The early morning stillness enveloping Poverty Point was as pristine as the grounds of the national park itself. The edenic quiet lying over the historical site was so profound that the gentle slopes and curves of the archaic earthworks and mounds rising from the Mississippi River floodplain in northeastern Louisiana might have been newly constructed the year before; the site was like a place out of time, a well-preserved segment of prehistory.
The peaceful tableau was broken when a gash of angry crackling yellow light opened in mid-air and a single figure emerged, falling to the grass and rolling down the three-foot slope to the flat corridor between two concentric curving earthworks. The physics-defying laceration quickly closed in on itself, the bloody glow swallowed up until all that remained to scar the air was a slight floating distortion, like the transparent shimmer of a vanishing mirage.
The figure at the bottom of the furrow in the earth lay still for several moments. She was an attractive woman, with skin an unusual reddish-pink hue not naturally found among any humans on Earth. Her hair was swept-back jet black, and her clothes were the same ebony shade in shiny leather, revealing a good deal more of her feminine assets than they concealed.
The woman's eyes fluttered open and she unsteadily rose to her feet. She turned in place in a slow circle, taking in her surroundings through dazed blue eyes without recognition. She climbed back up the earthwork to better survey the environs.
The earthwork the woman stood atop was the outermost of six ridges in a C-shaped pattern almost a mile in diameter. From her new vantagepoint the woman could see a large mound just to the west of the ridges, with smaller mounds to both the north and south. Drawn by something primal and instinctive, the woman ran north along the ridge, closing on the mound situated in that direction. Her feet pounded the earthworks for several steps, and then a bloom of flame and smoke engulfed her and vanished, taking her along with it. A moment later an identical fireball and wreath of dark smoke appeared atop the small mound, depositing the woman at her intended destination.
In close proximity to the ancient mound of earth, she could sense its hidden secrets, its genesis as a site of human sacrifice and immolation. And yet the mound was only a partial aspect of the entire site, a part which she understood all too well. Yet she felt understanding the entirety was key to her present situation.
She did not know exactly where she was, or why she had come here. She did not know how the confusion of thoughts and memories – which she had thought long since settled – had returned, seemingly multiplied by a greater proliferation of conflicting realities.
She pointed an elegant hand toward a nearby hickory tree, and smiled as the trunk burst into flames, a conflagration which quickly spread along every branch in a violent blaze.
She was Scorch, and she knew all about the burning of things.
Burning In Vain
By Dale Glaser
Six figures streaked northwestward over Lake Pontchartrain, five of them more or less familiar sights in the skies surrounding New Orleans: the red-and-white armored Pierce, the black-draped and purple-yellow-and-green-fringed Karnival, the fiery orange Ember, the blue-singleted More, and the gray-and-black leather attired Valence, crackling with greenish magnetic lightning. Completing the sextet was Sojourn, clad in a shimmery silver-white leggings and halter and white boots, with a heavy purple velvet cloak flapping from her shoulders. In the history of her association with Bad Blood, Sojourn had consistently traveled in her nearly-imperceptible spirit form, at a slight remove from the physical world which allowed her to cover distances at great speed as if she were walking on air. Now, however, she was as flesh-and-blood as her teammates, held aloft in Valence’s electromagnetic flying wedge by the bits of iron gris-gris bound to her cloak. Ember flew slightly ahead of the group under his own power, while Valence centered himself with Pierce and Karnival on one side and More and Sojourn on the other, pulling them through the air at speeds approaching one hundred miles an hour.
The electromagnetism afforded some protection against the elements, but the air resistance still threatened to rake tears from Sojourn’s eyes. She scowled into the wind, and caught More looking back over his shoulder at her with a half-smile. “Can you tell how much I’m hating this?” she called over to her teammate. “I know I said I would give this a fair shot but I don’t know about the return trip!”
“You’re holding up fine as far as I can tell!” More assured her.
“Oh,” Sojourn acknowledged. “So what’s up?”
