Scarlet Nights – I
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Tess had finally relented to Clark’s plan: the gateway, and thereby the only way for Clark to come back to Earth, was to be destroyed if he wasn’t able to return in three hours.
“You know the risks as much as I do, Tess. Losing me is a small price for the world to pay compared to letting it get ripped apart by 28 galaxies’ worth of supernatural criminals. I have to make sure that Slade is the only casualty that’ll come out of the Phantom Zone.”
“’I’ll start getting everything ready.” True to her word, she turned and busied herself with setting up computer execution codes, getting the necessary equipment out to handle the crystal, and hooking it up to the modems. Clark admired Tess’ brave front when faced with impossible odds. It was why she was the only person he could tell. She had the world’s best interests at heart, same as he did. She knew what Zod was like, knew the type of monsters that awaited the chance to destroy the world, and would do her damnedest to make sure they never got it. But she was more fragile than she let on, and that was why Clark felt the overwhelming need to reassure her.
“Superheating the crystal is just the final precaution. I may not have any abilities in the Zone, but my blood is the only thing that can open the gateway, which is why I have to make sure that whatever activated the gateway to let Slade out is a one-time thing.”
Tess placed the crystal on the scanner’s base so that the laser beam hit it dead center. “Clark, there’s gotta be a better way to solve this than to send yourself into inter-dimensional exile.”
“Someone’s releasing people from the Phantom Zone; I need to figure out who – and why – before they release anyone else.”
“You mean we, right? I’m going with him.” At the sound of Oliver’s voice, Clark looked over his shoulder, turning around slightly. He wasn’t sure how he should feel towards Oliver volunteering himself. On the one hand, he was taken aback by his friend’s willingness to risk his life to help him without the slightest concern that he might not come back. On the other, however, Oliver didn’t know what the Phantom Zone was like and Clark owed it to Chloe to keep her husband safe – this time, he didn’t plan on failing that duty.
Clark shifted back around to look at Tess. “You told Oliver I was going in?” Tess faced him, about to reply, but Oliver beat her to the punch.
“Hey, I come back here willing to risk life and limb with you in the Phantom Zone, and I get not so much as a ‘welcome back?’”
He processed the archer’s words, but kept his gaze fixed on Tess, not knowing how, when, or why she called in someone else to enter that frozen hell. “Clark, you’ll be powerless there.” Her voice was calm and matter-of-fact. “Oliver has more experience with that.”
“Thanks,” came Oliver’s sarcastic reply. A small niche in Clark’s brain found it amusing, but he knew Oliver knew exactly what Tess was saying. He felt a familiar pat on his arm. “You could use me in there.”
Clark looked back toward Oliver sharply. “Absolutely not.” This time it was Oliver’s look that Clark couldn’t decipher. “I appreciate the offer, but the Phantom Zone is not a place for humans. I need to do this alone.”
“Not completely alone,” Tess said. She grabbed some sort of watch and walked up to him, taking his left wrist, and strapping it on. “Thanks to Booster’s upgrade, Watchtower should be able to maintain two-way communication using the frequency vibrations in the crystal.” She turned it on and the computer to his right came to life, acknowledging the connection.
Clark sensed the doubt in Oliver’s voice. “Should as in might not?”
Tess seemed to share the doubts Oliver had and went over to the computer. “It’s not exactly a vacation destination, so I haven’t had the chance to test it.” Almost as soon as she finished speaking, the crystal scanner’s beam brightened and an automated female voice announced that the crystal was online. The portal to the Phantom Zone started opening up.
“Clark,” Tess said. Frequency locked. “Be careful.” And come home. She didn’t have to say that part, but Clark had learned to read people’s true meaning behind their words. He chanced a glance to Oliver, who nodded an encouraging farewell. Turning to face the crystal, the portal having opened up a bit further, he stood ready to be sucked in. It wasn’t until he felt a strong pair of arms grab him from behind that he realized Oliver had never had any intention of staying on Earth. But the portal had already taken them both.
The next thing he knew, frigid air was whipping all around him and he was propelled forward. He hit the snow-dusted ground on all fours and heard Oliver’s grunt beside him.
“If I’d have known about the long drop in, I would have brought some rappelling equipment.”
Clark roughly grabbed Oliver’s shoulder and pulled him up close. “If I’d have known you’d ignore my warning to come here, I would have told you to bring it.” He was furious that Oliver had disobeyed and accompanied him, and on top of that, the archer was back to making sarcastic comments. Thing is, the Phantom Zone was too brutal a place to take anything as a joke, much less your arrival. “I know what I’m doing; you should have trusted me.”
