GNADE MACHT FREI
By Matt Nute
DISCLAIMER: The characters within are owned by Marvel Comics, and DC Comics. They are used without permission, and no profit is being made by this story. This story contains imagery that may upset the sensitive, but no disrespect is meant to the subjects discussed. For more information, see the footnotes following the story.
ARCHIVISTS: Archiving rights to this story are limited, so please ask first. This story is peripherally tied to the shared universe established in "Cain v. Abel 1979". Beta-reading thanks to Redhawk, Alara Rogers, Seraph, and the folks at the VA/DC/MD 4th of July picnic.
It has been twenty-three years since the day I died.
It has been fifteen years to the day since the moment I was reborn.
Today is January 15, 1960. Here on this patch of gravel, I hear the voices of sixty-six thousand raise again in my ears, liberated to freedom.
And I hear the muted cries of countless others condemned to oblivion within these gates.
The wrought-iron entrance still stands, a testimony to what we all endured. "Arbeit Macht Frei". "Work will make you free."
For all but the sixty-six thousand, death was the only freedom. And soon, it will be mine.
So much can change in a man's life in fifteen years. So much can change in five minutes.
Five minutes ago, I prepared to meet a friend, my only true friend.
Five minutes ago, I met a horror I would have never imagined, save inside these walls.
I stood once more in the roll call yard. Looking to the towers above, I can still picture the men, whip-lean soldiers clad in black wool overcoats, staring down at us. We were animals to them. Animals in a pen, that they would exterminate without pity or remorse. Perhaps they looked at those of us weak from illness, cold, or starvation. Perhaps they believed their actions held some degree of mercy.
It must be said that I do not believe in mercy. I consider it a convenient fiction, a salve to the conscience of those who sat back and watched the atrocities that were committed in the name of "the people's interests".
This wind chills me as it blows my coat, and sets my white hair flying around my face. I am not an old man, but in this place, I feel eternal. The pain here had no end, not even to this day.
I have not been back, not in fifteen years.
"Arbeit Macht Frei"
Work does not set one free. Freedom sets one free.
In my years after the liberation, I traveled. I met a man in Israel, a man who taught me to believe in peace. A man who showed me a world beyond the hate and rage that I had carried around all those years.
His name was Charles.
A year later, in Bucharest, I met a woman. She looked beyond my scars, beyond the number tattooed on my arm. She saw the man under the pain, and touched me like none other. I took her into my arms, and into my heart. She was my wife.
Her name was Magda.
She gave me the greatest gift anyone can give. Greater than those who took me from the camps, a greater gift than Charles' friendship or my freedom. She gave me a smiling daughter, a child whose laughter was like the very voice of God. Yes, in her eyes I think that for a moment I believed in a God, a Creator capable of bestowing such wonder. My daughter was my life, and my salvation.
Her name was Anya.
Five years ago. Five years ago I ceased to believe in anything. There were men, men who could not accept that the war was over, that we merely wanted to live in peace.
What threat were we to them? A simple Jewish watchmaker, his Gypsy wife, and their daughter, not yet two years old. Were we so horrible in their eyes? Did they look at me and see a monster? At Madga? At my Anya?
I remember waking up to the fire. To the men holding me down, to the club falling repeatedly, like the batons of the black-coated guards.
I remembered fear, as I curled into the tight ball. I heard their laughter, their curses.
I heard my Anya cry. And I opened my eyes.
Then, it all changed. The world around me was no longer smoke and fire. It was made of light, millions upon millions of tiny motes of light, swirling in complex, organic patterns. I could see the energy that coursed through the very ether, concentrated in tiny, brilliant flares. The nails in my attacker?s club. The brass in his coat buttons. The very marrow in his bones.
I reached out, and I pulled. Not with my hand, but with a power that I felt growing within me. Before my eyes, the man simply… exploded.
Covered in blood, his cohorts ran, bursting through the burning door of my simple cottage. Their cries of fear told me that to them, I was indeed a monster.
In that moment, I remembered hatred. I remembered rage.
I strode from my house, pulling them to me. To this day, I can remember the look in their eyes, pure fear as I stared them down. Then the agony as I ripped the very iron from their blood, rending their flesh and bone like potter's clay. I gestured with my hand, tearing a deep well into the ground before me, to swallow them whole.