“Just admiring your new get-up!” More admitted. “One thing I’ve always liked about having you around, kid! You used to have even less use for a proper costume than I did!”
“What, this?” Sojourn’s hand went to the switchback-shaped clasp that pinned the cloak at the hollow of her neck. “It’s just … I mean, it’s not just for show, it’s useful!”
“Like a utility belt?” More grinned. “Point is, now you look almost like a full-on superhero! Closer than me, at least!”
“Ha!” Sojourn scoffed. “You’re like eight feet tall and pure muscle! You look exactly like a superhero! ‘Specially in your cute little mask!”
More laughed in response, and Bad Blood continued their rapid flight across Louisiana. Just shy of two hours later, the six heroes alighted on the outskirts of the site of Poverty Point National Monument. Thick columns of black smoke rose from various points around the park, while the entire area sat wreathed in a haze which smelled predominantly of burning hardwoods and grasses, mixed with a bitter taste of smoldering man-made chemicals.
“I think I’m actually glad that Hangfire is still in the hospital instead of here with us,” Karnival opined, as Pierce slowly performed a sweep-scan of the area using his helmet’s detection arrays. “After his run-in with Dr. Phosphorus, I’d hate for the coincidence of another fire-related case to … I don’t know … give him traumatic flashbacks or something.”
“Does that mean he and I aren’t allowed to have buddy adventures anymore?” Ember asked wryly.
“Not picking up any life readings here, outside of our unit,” Pierce interjected brusquely.
“You think whoever has started the fires bugged out already?” Valence asked.
“Negative,” Pierce responded. “The arson is part of some kind of agenda. Cleared out the archeology building and the visitor’s center, and when emergency services arrived, took out the fire engines but allowed the ambulances to get clear. Someone wants to look for something without being disturbed.”
“OK, so maybe it’s not a case of someone setting fires and running, maybe it’s cover for something else, but how do we know they haven’t already found what they were looking for?” More pressed.
As if in answer, a vertical plume of inky black smoke suddenly erupted at the top of one of the nearby earthworks, like a roiling onyx candle topped with a burning wick. At the center of the flaming crown surmounting the smoke pillar stood a woman with reddish-pink skin hugged by ebony leather. “Don’t try to stop me!” the woman cried loudly. “Don’t you dare try! I won’t be stopped until I find the key to the truth!” The woman slashed a hand through the air before her, and in response of ring of fire blossomed around Bad Blood, consuming the grass as if each blade had been individually primed with accelerant.
“Time for a little fight-fire-with-fire,” Ember announced. “Be right back.” The fiery hero launched himself into the air and flew at Scorch’s smoky pedestal, swiftly rising level with her and tackling her around the waist.
Ember was accustomed to maintaining a hold on an opponent’s body while they writhed in his arms, although usually such movements were most often frantic spasms inspired by fear and pain in response to the calefaction of Ember’s limbs. He was slightly taken aback to realize that the devilish-looking woman in his arms at that moment was writhing in an unmistakably sensual way, completely unperturbed to be pressed against a burning man and in fact adjusting the alignment of their bodies more closely. In a moment, instead of being shoulder-to-stomach, they were stomach-to-stomach in a flying embrace, and the woman was smiling at him. “Well, hello there, handsome,” she said. Her eyes were large and dazzling, as if they had been cut from pale blue crystal. “I’m Aubrey, but you can call me Scorch.”
“Uh … hello yourself. I’m Ember.”
“Are you now? Don’t we make quite the pair,” Scorch observed suggestively. “If you were hoping to make me swoon, literally, by pouring on the heat, also literally, I suppose you can tell by now that fire doesn’t really have that effect on me. Which is not to say that I can’t be made to swoon by other means, so maybe you don’t need to remain entirely disappointed.”
“Sounds promising. Why don’t we start with you not trying to burn down everything in a fifty mile radius anymore, OK?” Ember countered.
