A green behemoth sat on its haunches at the intersection of several large sewer mains. Its human-shaped bulk was more reminiscent of fat than muscle, although its translucent chartreuse skin revealed its inner composition was something akin to pure viscous slime. The behemoth was draped in a dark green hooded robe. Its pale ochre eyes stared at the mildew-painted concrete surface of the opposite side of the tunnel. The behemoth sighed, its face drooping like a fat green version of a sad clown. "I'm bored," it complained, its voice inhumanly thick as it emanated from its gelatinous core. "Are we done yet?"
"Has the world ended?" another voice resounded in the behemoth's head. The voice was human and feminine, and its tone was balanced somewhere between indulgence and impatience. "Has reality fallen to pieces like charred remains of an offering on the sacrificial altar?"
"Um ... no?" the behemoth answered.
"Then we're not done," the woman concluded. She sat several hundred yards away from the behemoth, measured either horizontally or vertically, in the oriel window of a fifth-floor apartment, looking across the street at the blue-gray marble edifice of an office building. The woman was fair-skinned and had long, flowing white hair, and was attired in a form-fitting costume and mask, both black except for narrow blood-red stripes encircling the woman's forearms and forming a V on her chest. She could sense her large green teammate's thoughts, just as he could sense hers, due to a mystical bond which was itself a mere side effect of the spell which had transported her entire team to this reality.
Another voice reverberated in the minds of both the white-haired woman and the green behemoth, as well as their other two teammates. "More to the point, the Toyman isn't done yet," he growled, his words harsh with a tinge of the demonic. "He's taking his sweet time setting off each of the thread-enchantments the warlock set up down here." The speaker, like the behemoth, was also in the sewers, another several hundred yards triangulated from either the woman or his counterpart in a different tunnel. He was almost as massive as the green behemoth, but his bare-chested physique was heavily muscled, and his skin was like the inner surface of a primitive forge, stony and as red as banked coals. Two black horns jutted from his forehead, matched by his diabolically pointed ears and glowing yellow eyes. The lower half of his face was hidden by a black bandana, and he wore black leather pants.
"Jack Nimball taking his sweet time is exactly what our benefactor was depending on," a fourth voice blended into the mystical confluence of mental conversation. This voice belonged to an older gentleman, both refined and urbane, seated on a park bench across from the office building, but facing the opposite side that the white-haired woman kept vigil over. The man was completely devoid of pigmentation, his skin not just pale but chalk white, as was his hair. He wore round sunglasses and a black suit and tie with a bone-white shirt. A black trench coat was folded on the bench beside him, concealing a silver-bladed longsword. "It in fact behooves two separate aims for Nimball to indulge in his caprice just so."
"Two aims," the behemoth repeated, drawing a looping spiral in the slime on the sewer wall with a blobby green finger. "Which were what, again?"
"Do you think if we killed the big dummy we could still use his carcass to dissolve people? I've always wanted to try that," a fifth voice cut in. This one belonged to a young male and still retained some of the high-pitched reediness of pre-adolescence. Its owner was a lanky blond wearing a black domino mask, attired in a khaki scouting uniform and a red neckerchief. He lounged on the rooftop of a twenty-story building, leaning against an industrial air conditioning unit with a sparrow in one hand. His other hand was slowly twisting off the sparrow's remaining leg, at which point it would join its mate on the rooftop. The sparrow was still alive, fluttering in pain and terror. "Or if we killed him would it at least make him stop asking stupid questions? That'd be good, too."
"You know the maxim about the non-existence of stupid questions," the older gentleman said reprovingly. "And since the question has been asked, I will answer. The primary aim is to invoke the master spell which is the sum total of the thread-enchantments. The master spell itself is rooted in the primordial depths of chaos magic, and one of its necessary components is a madman to serve as invoker-by-proxy. Nimball is our madman. And madmen act with neither haste nor efficiency. They zig and zag most unpredictably, but presumably this is part of the fuel of the spell itself, giving power to the thread-enchantments. So that is all to the good, my dear Bagman."
"OK," the behemoth Bagman agreed. "But there's another reason?"
"The randomness with which Nimball activates the thread-enchantments renders it that much more unlikely that the defenders of this reality will detect a pattern," the older gentleman went on. "Nimball's wild amusement seems more like a force of nature than a calculated plot. And indeed it is, but it is a force of nature which serves a purpose. So long as Nimball causes the thread-enchantments to accumulate slowly and subtly, the master spell will proceed to weave and grow without drawing undue attention. And by the time the heroes notice that the new arrivals to their reality have been weakening the invisible dimensional barriers all around them, those barriers will have fallen and their world will be no more."
"Well then why are we still here?" the behemoth complained with another gloopy sigh. "Toyman is doing his thing, the heroes will never notice, and I don't want to be around when the end of the world comes."
"We'll be gone before then," the lone female voice answered, "but not until right before. White Rabbit makes it all sound simple enough, but the heroes might figure it out even if they have to see through Toyman's nonsense to do it. We're the warlock's insurance policy, to make sure anyone who tries to stop Toyman from finishing the spell doesn't touch him."
"We can't even risk someone accidentally interrupting the little weirdo while the spell is growing," the demonic member of the team added. "You and me are guarding the sewer routes that lead to the sub-basement, White Rabbit and Sister Shadow are watching the entrances to the building above the sub-basement, and Kid Karnevil's keeping an eye on the skies. At least, he better be."
"I am," Kid Karnevil insisted, tossing aside the dead sparrow.
"Jack of Fire is absolutely right," White Rabbit asserted. "No one at all must intrude on Nimball as long as he is at play. We shall see to that. Take heart, my friend. It won't be much longer now, and we'll fly from this pale imitation of our own world as it falls into ruin and cataclysm to feed the hungry god."
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO, USA
Elias Stone was thirsty.
When he pushed open the bathroom door at the Gulfco moments before he was sure it was the dimensional portal to the Oblivion Bar. The Oblivion was a happening watering hole for magic users that sat in an alternate dimension from earth. The portals appeared behind a different door every night and were accessible only to those who wielded magic in some fashion. Some nights the Santa Fe portal was located behind the door of a restaurant. Other nights the location was perhaps a mall or a coffee house or a comic book shop. This night it was a bathroom at a local gas station.
One didn’t need a key to the business to use the portal. A simple push on the locked door and one found himself in the Oblivion Bar seconds later.
This time an unpleasant surprise waited for Elias. When he pushed on the steel slab he found himself caught in a revolving door. Scenes and images from within the bar blurred with those of another destination that seemed distant and foggy as if it really didn’t exist in the same place or time. Once the spinning door ground to a halt, Elias stumbled from his partition and was deposited on his backside in front of the gas station bathroom door once more.
“The door will not lead to the Oblivion on this night,” said a voice Elias didn’t recognize.
He turned and saw three shadowy figures standing beneath a street light twenty feet away. Acheron and Warlock’s Daughter joined him as temporary members of Shadowpact when they stormed hell alongside Blue Devil and Nightshade to retrieve the Devil’s staff from Etrigan. The third he recognized as the angel Zauriel, once a member of the Justice League and who also worked with Shadowpact on occasion.
“What the blazes is going on?” Elias asked.