“You should have more faith in your friends, Clark,” Oliver said, shrugging off the Kryptonian’s grip, surprisingly easy without the super strength. Clark got up and walked away. “I came here to help you.” Oliver followed Clark through the stalagmites of black ice and rock. “Wherever the hell this is.” The two reached a turning point; looking farther down, they noticed skulls put on pikes, warding off the entrance. “You know where I’m from, people just hang a wreath.”
“It’s a warning from the Zoners,” Clark said. Oliver could see the Omega symbols deeply etched into the white bone. “Consider it a not-so-friendly keep-out sign.”
Oliver looked around again, the looming pillars overhead suddenly seeming a lot more foreboding at the moment. “Guess we didn’t corner the market on darkness.”
“Darkseid’s been to more places in the galaxy than just Earth.” The two continued walking, past the skulls.
“He really gets around. Do you think he had anything to do with tossing Slade back through the portal?”
“I don’t know. But if he’s strong enough to make it here, then no place is safe.” Throughout all his training, Clark had learned everything about the Phantom Zone, including the right to remain there for all eternity. The thought of Darkseid coming and going as easily as the wind whipping around them right now made him shiver inside. He knew he had to remain strong though; if Darkseid saw doubt in him again, then all would be surely lost, and that was something Clark wouldn’t let happen if he could help it.
“Listen, about this zone, Clark?” Clark turned to face Oliver, who still kept looking around. “You know, when you said Jor-El built a prison, I kinda pictured something a little more confined than a national park.”
Clark knew the humans’ definition of prison was forefront in Oliver’s mind, so he explained the reasoning behind such a barren wasteland being used for the Zoners. “He built this place so that Krypton’s worst criminals could have some kind of life.” He turned and walked away, shielding his ruminations from Oliver.
“Seems like a real sweetheart.”
After a few more twists and turns, Clark checked his watch. “Watchtower, you read me?”
Tess’ voice came through the slight static. “We’re picking you up.”
“We reached the gateway.” Clark turned back to Oliver. “There must be some clues to who opened the portal.” As soon as Clark started up the steps, he heard the sound of a Zoner’s imminent approach and remembered Oliver didn’t know much about them. “Phantoms.” Their screeching continued as they got closer to Oliver and his position.
“I thought this was just a clever name for jail.”
“They’re the most dangerous prisoners here. We need to hurry.” Clark ascended the rest of the steps and looked at the stone crest. There was a hole in the middle where the crystal should have been.
“How’s it look?”
Clark realized that with the crystal gone and no clue as to where it might be, he and Oliver were stuck here. With him powerless and neither possessing a weapon of any kind, Clark deduced that the chances of both, or either, of them surviving were close to nil. “Someone took the crystal.”
“But the gate’s still open, right?” He heard Oliver’s concerned voice behind him and turned to look him in the eye.
“You don’t understand. The crystal is the gate.” Clark pointed behind him. “Whoever sent Slade back must’ve taken it with him.”
“It’s our only ticket out of here, Clark.” The screeching resumed. Clark hadn’t noticed the previous abatement. “Get ready.” He stepped down and walked until he was between the Zoners and Oliver. “They’re coming.”
“Okay, here we go.”
A wraith rounded the corner and headed straight for the two of them, consuming them in its shroud, clawing and biting into their flesh. Two more wraiths joined and it was all Clark could do to focus the brunt of it on him. Clark tried landing a punch, but the Zoner grabbed his wrist; one of claws scratched through the strap on the watch and it fell onto the ground. Another Zoner knocked him forward and he could hear the crunch as his knee destroyed the only contact Clark had with Earth. He and Oliver were truly on their own.
The wraith’s torment stopped as two much more solid figures approached through the hall. Clark checked on Oliver, who was as cut up as he was, but alive and on his knees just the same. The figures came and shackled their hands, gruffly pulling them up and walking them through the tunnels into what appeared to be a very crude throne room.
Clark took note of yet another solid figure sitting in the chair, a giant yellow snake woven around him. The robes covered the man’s face, yet Clark could sense something foreboding and strangely familiar about this particular Zoner.
The man stood up and pulled his hood back. It was none other than Zod. Clark looked toward Oliver before they both looked back toward Zod.
“Kneel.” Zod’s voice was much more condescending and arrogant now that he had the two of them at his mercy. Powerless to resist, the two of them were pushed to their knees. Clark felt submissive before the other Kryptonian and had no doubt that the smirk on Zod’s face was there because of it. Though he didn’t have any of his other abilities, his mind still worked like Zod’s, so he focused on the general’s every twitch, to see if he could deduce the next move. Zod lifted his head toward the guards and gave a nod. “Kal-El stays with me.” Zod directed his head toward Oliver. “Put him with the others.”
