The tall, gaunt man stood straight, arms comfortably crossed behind his back. He was alone in a relatively small room devoid of furnishing aside from a single monitor affixed to one wall. Primitive technology, the man thought, but his master had always had a taste for such antiquities. The screen of the device displayed hundreds of alternating images, each flashing across the screen for only a brief few seconds. Every picture was accompanied by several charts, graphs, and other statistics that the man paid no mind to, having already stored all the relevant information in his memory. Then, after the monitor shuffled through another dozen of the images it finally stopped on one.
The screen showed a composite of four different photographs each displaying the same figure. Of the four, three were taken from a distance and, seemingly, without the target's notice. The individual, a modestly handsome human with brown hair was depicted in one wearing a cheap suit and tie as he shook the hand of a graduating university student. In another, he wore a suit of a different kind; dark blue and red, formfitting with a cloth mask stretched across his face, and a stylized emblem across the chest meant to resemble an arachnid creature of his homeworld. In this image, he was swinging across a city skyline tethered to an off-camera surface by a white strand of unusual material. In the next, wearing the same costume, he was in a labyrinthian construct and displayed mid-battle with a large, barrel-chested brute wielding a massive battleax. Finally, in the fourth image, the same man, albeit haggard looking with unkempt scruff and wearing a plain white jumper, stared emotionlessly forward.
"Minor Domo," the thin man observing the monitor spoke in a soft, clear tone into the communicator he wore on his left ear. "I have found the final combatant for today's event."
A cheerful, feminine voice responded from the device. "That's amazing, Major Domo, sir! I knew you could find a suitable slave, I mean competitor before the match began! You're the best!"
Major Domo grimaced slightly at his assistant's overly-enthusiastic response. He unfolded his arms and waved one between him and the monitor. The images of the human male minimized and slid into an upper corner where it joined four other, similar composites each focusing on separate individuals.
"I am sending you the data for this one now. See to it that he and the others are brought to me in the ready room on time."
"Okie dokie, sir!" She replied. Her words seemed to come faster the more she spoke. "I see you've picked one of the underdogs. Another easy target for the heavy-hitters?"
"Perhaps," Major Domo answered. "It is true this one nearly perished in his last challenge but it is clear from audience polling that he is viewed favorably. No doubt due to the blend of fantastical persona and incessant quips. Nonetheless, I calculate his inclusion in the event will provide an approximate nine percent increase in viewer satisfaction."
"That's amazing, Major Domo, sir!" The woman repeated in the same excitable tone. "The master should be happy with this broadcast!"
"Yes, I suspect he will." Domo glanced at the corner of the screen containing the collection of individuals chosen for the event. Sliding his fingers through the air caused the images to expand and display the primary photograph of each bundle.
"I understand why he told me to include the child. Pedicide is quite popular at the moment and it is unlikely the boy would have survived much longer anyway."
He focused his gaze on one of the pictures showing an adolescent male. Underneath the photo it read: 'Tomás Raymond - Earth 188Y0 - Survivability: 28.1% - Favorability: 13.8%'. Then, his eyes moved over to the following image. It showcased a hairless humanoid, apparently female, with stark white skin. The statistics below displayed survivability and favorability scores above eighty percent.
"What I find to be foolish, however," continued Domo, "is his decision to frivolously waste one of our most in-demand champions. This one should continue to be sparsed out in individual stages longer. He risks spoiling our current primetime line-up."
His assistant on the other end of the call remained silent, knowing better than to question the master's rulings. Only Major Domo could get away with such blatant disrespect.
"Well," Domo mused as he spared a look at the final two combatants for that day's main event. The young woman wielding a blade purple hues and metal-suited man both sat comfortably with middling polling numbers. "In any case, the others won't be a substantial loss. And while I have taken measures to ensure a favorable position for the champion, were their unlikely expiration to occur the carnage should be sufficient enough to curb any audience dissatisfaction. For the time being, at least."
"Oh, I bet it'll be a real bloodbath!" The upbeat voice chimed in.
He gave an artificial sigh and dismissed the visuals on the screen. "Have them all delivered in one hour, Minor. I must see to the rest of the preparations."
"Righty-o, sir! You've got it! One soon-to-be winner and their four victims coming right up!"
Entry of the Gladiators, Op. 68 was the comical march that played through the circus, setting the mood for the proclaimed greatest show on Earth. Jugglers and clowns. Acrobats and freaks. And somewhere in the middle of all of them was a boy named…
“TORO, the Fire-Eating Kid!”
Balancing precariously atop the back of an elephant, the scruffy-haired boy from London juggled great balls of fire while, around him, his adoptive parents jumped through rings of fire and twirled batons that were ignited on either end.
It was an ordinary day in the extraordinary life of an orphan brought up in the midst of the circus, putting on a show in King’s Lynn or Peterborough or Sheffeld. The shimmery blue of his foster parent’s leotards reflected by the blue shorts that hugged the waist of the soot-marked boy. The air seemed to shimmer as heat radiated from off his body. His hands were moving too fast in the juggling routine for the audience to have noticed, but his actual hands were engulfed in flames, the fire rolling from the tips of his fingers back to his wrists. Yet, the flesh beneath was unmarked.
As the parade of the performers marched slowly on, through the cheers and gasps of the crowd, Toro settled into the rhythm of the routine. It was, after all, an act. Something that they practiced time and time again on the road. He hadn’t started out juggling atop an elephant. No one started out juggling atop the elephant.
A few had broken their necks juggling atop the elephant.
It was practice, practice, practice. Until it was nearly perfect. Until it was nearly perfect each and every time, because it had to be perfect. Because there couldn’t be any mistakes in front of the audience. No surprises.
