A hastily assembled police cordon closed off Bessolo Boulevard, bright blue sawhorses tethered to street lamps by yellow and black Do Not Cross tape. Behind the barricade sat two vehicles with red and blue lights flashing, one a sleek MPD cruiser, the other a massive Special Crimes Unit van as heavily equipped as a mobile fortress. Several uniformed police officers patrolled the cordon, at intervals loudly reminding the gathering of curious onlookers to keep their distance.
Nevertheless, a determined brunette edged her way through the throngs of spectators and approached a plainclothes officer standing near the SCU van. "So, what can you tell me, Lieutenant? What's the situation here?" Lois Lane-Kent asked. The Daily Planet's ace reporter extended a handheld recorder toward the man and offered him a beguiling smile.
"The situation here is a cop just doing his job," Lieutenant Inspector Dan Turpin growled around the stub of a cigar. He was a stocky man dressed in no-name brown trousers, white shirt and a loosened olive-drab tie. His formidably broad and chiseled face lent him more than a little resemblance to the front end of the SCU van behind him, a kinship further underscored by the service revolver tucked into a shoulder holster. "You're the reporter, what can you tell me?"
"The AP Wire has been going crazy with sightings of unidentified metahumans causing havoc around the globe the last couple of days," Lois answered. "But as far as I know, no reports of major cities evacuating entire blocks. Did something happen here that the authorities have managed to keep quiet? Or is this a pre-emptive maneuver?"
"It's pre-emptive, at my request," a voice carried down to the street. Turpin betrayed no reaction to the newcomer, other than to roll his smoldering cigar from one corner of his scowling mouth to the other, but Lois looked up in time to see Steel descending from the sky overhead, sunlight gleaming off the reflective sealant of his high-tensile alloy armor, red cape unfurling upwards from his shoulders. Steel landed beside Lois Lane and rested the heel of his smart hammer on the street.
"So now the Justice League is involved?" Lois asked, adroitly redirecting her recorder towards Steel, undaunted by the fact that even with her arm fully extended, the microphone barely reached the top of the hexiform S emblazoned across the hero's armor-plated chest.
"We've been involved all along," Steel answered. "What's happening now should be the endgame. That's why we enlisted the aid of Metropolis's Finest in clearing the area."
"Not that we needed to do much," Turpin huffed.
"Excuse me?" Steel turned toward the Lieutenant Inspector.
"We set up our perimeter around the few blocks you specified," Turpin elaborated, "and sent in the boys for a standard sweep and clear, but the neighborhood was just about completely deserted already. Got a couple of winos in an alley to shuffle along, and scared the pants off of a kid shortcutting his way home, but other than that ... zilch."
"Well, that's good ... isn't it?" Lois asked, looking back and forth between Turpin and Steel.
Turpin shrugged diffidently, reaching under his bowler to scratch his scalp. Steel looked past the police cordon and stared fixedly at the space beyond, as if interpeting a cryptic inscription on the skyscraper walls. "I don't know if it's good or not," the Justice Leaguer admitted. "But generally when things aren't as we expect them to be ... it's not good."
HIGHWAY NORTH OF CIUDAD ACUNA, MEXICO
It didn’t feel right.
Misfit was squeezed into the backseat of a stolen twenty year-old Cadillac Eldorado with a group of strangers known as villains back home in her own world – Hush, Scandal Savage, Ragdoll, and a seriously scary lady named Jeanette. The five of them tore northward through Mexico en route to the United States to meet the buyer of a statue they stole from the jungles of South America – a heist Misfit helped pull off. Of course she could have teleported everyone one at a time but Hush said the trip would allow the group to talk business.
One fact was clear. Misfit didn’t want to get to know any of them especially Ragdoll. The contortionist’s body was covered by a patchwork of scars that resembled the stitching of a vintage child’s rag doll toy. His head was crowned with a wild mane of thick, yarn-like red hair that added to the rag doll effect. His skin was so pale the white squares in his checkerboard-patterned costume motif looked dirty in comparison. He spent a large part of the trip making sexual innuendos toward anyone in the car he thought he may annoy, especially Misfit. She was glad Hush took a space in the back seat between them.
The others weren’t so bad, at least in comparison. Scandal Savage was a striking woman who carried herself like royalty. The others gave her clear, firm voice their undivided attention whenever she spoke. She commanded respect in much the same way some of the big-gun superheroes Misfit knew.
Jeanette was impressive physically with her platinum white locks piled upon her head like an 18th century courtesan – the aristocracy of the group to Scandal’s royalty. Even when she was pleasant outwardly one could sense the evil lurking deep inside, thanks to the banshee she hosted within. It was capable of terrorizing a human soul to death, at least that’s what Scandal said. She also possessed one seriously heavy lead foot. She pushed the Eldorado to its limits on the unpaved, potholed Mexican roads.
And then there was Hush. Not long ago he frightened Misfit but now he was her anchor in the chaos of villainy she was falling in with. She only hoped he was as good as his word about not killing her.
Ragdoll squeezed into the impossibly small rear window space behind them and settled in between Misfit and Hush so that his feet were in the window and his head nearly in the floor. “Penny for your thoughts?”
“Leave the girl alone!” Hush barked.
Ragdoll cackled gleefully. “Who am I kidding? I would steal a penny from her before giving one for her thoughts. Yes, I do believe that would be more in character if someone were playing me under the Broadway lights.”
Misfit liked the way Hush seemed protective of her and wondered what he looked like beneath his wrappings. Was he as handsome as the doctors on television?
“I said leave her alone,” Hush demanded once more. His voice dripped with testosterone and for some reason it really excited her. “I will not ask again.”
“Alone?” Ragdoll asked. “I used to love being alone. When I was but a wee boy my father used to lock me inside a trunk in his travel trailer so I could be alone with my thoughts and he alone with a lady of the evening. That’s how I met Charlotte! Such a sweet thing! She hung in the corner of the trunk and I would talk to her for hours. She was good to me, a true friend who spun the most magnificent of webs!”
It unnerved Misfit when Ragdoll used her real name – Charlotte, even when speaking of someone else “Please, just be quiet.”
“And then I pulled her little legs out one by one,” Ragdoll continued. “The ungrateful harlot bit me! That’s when I knew her fancy writing and Zen philosophies were a sham so I ate her! Not even enough to leave me wanting more, I might add – a dreadful culinary experience! She did bite my tongue however. The swelling nearly caused me to suffocate to death, so it wasn’t all negative. Perhaps being alone isn’t so bad after all! Now look at me showing a nostalgic bone!”
“Move now,” Hush demanded.
“And if I don’t?” Ragdoll asked nonchalantly.
“I will kill you,” Hush replied.
Ragdoll cackled. “Oh how I wish you could! Perhaps you could tear my bones out of my skin one by one? Yes, I’ve always thought that’s how I would want to go.”
“Enough, Doll!” yelled Scandal from the front seat. “Please don’t bother the young lady. We have a deal with Hush.”
Ragdoll seemed resigned for a moment but then Misfit noticed him peeking up her skirt from his vantage point in the floor.
“What are you doing?” she shrieked as she bunched her denim miniskirt together between her legs.
“Enjoying the view,” Ragdoll replied. “And lamenting that I’m without my digital camera at the moment. Do you know how many hits this could get on YouTube? “Jailbait Superhero Babe Upskirt”! You could go more viral than that Mary Marvel clip a couple of years back.”
Hush stomped into the floor and pinned Ragdoll by the neck with his boot. A swift backhand split the Doll’s upper lip, splashing blood on the back of the leather seat in front of him. “I’m not going to ask you again!”
Scandal buried her face in her hands. “Dammit, Doll! Do you want us to set you out here?”
Ragdoll licked the blood from his lips. “No, I hear the water’s horrible.”
Scandal peeked over the seat back to Hush’s boot on Ragdoll’s throat. She implored Hush with her eyes. “Do you think you could…”
Hush ground his boot heel into Doll’s throat for emphasis before he removed it.
“I hate to break up the party but we’re about to cross the border guys,” said Jeanette. “Let’s try not to draw attention to ourselves.”
“As if,” Misfit sighed.
Jeanette eased the car to the security checkpoint at the US-Mexico border.
“Good evening, Miss. Enjoy your stay in Mexico?” asked the guard.
Jeanette nodded. “I did. Thank you for asking.”
“Anything you need to declare?” the guard asked.
Jeanette played him like a child’s toy. She batted her eyes and smiled coyly. ”My undying love, handsome?”
