Sound of the Revolution
Day 2 of investigations – Titans Tower – 10:37 A.M. Pacific Standard Time
Kara briefly tuned her ears to focus on the infinitesimal drone of the security camera above her head. Casually chalking it away as one of Cyborg's security measures, she took in a slow and steady supply of air through her nostrils. The inhalation becoming so long and pronounced that she could feel the flow of her blood vessels from the tips of her toes as it rose up her legs, chest, arms and shoulders until it felt that all the tension and weariness had been shunted from her mind and readied for release. Finally she did so through a prolonged hiss from her lips and the fair-haired, half-Kryptonian spent another instinctual moment feeling the world around her, calmly soaking in any element of peace and tranquility that she could find. The measure was just the last step of her relaxation training, the greatest weapon she had to combat the anger and shame she took in from the past and continued to weather in the present and would doubtlessly do so in the future.
"Last night it took you nearly twice as long to reach your relaxed state. I am pleased that my own obstacles have not impeded you."
Kara tranquilly conducted the next heavy breath while accepting the smooth and relaxed words of the woman seated across from her. Not more than a year ago she would have detached herself from her senses so thoroughly that she might have allowed the apologetic statement to go unnoticed. The problem had been that she would place so much of her focus upon reaching relaxation and the shutdown of her senses that she would occasional incur a state of desensitizing overcompensation that prompted her into turning off the world rather than taking it all in. Both Bruce and Lloyd had been patient and diligent with their instruction as to avoid the potentially harmful state of mind (while Stephanie's "Cold Water on The Head of Unsuspecting Kara" produced a more practical form of problem solving).
"No, my difficulties didn't have anything to do with you, Raven. You've been very accommodating." Kara suddenly felt that someone's eyes were upon her and she craned open her own to meet Raven's inquisitive glare. Having more than her fair share of experience as it came to deciphering the thoughts of half-demon telepaths, she made no effort to shield any reservations she may have had and simply allowed the violet-eyed Teen Titan to examine her.
"Thank you," Raven inevitably replied, a tinge of understandable chagrin popping up from her otherwise muted candor. "My struggles to contain the temptations delivered by my father can often monopolize my thoughts. Occasionally that focus can interfere with registering the elements of what is going on around me."
Kara let out another breath, this one less focused on the process and more for allowing a gentle smile. "Well, I don't have any room to talk. That being said, did you ever think that this constant defense could leave you just as susceptible? I mean, if you're constantly putting up a resistance then Trigon may not even have to maintain an offensive to keep you on guard. He could simply rest and await the opportune time to strike."
There was a shimmer of anger in Raven's eyes but she managed to bottle it up in an equally fast flash before replacing it with a thoughtful glance. "That. . . occasionally crosses my mind," she finally offered before shutting her eyes, her indigo cape fluttering with the slight wavering of her tiny frame as it continued to hover a foot-and-a-half above the floor. "But I cannot simply give in to my prideful nature on account of greater emotional security. The consequences are far too steep."
The former Supergirl kept her crystalline blue eyes open, her own thoughts momentarily clouded with her memories of a hate-riddled woman who seemed to have no issue with twisting her surroundings to fit her desires. "I sometimes wonder if all the work I place into controlling my anger and establishing a state of calm will just precipitate an eventual downfall. The Afflicted fought for years to ensure the kind of life that I want to fight for and it was her failure to maintain it that turned her into a monster."
"Why do you refer to yourself as her?"
That managed to startle Kara.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked with a trace of trepidation.
Raven slowly opened her eyes once again, her assuredness plain as day. "Every time you refer to 'The Afflicted', this possibility of who you might become in the future, you assign it to the third-person. You consciously cast it away as an aberration rather than own it as a part of who you are and what you might become."
Now it was Kara's turn to bite back a sharp pulse of irritation. "Well, what about you? I mean, I may not know as much about your own struggles as you know of mine." The half-Praxian left the fact that she had willingly offered that potentially harmful information to run silently and let it linger. "Would you just simply want to be known as a potential ticking time bomb?"