Surprising an elephant was going to be a bad day for everyone, the elephant included.
Then the music seemed to go off-track. The world spun. Vertigo set in, everything turned upside down and inside out, until Toro found himself standing in a stadium like no other that he had ever seen before.
Under his feet, the ground gave way to a sea of magma. Fires leapt up, wrapping around his feet, traveling up his legs, until the fire had covered him from head to toe. A human-shaped flame. The cheers twisted into jeering. As he turned his head, to the left and the right, Toro found himself confronted by a multitude of tiny windows in mid-air. Screens featuring what looked like pieces of an audience watching him.
Watching him burn.
From out of the sea of lava, a large, serpentine monstrosity seemed to form from out of the liquid, molten earth. As the firey dragon bared its dripping, flaming fangs, the sound of the cheers increased while the supple fire-monster seemed poised to tear into the child-sized Human Torch…
...a splash of water snapped him awake.
Flailing, the young Toro gasped as he came to. In a fog, the boy was grasping at the last straws of his sanity. He didn’t know where he was. Freshly healed scars on his body gave witness to what they had done to him. It was a minute in which he questioned whether he was who he was. Was this real life?
Then the minute passed and Tomás felt his mind returning. This wasn’t a dream. This was a nightmare.
Curling into a fetal ball, the boy slowly pulled himself up from out of the puddle of water to stand in the stark, spartan cell where he’d been held inbetween the experiments and the gladiatorial show. He could feel the collar around his neck. Whatever it was, it seemed that when it was on that the fire wouldn’t come out.
Head down, he could only see the feet of the guard. Feel the rough hand that seized him and pulled him from out of the cell. Pushing forward, the disheveled and damp child stumbled out into the hallway. Then, he walked. For how long? He wasn’t sure. A hand reached out to stop him as they arrived in a room of some kind, before the same rough hand pushed him down into a chair. All the while, Toro just looked down at the floor. Staring somewhere past his own feet, as though willing for all the world to simply vanish in flame.
A sound, that of a door or passage opening, prompted the youth to dare to steal a glance. His eyes were low, catching only a glimpse of legs and feet. The usual escorts or guards, but there was another. Someone being pushed around. Another prisoner?
The voice seemed female, though not one that he knew. Turning his head up, the boy was confronted by the sight of a creature whose angular features were distinctly inhuman. Alabaster skin. Red eyes. But the look on the creature’s face was humanized by the expression that was so relatable.
She knew him. Or, thought that she did. The boy’s mouth opened, as did hers, though the sudden flash of the collar around her neck made them both re-consider what it was that they were about to do.
Time didn't exist in places like this- that was the first thing Norman Osborn had learned in SHIELD's rehabilitation facility. Without clocks or a window to watch the sun cross the sky, it became increasingly difficult to track the days. Counting out the hours as he sat in his cell had worked, for a time, but after about the sixteenth day it all started to blend together. After that it was all a guessing game, really. By his estimation it'd been anywhere from a month to three, though for all he knew things like space and time operated differently here.
Wherever the hell here actually was, Osborn assumed he'd never know.
Somewhere in deep space was his first guess. The aliens in the crowd and the presence of impossibly advanced technology pointed to that fact. Yet, for some reason, nearly all of his captors appeared to be human. The Skrulls were more than capable of stealing a man's face, but this...this wasn't them. He couldn't be sure why, but he knew in his gut that this was different. This was something worse.
Thoughts of escape came and went on occasion. Those moments after a particularly successful day in the arena offered him hope enough to try and formulate some sort of plan. He'd spend days on each one, crafting them with the meticulous eye for detail he'd developed over the decades. Trying to track guards. Looking for even the smallest imperfections in his cell, or that damned, chaffing collar. He never found one. This place was flawless, designed with the utmost care by someone who very clearly knew what they were doing.
There was some tiny, twisted part of him that could appreciate the death games for what they were- enjoy them, even. It was that shard of violent delights that Norman could never seem to truly shake. It visited him, sometimes, when the despair set in. Did it know when Norman was most vulnerable? Or was it always there, and he only ever noticed it when he was at his lowest? It didn't matter. Even if he was damned to spend eternity in these halls, Osborn wouldn't indulge it. He couldn't, not so long as there remained even the tiniest sliver of a chance that he'd be free one day.
And there was always going to be that chance: because he was Norman Osborn. And Norman Osborn doesn't lose. He'd find his way out of here, eventually. Somehow. He was the greatest mind mankind had to offer, and he'd be damned if some alien freak was the one that conquered him. He had too much to accomplish to fail here. Failure was simply not an option.
The guard finally came for him, as it always did. Sometimes he wondered if it was always the same guard that came for him, or if they all shared that same, expressionless face. He'd tried asking it, once, but it hadn't much appreciated the question, so he hadn't bothered asking it anything else. He went through the painstaking process of dragging himself from his cot for the...sixth time, if he's been counting correctly, and allowed himself to be led down the twisting, dark halls of this strange prison.
Something changed along the way. They went down a new path, one Osborn didn't recognize. He became far more alert as they went, taking in all of the new information as he tried to understand why they'd taken a new direction. Part of him was curious, another part glad to have the monotony broken up, and still yet another that was afraid of what might await him.
It never showed. Norman always walked in long, confident strides, his head held high and his eyes as sharp as iron. Even without his armor to protect his aging body, the man had an aura of confidence about him so powerful and intoxicating that made him look nearly invincible. He couldn't rightly remember a time in his life when he didn't walk like this, only that he'd learned to perfect it when he rose to become one of America's premier arms dealers and businessmen.