The guard laughed and motioned her through.
“That certainly was easier than I expected,” said Scandal.
“Could be a setup,” Jeanette explained.
“Oh, I hope so!” Ragdoll exclaimed. “Perhaps they’ll catch us and lock me in a travelling trunk!”
“It certainly is a possibility,” said Hush. “Everyone keep their eyes peeled for trouble!”
Misfit heard enough. “Or maybe you guys are just the most paranoid psychos on the planet! Sheesh! Everything isn’t always about you, you know.”
Misfit wished she had kept quiet. Oracle always said she didn’t know when to keep her big mouth shut and she was right. She just hoped her present company wouldn’t kill her.
Scandal broke the thick silence with a quiet giggle that forced its way past her lips. That’s all it took. Everyone else broke into a chorus of raucous laughter that filled the car.
“Great! I’m the comedy relief,” said Misfit.
Ragdoll hopped on Scandal’s head rest on the seat in front of Misfit and pointed to himself. “Oh no, dear. That’s me! Isn’t that right, Scandal? I’m the comic relief.”
“You’re the creepy factor,” Scandal explained. “You don’t do humor well.”
“Not so,” Ragdoll rebuffed. “You didn’t find my spider story amusing?”
“Case in point,” Scandal replied.
“I’m just happy to get some miles between us and the border,” said Hush.
“Three down and many more to go to meet our buyer,” Jeanette explained.
Suddenly a large man appeared in the road in front of them. He was a typical brute-type dressed in a Mexican flag costume. The car slammed into him before Jeanette could even hit the brakes.
Instinct kicked in and Misfit jumped for the safety of the Bounce Zone but not before she heard the sickening shredding of metal.
RIVERROCK, WYOMING, USA
“Right there, buddy – do not move.”
Alan Scott had been willingly immersing himself in dangerous situations so as to help preserve the greater good since the days of World War II. For seven decades, Alan had wielded a mystical green flame of untold power as the world’s first hero to use the name Green Lantern...he had co-founded, served with, and often chaired, the Justice Society of America, which was the first, and arguably finest, collection of metahuman protectors the planet had ever known...and for many, many, many years, he had been foiling the schemes of Nazis, wizards, aliens, vampires, machine-men, germ-people, plant-creatures, beings from the future, trans-dimensional travelers, transgressors from microscopic realms, dream-dwellers, aquatic menaces, and all manner of homegrown, garden-variety, human wrongdoers for good measure. Alan had long since grown accustomed to peril and hostility in all their many forms.
That did not mean, however, that he particularly liked facing down these various dangers. It did not mean, for example, that Alan Scott looked especially kindly upon something like being stood off at gunpoint...and he looked even less kindly upon it when the guns that were being employed to accomplish that standing off seemed to radiate a kind of mystic aura that set Alan’s green flame-enhanced sensory capabilities to jangling.
The man confronting Alan – a cowboy type whose clothing, long hair, beard, and guns all seemed to have been dipped in black ink – cocked his head slightly when the female voice broke in, but the barrels of the twin revolvers that he held didn’t waver. His eyes, which were actually blank fields of white entirely devoid of pupils and irises, didn’t so much as blink.
“Eli, stop! Don’t you know who this is?” A lithe brunette stepped into view behind the cowboy – Alan didn’t feel he could afford too her too much of a glance just at the moment, what with the twin magical barrels trained on body parts he considered vital to his anatomy, but her voice sounded vaguely familiar.
“Nope,” the cowboy freely admitted, “but he maybe should get fed a bullet or three just for his fashion sense. I mean: red, green, purple, and yellow, all mixed up like that? There oughtta be a law. Assuming there ain’t one already.”
“Mr. Stone, this is Green Lantern. The first one, and definitely someone who’s on our side.”
The guns weren’t convinced in the slightest. “You sure? Maybe he’s just somethin’ made up to look this way, like one of them, what-do-you-callums: a homunguloid. Or a dopple-radar.”
“You mean homunculus and doppelganger. But he’s neither, I can tell. Nightshade?”
A second brunette, just as slender, spoke up from the shadows on the other side of the cowboy, and Alan had to give her silent kudos for stealth: he hadn’t been aware of her until she’d answered her companion’s question.
“I think it’s him, too. Eli, he’s one of the good guys. Lower your guns, okay?”
The cowboy frowned mightily, and seemed to emit the concept of reluctance in all directions, but he dropped and then holstered his weapons. “Hope you ladies know what you’re doing.”
The first brunette took another step toward Alan. “Do you remember me? My name is June Moon – I’m called the Enchantress. We’ve met before.”
Alan was reluctant to take his eyes off the cowboy, but he allowed himself a glance at the woman now, and he did recognize her: the willowy grace, the gorgeous mane of black hair, the body-hugging emerald-colored outfit – and especially the way it emphasized her exceedingly trim, bare midriff – all rang definite bells.
“Yes, I remember you, Ms. Moon. It was that ‘moon-juice’ caper, wasn’t it – when Lady Lunar was selling bottled, liquid moonlight to werewolves so they could expand their hours of operation?”
The usually semi-haughty Enchantress nodded, almost blushing outright at being recognized by Earth’s first Green Lantern, and the cowboy cocked his head again at the sight before turning to the third member of their party. “That sounds like a pretty good story – yours beat it? What did you get up to with this gent?”
The second brunette had lush, raven tresses as beautiful as June Moon’s, and she wore a pointy domino mask and a diaphanous, blue-black dress that somehow fluttered in a breeze that wasn’t there. “Not much really – he just bought me a drink once at the Oblivion Bar when some of the Justice Society came in to celebrate a big win. But we know some of the same people.”
“That’s right. Nightshade. We have met.”
“Yes. It’s good to see you again...Mr. Lantern. This is Eli Stone. We’re all working together right now. He’s called the Midnight Rider.”
The cowboy tipped his hat slightly in greeting, but offered no apologies for the earlier gunpoint introduction.
“Mr. Stone. So I’m guessing we all must be here for the same reason.”
June Moon swept back her hair with one hand, and it immediately cascaded back down to frame her face. “We know that something very big and very bad is happening in Metropolis...but we’ve learned that something else is going on here. Something maybe more subtle, but overall, probably even bigger and badder. This is the real theater of events, we think.”
“That’s what my own information says as well.* How long have you been here? And what intelligence have you gathered?”
(*See ALL-AMERICAN COMICS Annual #1 for the full story on how Alan came by his information!)
“We haven’t been here for too long – maybe an hour or so – but there are things drained of blood all around the area. People, and even animals – and the pattern of them gets denser toward the far end of town. We were heading that way when we all sensed you coming. We think the person or people we’re looking for are holed up in the old mansion on the hill above the church and the library.” Nightshade shrugged. “I’m having trouble accessing the shadows there, which is actually almost as much confirmation as seeing right in and spotting bad guys dancing around on top of a human sacrifice or something.”
Alan nodded. “That all makes sense: these types often seem to want a church or a library nearby to foul up, don’t they. Something they can use or desecrate. Sometimes they also like a travel-nexus, like a railway station...”
“Thing is,” the cowboy in black scratched his chin with the back of one dark-gloved hand as he spoke, “if we could see you coming, then maybe so could the bad guys. That green fire you got inside you shines real big, and from a long ways off for anyone who’s got even a touch of the sight. Maybe we best hit that library pronto, before they organize themselves some kind of defense.”
“They almost certainly have some defenses already set up, Mr. Stone – no one orchestrates something this big, and gets this far with it, without knowing what they’re doing. But you’re right: waiting around for them to make progress with their plan or to key something specifically to us won’t help anyone, and I don’t think we have much time. If you’re all agreeable to working together on this, I say we move on that mansion now.”
“Hold on there, group!” Another voice broke in. “Just where do you think you’re all going?”
Alan Scott whirled to find himself for the second time that night staring down the bores of twin revolvers at close range. “Alright,” he said. “Now I’m starting to get angry...”
"Is this it?" the angel Zauriel asked. Behind his bristling ivory wings stood most of the Shadowpact he had assembled - Acheron, Warlock’s Daughter, Detective Chimp and Rex the Wonder Dog, Blue Devil, Ragman, Nightmaster - but the question was directed at the four heroes standing before him. "When I had conveyed to both the Justice League and the Justice Society that the world faced mystical destruction on a scale undreamt of in the most terrifying visions of the prophets, I expected something of a sizable show of force in response." As was often the case, the heavenly warrior's speech walked a fine line between the serious rectitude of the Army of the Host, and the sarcasm of humankind with which Zauriel so strongly identified.
