Showcase: Whatever Happened to Atlas? Chapter 1: Avenger

by Libbylawrence, partially adapted from 1st Issue Special #1 by Jack Kirby

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The boy named Atlas looked up in anger and pain as rough armored hands lifted him into the air, and a ruddy face with cold, darting eyes and a debauched manner loomed over him. The slave-lord’s elaborate helmet caught his attention, and he gasped as the carved decoration in the shape of a serpent’s head drew closer to his own face. “You’ll make a fit slave one day, cub!” growled the villain as his men roared in approval.

Atlas moved with agility and precision beyond that of a small child as he struck the grinning, laughing warlord in the face, then fell to the ground. “Y-you’re bad! I-I hurt you!” he cried.

But the blow that followed after Atlas’ words did more than force the slave-lord to release the boy. The sheer impact drove him off his feet and left him stunned in the dirt. Atlas raced away into the marshlands and tried to smother his own panting breath, but all he could do was keep still until his enemies had departed.

Waiting for what seemed like hours, he then slowly peered up out of the weeds to look around as lightning flashed and thunder boomed. The coming of the storm reflected externally what turmoil Atlas felt within his aching chest. There was no sign of the slavers, and the flames from the burning village had died down.

Atlas started to stand up when two hands closed around his mouth. “Stop struggling, you little whelp!” hissed a sibilant voice in his ear as narrow, tapering fingers closed around his mouth. “You’ll betray our position! The last of them are almost out of sight. I’ll soon let you go.”

Then the boy reached backward, grabbed those arms, and hurled the man who had touched him over his head to the ground below. “Great mammoths! What’s this?!” said the startled man a moment before he found himself sailing through the air to land in a puddle, for the child’s strength was that of a grown man.

Atlas ignored the man he had thrown aside in order to race over to his father’s body. As the man rolled to his feet, he saw the child weep softly as he touched his father’s still form, and he spoke a few words that fell on deaf ears. Then the man watched curiously as the boy suddenly looked up at the ruins of his home, then raced inside to emerge with a crystal object clutched closely to his chest.

The man who regarded him in awe was a gaunt figure in a dirty green robe with a hood. This odd scarecrow of a man, who was clearly neither slaver nor warrior, had tried to make Atlas remain silent in order to protect himself from the slavers. Apparently, he had been hiding in the weeds for a long time. The boy returns, bearing a glowing object… a… a crystal! thought the thin figure in green.

The startled man knelt before the boy, revealing a drawn and hungry expression as he raised his hands in a placating manner. “Forgive this poor traveler, boy… Little did I realize who your people were!”

“Go away!” shouted Atlas, holding the crystal protectively away from him.

“Your people came from the Crystal Mountain… I know this now for truth!” continued the man in green. “And it is said that the leader of your people bears a piece of that mountain… and must pass it on… when he dies.”

Atlas had glared at the smarmy man for a moment and then replied fiercely, “I am leader… now!

Rightly so, boy,” said the man, impressed. “I am Chagra, your humble witness and loyal subject… Where you lead… I shall follow.” He watched as Atlas grimly walked away from the only home he had ever known.

“The choice is yours,” the boy said carelessly, without looking back. Inwardly, he vowed to find the man in the serpent helm and make him regret what he and his men did to him. He would avenge his parents, even if it took him a lifetime to do so.

Thus the odd companions had set off from the ruined village, and for the rest of his life, Atlas would remember nothing before the moment when he stared up into the face of chief slaver with the same vivid intensity. That grinning fiend’s image haunted the child, driving him to increase in strength and cunning as he grew. He would need to acquire such attributes in order to one day avenge the loss of his parents and his home.

Atlas grew into a tall, muscular, brown-haired titan of a man. He favored a red loincloth and boots as his normal garb, and he also wore the gleaming golden Helmet of Champions, awarded to him for triumphing against all comers in a grand gladiatorial contest. He had no desire for the precious helm to attract thieves everywhere he went, so he concealed it beneath a red hood. Not only did he possess a strength that couldn’t be equaled by a dozen men, but he also came to have a caring heart, never allowing his pain to color his world in bitter hues. He became a champion to all those in need, and his journeys took him into many a perilous situation.

***

“Did he kill monsters?” asked Bzil.

Arion smiled and said, “Aye, that he did! He defeated warriors, monsters, and mages, and on more than one occasion he managed to turn defeat into victory for the oppressed or enslaved. Yet, for all of his triumphs, mighty Atlas never forgot the face of the slaver in the serpent helm, nor could he ever rest until he brought that villain to the grave.”

“What of Chagra?” asked Bzil. “Why did he follow Atlas, even when he was just a boy?”

“That is but one of the mysteries that surrounded Atlas,” said Arion. “He accepted Chagra as companion and servant and never questioned the strange man about his own motives until one day when Atlas was around twenty years old. He had just earned the golden helmet prize that was awarded to him for defeating all foes in a grand gladiatorial contest. This display of amazing physical prowess had led Chagra to make a decision.”

***

One night, not long after they had loaded their small wagon with supplies and exited the city in which Atlas had won great acclaim for his battle skills, Chagra cleared his throat and prepared to begin a fateful speech, only to find his words caught in his throat once again. He had planned to wait until their wagon had left the city and no one was in sight of their vehicle, but it took him a couple of days to work up his nerve before presently beginning his speech.

