White Rabbit was running out of options. Not combat options, for the albino was a preternaturally gifted swordfighter with a functionally limitless reserve of dueling techniques upon which to draw. His silver blade dove and swooped through the air like a metallic raptor, catching Nightmaster's sword and driving it to the ground, which simultaneously forced the red-cloaked adventurer into a cramped stoop in order to maintain a grip on the Sword of Night's hilt. White Rabbit's longsword, on the other hand, barely paused before whistling away in a wide circle, seemingly pulling White Rabbit into a pirouette before colliding edge-on with a glowing emerald scimitar wielded by a beryl-colored djinn, both projected from Kyle Rayner's green power ring. The clash of the swords prevented the photonic attack from decapitating White Rabbit, who showed no outward reaction beyond a slight, satisfied tightening of his thin lips and the jade gleam of Oan energies reflected off the obsidian lenses of his round-frame sunglasses.
Unhesitating, White Rabbit threw himself up and backwards, executing a somersaulting vault over a charging Jay Garrick. The pale swordsman's black trenchcoat fluttered around his legs as he flipped and tumbled through the air, swinging his blade at the venerable founder of the Flash legacy while at the apex of his leap. The blow had been intended to cleave the Flash's skull, but the speedster's velocity allowed him to evade the killing strike, which nevertheless gouged a small shard from the back of the Flash's argent helmet with the very tip of the sword. White Rabbit landed lightly on his feet a few yards away, black tie still straight, colorless hair unmussed, and immediately raised his sword to parry a thrust of Blue Devil's trident.
He was holding his own against a quartet of superheroes, but those four were not alone. The remainder of their allies in so-called justice were enmeshed to varying degrees in a large trap of animate darkness, or already freed and helping others to escape, but the trap was rapidly losing both mass and responsiveness. The faltering darkness could only mean that the trap's controller, Sister Shadow, was imperiled in some way. Kid Karnevil had already been unceremoniously dispatched. Bagman and Jack of Fire were presumably still hidden underground, or possibly had been drawn out of hiding by another group of heroes that had entered the abandoned office building which served as backdrop to the present hostilities; either way, the chances of those two members of Pentacle arriving on the street to aid White Rabbit were vanishingly small.
Lunging to give extra force to the deft flicks of his swordpoint, the pallid assassin maneuvered Blue Devil into Nightmaster's path before the Sword of Night could streak toward him again. White Rabbit drew himself up to present an elegant, tall and confoundingly narrow target and parried another willpower-fueled broadside from Green Lantern.
White Rabbit was a being of many eccentricities, one who took pleasure in killing only so long as the lethal act embodied a certain kind of artistry. He preferred testing steel against steel with evenly matched, if not superior, opponents in order to hone his own formidable skills. He espoused a very personal code of honor, probably comprehensible only to himself, the only one to whom it mattered. And he had willingly embarked on a quest to a parallel universe for the express purpose of safeguarding the mystical rites which would weaken the fabric of this dimension, until the entire alternate reality was sufficiently susceptible to being sacrificially consumed by the malevolent proto-deity worshipped by the mad warlock Doctor Gotham. But White Rabbit did not consider himself crazy, and certainly not the kind of crazy which would let an interminable fight against four superheroes escalate into a fight against a dozen or more with no end in sight and to no greater purpose than staving off the inevitable failure of Pentacle's mission. He needed an escape route, before even that option was lost to him. An escape route, and possibly a distraction to allow him a moment to follow it ...
The distraction came at that very moment, in the form of a dazzling nimbus of white light which bloomed from a pulsating core that was cold and murky in its radiance, like the spectral images on x-ray film. The explosive burst of energy manifested directly in front of the office building and spread to either end of the city block, stopping the various members of the Justice League, Justice Society, Bad Blood and Shadowpact in their tracks as they shielded their eyes. When the chilling brilliance faded to ghostly afterimages, a man was revealed at its epicenter. The man was old, with stringy bone-white hair and unkempt eyebrows, deep wrinkles in his forehead and jowls, and a frame thinned by advanced age. Yet the man's eyes were clear, dark and pitiless as he surveyed the scene. They were eyes which had beheld many soul-searing secrets and had absorbed much forbidden knowledge. They were the eyes of a warlock.
"The feasting of the Sun King draws near!" Doctor Gotham bellowed at the assembled heroes. Despite the frailty of his elderly appearance, his voice was strong, and with each word, the ancient mystic gained stature as well. In the span of a few seconds, Doctor Gotham stood fifteen feet tall, throwing his arms wide as if he meant to embrace all his enemies at once. Instead, purple-tinged flames burst along the length of the warlock's limbs, and tongues of fiery indigo and pink shot downward like a wall of burning spears in a vicious assault that scattered the nearest heroes like twigs in a tornado, and sent those on the fringes of the group scrambling for cover.
White Rabbit judged the situation well in hand once again and slowly backed away from the imminent apocalypse.
RIVERROCK, WY, USA
It was definitely one of the stranger battles Kate Spencer had participated in since she’d become the costumed vigilante known as the Manhunter.
To be fair, since she’d been somehow transported to this alternate Earth, her memory was riddled with holes, and the snapshots that did remain in her mental storehouse were scattered about like a game of 52-pickup writ large. As a result, she wasn’t completely certain that the things she thought she remembered as having happened to her, had actually happened to her, or that they’d happened in the ways that she thought she remembered them happening. Similarly, she was pretty positive she also wasn’t retaining everything that had happened to her…so all in all, she was on some pretty shaky ground when trying to make sweeping judgments that tried to take into account the entirety of her crime-fighting career.
Despite the highly questionable memory, though, Kate still felt pretty good labeling this battle as being major league bizarre.
And it wasn’t just the fact that all the other participants were either what could only be called “magic-users” or were at least augmented by “magic” – although that was pretty weird in and of itself, what with two witches casting actual spells, a guy coughing up solid shapes made of this eerie green flame, a slim brunette controlling the shadows, and not one but two people shooting magic bullets from enchanted guns.
No, what made this battle extra-extra-weird for Kate was that she stood in the midst of it like a one-woman hurricane’s eye, all the violence flowing around her furiously, but none of it seemed aimed her way…and she had no idea how to contribute. Her newfound allies were all ganging up on their foe – the sorceress in red called Strega – and the sad state of affairs for their side of the conflict was that Strega seemed to be one of the most skilled and powerful wizardly types any of them had ever encountered. She wasn’t exactly laughing them off, as their own ranks boasted some pretty heavy hitters as well, but she seemed to be doing fairly well keeping the entire group at bay. For her part, Kate had no idea what to do to maybe bring about a turning of the tide here. She was essentially clueless when it came to the kinds of energies that got lumped in under the heading of “magic,” so it seemed wisest to let her more well-versed new acquaintances take point in tackling Strega, and she was also leery of simply getting in their way. Aside from catching Nightshade at one point when the shadow-weaver was knocked to one side by a force-bolt that Strega shot out of the unseeing hole in the white half-mask where her left eye should have been, and sparing Nightshade a nasty impact against one of the still-standing walls, Kate hadn’t added all that much to the proceedings.
All of that needed to change, though, as Strega seemed all but tireless, while Kate’s side seemed to be showing some wear and tear. June Moon, the spell-caster called the Enchantress, while admittedly working the hell out of her emerald green body-suit and cape, appeared to be especially in need of some kind of resolution here, since being the purest magic-user among them, it had fallen to her to take on the brunt of tackling Strega. She was doing fairly well, considering Strega’s enormous power, but June was only human under all that sorcery, while Strega was centuries old, and fueled by greater powers than herself.
It was the Crimson Avenger – the terrifying young woman of the swirling red mists and the cursed handguns and the intensely spooky voice – who finally spurred Kate into action.
“She hasn’t noticed you yet. You can be the crucial distraction we need.”
“What do you mean?” Crimson had materialized next to Kate in that unsettling way she had, sort of coalescing out of the vaporous blood-red swirls that always preceded her teleportational arrival. They both watched as the mighty Green Lantern conjured up a charging ram made of green flame to engage Strega, and they both noted that she was able to somehow dispel the emerald creation, although not without effort.
“She seems to be quite aware of us all, despite having only one eye, wouldn’t you say?”
“Um, since this is coming from someone who has no eyes, but seems to see anyway, I have no idea where you’re going with this…but I’m listening…?”
