by Kirby Ray
A dark and sinister army makes itself known to the world...
CHAPTER 2: THE KING OF BLACK STARS
The footage shown by Channel 5 News was like something out of a blockbuster movie: an army of black-clad soldiers marched robotically through the streets of Yerevan, Armenia, while a bizarre craft floated through the air like a storm cloud. The craft looked like a bizarre combination of a battleship and a palace, and as the camera zoomed in, the same soldiers could be seen leaping from the ship and landing in the streets and on rooftops with all the grace of Olympian gymnasts. Massive cannons adorned the sides of the ship, yet no shots were fired; whoever commanded the craft seemed content to litter the city with soldiers.
"For those of you just tuning in, we must repeat that this is not a clip from a movie or TV show--it is happening live in Armenia," a news anchor described. "What you are seeing is Yerevan, the nation's capital, being invaded by some sort of unidentified flying object and soldiers of unknown origin. Reports are coming in that the UFO appeared in the Gegham Mountains to the east roughly thirty minutes ago, while it began deploying troops only ten minutes ago. It is important to note that no nation or organization has accepted responsibility for this, and several militaries have claimed that no such craft has been documented before."
"Ya think?" Rosa quipped before Bian tugged her back down into her seat.
The footage then cut to the street, where people ran in panic, abandoned their cars, and hid inside the nearest buildings, all to get away from the shadowy invaders. Though much of the footage was grainy and jittery, a few clear shots came through and showed the legion menace in full detail. The dark soldiers marching through the street resembled riot police, but with a few alterations: there was a dinner plate-sized ring around their heads, an eight-pointed star embedded in their chests, and the face shield was connected to the head. Said face shield was opaque and revealed nothing of the invaders; even the best footage could not identify the horde.
The same news anchor continued, "As you can see from this handheld footage uploaded just minutes ago, you can see that none of these soldiers have any identifiers--no symbols, flags, or recognizable uniform."
"And if you watch them, look at how they move," another anchor said to the masses watching. "They move in perfect lockstep, but their movements are so stiff...almost robotic."
"Indeed, but we don't want to make any assumptions at this time," the first reporter explained to his partner. "We've just received word that local authorities are engaging the invaders, so let's switch over to the aerial again."
When the footage cut to the aerial view again, it showed that a mass of police officers had blocked off the road and were firing on the horde. As the camera zoomed in, it showed that some of the invaders were struck down, but if one fell, its compatriots merely walked over its body as they advanced as one. Eventually, after a dozen or so had fallen, the shadowy soldiers raised their right hands as a rod was forced out from their wrist, which they then seized with the same hands. Now they really looked like riot police; all they needed was a shield to complete the look.
"Great Scott," Warren remarked, face pale with fright. "I was just there a few weeks ago."
"Looks like you got out just in time," Davide replied darkly, a grimace on his face.
After a few more fell to the officers, the invaders stopped in their tracks, reared their arms back, and hurled the clubs at the police blockade. The blockade was blown apart by terrific explosions as the students watching recoiled in screams and gasps, save for Jay, who studied the action on screen with morbid curiosity. She quickly flipped over the syllabus Ms. Kilpatrick had given her and sketched out every little detail about the shadowy horde.
"Eight-point star...ring around head--halo, maybe...nightstick could be primary weapon, maybe secondary...double as grenades," the young scholar murmured to herself while she drew as fast as her fingers could manage.
After recovering from the shock of the attack, one of the anchors fumblingly explained to the viewers, "For, ah, for those of you that can't quite tell, it--the invaders, rather--appear to be armed with some sort of grenade or expul--explosive, I mean, and..."
As the mild-mannered reporter struggled to speak, his speech became warped and incoherent as something interrupted the signal. The footage in Yerevan shifted to a darkened room, where a lone figure sat in a massive throne with a ten-point star at the back. A harsh sound permeated the air, like cruel cackling and metal grinding on metal, and the slight shift in the figure's posture revealed that it came from the thing in question.
"How pitiful," it groaned in a deep, echoing voice. "I had expected some measure of resistance, but this? This is pathetic--shooting fish in a barrel is a more trying task than conquering one of your cities."