"I'm already known as such." The fluttering of Raven's cloak came to a sudden stop and the daughter of Trigon remained still until she was convinced that she had the full attention of her guest. "When Richard Grayson integrated me into society I was presented with challenges that forced me to not only monitor the designs of my father but also recognize how dangerous my own powers could be. When I mistakenly believed that Wallace wished to see me as more than a friend I unconsciously manipulated his emotions to try and force him into thinking what I wished. When Richard and K'oriandr announced that they were going to marry I grew envious of their contentment and allowed my emotions to corrupt me until I became the monster that I dreaded. I could blame my father's ambitions or the manipulations of those that would bring harm to me but I allowed myself to give in. Those I care for may have forgiven me but the crimes remain mine."
Kara let out another long breath. However, while those that came before rang of harmony and self-assuredness this one spoke of fatigue with frightening volumes. She looked down to the floor beneath her slightly airborne feet, well aware that Raven now looked upon her with concern rather than accusation.
"I killed my biological mother. I may not have known of our connection and my father was responsible for stoking my anger but I'm the one with the blood on my hands." Kara felt herself brushing the fingers of her right hand against her pant leg and made certain to cease that activity with a quickness. "The blood just keeps running, Raven. Every time I bring myself to fight, every time I see the blood I spill it reminds me of the. . . freedom I felt through the violence. I can just shut myself off from what I'm afraid of what may happen and just. . . just soak in it."
"I would think that 'drown' would be the more appropriate desired action," Raven said shrewdly. "Then you can stop trying to push back at something that just keeps coming and just hold on to the certainty because at least then you know what you'll get."
Raven's haunting words left Kara feeling sunken, her chin muscles heavy and her brow leaden. She mustered the strength to look back at the half-demon and saw a similar countenance and suddenly felt that she couldn't let it stand. "You've earned a good life, Raven."
Not about to be shown up, the Teen Titan fired back with a wry smile. "So have you. Doesn't mean that it still isn't a bitch to fight for."
The coupled waves of relieved chortles provided a suitable background for the jovial mood of the newest arrival to Raven's chamber. Dressed in his familiar Robin Hood like attire, Oliver Queen observed the surprisingly pleasant scene and made a note to enjoy it before going about his roguish ways. "Well, I'm usually not the type to go hunting for Goths and granola chicks but I have to admit this is surprisingly nice to see."
Kara countered with a mischievous sneer. "I am not a 'granola chick'," she replied with determination while tilting her body to stand. "One, because I am an independent woman who refuses to accept those kinds of polarizing labels and, two, granola tastes like crap unless you dump a whole bunch of empty calories into it."
"Yeah, well, we can't all just include the 'fly around the world' exercise plan to our daily activities." Ollie tabled his amiable stare-off with Kara to turn to Raven and notice that the teenage mystic was being quite fastidious as it came to ensuring that her long, violet shawl covered her legs. "And don't start hating a guy for looking at your legs if you're going to go to all the trouble of showin' 'em off, young lady."
Raven countered with a scowl that she normally reserved for Garfield during one of his more juvenile comments. "I would suggest you adopt some greater discipline as it comes to staring but that doesn't appear to be a part of your routine either," the magician flatly replied, her cold delivery not appearing to wound Green Arrow in the least. "You're here to tell us that we're ready to being our investigation?"
"That I am." Oliver threw in a simple shrug of his shoulders while remaining quite confident that Raven had no need to peek into his head to glean that answer. "After the both of you, of course," he then added while stepping aside and allowing the two reserved ladies to pass through the entryway.
"If only to give you a challenge," Kara said while taking the lead on the way to the Titans Tower vehicle pool. "Let's see if the horny old man can actually keep himself from not leering at our butts on the way there, shall we?" A quick summoning of a portal and a violet-colored pulse quickly showed that Raven was not at all interested in participating in this particular test of will.
"I'll try to resist the temptation," Ollie gamely replied, the accomplished ladies man trailing behind while only taking a slight glimpse at the half-Kryptonian's jean-covered behind.
Stephanie wasn't certain if she was looking at a ruin or a planet-wide stockpile as she flew alongside Hal Jordan just a hundred or so feet above the surface of Maltus. Coasting gracefully through the murky, listless landscape of Larfleeze's home world, the youngest of Earth's Green Lanterns found it difficult to keep her focus simply because there were so many bizarre sights to be found. The dilapidated towers and porous former skyscrapers that populated the once thriving business centers along the oceans of the planet's northern hemisphere were phenomenal enough disasters to leave Hollywood special effects artists envious. The even vaster piles of rubble that surrounded them all seemed ready to scream out the tales of how they came to such a deplorable state and the Gotham-based Robin found herself quite interesting in taking a second to stop and listen. There were simple homes ripped in twain or reduced to shreds or even left to stand useless and alone, slave quarters and animal stables with no one there to punish or care for, and formerly lush forests razed and torn from their former roots to leave behind a tableau of utter desolation.
