FDC presents "Night Wears a Scarlet Shroud"
The flashlight shone upwards, tracking the overhead electrical lines leading to the old barn outside the London borough of Oakridge. Former Scotland Yard Inspector Major Dabney puffed on his pipe. "What do you think, Murdock?"
Mick Murdock looked upwards, squinting. "Those definitely look like illegal lines to me ... your mate Holt was right."
Margo Cantrell chewed her lower lip, remembering the surreptitious meeting with Assistant Vice Chancellor Alexander Holt, who for reasons unknown to her had chosen to contact the Major rather than work through channels at Scotland Yard. "That's just energy theft though, right? That doesn't tell us anything about kidnapping, or espionage, or whatever else it is that the Vice Chancellor thinks they're up to in there."
"That's right," Mick nodded, "for all we know they could just be a bunch of squatters ... hardly worth the attentions of the Bat Squad."
The Major switched off the flashlight. "Holt never steered me wrong in the past," he said. "If this is where Prof. O'Brien disappeared to, he was right to go outside of official channels in order to call us in. It's time to get a closer look."
Quietly, the trio crept closer. Batman himself had trained them to act as a unit, and their silent progress in the dark was testament to his influence. The structure looked delapitated from a distance, though closer examination revealed that it had been rebuilt, with new hardwood reinforcing the gaps in the old.
"The boarded-up windows have been reinforced with a solid backing," the Major said. "If there's anyone home, they jolly well didn't want to be seen."
"Let's just see what I can do with this door," Mick said, kneeling down as Margo retrieved a set of lockpicks from her purse and handed them to him.
Minutes later, Mick heard the satisfying click as the deadbolt slid away. He opened the door carefully, peering inside. "Definitely well-lit," he murmured, "and I don't see any obvious tripwires. Is that your man?"
The Major changed places with Mick to peer inside. An elderly man in a conservative suit, balding and with a shock of white hair, was tied to a chair, looking battered. Standing before him was what appeared to be an armored man, with a lionesque body which also included a scorpion-like tail. "Manticore," the Major cursed.
"Like from mythology?" Margo asked. "Who ... or what ... is he?"
"A cyborg; nothing more than a mechanical executioner," the Major replied. "He and other terrorists-for-hire are members of a team called Onslaught."
Prof. O'Brien may have started off resolute, but from the way he'd slumped on his chair it was clear the treatment he'd received had broken his spirit.
Manticore's tail whipped around, knocking the chair over and causing it and its inhabitant to tumble to the floor. The cyborg turned around, stalked off to one side of the barn, and started to run towards the fallen man, bearing down like a tractor.
"Bloody hell," the Major said, "he's going to run him over. He may kill us but we have to run interference." The trio ran out, moving as a single coordinated unit, and through sheer surprise managed to tackle Manticore and throw him off his path, causing him to roll over onto his side.
Manticore quickly uprighted himself. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded. Without waiting for a response, he raised one leonine hand and his claws began to rapid-fire like a machine gun, each claw striking explosively.
Margo screamed. The Major pulled out a pistol and began to fire at the cyborg, to no effect. Mick circled around, trying to get behind Manticore, but the cyborg shrugged him off effortlessly. His tail lashed out repeatedly, knocking the Bat Squad off their feet. One his claws lashed out, knocking the Major's pistol from his hand; he raised it again with the clear intent to decapitate the Inspector, when he was once more knocked off his feet by a blast of energy.
A septet of colourful figures entered the room, and Manticore roared. He ran towards the blue-clad woman with the gold staff, from whom the blast had originated, when a pair of blond teenagers wearing matching red tunics stepped forward. Their hands touched, and began to glow with energy; jointly their fists met the cyborg with explosive punches, and their opponent crumbled to the floor.
Mick rolled to his feet, reaching out a hand to assist Margo who immediately rushed to untie Prof. O'Brien. The Major grunted, rising to his feet with some effort. "The Seven Soldiers of Victory, is it?"