Scorch’s smile hardened in an instant and became predatory. “I never said I was interested in negotiating,” she declared. “But you might be worth the effort. Your friends, though, I sense don’t quite understand feeding the flames like you and me. They’ll have to go.”
Scorch snapped her fingers in the direction of the rest of Bad Blood, and the fiery ring encircling the heroes roared higher. The tongues of fire expanded and gained mass, darkening and solidifying, until they became creatures of flame, with vaguely man-shaped red-hot bodies distorted into bestial crouches, sporting golden blazing horns and claws and spines. The flame-creatures snorted smoke and pawed at the burnt ground expectantly.
“Those things are empty constructs,” Sojourn said warily. “They don’t have souls.”
“No minds, either,” Karnival added. “So the two of us don’t really have any way to grab onto them. You three are going to have to dance with them, and Sojourn and I will see what we can do to help Ember. Fair?”
“Yeah, we’re on it,” Valence answered. More cracked his knuckles in agreement. Pierce leapt at the nearest flame-creature, vaulting over its smoldering shoulder humps and breaking a capsule from his belt pouch against the top of the creature’s skull. A fast-expanding glob of white, aqueous foam encased the flame-creature’s entire head, and the burning beast stumbled about wildly. Karnival and Sojourn broke through the gap in the circle of creatures and sprinted in the direction Ember and Scorch had flown.
Valence thrust a fist in the direction of one of the flame-creatures, with emerald arc of lightning chasing around his knuckles, then opened his hand and unleashed from his palm a juddering bolt of electricity. The crackling green spear struck the flaming beast squarely between the eyes but had no effect, other than inciting the creature into a raging ape-like gallop on all four limbs toward Valence. Valence held his ground as the burning monster approached, then at the last moment shot up into the air, pulling in his magnetic wake every scrap of prehistoric metal and every partially ferrous rock buried underground. Soil plumed upwards in all directions and left a deep cleft in the earth, which the flame-creature charged into blindly. Soon the beast was half-buried by loose dirt falling back into the crevasse.
More leapt backwards as one of the flame-creatures swiped a set of burning talons toward his mid-section. He looked around for a likely weapon to use against the infernal beast, but saw nothing but grass-covered earth mounds, and small trees more likely to turn to cinders on contact than to hurt the creature. More sighed, and grumbled to himself, “Nobody worries about me having traumatic flashbacks. Maybe Hangfire got it worse but Dr. Phoshorous didn’t exactly go easy on me.” Then, as the flame-creature clawed at More again, the strongman grabbed the fiery arm of the beast with both hands. His fingers immediately began to sizzle and blister, but More maintained his grip as he spun in a circle, once, twice, and on the third revolution released the flame-creature. The beast arced through the air like a blazing comet, and landed in the nearby Bayou Marcon, sending up a geyser of steam as it broke the surface of the river.
Ember moved his hands to Scorch’s shoulders and forcibly separated himself from her embrace. She had proven herself immune to his combustion aura, yet she winced as Ember’s fingers dug roughly into her bright pink flesh. “Clearly we’ve gotten off under a major misunderstanding here,” Ember growled. “You torching a state park is bad, but you trying to crispy-fry my friends is way worse. I can’t let you keep doing what you’re doing, so why don’t you make it easy on yourself right now?” he suggested.
“Easy?” Scorch spat, her pout dissolving into a snarl. “You think this is easy? You think anything has ever been easy? One day I’m in the Justice League and the Joker is the Emperor of Earth, then I find out none of that was ever real! That I was never real! But the whole world changed except for me, and my memories that didn’t belong! Then J’Onn made none of that matter, and I thought I could be good, and then I slept so long that when I woke up I was bad again! And now I’m here and here isn’t home and I can feel it all happening again! New wrong bad memories that never were and shouldn’t be and I don’t know where I am! And I don’t know where the real me is, either!”
“OK, OK, another major misunderstanding,” Ember said levelly. “I did not realize you were completely insane.”