Clearing his throat once more, Chagra managed to utter the words he had waited to say for a dozen years. “Atlas, I can help you find the slave lord who killed you father. You see, I’ve learned where he lives! I have not been entirely idle all these years while you were bravely slaying dragons or rescuing beautiful maidens. I’ve never stopped questioning all we met in order to learn the truth about your enemy.”

The young man’s only response was a long, drawn-out silence. The youth had always been laconic, but now Chagra began to become worried at his silence. Deciding that Atlas was waiting to hear what he wanted in return, Chagra hesitantly continued, laying down his true objective. “I’ve waited until you were ready to bargain, Atlas… I can lead you to your goal… if you… lead me to the Crystal Mountain.”

It had been said that there was great wealth to be had at the Crystal Mountain, but Chagra knew that no man had ever found the mystical place. It was on neither map nor chart made by mortal men. Ever since the day he had found the boy, Chagra had wanted to find more crystals like the one Atlas had always carried with him.

Atlas had been surprised by the news about the slave lord, though not by Chagra’s interest in the Crystal Mountain; he had always noticed how the older man’s eyes lit up whenever he caught a glimpse of the crystal. However, he wisely hid his emotions and agreed to the deal. “I see…” he said in a flat tone of voice. “Then first to the Lizard Kingdom! That can only be the source of that cursed helmet the slaver wore! No mortal with a soul would choose such a crest!”

Chagra smiled thinly and said, “Agreed! I will lead you beyond the border of the Lizard Kingdom, and inside that realm’s cluster of scattered cities will we find the one you seek!”

Over the next few days, they journeyed through rocky cliffs ringed with fire and battled past scaly giant lizards from an even earlier time. But with Chagra’s guile and Atlas’s courage, they eventually emerged into the streets of a dirty and decadent city called Hyssa.

Knowing that he would need money in order to survive while his quest continued, Atlas agreed reluctantly to perform in the streets as a strongman, while Chagra tried to use his oily charms to persuade the crowds to offer them coins.

“Step up and see the mighty Atlas! No mere mortal can match his amazing strength! Watch in open-mouthed awe as Atlas shatters stone in his bare hands!” shouted Chagra, standing on the back of the wagon, while Atlas himself mounted the nearby steps of a marketplace and lifted two massive stone columns under each arm.

Atlas merely swung his arms around and shattered the columns into rubble with one impressive heave of his body.

Behold the might of Atlas! The greatest of mortals!” cried Chagra.

But while most were impressed, there were some in the crowd who thought the display of strength to be merely a trick. However, when Atlas then subdued with impunity a local man known for his own strength, the crowd finally cheered, and coins rained down around them.

As Chagra raced around, quickly gathering the coins in his bag, a sneering tone cut through the sounds of innocent amusement when slaves carrying a divan came into view.

A nobleman reclined on the divan, and from his perch above the crowd he looked down at Atlas and the crowd in dismay as they barred his path. “Who dares to delay a noble of the king?!” he demanded. The nobleman had business in the city and could not wait for the rabble to gawk at some freak show.

But when Atlas refused to give ground, the soldiers went forth to quickly dispatch the strongman for his effrontery. That proved a mistake, as Atlas quickly knocked them out, then rushed forward, scattering the hairless slaves with one dynamic charge, before toppling over the divan to the street.

Dog!” cried the nobleman, climbing over the wreckage. “You’ll pay for this! Who are you?”

“I am Atlas!” he replied with a smile. “And I care little for pompous worms who travel on the backs of slaves!”

Reaching forward, he grabbed the struggling nobleman and pulled him up into the air with one hand. Atlas then strode forward through the marketplace, the nobleman in his right hand cursing and making threats all along, while Chagra begged him to give this up and flee while they still could. The pleas of both men fell on deaf ears; Atlas was on a mission, heading for the ruler’s castle in the center of town.

But before the strongman could get very far, the king’s archers rode into view and stopped him, demanding his immediate halt, or they would shoot. Atlas merely raised the captive nobleman above him, presenting them with a ready target. It was a standoff that was only broken by the sounds of a low, reptilian hissing voice that shocked Atlas, freezing him in his tracks.

“What kind of knave’s work is this?! Hold, knave!

Atlas looked up and saw the speaker. It was, he realized suddenly, the warlord of Hyssa.

“I am Hyssa… What manner of fool dares to mistreat one whom I favor?!”

The brawny young man with curly brown hair was bare-chested, wearing only a red hood and a red tunic below his belt, but he still made a majestic sight as he held the attention of all observers, including the man who spoke to him in such commanding tones.

That speaker was the world in itself for Atlas, for his features were an exactly match for those of his hated foe. Although he was now older and heavier, and possessed of far more power than before, the chief slaver who had destroyed his village now stood before the champion as men bowed low in fear.

“Have we not met before?” asked the cruel killer as his eyes met those of Atlas, and he began to grow nervous. “Speak!” he shouted. “Who are you?!

Atlas released the noble and stepped forward, his fist raised in challenge. “Your conqueror!” he declared as he faced his father’s killer after so many years.

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