When the figure rose from the throne and walked into the meager light in the room, it became easier to see but no less simple to identify. It had an ovaloid face framed inside a mass of black iron shaped into a decahedron; two golden lights peered out from the metal mane in a cold imitation of eyes. Its hands were made of the same metal, and while they resembled a human's, they were big enough to hold a truck tire comfortably in their palms. Likewise, its feet were covered in black iron, though the ore was much more compact and realistically proportioned. A chest plate covered its abdomen in wrought metal, but its sides were left exposed. Everything not covered in iron was white silk, including the cape that flowed behind it like a train.
"And to think that this is but a small fraction of my army's power," the figure chuckled grimly. "Wiping your pathetic civilization off the face off the Earth would be a mercy; better than allowing you to struggle fruitlessly. Regardless of whether you fight back or not, your world will fall to me, Lord Cosmic--"
"The King of Black Stars," Jay whispered as she froze with fear. Her pencil snapped in her fingers as she watched the figure of her grandfather's stories came to life before her very eyes.
Lord Cosmic gestured out with his massive hands and told a captive audience, "I once ruled every inch of this planet--all the birds in the sky, beasts on the land, and fish in the sea bowed to my rule. Mine were the hands that shaped the mountains; my fists, the creators of canyons and valleys. The world bent to my whim and, were it not for the fickle winds of fate, my reign would have lasted for eternity and a day. I have rested for countless millennia, and now I wake to a world that no longer recognizes its proper masters; your feeble efforts to stop my invincible army are proof of that.
"This attack will be the first of many, for my army is mobilizing all across the globe even as we speak. My Saturnight legion is stronger than any of your weapons; not even your most powerful missiles would stop them. Observe, if you will."
A viewing screen activated behind the diabolical man, showcasing the destruction in the streets of Yerevan. As the Saturnights marched down the roads, their fallen slowly rose back to their feet like puppets being hoisted by their strings. They twisted their heads from side to side, which created a sickening crackle, and proceeded to rejoin their ranks as if they had not been gunned down moments prior. No blockade fazed them, as they climbed over every abandoned car or barrier in their path, and every human effort to impede them was met with a bludgeoning or another round of grenades.
"These are the foot soldiers of my glorious army; your worthless cities and towns will be crushed under their heel. They cannot be exhausted, require neither food nor water, and will never be beaten by the element--they are, without doubt, the perfect soldiers. But wars cannot be won without generals, and unfortunately for you, I have assembled the most gifted of barbarians and executioners to lay waste to this wretched planet," Lord Cosmic boasted as he gestured behind him with a wave of his metallic hand.
Following behind the horde were three bizarre figures, each one more imposing than the last. The forerunner was no taller than the average man, but what it lacked in height, it made up for with sheer oddity. It looked like a mechanical rat walking on its hind legs, and its fur was a mix of fiery reds, oranges, and yellows. Its tail ran longer than a python, and when it lashed out with it, the appendage burst into flame and detonated on impact. On all four paws were glowing-hot claws that melted through an abandoned car like butter. Even from second-hand footage, Jay could see the thing simmering; waves of heat radiated from its body.
"Behold the swiftest and nimblest of my Black Stars--Solarat!" the menacing mastermind announced to the world. "As cunning and cruelly clever as his namesake, his body absorbs sunlight and channels it into his fearsome claws and explosive tail. A master of strategy and subterfuge, it will be his claws that rend your society apart from the inside out!"
As Solarat dashed down the street, a figure ripped from the history books rode by on a robotic mockery of a horse. The frightful figure was clad in ancient, navy Mongolian armor that glistened in the sun: a tassel of copper wiring flowed from the top of a pointed helm; dour plates covered the chest, forearms, and legs; beneath the armor was fabric that looked like steel wool. Completing the warrior look was a metal mask of a bearded man's face twisted into a visage of cold fury. In the rider's hand was a halberd that crackled with electricity, and when the armored menace swung the weapon out, a furious gust of wind flew down the street and tore apart a truck full of fruit.
"The tiger-force of my mighty army--the Iron Khan!" Cosmic declared from his chamber. "A stalwart, stoic warrior, the Khan will not rest until his victims have been annihilated and all is razed beneath his boot. No bullet can penetrate his mighty armor, and one swing of his halberd can unleash a typhoon gale. With his mighty warhorse, he will march upon your greatest cities and bring them to their knees!"
