My former lieutenant and inquisitor, Thomas Torquemada, stands before me and laughs. My soldiers point their weapons at me and advance.
My fury knows no bounds. I glare at the soldiers--at my soldiers--and draw myself up to my full height. I have no doubt that my blue facemask conveys even more rage than I feel--which is, at that moment, considerable.
"I order you to arrest the Inquisitior. Now!"
Unbelievably, the soldiers ignore me.
"Who is your leader here?" I demand. "Who is your lord and master?"
They actually seem to waver, to hesitate momentarily.
An unmistakable hint of fear--of panic--flashes across Torquemada's face at that moment. And at that same moment, I know I will have him.
Just--not at this time.
The moment passes. Torquemada snaps his fingers again. The troops move forward again.
In a flash, my sidearms are in my hands, the barrels swinging up. A barrage of energy flashes out in every direction as I whirl, firing the weapons at full discharge. A pity to have to annihilate my own troops--my elite palace guard, no less--but I swear to myself that Torquemada will more than pay for their loss, as well as for his betrayal.
As for the Inquisitor himself, he had vanished the moment I'd summoned my weapons. Too busy driving back my rebellious troops and seeking a more defensible location in the room, I fail to notice him slipping up behind me, until it is too late.
"Foolish Conqueror, always thinking 'attack' when defense would be much wiser."
I whirl again, but it is too late. His hand brushes my shoulder, and my armor shudders, sparks flying from every joint and seam.
Quickly I seek to trigger my personal force field, but to no avail. It is offline.
"Tsk, tsk," he scolds me. "Had you thought to activate the field sooner, you might have survived. But of course, that would be so out-of-character for the great Conqueror, who seeks to attack, always attack..."
My armor's indicators dropping by the second, I know I can scarcely maintain the barrage that is keeping the troops at bay. Only one thing to do--much as it galls me to even consider. I have to escape.
One problem there--
"You are probably discovering about now that your time-travel circuits have been melted, as well, yes?"
Blast him. He thinks he has me. Never!
"Cease your attack," he calls to the troops, and they hesitate. He smiles.
I am still surrounded, backed into a corner, hopelessly vulnerable as my armor's systems continue to short out.
Only one chance--a tactic I know all too well, as my foes have used it against versions of me, from time to time.
"What's your plan, Thomas?" I ask. "You already had nearly supreme power across most of my empire. Was that not enough?"
He smiles again, considering. "Very well, I will tell you-- as it was your own musings on your fate that prompted me to seek the answers I have found, and set me upon this path.
"The first part is simple. You have always been, say, Genghis Khan, conquering and moving on, always restless, never still. But I have remained behind, as you have moved on, always putting my own people in power, spreading my influence, undermining your authority. I fear you will scarcely find a single world, a single era, still loyal to you.
"But it goes far beyond that.
"Long have you lamented, to me and to others, that you are merely mortal, with a mortal's lifespan. How, you have asked, can you ever govern and control an empire of nearly infinite size and scope, in both space and time, when you yourself will die of old age--or become someone else, with no interest in such things--all too soon?
"The answer was simple enough. Gain immortality, without losing your identity.
"You have never been able to accomplish that. But now, I have."
I clench my teeth. "How?"
"An alliance." He paces about, the soldiers behind him waiting patiently. Absently I wonder how he's managed to subvert their loyalty so completely.
"They are a race--or, perhaps, a single life form--from outside the bounds of our universe. I don't know the specifics, and frankly, I don't care. They call themselves the Blight."
"The Blight?" I'd never heard of them.
"Yes. They are an odd bunch... They exist as much as a computer virus, of sorts, as they do anything else." He shrugs. "I have disabled the warning stations at the farthest reaches of your empire. Even now, my new allies spread their influence across your empire, throughout time and space. Soon, very soon, they will control everything, everywhen. But they are not physically suited to actual physical domination of our sort of life forms. They need an intermediary."
"That would be you."
"Just so. Granted eternal life, by them, so that they might have a reliable, dependable agent to govern their realm for all eternity." He sighed happily. "I must thank you, Kang, for bringing me from my own era and introducing me to such wonders as you have. But I'm afraid destiny calls me on, beyond the place you would have allowed me."
He raises his hand a final time--
--and I pounce. Having saved up the last of my energy during his lengthy dissertation, I use it all now, punching him hard across the jaw, decking him, and then diving under a heavy wooden table, reduced in humiliating fashion to actually crawling across the floor in my own sanctum, seeking just the right tile in the floor, finding it, and--
Humming fills the chamber. The portal opens. My hidden gateway, my bolt hole for just such an emergency--an emergency I never thought would actually arise.
"We will meet again, Thomas," I tell him, as he struggles angrily to his feet. "And you will not outlive the occasion."
He lunges for me, but the one-shot portal opens, closes, and carries me away, slamming closed behind me even as the hidden mechanism instantly self-destructs.
I tumble through the time-stream for some long moments, away from Chronopolis, down through the centuries, toward--where?
Two possibilities present themselves immediately.
One, I can go back a bit, to a day or so before my Grand Inquisitor's betrayal, and warn myse--
Second option: Go somewhere else, and find help.
Help. Laughable. Help against the entire brute force of my army, my empire.
No one in all of space and time has ever stood up to me. No one. N--
And so, as I lie here now, on the sidewalk of New York City, in the shadows of this aging brownstone, and look over my cracked and sparking suit, wiring and insulation ripped free and dangling from numerous rips and gashes, I think back to the choices that brought me to this place, and I wonder--could I have prevented this? If I could go back and change things--
--and of course, I could go back, easily. I'm Kang, after all. Except that--
--I have nowhere to go. No-when. My adversary has taken everywhere, everywhen away from me. My forces, scattered across space and time, refuse my orders, and follow him instead. I have nowhere to go, nowhen to turn. No one to ask for help.
Except... perhaps... just perhaps...
...those so-called heroes who have bedeviled me for so much of my career...?
Irony? You want irony?
How ironic would that be?
I summon my strength, set my jaw, and slowly walk up the steps to
KANG WILL RETURN