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The War of the Third Key: Comes the Proprietor

There are many powers in the world of Earth-9. Eternals gain their powers from the great Gate Keys, cosmic energy frequencies that resonate through the universe and make these unique individuals immortal. Until recently, there were believed to be only two Gate Keys, the one embodied by Dr. Destroyer and the one that Atlan merged with.

There is a third Key, however; a third frequency of energy that was once the most mystical, bound to the flow of Essence and responsible for the existence of the (until recently) extinct Solar Exalted. These Exalted were known to be brethren of the Eternals, but the reason why was never understood, even in the First Age. A great and terrible scientist, Hernan Cortez, wanted desperately to serve Doctor Destroyer, but could not even gain the notice of the mighty monarch. To prove himself, he began a quest to understand the Gate Keys and become an Eternal through sheer genius (a rare but not unheard-of event). He briefly became the outrageous supervillain Professor Muerte, carving a swath through all opposition in his search for information on the Gate Keys. While reviled for his brutality, he was clearly a second-rate adversary and few gave him much thought.

This was a mistake.

In his unprecedented obsession, Cortez managed to piece together what only a few First Age savants even guessed at -- the third Gate Key. Manipulating the Scions of Caine and the Brotherhood Arcane, Cortez managed to separate the Key from the Essence flow, becoming even more powerful than Destroyer himself (who remains relatively weak from his long imprisonment). The Solar Exalted were reawakened, but none had the power to resist the almighty Proprietor.

He made allies of Markoth and Eurostar, but the rest of the world banded together against him. It almost wasn't enough. Behemoth died saving the Champions -- and the world -- from the Proprietor himself, while UNTIL, the Scions, and the Lodge all suffered heavy losses. The short-lived hero team Justice Squadron sacrificed themselves to the last member saving the world from the Proprietor's rapidly-degrading control of his power. In the end, it took the Champions and the Ultimates working together to end the threat as Mechanon came across the weakened Proprietor. Defender leapt into the fray, and while he was unable to save Cortez, his very nature as an embodiment of the second Gate Key (second only to Atlan) allowed him, with some guidance from Destroyer and his unbreakable bond of love with Solitaire, to filter the third Key out in a relatively harmless manner.

Everything is relative, however. Even the legendary skill of Defender and Destroyer combined was unable to prevent the Wildstrike, a massive surge of Gate Key energy that transformed the world. "Traditional" superheroic powers emerged, as slivers of the Gate Key tend to create beings with a single focused power suite (super-strength, a single element, psionic powers) rather than the wide array of a full Eternal. Some were disfigured, but for most it was more of a boon than a curse. The Wildstrike itself affected normals almost exclusively, but the side effects changed the Awakened of Earth-9 forever.

First, the sundering of the Gate Key from the Essence had a profound impact on the mystical world. The Solar Exalted have returned, Paradox is back to its First Age flexibility, the Taint was purged from the Essence (expelling the Ebon Dragon in the process), and the Mythic beings (like Changelings and dragons) are once again able to tap directly into that Primal energy flow. Though the division was a terrible violation of the natural order, the Key shards have since reconnected to the Essence on a subtle level (which many Awakened believe explains the "elemental" tendencies of most Wildstrikers). On the other hand, many Mythics are hunting one another, hungry for Essence and wild after being weak for so long, and for the first time since the First Age, the Ebon Dragon...is free.

The Eternals have been no less profoundly affected. The taint has been driven from them as well, removing many weaknesses from their kind (Defender, for example, is no longer vulnerable to toxins). However, much as the Eternals have been cleansed by this result, some have developed weaknesses to tainted powers as a result of losing their tolerance to the energies. (Again, for example, Defender is now vulnerable to entropically tainted magicks other than forces-based effects.)

In a few years, Earth-9 has changed dramatically from what it once was. Some even believe that this cataclysmic crisis is the herald of a new, Sixth Age. Whether these changes will herald a new era of greatness or a backlash of fear and hatred remains to be seen.

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