The three figures flew to him.
“You must help me assemble the Shadowpact,” said Zauriel. “The fate of this world depends on it.”
Elias pointed to the gas station door. “You’ll find them at The Oblivion Bar if that blamed portal will let you in.”
Acheron shook his head. “You don’t understand my friend. We are on a different earth – one where the Shadowpact doesn’t exist nor has it ever existed. Zauriel confirmed that all the members of the group have a doppelganger on this world. We must gather help him gather them to save this world.”
“I was just looking to wet my whistle,” Elias answered.
“And I was supposed to meet June for a lesson in matter manipulation spells and I ended up here,” said Warlock’s Daughter.
“But my steed…” Elias argued.
“Is here,” said yet another voice. It belonged to the Phantom Stranger who appeared out of nowhere. The Midnight Rider’s faithful steed Daisy appeared in the folds of the Stranger’s cape like a pinprick of dark light on an even darker canvas. She grew rapidly until the horse leaped from the shadows full-sized.
“You’re one spooky hombre,” Elias said to the Stranger. “Anyone ever tell you that?”
The Phantom Stranger ignored Elias’s banter. “I have special assignments for each of you.”
OUTSKIRTS OF RIVERROCK, WYOMING, USA
Kate Spencer finished pumping gas into the stolen car, and then climbed back in behind the wheel. Nosing the road-dirtied Lexus back toward the highway, she again silently cursed her odd traveling companion and ally for not accompanying her directly, and helping to relieve the boredom of the drive.
She didn’t feel all that great about having hot-wired her current ride back in Nebraska, and she felt equally guilty about having snatched some decently-fitting civilian clothing off of a laundry line outside of Cheyenne once she’d crossed into Wyoming. She still had her Manhunter garb on underneath the gray corduroy overalls and black hooded sweatshirt, and her battle staff was taking up the entire expanse of back seat behind her. She’d removed her gauntlets to gas up the car, but had tugged them on again for driving – they didn’t impede her handling of the wheel, and she felt somehow safer for having them on.
She was nearing the on-ramp she needed to take, when – speak of the devil (or…mutter bitterly about her…) – her new ally appeared in a gout of red mist by the side of the road about fifty meters in front of her. It was a good thing the hour was still early, Kate mused, or this unusual entrance might have brought on attention of the unwanted kind.
“Hey,” Kate pointed out, rolling down the passenger side window as she pulled the car over onto the shoulder, “we’re trying to keep a low profile here, remember? Popping up in plain view of anyone around is maybe not the best way to go, you know?”
The woman known only as the Crimson Avenger seemed to scowl…then again, it was hard to be sure, as the Crimson Avenger a) constantly wore a red blindfold tied across her eyes, semi-obscuring her features, and b) in spite of that unusual accessory, managed to seem like she was always scowling.
“There’s no one awake at this hour for miles,” she told Kate. “And I needed to intercept you.”
“You could have, I don’t know…just ridden with me, like a normal person? Do you know how dull this part of the country is to drive through? Nothing to look at, nothing to listen to on the radio except country music and religious stuff. Just get in the damn car, would you?”
“I told you: I have other means of travel. I don’t see any point in slowing myself down and wasting time that could be put to better use.”
Kate had to silently allow that if she herself could teleport by popping in and out of reality in bursts of red mist, she’d probably do the same.
“So did you, then? Put your time to better use?”
“Yes. You need to meet up with me at a location a few miles ahead. Get back on the highway, and go in the same direction you were traveling. Take the second exit you come to, make a right at the first turn-off, and go about a mile until you see a big farmhouse off the road. I’ll be waiting for you there.”
“Second exit, make a right, big farmhouse. Okay. Any hints you want to give me?”
“Just that we’re definitely on the right path. You’ll see when you get there. It shouldn’t take you more than ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Super. See you on down the road.”
The Crimson Avenger nodded at her, just once, and dissolved again into the red, red mist that was her calling card.
Kate Spencer pulled the stolen Lexus back onto the road, its headlights piercing the pre-dawn blackness, and renewed her quest to find something on the radio that didn’t absolutely bore her to tears…
GOTHAM CITY, USA
“Well?” Hush asked.
“This place is definitely screwy,” Misfit replied.
Hush hated working with others but the capricious young woman’s teleportation powers could prove beneficial in an unfamiliar environment. He could always kill her later if she became a problem.
“So what’s your big plan?” Misfit asked. “You do have one, right?”
“Of course I do!” Hush shot back. “We locate the anomaly that brought us here and go home.”
“And just how do we do that?” Misfit replied. “It’s not like we have a roadmap!”
“Contacts,” Hush replied. “I assume you have contacts among the capes?”
“Hello, wonky world here!” Misfit gestured toward the strange landscape to remind him of their circumstance. “You’re the only person I know here and we just met!”
Hush nodded. “True, but in my experience the heroic type is disgustingly noble. There may be capes on this alternate earth eager to help us.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Misfit replied. “It kinda makes sense.”
Hush abhorred the simplicity of his own explanation but anything more intricate would be wasted on the girl. There were millions of other possibilities to consider. The new earth could have no heroes or villains of the costumed variety. Or perhaps Joker and Lex Luthor were the World’s Finest on this earth and hunted their villainous counterparts, Superman and Batman. At the very least Hush hoped to ascertain their situation. “We should try your allies first.”
“Why not your buddies?” Misfit countered.
“I have no “buddies”,” Hush replied.
“Oh,” said Misfit. “What should I do?”
Hush thought for a moment. “Bat signal?”
“Oh sure! I carry a spare in my utility belt at all times!” Misfit answered.
Hush didn’t like her tone. He opened his trench coat and showed his guns. “You have a smart mouth kid!”
Misfit deflated. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little freaked out right now.”
Hush hid his guns once more. The girl’s frankness was refreshing. So often her community possessed the ego of gods. “Look kid, everything will be fine. I give you my word. We’re in this together, ok?”
Misfit nodded and forced a grin. “Ok, but one more thing?”
“Name it,” Hush answered.
“No more talk of killing me?” Misfit asked. “Freaks me out even more.”
“Let’s not get carried away!” Hush fired back.
Misfit’s slumping shoulders forced the awkward grin from her face.
Hush shrugged. “Ok, kid! You drive a hard bargain! No more talk of killing you.”
The erratic young girl threw herself into Hush’s arms. He tried to push her away. “Ok, kid! Knock it off! Try to remember I’m a super villain for Christ’s sake!”
“Sorry,” Misfit answered as she pulled away. “I don’t carry a Bat signal but I do know somebody. You want I should call?”
“Do it,” said Hush.
Misfit touched her right earring. “O! Are you there? Come in, O!”
Hush was impressed. The girl was wired for communication.
Misfit pointed to her ear. “No one’s answering.”
“Try again,” Hush instructed. He settled in close to her earpiece hoping to hear.
Misfit repeated her plea but again was met with silence. Then her face lit up! “Oh my god! It’s you!”
“Who is this?” demanded a stern, electronic buzz on the other end.
“It’s me, Misfit!” the girl answered. “I’m in trouble and I need your help!”