Scorch shook her head so violently she nearly squirmed free of Ember’s grasp. “I’m not insane!” she screamed. Her struggles ceased and she stared deeply into Ember’s white hot eyes. “I’m not insane. I have … too many thoughts, too many lies that have found their way into my head, but I’m not insane. I need … answers. I need the truth.”
“Right,” Ember returned. “Again, not seeing the connection between any of that and burning down several acres here.”
“There is knowledge buried here,” Scorch insisted. “Look at this place! It’s thousands upon thousands of years old, massive geological reshaping littered by impossibly intricate ceremonial carvings … who do you think left them behind?”
“I suppose the real question,” Ember said, “is who do you think left them behind?”
For a moment, as Ember and Scorch continued to circle lazily above the ridges and mounds in question, there was silence. Then Scorch, with a faraway look in her limpid eyes, said, “I don’t know … members of one of the lost civilizations, explorers or outcasts, maybe. They could have been from Meropis, or Mu … Quivera … maybe even Agartha.” Her eyes came back to focus on Ember’s face. “But they turned this entire area into a repository for energies which can unlock higher insights. All I want is to unleash those energies, to blast away the false thoughts in my mind! To be bathed in the power of the truth! I’m not insane,” Scorch repeated, quietly. “But if I don’t find my way to the truth, then soon … I will be.”
“That’s … quite a story,” Ember acknowledged. “But I don’t see any real reason to believe you. As a rule, much as I like pretty faces like yours, I don’t always trust them.”
Scorch hissed and turned her face away from Ember’s, staring down at a lone oak tree towering at the crest of one of the southern mounds. Her brows knitted together as her eyes narrowed. The oak burst into flames, flamed which raged with a deep, iridescent purple light completely alien to any natural by-product of burning. Serpentine tongues of glimmering purple fire stretched hundreds of feet up into the air. Scorch looked back at Ember with a fiendishly triumphant smile.
Sojourn lurched to a halt in mid-stride, and Karnival arrested his own progress a couple of steps later to turn and look back at his young teammate. “What is it?” he asked.
As if mesmerized, Sojourn stared up at the oak tree burning violet against the summer blue overhead. “Cracks,” Sojourn exhaled, barely louder than a whisper. “Cracks in the sky.”
Karnival craned his neck, following Sojourn’s eyeline, then looked back at her again. “I don’t see anything, except a massive purple roman candle of course.”
“The devil-looking chick may not be totally crazy,” Sojourn said. “I don’t know why that tree is burning so funky, either, but now that it’s on fire it’s putting off a wild aura. Around the edges I can see these … these … you’re going to think I’m even crazier than she is.”
“Hey,” Karnival said, putting a hand on Sojourn’s shoulder. “I trust you, especially when it comes to magic auras or whatever. Try me.”
“They’re manifestations of damage and weakness,” Sojourn went on. “Cracks, or tears, or split seams or whatever. The spiritual fabric is taking a beating.”
“The spiritual fabric of what?” Karnival pressed.
Sojourn looked away from the hazy lens the oak’s purple incandescence provided and met the gaze of Karnival’s pitch black sockets. “Of everything,” she insisted.
“Damn,” Karnival growled. “And our firestarting new friend up there is causing the damage?”
“I … I really don’t think so,” Sojourn concluded. “She’s laying on the victim act a little thick for Ember, but I believe most of it. She’s gotten caught up in something really insanely scary. But still …” Sojourn gestured around at the various fires burning unchecked around the site.
Across the park, Pierce, More and Valence had dispatched all of the flame-creatures except one, a gargantuan monster over twelve feet tall and nearly as broad. Pierce expended the last of his fluorosurfactant capsules encasing the flaming beast’s right foreclaw, but the creature still retained one free hand as well as a whiplike reptilian tail of fire. More leapt over a sweeping rush of the tail’s length, then tried to grab the prehensile appendage and use it to flip the creature, but the fiery beast was too massive to be so easily upended. More released the tail before the flames could permanently damage his already seared hands. Valence, hovering at eye-level with the colossal flame-creature, magnetically lassoed the beast’s head with steel cable, blindfolding the creature in looping coils. However, Valence could feel his electromagnetic control weakening under the relentless assault of the flame-creature’s intense heat.