Clark twisted around to see both the guards haul Oliver to his feet and drag him off down the hallway they had come through. He got to his feet as best he could with his arms still shackled at the wrist. “Where are you taking Oliver?”
“You’re worried for him. You should be.” Clark could hear Zod coming closer with every word and he turned his gaze back to him. Zod was closer than Clark had originally thought and as soon as Zod placed a hand on Clark’s shoulder, he knocked their heads together, sending Clark back to the ground on his knees. “But there’s nothing you can do.”
Clark could see Zod get into a crouching position to level with him. He noticed Zod’s robe was gone now, underneath had been a deep black, almost musketeer-like uniform, complete with a sword.
“I know. It’s terrible – feeling so powerless – when you know you’ve got such strength inside of you with no way of unleashing it.” Zod seemed much more superior to him now than when they were on Earth together, much more devious, controlling . . . calculating.
“Even without the yellow sun, I will find a way to defeat you.”
“You’ll have to work twice as hard.”
Clark picked up on the playful tone, could see Zod’s interest in letting him try. He watched as Zod stood up and walked toward his throne. “Because when I arrived here,” he sat down on the first step up. “I met a very special acquaintance, someone you know . . . and someone I am very very fond of.”
“Me.” Now it made sense – and it made Zod all the more dangerous.
“The original Zod’s phantom.” Clark knew what they were both capable of and it took a moment to sink in that the power duo would be a nigh unstoppable force on his own terrain.
“Finally. Back in the body that you stripped me of.” Zod’s hand came to rest on the hilt of his sword, drawing it out slowly. “Now I have the full knowledge of two lives and you . . . you’re my enemy in both.”
Clark knew he had to rely on his inner strength rather than his super-strength to outwit the two Zods now joined as one inside this frozen hell. “And I defeated you in both.” He saw Zod’s nod and grimace at his words and knew he had struck a chord. It would be a battle of wills and vulnerable flesh that would get him and Oliver out of here alive – if Oliver were still alive.
Zod rose to his feet and stood above Clark. “Which is why it will give me double the satisfaction to see you kneel.” Clark felt the tip of the blade against his chest, the cotton T-shirt providing no defense against the cold steel. Zod let the blade slip downward and dig in where one of the wraiths had already tunneled into his body with their claws. “Serve . . . ‘til you die.”
Clark could feel the sword go in deeper. As much as Clark would have liked to verbally defy the tyrant standing before him, he knew goading Zod wouldn’t end well, for him or Oliver. However, Clark let his eyes speak his hatred. Zod relented his sword’s torture and leaned in close.
“You sent me to my death sentence. You left me at the mercy of those Kandorians. This was my punishment.”
Clark dropped his gaze and noticed his House’s crystal dangling from a length of wire, the two fashioned into some sort of pendant. He now had the way out of this place. Now all he needed to do was get Oliver close to him as well. To do that he needed to play it cool – play it smart. He looked back up at Zod, schooling his expression so as not to reveal the hope around the man’s neck.
“Jor-El built this place for your kind.” He could see Zod rear back and took the punch that came his way.
“My kind? Is that why you sent Slade here?”
Clark hadn’t known Zod knew about Slade, but it made sense now.
“What would Jor-El think about you using his prison for your purposes? There’s no trial, no jury, just the rule of Kal-El.”
Clark didn’t have to think about his father’s opinions of his actions regarding Slade. He regretted them enough. His inner turmoil was only half-reduced when Slade came back through the portal. Yes, Slade was a monster of a man, but he was only a man, and Clark had sent him to a place that made him look like an angel.
“But I suppose in the end, it became your undoing, didn’t it?” Clark wasn’t sure how Zod saw that far into him, but he was dead-on and there was no denying it. But his wits started working again. The only reason Slade was back on Earth was because Zod knew he wouldn’t track down and kill him given he was human. Had it been any other phantom, Clark wouldn’t have hesitated to do just that. But to release Slade, Clark would have to go to the Phantom Zone to make sure none of the other inhabitants escaped. Except the crystal was taken after Slade returned.
“It was all a trap. And you knew, once that I saw Slade had been sent back, I’d come here looking for answers.”
“And you came.” Their gaze held only for a moment longer before Zod walked past Clark. He could hear shouting and cheering coming from behind him, but it didn’t seem like Zod was in the mood for more chit-chat.
Clark knew he had to play the ace up his sleeve to get more information out of Zod about his plans. “You have the console crystal. How?” As he predicted, he could hear Zod stop.
“We’re blood brothers, Kal-El. Have you forgotten how you healed me with your blood on Earth?”
