to block an incoming blast of Power Cosmic, returning another attack, a massive spear of power that crashed into Galactus's chest. Thanks to his Drill of Light spell earlier, Harry knew that he had to concentrate on penetrating-type magic. More of Galactus's armor cracked, and he stumbled back even while putting more energy into the attack, hammering into Harry's shield.

At Harry's mental warning, Jean also landed nearby, her entire form blazing with the aura of the Phoenix as she reached for Galactus, one hand blocking another blast of power towards her, the other lashing out like a giant claw across his face. That caused him to stumble, but his own inherent durability saw him through the attack, as Stephen hammered into his back from behind, nearly sending him stumbling.

Stephen too, touched down on the ground, which should have seemed odd to Galactus. The trio had been doing a very good job of dodging most of his attacks while in the air, after all. But Galactus, for all his power, was not used to fighting, certainly not fighting against people who could actually hurt him.

When Ororo reached out through the telepathic link that Jean had created for between them for this battle, Harry was ready. "Harry, we've pulled everyone off the planet!"

Twitching one hand to the side, Harry made his shield grow even stronger for a second as he shouted out, "Jean, Stephen! Shields!"

Then he reached down and activated the portkey spell that Harry had embedded within the entire planet.

The planet, Galactus, and his three attackers all disappeared from where they had been, generally speaking, in the life-bearing range of the red dwarf star. They then appeared in the star's penumbra. At the sudden increase in gravity, the planet shattered underneath them. The previous battle had weakened the planet from one side of the globe to another, and now the red dwarf that had helped birth the planet now finished the task of killing it.

Galactus stumbled on his feet as the gravity of the planet suddenly shifted in a way that even he had to acknowledge, blinking as the equivalent of his stomach tried to revolt, despite currently being somewhat empty. He then gasped as the heat of the star hit him. It wasn't deadly, not to someone like him who had stood in the fires of the galactic core, who had bathed in the energy of nebulas. But on top of the unusual feeling of being teleported like that, it threw Galactus off-balance, and his attackers took advantage of it.

Stephen launched a spell, the most powerful spells he could think of. "By the power of Solomon, let the strength of a billion suns turn my enemies to ash!"

Being so disoriented from the sudden shift, Galactus couldn't dodge or block. The attack crashed into one side of his face, destroying his helmet even as he lashed out with a blow that caught Stephen, whose last-second shield barely withstood the bolt of Power Cosmic that crashed into them, sending him tumbling through space and away.

Jean too, launched an attack so powerful that if she'd hit a planet with it, it would have shattered the planet like someone hitting a walnut with a warhammer. Galactus blocked this one better, but the armor on his forearm shattered under it.

And he was completely unprepared for Harry's hammer blow of magic. The assault hurled him off the bit of planet that he had been standing on and deeper into the gravity of the sun. Harry and the others also started to feel that gravity pulling them deeper in. But all three were able to combat it in various ways while the fight continued.

By this point, Galactus was sorely pressed. His energy reserves had somehow been turned against him when he had attempted to feed on the planet earlier, weakening him badly. Something else had also been smothering his Power Cosmic, something that he only realized now that whatever it was had stopped. His attacks were becoming more focused, more powerful.

Yet, at the same time, Galactus was wounded as well. His regeneration was no longer responding well to wounds made by the two male humans. He had at least three cracked ribs, most of his armor was shattered rather than intact at this point, and he was bleeding too! Bright rivulets of blue and purple blood streamed down his forehead from an attack that had nearly blinded him.

In contrast, his attackers were mostly unwounded. But Jean was now starting to gasp and tremble. Just because she was using the Phoenix Force's power didn't mean that there was no physical cost to using it after all. Stephen was also starting to flag. There was only so much magical energy he could use at one point, although he was still game for the fight.

Of all of them, Harry was the least affected, and he and Galactus stood across from one another for a few moments, simply wailing on one another as the other two returned from having been blown away by Galactus moments ago. As they closed, though, Harry relayed an order through Jean's telepathic link, "You both better get away from here. I'm going to be doing something bloody insane in a moment."

Steve didn't understand what that meant, but Jean quickly explained about the Bloody Insane spells, one of which Harry had used previously against Thanos on Mars. Even as Harry's magical shield, another Sciath na BhFéadfadh,cracked against another assault from the monstrous giant in front of him, Harry was reaching out with his magic to the matter beyond that shield in every direction.