The exertion was too much, and I saw only black.
I awoke in the ashes. My body ached from the strain as I pushed myself upright.
Then I remembered Anya. And Magda.
Then I realized exactly what my rage had cost me. And for the last time in my life, I wept.
I found Charles again, years later. He showed me how to use the power inside, and trusted me with his secret. Like me, he had abilities unlike normal men. He called us "mutants", and said that there were more like us. He said there were people that could understand my alienation.
I told him that no one could understand, and I left him there, at that bar in Haifa. His last words to me were a warning. He told me that there were others out there, other mutants who would seek to prey on us.
Let them come, I said. Let them come.
Five minutes ago, I walked onto the roll call yard. I was not exactly certain why I came. I knew Charles would be here. He had once shown me how he could speak to another person, mind to mind, over a distance Perhaps he told me that he wished to see me, after these years. And so I came back, walking through that wrought-iron gate.
The oppressive weight of memory fell heavy on my shoulders as I stepped across the courtyard. I could see Charles standing with his back to me, looking out over the execution grounds. I shivered, but not from the cold or the wind. This was the field where I had seen my countrymen, my townspeople, my family lined up like fence posts - and then gunned down, almost casually, by stone-faced soldiers.
I felt an aura of something resembling reverence wash over me. This indeed was hallowed ground, even for one who had lost his faith years before. No, not lost. Faith was stolen from me the day I say my mother stand on this field, stepping in front of my young body as the bullets came. That night, when I crawled out from under her body and made my way to the first barracks I saw. They took me in, and in the next light of dawn, I was one of those chosen to carry away the remains of my countrymen. With each spadeful of dirt I threw over their shallow grave, I buried my faith.
Charles wore a somber black suit, his hands clasped behind his back. I assumed it was out of respect for the dead. He turned when he heard me approach, my boots crunching on the gravel. His face was pallid, the skin seeming to be stretched tightly over his skull. He grinned, a rictus far more appropriate to a circus than a death camp.
"Magnus." His whispered greeting echoed from the bare stone buildings. "At last."
"Charles." I stopped walking, leaving the stone path between us. Somewhat dramatic, I thought, this simple walkway being symbolic of the rift between he and I. As I looked across the path, scarce meters from my friend, the gulf between us seemed to grow ever wider. Looking at his face, my blood grew cold. This was not the Charles Xavier I had left in Haifa.
"Magnus," he repeated. "At last you have come to join me." His voice was oddly accented, far from the educated American tenor I had expected. Deeper, more somber. His voice almost hissed as he spoke. "I have been waiting so long for you."
"You are not Charles Xavier." I spat. Whomever this man was, he was nothing to me. I turned as if to leave, and he spoke again.
"I am much more. And I have been looking for you, yet you elude me. I call to you, yet you pay me no heed." The sibilant voice tempted my very soul, and I felt compelled to stay.
"Who are you?" I demanded of this stranger wearing my friend's face. "What do you want with me?"
"Everything you are." He responded. "All that you will be, will be mine." In a flash, I knew that this was one of the mutants Charles had spoken of, one that would prey on its own kind. One that had preyed upon him.
"And if I refuse?" I asked, my voice resolute.
"You will die."
I clenched my fists, feeling the air around me crackle in response to my anger. "I did not die here in this camp those years ago, devil. I will not die here now."
The fiend laughed. He laughed deeply, as if watching some carnival of the damned around him. "Do you not feel it?: he sighed. "They are calling for you. They want you to join them."
"Who?" I demanded. 'Charles' looked into my eyes, and in his gaze, I saw burning coals.
"The dead. Your family. Your friends.
"Your wife and daughter."
I exploded with energy right there. Gathering every spare electron I could sense, I prepared to burn this abomination from the face of the planet. Yet, like a drop of water through a dam, I felt a black presence on my thoughts. And I knew all was lost.
Like a locomotive following the tracks of my own anger, I felt that invasive presence sear into my brain, and I knew what I faced. His name was Ahmal Farouk, but his victims called him by a different name.
The Shadow King.
He wanted to own me, body and soul. As I struggled for coherent thought amidst the oily presence in my mind, I could hear his dark laughter.