“This is a secure, private frequency,” replied the voice Hush knew only as “O”. “I demand to know how you came into its possession!”
“Would you please stop yelling at me?” Misfit argued. “I hoped you’d be a little less uptight here!”
The communication dropped.
“Hello? Hello? O? You still there?” Misfit asked. “Sorry I called you uptight!”
“I’m still here,” the voice replied.
“Would you please send Zinda and Huntress to the rooftop at the corner of Kane and 43rd?” Misfit continued.
“Who?” asked the confused buzz in Misfit’s ear. “If this is some kind of prank, it is not funny! Lives could be in danger as we speak.”
“I have a Code… uh…. Alpha three, eight, six… no eight… or is it Beta….Crap! I can’t remember” Misfit fumbled. “There are so many! Just do that triangulation thingy on my position or whatever you call it.”
“What are you talking about?” the voice buzzed back.
Misfit sighed. “I have company! Please don’t make me break out the secret identities! The line went eerily silent.
“Well?” Hush asked.
Misfit shook her head. “That should get her attention.”
“Damn right it did!” yelled an angry woman that snuck onto the roof while Misfit spoke with her associate. She approached from the shadows and finally stepped into the light.
“Black Canary!” Misfit exclaimed. “Thank god! I didn’t think anyone was coming!”
“Kid, I don’t think she looks happy to see you,” Hush warned.
“Who the hell are you and how did you get our access codes?” demanded Black Canary. She crouched to attack. “I want answers and I want them now! We can do this the easy way or the hard way! I don’t care which!”
OUTSKIRTS OF RIVERROCK, WYOMING, USA
The Crimson Avenger was as good as her word. Kate found the farmhouse in question easily enough, and the Avenger was standing by the side of the road, quietly smoldering in a low-volume quantity of her blood-colored mist. She pointed ahead at the farmhouse, indicating Kate should pull up closer to it and park away from the road, and Kate complied, glad to have something to actually do now.
After killing the engine and stepping out of the heisted machine, she noted that the Avenger now had her spooky handguns drawn, and seemed tensed up for possible hostilities. Kate didn’t need to be told to fish her own battle-staff out of the back seat and be on guard.
“What exactly is going on here?” she whispered, assuming instinctively that low tones would be best.
The Avenger responded in kind, which didn’t make her voice any the less ominous. “I don’t think we’re in direct danger, but I’d advise that we both stay alert anyway.”
“Never bad advice,” Kate agreed. “So if you’re not going to tell me what’s happening here, how about showing me? Are we talking about something inside the house?”
The Avenger nodded at her, and then gave additional answer by disappearing again, the red mists swirling and then dissipating in the chilly air. Kate noticed that the sun was still not quite ready to make its grand entrance up above, but the twinkling stars – so many more than she would ever have been able to see back in her native Los Angeles – were dimming, so dawn couldn’t be too far off.
Kate approached the house, and was about to try the door, when it swung open. The Avenger, having teleported inside, was saving her the trouble of picking the lock or kicking the door in.
Kate nodded thanks at her, and the Avenger answered by simply pointing through the homey family room they were in toward what looked like the kitchen, using the snout of her extended handgun in lieu of an index finger.
The reek of death was almost tangible even before Kate had crossed the threshold.
At first, all she saw was a fairly large country kitchen, decorations in checkerboard patterns, and iron cookware hanging from hooks like cast iron pennants. Sidling on past the kitchen table and the island in the middle of the floor that housed the large oven, though, she saw two bodies splayed out on the wooden floor. Probably a husband and wife, although oddly enough, while the male seemed to have simply had his neck broken, the wife of the pair had an enormous slit across her throat, large enough that it should have resulted in enormous jets of blood in all directions, and yet there wasn’t a drop to be seen. The woman’s flesh was a decidedly unnatural snow-white.
Kate looked at the Avenger, about to say something – she wasn’t sure what, but something – and then she turned back to the death-scene, wanting to gather more facts first.
It didn’t take long to understand that the man was the only one responsible for the morbid stench; there was no scent issuing forth from the woman’s body at all. Kate studied them for a few minutes more, and then took a quick look at the living room on the other side of the kitchen, and then the main bedroom and bathroom just beyond that, finding no further evidence of foul play. The house seemed to have not played host to any theft or any violence aside from whatever had transpired in the kitchen. Kate returned to the scene to compare notes with the Avenger.
“Have you checked the grounds? Storm cellar, tool shed?”
“Yes. There’s nothing else relevant to this,” she pointed at the bodies, “or to our current pursuit.”
“So what the hell happened here? Someone or something bled the woman out completely…and so fast that I don’t see a single drop of blood anywhere in this room.”
“And, but, why not the same thing with the man? Why didn’t he get the same treatment?”
“There’s something called ‘blood-magic.’ I’ve encountered its use before, and I think that’s what we have evidence of here. I have to assume that whatever bled out the woman, it sated itself with the blood that she provided, and then the man interrupted. He was obviously killed for his troubles, but his blood wasn’t needed.”
“And what was her blood needed for, exactly?”
“I told you that we needed to travel to the town called Riverrock.”
“Right – because you have these mysterious visions.”
“Yes. And whatever brought us to this world, and whatever is happening in the larger picture…like I said, we’ll find our answers there. And this,” she added, gesturing at the bodies on the floor, “proves that my information is correct. It’s no coincidence that we’ve found this scene on our approach to Riverrock.”
Kate nodded at her, deep in thought. “I’d say it also proves that if this world has any protectors like ours does, they must be asleep at the switch.”
“Why do you say that?”
This time Kate gestured at the bodies. “Res ipsa loquitur,” she intoned, still on her own train of thought.
“Res ipsa…? Did you just say…?”
“Yeah. Sorry, it’s a legal doctrine. It’s latin; it means—”
“’The thing speaks for itself.’ I know what res ipsa loquitur means: something’s very existence can serve as evidence of some wrong. It’s often invoked in cases involving negligence.” She regarded Kate with that spooky, blindfolded stare.
“Wait a minute…are you – were you – a lawyer?”
The Crimson Avenger crossed her arms over her chest, her still-drawn pistols sticking out from behind each elbow. “Yes. I was. Before I became this.”
Kate’s mouth nearly fell open. “So was I! I mean, so am I! I’m a prosecutor.”
“I was, too.”
“Yes. I reached a point where I couldn’t take it any longer: the pattern of guilty criminals going free because of flaws in our legal process. I bought these guns in a pawnshop, and I killed a killer who was set free…but I didn’t know then that the guns carry a curse. An extremely powerful curse. That’s what led me to being…this.”
“I can’t…I can’t believe this! It’s pretty much the same exact story for me: I couldn’t take all the scumbags getting off on technicalities and loopholes – especially the metahuman scumbags – so I boosted all my gear from an evidence room, and I became the Manhunter. I don’t understand…did someone match us up on purpose? Just because our stories are so similar?”
“I don’t know. But I do know that we’re on the right track here, and getting closer to our real answers. We need to get to Riverrock, and maybe we’ll find more information there.”
“Wait a minute, I’d like to hear more about your own story, and see just how much it lines up with mine.”
“We can gossip later. For now, we need to get back on the road. For now…all we really need to know is that we want to set things right…and that our shared willingness to kill may just come in handy, and soon.”