A light appeared at the end of another hallway, temporarily blinding him as he was led straight into it. It took several moments for his eyes to adjust to it before he was able to see this new room he'd been brought to. It was far larger than anything he'd seen outside of the arena thus far, and filled with something else he hadn't expected to ever see again.
Other prisoners, like him, if the collars were anything to go by- the first real proof he wasn't alone here. There were two of them, each led by a guard much like the one beside him and each utterly silent. The first was...a boy. A young one, perhaps twelve or thirteen, if he had to guess. He looked rather frightened to be there, and quite out of place. Osborn had only survived through the games by the skin of his teeth, burning through ammo and power far faster than he would like. For a child to make it through all that...?
Norman wasn't oft a man of sympathy, and his respect was hard-earned, but something told him an exception could be made for this odd little thing.
The other didn't get much more than a disdainful glare from him, however. An alien of unknown origin, towering above him and the guards. With skin like alabaster, eyes of pupil-less crimson, and a monstrously shaped skull, its appearance was bizarre and off-putting. Norman had stood against many of their kind before, but this one in particular felt wrong. He couldn't place it, but there was something about the way it looked at him that made his stomach churn in nervous discomfort.
He turned away from it and allowed himself to be escorted toward one of the chairs scattered about the room, remaining silent, as he knew well what the consequences for speaking up would be. Still, even as he fell into the seat, his mind raced to find potential answers to the countless questions all of this had raised. This was something new, unprecedented. A change in routine that could mean salvation; or, perhaps, a permanent sealing of his fate.
Osborn looked a madman as he leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees as he stared at the boy and the alien. Absorbing information through calculating yet none-too-stable eyes. Unkempt and grease-slicked auburn hair touched the bottoms of his ears, a sharp widow's peak and a few flecks of grey defining his age. Patches of hair had been stuck to his face, loosely connected by far thinner bits- it was rather obvious it didn't belong on his face. He'd be rid of it, sooner or later. Once he found his way out of here.
'...And perhaps these two will play some part in that.'
Amy Winston hadn’t said much in the twenty-eight days since her capture, since she was taken from her world to the one she was currently inhabiting.
If you could even call it a world.
This wouldn’t be the first time the blonde-haired princess would’ve found herself in an unfamiliar place of arcane creation and mystique. In her experience, magic always found a way to make things more complicated than they should be. Living in a world that had come to be defined by its relationship with magic had taught her many lessons and to be plucked from New York City to a strange, alien land was a occurrence that wasn’t too far from the normal she was used to. If she had to count, this would be the fourth time in her life where something like this had happened. Though, being forced to compete against monsters, brutes, and constructs for “fun” was something entirely new. She wasn’t a fan of it. She couldn’t imagine who could have been.
On her last outing, she had been propelled out of a cave and nearly incinerated in the process, before being forced to think on her feet to defeat a dragon. Sure, she was used to fighting off a demon invasion and other magical threats back on her world, but in the moment she hadn’t been so quick to dismiss the situation. The initial surprise of the fire-breathing lizard had nearly done her in and she was still very much reeling from the fight. Her body was sore, there was still a sharp ringing in my head, and all of her faculties weren’t all back to where she needed them to be. She hadn’t had a proper sleep in days and she could feel it. Anyone who looked at her could plainly see it.
If there was more of that to come, Amy was not quite positive she could get used to it without enough rest and recovery.
A sudden jab from one of the same-faced guards struck her out of her thoughts. Apparently, that ‘rest and recovery’ she wanted was going to have to come at later point in time.
This appeared true as the blonde found herself corralled toward another long tunnel toward a bout of some kind. The strangest thing about this was the appearance of other individuals that Amy presumed were like-minded gladiators. It appeared she was the last of the group to get brought forward, though before she could say something the bright light of her collar reminded her to not get too “uppity” in the face of her captors. Before she could think constructively about her options in her current situation, she noticed something as she looked from person-to-person. She recognized one of them.
It surprised her, but she was sure of it.
He was older and his hair was as thin as her patience, but it was someone she knew of, though she had never in her life interacted with the man back on her world. Amy could do basic math. She had been counting since she found herself captured and thrown into this entire mess, truly, and she could at the very least confirm some of her theories that magic of some kind was involved and dimensional-hopping magic at that.
Amy bit her lip out of anxiety. The Sorcerer Supreme would have a god damn conniption if he was here.
As the same-faced guards did their business, Amy crossed her arms as if she was waiting. As if she was asking ‘what now?’. She was not eager to see what trial her captors had arranged with these strangers, but it was all she could do.
The march down the featureless, silver-white hallways was no different now than any time before. Flanked by two of the guards, identical in both uniform and face, M'gann M'orzz shuffled forward toward the newest Hell she knew to be just around the corner. It was the same every day now; awake to the monotone orders of the guards, receive a meager meal composed of an unidentified substance, then immediately be escorted out of her cell and further into the building where he would be waiting. The martian prisoner had repeated this process so often she had long since lost track.
When she had first arrived, M'gann had attempted to keep a mental note of the passing time. It was easy for the first two weeks as she had little else to occupy her thoughts while relegated to her modest confinements. Then, the torture had begun. Not that they seemed to treat it as such. As much as she could gather, her captors were studying her, experimenting and testing the limits of both her physiology and mind. Their techniques, though, were far from considerate. M'gann had faced some of the most terrifying intergalactic threats known to the universe, she had been exposed to numerous powerful energies and even faced the tyrant Mongul in single combat during which she had been momentarily torn in half. Yet the 'experimentation' she underwent here had been so unbearable she had felt tendrils of crippling pain seize her for days afterward.