The Avenger somehow managed to glare at her even though Kate was absolutely correct: the woman had a length of cloth of a deepest red tied around her head, utterly obscuring the empty sockets where her own eyes had once been. “I believe she might be tracing all of us by locking onto our – ‘sorcerous energies,’ for lack of a better term. Watch.”
And Kate did watch, as Eli Stone, the scary cowboy in black called the Midnight Rider, stepped out from behind his ebony steed, and fired his own enchanted pistols at Strega. His “Ghost Guns,” as he referred to them, spat out at least a dozen shots, but Strega seemed to have all the time in the world to cancel out each and every one of them, negating their velocities in mid-air one by one, so that each black bullet stopped cold and then fell to the increasingly damaged floor. Just as Crimson had said, the evil witch in red seemed to see everything coming at her just fine, and after using a burst of a sort of magical telekinesis to send a large chunk of flooring into Stone’s head, leaving him only semi-conscious, she also spun around in plenty of time to foil the Green Lantern’s next attempt at her, this time embodied in the form of a huge green scorpion (Kate idly wondered if, between the ram and now the scorpion, the great hero might simply be running through the Zodiac as inspiration for his fiery constructs).
“I see what you mean about how she seems to know where everyone is and what they’re doing, but how do I fit into all this?”
Crimson shook her head at Kate as if in deep disappointment. “You’re the only one out of all of us who has no magical energy to track. I think you might be a human blind spot to her. If her one good eye does provide regular vision, I don’t think she’s relying on it at all.”
“Huh…maybe that’s so. She hasn’t looked at me once yet in all of this. But what if you’re wrong, and I try to step up here? I might just screw up somebody else’s better and more effective shot at her.”
“None of us have been especially effective yet, and we’ve each had more than our fair share of opportunities at her. Go on – see what you can do.”
Kate nodded at her, resolute. “Okay. Yeah, okay. For our home, and for my little boy, dammit – here we go.”
The Crimson Avenger dissolved again into her red, red mist, most likely to take up a position elsewhere in the large room, and Kate moved toward Strega.
Just as the woman was using one hand to trace glowing runes in the air that seemed to cause June Moon intense pain, and the other hand to call up a small, self-contained whirlwind that she sent careening toward the Green Lantern, Kate Spencer stepped up behind her, leveling her glowing battle-staff.
“Hey. Witchie-Poo.” Kate suddenly felt rather strong and righteous in her Manhunter armor, committed to a cause that was absolutely worth her possible sacrifice. “You’ve got a bunch of us a long way from home, and we don’t appreciate it. Let me show you our displeasure…”
BELOW METROPOLIS, USA
Misfit eyed the villain once called the Toyman distrustfully as she tried to determine what her next move should be. She was fairly sure that she had struck the appropriate tone and posture of a real superhero who was in no mood for games (she made a mental note to say as much to the Toyman in a moment, since the words fit the motif so well), lifting her chin and bracing fists on her hips to convey inner strength just barely held in check. Something about it was working, considering how the Toyman was all but cowering before her, his thin limbs clad in dingy yellow and faded black quivering as he edged further from her and toward the large orange shipping container that dominated the sub-basement. But Misfit felt equally sure that she should press her advantage and close in on the Toyman rather than allow him to continually worm away. However, in order to so much as take a single step forward, Misfit would have to negotiate the unstable plastic rubble blanketing the sub-basement floor. At the mere thought of it she was filled with the urge to stick her arms out to the side like a tightrope-walker in the circus, rather than hold her pose and risk twisting an ankle on a stray action figure or its slippery empty packaging.
After a few moments' consideration, Misfit compromised, moving her hands away from her hips, but only enough to be ready to catch herself if she lost her balance. In exchange for breaking the pose, she parted her lips to show the Toyman her most intimidating snarl. "Look, Toyman," she said as she picked her way carefully through the articulated detritus, "I'm in no mood for ga-a-aaAAAHHH!"
As Misfit inexorably approached, Nimball's delicate fingers plucked yet another toy, a figurine of a russet-haired female gunslinger, from the cache and pried the clamshell open. The act stopped Misfit in her tracks, as Nimball skittishly detached two tiny Colt revolvers taped to the bottom of the backing card and began to fit them into the action figure's molded hands.
Misfit slammed her hands to her ears and bent at the waist as if an enormous weight were suddenly suspended from a nail driven between her eyes. The echoes inside her skull were fading now, but at the moment the Toyman had opened that last toy, Misfit could hear a nightmarish shrieking that she would never forget, like a rusty chainsaw being run fast enough to slice through ice cold steel. Except that wasn't exactly right, and whatever she had heard was much bigger, and infinitely worse. As her teeth stopped rattling, Misfit fixed the Toyman with a baleful glare and yelled, "That is enough!" Enraged, she kicked her way towards the sad, filthy little jester, scattering the action figures in her path.
The Toyman gabbled in wordless panic and held out the western-wear doll toward Misfit, as if the girl in the Bat-symbol t-shirt were a bloodthirsty vampire and the six-shooter equipped action figure a plastic crucifix. When Misfit failed to so much as slow down, Nimball composed himself enough to resume speaking in English: "Leave me alone! Leave me and my toys ALONE!"
Misfit closed to within a couple of feet of the Toyman and cocked her head quizzically at the action figure he brandished. "You ... you really don't get it do you?" Misfit asked. "You have no idea!" It occurred to her that maybe her connection to the bounce zone gave her a special affinity to certain structural elements of reality, like the ones that had been assaulted by ... something ... coming out of the action figure's package as it opened. But the Toyman, for his part, was completely oblivious to those forces, and when she had nearly been deafened by the wrongness of it all, he hadn't heard a thing. A chilling realization wrapped itself around Misfit's mind, as the sense of just how wrong those forces must be became undeniable. They weren't just assaulting the structure of reality, they were mutilating it. And if the Toyman had no idea, no awareness beyond his obsession with playing with every last toy, then what would happen when reality went through more mutilation than it could take?
"All right, maybe this is a big leap, but this just got way more serious than people popping from one Earth to the other," Misfit said, trying to stay calm. She pushed the Toyman's thrusting hand aside. "Look, it's not the stupid action figure that almost made me keel over, okay? It was when you opened the package, because that set something off that I'm super-sensitive to. Something really bad that you need to NOT set off anymore, because it's breaking the world, get it?"
Nimball's lower lip stuck out pitifully for a moment, before he threw himself to the side, just out of Misfit's reach. He snatched another action figure from a standing display within the orange metal crate and jammed his fingertips into the packaging’s seams. Misfit barely had time to see that the toy was a likeness of some kind of armless, legless alien with dark gray skin and protruding blue eyes, wearing a teardrop-shaped greenish-yellow rubber cloak. Then the hideously violent rending sound completely filled her brain once again as if her head were trapped under a million amplifiers. Misfit all but curled up into the fetal position waiting for the screams of cosmic destruction to fade. When they did, she wheeled on the Toyman.
"Hey!" she shouted. "Didn't you hear me? You have to stop opening these toys! Every time you do it stresses out the universe, ok? If you open many more of them our whole reality is gonna go bye-bye!"
"I DON'T CARE!" Nimball cried petulantly. "I've lived in a world without toys! And it’s a sad, stupid, pointless one! I won't do it again!" He flailed toward an overturned display of action figures and grasped a package containing an obese man in a costume patterned with a world map.
Misfit dashed toward the Toyman and slapped the action figure package out of his hand before he could open it. The Toyman howled and lunged to his feet to chase after his latest prize. Misfit grabbed his tattered shoulder with her left hand, spun him around, and punched him in the nose as hard as she could.
RIVERROCK, WY, USA
It seemed like a slow-motion moment unfolding over hours. The Avenger had been right: Strega had clearly not been aware of Kate standing there the whole time. She was clearly surprised by Kate’s strong voice, well projected after being honed in numerous courtroom scenarios in her career as a federal prosecutor. She was even more clearly surprised, however, by the tremendous bolt of pure power that Kate launched out of her coruscating battle-staff. Unlike all the myriad other attacks attempted by Kate’s allies during the course of this conflict, Kate’s bolt was utterly unanticipated by Strega, and it hit home…and it hit home hard.
The witch in red was rocked, tumbling out of the air where she’d been hovering, to sink to her knees on the splintered and partially shattered floor.
Before she could recover, the Green Lantern summoned forth a huge burst of pure green flame beneath her that popped her straight up into the ceiling like she’d just been shot out of a cartoon ejector seat.