Kate sighed. “Okay. But after this is over – assuming we’re both still standing – I’d like some answers from you.”
The Crimson Avenger said one word: “Riverrock”…and then she faded again from view, swallowed up in that misty wash of red.
“I’m not going to get any answers, am I?” Kate asked the tragic bodies lying before her, wishing that she had time to at least give them a decent burial, resolving to do so if circumstance allowed for it later on. “Well, maybe I won’t ever rest in peace,” she promised, “but I’ll do my best to see that you folks do.”
She was back in the Lexus and back on the highway in moments, and still the sun had yet to rise…
GOTHAM CITY, USA
“Please,” Misfit begged. “We don’t want to fight. We’re in trouble and need your help.”
She and Hush were on the rooftop of a building in the middle of Gotham City. She used her earpiece to contact Oracle, or at least the Oracle of the new world she found herself upon. She dispatched Black Canary to the scene to assess the threat.
Black Canary dropped her fists slowly but maintained a guarded posture. “What’s this all about?”
“Our story is fantastic but please show us the respect of listening,” said Hush. “We are from a parallel earth and are lost. We need your help to return home.”
Black Canary looked skeptical. “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that line I’d be Bruce Wayne.”
“Really?” Misfit asked. “You get that a lot?”
“I’ve been at this a long time,” Black Canary replied. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
“I know you,” said Misfit. “You won’t turn away a kid in trouble.”
Black Canary rolled her eyes and sighed. “I am such a sucker. Ok kid, I’m all ears.”
“We believe there may be a portal that could send us home,” Hush explained.
Black Canary pointed to Hush. “I was talking to the girl. I don’t trust you.”
“Hush nailed it,” Misfit continued. “We just want to go home.”
“And how do you think we may help?” asked Black Canary.
“I… don’t know,” Misfit admitted. “It’s just that on my world you guys are all I have.”
Black Canary put her hand to her ear. “You getting this, O?”
Misfit and Hush waited patiently while Oracle spoke privately with Black Canary via the communications plug in her ear.
“Well?” Misfit asked hopefully.
Black Canary shook her head. “I’m sorry, young lady. Our involvement is too risky.”
On the sub-basement floor, and on the floor of the orange shipping crate itself, dozens and dozens of brightly colored action figures were strewn about, along with the detritus of plastic and cardboard packaging. Jack Nimball tore open toy after toy like a starving beggar who had gained access to a king’s food pantry, gorging himself on one well-sculpted, finely-painted plastic likeness after another. Over and over the cycle repeated, as Nimball split each polymer clamshell along its seams with a feverish intensity, his spindly arms shaking with the effort. He would draw out the action figure and, for a few moments, be transported via the plaything into a fantasy scenario he could hold in his hand. And, inevitably, whatever pleasure the toy brought the Toyman would be overwhelmed by the all-consuming need for novelty and the seductive knowledge that more unopened figures remained, and the action figure would be dropped, a new package taken up.
In his giggling frenzy, Nimball never paused to marvel at the remarkable peculiarities inherent in the situation. The displays of action figures were retail store-ready, yet the packaging bore no manufacturer’s names or logos, and none were emblazoned with UPC bars. And in the dreamlike time that Nimball had been sampling the vast contents of the shipping crate, he had yet to find a single duplicate action figure; every toy was unique, just as every toy was simultaneously familiar yet exotic, as if modeled on heroes and villains who had never existed yet could have, or should have. But such ruminations were beyond the capering Toyman and his exuberant binge of opening, playing, discarding, opening more, playing again.
Nimball hurtled an oversized action figure with masonry-patterned skin, the aptly named Brick, across the room with the kind of exuberant yelp a cartoon character might utter after falling off a cliff, and almost immediately was running back to the orange metal crate for more toys. He knocked aside an emptied cardboard display stand and stood for a moment in shock, eyes growing wide at the treasure revealed behind it. Box sets! Teams of figures in oversized gift boxes stared fixedly back at the Toyman and he joyfully began to liberate them.
The sonic sled of the Justice League Europe, carrying four of the Guardians who comprised the group's current roster, skimmed above the low-lying rice paddies, en route to the temple at Angkor Wat. "I don't like this," the Crimson Fox averred, drumming her diamond hard claws on the rail of the skycraft. "How could this ... this kind of phenomenon, happen so quickly, with no warning?"
"I don't know," Dr. Light admitted. "I suspect that we'll have to turn our attention to that deeper mystery after we deal with the more immediate threat."
"How big a threat are we talking about, here, eh?" Frostbite asked. "Whole world gone mad kind of bad, or just lowered property values bad?"
"Perhaps both," the mohawked strongman called Seneca indicated, as the ancient Khmer religious complex came into view. The massive shrine was normally the natural shade of dark gray sandstone, but now its walls and its three lotus-bud-shaped towers glowed with a harsh yellow-green radiance. The Guardians could feel the heat coming in waves off the temple, and an unsettling sensation of dangerous radioactivity levels.
Dr. Light set the sonic sled down on the Naga causeway. Throughout the grounds of the temple, panicked crowds ran in all directions, fighting one another mindlessly to get away from the isotopic payload being emitted from Angkor Wat. "Fox, Seneca, crowd control," Dr. Light ordered. "Help with the evacuation and try to keep the injuries to a minimum. Frostbite, come with me."
Crimson Fox and Seneca bounded in opposite directions, calling out for everyone to remain calm and intervening in nasty altercations as needed. Dr. Light flew towards the temple, with Frostbite sprinting just behind her.
Dr. Light and Frostbite entered the central structure of the complex and raced up flights of carved stairs as they made their way to the innermost enclosure. Lion-headed snakes carved into the walls snarled down at them, bathing them in sickly warm light. Finally, the two heroes attained the heart of the shrine.
Seven humanoid robots stood in a loose ring in the inner sanctuary, each one a different metallic monochrome from head to toe, their bodies varying slightly in height and build, one female and the other six male. All seven aimed their hands at the walls of the temple and shot beams of harsh energies into the stones. A green robot with “Ra” etched into its chest called out, “More intensity! More! We’re barely at a hundred roentgens! Don’t slack on us, Lithium!”
An almost youthful-looking robot, this one pale reflective yellow with “Li” engraved on its narrow chest, shot back, “I’m ionizing as hard as I can, Radium!”
“Radioactive robots,” Frostbite growled at Dr. Light, “what do you expect me to do against them here at ground zero? My ice powers will be about as useful as throwing snowballs at a nuclear power plant in meltdown!”
“Perhaps,” Dr. Light responded, “But you are a snow elf whose lifespan can be measured in so many millennia that you’re functionally immortal.”
“So I assume you can stay alive long enough to help me figure out a plan,” Dr. Light concluded.
The robots had been ignoring Dr. Light and Frostbite, presumably unaware of the Guardians’ presence, but at that moment the burly, dark red plated member of the team, whose chest bore the single letter “U”, turned away from the wall and spotted the Japanese scientist and the Canadian snow elf. “Hey!” the robot’s voice boomed, “You’d better --”
In response, a nine-inch-tall girl wearing a sailor outfit and blonde pigtails glided across the chamber on white feathered wings and screamed “Sumimasen!” Her heavily modulated voice struck the head of the silvery female robot and knocked the automaton off-balance.