What followed that had only made tracking the passing days more difficult. The death games. Forced gladiatorial combat for the sadistic pleasure of her captor and countless other reprehensible individuals. Not only were the events themselves exhausting, painful, and often traumatizing, but M'gann would be sedated both immediately before and following the challenges. She would always come to in her cell afterward but with the chamber completely devoid of any external light source or viewport of any kind it had been impossible to determine exactly how long she would remain unconscious for each time.
The first several matches had come days apart which allowed her to at least have a general sense of the passing weeks. But the more she competed, the more she won, the more the faceless audience hungered for more carnage, the shorter the intervals became. Where once she had only fought a few times over several weeks, M'gann was now subjected to the games on what she assumed to be a daily basis. And while time was often a blur for her, the enslaved gladiator knew exactly how many times she had been made to battle for her life.
For the fifty-ninth time, M'gann M'orzz was ushered into the familiar waiting room. For the fifty-ninth time, she was greeted by the cold, calculating eyes of the slender Major Domo. The man's creased face turned towards the device he held and a narrow finger swiped across its screen. M'gann knew by now that this meant he was confirming her arrival. Major Domo glanced up almost immediately after and fixed his sharp gaze at her. Another short swipe across the screen.
M'gann's eyes narrowed. This was new. Major Domo would only ever swipe once before beginning his typical monologue, then send her off to be prepared for the upcoming battle.
She became aware of the presence of another a moment before their small form shuffled into her peripheral view. The thick, grey collar secured around their neck immediately informed her that this was a fellow slave. The first she had ever encountered during her captivity, though she had always been sure there must be more. M'gann shot a look back towards Major Domo, wondering what this meant. Were they to be paired together in the matches, forced to survive together as a team? She felt her chest tighten as she considered the other possibility.
Turning back to the small figure, she tried to look them over without seeming too interested. They wore the same all-white jumpsuit she had on. The relatively pink skin and shaggy, oily, dark hair reminded her all too much of her time on Earth. A human, and a young one at that given they barely came up to her chest. A boy as far as she could tell, though they held their gaze towards the floor making it difficult to know for certain. M'gann shifted her position slowly as to not alarm the guards she knew to still be present, and subtly leaned forward to get a better look.
Yes, she thought, as the human child's features became more visible. Definitely a boy. The patchy sections of fuzz clinging to his cheeks and lightly coating his upper lip told her as much. And there was something more, something familiar. M'gann leaned forward further, disrupting any illusion of disinterest as her curiosity got the better of her. This was, after all, the first thing she had encountered in this forsaken place that reminded her of home. That was likely even from her adopted world. After all, if she had been abducted from Earth what was there to stop them from doing the same to others.
M'gann abruptly stiffened, her mouth going slack. It couldn't be...
The boy's face had come into clear view now. A face she had first seen over a decade ago, not long after she had first settled down on Earth.
"Toro?" A voice softly called out. She hadn't meant to speak and didn't even realize she had until after the metallic ring around her neck glowed red and sent a minor shock through her body. The only warning she would receive to remain silent and well-behaved. But at that moment the boy had looked up at her and she was sure now.
Tomás Raymond. Toro to his friends. Sunfire to the people of Earth. He was a hero and ally to M'gann, a fellow member of the Justice League. They had fought side-by-side on several missions and Toro had even saved her life once. She would recognize him anywhere, and yet...
The Toro she stared at in wonder now was younger. Much younger. Even when they had first met, Toro had been a young man in his early twenties. By the time she had been captured he should have been celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday. Not barely pushing his teenage years. And the eyes that had looked up into hers just a moment ago had been confused, unsure. Not of someone recognizing a friend. Still, the boy's resemblance to Toro was unmistakable.
She wanted to speak up more as a hundred questions floated through her mind, but the numbness from the previous shock reminded her to hold her tongue.
Could Toro have had a child? She dismissed that idea almost immediately. Although it had been several years since she had last seen him it would not have been long enough for him to have raised a fully grown child. Unless...
M'gann's chest tightened once more and she ground her teeth in frustration. She doubted she could have misjudged the length of her captivity to such a dramatic degree but maybe the flow of time here was not the same as on Earth. She knew of certain dimensions where such things were possible. Perhaps this was one.
She returned her attention to Major Domo who stood nearly unmoving. The fact that he had still not begun his expected speech made M'gann think there were still more competitors to arrive. Something that only made her more concerned that her suspicions for what was to happen next would come to pass.
It took five minutes for the next captive to arrive. Then two more individuals were brought in, one after the other. Each seemed to grow wary as they realized they weren't alone. And each, M'gann noticed, were distinctly human.
First, there had been an older man. Tall and with head held high, he strode into the room with an air of daring. M'gann wondered if he had only recently been imprisoned and had yet to face the atrocities, if he was refusing to give his captors the satisfaction of breaking him, or if the man was a psychopath. All seemed possible.
Next, there had been another man, similarly tall, whose wildly unkempt beard suggested a somewhat lengthy stay. He appeared to be somewhere in his thirties, though the dark circles under his eyes easily could have added another decade. This one immediately took stock of his surroundings upon entering the room, unconcerned about feigning disinterest as M'gann had done. She noticed the younger man tense when he laid eyes on the older one, hands curled into fists briefly before relaxing. He seemed to know the confident one in a way that hinted at a less-than-amicable past.
Finally, a young woman with long, light purple hair was ushered in. She, too, instantly appeared to recognize the older of the two men. But whereas the previous detainee's rage had been barely contained, the girl merely seemed surprised. Or anxious, M'gann thought, watching as the woman crossed her arms impatiently.
