Forgive any continuity mistakes, etc. This has been years in the making and a lot has gone down to adjust it to.
In a forest bog, something not man nor monster stalked between the trees. Its massive lower limbs squelched against the wet earth, and its hulking form of moss, muck, and veins of branches and other vegetation stumbled forward like a great, abominable mountain. Its globular red eyes, too large and round to betray any real malice, took in the darkness and its shadows. It seemed perfectly at home in the shadows. Its tangled vegetable limbs did not catch on any branch or trip over a sunken log or hidden obstacle, nor did it have difficulty avoiding the trees. Indeed, where there was no space to move, it simply squeezed effortlessly between them.
The creature was looking for a place to sleep; or to do something like it. The full, bright moon aided its eyes somewhat, but mostly it moved by its own nocturnal vision.
He was called the Man-Thing by some. Or the Vorgonus Koth by a very select few.
Taking in the larger trees which might offer some degree of shelter, he felt, before he truly saw, the strange heat at his back. The Man-Thing turned around quickly, automatically envisioning a scalding fire erupting toward him, but instead saw a strange cloud or formation of light. In the cloud he saw a form hitting the ground, a human form clothed in black, bristling with weapons (all of which would be useless against a creature such as itself), and wearing a deep magenta mask. The clothing fell down the figure's legs, yet a moment later the creature saw this person was male. A golden diadem reflected the light that had transported him into the bog. As the brightness faded, it left behind a floating gem which hovered over the man's shoulder and glowed white-hot at its core.
"You, creature!" the man called out.
The gemstone was humming some sort of warbling infrasound frequency, which felt achingly familiar as they broke against the Man-Thing's form. Instinctively, the Man-Thing stepped toward him.
The man held his ground but yelled, "Halt!" He stood firm with an amusingly regal bearing. The Man-Thing had encountered creatures with far more physical power, yet this one held himself as if he were a giant, or a demigod. There was something familiar about him, too--yet it was surrounded or diluted by something else. As if they hadn't met in a long time, and both had changed
Almost politely, the Man-Thing paused, though he wanted to get closer to this gemstone.
"Yes," the man said as he slowly stepped forward, "you, Monster. I require your unique abilities. In return, I will grant … your simple heart's desire." He paused. "If you have one."
If he had any desires--or if he lacked a heart? The Man-Thing wondered at the phrasing. But already the stranger was summoning his gemstone again. "Can you feel, it, monster?" he asked. "Can you hear it?" And then the gemstone was glowing so brightly the Man-Thing drew back. But already he felt the strange energies of the gemstone working inside him. It was as if he were being seized. His body's own natural magical properties were welling up inside of him. "I can. They're calling to me."
No. He would not be used like a tool again. Not now. He struggled against what was happening. The man only held up his hand, which seemed to lift the gemstone higher into the air. The Man-Thing felt from the stranger only a vague sort of cruel amusement.
"Blackbridge," the stranger told him. "Now."
The Man-Thing tried to pull back from wherever this man was attempting to take him. He detected in the stranger's very sharp want, broadcast freely to him, a building. An isolated place, with misery and people curled against themselves.
The Man-Thing resisted as best he could. He heard the man grunt in surprise, and then the bog was gone--they were deposited, the man stumbling and falling onto a hard, rocky surface. Dry, cold air touched the Man-Thing's wet body. He saw nothing but desert, and a dark shadow of a building surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire, off on the distance, surrounded by a lights.
The man swept to his feet. Then he laughed. "Stronger than I anticipated," he said. "And more disobedient than I was led to believe. But you are still harmless to me--I don't fear you. And we're close enough."
The Man-Thing looked toward the building and had to suppress the for boding he felt as he stared at its dark silhouette. "Wo sind wir?" he demanded.
He was a little pleased to see the man's bright, cold eyes pop wide open. Then they narrowed in a vicious sort of pleasure. The amusement emanated from him again as he strode forward. "So," he said, "Sie sprechen! Sie sprechen Deutsch!"
"Ja," the Man-Thing said. "Wo sind wir? Und…wer sind Sie?"
The cruel man laughed. "Blackbridge Prison. Ich heisse Helmut, Freiherr Zemo--"
At the name, the Man-Thing hissed; this time he did pull back. "Helmut Zemo!" he said
Or Baron Zemo, as some of his former teammates had called him when they'd mentioned him in passing.