A lanky boy, his face mostly hidden by dark goggles and a large, rounded helmet, raced through the room and delivered superspeed punches and kicks to Radium, Lithium, and Uranium. “These mechanical antagonists are less impressive than the gadgets you gave up for obsolete last year, Most Excellent Superbat!” the blurred figure called out.
“Good for us, bad for them, Well-Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash!” the leader replied. “Now, Big Atomic Lantern Boy, absorb the radiation!”
A teen with a head completely shaved except for a forelock threw open his dark jade pleather trenchcoat, revealing a circular window on his chest showing an x-ray of his own ribcage. The portal glowed, and plumes of phosphorescent green radiation swirled out of the walls of Angkor Wat and into the boy’s body. “No problem, but what about the other robos?”
“Silly boy, that’s why I brought some of the moat inside,” interjected a green-haired girl in a stylized diver’s costume. Held in both her hands was a huge mallet with a surface that rippled like water. She raised the liquid hammer over her head and threw it at the stockiest of the robots, a golden-skinned mechanical man with “Po” etched across his chest. Just before impact, the water construct divided into thirds, one part striking Polonium, the other two veering off to spear the pink-plated Strontium and dark gray Fermium. The split water hammers forced themselves into the mouths of the robots, and each was soon jerking in a cloud of sparks from multiple short circuits.
“Nice, Shiny Happy Aquazon!” commended the Most Excellent Superbat.
“Well now just who in the hell are these hosers?” Frostbite demanded.
GOTHAM CITY, USA
Black Canary was gone. Hush was surprised Misfit’s contacts within the superhero community ran so deep but even more so by Black Canary’s refusal to help. Perhaps some things were much different on this new world.
“So what now?” Misfit asked.
“We keep trying,” Hush replied. “Teleport us out of here.”
Misfit looked tentative. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean “you can’t”? Hush asked.
“You’ll blow up if I bounce you,” Misfit answered. “Anything I teleport explodes. Ka-bloohey!”
The unwelcome news complicated things. Misfit’s strategic value was her power of teleportation. Without it she was nothing more than an albatross around Hush’s neck. Maybe he should have killed her. “You didn’t tell me this before?”
“You mean back when you were deciding on whether or not to let me live?” Misfit replied. “Forgive me if I had other things on my mind besides reviewing the secret files and origins, ok?”
Hush mulled over the possibilities. “I could steal a car.”
Misfit’s face lit up. “Hold that thought! I’ll be right back.” With a puff of smoke she was gone.
“Wonderful,” Hush spat. He hated variables almost as badly as waiting.
Misfit returned with another acrid plume. “I may be able to do it!”
“Teleport us both?” Hush asked.
Misfit nodded. “When you tried to shoot me I noticed the mechanics of the Bounce Zone were fruity. It’s hard to explain but it’s thicker here - like moving through molasses. It may be enough to hold matter together. Give me one of your guns.”
Hush laughed. “Nice try, kid.”
“Like I want your stinking, old gun! I need something to experiment with. If it makes it through we may be in business,” Misfit explained.
“I’ll give you my coat,” Hush answered.
“Don’t trust me with your gun?” Misfit asked.
Hush removed his coat and handed it to Misfit. “Has nothing to do with trust kid. My guns are solid steel. They may fare better than my head.”
“Fine,” Misfit huffed as she took the coat. With a puff of smoke both she and the coat were gone. She returned a moment later with the coat intact. “It worked!” she exclaimed. She tossed the coat to Hush. “It didn’t blow up! Your turn now!”
Hush caught the coat and slipped his arms into it once more. “A coat is one thing but we’re talking about my life here!”
“Or you can stay here and I’ll find a way home myself,” Misfit challenged.
Hush resigned himself. “Ok, let’s do it!”
“Where to?” Misfit asked.
“Anywhere but here,” Hush replied.
Misfit grabbed him and everything went black. When Hush could see once more he very disoriented. It was as if he could see everywhere at once, an infinite number of destinations. He couldn’t tell if he and Misfit were falling or flying upward through a corkscrew of possibilities. “I thought you said this was like swimming in molasses!” he barked.
“It is!” Misfit answered. “This is nothing compared to how it usually is.”
“Now I know how the Flash feels!” Hush grumbled. People and places blurred by at a dizzying pace. “Surely there is a method to the madness, a filter of some sort?”
“Nah,” Misfit protested. “I think about where I want to go and an instant later, I’m there.”
Hush noticed something peculiar about the people buzzing by. “Why do some people emit an aura while others don’t?”
Misfit shook her head. “It doesn’t do that back home. I first noticed it with you - a soft, blue glow around you. ”
Hush smiled. “Kid, I love you!”
“What do you mean?” Misfit asked.
“Don’t you see? We emit a different energy signature than those native to this dimension!” said an excited Hush.
“Ok, but how does that help us?” Misfit asked.
“It means we’re not alone,” Hush explained. “We can use the auras to find others who may help us.”
“I’ve seen hundreds of us,” Misfit added.
Hush was impressed with how quickly Misfit processed the fleeting images. “Stop the merry-go-round at the next aura you see.”
An instant later they emerged from the Zone outside the ruins of a temple deep in the Amazon jungle. A group of armed guerillas were locked in heated battle with three metas Hush knew by reputation and from news clips. From the looks of the broken, twisted bodies strewn about the ruins, the reputation was well-deserved.
“Duck, kid!” Hush yelled as he pushed Misfit behind a crumbled, fallen column. Gunfire whizzed over their heads seconds later.
“Shouldn’t we find someplace safer?” Misfit asked.
“The three metas are from our world,” Hush explained. “I have a plan.”
Misfit looked confused. “I recognize Scandal Savage and Ragdoll from Oracle’s files. Please tell me we’re helping the guys in camo?”
“We need allies and someone forgot to tell your sorority that it was rush week,” Hush shouted over the gunfire. “When I give the word, you take out as many as your power will allow. Got it?”
“Now!” Hush cried. He bounded from behind their cover and unholstered his guns. His first victim had no idea there was another player in the game. The bullets tore through his chest and left him a bleeding corpse in the South American sun. Hush rolled once more and stopped only when close enough to trap another man’s knee with a vicious kick. The doctor in Hush estimated the force of the blow sufficient to not only break the tibial shaft but tear through the interosseus membrane and shatter the tibia as well. The patellar tendon, the anterior cruciate ligament, and the lateral collateral ligament were shredded like meat in a grinder. Hush grabbed this fallen soldier’s rifle and rammed a third man through with its bayonet when he came out of the roll. It was good to finally control his environment instead of the other way around.
He scanned the battlefield for Misfit. She too was taking out their adversary albeit in a more goody-two-shoes way. Her kicks and punches were effective but she took considerable pains to not take a life – typical superhero high-handedness.
Ragdoll sprung up onto a guerilla’s head and propelled himself toward the new arrivals. He twisted the man’s neck as he leaded forward. The man’s limp body fell face down but his broken neck left his horrified eyes to gaze upon the blue skies overhead before death clouded them over.