"You will be mine." He proclaimed. "Serve me, and this will all end."
Sensing my innate defiance, he thrust himself upon my senses, overwhelming me with anguished memories. Once again, I was a child, standing in the cold of the roll call yard, watching as children I grew up with were led away to the gas chambers. I was ten years old, pressed under the weight of dead bodies in that pit, clawing my way upwards for air. The fear threatened to choke me, and I cried out. I heard the Shadow King laugh, and the onslaught began anew.
I saw my Magda torn from me, rioting villagers savaging her in a manner I knew all too well from the camps. Even though I knew it to be a false memory, the horrible seeming reality of it broke me wide open like a dam bursting. Tears poured as I fell to my knees, not feeling the harsh gravel bite through my clothes.
I saw the flames char the skin from my wife's bones, while I was helpless to watch. I saw my daughter's tears boil into steam as she burned alive. I could hear them crying my name, while I stood too far away, unable to save them. I screamed to the sky, cursing a God that could grant me immense power, yet deem me impotent to save those I loved.
Through it all, Farouk's sick laughter echoed like a tribal drumbeat. All it would take for this torture to end would be to submit. He would numb my conscience, and make me his vassal, his thrall. My free will would be a small price to pay to be rid of these twisted images that besieged my brain. Oblivion, he said, would be a mercy.
I do not believe in mercy.
I opened my eyes, feeling the blue fire cascading from my pores. Despite the salt stinging my eyes, I stood to face the Shadow King. He blinked once, those eyes I knew once as my friend's staring daggers at me. Raising my hand, I released a bolt of immense electrical power, drawing every erg of spare energy from the environment around me. I knew that for miles around, house lights would flicker and dim as I stole their power for this one moment.
The lightning boomed as the pent-up energy arced from my body to that of Charles' possessed form. I smelled ozone and inhaled deeply. For a moment, the psychic hold on me wavered. I tried to focus, believing my assailant finished.
When the smoke cleared, I saw Charles standing before me, his suit in tatters, with a horrible, charred burn across his chest. But that diabolic smile had not left his face. I was in awe for a moment. What manner of creature could make mere flesh like steel, to drive human endurance to the breaking point?
The Shadow King could.
Then he let loose a scream, primal and wild. It permeated the very air of the camp, seeming to echo through the fabric of time, touching each mote of despair and pain released in these walls. With the power of his inhuman mind, he stabbed at me, pouring all that negative energy directly into my psyche in one massive blast.
It was like a dagger into my spine, as I felt the cold rush through me. For one instant, I was every soul that had ever died at the hands of tyranny. I was every young child torn from their family, forced to work until their body failed them. I was every woman raped at the hands of sadistic guards, later to have her womb flayed open on the operating table in the name of science. I felt all their suffering, and every bit of pain they had ever endured.
It was simply too much, and I felt my life snap like a twig under a shining black jackboot.
Blood poured from my ears and nose as I crumpled to the ground. My vision went black, and my breath ceased Like a puppet with its strings severed, I fell.
Five minutes ago, I died.
The world spun beneath me. I seemed as light as air, all the pain far behind me. I knew that my trials were over, and that soon I would be with my Magda, my Anya. I reached out, believing for one second in the warm embrace of a better place than I had lived, free at last.
Eons seemed to pass, and despair overwhelmed me. There was nothing, no reward, no great paradise. The God I had believed in as a child had seen fit to punish me for my apostasy, I thought. And my mind filled with anger. Anger at Farouk, for denying me the change to repent my loss of faith. Anger at myself, for blindly following the path of denial I had walked so long. Anger at the men who robbed me of my family twice over. And searing red anger at a Creator who could let it all happen to one man.
"Your wrath is great."
The voice seemed to come from everywhere. I saw nothing, yet I felt no fear.
"You would seek retribution for these wrongs."
"I would." I whispered, my voice lost in the oblivion.
"Do you seek it for yourself, or for something greater?"
The question stabbed at me. I wanted revenge. But beyond my anger, I felt something more. Something that was greater than myself that was offended to the core by these atrocities. The disregard for human life that I had endured was a crime to more than one man.