Bowman approached the man. "We received your call, Major. The Knight is on assignment elsewhere, but he left us well-acquainted with your history together." Cyril Sheldrake had established contacts with the Bat Squad as well as the vigilante known as the Hood, all of whom had received either training or support from the American hero known as Batman in the past.
The Spider bound up Manticore in steel-strong strands, while Beefeater stood over the cyborg, the firing end of her Rod of Stuart aimed at his head, in case he began to stir. Scarlet Hawk walked over to join Margo and Prof. O'Brien.
"Are you unharmed, Sir?"
"Thank you for saving my life." Prof. O'Brien rubbed his wrists with a pained expression. "But I couldn't ... I didn't ... I wasn't strong enough. One of them got away with the code key to my plan for the 'Electric Firebolt.' I don't know how long it will take them to decode my plans and build the fearsome weapon for themselves."
Bowman rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "We don't even know yet who hired Onslaught," he said. "Hopefully, interrogating Manticore will shed some light on the subject. In the meantime ... Professor, is there any way to construct a locating device for the weapon?"
Prof. O'Brien furrows his brow. "It ... might be possible ... of course it would depend on how much they alter my design ... but the Firebolt ought to have a distinct energy signature ... "
"Our hq has a well-equipped and, needless to say, well-defended lab," Scarlet Hawk said. "We'll escort you there, and possibly Spider and I can lend some assistance."
Mick eyed the Bowman speculatively. "I've never seen a superhero headquarter ... other than the 'London Batcave' of course, after we all encountered the Strangler. Would there be any objection if I tagged along?"
Margo grinned. "I'll sit this one out, thank you. I'll go with the Major when we interrogate Manticore."
Archer Dawe had removed the identity-concealing hood of the Bowman, as he walked Mick Murdock through the Soldiers' souvenir room: Mr. Freek's D-Gun, the Scorpion's death ray and ultraviolet devolution ray, the Sixtystone, the remains of Deconstructo's wand, some of the Clockwork Cagliostro's tin soldiers, Jimmy Watson's magic patches, and necromancer Jimmy O'Goblins' counterfeit coins, were all represented in addition to older exhibits dating from the Blackhawks' tenure on the island.
"I'm surprised you keep all this mystical stuff around."
"We're not going to keep anything like the mystical equivalent of an unexploded mine in our hq, don't worry. We actually consult regularly with Zatanna Zatara, who vets our collection. For example, the coins are harmless so long as nobody tries to spend them."
"Zatanna ... I think I remember Batman mentioning her."
"The Knight & Squire met her during their tenure with the Ultramarines, when they all encountered one of the Justice Leagues. I think the group still exists, actually, in some form or other."
"Batman seemed quite taken with her, from the way he spoke."
"I gather they're old childhood friends. Hrm. I was quite surprised your girlfriend didn't accompany you on the tour."
"My ... ? Oh, you mean Margo? She's not my girlfriend ... I think she just didn't want to cramp my style. She's a nice girl. Just a bit of a dolly bird, you know?"
"I can imagine. Anyway, my tastes run in other directions."
"It's nice to see my 'radar' is still operational. Would have been a wasted trip, otherwise."
The next days saw Beefeater, TNT Tom & TNT Tina on aerial patrol, but despite the crime wave marked by the use of an unstoppable beam which burned right through the doors of the strongest vaults, they found themselves arriving too late to foil the use of the Firebolt. Manticore's information was likewise unproductive; Onslaught had fled their previous hiding place on the cyborg's capture and he had not been part of the negotiations to hire the team. All he was able to provide was a name: The Scarlet Shroud. So the cynosure of the case was Prof. O'Brien and his impromptu engineering team.
Finally, the locator was all but ready; Scarlet Hawk busied himself loading it aboard the Aviosub as the rest of the team boarded behind him. "Once we get these to Selegue Laboratories to install their specialised vacuum tubes, we'll be in place," he exposited. "If we spread out around London, we'll be in place to catch Onslaught ... or their mysterious employer ... in the act."