“Oh look!” Ragdoll squealed. “New playmates! Scandal, should I kill them now or do we entertain guests?”
Scandal Savage lived up to her name and her heritage as she pressed through the crowd alongside a striking silver-haired woman wearing a long, black courtesan dress and silver high heels. The other woman was equally as vicious and appeared to have at least a measure of super-strength and seemed impervious to bullets. At last the two women fought their way to Hush’s side.
“I don’t know who the hell you are,” said Scandal Savage “but for your sake you’d better be friend and not foe. We’re taking the statue out of here!”
“The statue is of no importance to me,” Hush assured. “You can have whatever spoils of battle you earn this day. We seek allies.”
Scandal raised her left hand to shush Hush then pointed to Misfit. “Tell your girl over there to cover her ears.”
“She’ll never hear me,” Hush yelled.
Another wave of her hand and Ragdoll snaked his way through the maze of bodies and leaped onto Misfit’s shoulders. He wrapped himself around the young girl’s head like a boa.
“You’d better cover your own,” said Scandal.
With another wave of her hand the silver-haired woman’s pupils dilated and blackened. Her body transformed, slowly at first and then quickened with haste. Soon a black and white banshee stood in her place and unleashed a mournful cry that chilled Hush’s mortal soul even with his ears covered. In that one horrifying moment he relived the agony of every one of his victims. The Banshee’s own teammates fell victim to her assault as well. Scandal dropped to her knees and drops of blood beaded on her forehead.
Ragdoll tightened his grip on Misfit but seemed to relish the excruciating pain. He removed his hands from his ears and leaned into the onslaught of hellish sound and breathed it in like a sane man enjoying a summer breeze. The only time Hush ever witnessed such a tortured smile was on the faces of Joker Gas victims. The twisted imp cackled as drool flowed from the corners of his mouth. His ears and nose poured blood and at last his body danced in seizure to the sonic waves of the somber wail but throughout the ordeal he never lost his hold on Misfit.
At last the banshee closed its mouth and the silver-haired woman appeared once more.
The bodies of dead guerillas littered the courtyard. Their faces were ashen with the fear only death can bring.
At last Hush was able to stand. The others were coming to their senses as well.
Ragdoll was the first to speak and he did so in stuttered song. “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm fuzzy mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my...”
“Would you get off me, you freak?” Misfit yelled as she struggled to free herself from Ragdoll’s serpentine grip.
“I do apologize, dear sweet morsel! It seems in my haste to cover your ears I placed your face in a rather awkward, private place on my person, but I assure you my jollies aren’t there. The miserable little prunes were in my way so I removed them with a dull razor blade! A fun time was had by all, I assure you!”
Misfit teleported from Ragdoll’s grip and appeared a moment later at Hush’s side.
Ragdoll fell to the ground.
“That’s enough, Ragdoll,” Scandal Savage ordered. “I believe these two are allies or at least they’d better be.”
“I am Hush and this young lady is called Misfit,” Hush explained. “We have reason to believe you’re like us.”
“Which is to say what?” asked the banshee.
“And you are?” Hush asked.
“I love the tense bravado just before a team-up!” Ragdoll squealed. “We are teaming up, right? Or shall we kill one another? Yes! Yes! If someone must die, may I go first?”
“No one is going to die!” Hush barked.
“They call me Jeannette,” the banshee replied. “What’s your game?”
“Like you, we’re from a different earth than this mudball we now share,” Hush answered. “The girl may be our ticket home.”
“You already have the girl,” said Scandal Savage. “Why do you need us?”
Hush was impressed. Scandal Savage was as cunning as her father. “Allies. There are too many variables here.”
“And what do we gain?” Scandal asked.
“A handsome reward from the Wayne fortune when we get home,” Hush answered.
“You offer half a bargain,” Jeannette replied with a scowl. “What if we don’t get home?”
“A damn big gun,” said Hush exposing his guns.
Ragdoll raised his hand excitedly like a kid straining for the teacher to notice him in class. “Oh, mister! May I touch your big gun?”
Misfit curled up her nose. “You are a disgusting little man.”
Ragdoll smiled coyly. “I am! I am! Guilty as charged, my dear! But I bet you’re still the innocent flower! Oh I know you simply must be and look at that adorable ensemble! It fits in all the right places! So young and nubile and I bet so delicious! Have I mentioned that I’m quite skilled at…”
Before Ragdoll could finish his perverted thought, Hush shot the ground between the impish contortionist’s legs. “Touch the girl and the next one won’t be a warning shot.”
Ragdoll laughed maniacally and turned once again to Misfit. “Perhaps we should begin with a dinner and a movie my dear?”
“I apologize for drawing my gun on your companion,” said Hush. “But the girl may be our only way home. She’s under my care!”
Scandal peered into Hush’s eyes. “Doll… Leave the girl alone! We have business to discuss with our new friend. If we don’t reach a mutually satisfactory agreement we’ll kill him and you can do with the girl as you please.”
A SWAMP OUTSIDE SLIDELL, LOUISIANA, USA
They call me Detective Chimp and I hate zombies!
No let me rephrase that. I freakin’ hate zombies!
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy beating the crap out of an undead punching bag as well as the next guy but what the walking dead lacks in high motor skills they make up for in perseverance!
I suppose I should explain. The day began like any other. My buddy Rex the Wonder Dog and I were kicking back a few beers in a little Irish pub outside Philly that serves a crisp stout ale and cheese steak to die for! While swapping war stories this character in red and black floats into the bar and scares the living hell out of the other patrons. He called himself Acheron and claimed to be a ghost. While he admitted he wasn’t in the Spectre’s league he was plenty spooky to clear the bar of non-superhero types. “I’m looking for the Detective Chimp and Rex the Wonder Dog,”
Like it’s hard to pick the talking chimp and dog out of a crowd of drunken Irishmen and wannabes. “What do you want?” I asked.
Acheron floated at the end of our table like a pasty-white waiter holding a handful of helium balloons. His long black ponytail whipped behind him in some unseen ethereal wind. “Gentlemen, the universe needs you.”
Far be it from me to ignore a summons from the universe but I couldn’t help but express skepticism. It’s a gift.
“Why should we believe you?” Rex asked. Did I mention one of the reasons we get along so well is we’re so much alike?
The ghost seemed undaunted. “I am not native to this dimension. Many from my dimension are appearing at random in your own. In my dimension I serve with a group known as the Shadowpact, of which you are also members. We handle threats mystical in nature.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “You want help with the mystical and magical call Zatanna or Madame Xanadu. If a case involving funny talking animals happens your way, I’m your man, or chimp to be proper.”
Rex laughed, or should I say howled? You haven’t lived until you’ve heard that dog laugh. Ever watched the old Saturday morning cartoon show “Laff-A-Lympics”? Think of Mumbly’s wheezy snicker mixed with the Joker’s maniacal cackle and it would come close.
“Gentlemen, I implore you to help,” Acheron begged.
I chugged my brew and let Rex handle this one. I knew from experience where it would go.
“Well why didn’t you say so the first time?” Rex asked.
“I did,” a confused Acheron explained.