"Well, you also said that in order to prevent all this fire-and-brimstone, we needed to help you stop ... the Toyman," Rick Tyler pointed out. The inheritor of the Hourman mantle shrugged half-consciously, rolling his golden cloak back and revealing the flexing musculature beneath his form-fitting black costume. "I think any one of us could break that little geek in half."
"I doubt that will be necessary," Jay Garrick interceded. The red-and-blue-clad forerunner of the Flash legacy tipped back his silver Hermes helmet and met Zauriel's penetrating gaze. "But the fact is, as I'm sure you're well aware, we're all spread a bit thin. We're taking you at your word that all of these unknown characters popping out of thin air are just side-effects and symptoms of some bigger problem happening here in Metropolis, but they still need to be dealt with. Most of the Society is dealing with ... complications arising from all these appearances."
"The Justice League is similarly dividing its attention, as are most other groups," J'Onn J'Onzz, the green-skinned Manhunter from Mars, added. "A cybernetic creature calling itself Indigo has seized control of Science City in Siberia and threatened to mobilize all of the weapons-related experiments contained there. Wonder Woman is spearheading a team of heroes to defuse the situation. At the same time a massive alien ship is en route to Earth, broadcasting that it is under the command of an entity calling itself the Auctioneer. Superman and Green Lantern have led a strikeforce into space to intercept."
"Well, Superman and one Green Lantern, at least," Kyle Rayner pointed out, brandishing his own glowing emerald power ring. "But you rate a Corps member too, Zaur. Hal's got Supes's back, and I've got yours. We all do, so you're in good hands. And, you know, at least we didn't blow you off to the point of sending dogs and monkeys."
"Chimpanzees are apes, not monkeys, genius," Detective Chimp sneered, "and thank you so much for breaking the land speed record on how long it took before I had to whip out that nugget of knowledge."
"Biology was never my favorite subject," Rayner shook his head. "I'm sure you're a very competent ... ape, OK? But doesn't that prove my point? That this meet-and-greet is more than up to the task at hand?"
"Well, surely a couple more hands on deck couldn't hurt, right?" a flying man sheathed in burning flames asked as he flew up the Metropolis street and landed between the Shadowpact and the representatives of the Justice League and Justice Society. The fiery halo receded and revealed a tall blond man in a dusky green nomex costume, the member of Bad Blood known as Ember. "We got here as soon as we could?"
"We?" Warlock's Daughter asked, cocking a hip. "You got a mouse in your pocket there, hotshot?"
"Nah," Ember grinned wolfishly, appraising the girl's red-sheathed hourglass figure. "I'm just happy to see you."
A moment later a fast-moving shadow came to rest on the street beside Ember and began to pool upward and outward, forming into Ember's teammate Karnival. The two-dimensional living image became a lanky form dressed in sleek black, accented at the calves and wrists with fringe in Mardi Gras purple, green and yellow. A white demonic skull, thorny with monstrous protrusions, coalesced atop the figure, crowned by the spectral flames that jetted from a fissure splitting the frontal and parietal bone plates. "I'm the other half of 'we'," Karnival explained. "As in 'we're here to help', not 'we're here to make young ladies feel uncomfortable'."
"I'm glad to hear that, since I don't take terribly kindly to any of my sisters being treated poorly." The words heralded yet another new arrival, as all eyes turned on Donna Troy, gliding down from above in her starry bodysuit. One bare arm encircled the waist of Arsenal, who in turn had slung one of his arms around Donna Troy's shoulders. The pair alighted amidst the group of heroes.
"Sorry we're late," Arsenal said. "What've we missed?"
"Not much, son," Jay Garrick assured the Titan's resident arrow-slinger. "But if Zauriel agrees that we've now got more than enough manpower for the task at hand, I'd say we're just about ready to get started."
Zauriel nodded, a gesture so slight as to be almost imperceptible. "If these are all the instruments through which the will of the Presence may be manifested, I shall have to have faith that they will be enough."
Martian Manhunter stepped to the center of the loose ring the heroes had formed on the street. "Kyle, if you would?" he asked. Rayner brandished his power ring, which projected a translucent hologram beside his fellow Justice Leaguer. The light construct showed the architectural schematics of the building the heroes had gathered before. Martian Manhunter continued, "All information we have been able to assemble indicates that this is the epicenter of the disturbances afflicting the Earth. Certain distortional side-effects prevent us from pinpointing with absolute certainty where in the building Nimball might be found, but the most logical assumption is here," - J'Onzz pointed to the bottom of the photonic green building plans - "in the sub-basement, a secluded chamber which does not even appear on most architectural records for this area."
"Fortunately, Steel was able to hack into some encrypted files, which I scanned into the ring," Rayner explained.
"Along with our uncertainty about Nimball's location," Martian Manhunter went on, "we cannot be sure if he is alone within the building. I would recommend caution rather than an all-out assault. A few of us may be able to enter the building quietly, ascertain if any other threats apart from Nimball are present, and indicate to the rest of us the best course for quickly stopping the manipulations Nimball is currently engaged in. Agreed?"
"Makes sense to me," Hourman affirmed. "I'm up for recon."
"I'll go, too," Ragman stepped forward, the tattered green cloak overlaying his rough patchwork suit swirling with an almost willful purpose.
"I'm in," Ember volunteered, casting a redemption-seeking glance at Donna Troy, who stared back at him neutrally.
"And somebody needs to ride herd on all of you, might as well be me," Arsenal sighed, detaching the crimson bow clasped to the quiver on his back.
"Everyone else, remain vigilant," Martian Manhunter urged, as the quartet of heroes disappeared through the glass doors of the building.
HIGWAY SOUTH OF DEL RIO, TX, USA
Misfit surveyed the surreal scene before her from the safety of the Bounce Zone. The car she had been travelling in was peeled open like a discarded sardine can. It was shredded from the front bumper to the rear seat. Her colleagues littered the wreckage. The engine casing came through the manifold and crushed Scandal beneath it. Ragdoll was thrown through the windshield and was laying in the street a bloody mess. Jeanette was crumpled in the driver’s compartment. Her chest was crushed into the steering wheel. Hush was knocked unconscious; at least she hoped that was the extent of the damage. Misfit couldn’t believe she was the only one smart enough to wear a seat belt.
A muscle-bound behemoth stood in the midst of the wreckage wearing a Mexican flag-inspired costume and full-face mask. He appeared to be about eight feet tall and even his freakishly huge muscles had muscles. He looked pleased he caused such damage. He wasn’t alone. Two other men stepped from the shadows of the juniper trees. They were dressed like their companion but didn’t wear masks. The thin, wiry man looked almost cartoonish in appearance and much too prim and proper to be involved in crime. The third was a midget. No, Misfit wasn’t supposed to call them that. He was a little person. He quickly took charge of the situation and directed the others.
“El Gigante, tear off the trunk and search it for valuables,” said the little one.
The hulking man nodded and moved to the back of the vehicle. He tore the trunk from the mangled vehicle like a regular person would pop open a soda can.
The thin man’s head began to rise on serpentine coils as he stretched his long neck into a spaghetti-like length that reminded Misfit of Plastic Man. He searched the wreckage and immediately removed Jeannette’s pearl bracelet.
The situation presented Misfit a moral dilemma. On one hand it was the perfect time to wash her hands of the whole mess. Why should she get involved with protecting one group of super-villains from another? Then of course there was Hush. She couldn’t just leave him behind. She made a decision and leaped from the safety of the Bounce Zone.
She unloaded with her full might against the big one. “You picked the wrong car this time, Venom freak!”
Even her limited super-strength failed to move the one called El Gigante, but he did take notice of her and plucked her from the ground by the head with surprising speed. “What should I do with the gnat, El Cerebro?”
The dwarf laughed. “Kill her and search her for valuables.”
Misfit’s body dangled in the air as she fought against the massive hand that completely enveloped her head and threatened to crush it like a melon. Trying to free herself from the giant’s grip was a losing battle but she was willing to bet a well-placed kick to the groin was just as effective against the hulking brute as any other man. She was right. He dropped her quickly to favor his family jewels. She took advantage of the situation and bounced once more. This time she landed in front of the dwarf the giant called El Cerebro and kicked him in the face.
El Cerebro stumbled backward and fell to the ground. “Don’t just stand there, Elasticidad! Get her!”