The trick to Transfiguration was that it worked on every level. If you were powerful enough, you could create literally anything your imagination thought of. The spells and wand movements and everything else that Harry's fellow wizards back in his original dimension used to mold their spell work weren't really necessary. What was necessary was imagination, the ability to ignore the little voice in your head that said 'no that shouldn't be possible,' and of course, power. The power equated to how long something could stay in its new shape rather than trying to revert to its old one. But if what you wanted to change wasn't meant to be around for a while, that stopped mattering too.

It always struck Harry as utterly bizarre how narrow-minded the wizards of his old world had been. They hadn't really understood science and, more importantly, how it impacted how you could view and understand the world around you. Because if they had, they would have known a lot more about what Transfiguration and Conjuration meant, or rather what it implied could be possible.

Harry had studied science. He had read science fiction. Harry had even done that before going through the Veil into the Negative Zone. And because of that, he knew that if he used Transfiguration in space, where there was technically no visible matter around, he was in point of fact transfiguring dark matter. And that implied that he could do something a little different with it.

As he concentrated, a thimble-sized bit of antimatter came into being, swiftly growing as more and more matter was converted into antimatter, held in an electrical bubble, conjured into being with a heavily modified bubblehead charm of all things. The process was power-intensive to start with, and only got worse with the need to keep up the electrical bubble as well as cover the entire thing with a Disillusion charm.

That was five spells Harry was using, four of them continuously. The shield, the electrical bubble, the illusion, and the creation of antimatter within. All that plus his ongoing attacks on Galactus, although as he poured more power into his surprise those attacks faltered.

Finally when the bubble of antimatter had grown to be as large as Galactus himself, Harry decided he'd made enough. That, and he could feel himself teetering on the ragged edge of magical exhaustion, and had no desire to be anywhere near here when his attack went off. He let the illusion fade, and as the modified bubblehead charm faded, shouted, "You can survive the heat of a sun, Galactus! Let's see if you can survive a sun going nova at the same time as an antimatter explosion!"

The instant he finished speaking Harry teleported away as far as possible, which put him about halfway out of the system. But it left him gasping and trembling, his magical reserves now shot to hell by the last few moments of battle against Galactus, as behind him, the antimatter explosion occurred. Antimatter exploded as soon as it came into contact with the matter of the galaxy.

While normally Galactus could have dealt with either an antimatter explosion or the star going nova with relative ease, even as weakened as he was, dealing with both at the same time would've tested him. And he had already been wounded badly. The explosion rocked him to his core, going off to one side of his head, searing into his face and side as he cried out, while the explosion was quickly followed by the star reacting, going nova as Harry had intended. The star seemed to grow, then shrink, then grow again catastrophically.

He roared aloud, "Damn you all!" as the nova reached for him.

Harry turned bleary eyes towards the oncoming wave of plasma and destruction, idly hoping that the others had gotten away before Stephen popped into being next to them with Jean on his arm, followed by Hela and Ororo. The four of them both reached forward, creating shields around Harry and themselves. A second later, the waves of destruction crashed into them.

OOOOOOO

In the deep dark outside the Praxis 5 star system, the solar flare was noted by Deathbird's flagship, which retreated to this position earlier. Not because this was the rally point, it wasn't. The rally point was elsewhere, where the broken, shattered remnants of the fleet had retreated, their ships battered, their crew's morale broken.

This was instead the point where the Shi'ar Home Fleet waited to jump the humans on Deathbird's word. Now she stared into the distance, shock and fear going through her at what her sensors were reporting. A planet destroyed, energy readings off the scale, a star going nova, on top of an antimatter explosion of such power that it too would have shattered entire planets. Not just one, but dozens?

When the Admiral of the Home Fleet tried to contact her, Deathbird shook her head, waving her communications specialist away, leaning back. I can't make a decision on that right now. I need to get my head together.

When reports came that the human ship was also being sighted at the rally point, Deathbird began to repair her self-control slowly, thinking hard. But she wasn't only thinking about the humans. Deathbird was thinking about her brother, D'ken's personality. Deathbird was thinking about her ambitions and her desire to be Empress. I wonder...

OOOOOOO

How long they rode the energy of destruction that had propagated from the star, none of the five knew. Harry had started to help after a few moments of recovering his breath from his earlier exertions, and he took over for the others for a time, letting them recover in turn. As the wave of destruction ebbed, at last, all of them were back powering the shields.

Soon after, the energy wave had left them behind, leaving nothing in its wake. For a moment, the magic users all stared around them, seeing a solar system seared clean of everything. Every planet, every asteroid, not even gas survived in the wake of the nova. But Harry knew that they weren't done yet. Not yet.