Bringing up the rear and causing the most damage was what appeared to be a mountain with arms and legs. The hulking behemoth had a rotund body that was perfectly spherical yet marred with craters and cracks all over its surface, powerful legs that were covered by jagged rocks from the knee down, and muscular arms that ended in rocky fists with spikes running across its fingers like brass knuckles. Its head was likened to a bull, and frothy magma dribbled from its lips like spittle as a savage fire blazed in its eyes. Every step it took made the ground shake, lava burst from its body, and when it came across a sports car left in its path, it crushed as though it was made of paper.
"The last and most powerful of my field commanders--Krakatitan!" declared the mad conqueror. "Harvested from the very heart of a volcano, he is an unstoppable force of nature the likes of which no army on Earth can help. His body constantly produces lava, but most destructive of all are his hulking fists--to be struck by one is to be struck by a boulder. You cannot hope to destroy him; you cannot hope to contain him. All you can do is pray that I never unleash him upon you."
Lord Cosmic returned his gaze to the camera as he dismissed the viewing screen with a wave of his hand. The metallic menace cautioned, "That is but a small sampling of my Black Star Army, but can any one of you say that you can challenge my might? Look at how much damage they wreak without any of your modern weapons; nothing you have can compare. Let it not be said that I am without mercy though, for I will clemency for all that submit to unconditional surrender. Pyramax, the globe."
"As you wish, My King," an icy woman's voice droned from off-camera.
At his command, a hologram of the Earth was projected in front of the King of Black Stars, and dotting the surface were dozens of glowing lights. The tyrant gestured at the globe and explained, "Though I remain in my mobile fortress, Kiboreia, do not assume you are safe from my wrath. I have spent months--years--seeding the world with my soldiers, and they will mobilize the instant I give the order. If you wish to contest my superiority, I will crush out any challengers with forces that you could never prepare for. Pyramax, send the message out."
"As you wish," the cold voice replied.
The shot of Lord Cosmic went picture-in-picture as a new image took its place. What greeted the audience was a golden pyramid assembled bricks, many of which jutted out from the main body. Near the peak of the structure, a section of bricks was replaced by glowing eyes on all four sides. Whenever it spoke, the eye that faced the camera blinked in time with what she was saying. The sight of the thing reminded Jay of a monster from that British show her cousin liked so much.
"Your unconditional surrender will be expected within 48 hours," Pyramax declared. "I am all-seeing and all-knowing; should anyone fail to heed our warning, I will know. This is your first and last warning, for if we do not receive confirmation of your surrender, we will mobilize our forces. Take heed, for our lord wants his kingdom back and will stop at nothing to claim this world for his forces."
The focus returned to the armored king, who had retaken his place on his throne. He told the captive audience, "You know my terms, my power, and the lengths I will go to; I have laid everything out so you might understand the hopelessness of your situation. I will enjoy riding through your streets as the conquering king, but whether those streets are ravaged or intact lies with you. The fate of the world lies in the hands of your leaders; if they truly care for you, the people, they will end this quickly and painlessly. Thus sayeth, the King of Black Stars."
With that, the footage returned to Channel 5 News, where the anchors stared speechlessly at the camera--a sentiment shared by much of the world. It was only when one put a hand to his earpiece that they snapped back to attention. The anchor tripped over his words as he told the audience, "Th-that, um...that was--that is, ah..."
"We go live to Washington as the president is preparing to make a statement from the Oval Office," his partner chimed in, putting a reassuring hand on the other anchor's shivering shoulder.
While the president babbled on, Jay tuned out and focused instead on the sketches she had compiled as the footage played. She had managed to get rough designs for all the menaces and the enemy fortress, as well as notes about each one--what she saw and what she assumed about each. It was a morbid fascination that fueled her desire to learn everything about the Black Star Army; it was the chance to study one of her childhood bogeymen. The young scholar felt her passion for the Progenitors bubbling up after lying dormant for most of the summer, and she could not wait to tell Bian about this--and perhaps Rosa, assuming she could keep a secret for once in her life.