She rebounded with brutal force, and before she could rise from the floor again, Nightshade and the Enchantress both reached out to restrain her, the former coaxing the nearby shadows to darken and flow, clutching the red witch’s right arm, while the Enchantress beckoned the ruined wood of the floor to run like candle wax and gummily envelop her left.
With Strega trapped as she momentarily was, the Midnight Rider used the chance to step up and unload his Ghost Guns into her…and when the Midnight Rider’s Ghost Guns scored on a target, their bullets had the power to temporarily turn that target to stone…
And just like that, they were all looking at a gray statue where a woman in red had knelt just a moment before.
“Excellent teamwork, everyone.” The Green Lantern’s praise was grim but heartfelt in the sudden quiet. “I think that does it for our new acquaintance here.”
“Not yet it doesn’t…” The assorted heroes were all still in the process of identifying the voice as that of the Crimson Avenger, when her own cursed handguns roared to life, shrieking out a hailstorm of demonic projectiles. The Crimson Avenger was up front with the knowledge that her guns knew when to shoot themselves, never ran out of ammunition, and could pierce anything with their hellbound ordnance…and that apparently included evil, semi-immortal sorceresses recently turned to stone by another set of enchanted firearms…
The statue that had been Strega exploded into shards and fragments and shrapnel, so demolished by the Avenger’s salvo as to lose all semblance of human form…except for the half-mask that had covered the left side of Strega’s face. That was the only piece left still large enough to be recognizable on the floor, and it seemed to look up at each of them in mocking good humor, as if, despite appearances, the joke was somehow nevertheless on them.
On the floor of the fifth-story apartment which had been secured for its vantage point to be used as a lookout post for keeping watch on Doctor Gotham's empty office building, Sister Shadow made a poor lookout. The Pentacle member sprawled unconscious across the carpet, her limbs splayed at awkward angles. Donna Troy stood over Sister Shadow, her gleaming white boots roughly even with the fallen woman's supine shoulders, her arms crossed tightly. Duela Dent crouched on the opposite side of Sister Shadow, dusting an oversized powder puff in circular patterns around the villainess's face, with the overall effect that Sister Shadow's alabaster complexion was gradually taking on a distinctive shade of pastel blue.
"Man, this is taking forever," Duela sighed. "This chick has pores that could swallow a VW Bug."
Donna smiled in spite of herself but managed to refrain from actually laughing. Instead she took a deep breath and tried to sound focused enough for both of them. "I'm sure the Smurfette makeover will help make this stinging defeat even more memorable, but isn't that enough? We should be getting back to the others."
"I just want to make sure that when we turn our back on Morticia here that she doesn't jump up and backstab us all Jason Voorhees style," Duela replied, lightly brushing Sister Shadow's now cornflower nose.
"I think you just mixed your Addams Family and Friday the 13th metaphors," Donna observed. "But what do you mean, make sure? How?"
"The powder on the puff is a modified formulation of pancurionium," Duela explained. "Absorbs through the skin, causes complete muscle paralysis inside of a minute, wears off in about three hours."
"Oh," Donna blinked. "Why does it turn skin blue?"
Duela looked up at her with a twinkle in her eyes. "Because it's funnier that way."
"Well, still, we should get ... oh, no," Donna trailed off.
Duela saw Donna's attention arrested by the view out the apartment window. Standing up to see for herself, Duela watched as a fifteen foot tall senior citizen swatted away a leaping Rex the Wonder Dog with the back of a massive hand that burned in unnaturally glaring magenta and violet. "I'm gonna need a bigger powder puff," Duela exhaled wearily.
"Something like that," Donna agreed, grabbing Duela under the arm. "Come on!" Under Donna's power, the two flew out the window to join in the melee against Doctor Gotham.
Zauriel spread his angelic wings to their full, luxuriant breadth and climbed through the air toward Doctor Gotham. He held his sword in one ivory hand, and its edges blazed with a fire that was as clear and luminous as Doctor Gotham's aura was despoiled.
"Leave off your mad assault on this world, Gotham!" the heavenly warrior commanded, driving his sword toward the ancient warlock's heart.
Doctor Gotham uttered a series of incomprehensibly bitter sounds, part long-forgotten language, part echoes of grinding bones and the crackling of withered boughs. The warlock punctuated the incantation by spitting at the end, and a sickly green seedpod flew from his lips. When the husk struck Zauriel's golden breastplate, it suddenly erupted into a riot of thorny vines which completely engulfed the angel. Writhing furiously, the mass of fibrous, rot-colored tangles plummeted to the street.
Karnival and Warlock's Daughter stood side-by-side on the sidewalk, each one conjuring forth elemental champions for the fight against the looming Doctor Gotham. Warlock’s Daughter held her pale hands a foot or so apart, and an ominously dark cloud appeared between her palms, in a shape eerily reminiscent of the small skulls comprising her belt. Karnival, with a flare of the spectral flames dancing in the depths of his demonic cranium’s main fissure, summoned a seven-foot-tall bipedal newt, its splotchy orange and black skin covered by a chrome-plated harness from which multiple futuristic gun barrels emerged. The newt’s array of weaponry opened fire on Doctor Gotham, as Warlock’s Daughter’s cloud-skull dropped its jaw and spat lightning bolts at the wizened sorcerer.
The miniature maelstrom created by Warlock’s Daughter was completely real, while Karnival’s blaster-bedecked amphibian was completely illusory, yet Doctor Gotham shrugged off both of the barrages equally. He pointed at the pair of heroes and a sinuous column of fuchsia flame roared implacably toward them. Karnival dove aside and flattened himself to depthlessness against the asphalt, while Warlock’s Daughter crouched and instinctively raised a wavering spirit-shield between herself and the unnatural fire. Detective Chimp bounded toward her, threw one hairy arm around her slender waist, and carried her away in a powerful leap just as the mystic flames dissipated the shield.
At the far end of the street, Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern conferred in mid-air. "I would prefer to engage the warlock at close range," J'Onzz confessed, "but given that his spellcasting seems to be manifesting primarily in the form of fire, I am forced to keep my distance."
"Yeah, but you're not exactly helpless at a distance," Rayner asserted. "Especially if you let me help you focus." He aimed his power ring and projected a prismatic array of lightbeams from the green band of the spectrum. The green cascade of photons coalesced into a colossal emerald ant standing upright on its hindmost pair of legs, dressed in overall shorts and a backwards baseball cap. With its middle and uppermost pairs of legs, the ant held aloft a magnifying glass as large as its own body.
The Martian Manhunter's thick brow furrowed as he stared at the pale green lens and unleashed a gaze of roiling heat vision. The incendiary twin eyebolts struck the maginfying glass and emerged from the other side in a single narrow line of heat. Laserlike, the intensified heat vision struck Doctor Gotham in the center of his chest and drove the warlock back on his heels while eliciting a roar of pain and fury. Doctor Gotham's giant staggering steps away from the burning assault left fresh signs of destruction in their wake: the shattered glass and bent metal frame of a bus stop shelter crushed underfoot, cracked fragments of masonry gouged from the cornices of an adjacent building.
Before the aged warlock could fully recover, Donna Troy shot past Doctor Gotham’s oversized chin, ramming her fist solidly into the underside of Gotham’s jaw. From Donna’s other arm, Duela Dent dangled like a trapeze artist. As the flying female Titan punched the warlock, Duela let go of Donna’s hand and fell down past Doctor Gotham’s gigantic silk necktie. Duela pulled out a small grappling-hook pistol and fired, sending out a line that sank barbs into the knot of the tie and brought Duela’s descent to a halt just above the waistband of Doctor Gotham’s trousers.
Holding tight to the grapple-pistol with her left hand, Duela pantomimed a small circle in the air with her right fist, sheathed in the Gauntlet of Amethyst, which crackled with other-worldly energy. “Something tells me if I really want to make this count, I should punch gramps here right in the sorcerous chakra,” Duela mused aloud to herself. “Unfortunately, I have no idea where that is, so … ki-yahhh!” Duela Dent threw a punch at Doctor Gotham’s impossibly broad abdomen. Like the smoldering tip of a cigarette, the Gauntlet burned a small hole through the material of the warlock’s shirt and sizzled as it came in contact with the wrinkled flesh beneath.