The elastic-powered villain reached out for Misfit and took hold of her. He quickly wrapped around her like a python. “Well aren’t you a pretty one? It’s a shame to crush one so lovely!” The villain clamped down on her, forcing the air from her lungs and nearly causing her to black out. She sucked in as big a gulp of air as she could. When she expelled it, the villain tightened his grip like a constrictor.
Misfit tried to bounce but couldn’t focus on the Zone. All she could think about was dying alone somewhere in the south Texas desert at the hands of B-list talent. She tried to concentrate but it felt like she was in the garbage compactor scene in Star Wars. For such a skinny ninny the elastic guy sure was strong.
Suddenly her luck turned. Ragdoll jumped to her rescue. He looked terrible and that was saying a lot for him. The windshield had not been kind. He was bathed in blood from head to toe. Shards of glass protruded from multiple wounds and his face was sliced to ribbons. Even such a sadist as he found it necessary to wipe the sting of blood from his eyes. He climbed on Elasticidad’s back and pounded on his head. It was like watching someone punch an inner tube. His fists disappeared deep into the villain’s malleable flesh but quickly bounced back with little apparent effect.
Ragdoll abandoned the villain’s back to launch a frontal assault, not that his fists and feet were any more effective there, but he distracted their foe long enough to allow Misfit to catch her breath. She joined Ragdoll in battling Elasticidad and soon the three of them were a bloody tangled mess. She was amazed when Ragdoll somehow slipped into the coils that held her.
“Come here often?” Ragdoll asked with a maniacal bloodlust of a smile that made him more frightening than usual.
“Just get me out of here!” Misfit spat.
Ragdoll poked the villain in the eye. He dropped both of them. Misfit wasn’t sure which fate was worse – being crushed to death by the elastic ninny or rescued by Ragdoll.
“Despite common misconceptions, the most sensitive part of a man’s body is not his jangly parts,” Ragdoll explained to Misfit as Elasticidad nursed his peepers. “Go for the eyes.” He turned back to Elasticidad. “Does the second-rate Plastic Man have something in his eye? Let me help!”
Ragdoll pounced like a big cat and went for the villain’s eyes once more. This time he pulled the right one from its socket and bit through the attaching sinew. Elasticidad screamed in horror.
Misfit turned her attention to the dwarf as her other companions slowly worked their way into the fray. The engine casing left Scandal badly burned but her rejuvenation powers were already at work healing her. Jeanette removed the steering wheel from her ribcage and then yanked it from the car. The two joined together to team up against El Gigante.
It was good to see them recovering so quickly but one thought filled her mind. Why hadn’t Hush moved?
Ragdoll and Elasticidad were tangled together like two snakes fighting for supremacy. Ragdoll squealed in delight as the elastic villain twisted him into shapes Misfit thought impossible for a human body to take. Whatever advantage the villain had with his elasticity Ragdoll made up for with savagery and masochism. Ragdoll slipped from his foe’s arms and dived headfirst into the coils of his elastic body. He weaved in and out of the coils like a candy maker pulling taffy. Elasticidad followed each time by snaking his head through his own coils to follow. Ragdoll escaped through an impossibly small opening in the coils. When Elasticidad tried to follow Ragdoll grabbed his head and tied the villain into a knot using his own body to secure it. Elasticidad struggled to break free but Ragdoll had the leverage and choked the villain to death with his own neck.
Misfit had her hands full. The dwarf was a surprisingly good hand-to-hand combatant. Using his low center of gravity he was able to throw her around almost at will. It would have been easy to bounce him elsewhere but she was getting seriously pissed off. She wasn’t going to be beaten by a refugee from the Land of Oz! The dwarf ran at her and tackled her. He landed on top of her and quickly pressed his advantage. A flurry of fists nearly knocked Misfit out. Ok, so maybe she wasn’t too proud to use the Bounce Zone.
In a moment she turned the tables and was on the dwarf’s back pounding on him. She wasn’t sure how but the two of them made their way to their feet and jockeyed for an advantage.
“That’s it! Hold him right there!” said Ragdoll.
“Huh?” Misfit asked. When she turned Ragdoll ran El Cerebro through with a broken windshield wiper.
The horrified dwarf groped at the protrusion in his chest and dropped to his knees dead.
“I told you we could make beautiful music together,” said Ragdoll.
“Oh my god!” Misfit screamed. “You killed him! You killed him!”
Ragdoll shook his head. “Not so, delightful poppy! We killed him!”
Misfit was sick to her stomach. She was covered in blood from Ragdoll, the elastic guy, and now the dwarf as well. She dropped to her knees and tried resuscitating El Cerebro but knew it was a lost cause. She didn’t even pay attention to the battle Jeanette and Scandal waged with El Gigante until gunfire pierced the night air.
El Gigante fell to the ground dead. Hush was awake and wasn’t happy.
TITANS TOWER, DUELA DENT’S POCKET UNIVERSE
(a.k.a. EARTH SILVER-AGE-REDUX)
Duela Dent stood behind Malcolm Duncan at the console in Titans Tower. Her eyes studied the screen in front of her intently.
“I don’t like this Duela.” Malcolm said, “That weird energy and anti-matter bubble is just sitting above Mount Mooney.”
“I don’t like it either.” Duela said, shaking her head. “It’s looks like we have another big cross-over event here.”
“What?” Malcolm asked.
“Nothing. I was just commenting that it looks as though some otherworldly energy is threatening life as we know it.” Duela said, rolling her eyes in disgust.
“We don’t know that. That’s a pretty big leap in logic.” Malcolm said, turning to look at her.
Duela frowned at him. The Malcolm Duncan that existed in her Pocket Universe reality—the one she’d created with the Gauntlet of Amethyst so she could hide from the Time Trapper, was far more dense than the one back in the real universe.
“Of course it is threatening all of reality. This is how these things work.” Duela shook her head. “God, don’t you know anything?” Turning toward the Fourth Wall, Duela commented, “You guys know what I’m talking about. This is some big multi-book cross-over event where worlds will live, worlds will die and nothing will ever be the same right? Am I going to get offed in this one too?”
“Who are you talking to?” Malcolm snapped.
“Oh fine.” Duela sighed, “I guess I’m going to have to play this one straight. Is it April yet? OK, let me get into the right mind set…” Taking a deep breath, Duela cleared her thoughts. “I know this Malcolm because I have seen energy patterns like that before!”
“No. Not really. But, I do know that Mount Mooney is where our Universe touches another Universe. And if there is something bleeding over… chances are something big is going down there.”
“What are we going to do?” Malcolm asked.
“We aren’t going to do anything. You’re going to sit here and monitor that thing. If anything goes down I want you to contact all the Titans and let them know their reserve duties are over—it’s time to defend the Universe.”
“You mean the JLA. All the former Titans are on the JLA. Except us.”
“Don’t remind me.” Duela sighed.
She went over to a cabinet, typing in the special code only she knew. After the correct sequence was entered, a panel popped open to reveal a silver gauntlet gleaming inside. A huge glittering amethyst was embedded inside. Also nearby sat a crystal ball, swirling with magic within.
Picking up the crystal globe, she gazed into it. Light swirled within, showing Duela what she needed to see.
“Crap. All of reality is in danger.” Screaming a string of obscenities and kicking the wall for several minutes, Duela finally calmed herself. “OK. Time to go back to the Metropolis of the other reality and help kick ass.”
Putting on the Gauntlet and dropping the crystal ball in her side-pack, she said aloud, “I better get an action figure or at the very least my own series out of this.”
She then headed for the top of Titans Tower, where she put on rocket skates. They got her to Mount Mooney. Here the veils between realities were thinnest.
“I hope that big anti-matter cloud doesn’t mess with anything.” Duela then groaned, shaking her head. “Oh, God, if that was foreshadowing that was terrible…”
Gently punching the ground with the Gauntlet, a small dimensional gate opened. Rushing through she said, “Delaware here I come!”
Through the dimensional gate, she instantly realized that something was wrong. The energy cackling within was wild and several bolts came dangerously close to hitting here. Reaching out with the Gauntlet of Amethyst, she opened the doorway again much sooner than she should have.
Stepping through, she blinked as bright light invaded her eyes.
“HOLY @$&*#!! Why the @#$%&* did it have to be Texas?”
Three sets of bootheels' tapping echoed along the marble floors and off the oak-paneled walls of the lobby in an unassuming downtown Metropolis building, as Arsenal, Hourman and Ember crossed the expanse. Ragman kept pace alongside them, but his scrap-shod feet made little sound of their own.