As the craft headed southeast, it was watched as it crested over the Scottish border by a tall woman, long and lean of limb. She moved so quickly her arms seemed to blur, and a javelin was flung through the air, aimed towards the bottom of the Aviosub. The weapon exploded on impact, the flames reaching the Aviosub's fuel tank so that it burst into flame, the heat perceptible even from the ground.
The woman who called herself Jaculi smiled in satisfaction, and activated her auto-dial. "J2 here," she said, "the seven are down ... I'll stick around long enough to see that the field is clear but I've seen no signs of survivors."
She watched the burning wreckage and fuel spread across the North Sea for a long while, before she was satisfied. She walked back to the ebony roadster waiting for her, and sped off southwards.
At just under cloud cover, the Spider watched from his one man helicar, with TNT Tom and TNT Tina hovering alongside. "They wasted no time," he said into his communicator. "We're tracking the car now. See you on the mainland. Team Fleetway out."
"Team National out," Bowman replied. If the Spider hadn't detected the tracking device attached to the Aviosub when they had rescued Prof. O'Brien in Oakridge, the team might have suffered a dire fate; even the more invulnerable members may not have survived such an explosion.
The real Aviosub, meanwhile, traversed the oceanic depths to course, still submerged, through the Thames, arriving finally in the area of London. As evening deepened into night, the Bat Squad guarded Prof. O'Brien using the Soldiers' island headquarter as a safehouse; Scarlet Hawk scanned the detector device, watching on a computer grid as a light flashed, prompting use of its map-and-contact system. "The All-British Platinum Company," he said, entering the address into the Aviosub's GPS. The vehicle rose out of the water, heading eastwards.
They descended near the repository of the corporate stores of the precious metal. What appeared to be a van was parked at the loading dock. Scarlet Hawk landed the Aviosub silently. Bowman drew an arrow and nodded to his teammates, and the quartet disembarked from the craft.
As they circles around the craft, they came upon an adolescent girl with red hair and green eyes, clad in a plain green dress, playing jacks. She looked up at the curiously, and the Soldiers felt an overwhelming wave of anxiety pass through them.
Beefeater screamed, falling to the ground and dry heaving, unable to withstand the emotions coursing through her. Bowman and Scarlet Hawk struggled to stay in place, past terrors haunting them as their weapons fell to the ground. Only Frankenstein proceeded unimpeded, and walked up to the girl, his face impassive.
"By gor, yer a big 'un." She stuck out her tongue at him. "Why aren't ye fallin' like the others?"
He looked around at his afflicted friends. "I have already been dead more than once," he replied, "fear means nothing to me now." A flick of his finger against her chin flung her backwards; her head struck the concrete platform, stunning her.
Besides, he thought to himself, my brain is the revived brain of a corpse. Who knows the ways its chemistry differs from the truly living?
Bowman staggered over and knelt by Beefeater. "Terri?" he whispered, "are you still with us?"
She curled up for a moment, and then rolled over onto her hands and knees, wiping bile from her chin. "That was horrible," she said. "It was like ... I don't even want to think about it ... what was it?"
"Her codename is Badb," Bowman said, "she's a projective telepath. We're through the first hurdle, it's time now to see who's manning the Firebolt."
Scarlet Hawk eyed the card scanner by the rear door. "The security system looks like it's still disabled; getting in will be simple." He cracked open the door. "The vault ought to be in the basement."
They descended into the well-lit basement, to see a pair of grotesquely overmuscled men, operating a device which resembled a Klieg light, beaming directly into the steel of the vault. One of the men spotted the foursome as they entered the room. "Who the frack are you?" he shouted, his voice oddly pitched and echoing, like the sound of a beehive. The other glanced at the Soldiers and swiveled the Firebolt around, turning its electric fury directly towards them.
Beefeater swore in alarm, and instinctively from the Rod of Stuart she generated a force-shield. Sweat broke out on her brow from the heat it was generating. "I'm not going to be able to block this forever," she advised her companions.
Frankenstein nodded and drew forth his steam-guns, charging forward towards the Firebolt. The pair from Onslaught glanced at one another, their hands touched briefly and they seemed to merge into a greater entity, easily twice the mass of either of the identical pair. The hulking creature towered over his assailant, and grabbed hold of his wrists with a grip which evoked a grunt of pain from Frankenstein.