Yet for all the destruction and isolation they found upon the onset of their travels the two Green Lanterns soon recognized that the further they traveled east the sunnier the tableaus that were offered to them. Roads ripped asunder or riddled with enormous apertures or fissures were followed up by thoroughfares that were only slightly bumpy or cracked and soon the highways and skyways looked positively brand new and all in a matter of 100 miles. Massive formations of rock that were either spewing magma from their apexes or reduced to crumbling shards of stone provided the preliminary sight for enormous peaks without crags or crevices or any other evidence that they had been touched by time. Even forests rendered black and lifeless were replaced with trees running brown and pale amber before their eastern neighbors were seemingly flushed by continuous sunlight and enough resources to provide a pristine perfection.
"What. . . the. . . fuck." Stephanie finally concluded after traversing nearly 300 miles of this confusing terrain in the course of nearly 10 minutes, her confusion only mounting as she recognized that her comrade did not seem the least bit stunned. "It's like. . . it's like the whole planet just decided to pack up and head for a nicer neighborhood."
"Or maybe somebody is just pulling everything in," Hal offered through the Corps' telepathic network, the cryptic rejoinder serving as the only response that the veteran Green Lantern would provide. It was only logical that Stephanie would have some questions at the ready but all that was brushed aside when she came upon the collections. Now there were enormous piles of material possessions stacked amongst the faultless scenery and all of it was as meticulously organized as one could make such a massive array of supplies. At the eastern edge of a forest there was a 10-mile line of vehicles ranging from ground cars to internal environment shuttlecrafts to even a spaceship that could rival the size and majesty of Mao Tenryu's Lunar Whale. The downtown district of a glowing but empty capital city held a mammoth arrangement of sporting goods, a mile-high pile of jewels and glittering stones whose origins ranged to planets that Stephanie could not even begin to name. There was a pile of knick-knacks and gadgets and whosits and whatsits that it took nearly a minute for the both of them to weave around and hundreds of carefully arranged racks of small-arm weaponry from swords to axes to guns to missile launchers.
Stephanie was just on the verge of asking how their host managed to collect such seemingly unparalleled hordes before her senses were laid low by another unexpected stimuli. This one, however, managed to reach her nose well before her eyes and that alone may have been enough to describe the overwhelming stench of rot and decay that seemed prepared to desecrate her wits. It was another handful of travelled miles, a journey that brought them to some meticulously maintained homes and palaces where some of the wealthier merchants and businessmen had obviously dwelled, until she began to see the bodies. There were thousands upon thousands upon thousands of corpses all stacked in enormous mounds of rotting flesh and pale bones serving as grisly perimeters for the once flourishing estates. Most of the bodies had been overcome by decay to the point where identifying their place of origin would have required the scraping of genetic material from the marrow itself but the young Green Lantern was able to identify nearly a dozen types of humanoids and otherwise whose distinguishing characteristics she had come to know during her training on Oa. There were Earthlings and Karbarrans, Perytonians and Apokoliptian Parademons, Raanians and Thangaarians and the momentary contemplation that something could have been found in the equality of it all brought Stephanie into thinking what kind of creature she had become.
"Maltusian. Of course, that shouldn't be too much of a surprise given that we're on their home world." Hal Jordan made certain that he had caught Stephanie's attention before nodding towards a portion of one of the piles where dozens of similar looking humanoids were left to decay. Some of the skeletons were only able to be identified by the creatures' larger than average height so it was up to some of the fresher corpses to present their lanky limbs, smooth musculature, and their prominent, bug-like eyes placed prominently on the Maltusians' pronounced brows. "Did you notice the Karbarran materials in one of the downtown arrangements, Lieutenant? It's pretty likely that he could have gathered that on his own but it could very well have served as Luthor's payoff."