"This place hasn't been in use in months," Hourman asserted, running his fingertips along the top of an unmanned security desk and pulling them back covered in dust. "Maybe years."
"But the lights are on," Arsenal observed. "Somebody's paying the bills, keeping it empty on purpose?"
"Would the Toyman have that kind of capital?" Ember asked, as the foursome passed by the polished brass doors of the elevator banks. "Even with his toy store chain and everything?"
"Not that Toyman," Ragman corrected. "Zauriel says this one's like the forgotten Toyman, as opposed to the businessman. This one's an overgrown child with a weird fixation, committing crimes to get toys, getting toys to commit crimes, and so on."
"Which connects to him potentially destroying the world ... how exactly?" Hourman pressed.
"He's somebody's patsy," Ragman answered. "Probably the same somebody who's really in control of the building, including Nimball's little subterranean hiding place. As to who that might be ..."
"We'll just have to ask Nimball ourselves," Arsenal insisted, as they reached a steel door marked BASEMENT ACCESS. Arsenal slowly eased the door open, and stepped onto a landing for a descending flight of stairs. Leading the other three heroes, Arsenal took the steps down to another landing, this one bisected by a locked steel mesh gate.
"Pardon me, boys," Ember said, making his way to the front of the group. Flames blazed to life across the surface of Ember's body as he grabbed the mesh and leaned against it, soon melting a hole big enough to walk through. Ember floated down the next two flights of stairs with Arsenal, Hourman and Ragman following.
At the bottommost landing, no more than six feet wide, two doors faced each other. Hourman tried one of the doors and found it unlocked; it opened to reveal a concrete corridor with several open doorways on either side. Arsenal rattled the locked knob of the opposite door. "This is probably the one we want. Ember?"
Ember grasped the doorknob, which began to glow with heat but was otherwise unaffected. Scowling, Ember muttered, "Gah, what is this, valorium?" while the flames sheathing his hand and forearm intensified from orange to yellow and then almost to white. Arsenal took a step backwards as the doorknob finally turned to slag in Ember's grip. The entire door was warped from the intense heat, but still swung outward on its hinges as Ember tugged at the edge of the hole where the doorknob had been. Beyond the door was a small utility closet with pipes and cables running from floor to ceiling, and a corrugated metal hatch in the middle of the floor. Ember stepped into the closet and pulled open the hatch.
A pale green, massively bulbous face with round yellow eyes stared up at Ember from the shaft beneath the hatch. "Hello," the creature burbled just before rapidly gushing upwards through the hatch like a geyser of slime. In an instant Ember had been completely subsumed by the behemoth's mass. As Bagman traversed the narrow landing, Arsenal, Hourman and Ragman could see Ember within the gelatinous giant's belly; Ember's fiery corona had been extinguished within the airless ooze that comprised Bagman's mass, and Ember seemed to thrash in slow motion while his face contorted frantically for lack of air.
"No way, tub-o-guts, you spit him back out!" Hourman roared, throwing a roundhouse at Bagman's balloonlike jawline. Bagman's head snapped to the side, but slowly turned back to face forward, seemingly none the worse for wear and still smilingly doltishly.
Ragman had turned his back on the sub-basement hatch while considering how to extricate Ember from Bagman's quivering gut. Suddenly he felt a sharp jerk on the corner of his ragged cloak, and then he was being hauled backwards by an unbelievably strong force. Ragman barely had time to glimpse muscular brick-red flesh and register a whiff of brimstone before he had been thrown straight down by his assailant. Stinging cold sewer water barely broke his fall.
The burly figure of Jack of Fire rose out of the hatchway like an animated statue from the gates of Hell itself, his bare torso fashioned from volcanic rock, licked here and there by tongues of flame, with two curved demonic horns thrusting from his forehead above burning eyes. Arsenal looked back and forth between the menacing Jack of Fire to his left, and Bagman now attempting to ingest Hourman on his right.
"Ah, crap," Arsenal growled.
HIGWAY SOUTH OF DEL RIO, TX, USA
“What the hell was that?” Hush demanded. He was still groggy from the crash. He awoke to find his travelling companions locked in a heated battle with a group of unknown metas. Ragdoll killed two of them but tried to share the “victory” with Misfit.
Scandal Savage rolled El Gigante over with her foot and swiped the statue back they had stolen from South America. “Looks like we were attacked by some really stupid newbs. It’s a shame. We could have used the muscle guy.”
Ragdoll hopped on the dead behemoth’s chest. “Should we strip him naked and see if they called him El Gigante for a reason?”
Hush grabbed Ragdoll by the collar and lifted him off the ground. “I should kill you for making the girl a part of your sick, twisted game!”
“She’s one of us now!” Ragdoll exclaimed. “Her hands are stained!”
Hush shook Ragdoll violently. “She’s a good kid!”
“Not anymore,” Ragdoll cackled.
Hush looked around. “Can I just shoot him?”
Scandal sighed. “Don’t tempt me. “
“What now?” Jeanette asked. “The car is all to hell.”
“I’m sure these morons didn’t appear from thin air,” said Scandal. “They must have a car around here somewhere themselves. Let’s spread out.”
“Misfit, you’re with me!” said Hush.
Misfit didn’t have to be told twice. She made a beeline toward him. The two of them headed north into a dense concentration of juniper.
“I could just bounce us out of here,” said Misfit.
Hush nodded. “I know but I wanted to talk to you.”
“I have nothing to say,” Misfit said defiantly as she turned away.
“It wasn’t you,” said Hush. “Ragdoll used you.”
“He did what had to be done,” said Misfit. Her body language didn’t match the coldness of her voice.
“I have no problem with him killing the guy,” Hush answered. “Hell, I shot the big guy myself but this isn’t your kind of thing.”
Misfit threw her arms around Hush. “Want to know what my thing is?”
Was she… flirting with him? Hush was many things, very few of them good, but he didn’t mess with kids. He pushed her away. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I thought we...” Misfit stammered.
“There is no “we,” Hush replied. “You’re a good kid but I don’t need a sidekick.”
Tears welled up in Misfit’s eyes. “Who said anything about being your stupid sidekick?” she screamed. “I’m a woman! You’re a man! Figure it out, moron!”
Misfit was a good kid and the affection Hush felt for her scared the hell out of him. He couldn’t afford emotional ties even if doing so would stick it to the whole damned Bat-family. He tried to convince himself she was nothing but dead weight, to no avail.
Their quarrel attracted the attention of the others.
“Now I get it!” said Ragdoll. “You’ve been saving the sweet poppy all for yourself! I suppose it’s for the best since I have no…”
Scandal backhanded Ragdoll across the face, knocking him to the ground. “So help me if I have to hear about your “jangly parts” one more time I’m going to kill you myself!”
Ragdoll wiped a fresh trickle of blood from his nose. He was really looking bad now. “Does that go for the rest of this God-forsaken night or do you mean long-term non-jangliness?”
“Trouble with the kid?” Jeanette asked.
Hush shook his head. “No trouble, just a disagreement is all.”
“I say we kill her,” said Jeanette. “We don’t need the Young Romance drama.”
Misfit got in Jeanette’s face . “And what would you know of love, you soulless bitch?”
“Ladies, that’s enough,” Hush said sternly as he pushed them apart. He wasn’t sure whether Jeanette could kill the girl or not but he sure didn’t want to find out. He dragged her into this mess and was his responsibility.
“You do have feelings for her!” Jeanette mocked. “No need for shame. Today’s jailbait was prime child-bearing age in my day!”
“Ewww….” Misfit retorted, much to Jeanette’s delight. “What do you think I am?”
Before Jeanette could answer the area was lit by a bright light that forced Hush to cover his eyes.
“Lover’s quarrel?” asked a taunting female voice.
“What the hell?” Scandal demanded.
The light faded and a garish redheaded woman stood among them. She looked hauntingly like the Joker with her white skin and ruby lips. She even wore a skintight bodystocking, the left half of which was the color of the Clown Prince of Crime’s classic purple suit, and the right half of which was a black and white harlequin diamond pattern – from the waist up, at least. From the waist down, the purple and the black and white reversed sides. The entire outfit was topped off with a wide green ruff collar, and gloves, boots and a loose belt of the same green hue. She was like Harley Quinn on Joker gas! Just what their already shaky association needed – a wild card.
“Misfit, you’re needed to help save the universe!” said the woman. “You must come with me!”