Clark remembered, but it was something he would do again, damn the consequences. But Zod was wrong on one account. “We’re not brothers.” Clark managed to get to his feet. “I saved you because it was the right thing to do.” He turned to look at Zod. “We have nothing in common.”
“We’re from the same world. Do you really think that having powers is the only thing that makes you Kryptonian? It’s not.” Zod now walked back towards him. “We share the same instincts. We’re decisive . . . single-minded, headstrong. No, we were meant to be leaders.”
“Leaders? You’re a tyrant who only believes in himself.”
Zod showed no remorse at Clark’s words. “Who else should I put my faith in? We both know that trusting others is a . . . calculated risk, one a Kryptonian is not willing to take.”
There was that word, calculated. Clark again realized that he was working against two Zods and not one. Everything he was thinking was being blocked and rerouted by the man in front of him.
“We can easily fool those closest to us, can’t we? But we can lean on no one. Do you remember that most famous story about two brothers from your adopted planet? You’ve got Cain.” Clark knew it was no coincidence that Zod used the fist holding the sword to symbolize the dark brother. “And Abel. Which brother are you, Kal-El?”
Clark knew he was Abel, but it would spoil the game if he answered too fast, or was it doubt attempting to take over again? If he could send Slade here, to this hell, did he have it in him to kill? He couldn’t allow himself to believe that, but doubt has a funny way of rooting its home in your weakest spot. “Well, I’d never murder you. I saved you.”
Zod’s next blow Clark hadn’t anticipated and he landed back on his knees, the shocks making their way through his body. And again, Zod loomed over him. “You exiled me. I’m in charge here. And you’re about to find out what that means . . . brother.” Clark could hear the venom in the last word, Zod’s insistence on calling him that when Clark so desperately didn’t want to believe it. Zod turned around and left through the hallway, as arrogant as when Clark first stepped into the throne room.
No sooner had he had a moment to think, two more guards appeared, shrouded in dark robes like the others. They dragged him down the hallway and through another set of winding corridors. Clark could hear the noise getting louder and as they approached, he noticed the clearing was set up as an arena. Large cages held some of the prisoners, while others were standing free, cheering on as two warriors battled in the inner circle. Zod had already taken his place at the head of the arena, overlooking the match.
As he was taking everything in, Clark barely noticed that one of the guards had gone off to stand her post and the other one had removed the shackles. He could hear his name being shouted and saw Oliver in the cage closest to him.
“They want you to fight . . . to the death.” Clark looked toward Zod. This is what he had meant in the throne room. He had asked whether Clark would be willing to kill, because that was what Zod wanted him to do. He was forcing Clark to choose between letting himself die and Earth be taken over by Darkseid, or staying alive by Zod’s rules in the hopes that he would be able to return before it was too late to save the humans from their own vices.
As Clark turned his attention to the fight going on at the moment, he saw the larger of the two men swing an axe violently at the other. One slice to knock away his shield, one to knock out his equilibrium just long enough for the third – the death blow. Even though the defeated man’s back was to him, the amount of blood that sprayed out from the wound confirmed his demise. The man fell backward and Zoner guards collected his body, unceremoniously dragging it from the arena. Clark was disgusted by the way the victor took pride in taking the man’s life. Somehow, Clark found himself caught in the center of the ring, people closing in around him. He heard Oliver’s warning only seconds before the victor took another swing, this time at him.
Clark jumped back and the axe’s blade narrowly missed slicing out his intestines, but the opponent was merciless. He swung yet again, a diagonal blow that Clark was able to dodge. It was two-handed, cumbersome, easily avoided. If Clark didn’t take the offensive much, he could continue dodging until the man tired out. The man lunged and Clark moved backward, against a pillar of ice. He ducked the man’s next blow and the axe shattered the ice instead of Clark’s brains.
“The shield . . . use the shield!”
Oliver came through again. Clark picked up the fallen man’s shield and used it to block the brunt of the blows his opponent now showered down upon him. The third one sliced the shield completely in half and Clark got to his feet quickly enough to move out of the way of another downward swing. With the axe’s blade wedged slightly in the ground, his opponent was open. Clark, using his shield instead of his fist, uppercut the man. Clark then used what was left of the shield one last time to knock the weapon away. Both of them were now defenseless and weapon-less and were forced to rely on brute strength.
Clark ran in, head down, to try and knock the man off balance, but his momentum was used against him as the guy easily deflected him, pushing him down. He hit the ground in front of Oliver’s cage and his friend tossed a helmet to him. Clark got back on his feet and, noticing the man had picked up his axe again, slammed the helmet upward into the guy’s face. He ducked through another swing of the axe and used the helmet again toward the other side of his opponent’s face. The guy readied himself for another swing, but Clark swung first, the helmet striking the man directly under the chin. This time, it was his opponent that fell backward, stopped by the cage. Clark watched as the man used the cage for support, trying desperately to get back on his feet and into the fight.