The younger of the two Green Lanterns offered back a distracted nod as she caught the sight of a particularly torn Karbarran corpse amidst the base of another swell of slaughter. She focused on the hole in the ursaroid's massive skull and was hit by her memories of the bravery of the bear-like creatures as they fought to retake their planet from The Sinestro Corps. She remembered the smiles, songs and tears that were sung and shorn in the hours after Leokar Kurkosaw and his forces were forced to retreat from the industrial powerhouse and that coerced her to extend her fingers to briefly touch the fallen stranger. It was only thanks to her years of training that she managed to avoid having those digits taken from her (along with much of the rest of her right arm) as she scrambled back and away from the spectral energy blade wielded by the planet's lone citizen.
"All is mine! MINE! The unwanted will will not take what I have earned!"
Stephanie had come to recognize sources of supernatural power over the course of her training on Oa and those months were the only thing that kept her from being overwhelmed by the potency of eldritch energy pouring from Larfleeze. Her ring was broadcasting its findings with enough force to send a humming noise between her ears and Robin suddenly realized why only experienced Green Lanterns had been invited to visit The Marauder of Maltus. Standing nearly eight feet tall with protracted limbs to match, his enormous black eyes were quivering along with the rest of his elongated forehead. His rickety countenance screamed the kind of focused insanity that could certainly have summoned the will and ability to commit the reprehensible crimes that he was accused of. Still, despite the recent attempt on her life, what truly grabbed her attention was that Larfleeze's attire was startlingly similar to the chosen battlefield attire of The Green Lantern Corps: a tight but breathable one-piece suit yet while Hal's was colored black and emerald Larfleeze had gone with black and orange.
The same orange as the aura that pulsed around his quivering body. The same orange as the supernatural device he wore on his right ring finger.
Stephanie could only dimly register Hal's demands to cease and desist but the sickening sights she had been privy to coagulated with the recent attempt on her life and prompted her to fight. Her spectral energy claws were ready in an instant and she quickly locked blades with the mass murderer. A pulse of pain shot through her temples the instant that emerald met orange, a consequence that she thought to have grown used to in her many experiences with matching up against other supernatural forces, but the force of this one still managed to startle her. She could feel the mania in the force that exploded from her aggressor and shuddered at the wildness of it. It was all untamed but so potent that it was something she could have only survived with the skills and tactics that had come from being humbled by those that she should have easily dispatched. With prodigious power often came little mistakes that a self-admittedly clever fighter could take advantage of and as blades clashed and the both of them continued to whirl and slash at the other, Stephanie quickly found herself quite interested in providing Larfleeze with a humbling of his own.
"Agent Orange, I would like to remind you that your status of neutrality in the eyes of The Corps is on the line here."
Larfleeze, as pitched as he was in the combat, somehow seemed in tune with the grander scheme of things and backed away before dissipating his energy blade and letting out a scornful snort. "Blue Green comes back here with all his lies! Even sends another who would steal more of what is mine."
"You tried to chop my arm off, you fucking psycho!" Robin shouted back, her experience with diplomacy decidedly abandoned and her energy claws still at the ready. "And you! You watch him try and kill me and respond by waving the peace flag?"
"The banner is MINE to wave!" Larfleeze spat back. "Far too generous was I to give away much of what is mine by allowing an accord with the Guardians. Now I stand here as the both of you take my breath. You best be grateful for my generosity!"
Hal extended his right arm as a warning for Stephanie to curb her bristling sense of aggression. "What in the hell did I just say about a mutual understanding?" The veteran Green Lantern asked again, his eyes locked firmly on Larfleeze yet his words were meant for both warring parties. "Agent Orange, the Guardians allowed you to remain out of their custody so long as you kept your activities firmly restricted to your home world. We're here because of the rumors that you are not keeping with your part of the pact."
Larfleeze's usually wide black eyes suddenly narrowed. His snout tautened before letting loose with a stringy globule of saliva that soon tainted the surface below. "The indecisive one speaks of the hairless Earthling, no doubt. Tis true that he approached me with his ambitions that would have allowed me to expand my rightful possessions. In exchange he wished for information concerning how I came to accumulate my rightful power."
"Well, I can imagine how that would interest him," Hal thought aloud. "And I'm to assume that you will say that you refused his offer? Luthor has been accumulating Karbarran manufacturing materials and you have a rather healthy stockpile."