Rex shook his head. “No you demanded. There’s a difference between demanding and imploring. Right, D.C.?
I wiped the froth from my fur and nodded. “Oh absolutely! A huge difference! I’ve never been one to turn down an imploring ghost. Bad juju and all that. “
“So you’ll help?” Acheron asked.
I shifted my empty mug from hand to hand and sighed. “Mister, if you’re so desperate for help you’ll beg a drunken monkey and a talking dog for it then why the hell not? Besides, we’ve already seen the Liberty Bell.”
That was a few short hours ago. Now Rex and I are here in a swamp outside Slidell, Louisiana battling alongside a motley group of misfits against an army of the undead. Zatanna’s a no-show which is bad for two reasons. First, she is the only one with experience battling the villain-du-jour behind the army of the undead – a real winner who calls himself Abra Cadaver. Apparently she had a run-in with him some time back while giving a lecture in Apollyon. (Way back in the Zatanna Halloween Special from the first annual event – Ye Old Editor). Secondly, it deprives the males among us a chance at ogling her in those fishnets. Mainly, the fishnets but I wouldn’t turn down help with the zombies.
Oh, and that motley gang fighting alongside Rex and I? I recognize Nightshade and Enchantress. I think they’ve done some work with Waller in the past. Nightshade is from a shadow dimension of some sort and can form constructs from shadow much like Green Lantern does with his ring, except hers are usually dark and spooky. Enchantress is your garden variety witch. She’s been off her rocker a few times from what I hear but is apparently fighting the good fight again. I haven’t seen Ragman in forever and ditto for the Blue Devil. At least there’s some muscle in the bunch. And could that be Nightmaster in his blue long-johns and flowing red cape? He disappeared back in the late Sixties I thought. Word was he was a big shot in another dimension called Myrra. Swamp Thing said he was back but I haven’t seen him until now. Acheron seems to be on the level. He’s fighting on our side at least. The other two I don’t know. I assume they’re from his dimension. One is either a seriously badass, spooky cowboy or he was on his way to audition for the Village People. The other is a pretty young girl in a red costume but looks a little undead herself.
According to Zatanna this Abra Cadaver character is an immortal that possesses uncanny control of the undead. Thankfully his control wanes as he adds greater numbers under his influence. That explains why these particular goons are so easily beaten but there are so many of them. They keep climbing out of the swamp as quickly as we can beat them back.
“We’ll never get to that Abra Cadaver fella at this rate!” Rex yelled over the fray. He tore into a zombie lady’s leg and stripped the decaying flesh to the bone. She swatted him away casually as if he had done nothing. He rolled under the feet of some zombies who trampled him.
Rex yelped but rolled back onto his feet quickly. “So the yelp was a little undignified. Ok, no more Mr. Nice Doggy!” He leaped onto the chest of a fat accountant-type zombie and tore it from the skull underneath. At least he found something that worked for him.
I busied myself with an undead pirate or maybe he was a recent tourist from up north with a Jack Sparrow fantasy. You never know when you’re on the bayou. Either way, he wasn’t a happy camper. Of course I wouldn’t be either if someone ran me through with a cutlass and tossed me into a swamp to die. He removed the cutlass from his chest and swung at me.
I barely managed to duck. “Already had a haircut this month, matey!” I grabbed hold of his arm as he followed through and used it to propel myself toward his face and kicked. Did you know chimpanzees are several times stronger than the average human being? Most people don’t but I was surprised as anyone when his head flew off his shoulders.
Our group gave a good accounting of themselves. Nightmaster wielded his sword with uncanny skill. Or did the sword wield the man? I’ve heard tales the blade is enchanted. Blue Devil was a one-man wrecking crew as was Ragman. Nightshade constructed two giant djinn from the shadows. They stomped zombies into the ground. Enchantress was more direct. She opened up fiery portals beneath large groups of zombies and let gravity do the rest.
Acheron calmed the undead before him somehow. I suspect he possesses some power of illusion or mind control. Who knows with those other-worldly types? The spooky cowboy’s guns turned the zombies into stone statues. Just what the Gulf coast needed – a statuary of the undead. Still it was effective. The young girl in red seemed to mimic whatever Enchantress did.
We were winning – kind of but I couldn’t shake the feeling we were being distracted from something much bigger.
RIVERROCK, WYOMING, USA
The two figures in the secluded room made for a striking study in contrasts: one male and one female, he old enough that all color had long since faded to white in his ponytailed hair and his bushy eyebrows, and his face correspondingly was weathered and wrinkled, while she boasted a youthful beauty from her alluring figure to her flawless skin to her luxuriant red hair. He wore a finely tailored suit cut from expensive silvery-gray silk, impeccably accesorized, while she was garbed in a costume that bordered on the outlandish, blood red lycra that clung to her curves, with a cutout window in the shape of a goat's head revealing her ample cleavage, all surmounted by deeper red leather boots and gloves and a long cloak. The truism that opposites attracted could not have been more meaningless to either of them, however, for their purposes were united in something far more transcendent than gender pairing or any other mundane, worldly interest.
The woman who called herself Strega rested her elegant hands on the polished ebony frame encircling a massive crystal ball. She was a powerful sorceress, albeit a traditional one, reliant on her incantations and foci to utilize her mystical abilities to the fullest. Her companion, the warlock known as Doctor Gotham, was an ancient creature with a more primal affinity for the arcane; his command of eldritch power was a nearly unconscious extension of his will, and he could observe phenomena from a distant remove merely by shifting his attention. Contrasts yet again. Strega endeavored to avoid being bothered by this too greatly as she peered into the swirling depths of the crystal ball to achieve the same effects of remote observation.
The opalescent depths of the glassy sphere whirled in a widening iris, and in its center the image of a dimly lit sub-basement appeared, dominated by a huge orange shipping crate. The crate was surrounded by fragments of cardboard and plastic packaging, and scores of the action figures which those clamshells had once contained, articulated limbs akimbo. The Toyman frolicked heedlessly around the sub-basement with an action figure in each hand, his limbs gesticulating wildly like tattered ribbons and sometimes smashing the two sculpted plastic dolls into one another. Then, impulsively, the Toyman spun on his heel to face the orange shipping crate, throwing the two action figures in opposite directions. The Toyman lunged for the crate and snatched another blister card from within, and scrabbled at its seams to release the plaything within. As he did, supernatural energies rushed outward from the package like pale blue gossamer lightning, undetectable to the Toyman himself, but revealed to Strega through the powers of the crystal ball.
"Amazing," Strega sighed as she watched Doctor Gotham's pawn trigger yet another invocation of the master spell. "He has no awareness at all of the forces at work all around him."
"Why should he?" Doctor Gotham rejoined, unable to prevent a certain contemptuousness from coloring his voice. "Jack Nimball is an addled simpleton who cares only for toys and games and the fanciful flights of his own stunted imagination. He has no concept of the fundamental mysteries which may manipulate reality, any more than he possesses the wherewithal to discern their essence."
"Even as the effects of those manipulations arrive more and more rapidly?" Strega challenged. "The enchantment itself seems to push him into a frenzy, even as the spell accumulates strength."