"Mein Ruf eilt mir voraus?"
"Helmut Zemo," the Man-Thing repeated. "I do know of you… I have even sensed your presence, in my friends' dreams. And their nightmares."
"Is that so? Well, you have nothing to fear from me, Monster. I am not here to harm you. Rather, I am here to help you. I trust you will help me?"
"Doch," the Man-Thing said. "No. I am no one's teleportation device. I think for myself, now."
"That is a pity." Baron Zemo held up the orb. "But you have no choice. I wield this gemstone, a very powerful artifact, and I can manipulate its transportation abilities with your own inherent powers. You are almost like a second gemstone to me and will work as one with or without your permission. But your cooperation will be rewarded."
"Will you grant the 'simple' desire of my monstrous heart?"
Zemo paused, then shrugged a shoulder. "It appears the information I was given about you by the Fixer was out of date. Or he intentionally misinformed me."
"Was?" That couldn't be--for the Fixer was dead. The Man-Thing, however, felt no deception from the man. "The Fixer?"
"Oh, yes. Is your interest piqued now? If so, let's not delay any longer. We were supposed to be transported into the prison. I will explain everything after we've gotten what we came for."
"Fixer…?" The Fixer was dead.
"Yes. He told me about you. Now let's go."
The Man-Thing could have resisted further. But he didn't. He wanted to know how--why--the Fixer was talking to this man. He wanted to know who else was talking to him. Where they were, what they were doing. Were any of them in the prison? Had they been captured by the government after all?
It didn't matter. He could worry about the Baron's deeper intentions later. For now, he would play along.
He wasn't afraid of the Baron, either.
The Man-Thing said, "I will go with you. But I will not come along on your leash. I will follow the energies of your gemstone. You will not lead me along."
Zemo scowled, but only briefly. "Fine. But I expect you to behave yourself."
The Man-Thing decided right then. He did not like this Baron Zemo.
They teleported into the prison. The Man-Thing found them in a cell block, a large square surrounded by the inmates' individual cells that had been divided into two levels. Immediately they were greeted by chaos--men yelling, men pounding on the bullet-proof glass of their cells. The frenzy and excitement and anger swept over the Man-thing in waves.
And here, there was fear as well. His flesh hissed of its own accord, as the acid began to secret from the surface of his body, eating at the top layer of muck. He hated fear. Detested it. It made him feel afraid, just as the other heady emotions here swelled up inside of him and threatened to carry him along with the inmates that yelled around him
Apparently Zemo detected his acidic reaction. "Control yourself," he said
Then he strode to the center of the block in which they stood and announced, "I am Helmut, 13th Baron Zemo. I have come to free some of you--those of you who are worthy. In return, you will pledge allegiance to me and join me in the pursuit of a grand destiny, which will bring you the justice--and the revenge--you crave."
The Man-Thing felt a bullet--or something like it--hit his back. He turned to see the prison's guards mobilizing. Zemo wasn't concerned. His gemstone merely shoved them back as it pitched a sort of field around them. He barely turned his head--as if he'd already known of them.
Zemo looked to the cell of a man on the ground level, the one who had been playing video games. The man dropped the control as Zemo's eyes met his own. "Taskmaster," Zemo called out. "Do you accept my terms?"
The Taskmaster put his hands to the glass and smiled. "You know it!" he said. Even so, the Man-Thing barely heard him. But he felt his excitement.
The Taskmaster was transported out of his cell--and his orange jumpsuit had been somehow replaced with a skull-like mask, a tunic and flowing cape, and many weapons including a sword similar to the baron's own.
"Shocker," Zemo said, pointing to another cell on the ground floor. He walked toward it and the Man-Thing followed him. "And…Ghost." At that name, Man-Thing looked around wildly, and saw the one he knew better as a white-garbed, technological genius, with comfortingly round goggle eyes and mask. Ghost now looked frail, a ragged individual. Ghostt stared back at him as he walked up to the glass. The Man-Thing felt his hope, his gratitude--and fear. They seemed to mingle with his own feelings.
"I barely know who you are," the Shocker said to Zemo, or something like that in the noise. "But I want out of here. I'm in."
"I suppose I have no choice," the Ghost said. "And I see you've gotten the Man-Thing."