"All right, everyone, calm down," Ms. Kilpatrick called out as she tried to regain control of the class. "I know that was a lot to take in, but let's just take a deep breath, relax, and try to get on with our day; whatever's going on halfway across the world shouldn't affect your first day of high school!"
Unfortunately, her words fell on deaf ears as students either reached out to or received calls from their parents. A few were nervous wrecks while others tried to reassure that everything was fine, but the whole class was derailed, so Ms. Kilpatrick shrugged and went to get her own phone.
"No, Mother, no--you don't need to send Star to pick me up," Warren said, plugging his other ear to drown out the noise in the classroom. "Yes, I did see what happened...no, I'm not sure if the Opera House was hit...yes, it would be a shame if Dolmama was gone--I know how much you like eating there."
Davide, meanwhile, was having less luck in getting a ride home. "Of course, they're not going to have football practice, Mom; there's a literal supervillain on the loose!"
As their classmates sorted out what they were going to do, the intercom crackled to life once more, and given the news it brought the first time, everyone was quick to fall silent. The principal, shaken like most everyone else, explained, "Attention, faculty, staff, and students: due to the news coming out of Armenia, the superintendent has called to say that all classes and extracurriculars are cancelled for the day; buses will be arriving soon, and we are reaching out to let parents or guardians know. As a personal aside, I would ask that you use today as a learning opportunity--keep an eye on the news and make sure you stay on top of everything. Above all, be safe, and we will hopefully see you tomorrow."
The class was quick to file out of Room 204, with some sprinting to get to the doors as if a Saturnight was right behind them. Jay, on the other hand, held back, and told her friends, "I've got something super important to tell you two later--think you'll be able to get out to St. John Park this afternoon?"
Bian nodded emphatically, while Rosa gave a thumbs up and answered, "Like my parents are scared of a little alien invasion. What's so important?"
"It's about the 'alien' invasion," Jay whispered to the pair. "St. John Park--be there or be square."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Lord Cosmic brooded atop his throne as his generals filtered into the royal chamber. They had left much of downtown Yerevan a wreck before leaving as suddenly as they arrived; all they left in their wake was a path of destruction. Each of the three field commanders had a different take on the invasion, from the impish Solarat to the explosive Krakatitan, but all the prattle irritated the King of Black Stars.
"I wanted to stick around and smash more stuff!" the volcanic member of the trio grunted as he swung his craggy fists around. "I was this close to erupting everywhere--then they'd really be afraid of us!"
"I think we did the job just fine," Iron Khan huffed as he sharpened his halberd. "You don't go for the kill on a warning shot, after all."
Solarat skittered up to the king's side and clicked his claws together as he squeaked, "The master was wise in recalling us when he did; we might have attracted unwanted attention, after all."
"But we want all the attention!" Krakatitan snorted at the wormy assassin. "I say bring 'em all on! I'll murdelize anybody that gets in my way! Did you see the way I chucked that car through that opera house? I coulda got into the pros with an arm like that!"
Iron Khan sighed, "Yes, we're all very proud of your ability to throw things, Krakatitan--we ought to give you a medal for it."
"Really?" the giant asked dopily.
"No," the armored knight answered.
"That's enough," Lord Cosmic silenced the crew as he slammed a fist down onto the arm of his throne. "You all performed exceptionally; Pyramax has reported that numerous countries are considering surrender as we speak. We must not rest on our laurels though, for our campaign is far from over. Tomorrow, we head out for the United States, a perfect target for our first major attack; it will send a message far greater than this. Prepare yourselves, for in a few short days, we shall unleash eons worth of fury and vengeance upon this miserable planet!"
Krakatitan pounded his fists together in excitement while Solarat skittered away to prepare for departure, but Iron Khan was not so excited as the others. The stoic warrior merely holstered his halberd and walked off to his quarters, awaiting the next time his services would be called upon. He would do whatever was asked of him, but he did not--would not--celebrate it; that was for lapdogs like Solarat and lummoxes like Krakatitan. The Khan had more than half a brain, and as such, kept one eye on the King of Black Stars.
"Long live the King," he hissed as he disappeared into the depths of the Kiboreia.