Doctor Gotham had been intently following Donna Troy’s flightpath through the air, but immediately turned his attention on the dangling form of Duela Dent. A whirlwind of frigid air suddenly spiraled tightly around the ancient warlock’s body, snapping his ponytail, his jacket lapels, his necktie and his pant cuffs in relentless whipcracks. Duela clutched her grapple-pistol with both hands, but the churning of the icy gale tore it from her fingers and sent her cartwheeling through the air.
Duela braced herself for rapid and painful impact with the pavement below, but found herself caught and cradled by a pair of strong arms. She opened her eyes and saw only one thing in focus against the hyper-blurred scenery all around: the kindly face of Jay Garrick. “You all right, miss?” the Flash asked.
“Mostly,” Duela agreed.
Doctor Gotham’s eyes abruptly lost their focus as he seemed to enter a trancelike state. “The Clavis of Nephilim,” he breathed portentiously. “It … slows? No! Not now, not when the Sun King is so near!” The towering warlock clapped his hands together and another gelid burst of light suffused the Metropolis street. When it faded, Doctor Gotham had disappeared.
Misfit looked down at the crumpled form of the Toyman at her feet. She knew it was probably a combination of her own imagination and nerves, plus the powers of suggestion and association, but she thought he really did look like some kind of broken marionette, with his bony little limbs cocked at wild angles along multiple skewed axes. He was no wooden puppet, though, he was a man of flesh and blood, the latter evidenced by a tiny trickle leaking from his nose, shockingly bright red against the ground-in grime of his skin. Misfit turned her eyes to her knuckles, which were dabbed with the same bright red. She had done this, punched a villain! And not just punched him but knocked him out cold!
Misfit barely had time to appreciate the fact that her bounce zone affinity was no longer broadcasting any ear-splitting, sanity-wrecking feedback directly into her brain. She knew that once the bad guy was incapacitated he was supposed to be handed over to the proper authorities, but who would that be in this case? The heroes aboveground who were still resolving fights of their own? The doctors at whatever loony bin the Toyman had snuck out of through the pipes? The cops who were dealing with all the collateral damage caused by the rampages that the Toyman had unleashed?
“I wish Hush were here, he’d have a plan for what to do next,” Misfit sighed, then shook her head angrily. “No, come on, Charlie, you can do this.”
Before she could evaluate her options any further, Misfit saw her shadow sharpened to inky black as the rest of the room was bathed in a frosty white glare. She turned around to look for the source of the sudden light burst and for her troubles received the crack of a gnarled backhand against her cheekbone. Dazed, vision swimming, Misfit stumbled into the corner of the subbasement.
Doctor Gotham bent over the Toyman and roughly hoisted up the ragged villain. “Awaken, you weak little fool!” Gotham seethed, his equal parts wrath and disgust made visibly manifest in flaming, purple globs that leapt from the warlock’s body like sparks struck from hot metal. “Awaken and fulfill your appointed role in the spell!”
Misfit pushed herself to her hands and knees, despite her muscles’ great reluctance. She blinked her eyes clear as ideas clicked into place in her mind. She had already figured out that the Toyman had no idea that he was distressing the fabric of reality with every toy he opened, and now the old white-haired man in the suit was trying to revive the Toyman and put him back on task. That had to mean the old man knew exactly what was happening every time the Toyman opened another action figure’s package, and wanted things that way. Which made the old man exceptionally bad news. Just like that, deciding whether to turn the Toyman over to the Justice League or the Special Crimes Unit wasn’t anywhere near as important as getting the Toyman anywhere at all, as long as it was away from the creepy old guy.
She started to stand, but a heaving wave of vertigo drove her back down to the floor, where she rested on one hip while her arms supported her upper body. For a moment she wondered if the fossil in the suit had actually smacked her hard enough to give her a concussion, and then reminded herself that it didn’t matter. If the old man did manage to bring the Toyman around, more action figures would get opened and more end-of-the-world energies would spin out of control.
It came down to Misfit doing whatever it took to ensure that did not happen. She wasn’t sure if she could even bounce very far with her skull throbbing as it was, but anything would be better than standing by helplessly.
Misfit kept her hands planted on the subbasement floor and half-rolled onto the balls of her feet, one leg forward and one back like a sprinter at a track meet. She took a deep breath and launched herself into a run at the Toyman. The elderly bully noticed Misfit was moving and for an instant his dark eyes on her felt uncomfortably like they were boring straight into her soul. But Misfit pushed herself forward, threw both arms around Toyman’s absurdly narrow waist, and bounced, leaving Doctor Gotham infuriatingly empty-handed.
Arsenal’s fingertips hovered expectantly above the fletchings poking up from his quiver as he rapidly considered which arrow he would fire next. He had already shot three conventional steel-tipped arrows at Jack of Fire, and the igneous-skinned demon had swatted the first out of the air, halfheartedly blocked the second with a forearm, and all but ignored the third as it bounced off his chest. Part of Arsenal’s mind insisted that a fourth ineffectual shot would all but guarantee that Jack of Fire was right where he wanted him, but as the massive figure took an aggressive step forward, Arsenal hoped he had already established enough of a pattern to benefit by deviating from it. He seized another arrow, brought the hand holding it around to draw back his bowstring, and let the projectile fly. It struck dead center against Jack of Fire’s chest, and the cryonic arrowhead exploded. A sound like cold water hitting a bed of hot coals filled the air as supercompressed liquid gases expanded and encased Jack of Fire’s upper body in ice.
On the other side of the cramped stairwell landing, Hourman took a step back. Bagman regarded him serenely, his moonlike pale green face split with a simpleton smile while, in the center of his massive translucent belly, Ember’s struggles to free himself grew feebler. Hourman had already thrown punch after punch at Bagman’s globular body to no avail, never even fazing the Pentacle member. In desperation, Hourman raised both fists over his golden hood, then slammed them down into the concrete floor with all of his considerable, Miraclo-enhanced might.
The entire landing shook with the blow and jagged cracks splintered outward from the dual points of impact as the concrete rapidly aged to dust. The weakened substance of the floor sagged for a moment under the combined weight of Jack of Fire, Arsenal, Hourman, Bagman and Ember, and then gave way completely. All of the combatants plummeted downward amidst the hail of fractured stone, into the large sewer tunnel that ran under the building’s basement-access stairwell. Like cannonballs crashing into an ocean of muck, heroes and villains alike struck the waist-deep liquid running through the tunnel and sent sprays of sewage in all directions.
Hourman forced himself to his feet, hoping to press the attack against Bagman, but found the gelatinous brute already upright and grinning at him expectantly. Then, Bagman’s expression drooped, bewildered, as a darting shadow lashed him from behind. Hourman looked overhead, past Bagman’s shoulder, and was barely able to discern the patchwork form of Ragman, clinging to a utility ladder which scaled the curvature of the sewer tunnel. Like a living thing, Ragman’s cloak had elongated and speared Bagman between he shoulderblades, and the rich green material proceeded to wrap itself under Ember’s arms in order to pull him free. With a powerful snap, the extension of the cloak retracted and dislodged Ember from his slimy imprisonment.
“Ooowwwwww!” Bagman yowled. The exit wound left by Ember’s abrupt departure was already sealing itself, but steadily leaked viscous yellow-green protoplasm. Hourman charged forward, lowering his shoulder into Bagman’s gut and driving the behemoth back into the brick wall of the tunnel. Stunned, Bagman could only lean against the wall as Hourman reached for a nearby pipe and severed it with his bare hand. Twisting the metal away from the brackets holding it to the tunnel wall, Hourman shoved the jagged open end of the pipe into the hole in Bagman’s back. The pipe spewed noxious chemicals into Bagman’s body cavity, and after a few seconds overwhelmed the brute’s weird physiology, rendering Bagman unconscious.
Arsenal leveled another arrow at Jack of Fire, just as the demonic enforcer flexed his arms and shattered the coating of ice around his upper body. Glittering frozen flecks showered in all directions as Arsenal let his arrow fly. Its barbed head sunk into Jack of Fire’s belly, but as impassively as a hybrid volcano and gargoyle, he ignored it. A heartbeat later, however, two small pins flew out from either side of the arrow’s shaft, trailing microfilament wires. The pins sliced through the air and embedded themselves in an electrical cable running along the apex of the tunnel, completing a high-voltage circuit which flooded Jack of Fire’s body with current. Jack of Fire jerked and juddered violently for several seconds, then collapsed.
Ragman and Ember dropped down to the floor of the tunnel and waded toward Arsenal and Hourman. “That was fun,” Arsenal said sarcastically.