"The spell's true effects take place far from Nimball himself, so intrinsically distant that he will never notice them," Doctor Gotham maintained. "They are, in all ways, utterly beyond him. Observe."
Doctor Gotham placed a single fingertip at the highest point of the gazing globe, and the mists within churned with darkness. The image of the Toyman at play vanished, and was replaced by a field of elemental nothingness. No, Strega realized, the field was not empty, nor truly colorless, but merely lacking in anything which her earthly sense could identify. No matter how she stared or concentrated, she could not even ascertain if the wide expanse within the crystal ball were white, or gray, or transparent, nor if the occasional iridescent flash in the corners of her vision were real or tricks of the eerie light. "What are you showing me?" Strega asked, trying to sound more bored than baffled.
"This is the supra-boundary of reality," Doctor Gotham answered. "It is composed of the most fundamental essence of all material existence, that which gives rise to both energy and matter. It keeps this universe separate from others, and simultaneously gives shape and structure to this universe. It resides outside of all observable nature, a limit superior to the farthest reaches of the coldest ghost galaxies. And it is here, along this supra-boundary, where my designs on this reality shall culminate. These are the effects which Nimball causes unawares."
As the warlock concluded, a narrow shaft of lurid force struck the hazy, featureless supra-boundary. A thin spinning column of intertwined purple and orange light like the bit of a drill pushed through the shell of the universe and sank deeper and deeper. After the span of a few heartbeats, the column reversed direction, retreating from the small pinhole it had created. At the moment when the leading point of the mystical force was about to reappear from its point of entry, a spiderweb of cracks appeared in the surrounding span of the supra-boundary. Then the rotating lightspear withdrew fully, with a bundle of pulsing orange and purple affixed to its end. The bundle spasmed randomly and violently, and contained a female figure with waist-length steel blue hair, and an onyx and silver metallic costume which seemed intimately merged with the wearer's flesh. After the passage of the abductee, the supra-boundary was left with a gaping hole of shocking blackness in its otherwise perception-defying blank surface. The fissures radiating from the edges of the stygian wound continued to widen long after the purple and orange spinning shaft had disappeared.
"Thus is it done," Doctor Gotham intoned. "For every package Nimball opens, another summoning invocation is unleashed. Sometimes a simple fiend-bolt or djinn's vortex, sometimes a more baroque method of mystical transportation, Yzita's Skein, or the Perkunnian Pass. But because each summoning must cross the supra-boundary of this reality in order to reach its target, a tear is made."
Before Strega's eyes, the perspective within the crystal ball appeared to withdraw, and the ebon hole and its attendant snaking cracks grew smaller and smaller. Then another similarly black pit appeared at the edge of the expanse within the globe. And then another. Soon the crystal ball showed dozens and dozens of tiny punctures in the supra-boundary, each one resembling a small parasitic insect as the hairline fissures crept outwards unceasingly from their edges. A forked red undulation of mystical power, like a spectral snake's tongue, slashed past the vantage of the crystal ball, dwindled in size, and pierced the boundary.
"Each tear weakens the very underpinnings of this plane of existence," Doctor Gotham continued. "And cumulatively, they shall break this universe asunder as a ripe and fitting sacrifice for my master the Sun King. But until the moment of this reality's demise, Nimball will be no more aware of the danger than a mouse scurrying beneath the floorboards would notice a meteor shower in the night sky."
"And yet none of this would be possible without him," Strega noted.
"He is a madman particularly well suited to the spellcasting, a necessity for chaotically weaving together so many disparate summonings into one plenary spell, but the only indispensible mind here is mine," Doctor Gotham insisted. "The Clavis of Nephilim is an ancient enchantment known to few, and among them only I could orchestrate the resources necessary to allow it to unfold so perfectly. The ritual was attempted in other times, on other worlds. A spider-emperor attempted the invocation by proxy through an army of fly-thralls, Atlantean mages on several different worlds have utilized everything from their own purple-eyed outcasts to mating-crazed seaworms, and once a half-mad quark-alchemist believed he could bridge the chaos threshold himself. All failed disastrously in their attempts, but I shall succeed. I alone have eliminated all other possible outcomes."
"You are resourceful, Doctor," Strega conceded. She admitted, privately, that Doctor Gotham's preparations had been uniformly impressive. That he had discovered a parallel Earth, so similar to their own yet lacking a native Doctor Gotham of its own, was remarkable enough, for it represented a magnificent offering to the insatiable hungers of the malevolent Sun King. And yet that was only the beginning. The warlock had physically traveled between the two Earths, Strega's home and its strange doppelganger-world, numerous times over the course of nearly three years. On the Earth of his origin, Doctor Gotham had access to resources and contacts which he used to acquire everything his plans required, from untraceable precious metals to exotic herbaceous roots. On the new Earth, he was able to act in secret anonymity, his machinations undetected by old foes a reality away and unnoticed by future victims blind to his true nature. "You have arranged the components masterfully. Spending the better part of a year carving midnight black roots into skeletal poppets, and enchanting each and everyone with a fractional portion of the Clavis of Nephilim. Procuring the services of a plastics manufacturer to encase each poppet in a disguised exterior, and waiting until the inherent mystical energies caused the dolls to take on the appearances of each of the spell's sympathetic anchors. These undertakings lift you up as an exemplar of patience at the very least."
"Spare me your flattery, Strega," Doctor Gotham scoffed.
"I simply stand in awe of your singlemindedness," Strega went on, unabashed. "You transported fungible commodities to this world in order to establish a position of wealth. Not enough to disrupt economies, but more than enough to purchase not only this manse but an entire building in downtown Metropolis, to guarantee privacy for a subbasement you knew that the Toyman would eventually happen upon. You secured your lode of poppets, and again, you waited."
"A handful of years means very little to me," Doctor Gotham averred. "And is meaningless to my master."
"Of course," Strega conceded. "And yet, with all of your preparations and contingencies, do you not fear any reprisal, either from the defenders of this world which stands on the brink of sacrifice to our master's divine appetites, or the champions of our homeworld, whence we must inevitably return once we flee the Sun King's fiery destruction of this universe?"
"Those from our world who might interfere shall never have the chance," Doctor Gotham insisted. "It would require a concerted effort of all their paltry knowledge and abilities to even recognize the greater pattern in the disappearances caused by the summonings. And such a concerted effort will never materialize, because the summonings traverse both space and time in crossing the supra-boundary. Some disappearances have already happened years ago, some have yet to occur. And because each summoning is a unique enchantment, their unified purpose is well-hidden. And yet the terminus of each summoning is always in this world's present, sowing the seeds of a proliferation of confrontations which will keep those on this world who might thwart my will preoccupied."
"Or so you hope," Strega smiled slyly.
"Even if I have ... erred," Doctor Gotham gritted, "And even if certain elements of the sacrificial fodder should gain the insight which could lead them to presume to interrupt the casting of the final threads of the Clavis of Nephilim, their way will be blocked by your own underlings."
"That's right," Strega snapped, pouncing on the warlock's words like a feral cat on its prey. "You need Pentacle. You need me. You should well remember that."
Doctor Gotham glowered at Strega. She held her head high and returned his stare, unblinking. Around them, reality continued to fray.
TO BE CONTINUED ...!