“Who the hell are you?” Hush asked.
The lady seemed pleased to be the center of attention. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Duela Dent, the Joker’s Daughter, a Teen Titan, and quite the cosmos-hopping party gal! And if Misfit doesn’t help get me to Metropolis both this world and your own will soon be destroyed.”
“I’m not going anywhere!” Misfit argued. “This is where I belong!”
“Excuse me?” Jeanette asked. “I don’t recall signing your union card.”
“I go where Hush goes,” Misfit replied.
Hush knew his best chance of getting home lay with the girl, but if what Duela Dent said were true he wouldn’t have a home to go to nor could he stay on this new earth. And he couldn’t allow a young, impressionable girl like Misfit to fall in with the Secret Six, even if they were a few members short of a six pack.
“Jeanette’s right,” said Hush. “You’re a liability.”
“What?” Misfit replied. She was visibly upset. “I can’t believe you’d take her side! I thought we were a team!”
Hush grabbed Misfit by the shoulders. “A team? I told you the last thing I need is a teen sidekick, especially one that doesn’t pay attention! Look around, sweetheart! This is not the Bat-family!”
Misfit slapped his face. “Stop it! I know what you’re doing!”
Hush hated to do it but knew what had to be done.
“Do you?” Hush asked. “What I’m doing is using you to get back home! Don’t you get it? I don’t give a damn about you or your stupid schoolgirl crush! I would have killed you if not for your powers!”
Misfit dropped her chin to her chest and sobbed. “You… said you wouldn’t kill me.”
“I lied,” said Hush.
“I hate to interrupt the unfolding Nabokov drama but Lolita’s help is needed to save the world!” Duela shouted. “Time is of the essence.”
“Time is of the essence! I love it when they say that!” Ragdoll exclaimed. “It creates a sense of urgency you can feel in your bones! Yes, yes! Save the cheerleader! Save the world!”
An emotional Misfit pounded on Hush’s chest. “I hate you! Do you hear me? I hate you!”
Hush pushed Misfit toward Duela. “You want this? Take her! Her blubbering would only slow us down!”
Duela placed her arms around Misfit to comfort her. Satisfied that the girl was out of danger she got in Hush’s face. “I’d like a word with you, now please!”
Hush studied the woman’s garish features and took her aside. “You have something to say to me?”
“I do,” Duela replied. “Thank you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hush huffed.
Duela smiled. “Oh Tommy! You’re such a rotten, sweet liar!”
Hush was stunned into silence. The woman’s use of his real name stunned Hush into silence. Who was this woman?
“You did the right thing. I owe you one,” said Duela. She moved back to Misfit and placed her arm around the girl again. She pointed her finger to Hush as if to offer a warning. “You remember what I said!”
Hush admired the kitschy woman’s style and bravado. She certainly bore watching.
“I hope you told that creep off!” said Misfit.
Duela seemed to look through Hush. “Oh believe me! I said exactly what he needed to hear, dear! You ready?”
Misfit nodded and flashed Hush a look that cut through him but he knew for once in his miserable rotten life he’d done the right thing. “Yeah,” she said. “Let’s go.”
And with that Misfit stepped out of Hush’s life. He wondered if he would ever see her again.
"Roy and the others have been gone too long," Donna Troy averred. "I understand the wisdom of the original plan but something has to have gone wrong."
"And you want us to waltz right into the exact same trap?" Detective Chimp demanded skeptically.
"Technically a trap can only be sprung once," Jay Garrick pointed out. "Our colleagues may be in danger but at least the danger will be exposed. We should go after them before it's too late to help them."
"Indeed," Zauriel agreed. "And before it is too late to prevent the cataclysm which threatens reality."
The dozen heroes remaining before the building turned toward its front entrance as one. Zauriel and Nightmaster drew their swords; Blue Devil held his trident at the ready. A starburst of emerald power centered on Kyle Rayner's ring awaited a command of will. Loping ahead with his nose sweeping searchingly across the ground, Rex the Wonder Dog was the first to arrive at the glass doors. He was also the first one ensnared by the shadows.
Out of every crack and gap in the sidewalk that fronted the building, thousands of tendrils of blackness erupted beneath the feet of the heroes, wrapping tightly around ankles and knees, waists and ribs, shoulders and elbows and wrists, necks and eyes. In the interval during which the shadows reached their full height, the Flash was able to throw several volleys of superspeed punches, but the abyssal tendrils were impervious. Warlock's Daughter cast two spellbolts which withered the shadow strands nearest her, but they were quickly replaced by dozens more composed of the same groping darkness.
From opposite sides of the building, two figures approached the struggling heroes caught in the morass of undulating, binding shadows. One was an impeccably dressed albino in a black trenchcoat carrying a silver longsword; the other was a blond adolescent in a brown uniform and a red domino mask. White Rabbit strode confidently toward Martian Manhunter, slowly raising his weapon and swinging it in a lazy circle overhead. "I am very much intrigued to test how effective my enchanted blade will be against you, alien," he said, just before lunging forward and thrusting with the sword. Martian Manhunter, splayed like a dissection subject by shadow tentacles restraining his limbs, arched his back in agony as the silver blade skewered his chest. "I must say, I'm suprised no one else has tried such a direct approach to your weakness before now."
J'Onn J'Onzz forced his muscles to relax enough to allow him to speak. "You may be confusing me with Superman," the Manhunter from Mars suggested. "He is particularly vulnerable to magic, whereas I am not. We do share many other similarities. Super strength. Flight." J'Onzz's head snapped up from its loll and he stared at White Rabbit with incandescent eyes. "Heat vision."
Parallel lasers of searing orange sliced through the air from the Martian Manhunter's orbs toward White Rabbit, but the Pentacle swordsman nimbly leapt out of the way, withdrawing his sword from J'Onzz's chest as he evaded the attack. The Martian's heat vision struck the asphalt some yards away and melted a smoldering crater in the street surface.
Kid Karnevil all but skipped toward the shadow-trap and took up a position directly in front of Green Lantern, who was generating a wide array of verdant constructs to slash at the ebon tendrils, from a glowing green caveman with a stone axe to a hybrid robot-tablesaw. "I really don't think any of that's going to work," Kid Karnevil sneered.
"Heard that before," Green Lantern grunted. "Scram, snotnose."
Kid Karnevil's smirk curdled into a deadly serious determination. Without another word he chopped his hand forward in a flawless knifestrike which caught Green Lantern in the larynx. Feeling as though he had been smashed in the throat with a ballpeen hammer, Green Lantern gagged and choked to force air into his battered windpipe. "No, I don't think I'll scram," Kid Karnevil informed Green Lantern, his wicked smirk slowly returning. "I think I'll hang around until I get bored with my new favorite game. It's called 'Kid Karnevil Strangles the Superhero Via Collapsed Trachea'."
RIVERROCK, WYOMING, USA
“Crimson! Don’t shoot him!” Kate Spencer wasn’t sure who all the people gathered together in the little band before them might have been, but she definitely recognized one of them: the first Green Lantern, mainstay of the Justice Society, and arguably the best living and active candidate for the title of Elder Statesman of the hero world.
The Crimson Avenger didn’t seem nearly as impressed however, and her guns were now fixed on the center of the lantern emblem that stretched across the man’s chest. The local Riverrock wildlife had fallen silent, perhaps taking bets on the outcome of the tense scene playing out in the wooded area not far from one of the small town’s two elementary schools.
Green Lantern’s companions were already in combat stances. The two brunette women looked vaguely familiar to Kate, but she couldn’t place them right away, and the scary cowboy-guy was a total unknown. He commanded most of Kate’s attentions, though, as he had twin pistols of his own, and he had them trained on the Crimson Avenger, even as she had hers aimed at the Green Lantern.
Kate didn’t want things to escalate out of hand, as her first instinct was that any group boasting Green Lantern among its members was probably legit and above board, but she also couldn’t stand by and let her new partner be gunned down by some phantom ranger here in the ass-end of Wyoming. She took a tighter grip on her battle-staff, and it began to glow...
“Everyone just stop.” The Green Lantern didn’t really raise his voice, but his tone was enough to bring everyone up short. “Listen to me. We have a situation here, and we’re rapidly running out of time in which to deal with it. You two ladies: you’re definitely symptoms of this situation, I can see that – I just need to know if you’re involuntary participants in all this, or active contributors.”
“What do you mean by that...?” Kate wanted things to go the right way here, but if the Avenger were to be taken out, there were four potential hostiles she’d have to deal with on her own...and to be honest, from what she knew about Green Lantern, he alone was way more than enough to bury her if it came to that.