Ember made a harsh throat-clearing sound and spat a greenish glob into the sewage. “I’ve had funner times,” he rejoined.
“Well, we still have finding the Toyman to look forward to,” Ragman pointed out.
“Here he is!” Misfit shouted, as she and the unconscious Toyman materialized from out of the bounce zone at almost the exact vertical mid-point of the tunnel, the soles of their feet brushing the surface of the sewage until gravity exerted itself on them and dropped them waist-deep in the clammy muck. Nimball remained effectively insensate, and as she hit the wastewater, Misfit seemed ready to join him. Her head drooped heavily and she stumbled a few steps sideways. Arsenal and Hourman moved quickly, Hourman catching Misfit with an arm around her hips, and Arsenal grabbing the Toyman in a bearhug from behind.
“Are you all right, little lady?” Hourman asked.
“Well, I seem to be half-soaked in liquid garbage,” Misfit managed to answer, catching her breath woozily. “But, y’know, I also was briefly trapped against Ragdoll by a Mexican Plastic-Man knockoff earlier, so the day’s kinda starting to look up.”
“This blows,” Ember opined. “Toyman’s not even going to put up a fight? Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice as always to save the world, but I feel a little ripped off.”
“Don’t count your world-salvations just yet,” Ragman countered. “Remember how I said there must be someone else calling the tune that Toyman’s been dancing to?”
“Yeah, the old guy!” Misfit said, straightening up against Hourman and raising her voice with a second wind of adrenaline. “He came looking for Toyman, and I bounced us both out of there, but I’m gassed and I couldn’t bounce us very far, but we gotta get out of here because he could be right behind us!”
“Wrong, impudent child!” Doctor Gotham’s voice boomed through the sewer tunnel as a flash of icy light heralded the warlock’s arrival. “I am already here to reclaim my servant!” Doctor Gotham hovered near the apex of the tunnel, burning in a corona of iridescent violet flames. He chopped his arms through the air towards the heroes below, and the dark, brackish fluid below exploded in a dozen places. Gigantic spikes of bone thrust up from the earth itself, each one edged with magenta fire like wavering, serrated fins. Hourman, Misfit, Ragman, Ember, and Arsenal and the Toyman scattered to avoid being impaled by the burning, ossified spears.
RIVERROCK, WY, USA
“No!” The Green Lantern was up in the Avenger’s face, green on red, but far too late to stop her murderous volley. “What do you think you’re doing! We do not kill, don’t you understand that?”
“Speak for yourself, Lantern. I do what the guns demand – it’s my curse. But if it’ll make you sleep better tonight…I wouldn’t bank on her being dead, even after all of that.”
“Actually,” June Moon spoke up, looking a bit weary, but sure of herself on this, “I wouldn’t rule out a return by a sorceress of that caliber, either. I wouldn’t expect it any time soon, but I also wouldn’t swear that turning her into a pile of rock dust and gravel would be fatal to her. I think we have larger concerns, anyway, and if we don’t address them properly – and right now – we’ll all be too dead ourselves to worry about this.”
The Lantern didn’t like it, but he seemed to see the truth of the Enchantress’ words. “Alright, then. We set this aside for the moment. But,” he told the Avenger, “we will return to this topic once we’ve dealt with the situation in Metropolis.”
“Yeah, speaking of that,” Nightshade wondered aloud for the rest of them, “Metropolis is a big place, and sure, I can shadow-walk some or all of us there, but I don’t really know exactly where we need to be within the city or what’s waiting for us when we arrive at the hot zone.”
The Enchantress stepped forward into the center of the group. “I can help with that. This woman, Strega – she was working for an even greater magical presence who departed for Metropolis just as we were arriving here. Something that powerful tends to leave marks of passage, and he was in no way trying to be covert when he went.”
“In other words, he left a trail, and you can follow it.” Kate was now steeped in combat adrenaline, and wanted to get on to the next phase of this (although if Strega’s boss was even tougher than she was…?).
“Yes.” June Moon rubbed her temples but then straightened again. “I can follow it. I can track his pathway, and I can take us through after him. Is everyone all right? Fit for travel? And battle?”
The entire group nodded as one, although the Green Lantern spared more of his baleful glare for the Avenger (who seemed absolutely unbothered by the attention).
“Excellent. Well, as much as a bit of rest might do some of us some good, we haven’t the time. Everyone step up closer toward me, and we’ll be on our way…”
The others put on their bravest faces, but they knew that the intense battle they’d just fought would be as nothing compared to the sorcerous symphony of devastation that awaited them in Metropolis. If Kate hadn’t been so amped up and half-convinced of her own impending doom already, she’d have found it amusing that even the Midnight Rider’s pitch-black horse looked somehow frightened…
“Rick? Rick!” Jay Garrick tapped his Justice Society communicator, then shook his head. “He’s gone.”
“Gone?” Donna Troy asked apprehensively, fists clenching. The other eleven heroes gathered in the middle of the street murmured their own concerns.
The elder speedster held up his hands placatingly. “Gone in the sense that his broadcast signal’s been lost. Let’s not assume anything worse than that.”
“Given the sorceries at Doctor Gotham’s command,” Nightmaster observed, “it stands to reason that communication technologies could be severely disrupted in his presence.”
“And at least before the signal cut out Hourman gave us the heads up, that Doctor Gotham and the Toyman are in the same place, directly under this building,” Karnival added.
“But unfortunately, Gotham showing up here seems to have triggered certain arcane failsafe wards woven directly into the building,” Blue Devil growled. “So the front door approach is out.”
“Then what are we waiting for? Time for Plan B!” Warlock’s Daughter demanded. “Not only do we have friends in trouble down there but I can’t shake this insanely creepy feeling like everything, everywhere is one spark away from exploding if we don’t do something!”
“I feel it, too,” Duela Dent confirmed. “Assuming that’s not just the possibly unwise fourth bowl of Super Sugar Starros I had for breakfast this morning making my head buzz and my skin crawl.”
“Indeed,” Acheron nodded gravely. “The ritual spell which threatens our universe entire trembles now on the balance point between its own demise and the obliteration of the fabric of reality. We know too well which way Gotham would have it fall.”
“Agreed on all counts,” the Martian Manhunter conceded. “But I trust we need only a few moments more …” His eyes rose to the skies, and the rest of the heroes turned and looked as well to see the red cape and burnished gray armor of Steel, flying towards them at his jet boots’ top speed.
Steel came to a hovering stop near the assemblage of heroes, propped his sledgehammer against one shoulder and gave a thumbs up with his free hand. “I ran through every surveillance scan available and triple-checked. The building is one hundred percent unoccupied, no life readings at all from the ground floor up.”
“And that, as they say, is the green light we were waiting for. Plan B coming up!” Kyle Rayner crowed, streaking toward the roof of the building in a scintillation of emerald. He positioned himself above the center of the roof and aimed his power ring downward, projecting a colossal solid photon version of the grabber from an arcade claw-crane game. The four curving tines of the claw, radiating dark green energy and skewering neon green teddy bears, monster trucks and chunky costume jewelry, spread out past the edges of the roof and slowly grasped the sides of the building.
At the same time, the sidewalk and street around the perimeter of the building were bombarded. Duela Dent tightly focused a fraction of her gauntlet’s power into blasts at a single corner near where the building met the ground, while bolts of fiery force from Blue Devil’s trident assaulted another corner, Martian Manhunter’s heat vision assailed another, and arcane lightning conjured by Warlock’s Daughter slashed at another. Steel’s hammer, Troia’s fists, and Nightmaster’s and Zauriel’s respective swords pounded and hacked at the concrete and asphalt circumscribing the building.
Kyle Rayner willed himself upwards, his right arm rigid with strain as the sheer weight of the massive building, tethered to the ring on his right hand by the light-construct claw, resisted his efforts. The Green Lantern threw his head back, tugging insistently. His viridian aura intensified, while the foundation of the structure below him progressively weakened, until finally the entire building tore loose from the city block like a giant anchor, complete with a curved disc of the surrounding urban surface. Rayner soared higher and higher, towing the building as it shed loose fragments of stone and metal from its jagged underside. Upon reaching the upper limit of the stratosphere, he shot the building away from the Earth at escape velocity, then turned to dive toward the city again.