The last thing Clark wanted to do was go through another round in which he might not be the one to make it out alive. He readied the helmet for another swing, but his anger was brought to a standstill by the crowd’s deafening shouts of “kill, kill, kill.” Clark took a good look at the other guy’s face, blood on his face, helmet askew, the metal most likely cutting into some part of his face or neck, but more importantly, the fear Clark saw in his eyes. Death was easy enough to accept if it wasn’t your own, but the realisation of your last few moments put most in a shock. Clark didn’t have it in him to rob anyone of their life and he could hold the helmet as high, as threatening, as long as he wanted to, but it wouldn’t change the fact that when it came down to it, Clark would never go through with it. He dropped his arm and turned to face the blood-thirsty crowd. He paused when he connected his gaze with Zod’s and threw the helmet onto the ground behind him, blatantly refusing to take his opponent’s life. The crowd got angry, but it was Zod, sitting back in his chair, disappointment evident, that was the only thing that held Clark’s attention.
Then Zod stood up, a smirk on his face. In his eyes, Clark could see yet another game, another test, playing itself out in Zod’s mind. He held up his hand, wordlessly calling for silence, and the crowd abated.
“In the arena, we answer failure with the only thing suitable . . . death.” At Zod’s last word, the crowd started its cheering. Who were these people, to treat life so poorly as long as it were not their own? Clark spotted a guard on either side of him and they crossed pikes in front of his chest. Zod descended the steps into the ring, grabbing the hilt of his sword. He unsheathed it and, once again, at the first sign of promised bloodshed, the crowd cheered him on. Zod pointed the tip of the blade at Clark and, just when Clark thought he was about to take the blow, Zod thrust the blade into the man still backed against the cage. He saw as Oliver moved to the side to avoid the blood-coated blade now sticking through to the other side.
Clark was appalled at Zod’s action but without his powers, there was nothing Clark could do now to the help the man. He was stunned as the man fell lifeless to the ground. He looked toward Zod with hate in his eyes. “You killed him for no reason.” The pikes against his chest prevented him from getting any closer to Zod, but they didn’t prevent him from trying.
“In any arena, one fighter walks away. When are you going to learn? It’s kill or be killed. It always was.”
“Maybe in your world, but not in mine.”
Zod smiled at him, triumph in his eyes. “This is my world.” Clark saw him turn to walk away, only to pause and deliver a warning straight to him. “Oh, and consider this your one free pass. If you fail to finish the job again, it’ll be you dragged along by your heels.”
Zod glanced away from him, toward the spot where Oliver was and Clark could only imagine what sinister test Zod had invented for the two of them. There was no way Clark would take Oliver’s life. Zod met Clark’s gaze once again before turning away and resuming his place at the top, his lesson taught. He signaled for another match to begin, but the guards were already leading Clark to the cages. He was shoved roughly into the one beside Oliver, his shoulder slammed up against the grate separating the two of them.
“You’d have a better chance of surviving your dad’s desert than Zod’s thunderdome.”
“Hiding out in the wasteland’s not going to help.” One of the combatants hit the cage hard and moved away quickly from the approaching opponent.
“I’d rather take my chances playing patty cakes with the phantoms.”
“Zod has what we need to get home. We’re running out of time. Before you invited yourself, Tess and I put a plan in motion to protect Earth if any phantoms escaped.” The fight going on outside the cage turned ugly as one of the combatants beat the other one to the ground.
“What’d you do, set it to self-destruct?” Clark looked toward Oliver seriously as his friend, ever the vigilant archer, hit the target’s mark dead center. Oliver’s casual dismissal that Clark would actually do that faded into the realization that their chances of going home decreased by the second. Clark could see the fear evident in Oliver’s eyes now. “She set it to self-destruct.”
Clark nodded. The look in Oliver eyes seemed like betrayal to Clark, and Clark failed to hold the gaze. He should have told Tess that if anyone else came with him to abort the plan, but Tess was hard. She would keep to the original mission, no matter the cost, knowing that releasing this hell onto the Earth was a million times worse than losing two of the team. This knowledge seemed to strengthen Clark’s resolve that he had made the right choice. “It’s the only option.”
“How does Lois feel about that?”
“Lois doesn’t know.” Clark knew that if he’d had to face Lois and tell her that he might not make it back home, she would have refused to let him make the necessary sacrifice. “But I hope to get us out of here before we have to worry about that.”