In that moment, I truly believed that all my pain, all my loss, was but a raindrop in a storm compared to the utter evil that had been perpetuated.
In that moment, fueled by something greater than my own will, I felt anger. No, not something so human and mundane.
I felt Wrath.
"Would you be the instrument of this Wrath, this retribution?"
I turned my face upwards, seeing a light above me grow slowly brighter. The choice seemed to be easy, the only correct path I could take.
Farouk stood, dusting the ashes from his borrowed body. The damage would heal, in time. He was disturbed at the loss of such a powerful potential host, but he would find others. There would always be others, always more souls to corrupt, to leech, to steal.
With satanic glee, he began to walk towards the gate. There would always be more lives to steal, more hope to ravage, more innocence to rape.
And then I spoke to him.
"RETRIBUTION IS AT HAND."
He turned, and I saw him for what he truly was. Massive, deformed, hunched like some fairy-tale monster. His presence overlapped Charles' body like a shroud. Blazing red eyes stared out from Farouk's twisted visage, taking in the sight before him.
I stood upright, taller than before, healed. My skin was like alabaster, and I felt the green cloak draped over my shoulders move, though there was no wind. Holy power radiated from my being, and I saw Farouk cringe instinctively. Whatever masters he served could not protect him from the Wrath that I was the avatar of. It was time for him to be judged. And he was found wanting.
"Who are you?" he hissed, slowly retreating. I reached out a hand, suddenly larger than the tallest tree, dwarfing his mortal form. I gripped him in my fist, bringing him up to my face.
"I AM GOD'S WRATH. I AM THE FINAL JUDGE AND ARBITER. I AM THE SPECTRE." The words came from somewhere deep in my soul. I knew that what I had agreed to become was something more that I had ever imagined.
"This… is not… possible." Farouk gasped, struggling. I peered at him closely. His true form seemed to exist on a plane other than the physical, drawing power from his connection there. Justice seemed clear.
I reached out onto that plane, and found the cord binding him there, pulsing with power. Taking it in my massive fingers, I twisted, feeling him squirm in agony. With a burst of power, I snapped the link, hearing Farouk's outraged cries.
With a bellow of rage, eclipsing his own pitiful exhortations, I ripped Farouk's essence from his host, crumpling him in my hands like a sheet of paper. His wails echoed through eternity as I raised him above my head.
"No…" he hissed, "what can… this be…?"
"JUDGEMENT." I intoned, and cast him down, through the ground, through all of Creation, into the Pit. There he would know the torment he had visited upon others, and feel it tenfold.
He had been judged.
My anger fading, I felt the wind of Auschwitz blow past me. Lowering the hood from my head, I felt my hair rustle in the breeze. Before me lay the body of Charles Xavier, twisted and broken. With tender care, I knelt by his side, raising his head. Blood trickled from his mouth as he looked up at me.
"Magnus…" he croaked. "I… could not…"
"I know." I breathed. "I know."
"Forgive me…" Charles whispered. I felt his life flicker under my hands.
Forgiveness. Mercy. These were things that before seemed so alien to me. In my hands, I knew I held both condemnation and redemption. Not only for Farouk, but for Charles. And in turn, for myself.
"I forgive you, my friend. Now, be at peace."
Charles' eyes closed, and his mouth quirked in that familiar smile before I felt his soul fade. With all certainty, I knew that there was a better place, and that he had found it.
I stood and turned, surveying the camp. After fifteen years, I heard the voices of every soul I had known within these prison walls raise in salute. After all this time, they told me, I was finally free.
Work had not made me free. Anger had not made me free.
"Gnade Macht Frei"
Mercy had set me free.
I turned to go, and stopped. Before me, as beautiful as the day I met her, she stood there. With the same smile, she reached her hand to me in invitation.
I took a step forward, and then felt a tug at my leg. I looked down, and for the first time in years, I cried tears of joy as I took my daughter in my arms. Holding her close to me, I walked forward, taking my wife's hand.
There would be more, this I believed. With everything in me.
I had been set free.
NOTES: For more information about the camps, and what happened there, visithttp://www.remembrance.org. For information on more stories in this shared universe, drop an email to Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., with ideas, comments, or questions. Feedback is always appreciated.