Acheron, Karnival, Jay Garrick, Detective Chimp and Rex the Wonder Dog charged forward immediately over the asphalt drop-off at the edge of the hole that had been torn open. In the newly rended pit, sewer tunnels with their crowns sheared off ran in all directions, and in the largest of these Ragman, Ember, Arsenal, Hourman and Misfit dodged eruption after eruption of Doctor Gotham’s bone spines. Dozens of the huge, sepulchral protrusions now formed a veritable forest along the sewer’s course, and were continuously growing thorny, razor sharp arms which intertwined maliciously, occasionally flaring with unnatural lavender and mauve flames. As his tatterdemalion cloak moved with a surety of its own, Ragman attempted to twist out of the way of one calcified spike, only to back into yet another. The bony spearpoint bore through his shoulder, eliciting a howl of agony before Ragman hung limp against the white, wicked growth with his blood seeping across its surface.
Doctor Gotham floated above the chaos, and turned on the newly arrived combatants with eerie prescience. Silvery whips of magick crackled outward from the warlock’s eyes and struck the effluvium rushing through the half-pipe, causing a towering shape formed of sewage to rise up, a small mountain of fluid waste with two tentacle-like arms and two gaping eyeholes which burned with ianthine flames. The sewage elemental swatted at the inrushing heroes, who mostly evaded the clumsy blow. The Flash raced ahead well before the attack, Karnival flattened himself two-dimensionally against the tunnel wall and sped down its length, Rex jumped over the fetid pseudopod as it elongated and Acheron simply allowed the rank substance to pass through his incorporeal form. Only Detective Chimp was caught fully in the deluge of cold muck and slammed into the exposed earth between the street surface and the sewer tunnel.
“I take it all back!” the ape sputtered. “I’ll take fighting zombies over this any time!”
Rex bounded nimbly through the maze of bony spines and reached Arsenal, who was still awkwardly carrying the dazed Toyman. “Allow me,” Rex offered, and took Toyman like a puppy by the scruff of his neck in his jaws.
“Much obliged,” Arsenal grunted, drawing his bow and firing an arrow before finishing his thanks. The arrow screamed toward Doctor Gotham as if a bull’s-eye were painted on the warlock’s wrinkled forehead, but Gotham exhaled a plume of brownish smoke toward the projectile. The arrow reversed course and sailed toward Arsenal, morphing into an asp as it fell. The serpent sank its venomous fangs into Arsenal’s left arm and the archer screamed.
Jay Garrick ran in accelerating circles, weaving deftly through the tangles of spiky bones, just below Doctor Gotham. A translucent red vortex rose up around the airborne warlock and threatened to drag him down within arm’s reach of the speedster, but Gotham looked down at the Flash and uttered a single, guttural syllable in a dead tongue which emanated at a deafening volume. The entire sewer tunnel rumbled with the echoes, while the sound itself blew apart the swirling high-velocity winds and sent the Flash sprawling away, punch-drunk.
Doctor Gotham smiled with joyless satisfaction, an expression which instantly curdled to a scowl as more heroes advanced into the pit. Zauriel, Troia and Steel arrived in a flying V formation, with Zauriel in the lead. The heavenly warrior swung his radiant sword as if to cleave the warlock in half, but Doctor Gotham clapped his hands together and caught the burning blade between his palms, inches from his hairline. With Doctor Gotham momentarily distracted as Zauriel attempted to wrestle his weapon out of the gnarled hands clamped around it, Steel and Troia flew around them and attacked Doctor Gotham from behind. Steel swung his hammer into the small of Gotham’s back, allowing its inertial multipliers to deliver a staggering amount of force. Donna Troy swiftly looped her golden lasso around Gotham’s neck and snapped the magical rope taut. The warlock lost his grip on the angel’s sword as he hurtled toward Troia, who widened the noose just enough that, as she kicked Gotham in the forehead, he slipped from the lasso and tumbled into the rancid liquid below.
As Doctor Gotham struck the surface of the murky waters, Duela Dent and Nightmaster attacked in unison. The Sword of Night whistled through the air and would have pierced the warlock’s heart if Doctor Gotham had jerked away a moment later. Instead the enchanted longsword slashed through the sleeve of Doctor Gotham’s suit jacket and drew a small amount of dark blood. Duela assumed the exaggerated pose of a kabuki dancer, one leg bent and the other lifted, one arm across her chest and one raised over head, and whooped boisterously before chopping her gauntlet into the side of Doctor Gotham’s neck. This time the ancient mage was unable to evade the blow, and he recoiled with a roar of pained displeasure as the gauntlet once more caused localized disruptions of both his magicks and his flesh.
After lurching several steps away from Duela Dent, Doctor Gotham threw his shoulders back and raised his head with murderous intent. Troia flew toward the warlock, but Gotham flicked a hand in her direction and a shape coalesced around the Titan, a deranged cross between an iron maiden and a huge disembodied mouth, scaly crimson flesh lined with dagger-sized fangs that engulfed Donna Troy entirely. Nightmaster sprinted toward Doctor Gotham, sword upraised, but again Doctor Gotham had only to splay his fingers for a living device to burst into being. Nightmaster was shackled to a demonic rack with the same red reptilian skin.
Doctor Gotham threw both hands toward the sky, which began to darken with a grim miasma. The flames dancing around the warlock’s body also shaded from pinks and purples to shadowy black, and a heartbeat later a maelstrom of obsidian fire swept outward from Doctor Gotham in all directions.
The black inferno roared like a flaming tidal wave of absolute darkness as it roiled through the open sewer tunnel, with jetting columns of onyx fire unfurling from its surface. One of the spouts crashed into the Martian Manhunter, searing his entire body and knocking the muscular alien from the air. Warlock’s Daughter and Hourman were unable to avoid the leading edge of the pitch-black inferno and fell before it. Misfit bounced instinctively, appearing inside the widening ring of ebony destruction and landing on top of the rack imprisoning Nightmaster.
“We gotta keep the magic weapons in this fight!” Misfit insisted, her voice shaky with exhaustion. “Hold on!” She laid her hands on Nightmaster’s tunic and tried to bounce away with him, but her head began throbbing with the effort. She tilted to one side, only to be caught by a scarlet, crocodilian tail emerging from the underside of the rack, which hoisted her up like a rabbit in a snare trap.
Rivulets of ichor descended from the corners of Doctor Gotham’s mouth, and his shoulders sagged with fatigue from calling forth the black inferno. Then through the wall of shadowy flames emerged Blue Devil and Ember, both impervious to the punishing heat. Blue Devil leveled the Trident of Lucifer at Doctor Gotham and unleashed a bolt of stygian power, which slammed the warlock in the chest. In the next instant, Ember flew at Gotham and drove his blazing fists into the spellcaster’s abdomen.
Enraged, Doctor Gotham pushed back at Ember, sending the fiery hero cartwheeling with the momentum of raw magickal force. Before Ember could right himself, the looming sewage elemental smacked a wastewater hand into his back. A hundred gallons of cold, unclean fluid washed over Ember and extinguished his aura of flame while tossing him into the labyrinth of spiky bones now smoldering like torches of darkness.
“I will flay you all alive!” Doctor Gotham shrieked. “And when enough of your blood has been spilled to mark the end of your pathetic lives, you will die grateful, because you will not have survived to see me complete the Clavis of Nephilim and bring forth the ravenous fury of my liege the Sun King!”
Blue Devil eyed Doctor Gotham warily. Duela Dent appeared beside him, with Zauriel alighting just behind her. Steel took up a stance on the other side of Blue Devil, and Karnival rose up from his depthless form at Steel’s side. “I’ve got one more idea for our last stand,” Karnival informed his comrades in arms.
“We’re all ears,” Steel replied.
“I’m not guaranteeing this is going to work,” Karnival clarified. “But I heard once that certain magic spells require the caster to truly see the target in order to be effective. It’s a little late for super-subtle disguises, but if nothing else, it’ll be appropriate to the situation.”
“You have heard correctly,” Acheron announced, floating into view. “And I would like to assist, if I may.”
Karnival nodded, and mentally projected illusory forms around himself and the other heroes. The details were sharpened by Acheron, as the wraith drew upon Doctor Gotham’s most atavistic fears. Then, where four superheroes, a ghost and a guardian angel had stood a moment before, six hulking destroyer angels of the Bull Host spread their voluminous wings, rattled their cerulean armor, and brandished their shining staffs. The tableau was an exemplar of virtuous might, as well as the purest nightmare for those who wished evil upon creation.
Doctor Gotham, torn and bloodied, narrowed his wizened eyes at the sight of the savage seraphim. Yet he beckoned them forward, to test their mettle against his own.