“And how’re you gonna do that? You can’t bend metal in here. You can’t super-speed us back in time, Clark.”
“I know everything Jor-El wrote about the Phantom Zone. And I know how Zod thinks.” The crowd shouted the kill mantra once again, pulling Clark’s attention to the fight. A beheading. Clark gritted his teeth as yet another life was taken in the forty-five minutes they’d been here.
“Well, I hope all your studying paid off, ‘cause it’s test time.” Clark looked toward Oliver once again. Test time. He was worried that perhaps Oliver was a little too close to Zod’s thinking as well. Nevertheless, he was sure that Zod was going to make them fight each other and, if his display earlier was any indication, it was going to end in one or both of their deaths. Since that was the case, Clark knew he had to talk to Oliver about how to approach the tyrant.
“Oliver, listen to me. You need to make Zod think you’re on his side, think you’ll kill me.”
He saw the confusion in his friend’s eyes. “Clark, I would never . . .”
“Listen to me! Zod won’t let you. I bet you anything he’ll want to kill me himself, some sick form of self-satisfaction. So don’t hold all the way back when you get to the final blow. Once Zod’s close enough, I can grab the crystal and we can get home. The crystal should heal any wounds I get, so don’t worry about hurting me. Just keep a cool head so you don’t get hurt.”
“Clark, I’m not sure about this. What if he doesn’t stop me?” The guards opened the door to Oliver’s cage, grabbing him and dragging him out. “Clark?”
“He will.” Clark wasn’t sure when he would see Oliver again, what Zod would do to him, say to him, but if they faced each other in the arena, he needed to know Oliver would trust him. And Oliver’s timid nod showed that all the trust Oliver had was in him, at least until they got out of here and Oliver could rely on himself again. Then, Oliver turned into the guards’ direction, led off down the hallway that Clark had come through. He looked toward the dais in the arena and noticed that Zod had left. Oliver would be subject to him now, but Clark had every faith that Oliver would stand by him.
Oliver was pushed down to his knees as the guards stopped before Zod’s throne. “At least here, you are on equal footing with Kal-El. Having to walk alongside someone with the powers of a god must be so demoralizing.”
“My ego’s firmly intact, thank you very much.” Zod smiled at Oliver’s fighter instinct. “If you release your pet monkeys here, I’d be more than willing to give the Wicked Witch a personal demonstration.”
Zod’s smile stayed and he nodded gently to the guards. “Go.” The guards released their hold on Oliver and left obediently at their ruler’s command. “Yeah. That’s it. That’s the anger I was looking for.” Zod got up and approached Oliver. “That dark side of you that you fear so badly, and you should.” Zod turned away and headed toward a table. “I’ve seen what Darkseid is capable of.”
“What do you know?”
“After the Kandorians sent me here, a very powerful entity came looking for me.” Zod turned back toward Oliver. “Darkseid promised me lordship over this dominion if I solved one problem for him.”
Oliver got to his feet. “Clark.”
“Darkseid has certain ambitions for your planet.”
“The thing is, we took care of that. We blocked him. Took care of his three little minions too.”
Zod smirked. “Kal-El might delude himself, as usual, that he’s won but . . . there are millions, millions on Earth just waiting to surrender to the will of Darkseid. And you,” Zod walked up to Oliver and stared him down, “. . . friend, are one of them.”
Oliver was indeed marked with the Omega symbol, but he had kept on following Clark. Perhaps doing so would bring back the light he had lost when he had given into his wrath that night. He looked down, almost ashamed that he had allowed himself to become a servant of Darkseid. He noticed Zod holding a cup of water out to him and he took it slowly. His eyes rose up to meet the man in front of him.
“I know exactly what you’re doing.”
“Yeah. But you know it’s true, don’t you?” Zod licked his lips. “And it goes way back. After your parents were murdered, that anger . . . and desire for revenge . . . ah, you can feel it now, can’t you, that . . . darkness bubbling under the surface.” Zod held his gaze with Oliver, pausing only a little longer to let his words sink in. “It terrifies you.”
“Well, even if that were true, I would beat it.” Oliver walked past Zod so the man wouldn’t be able to see his expression of self-loathing.
“Too late. You’re an agent of Darkseid now. Just one of the many sinful souls at his beck and call. What would Clark think, knowing you were a marked man?”
Zod relished the time it took Oliver to answer to that, knowing that Oliver was starting to wonder what Clark would do if he found out the truth. When Oliver spoke, Zod could hear the hesitancy and doubt in the human’s voice.
“He would, uh . . . he’d stand by me.”