Bowman knocked an arrow, and aimed it for the creature. "Hyve," he said, "let him go." The metal-tipped arrow flew towards the creature's shoulder, but at the moment before impact the shoulder seemed to detach and fall to the ground, causing the arrow to miss its mark. The arm reformed into a muscular dwarf which charged towards Bowman, buzzing angry obscenities.
Scarlet Hawk attempted to maneuver around the back of the room, aiming for the Firebolt in order to deactivate it. Hyve seemed to shatter into hundreds of smaller copies of himself which began to swarm like insects over Frankenstein and Scarlet Hawk.
Beefeater felt her will begin to waver, and glanced over at her teammates. With gritted teeth, she leaped upwards through the air, letting the Firebolt's light beam through the interior wall. Hovering under the ceiling, she sent blasts of energy from the Rod of the Stuarts into Prof. O'Brien's device, until it became too damaged to function. Quickly, she sent another blast at the dwarf brutalising Bowman.
Caught by surprise before he could separate further, Hyve tumbled to the ground. The smaller versions as well, fell off Frankenstein and Scarlet Hawk like leaves from a tree. Bowman grinned at Beefeater as she descended, "Good work, Terri!" He clapped her on the back.
She smiled shyly, wiping her forehead with a gloved hand. She was uncomfortable in her uniform, covered in sweat from the heat and mental exertion of her battle with the Firebolt. "Thanks," she replied. "What's the plan now?"
"If you feel strong enough, I want you to catch up with Fleetway ... the rest of us are going to take what's left of Hyve and the Firebolt back to the island's secure facility for now."
As below, so above:
The Spider watched TNT Tom & Tina indulge in aerial acrobatics as they tracked Jaculi's automobile. The 'kindly uncle' affection for them he presented wasn't entirely feigned, although he would never have admitted to himself how comforting he found it to have fellow emigrants from his own reality level operating alongside him in the Soldiers, despite their not having been truly acquainted prior to the transition. When he discovered them in this world's London they had proven ill-suited to life on their own, living in squats and even stealing food from market stalls. While they naturally still mourned the loss of their families, they were flourishing in the team, and their eyes no longer bore the wan look of desperation.
The vehicle found its way to the century-old Half Moon Inn. The Spider's helicar descended low enough for him to observe Jaculi disembark and walk to the alley behind the Inn, where she disappeared into a rear door. He beckoned to the young cousins and they followed him to ground level. He donned a black trench coat to conceal his skintight armour as he followed her; his companions' uniforms largely consisted of matching red tunics, so while not exactly stylish they wouldn't be overly conspicuous in public.
A quick scan revealed she did not appear to be on the ground floor, so the trio explored the cellar. The Spider's subtle eye found a hidden door panel, and he deftly bypassed its security protocol. They found themselves in a room which could have belonged to a Republic serial villain, filled with gadgetry and loot from previous escapades and even Nazi paraphernalia. Jaculi was in conference with a man wearing a dark hat and cloak, and a red leather masque which disguised his face. Fascinating, the Spider thought to himself; the presumed 'Scarlet Shroud' wears a masque even when speaking to his lackies, from which one could infer that his identity must be something publically known which he wished to conceal even from them. He laughed internally at the evident conflict between the two, easily imagining Jaculi's perplexity on being told of the Soldier's interference with the use of the Firebolt given her apparent destruction of the Aviosub.