Then, Major Domo stepped forward.
"Welcome, gladiators." He said through thin lips. As was the case every time M'gann heard him speak, he kept his voice level and concise.
"You have each received the highest honor, having been selected on this day to compete for the glory of our lord Mojo. Moments from now you will be greeted by the cheers of your adoring fans eager to watch you perform in grand combat."
'Adoring' was not the word M'gann would have chosen. 'Bloodthirsty' more like. 'Sickening' or 'disturbing,' perhaps.
She glanced across at the four other collared slaves. From their reactions, it seemed they had all heard this same spiel from Mojo Domo before, as had she. It was changed slightly to accommodate the increase in contestants but for the most part, it was word-for-word the same speech she had listened to fifty-eight times already. M'gann waited, knowing it wasn't until after the mindless praise for this slavemaster called Mojo that the real information would be given. Until then it was as if he was reading off of a prepared script.
As expected, after several minutes, Major Domo paused and swiped his finger across the screen of his device once more.
"As you have all no doubt noticed," he continued, "this competition will be unlike all others previously encountered. For this event, you will be pitted against one another in a winner-take-all extravaganza."
He stopped briefly to cast a glance over the five of them, gauging their reactions. M'gann did her best to remain neutral, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing her crestfallen as her suspicions proved true.
"Some of you have been chosen because of your great feats in previous competition or due to appeal amongst the audience. Others," Major Domo cast a glance at the dark-haired boy, "are merely fodder to enhance the entertainment value. Regardless, you will each be given a fair starting chance. How well you perform afterward is entirely on you.
"Failure to participate will result in immediate termination. Mojo would prefer each of you to succumb to one another but do not be mistaken, should you refuse to compete against your fellows you will be destroyed excruciatingly and spectacularly. At most, only one of you will survive. Possibly none. I suggest you all put your best effort forward and eliminate the others with brutal efficiency should you not wish to perish."
His eyes narrowed at the five gladiator slaves before him. "Do not disappoint the audience nor your master."
With that, he tapped the screen and a familiar hum filled the room. M'gann turned expectantly towards the left wall. It split vertically down the center, the two sides parting to reveal an adjoining room. The group shuffled toward it, knowing this meant they were now allowed to move. Inside, suspended in mid-air, were various colorful outfits and pieces of armor. In one corner sat a large, mechanical suit that the older man approached. The others were already shedding the outer layers of their stark white prison uniforms and M'gann joined them.
As she had learned before her very first deathmatch, all competitors were to dress in costume. According to Major Domo it 'enhances the enjoyment of the spectators.' As far as M'gann was concerned, it was just another facet of control their captors held over them. They were even given the illusion of choice with an extensive variety of getups.
For M'gann, none of it mattered. Her martian physiology allowed her to change her appearance at will, including giving herself any outfit she desired. Once the inhibitor collars were removed, that was. For now, she merely shed her prison clothes and waited. If the process for this battle royale was the same for all of her previous solo matches, as soon as everyone was suited up they would be rendered unconscious only to reawake in the arena sans collar. And that was where the real chaos would begin.
When she only had herself to worry about, M'gann had been able to focus on only one goal: survival. And while they may have been exhausting and often demoralizing, the deathmatches had rarely caused her true concern. The assorted scenarios she had been put in, the myriad of manufactured foes thrown her way, none of it had given her pause for thought. It had been simple. Fight. Destroy. Rinse repeat. She could go all out as needed against the robots, hard-light projections, and traps. They were highly dangerous, of course, but none of it was 'real.' The only real factor had been her. But now...
M'gann cast a glance at the young boy. She still hadn't decided if she believed he was Toro's son or not, but regardless of his relation to the man she knew and owed her life to, he was still a child. And if Major Domo's insinuation was true, cannon fodder for her and the others to eliminate with ease. She knew she couldn't bring herself to harm the boy but she couldn't say the same for the other three.
She watched carefully as one-by-one her fellow slaves dressed in their chosen garb. The woman strapped a set of crystal-looking armor across her body as the younger of the two men finished sliding into a skin-tight red and blue outfit. He kept eyeing the older male who by now had stepped inside the humanoid suit of metal which she now could see sported a large, shoulder-mounted ballistic weapon. She didn't know the capabilities of the others, but this one, she thought, clearly relied on his technology. A fact she planned to exploit during the match.
Anything, she thought, to give the boy a chance of survival.
Eventually, all combatants completed their preparations. Knowing what was next, M'gann closed her eyes and forced her mind to focus. In less than a moment, she would be finding herself awaking inside of the coliseum. In less than a moment, M'gann would have to decide just how much she was willing to sacrifice. Her life for the boy or who she was at her very core to ensure she remained victorious.
The collar around her neck grew warm as it prepared to discharge the sedative. She heard the distinct sounds of Major Domo tapping his device's screen, keying up the latest command.
The world erupted in a cacophony of detonations. A series of half a dozen blasts rocked the far side of the waiting room, blowing out the wall. More percussive salvos could be heard from elsewhere in the compound. A concussive shockwave knocked against M'gann, nearly toppling her as she tried to regain her composure.
Her ears rang. Her vision was slightly dotted from the flaring explosions. Her neck felt warm, light. She reached to her throat, checking for a wound, shrapnel, anything. Fingers connected with her skin, tracing absent-mindedly from the front to the sides of her neck. Nothing as far as she could feel.
M'gann abruptly clawed at the front of her throat, her fingers catching nothing but flesh.
No bulky metal.
Her eyes dropped to the ground. There, at her feet, lay the inhibitor collar she had grown so accustomed to. The inhibitor collar that had rendered her a useless, defenseless, captive for months.