“Whether you know it or not, you’re visitors here – now that I know to look for it, I can tell. You’re not from this world. We have multiple occurrences of people from some parallel Earth popping up all over this one, most of them disoriented and with no idea how they came to be here.”
Kate answered, feeling their eyes on her. “That’s what my friend here has been telling me. She has some, uh, different perceptions. But like you said, though, we don’t know anything beyond that. And we’re not behind any of this. About twenty-four hours ago, I was at home in my pajamas in Los Angeles – my Los Angeles – and the next thing I knew, I was all suited up, squaring off against some chippy with a battle-staff of her own, somewhere in Nebraska. I’ve never even been to Nebraska before. We’re...we’re not with the black hats here. My friend is one of your basic mystic types, and she thinks whoever’s behind all this is here in Riverrock. We were coming to, you know...investigate. See if we could maybe set things right.”
“So were we. I’m called Green Lantern.”
“I know. I’ve met you before. I’ve been having some memory problems since all this started, so I can’t give you any details, but I know we’ve met. Crimson, it’s okay – this is the Green Lantern. We can trust him.”
“I know who he is. I’ve met him, too. Something to do with ‘Ultraworld.’ Do you know what that means?” she asked the hero she was still holding at gunpoint.
“No,” he told her. “I’ve never heard that term before. But I’d appreciate you lowering your weapons, miss.”
“I’m trying,” she told him. “Sometimes the guns don’t want to cooperate.”
“Hey!” the cowboy in black broke in. “It’s the same with my ‘ghost guns’ here! Sometimes too stubborn and ornery to do what I want – like they got minds of their own.”
“Well, both of you, get your guns in line, and now.” The woman decked out in green meant business. “The Green Lantern is right: we don’t have time for posturing. Mr. Stone! Lower. Your weapons. Now.”
The cowboy was again the picture of reluctance, but he forced himself to desist. Once his guns hit their holsters, the Crimson Avenger also seemed to suddenly become freed up enough to drop her own firearms.
Kate showed nothing, but heaved a silent and invisible sigh of relief. “I’m called the Manhunter,” she told the assembled group, “and this is the Crimson Avenger.” She looked at the others. “What?”
The Green Lantern shook his head, like someone puzzled by something, but willing to put it off until more important business had been properly attended to. “We’ve had other people here who have used those names before. But I don’t recognize either of you. Strange. We can worry about all that later, though. For now, if you’re not here to make things worse, maybe you can help us make them better.”
“Yeah, we’re in. Is there a game plan?”
“Working on that. What can the two of you do? Is that...?” The Green Lantern was giving Kate a very piercing look of appraisal or analysis. “Miss...Manhunter: we’ve played occasional host here to members of a group called the Darkstars, and your suit looks an awful lot like the body armor they wear.”
Kate groped for words. “It’s a longer story than we have time for right now. But yes, it was a Darkstar suit, and in terms of what it lets me do, and what my other gear lets me bring to the table, here’s the quick rundown...”
In the gathering gloom of the Riverrock twilight, the assembled heroes and antiheroes began to get down to business.
THE BOUNCE ZONE INTERSECTING WITH METROPOLIS, USA
“Thanks for the lift, kiddo,” Duela Dent said to Misfit as they approached the city, zeroing in on the epicenter of the mystic energies that were stabbing recklessly outward beyond the bounds of reality, leaving increasing cosmic damage in their wake, all weirdly visible within the bounce zone. “I hate to impose but I left my bus pass in my other tights,” Duela added.
Misfit said nothing, not even sparing Duela a glance.
“Silent treatment?” Duela asked. “I thought you were mad at Hush, not me.”
“Yeah, well,” Misfit retorted, “I’m not crazy about the fact that you called me Lolita. Or did you think that went right over my head?”
“Oh, sweetie,” Duela sighed. “I remember what it was like to be fifteen. And defensive about my intellectual capacity. And capable of swinging wildly from being mad at a boy to back to crushing on the boy and mad at some blameless girl for a minor slight which was pretty funny in the context all because all that boy-anger had to go somewhere. Maybe after all this is over I’ll take you out for cupcakes and we can talk about our feelings some more, assuming all existence isn’t completely eradicated. But right now can we work together?”
“I … guess?” Misfit answered, somewhat awed by Duela’s ability to speak so rapidly. “What’s the plan?”
Within the bounce zone, Duela and Misfit were close enough to observe the melee in front of the Metropolis office building from an airborne vantage point. "I’m not sure I have an official Batman-level strategic plan in mind, per se,” Duela admitted, “But it doesn’t look like things are going well for the good guys at the moment, so … help them?"
"Sure, but how?," Misfit asked. "Wait ... look!" The young teleporter pointed toward a fifth-floor window overlooking the street, where a distinctive blue glow clung to the figure of a woman dressed in black and red with long white hair. "Call me crazy, but hanging back and watching the slugfest seems like a real bad guy move to me."
"I'm not going to call you crazy for that," Duela responded. "Besides, that's my schtick, getting people to call me crazy."
"Oh? Really? Never mind, but I bet that lady in the window is the one controlling all the shadows while her two buddies down on the street take cheap shots at everyone who's tangled up in them. So she's the one you need to stop, right?" Misfit proposed.
"Me? As in, just me?" Duela countered. "What did I just say about working together in my monologue a minute ago? What are you planning to do in the mean time while I stop her?"
"Trust me, it’s part of the team effort," Misfit insisted. "What, don't you think you can handle the shadow lady by yourself?"
"Do I think I can? Yeah, probably," Duela agreed. "Would I rather have some help, and see how Miss Sneak-Attack-From-Her-Hidey-Hole-Loft likes being disadvantaged and outnumbered?" Duela smiled, a sweet expression with acid undertones. "Doesn't that sound more fun?"
"I guess so," Misfit conceded. "But can you get help from someone else?"
Duela looked down at the assembly of heroes in the umbrous thicket spawning from the sidewalk. "Got it covered, Misfit,” Duela said sizing up the crowd below. “If Alex Trebek were here he'd say: Duela, the answer is This Teen Titan has had more screwed up origins than Hawkman!"
Misfit opened her mouth to reply, but quickly realized nothing she could say would be likely to jolt any more sense out of Duela’s side of the conversation. Instead, Misfit simply unbounced her latest traveling companion, sending the clownish young woman into the fray. Then, resolutely refusing to think about her previous traveling companion, Misfit bounced herself underground.
As an incorporeal wraith, Acheron found himself able to slowly extricate himself from the clutching tendrils of the shadow-trap. He floated above their inky-black tips toward Kid Karnevil, still mercilessly ravaging Green Lantern's exposed throat. "Enough, child!" Acheron glowered, his solid red eyes narrowed indignantly. "No more will you terrorize this man. You have much to answer for."
Kid Karnevil locked gazes with Acheron, then began to giggle. "I'm sorry, are you trying to dig around in my mind for something I'm afraid of? Good luck, spooky! I daydream about pestilence and mass graves. I relax by fingerpainting in blood and other bodily fluids. I ..."
Kid Karnevil trailed off as movement caught his eye. He turned to face a giant valentine heart the golden-yellow color of liquid sunshine. The heart was six feet across at its widest, dominated by enormous soulful blue eyes and a guileless smiling mouth. The heart walked on stubby legs and wore pink sneakers, and in its arms it held a litter of squirming puppies, barking exuberantly.
"AAAHHH!!!" Kid Karnevil shrieked in disgust. "That is so ... so ... WRONG!!!"
From a few feet away, within the shadow-trap, Karnival said, "Aw, I think it likes you. And wants to give you a puppy-hug."
"You!" Kid Karnevil whirled on Bad Blood's illusionist. "You ... you ... I don't even know who you are! That's not fair!!!"
A luminescent green ruler, wielded by a luminescent green nun, crashed across the side of Kid Karnevil's head, turning nearly half of his face into a scarlet welt and sending him tumbling to the street. "Thanks for the distractions, guys," Green Lantern said.
"My pleasure," Karnival replied, as his psionic image of the happiness mascot began to fade. "That little pisser was infringing on my name."
On the far side of the shadow trap, where Donna Troy wrestled with a small army of tendrils, a face seemed to pop out of thin air before her, all the more alarming for its chalk-white skin framed by curly dark red hair above and a green ruff below. "Hey, Donna," Duela Dent greeted the Titan. "I don't know if you remember me or not, but that's not really important right now. What is important is that you trust me just a teensy smidge, or at least enough to help me take out the shadow-manipulating wench who's making everyone's job so difficult, 'kay?"