"Which I collected without assistance from anyone! The materials are MINE!" The carroty-colored sheen around Larfleeze's body briefly intensified and Stephanie was once again struck by the potency of the power displayed. "The Earthling wanted to take away a destiny that belongs in my possession and thusly I refused him! And why wouldn't I? It already displeases me enough that fate forces me to share my providence with the both of you! Why throw another of you misbegotten evolutionary weeds into my growing garden?"
"You know it doesn't surprise me in the least that you would be focused on weed," Stephanie noted with a quirk of her lips. The sarcasm in her candor easily overcame Larfleeze's lack of knowledge as it came to Earthling vernacular and it earned her a sneer from the orange-tinted powerhouse. "But, presuming you are lucid in the present time, what is this 'sharing providence' thing you just went on about? And why are the both of us so important to you?"
Larfleeze's snout bristled and his thick lips parted in preparation for a reply but Hal beat him to the punch. "Because Agent Orange knows that our presence here means that the Guardians are quite serious about making certain that he remembers that he is being watched. And, if what he says happens to be a lie, then he should expect a larger and less peaceful array of guests the next time. Let's go, Lieutenant Brown."
Usually not one to respond well to such blunt orders, Stephanie briefly found herself stunned as her superior officer took off without another word. As one source of confusion dwindled away from sight she instinctually turned back to another as Larfleeze glared at her with a perceptive snarl. Her eyes immediately made their way to the orange ring on his right ring finger and she felt the fine hairs on the back of her neck bristle as Larfleeze clenched his fist.
"I don't like sharing," Larfleeze repeated, his tone softer and more calculated the second time around. "I refused the other Earthling because he wanted what will be mine and I will deal with him should it come to that."
Stephanie heard the buzz from her communicator and chose to unequivocally ignore it. "And what about me and Hal? Are we obstacles too?"
Larfleeze offered back a slow small. "Yeeeeees. Your questions are poor in quality and you should look for something better. You know this doesn't have to do with why we may be enemies or allies. It has everything to do with the how."
Day 1 of Investigations – Bludhaven County Clerk Office – 10:21 P.M. Eastern Standard Time
Kenneth Steiff shuffled through the hallway with short and anxious steps, the heels of his black dress shoes occasionally scuffing against the cheap carpeting. Standing at barely five-and-a-half feet tall, his shaved head almost seemed to serve as a mirror for the buzzing halogen lights over his head while slight beads of sweat eked from his dark brown forehead. Having been recently elected to his post on the city council through an electoral process that was still under investigation in a state courtroom, his stressful existence seemed to warrant his muffled complaints and mutterings about being the last to leave his post as he fumbled for the keys to his office. Yanking the jingling metal piece from the pocket of his worn dress pants, he easily undid the lock and swung the door open and moved to turn out the lights until someone had been kind enough to do it before he could.
He could only assume that it was the gentleman in the blue and charcoal-black body armor that did the gentlemanly deed. The other four garishly dressed vigilantes looked to be occupied with other matters.
"Councilman Steiff, I am so sorry that it took this long for me to drop by and say hello," Nightwing greeted without a hint of remorse, his debonair smile proving to be just as ominous as any cold glare his adopted father could manage. "I just figured that the best way I could make it up to you was by letting you meet the whole gang here at one time."
It was a long handful of seconds before Councilman Steiff was able to remember that he had to breathe. "I. . . you. . . y-y-y-you can't be here. My office has surveillance. . ."
"That's on the fritz right now and will keep on messing up until we're done having our friendly conversation." The nervous politician wasn't sure how the startlingly attractive blonde-haired woman had managed to sneak to his right and slam the door shut without his notice but even her charming smile proved to be unnerving. "Hi, Dinah Lance. Justice League. We just wanted to know if you could tell us about your connections with Bruno Mannheim."
The significant hitch in Steiff's already erratic exhalations told the costumed investigators just as much as words. "Mannheim. . . Mannheim? I don't know any. . ."