Both of them were teleported out, now in their own more characteristic costumes. The Man-Thing said, "Ghost, it is good to see you again."
"Yes. Just like old times, working for the Man," Ghost said.
"Hardly," Zemo said. "But you'll see soon enough. Now, Monster, we have one more stop to make. I promised you that you would be rewarded for your help, didn't I?"
"Ich nehme an…" the Man-Thing said. "I suppose so…" He didn't expect to see what the Baron was talking about it so soon
"Follow me. We have one more thing to do. And I need your help taking these three with us." The prison guards still struggling to force their way into their protective bubble, Zemo teleported once more. The Man-Thing followed, carrying the new recruits along with him.
They were deposited into an empty hall, a gloomier one with thick metal doors on either side. The noise stopped abruptly and the Man-Thing felt the terrible surge of humanity die down inside of him.
"Where are we?" the Taskmaster asked. "This ain't looking like freedom, Zemo."
"Be quiet," Zemo said. "There is one more inmate in this prison that we've come for."
"Ah, yes!" Ghost said. "I was...hoping--"
"Wer?" the Man-thing demanded. "Who?"
There was a burst of white-hot light around the door and then Zemo, quite simply, kicked it in.
"Wer?" the Man-Thing repeated. But already, he could sense her.
"Good evening, Karla," he heard Baron Zemo say. The Man-Thing quickly followed him into the cell. He squeezed through the too-small door, came out the other side slightly grazed of a layer of slime, and found her lying rather limply on a simple cot in the small, simply furnished room. She was also in an orange jumpsuit, and even the Man-Thing found it a terrible color for her. Zemo stood over her, but hadn't touched her. Instead, she looked groggy, as if they'd woken her up. As she pushed herself up onto one knee, the Man-Thing saw a metallic band around her neck.
"Moonstone?" he said. "What happened?"
She looked up, and just smiled at him. "Me and Ghost got a little unlucky. Not a big deal."
"If I had known I would have come for you sooner."
"Very kind--but I see you're with reinforcements now."
"He is the one who came to me. I do not trust him, but--"
"This beast is very eloquent," Zemo said. "We will have to talk about that later, Moonstone. I'd like to know more. But--later."
"Ask him about it, Helmut."
"I'd rather ask you. Assuming you're coming with us."
Moonstone just folded her arms. "Again? What do you want now?"
"What I always want," Zemo said. "What you always want."
"Power? Revenge?" Moonstone leaned against the wall. "It's always the same with you. What are you going to do? Force the Thunderbolts back together?"
"The Thunderbolts have been without a proper focus for some time, Karla," he said. "And they were stolen from me."
"Hey!" Taskmaster shouted from outside. "More goons coming, Baron."
"Then take care of them," Zemo said. There was an edge of annoyance to his voice. "I'm busy."
"Whatever." The Man-Thing heard a slight slipping sound, and the handling of a weapon. Then men yelling.
Zemo just held his hand out to Karla. "I will remake the Thunderbolts. And we will have a glorious destiny. You are with us now, or will be against us later."
"Of course I'm with you," Moonstone snapped. She pushed off the cot and stood up. "And it better be worth it. Or I'll make my Man-Thing here mop the floor with you."
"Oh, is he your pet, then? I had no idea the love between you was mutual."
Anything she would have said next was cut off by the Taskmaster's gun firing. He heard Ghost curse and then there was a scream he didn't recognize
"Let's go," Moonstone said. "And get this collar off me."
"As you wish."
The collar sparked slightly, then clicked. She ripped it off and threw it to the floor. Almost immediately she seemed to change: her hair seemed brighter, and she summoned one of her sleek suits, which seemed to cling to her like ivory flesh. A confident smile came to her face and she stepped on the collar.
"Also," she said, "I expect to hear where you got that stone, Helmut."
"Then we are going?" the Man-Thing asked her. "I wish to go. Before these people come to do more damage to you."
"Of course we are. Grab the other boys and we'll go to whatever castle Helmut has prepared for us."
"Not exactly a castle." Zemo motioned for the Man-Thing. "Let's go, Monster."
The Man-Thing projected portals for the men outside, based on what he saw in Zemo's own vision. The Man-Thing didn't recognize it. But it was not a castle. It was nothing like a castle.
And then they were gone.