Pierce vaulted to a position directly in front of the flame-creature but outside of its long reach, and braced himself to fire a sonic beam from his gauntlet. The flame-creature shook loose the slackened, uncharged length of Valence’s cables and roared at Pierce, surging toward the erstwhile Checkmate knight with an almost-liquid speed and threatening to crush Pierce under its broad, smoldering heel. Pierce made no attempt to evade the fiery beast, but was suddenly knocked aside by a flying tackle, just before the flame-creature stomped the grass into a blackened crater.
The leader of Bad Blood landed on his side a few yards away and could still feel a slender arm wrapped around his waist. “Fire on the count of three,” a feminine voice just behind his shoulder said. “One …” An arm draped in billowy saffron and holding a gleaming rapier in hand extended along the length of Pierce’s own arm. “Two …” The rapier crackled with power. “Three!”
Pierce activated his gauntlet’s weapon as the rapier emitted a bristling cloud of energy that seemed to enmesh itself into a single assault with the sonic beam. The vibratory payload struck the flame-creature’s chest and exploded with a deafening reverberation, punishingly louder than Pierce’s sonic beam had ever been before. The raw force obliterated the flame-creature, knocked More onto his back and tumbled Valence through the air.
Ember was far enough away from the epicenter of the sonic detonation to only feel a fraction of the rumble, but was just startled enough to release his hold on Scorch’s arms. She disappeared in an unfurling of thick black smoke, landing on one of the topmost branches of the grand amaranthine torch the oak tree had become. Despite being blackened by the unnatural flames, the bough was able to support Scorch’s weight, and the fire itself embraced Scorch hotly yet harmlessly. Practically dancing, Scorch turned on her toes along the branch, her arms undulating sensuously as if she were trying to embrace the purple flames in return.
A dusky green cloud rushed to fill the air above the burning oak, and a torrent of dark water and jagged shards of ice plunged from its heart towards the treetop. Scorch spotted the onrushing deluge and screamed, backing away off the edge of the limb and falling toward the ground in terror. Ember swooped to intercept Scorch’s out of control descent and caught her in his arms, as Karnival dispelled the illusory cloud.
“We have to stop meeting like this,” Ember said. “I bet you get that a lot.”
Scorch laid a hand tenderly against Ember’s cheek. “Maybe we’ll meet differently. But that will have to wait.” Another plume of black smoke heralded her departure, but she failed to reappear anywhere within Poverty Point.
After convincing himself, via a complete circuit of the park, both that Scorch had transported herself too far away to be followed and that the extant fires were rapidly burning themselves out, Ember rejoined the rest of Bad Blood on the ground. Pierce, More, Valence, Karnival and Sojourn faced a woman dressed in white swashbuckler boots that reached her thighs, pink trousers, a yellow blouse with loose, gauzy sleeves, and a white cavalier’s hat with a pink ostrich feather plume, from under which spilled long red hair framing a determined, masked face. A rapier hung from a white belt hugging her hips. “Let me guess,” Ember said, extinguishing his corona. “Autograph seeker?”
“You know, on any other day, I might be,” the woman half-nodded. “But today, I need your help.”
“Get in line,” Ember scoffed.
“Hey, let’s hear her out,” More interceded. “I mean, she did more or less save Pierce’s life back there.”
“In the most self-endangering way possible,” Pierce countered. “People who tackle me are not usually lucky enough to maintain both arms in working order.”
“Don’t mind Pierce, he’s a little overprotective of his rep,” Valence added. “But, Miss … uh …”
“Call me the Privateer,” the woman supplied.
“Right,” Valence agreed. “So, we’re listening, Privateer. What’s so important that you had to track us down mid-mission?”