Jean whispered into his mind. "You know if that killed Galactus, we're in big trouble!"

"It didn't," Harry answered in the same manner, shaking his head.

"How can you tell from all the way out here?" Jean said, looking at him in shock.

"I can't tell. I'm just making a logical leap. We know that the Kree, Skrull, and presumably the Shi'ar can cause supernovas, like if they use their hyperspace engines too close to a star. So, with that, I have to assume that someone somewhere has tried that trick on Galactus before, and he's still here. The antimatter trick on top of that I'll assume is kind of new, but even so, I bet it too has been tried before. That combination and the wounds, though, that will have hurt him, possibly mortally. And if so, we can offer assistance instead of just threats."

Harry looked over at Stephen as he felt Jean's affirmative reply, her arm tightening around his waist as his own snaked around her shoulders, as Harry quoted an old book on tactics he'd read once, the quote attributed to Genghis Khan. "A thing is not great until it is finished."

Stephen nodded, raising himself from where he had been kneeling on nothing for a moment, straightening his back sharply. "Yes, let us be about it."

The three of them moved deeper into the star system, although now without a star, Jean idly mused whether or not he could still be called a star system. There was nothing here any longer, no bits of planet, no asteroids, and no star. In Jean's mind, that point was big enough that it bore repeating.

However, there was something still there. Something that was still alive.

Galactus had been blasted away from the star, so off-balance and weakened from the antimatter explosion on top of his other wounds that he had not been able to set his metaphorical feet against the tide of energy from the star. Now he lay supine in space, tumbling this way and that, twitching weakly.

Harry and the others moved to follow his head as he slowly tumbled rolled through space, staring into his eyes. Or rather, eye. One of his eyes had been scorched clean out of his head; indeed, that side of his head burnt and bleeding profusely in places, the globules of blood drifting away in an ever-spiraling pattern. On that same side, one arm was missing from the elbow down, and the rest of his side was covered with burn marks. The majority of his armor was just gone, leaving Galactus bare-chested from the waist up, with several large gashes across his chest.

Yet his one eye locked on to them, and his mouth twisted into a grimace as he slowly, very painfully, straightened up. The Power Cosmic began to gleam around his one remaining hand as he glared at them. "If you think that I will surrender…"

"We don't want you to surrender. And we don't want you to die either. It was explained to us that was a bad idea," Harry retorted, glaring back at the giant in front of him without an ounce of fear as Stephen and Jean drifted to either side. In the distance, a hyperspace flare could be seen, out of which came the human's ship, racing towards them, while Hela and Ororo spread down and above Harry's position. "However, what we want is an agreement between us."

"An agreement like I made with the Fantastic Four to leave your planet alone? Your involvement here abrogated that agreement," Galactus snarled. "Why should I agree to anything when you humans seem willing to break agreements when it suits you?"

"Your agreement with the Fantastic Four was to not attack Earth. There was nothing in there that stated that humans would not interfere in your own business beyond the solar system," Harry rejoined. "As for how we came involved here, the Shi'ar apparently somehow heard about the Fantastic Four turning you aside and reached out with their normal heavy hand to us."

Galactus nodded, his face twisting into a grimace of pain, as Ororo began to use her magic to help mend the wounds in his head, slowly healing it, the healing slow due to Galactus's beyond unusual biology, if such a term could be used in his case at all. "Perhaps my… understanding… of the agreement was different than the Fantastic Four." He stared hard at the five, feeling Ororo's magic beginning to work on his face. The odd nature of that energy still threw him, but he could no longer doubt its efficacy, especially as it had just healed his head.

It had not returned his eye to him, but Galactus could do that himself. He could even regrow the limb he had lost given time. He had that technology available. Still, his attackers all seemed unhurt, and there was now a fifth one with them, whose power he could feel like an aura around her. "…What agreements do you want to reach?"

"The Shi'ar called us in because you are eating planets that have sentient populations. We want an agreement from you that you will no longer eat planets with sentient life on them! It's that simple," Harry said bluntly. "Eat every planet you come across that doesn't have sentient life on them, we're fine with that. But no civilizations, no sentient life measured in the billions, will die to your hunger any longer. I don't even want to think about the number of races you have helped wipe out over the millennia."

"You stand there next to an avatar of the Phoenix Force and say that to me? Do you think that I am any different from that creature? Whole galaxies, whole spiral arms have died under the fire of the Phoenix Force, and you do not toss that at her feet," Galactus retorted, pointing a giant finger at Jean.