As he reentered the troposphere, Kyle Rayner used his Green Lantern ring to conjure himself an energized telescopic vision and rifle mic helmet apparatus that would enable him to pick up audio and visual input from Metropolis, still far beneath him. Even from several miles off, though, and traveling at high speeds through imperfect surveillance conditions, Kyle was pretty certain that the half-dozen opponents arrayed against Dr. Gotham couldn’t really be the massive Bull Host angels that they appeared to be…and, Kyle reasoned, Gotham himself must surely recognize that fact as well.
Whether he did or not, though, remained unclear a few moments later, but either way, the seething wizard began to strike out at the “seraphim,” even managing to draw blood from one of them. That blood, and the rather un-angelic oath that accompanied it forth, were probably all the remaining proof Gotham might have needed that his foes were not what they pretended to be. Kyle was closing the distance rapidly, but he was starting to fear that even his mighty ring would fail to deliver him in time to save his friends and allies, as Dr. Gotham gathered himself to let fly another salvo of sorcerous fury.
The illusions around his fellow heroes were starting to flicker and fray around the edges, and Kyle was readying himself to make a kamikaze plunge directly into Gotham in a last-ditch effort to put the ancient wizard down, when the street-level air up above the battle-site began to shimmer and roil…
Kyle checked his progress ever so slightly, not yet aborting his screaming-velocity plummet, but allowing an extra moment or two for the new disturbance to resolve itself one way or another, and a split second later, he was glad that he did: several newcomers to the scene emerged from a portal in the air, most unfamiliar to him, but chief among them was his own predecessor in title, the legendary Alan Scott – the original Green Lantern. Immediately, the elder ring-wielder was eclipsed by a thundering black shadow, which Kyle belatedly realized was a jet-clad cowboy riding a bituminous stallion.
The ebon gunslinger opened fire on Doctor Gotham with both revolvers as his mount galloped off the edge of the ruptured asphalt. The warlock, grasping the celestial tunic of a taurine angel who was beginning more and more to resemble the more technologically-girded Steel, turned at the sound of a frightful whinnying and hastily erected a swirling pentagram shield of dark red light to deflect the mystic bullets. But the shield was not able to withstand the crushing hooves of the night-black horse, one of which struck Doctor Gotham’s spine between his shoulderblades as the animal passed downward through the air. Gotham released Steel as he arched his back in a baleful paroxysm.
Even as Alan Scott had the rest of his small band form into a half-circle and begin to close on Dr. Gotham from above and behind the warlock’s current position, Kyle mentally called off his own possibly suicidal dive, and then alighted near the elder Lantern.
“Alan! Best last-minute cavalry charge ever! I don’t know who your friends are, but I love each and every one of them.”
A dark-haired beauty in a bodysuit of a green that was quite similar to Kyle’s own favored colors stepped up at Alan’s side and then actually snapped her fingers at Kyle as if summoning a butler.
“You, the junior Green Lantern…”
“We have no time. That creature there, now fending off Midnight Rider as well as the beings pretending to be angels – we just engaged his second in a place called Riverrock and barely managed to put her down…and this one is magnitudes more powerful than she. I don’t imagine our forces here are enough to overcome him, not directly.”
“Hey, we’re not exactly amateurs here, lady – you think he’s spitting up blood ‘cause he enjoys it?”
Alan held up one peace-making hand. “Kyle, just let her talk.”
The brunette nodded at that as if Alan was stating what any child should have grasped, and she continued. “This Gotham being – he’s overseeing a carefully prepared master-spell here. I gathered some of this when we fought the witch, Strega, and I can feel more of it now. But – and this is important – he is not the one responsible for the hands-on activation of the spell.”
They all winced as a gargantuan crashing sound burst forth from the crater where the melee still raged, a member of Alan’s band who looked to Kyle to be wearing modified Darkstar armor now joining in.
“We know,” Kyle told her. “He had this little squirrely guy called the Toyman doing something for him under the building we ripped out of the ground.”
“Yes! This ‘Toyman’ – where is he now?”
That drew Kyle up short. “Well, I, uh…”
There was a sudden gust of wind, a blossom of red color, and then Jay Garrick was standing with them, wobbly on his feet, hands on his knees for balance, but the Flash was ever the trooper, in it until any bitter end. “The young girl in the makeshift Bat-outfit stole him away from his place in all of this, and then Rex took him off somewhere for safe-keeping.”
“Rex..?” the brunette began to ask, and Alan Scott extended a hand toward his friend, but Jay was gone as quickly as he’d come…and then he was back.
He looked even worse now, only a second or two later, but he gestured weakly with one shaky hand toward a cluster of buildings still standing to the west of the battle-site. “Rex has him in that high-rise over there, the one with the big fountain in front of it. They’re in the parking garage, first level under the surface.”
“Excellent.” The dark-haired vision in green called back a second raven-tressed bombshell from their ranks, even as Alan motioned for the rest of the group to fall in again on Gotham and bolster the failing ranks struggling against him. “Eve,” the first brunette said to the second, “in the parking garage beneath that building right there, you’ll find our Wonder Dog ally guarding the wizard’s dupe: a small person called the Toyman. He needs to be spirited away much farther than that so we can deal with Gotham with some kind of finality.”
“Not a problem,” said the second brunette, a woman Kyle was vaguely recalling from JLA files he’d studied endlessly under Batman’s merciless tutelage when Kyle had first been inducted into the Justice League – the woman had mostly worn a different outfit at the time, but her name was Nightshade, and she had abilities with darkness and shadows, Kyle remembered now. “I’ll have him worlds away – just remember to give me the all-clear after it’s over.”
And with no warning whatsoever, Nightshade seemed to draw a large black hole onto the air itself with her bare hands, and then gripping it by the edges, she pulled it over herself like a hula-hoop, disappearing into it and then somehow closing it behind her.
The first brunette then placed her hands to her temples, eyes closed, and whispered, as much to herself as to the rest of them. “Yes…she’s there…she’s calling…calling…she sees them…Rex and that small, wretched man…she’s…yes, she’s gone! They’re gone!”
Her eyes snapped open. “That’s it! Now we just need Gotham’s attention.”
A swirl of red, red mist spiraled slowly up from the ground, heralding the arrival of the spectral presence known as the Crimson Avenger. She materialized fully, guns drawn, and tugged something from her waistband. “Allow me,” she told them, and no one seemed disposed to argue with her.
“Gotham!” the Avenger yelled at him, and then she held forth her right hand, and her haunted firearm wailed a metallic chorus of anguish, a swarm of bullets piercing Gotham’s left shoulder and upper back, eliciting a roar of hatred and pain that seemed to half-curdle the very air. As he spun toward this new threat, the Avenger held up the object she had carried with her from Riverrock: the chunk of cold stone remains that had only an hour before been the white half-mask and part of the head of Gotham’s faithful servant, Strega. The mask was extremely distinct, and Gotham’s hissed intake of breath gave clear indication that he recognized it, and understood how things had gone in Wyoming.
“It will delight me to watch each and every one of you writhe and burn as my lord Sun King feasts upon this plane. You have cost me a fine acolyte, and you have even managed to cause me some personal discomfort here today. Watching your flesh melt from your bones will please me rather greatly.”
It was Alan Scott who spoke for them, ever the elder statesman.
“It won’t be happening that way, Gotham. We understand now exactly what you were trying to do here. And even if you could win out against our combined forces – and that’s hardly a given, based on all the visible wounds you’re bearing – you would still need your patsy to finish activating your master-spell for you. You can’t do it yourself, because the actual caster of the spell will be consumed in it the instant it’s finalized, and we know you have no desire to perish in this operation of yours. But we’ve taken the Toyman from you, and now we have him in a place so far away you’ll never find him.”
Gotham’s face was like a Bosch painting, a vision of Hell itself as it twisted with pure hatred. “Then perhaps I’ll have to content myself with killing you all here and now as a sort of consolation prize.”
“Again, even assuming you could…you don’t have the time.” Alan motioned at the brunette beauty in green still standing at his side. “Our Enchantress here has made it very clear that without the Toyman pushing the spell forward all the way to the point of activation, it will then revert. The holes you’ve ripped through into our world will begin to close themselves up, with increasing rapidity, and anyone from your native Earth that doesn’t return home first will find themselves trapped here permanently. In other words…you need to leave now, Doctor, or risk being separated from your beloved Sun King forever. As you well know, we don’t have one of him here.”