“Another meta appearance, up in Pittsburgh. A whole team this time, and they’re systematically trashing the city like they’re trying to barricade everyone else out,” Privateer explained.
“Wait, another?” Karnival asked. “You mean, you think it’s related to the woman who showed up here?”
“Well, yeah,” Privateer confirmed. “I mean, that’s the chatter on the lines, that all these metahumans popping up that no one’s heard of before are actually from another dimension, part of some global phenomenon.”
“Chatter on what lines?” Pierce demanded.
“You know,” Privateer answered, “Oracle, the Justice League communication relays …”
“Justice League?” Valence asked. “Are you related to that other Privateer who was in the JLA for like a half-hour back in the day?”
“What? No, no, not really, it’s just a perfectly good name that was going unused,” Privateer insisted. “But it’s not that hard to tap into the JLA signal if you know what you’re doing, I mean, you guys know that, right?”
More cleared his throat. “We’re, uh, we’ve been having some … troubles … with our communications expert. And system. Our communications systems expert.”
“So you don’t know about the big call-to-arms centered on Metropolis, either, do you?” Privateer asked.
“Assume we don’t,” Ember answered. “We’re just supposed to take your word for it, hightail it wherever you direct us?”
“Guys, something’s going down,” Sojourn argued. “Something cosmic-big and seriously disturbing. It could even be something from another dimension, like she’s saying.”
“I’m just repeating what I’ve heard,” Privateer offered. “I’m not trying to trick or trap you, I swear.”
“Well if it’s true then we need to get to Metropolis, answer the call,” Karnival said.
“No!” Privateer cried out. “I told you, I need your help in Pittsburgh, I can’t take on this Superior Five on my own!”
“You said this was a global phenomenon,” Pierce reminded her. “If we were to go anywhere other than Metropolis, why Pittsburgh?”
“I … I …” Privateer stammered, then looked straight down at the ground. Huskily, she continued, “Look, my whole family is back in Pittsburgh. I need to help them. Please.”
A few moments of silence spun out across the field like wisps of smoke from the guttering fires. “We could split up,” Valence suggested. “Some of us go to Pittsburgh, others go to Metropolis.”
“Not sure we should leave Louisiana at all,” Pierce countered. “Another appearance could happen here, could be happening in new Orleans right now.”
“Oh, come on, Pierce,” Karnival shook his head. “What about when we fought Zyl’yrag in the Gulf, how many other heroes ventured out from their home turf to help us? If Bad Blood didn’t have official standing to answer all-hands summonses before then, we practically have an obligation to now. I’ll go to Metropolis.”
“Fair point,” Ember agreed. “I’m with you, Big K.”
“That leaves five of us to face the Superior Five,” Privateer pointed out, indicating herself along with More, Pierce, Valence and Sojourn. “If you’re willing, that is.”
More grinned. “I’d ask you to fill us in a little more on this Superior Five, but … where’s the fun in knowing exactly what we’re getting into?”
“Fill us in,” Pierce countermanded immediately.
“I will,” Privateer promised.
“You can do it on the way,” Valence offered, rising into the air on electromagnetic waves that swept up his teammates as well.
“You two be careful,” Sojourn admonished Ember and Karnival. “From the little glimpse I caught, I know if I came anywhere near the source of things it’d knock me loopy.”
“Don’t worry, sweetness, we’ll see you back home before you know it,” Ember bragged, reigniting. “You gonna be able to keep up, Karnival?”
“Are you?” the illusionist riposted, melting into two-dimensional shadow and flitting across the earthworks faster than eyes could follow.
TO BE CONTINUED … IN DANGEROUS TOYS #3!!!
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NEXT ISSUE: Cosmic calamities aside, Bad Blood still must defend New Orleans from all who would threaten the city. Unfortunately for the Gulf Coast Good Guys, those with designs on New Orleans are nearly ready to launch their ultimate offensive!