“But his faith in you would be compromised. That mistrust, it would grow. It would manifest like a cancer.” Zod’s voice was quiet, almost a whisper, punctuating each word subtly, knowing the less obtrusive his declaration, the more quickly it would find itself buried underneath Oliver’s skin, itching, with no way out, no fighter instinct battling it. “Inevitably, you’ll be cast aside, out of his good graces, like I was.” Zod walked up behind Oliver. “We can rule here, together, as brothers.”
Oliver turned to Zod now, disbelief showing slightly in his eyes. Zod saw that and knew that complete honesty would win Oliver over to him. There was no need to lie about his ambitions; Oliver already knew what he was capable of.
“I was looking for a brother in Kal-El. I was. Ultimately, I realized we have nothing in common.” Zod allowed himself to laugh off the major differences between himself and Clark. He took a key out of his pocket and stretched his hands out to Oliver’s shackles, unlocking one of them as a small promise of freedom if Oliver switched alliances. He backed away a few steps, allowing Oliver every chance to escape if should want to. But though his body proved no obstacle, his gaze still held the human in check, sizing him up as a man. “Unlike you and I.”
Oliver’s jaw twitched at the comparison, but he nodded his consent after thinking it through. “He does set the bar pretty high, doesn’t he?” Oliver had taken a humorous approach and Zod chuckled along with him appropriately, not dropping his guard too much in case Oliver’s deception was two-sided.
“Kal-El would never embrace his dark side and because of that . . . he will die here, but you . . . you can be saved. If you’re brave enough to walk along that darker path.” Zod had slowly been walking back up to Oliver and now his hand came to rest on the human’s shoulder. Oliver looked toward it, that symbol of brotherhood, of friendship, of allegiance. “You have to honor it.” Oliver’s eyes came back up to look into Zod’s, as a student looking into the eyes of his mentor. “You have to draw from that darkness, because if you don’t . . . you will die.”
Zod schooled his expression into that of concern for Oliver’s life, letting the human believe that his death would be a tragedy to one so strong, so full of promise, of darkness. He let himself exhale the tiniest confirmation of pride in his execution of soliloquy. Zod moved his hand slightly from Oliver’s shoulder, gripping the hem of Oliver’s sleeve between his thumb and forefinger. “Shall we get you dressed for the fight?”
Oliver inclined his head in respect then turned away. He drank deeply from the cup of water, before setting it on the table. He then took off his shirt, leaving himself exposed to the cold air. Oliver turned back toward Zod, who took the gray material from him and placed it on the table beside the water basin. He went to a corner of the room where a makeshift armor stand was. He chose a chest plate of some kind along with a pair of dark gloves.
Zod walked back over and placed the armor down on the table. Oliver noted this with confusion and when Zod looked toward him, he cocked his head a little further. His confusion ended when Zod’s mouth claimed his own. Zod’s hand grasped the back of his head and pulled him closer. Oliver matched the man’s urgency. He placed both his hands on either side of Zod’s hips, pulling him closer as well. When they broke apart, they let their eyes continue the battle that their tongues had started.
A clinking sound drew Oliver’s attention down to where Zod had unlocked the other shackle and the chained cuffs fell to the ground. Oliver leaned forward, initiating round two, but Zod put a hand to his chest. He turned and picked up the chest plate once more, walking around Oliver to come up behind him. He placed the armor in position and Oliver held it in place as Zod buckled it, his movements over Oliver’s bare skin sensuous. Zod smoothed down the shoulder guard before taking a step to close the distance between their bodies. He leaned his head into Oliver’s and whispered into his ear.
“You are truly remarkable, you know that? A perfect specimen of the human race. It’s survival of the fittest out there, and you, Oliver, are certainly fit.”
“Well, after the match, perhaps I’ll show you just how fit.” Oliver’s interest in Zod shown through his eyes and Zod nodded, the interest mutual. Oliver turned and brushed past Zod on his way to the gloves. He pulled them on. They didn’t cover his hand completely, leaving his fingers bare; a hole was ripped into the fabric where his thumb went. The fashion allowed for a solid grip while giving his palms and wrist the protection they needed for hand to hand combat if it had to go that far.
Zod walked back to the armor stand and took two swords, sheathing them into the straps that crossed Oliver’s back. Oliver grasped the hilts to prevent them from falling back out. “I’ll see you after the match then.”
Having said that, Zod left. Oliver took a deep breath before taking his time to walk out to the arena.
As he approached the ring, he drew out the swords slightly, noticing Zoners backing out of the way. His view of his opponent clear, he noted that Clark had been armored as well; he’d been given a red cape, a sword, and a shield.