M'gann turned towards the others. All four were staring at their respective discarded neckbands, coming to the same realization as she had. The following several seconds seemed to stretch out forever before she broke the tension with a single word.
Moving with vigor she hadn't felt in ages, M'gann charged through the opening into the waiting room proper. She could see several of the guards scattered across the ground. Two seemed to only be unconscious from the blastwave, but a third was crushed under chunks of debris. The remaining seven were positioned around the blown-out portion of the wall firing energy weapons through it at whoever had initiated this assault. Major Domo stood where he had been previously, unmoved, devoid of any injuries from the explosion, and consulting his device in what she could only describe as amused confusion.
Without a second thought, M'gann pulled back her left arm before rocketing it towards the man. Her fist ballooned out to three times its size in the instant before impact. And then passed right through Major Domo's torso.
The hologram raised its head to affix her with its familiar, steely gaze. "I am afraid that will not have the outcome you hoped to achieve. Now, if you would be so kind as to wait here for your apprehension, you will be rewarded sufficiently. It would be unfortunate if harm befell the champion before the exhibition match could be broadcast."
Despite the pleasant phrasing, the calm menace Major Domo exuded was unmistakable.
Without bothering with a response, M'gann spared a glance toward the equipment room to make sure the others were following suit before she turned heel and ran towards the exit. She didn't know where she was heading exactly, but one thing was for sure: freedom was just around the corner.
One by one, the youth used the thumb of his left hand to tap each in turn. His time here had almost driven him to madness. In that despair, he had sought refuge by re-connecting with the religion of his mother. He didn’t have a rosary, so he counted on his fingers to try and keep count of the prayers.
He dared not speak aloud, or else draw the rebuke of his captors, so he kept his head bowed as though in defeat. His lips parted, moving in time to the silent offerings that he made.
Maybe God didn’t exist. Maybe no one was listening. For some reason, repeating the words gave him comfort in spite of the doubts. That solace was the last shred of humanity that seemed left him. They cut into body, tormented his dreams, and made a spectacle of him like a caged animal at the circus.
That’s exactly what his life had been reduced to. An animal in a cage.
After the strange looking creature arrived, the room lapsed back into silence. Toro had mouthed the words to one Padre Nuestro and had been starting on his third Ave Maria when they were interrupted by the arrival of more prisoners. At first, the boy had thought it was just more guards, then he’d caught sight of a pair of legs that were dressed in the same white prison cloth.
Faun brown eyes peered up, the child craning his head just enough to catch sight of a man. Even though he was dressed as another prisoner, he had a commanding presence. The next was another man, this one looking far more haggard and wearied than the first. The last was a girl. Or, a woman anyway.
Oh, great. Him again…
The boy’s eyes returned to the floor. As he listened, he found himself staring down at the palm of his left hand.
Where had he left off..?
The thumb touched against his fingers, counting off each in his head, before landing on his pinky finger. His mouth opened, the lips forming the words that dared not escape. Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia, el Señor es contigo. Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres…
“For this event, you will be pitted against one another in a winner-take-all extravaganza."
Toro’s mouth hung open. The prayer seemed forgotten. In that instant, everything seemed to stop. It was as if the boy was frozen in place, ice creeping through his lungs, a sensation like something crushing his chest and preventing him from so much as breathing.
"Failure to participate will result in immediate termination. Mojo would prefer each of you to succumb to one another but do not be mistaken, should you refuse to compete against your fellows you will be destroyed excruciatingly and spectacularly.”
They were just animals in a cage. Taken out and made to perform before audiences. At first, Toro had related to it as being a show in a circus. But that wasn’t true. This wasn’t a circus, it was a cock fight. And they were the cocks.
And people watched cock fights so that they could see one chicken kill another.
The boy lurched. Maybe he was going to sob. It felt like he was going to throw up. Clenching his jaw, he ground his teeth and felt confusion grip him as a rush on conflicting emotions seemed to run through him at once. His left hand closed into a fist.
He knew that his fire could hurt people. His fire had hurt people. He didn’t want that. He’d never wanted that. So... what, then? Would he refuse to play their game? Except, he didn’t want to die...
He looked down at the trembling fist. What would Jesus do? The boy swallowed at the thought. The question answered itself. He knew what the answer was, but... could he ever have that much faith?
Swallowing anxiously, the boy looked up again as one of the walls parted to reveal an open chamber on the other side. His eyes immediately found the familiar circus outfit. It was like a leotard, except that it had full leggings. It wasn’t as flashy or colorful as the other circus outfits. Theirs were made with sequins. Toro’s was made of an asbestos blend.
He recognized the changing room from his gladiatorial match from a few days before, but there hadn’t been other people with him then. Hesitating a moment, the boy was a moment late in realizing what was meant to happen.
They were all changing? Here? Together?
Even as he picked up the familiar circus outfit, the boy looked to his left and right to confirm that, yes, in fact, people were changing here. The initial reluctance was stifled by the chafing of the collar against his shoulders. He gave a heavy sigh, shifting so that his back was toward the woman.
A faint blush of embarrassment still colored his face. As he started to disrobe, he realized that by putting his back toward the girl, that he was now facing the white creature. That fact briefly caused him to pause a moment.
He’d assume it was a person of some kind, but it wasn’t human.
Another sigh, the blush intensified as Toro went ahead and finished disrobing. Stark naked, the boy placed the leotard on the floor before he stepped into it, one leg at a time. Crouching down, he pulled and shimmied the leggings up to his knees, before standing. Then, pulling the garment up, got it up to his waist. Looped his arms into the straps, he pulled it up the rest of the way with a shrug, before adjusting the front.