"You know where this shadow-manipulator is?" Donna asked through gritted teeth.
Duela pointed up and over her shoulder at the opposite building. "Not positive on the exact mailing address but we can go throw boulders at her bedroom window."
Donna nodded once, then visibly strained with every ounce of energy in her body against the shadowy tendrils. Duela swiped at the extrusions of darkness with her gauntlet, crackling with energy that further weakened the bonds ensnaring Donna's limbs. "I'll get you free as quick as I can Donna!” Duela shouted cheerily. “I just don't want to accidentally graze you and retroactively make you into a lost princess of Skartaris or something like that." After a few seconds of their concerted effort, Donna was free.
Donna grabbed Duela under the arms, flew toward the building where Sister Shadow overlooked the battle, and said, "Point the way."
RIVERROCK, WY, USA
Kate Spencer was not generally one to encounter difficulty in keeping her mind on a job. This especially held true when the job in question involved stakes of the life/death variety.
Nevertheless, while this particular mission was definitely of exactly that kind of mortality-emphasizing stripe, Kate found her thoughts wandering slightly.
It was the memory thing. Ever since she’d found herself mysteriously transported to this “Other-Earth” as she thought of it, her memory had been scrambled like a bowl of brunch-time eggs. She was realizing now, though, that the more she knocked her head against this phenomenon, the more she was convinced that the memory loss came with a pattern. It was becoming clear to her that the closer in sequence that a given event or set of events was to that specific point in time at which she’d been uprooted from her home dimension and dumped here, then the more at risk it was of being stripped from her recall. Or to put it another way, the older, more long-term and established elements of her life, such as childhood, college, law school, her early legal practice, all of that was still rock-solid...but the more recent the occurrences were, then the more in jeopardy they seemed to be. Even her initial assumption of the Manhunter role – her decision to raid the evidence room for high-tech gear, the inaugural campaign that culminated in her killing the meta-criminal called Copperhead, her forcible enlisting of Dylan Battles as her one-man geek squad – all of that was more or less intact. Everything subsequent to that, though...it all started to feel garbled and jumbled up together…
She knew she had worked with the group called the Birds of Prey, for instance, including heroes like the data-queen Oracle, and the almost unstoppably slick warriors known as the Huntress and the Black Canary...but there were also several others who may or may not have been a part of that small phase – she just couldn’t be sure. Had Kate, for example, really also worked alongside a WWII-era holdover called Lady Blackhawk? Or was that woman someone she’d simply seen in old video footage and admired? Did Kate take part in freeing a resurrected ice-goddess...or was that just a dream, or something from a movie tangled up with her own true past? And what had she been working on for the last few weeks, or even months, before getting ready for bed in L.A. two nights ago, immediately before being zapped here? Were there criminals even now skating free who had been in her sights, or nearly apprehended? Aside from her son, of course, what exactly was this weird, uninvited displacement costing her…?
All of this was roiling in her head as she dashed across the black lawn of the mansion’s grounds and looked for a way in.
Even as she saw Eli Stone, the Midnight Rider, make his own approach toward the enormous old house, her mind was churning up broken images of a different “Midnight,” the Justice Society’s own resident medico, Dr. Mid-Nite. Stone presented the most remarkable sight of a man mounted on his coal-black horse, the both of them coming on at a gallop some thirty feet above the ground, traversing the air itself as if on some invisible, elevated trail, yet Kate couldn’t stop chewing at whether she had actually met Mid-Nite on a case, or was simply fixing on him now because she was working with his teammate, the Green Lantern, and she thought Mid-Nite was sexy (which she did). Even as a huge, fairly misshapen humanoid figure pushed itself up out of the ground to bar Stone’s intentionally loud and flashy approach (the figure obviously animated by some defending sorcerous force housed inside the mansion), and even as Stone began unloading his enchanted ‘ghost guns’ at the thing, their magical projectiles sizzling through the air, Kate was stuck on whether she’d really worked with Dr. Mid-Nite or not…
And then after finding a side door unlocked and undefended (the perpetrators of this mess certainly didn’t lack self-confidence...), and even after letting herself inside, and moving toward voices at first dimly heard up on the next level, her mind kept turning over on the memory thing...
“...several of them, Doctor,” Kate heard a woman’s voice saying, as she herself climbed a rather ominous-looking spiral staircase, its wrought-iron banisters looking like thorny metal ivy in the mansion’s dim interior. “They’re coming in from multiple directions, and in multiple ways: there’s one flying, one riding a demon-steed, I think more than one teleporting in...”
“Deal with them, Strega,” answered what sounded like a cranky older gentleman to Kate. “I trust you can accomplish that? I must away to Metropolis to usher our gambit through to its conclusion. Slay all of these sad little would-be heroes and then follow me through. If you cannot succeed in that, then I placed far more faith in you than you ever deserved. Do not fail us, Strega.”
“No, Doctor. As you said, these are small beings with delusions of importance and competence. I will see you shortly in Metropolis.”
There was a flash of light from down the hallway that Kate was creeping along, and she had to momentarily shut her eyes against it, despite the special lenses that were a part of her Manhunter garb. Had she dealt with teleporters or wizardly types like this before...? Again, she couldn’t quite remember for sure...
“Come on, shadow-walker, present yourself. You and the remedial-level sorceress,” the same woman’s voice taunted. “I can feel you there, poking in from the darkness. Enter, so we can be done with this. Your unsubtle friends outside will be here momentarily as well.”
“Remedial-level?” said a disgusted June Moon, while “Ask and ye shall receive,” added Eve Eden, the shadow-bound Nightshade.
And Kate heard all of this...but her mind was now on a slender, aristocratic woman in green and black, even as Kate reached the doorway into the room where this was all happening, about to cross the threshold...what was the woman’s name that she was picturing in her mind’s eye? ‘Terror?’ ‘Hysteria?’ Something like that...was she someone Kate had actually tangled with, or again, was she just a figure from fiction, or news footage, or some dark dream...?
As Kate was stepping into the room, she spotted Nightshade and the Enchantress standing together, faced off against a woman in red clothing and a white-colored half-mask, who floated gently in mid-air...and unseen by any of them, Kate also noticed that in the corner of the room closest to Kate’s own vantage point, a red, red mist was coalescing into human form, as the Crimson Avenger began to step through from wherever she had been.
And then before the three women in the room’s center had the chance to become aware of either Crimson or of Kate herself, the far wall was simply ripped out of the structure of the house by a giant hand constructed entirely of green flame. The hand threw the mammoth chunk of building materials back and away into the nighttime sky, and dissipated, replaced by both its master, the Green Lantern, and the Midnight Rider on his black horse, both of them hovering now in the gaping hole that the Lantern had created as a point of entry for the two men.
“Well,” said the woman in red, still floating placidly in the center of the now much more aerated room. “All of you gathered against me. This hardly seems like a very sporting contest. Shall I wait while you fetch another dozen or so little junior magic-users?”
“Miss,” began the Green Lantern, but the woman in red wove some kind of gesture before her with one hand, and a bolt of red light streaked forward from her, barreling into the Lantern like an enchanted freight train, hurling him back out through the hole he’d created upon entry, and carrying him out into the cold, dark air, both the bolt and the man it struck quickly vanishing from view.
The woman in red smiled.
“This,” said Nightshade, “may not go down in the books as one of our easier gigs...”
Jack Nimball's spine suddenly ran cold, and for the first time in ... hours? days? ... he became more aware of his immediate surroundings than of the molded plastic figurines clutched in his slender hands. He felt as though he were no longer alone with his private lode of treasured toys.
"So you must be the Toyman, huh?" Misfit called out, hoping that she sounded significantly more in-charge of the situation than she felt. She even put her fists on her hips and stood up extra-straight.
Nimball shuffled in a little circle, kicking discarded toys in all directions. Bewildered, he peered through his ratty coxcomb's eyeholes at the costumed girl who had magically appeared in the sub-basement ... his sub-basement! After a moment he realized he had seen that mask, that skirt, and those sneakers before. “You …” Nimball croaked. “I … I opened your action figure. I played with you already!”
"Yeah well, playtime's over!" Misfit announced.
Nimball could think of only one response: a plaintive, pitiful howl of "Nooooooooo!"
TO BE CONCLUDED ...!