"Honestly, one would think that a city with such an efficiently corrupt political infrastructure would be equipped with representatives who wouldn't be subject to this kind of frenetic faltering," The Riddler threw in with a scoff. He swiped his left middle finger against the politician's desk lamp and gave the dust that accumulated onto his glove a disparaging glare. "Over the course of the last nine months your campaign war chest received five separate infusions of $60,000 from a private political action group originally established by Bruno Mannheim before being passed on to a more ethically appropriate figurehead. Your funding practices may currently be considered as a legal exercise in the eyes of your ongoing judicial inquiry but the revelation of how those funds came to be accumulated will certainly raise some eyebrows and earn you a prison sentence."
The molecules of sweat that had threatened to emerge from Steiff's brow had grown into droplets that now trickled down his bald brow. "Look. . . LOOK! I took money, okay? This is Bludhaven! Everybody does! So this guy Mannheim wanted to provide contributions so long as I supported some surveying and public construction work projects. That isn't illegal!."
"No, what's illegal is what Mannheim and Intergang are actually doing with this money instead of what you say they're doing," The Huntress threw in while lifting herself up from Steiff's work desk and placing down a rather worn copy of How to Succeed in Business back where she had found it on the cluttered work station. "Now the question is if you're going to tell us what that actually is before or after we dangle you from the rooftop."
"Oh, don't be so histrionic, inductee jive rot," The Riddler implored while sidling his way past the Dark Knight of Gotham City. As he did so he deftly managed to notice Batman pulling a bladed boomerang from a pouch in his utility belt without breaking the attention of who he was speaking to. "This man obviously has not one whit of an idea as it concerns what either Mannheim or his new superior truly have in store for this city. He was offered the lure of the foundation of his professional desires and he drug his mouth across the hook with no shilly-shallying." His steps finally brought him face-to-face with the nervous elected official and the private investigator momentarily went about straightening Steiff's bustled collar. "And, if or rather when whatever sordid undertakings that Intergang is participating in is dragged into the public light, Luthor and Mannheim will have established the perfect person to take the fall."
"Just another corrupt Bludhaven politician," Nightwing added, his sharp smirk holding a hint of frustration just at the edges. "Like you said, Kenny. Those guys are a dime a dozen."
"Then why the hell are we even here?" The Black Canary threw up her hands as she asked the honest question, the martial arts expert ignoring the complete immolation of Kenneth Steiff's professional career in favor of relieving her own frustration. "If you guys already knew that this loser was a dead end then why even bother with the search?"
A distinct hum began to run through the private office that almost instantly grabbed the attentions of all inside. The Huntress reached for her crossbow while Nightwing pulled his escrima sticks free from his hip holsters. The Riddler pulled his stylish walking cane closer to his chest while The Black Canary jerked her baby blue eyes from one spot in the room to the next until she spotted the unearthly sigil coming into being at the five-foot space between the back of Steiff's chair and the rear window.
"Because the councilman isn't the only one rising to rise to the bait this night," Nigma said stiffly while providing a late response to Dinah's question. "I just wish that the lot of you would have been kind enough to leave me out of this part of it."
The first creature to rise from the eldritch symbol was a squat tank of a man whose massive limbs were bulky enough to make him nearly as wide as he was tall. His brownish-black hair was well fashioned upon his anvil-like head and complemented by a thin moustache that ran between his thick lips and a nose whose maligned structure looked as if it had been snapped and realigned on more than a few occasions. A half-dozen women materialized behind him and each of them were equipped with the physical perfection and mystic weaponry that had come to be salient symbols of the Amazons of Themyscira.
"Mannheim," Batman said in a growling greeting.
"Batman," Mannheim replied in return, his own tone a few shades warmer but still possessing the same violent intentions as The Caped Crusader. "I expected Huntress and even Nightwing but the canary and the fool are an unexpected surprise. Just as well considering that I had been planning on dealing with them in time."
Nightwing narrowed his eyes as the Sicilian-born former crime boss clapped his beefy hands together. The former Robin tightened the grip on the short stave in his right hand until he could feel the grooves within the metal dig into his sturdy gloves. "Been a long time, hefty guy. About a year or two since the last time we danced? Nice to see you went from being Darkseid's lapdog to Luthor's puppet."
Bruno Mannheim didn't seem to feel any need to be groused by the potentially unpleasant insinuation. "You were fighting alongside The Black Dog during our initial approach into Gotham, Nightwing. Is your dilemma of hopping from one provider to the next truly any different than mine? Besides, if your goal was to shame me into not recognizing the virtues of forces greater than our own then you're barking up the wrong tree. I have my grand ambitions for a destiny greater than what your God designed for me but I'm not foolish enough to believe that we can only be our own master for everything. I once believed that an allegiance to Darkseid, the chance to serve as an emissary of Apokolips, was what would allow me to achieve my goals but now I see that those misspent years only blinded me from what humanity was capable of achieving."