He squirmed a bit, pulled at the crotch and the back as he stretched his legs and tried to settled into the garment. It was embarrassing how it showed his body off. Toro had grown up in the circus, training day after day to perform the gymnastics that formed part of his Fire-Eating Kid act, and his body displayed an athlete’s definition. But he was still an adolescent and the embarrassment was plain on his face.
When he’d finished, he looked down at his left hand. If he went out there, he was going to die. The boy’s eyes moved looked the white creature up and down. It was alien. Just alien. He turned his eyes right and caught a glimpse of some kind of armor.
If he fought, he was going to die.
If he didn’t fight, he was going to die.
No matter what he did, he was going to die. He didn’t want to die.
So what was he going to do..?
Toro had stumbled and slipped down on a knee before the sound of the explosion had registered in his mind. Amid the confusion, he felt a familiar heat suddenly blossom from within him. As though the leash that had been holding back his fire had suddenly snapped.
All of Toro’s conflicted emotions came to life in that moment, an explosion of fire that swallowed the boy whole before blooming into a column of flame that mushroomed out along the ceiling.
Drawing in a sharp breath, the child seemed to pull back the flames. The column of fire dissipated, though patches of flames still appeared to burn along the boy’s arms and legs. Got it under control. Keep it under control…
The boy’s fiery eyes lit up as he raised his head. The white creature bolted. Toro hesitated for just a moment, then broke into a sprint behind the alien being.
Osborn attended more funerals than he cared to count after the invasion. The first few for the likes of Thor and Captain America were tremendous occasions watched the world over as one would expect, but the hundreds- thousands, even- that came afterwards? They were sparse affairs, only covered by a local news station or two, and didn't have the attendance to fill a countryside church. The world didn't care what happened to the likes of Ant-Man, Daredevil, or Beast. They were just more names on the list of casualties. Soldiers in the war for humanity's survival to be honored on great, obsidian memorials, but nothing more. Norman went to as many as he could, knowing it was expected of him, but at a certain point the invitations were allowed to pile up, ignored.
There was one he'd actually wanted to attend. He was expecting it to be a small, local affair, given their minor renown. And it was true that most of the attendants were local. Nearly all fifteen thousand of them were citizens of New York City, come to mourn the loss of their most ardent and beloved protector. There was no burial service- the family wanted to keep his identity a secret, even in death- but Norman knew. He'd seen the boy on the morgue table with his own two eyes.
SHIELD, newly reorganized by resistance leadership, had coordinated the recovery of those replaced by Skrull infiltrators or captured during the invasion. Near all of them could be found either in internment camps in alien-occupied cities, or imprisoned aboard gargantuan penal barges in orbit over the planet. Osborn ordered rescue operations to begin the moment Veranke and the rest of the enemy's high command was dead, but it was already too late. The Skrulls did not take kindly to having their holy monarch executed, and chose to respond in kind.
When SHIELD agents boarded the barges they found nothing but piles of dead prisoners, their bodies still shackled in their cells, earth's mightiest heroes among them.
Osborn couldn't help but feel responsible for what happened to Peter Parker. To all of them. To say it haunted him was an understatement, but...
Never quite so literally.
Not oft a man to wear his emotions on his sleeve, even Osborn couldn't help but look astonished to see Peter Parker standing alive, though not quite well, just feet away from him. He was older and world weary, a tired look about his countenance and a full beard sprouting from his jaw. The two locked eyes for the briefest moment, a lifetime of conversation passing between them without a word, before they and the rest of the gladiators were ushered forward by Major Domo.
This was an entirely different affair than what Osborn had grown used to. Prior to this moment he hadn't even been sure there were other prisoners here, forced to compete in these bloodsports for the entertainment of teeming, alien masses. And the first time he could confirm he wasn't alone came when he'd be forced to slaughter the rest of them. He felt his heart twist and burn with disgust, even as his mind began to work through the best way to go about it.
'I will not abandon my world. This place will not conquer me, no matter what twisted death games it throws at me.'
It was easy to tell himself that. He knew he couldn't hesitate. But the rational mind was rarely in sole control of the body.
After an exhausting and tedious repeat of his usual speech and receiving the instructions for the event, Domo showed them to the preparation room where their armaments were all stored. Osborn approached his Iron Patriot armor stored his the corner and began to strip down, as he usually did, though this time he kept one eye on the rest of the competition: studying them with quiet intent.
The child could be left till near the end, he wasn't a threat to worry over. Whatever power allowed him to survive the gauntlet so far must not have been invulnerability, or he wouldn't look so nervous.
That crystal armor the young woman draped herself in was either alien or supernatural in origin, making her far more dangerous than appearances would have one believe. Osborn would keep his distance and pick her apart from afar.
The alien was a wildcard, and likely the biggest threat present. She'd need to be dealt with quickly if he wanted a chance at surviving this.
And...Parker...They'd done this dance a thousand times. He would be the last to fall.
His heart racing and his blood growing cold, Osborn stepped into his armor. Its cold shell fell in place around his arms and his legs first. The suit was supremely heavy when in its low power state, but Domo and his lackies had placed some damnable restraint disc on his chestplate to keep him from fighting his way out. It functioned much like the restraint collars they all wore, he imagined.
The breastplate came next, brought up to cover the twin pair of scars decorating Norman's chest- reminders of the day he'd nearly been crucified on a stake of humble tin. It locked into place with a swish of air and the whining of its arc reactor as it slowly came to life. The sound was off from what Osborn was used it, marking it as just one of many reminders that this was but a poor facsimile of his creation.