The remaining heroes closed in on Gotham, ready should he make a final push. The Bull Host angel disguises were gone, but those who had worn them looked little the worse for wear, and the group from Riverrock also seemed to have risen to the occasion, drawing on hidden reservoirs of will to stamp down on any pain, wounds, and fatigue.
Gotham took all of this in, and then ground his teeth audibly. He dropped his head for a moment, a sigh escaping him like a jet of poisonous steam, and then he looked up at them once more.
“Very well,” he conceded. “You have the right of it as regards my spell, and as you surmise, my allegiance must always be first and foremost to the great Sun King. But I warn you: I have marked this dimension with my own blood. I can now find it even among the countless other Earths spinning across the face of creation, and I will return. Time has little meaning for me, and even less so when traversing planar boundaries, each realm featuring its own individual stream of days and eons that can be manipulated from outside their bounds. Enjoy this small postponement of your fiery dooms, little heroes, for before you know it…I will be among you again.”
And with a clap of thunder, Dr. Gotham disappeared from their midst. There came a concerted wail as of ghosts whipping to and fro, and gale-force winds blasted them out of air that had been calm only seconds before. The earth shuddered, and the gathered heroes could sense a succession of fluctuations in pressure, their ears popping repeatedly, painfully, their teeth aching, their eyes bulging in their sockets…
…and as suddenly as it had all come, the chaos and tumult subsided.
“Was that…?” Kyle Rayner, helping Jay Garrick to his feet.
“The ruptures through to the other Earth that Gotham and the Toyman caused…they’re repairing themselves.” The Enchantress smoothed her hair absently, looking around as if watching the very air darning invisible holes in its own fabric.
“Which means what…?” asked Kate Spencer, looking still on guard in her red armor, toting her long battle-staff. “We’re stuck here now, in a place even the mighty wizard wasn’t going to be able to magic himself home from?”
“Don’t worry, miss,” Alan Scott told her, the soul of reassurance. “We’ll figure something out…”
“So have we figured anything out?”
“Well…no, not yet. But we are working on it.”
Alan Scott and Jay Garrick had stopped in at S.T.A.R. Labs in Metropolis to look in on their convalescing peers, and on those heroes from the alternate Earth who were in what J’onn J’onnz was referring to as “soft quarantine.” Jay was all but fully healed from the rough treatment he’d received at the malevolent hands of Dr. Gotham, thanks to his ridiculously fast metabolism, but J’onn was coming along a trifle more slowly. Meanwhile, he was keeping busy by propping up spirits at S.T.A.R., and by acting as liaison between the heroes of his adopted home world and those more newly arrived.
The recently imported heroes from the parallel Earth weren’t exactly being held prisoner, not as such, but the hero community and the White House were in agreement that it might be best to run some extensive tests on the off-chance there might be contamination problems in either direction, and it also seemed wise to get a grip on the psychological profiles of the newcomers before simply turning them loose on their new surroundings. In most cases, the newcomers would also need to be indoctrinated into their new home: most seemed stable and adaptable enough, and possessed of solid enough moral fiber, but it was a different world, with small but numerous differences from their own, and until their arrival just a few days before, this world had held no place for them. Recklessly cutting them loose with no histories here, no records, no identification, no jobs, and no connections seemed like a fool’s path.
J’onn’s skin still bore a blistered and cracked texture that neither Alan nor Jay liked seeing, but it did look improved since their last visit – it was simply a painful fact that J’onn’s Martian physiology did extremely poorly with fire. He moved a bit gingerly compared to his usual noble gait as well, and the other two men made the deliberate effort to match the kindly giant’s strides.
“We still have no clue as to how we might return them to their native dimension. I remain hopeful that Dr. Fate or Zatanna or June Moon may yet enjoy some success in the matter, or at the very least, that they may point us toward others similarly gifted who might try their hands. Wildcat recommended this new Dr. Mid-Nite, who has been working tirelessly in clearing the newcomers from a medical perspective, and Mr. Terrific has been applying his rather formidable intellect to both the conundrum of how to possibly harness a physics-based solution in returning them home, and alternatively, in what ways might we most efficiently and effectively assimilate them into productive lives here on our world.”
Jay and Alan nodded seriously at all of this, and Jay chimed in: “J’onn, we also have word from Ted Knight and Wesley Dodds that they intend to help set up a fairly sizable contingent of some of these newcomer heroes in Los Angeles to help with fighting the good fight. Early word has it that we may be looking at a resurrection of the Infinity, Inc. banner.”
“Interesting. Ted and Wesley will make fine mentors and supervisors. I have also begun to explore a similar idea using a small selection of the newly arrived heroes myself. As you may know, Scott and Barda Free have returned from their sojourn off into space, and they apparently find themselves a bit at loose ends. They are interested in mentoring a team of their own, one aimed at ferreting out some of the many meta-criminals who unwittingly immigrated here during this recent upheaval, and they have asked me to assemble one with a special eye toward drafting in any of the new arrivals who might have backgrounds in law enforcement or the military, or who might have other related skills or training.”
“In other words, Barda doesn’t have any interest in mothering teenagers with recently awakened metagenes and the like.” Jay gave his dry chuckle, and even J’onn cracked a smile at Alan’s assessment.
“Essentially. I imagine Scott would be a bit more amenable to casting the nets wider, but aloud he merely agrees that the tighter parameters will make for a capable squad…I have to assume he is to some extent simply trying to maintain domestic tranquility with Barda.”
“Marriage, gentlemen,” Alan declared. “We pick our battles carefully. At any rate…it all sounds good. Sad, though, that seemingly good people brought here through no faults of their own are now stranded a universe away from their homes and loved ones. Let’s do our best to not lose sight of that as tomorrow’s crises rear their assorted ugly heads. Hopefully if we keep at it, we’ll still find a way to send them back to their own Earth.”
“Agreed.” Jay nodded again, that grave demeanor of his giving it all a solemn sort of weight.
“Agreed,” J’onn added. “Our respective organizations should remain in close contact, and I shall cultivate positivity among the ranks of the newcomers. By the way, have we any further word from the analysis of the few ‘toys’ left behind by Jack Nimball?”
Jay and Alan both shook their heads. Alan answered for the both of them. “I suppose we should have expected it, but since we saw Dr. Gotham out of our universe, the ‘toys’ showed progressive structural deterioration – so much so, actually, that they not only crumbled to dust, but then even the dust faded from existence. The ‘toys’ are just gone, like they were never here. June Moon says that they were more ‘eldritch energy’ than actual matter all along, and that without Gotham and his pet witch to keep it built into a viable spell, it would eventually just dissipate back into the atmosphere. Dr. Fate confirmed that assessment.”
“And speaking of Gotham’s witch…?”
“That’s even more disturbing. You heard that the so-called Crimson Avenger teleported away from the site of the battle immediately following Gotham’s retreat off-world? She’s apparently a bit less heroic metahuman and a bit more vengeful, supernatural spirit. She took the large chunk of Strega’s stone remains with her, and we have no idea where she might be now. Worse yet, I returned to the site of our battle with Strega in Riverrock, Wyoming – June Moon accompanied me – and there was no trace of the rest of the stone matter that Strega had been transformed into during our struggle. I don’t know if that means the Avenger got there first and destroyed it all, or if Strega herself still somehow survived all of that and was able to effect a kind of escape from the battleground, or…well, I just don’t know. I would be very interested in any word on either the witch or the Crimson Avenger, though – high priorities of mine unless and until you hear differently from me.”
“Duly noted. Well, gentlemen – I very much appreciate the visit. Would you care to say hello to any of our new visitors and perhaps residents…?”
Both men nodded at that. “They seem to have a lot of heart,” Jay declared. “I’d like to thank them for their help, and also make them feel welcome if they do end up having to stay here long-term.” He gestured onward with one hand. “Lead the way, J’onn. By the way – what’s happened with Jack Nimball after all this?”
“I’m afraid it does not look promising there. Nimball was a pawn in all this, used by powers far greater than he, and it seems to have nearly destroyed him. He is now little more than psychological wreckage held together by a tattered bathrobe. If I had to guess, I would predict eventual intake at Arkham, with death of one flavor or another not far behind.”
All three heroes shook their heads this time, and Jay spoke for all of them. “Maybe if nothing else, one of the other inmates will learn something from his example. Like a cautionary tale. Jack Nimball: the perils of playing with dangerous toys…”