Jean's eyebrows rose, and she shook her head. "The Phoenix Force and I are separate. Yes, I am its avatar, but I am not controlled by it. I am merely empowered. As for the past," Jean shrugged. "I think that the Phoenix Force might have in the past be influenced by its avatars coming to enjoy the destruction it can cause. But the Phoenix Force has always been about death and rebirth, the fires of life coming from destruction. What do you create? What do you leave behind? Nothing but wreck, ruin and grief!"

Galactus sneered at her, shaking his head. "If you were told by someone that my death would not be in the best interest of the galaxy, then you well know what I do. My existence alone is enough of a gift to the galaxy."

"Yes, but that doesn't mean that you should be allowed to destroy whole sentient races!" Harry snarled sharply, floating up in midair to stare at Galactus from a few feet away. He was so small in comparison to the giant that he barely stood in the space between Galactus's nose and the bottom of his chin, yet he stared into Galactus's one remaining, completely unafraid. "You are attempting to tell us this is the way of the world, the way of the universe, the strong preying on the weak? I won't deny it, but we just beat you! We are in a position to finish you! So where on that scale do you place?"

Galactus grimaced, but as wounded as he was, he knew that if battle resumed, he might well be overwhelmed. He could not allow that. He would not allow his existence to end. "Very well. I will no longer allow my heralds to bring me to planets that have sentient life. But you slew my heralds, and I will have to search for another for a time. Worse, I am weak now, extremely so."

"Just so long as you don't choose a psychopath this time," Jean grumbled, tension leaving her body and nearly causing her to faint as her adrenaline started to fade away.

Nodding firmly, Harry touched his still helmeted head. Since he'd concentrated on dodging most of the time and his magical shields were the strongest of them all, "Reed, can you prepare the data we compiled for Galactus?"

Galactus blinked as Reed instantly complied, and moments later, he looked at the tiny memory stick that he could barely see. He gestured, and a shield appeared all around it, hovering there as he gestured it up towards his face. "And this is?"

"A list of forty planets which have life on them, but no sentient life. Most of them have predators that are so anemic to alien life that the Shi'ar haven't tried to colonize them, others have atmospheres that are deadly to them, and so forth. But they still have a lot of life on them. That, plus the planet's normal tectonic energy, should let you eat your fill."

"…" Galactus stared at Harry, then down at the memory stick, reaching down to his waist. Matter converted, eating into his energy reserves again, and a computer appeared out of sub-space, connecting to his eye to inspect the data on the chip. It seemingly checked out, without any kind of trap or trick, and Galactus slowly nodded. Forty planets would see him through several months if not a year, and fully recharge his energy reserves too. "I will not say thank you for this. My hunger at the moment is such that this is a nec


essity rather than a polite nicety. But I will say that it is a good sign of the faith in which you have approached this agreement."

"Just keep your end of the bargain Galactus," Harry grumbled, suddenly tired of this conversation and pretty much everything else about the situation and even being away from Earth entirely. "That is all we ask. And hopefully, you and humanity will never be in contact ever again. The galaxy is after all, infinite, and thus surely large enough for that."

Galactus nodded his head in answer, and his five attackers turned, flying away from him towards the incoming ship. Galactus stared after them for a moment, remaining there until their ship hybrid away, then summoned Kiln out of it's sub-space, hoping indeed that that was the last time he would have to deal with humanity. They were just too much trouble in comparison to what their little planet was worth.

OOOOOOO

Reports came in from the rally point, and Deathbird slowly came up with a plan. Wounded and weakened or no, they just beat off Galactus! Now is not the time to fight them. Now it's time for subtlety. "Send word to the Admiral, call off any attack on their ship. We will go for the subtle trap instead."

With that, she turned to her navigations officer. "Take us to the rally point and make certain it look as if our engines were damaged. We don't want them to think we went somewhere else first. When we are there, open communications, ask them for permission for a delegation to come aboard their ship. We do have to congratulate the humans on their victory, after all. And that is something that should best be done in person." As is my proposal to them…

End Chapter


This chapter isn't as large as I wished. I took a hard look at the ambush scene, and it was rubbish. D'ken isn't stupid, so he needs to come up with something that he thinks can give him an edge, even if most of the humans have been wounded, and the whoel gas/poison thing just isn't enough. So I decided to end the chapter here, redo that scene, and make the next chapter cover a bit more stuff instead.

Anyway, I know this result won't please everyone, but Death and Pheonix were right. Killing Galactus was going to cause more problems than they would solve. Now, Harry's got a jumpstart on his path to becoming a new Titan (not the Imperial Guard member(s) of the same name) and Galactus won't be a problem for Earth or Harry again.