Wrapped in bright, Star-Spangled colors and bearing a XM214 Microgun on its shoulder, Iron Patriot was as gaudy and eye catching as any suit of iron could be. Just underneath its intimidating weapon was its tail code, SI 08 014, written vertically and in bold, easily identified print. Just beneath that was the Oscorp logo, equally visible for all to see. The scars of battle peppered its damaged yet unconquered frame.
He took his helmet and held it in his hands. Its thick armor made it weighty and difficult to handle, but it kept him safe. Osborn had learned to appreciate that the first time he'd been shot in it. With a heave he lifted it up and allowed it to fall over his head. A satisfying series of clicks followed, locking it in place and allowing his HUD to spring to life.
It was still jarring not hearing EMILY's voice when its systems booted up. He was reminded of the first few nights after work when there was no 'welcome home' waiting for him. Still, he shook it off, and began to go through a mental checklist of everything the Patriot had left. The power bar still wasn't showing up, as he'd come to expect. And none of the other systems that had magically vanished had decided to make a return yet. His ammunition was terminally low, as always, and one of his best tools was still damaged beyond use after a nasty encounter in that labyrinth. Norman preferred losing that to his head, but it still wasn't ideal.
Time was nearly up, now. They'd all lose consciousness and appear in some strange arena of a kind and be forced to brutalize one another to entertain the crowds. Some cynical, twisted part of him could see why they enjoyed it. Domo and his ilk had picked a group capable of putting on a hell of a show. The competitors were all dressed up in their own flashy costumes, each mentally preparing for the same thing he was.
He raised a brow at that observation- these weren't just any random assortment of unwilling gladiators. They had costumes. Powers. They were the so-called 'superhumans' that had been so popular before the Age of Heroes came to its violent end. Yet, the heroes and villains of his world were nearly all extinct, and the only one here he recognized was...a dead man...
The realization that hit him was sudden and powerful, like an explosion.
His ears rang with the painfully familiar dirge of a battlefield. A shockwave washed over his armor, and it would've knocked him over if he hadn't caught himself on the wall behind him. Osborn quickly recovered, shoving off from the wall and turning toward the source of the rupture. His optics took a moment to adjust after the blinding flash of light, though once they had they offered him a clear view of the world around him.
All of the prisoners' collars were on the ground, shattered into pieces. There was a hole blown in wall large enough for them to move through, and beyond it lay a scene of devastation. Multiple guards were on the ground, either dead or unconscious. The alien was the first of them to react to the sudden opportunity, shouting a word he was surprised to understand:
The animal part of Osborn's brain reacted to it before the rest could catch up, trying and failing to lift a foot that weighed a hundred pounds.
'God damn it, no! Not now!' He cursed to himself, only just remembering the hyper-advanced wheel clamp stuck to his chest. It hadn't been destroyed in the blast as the collars had, locking Osborn in place even as the other prisoners began their mad rush toward freedom. A painful lump formed in his throat, his heart began to pound in his breast and for the first time in what felt like decades, Norman Osborn felt afraid.
"Peter!" The name left Osborn's lips in a roar before he had time to second guess himself.
Some part of him was surprised Parker even bothered to look back. Norman could've sworn he saw that same surprise on Peter's face when he did it, too.
"I can't move." The words came out quick, bitter and ashamed. "The disc, its interfering with my systems, locking me out of basic functionality-"
Spider-Man hadn't taken another step forward, but he didn't move back, either. He was just staring. Those giant, white eyes of his mask narrowed, the material around his nose and mouth crinkled tight. Osborn hadn't needed to read Spider-Man's soul through his mask for years now, but it was so ingrained in his memory that he knew just what that look meant:
It was rage in its purest, rawest form.
Parker crossed the gap between them quickly. He was a good six inches shorter than Norman in the armor yet at that moment Norman could've sworn Peter was ten feet tall. He loomed over Osborn, that look on his mask shifting and churning. Parker was thinking, and Osborn could tell what about: from Peter's clenched, shaky fist and the fact he hadn't torn the restraint off, Spider-Man was deciding Osborn's fate.
His hand moved quicker than Osborn's eyes could follow. The discus-like device was torn from the armor like the top off a tin can and tossed to the side, crumpled and shattered. A surge of power flowed through the Iron Patriot and Osborn took a single, powerful step forward, placing himself just inches from Spider-Man's face.
Osborn nodded, and the two broke for the exit.
They stepped out into the wider room, revealing more information than before. The alien had just finished swiping a transformed hand through Major Domo's shimmering, ethereal form. He didn't seem in the least bit concerned about the breakout, his demeanor completely unchanged from every other encounter Osborn had had with him before. His confidence was respectable, and rather disquieting, but Norman couldn't allow it to shake his resolve. This was his chance to finally be free of this place. To finally return home. There was a brief thought of finding the one they called Mojo and getting revenge on him for putting them through this, but Osborn discarded it. He had to keep his priorities straight in a time as critical as this.
"Keep going!" He yelled, redundant as it was. Everyone was already sprinting for the door like their lives depended on it, that pale-skinned creature leading the charge. Osborn was just behind them, his boots thundering with their every footfall. His attention shifted toward a sound not unlike gunfire from the other end of the room, where a squadron of guards armed with some form of energy weapon were engaging a threat unseen.
There was no telling how long it'd take for them to notice the fleeing prisoners, or if any of the others could take even a single shot from weaponry like those. Osborn grunted, pushing passed the threshold of their escape. He spun on his heel, placing his armored body between the gaggle of guards and them. He just needed to keep watch long enough for everyone to enter the hallway, and then he could follow.
Norman Osborn kept his hands up, the repulsors embedded in his palms flaring to life in anticipation of use.