Clark turned when he heard the crowd start their cheering again. His opponent was as he feared – Oliver. What he hadn’t expected, though, was the coldness in Oliver’s eyes, the set determination to fight. When Oliver’s gaze looked beyond him, to the dais behind him, it was as if Oliver was seeking Zod’s approval, his permission. Clark looked back to Zod as well, who had taken his seat only a few moments ago. What had he said? What had he done? Clark hoped with every fibre of his being that Oliver was simply playing his role, that Zod hadn’t broken his friend. Clark saw Zod give a nod, and was confused for a moment. Did he want the fight to start now? He turned back to Oliver, who had advanced rapidly.
Clark was taken aback by the sudden attack. Oliver lunged forward and Clark backed away. Oliver’s other arm came up to swing his sword and Clark met the blade with his shield. Oliver kept swinging at the shield, but Clark held onto it, though his arm was throbbing from the reverberations. Oliver switched to swing his left sword but Clark parried with his own blade, then Oliver swung his right sword another time. Clark blocked with his shield and attacked with his sword. Oliver easily deflected it with his left blade. Clark had left his sword arm open and Oliver sliced a deep cut into his bicep. Clark saw Oliver walk away, practically satisfied that he had won the first round. Clark remembered that he had told Oliver to not spare him any wounds, but Oliver wasn’t fighting like the Oliver he knew. It was as if . . .
Clark got back up and met Oliver in battle once again. This time Oliver brought both swords down and Clark had to use all his strength to shield himself. He parried another of Oliver’s attacks with his sword and dodged away from another lunge. Their stances reversed. Oliver attacked again, relentlessly. He went to kick Clark in the stomach but Clark was able to barely sidestep it. Another attack and Clark used his shield again. He swung his sword at Oliver’s this time and jump kicked him in the chest while he was distracted. He could see that Oliver had lost the grip on his left sword. But Oliver was back on his feet in a split second, barely fazed. Clark realized he had never given Oliver’s fighting skills enough credit. Three attacks with the sword and Clark deflected them – shield, sword, shield. He tried taking a swipe at Oliver but Oliver used his free hand to guide Clark’s elbow away from him and then brought his sword down on Clark’s, knocking it out of his hands. But Clark still had his shield, which he used to block another of Oliver’s swings. He was able to throw his full weight into the sword, practically bashing it back into Oliver’s sword, causing him to drop it.
Clark used his shield as an offensive weapon and swung it toward Oliver, who, now with both hands free, grasped it and pushed it back, the two at a momentary impasse. Clark could see the fire in Oliver’s eyes, as well as . . . was that hatred? With both of them pushing against the other, Clark wasn’t sure why Oliver’s expression changed until he sidestepped and flung Clark to the ground, wrenching the shield away from him on the way down. Clark stumbled to his feet and Oliver bashed the shield upward against his jaw. Clark could feel the blood pool in his mouth and, knocked back once again, his jaw loosened and he could see the red liquid fly out and land on the ground, mixing together with all the rest of the spilt blood that stained the permafrost.
Clark used his arms to brace his fall, and pushed himself off to land on his side. He saw Oliver drop the shield to the ground and pick up one of the swords. Clark tried getting to his feet quickly then, but Oliver wasted no time in attacking, and Clark was still on his knees when the sword came down. Clark grabbed Oliver’s wrist in an attempt to throw him off. He pulled himself to his feet using Oliver as leverage and landed a punch that sent Oliver to the ground. He could see Oliver clutch his stomach. Was he hurt? Clark couldn’t see what had kept Oliver down, so instead of grabbing a weapon, he jumped up to land a punch to Oliver’s back. But then Oliver turned toward him, a sword held stiffly in his hand. Without his powers, Clark couldn’t manipulate the gravity to throw him back. Before he could register anything else, he felt the cold steel embed itself all the way through his stomach, the leather armor giving way like butter, his flesh without any form of resistance. Oliver’s gaze was dark and Clark could barely see any sign that his friend was inside at all. The sword had punctured him just below his left lung, barely missing his vitals.
He looked at Oliver, whose gaze never wavered from hate. The sword was still inside of Clark and Oliver put his weight on it as he stood up. Clark felt more shock than pain as the sword dug a little deeper. Oliver ripped it out and Clark sunk to all fours, trying to catch his breath and breathe through the shock. He pressed his hands to his wound and could feel the warm liquid coating them, cooling rapidly as it exited his body. Oliver kept a hand on Clark’s shoulder, forcing him to stay down.
And the kill mantra started up. For the first time, Clark was scared that it would be the last time he would hear it. The look in Oliver’s eyes was unforgiving. Clark saw Oliver draw his arm up, poised dramatically for a killing blow and it gave him hope that Oliver was still going along with the plan. Then Zod’s voice rang through the arena, loud and clear, a single word piercing through the deafening noise.
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