"Tom and Tina," the Spider murmured, beckoning the cousins over to him, "things are going to get explosive down here very soon. I need you to evacuate the rest of the building." They nodded silently, and flew back up the stairwell. He assessed his opponents carefully. The woman was homicidal and currently in a state of emotional disturbance. She was also capable of moving at super-speed. He had fought and defeated speedsters in the past, and found them among his most challenging combatants. The man's anger showed a lack of internal discipline; and while he appeared physically fit it was doubtful from his movements that he had studied any of the martial arts. On the other hand, he evidently had some advanced engineering skill as well as paranoia, and it was impossible to judge what sorts of weaponry might be concealed beneath his cloak. When the cousins returned, the Spider fired his web gun to entangle Jaculi in its sticky, steel strong strands. Her reflexes proved the better of him, and the strands had barely entered her peripheral vision when she managed to slip into super-speed mode and duck out and away. A javelin thrown with inhuman speed hurtled toward him, though he had already rolled out of the way so that it exploded into the wall behind him. TNT Tom's and TNT Tina's hands touched and began to glow with explosive energy, and they flew towards her.
The other man cursed. He reached into his jacket, and from his cloak began to emit a scarlet gas which distracted the Spider and began to make his throat burn caustically. The red leather over the man's face must conceal a gas masque, the Spider thought to himself. Fortunately, he was accustomed to operating his jet pack at heightened altitudes, and his utility pack contained compressed oxygen which he began to inhale through a canula. He had started to recover when his opponent drew forth twin .45s and began to fire.
Jaculi led the cousins on an intense chase around the warehouse-like room. Despite their flying ability, they were unable to quite catch up with her three-second spurts of speed. The heightened resistance to damage their bodies granted when they used their explosive punches were not proof against her exploding javelins, as TNT Tina learned when she was struck. She crashed to the ground with a semiconscious groan. TNT Tom raced to her, checking to see whether she had been permanently harmed, and with an angry growl renewed his attack on their opponent.
The Spider's skintight metallic armour was essentially bulletproof, but he was still forced to back away from the impact of the bullets. Continued exposure to the scarlet gas was starting to make his eyes burn and obscuring his vision. He attempted to get a bead on his opponent with the web gun, but he found that in the Scarlet Shroud's own domain he was no longer the master of his environment. He began to plot a strategy when another blow from one of the .45s forced him to start blocking his exposed face and head from the direction of the attacks.
Jaculi grinned. "You kids weren't supposed to be involved in this at all," she said, "but I'm more than happy to make up for my earlier failure after you people tricked me somehow." She aimed another javelin at him, which mainly by luck he managed to block with his hand ... the combined explosion knocked him backwards. He was unharmed, but realised his explosive punch was now discharged until he could make contact with his cousin once more. Jaculi backed away, aiming another javelin while TNT Tom was confused, but in doing so found herself in the Spider's line of vision.
Catching her from behind, she found herself encased in his web. "Tom," he said, track down the Shroud."
"But I can't see a thing ... "
"Then make like a bull in a china shop. You're faster and stronger than he is."
TNT Tom flew into the billowing cloud of gas, crashing into the walls repeatedly as he searched for the criminal mastermind. The man slipped away unseen, and ran towards the stairs leading to the exit door, only to find himself face to face with Beefeater. "Can I help you?" she asked, swinging her battlestaff like a cricket bat and knocking him back down the steps. The Spider stepped up and bound him, too.
"That was well-timed," the Spider commented to the newcomer as he removed the Scarlet Shroud's disguise, avoiding the man's gnashing teeth. "Now here we have a familiar face," he mused, searching his prodigious memory. "Ah, I do recall you: Assistant Vice Chancellor Alexander Holt. What could have motivated you to take such a turn, sir?"
"You people were never supposed to have been involved at all," Holt growled, "this was between me and the Bat Squad."
The Spider looked puzzled. "Were they stealing your thunder in some way?"
"Don't be absurd," he said. "My half-brother is Basil Coventry ... yes, the film-maker. Thanks the Bat Squad's interference in our lives, he wound up insane and our father wound up dead, both thinking they were our grandfather ... the Scarlet Strangler. I took the name the Shroud in mourning. All the rest of this was simply to draw them in."
TNT Tom shook his head as he overheard. "I know how hard it is to lose a family," he said. He knelt down by TNT Tina as she began to stir, taking her in his arms. "And ... I know how that can lead you to consider a life of crime, when you never would have before."
"I'll contact Bowman and tell him mission accomplished," Beefeater said to her teammates. "I'm sorry things worked out the way they did for all of us, Holt."