"Big deal. So now you just fly the banner of Intergang for Luthor," The Huntress spat back, her already low tolerance for self-important mob bosses only fueling her ire. "Now tell us what you're doing in Bludhaven or watch your own little marionette become a pincushion."
Mannheim let out a bark of a laugh as he took a moment to glance back at his powerful company. "I'd be grateful for the favor if you did away with Mister Steiff for me. After all, a corpse and a confessor can both find equal time on the ten o'clock news." The blunt declaration prompted the aforementioned councilman to let out a hitched and panicked breath which the former gangster calmly ignored. "You know, I just realized what a relief it was to change my allegiances. . . if only for the increased quality of my company."
The indirect command brought forth a wave of sound as Circe's Amazons charged forward to wage war. In five seconds The Black Canary had been knocked unconscious when she foolishly attempted to protect Steiff from an attempt on his life. The councilman would meet his untimely end three seconds later as the second attempt resulted in a hastily broken neck and a strangled scream cut short by the blood that had spurted from his cracked trachea. And, as the battle waged on for a minute more as The Riddler was left to panic in one corner of the room while leaving the other three vigilantes to fight a battle where they were hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, Mannheim finally felt a whisper of regret that brought a crimson undertone to his usually muddy hazel eyes.
He had been hoping for a challenge that would test his mettle.
London – Aensland Manor – 3:21 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time
Morrigan's conference chamber was as opulent as the rest of the mansion. Its entranceway was preceded by two chimera statues both standing nearly two meters high and forged entirely of solid gold. The conference table that dominated the center of the room had been hewn from the rarest mahogany lumber to be found in the Brazilian rainforests and was covered with a crimson shroud sown from the finest silk weavers along the Huang He. The ceiling sported a quartet of chandeliers cut and fashioned by a family of Viennese crafters who had passed down their expertise throughout ten generations. Twinkling and sparkling from the illumination cast by their neighbors, the gorgeous arrangements were all arranged as points of a rectangular perimeter within the room itself to allow the low, unwavering lights to keep the space feeling soft and subtle but still providing enough to overcome the complete lack of windows or potential source points for sunlight.
"Old habits die hard, I'm afraid," Morrigan explained while sauntering her way towards the head of the table. "Not to mention I always get a hint of a chuckle whenever somebody just files me away as another stereotypical vampire that sleeps in their coffin while petrified of the sun."
"But. . . but I didn't think that you were," Eddie Bloomberg stammered back, the half-demon quickly drawing the perturbed looks of his comrades. "I just. . . I noticed the whole 'no windows' thing and I just. . . Wait. Did I even say any of this before she said it?"
Jason Blood provided a frown and a sigh to serve as a rival to Morrigan's smirk and snigger. "Stop playing with the boy, Morrigan. We are here on business."
"Oh, but someone must make up for all your seriousness!" the succubus explained with a dramatic huff while flouncing herself onto a cushy chair. "Honestly, over a thousand years to live it up and ye leave it up to the vengeance demon to have all the fun in your place."
"Well, we all have our own ways of keeping our eye on the ball," The Black Dog noted while taking his own seat. "Staying true to oneself and maintaining one's virtue and so on and so forth."
"Indeed," Morrigan clapped her hands quickly and leaned forward in her chair until a more than fair amount of her impressive chest was available to peruse. "Mister Harper, as an esteemed and honored member of Earth's supernatural community I would like to thank you for yuir part as it comes to the liberation of Karbarra from The Sinestro Corps and the retrieval of The Bane of Velius from Neron's clutches. I have arranged some decidedly unwholesome and fitting company, free of charge, should you wish to indulge in what my manor has to offer."
Jason Blood let out an aggrieved sigh. Eddie let out a high-pitched meep. Lloyd raised his eyebrows and turned to see how his most frequent patrol partner would choose to respond.
"You're telling me that you managed to get what my mind is ordering up here?"
Morrigan shot back an alluring smile. "Ready, willing and waiting in the fifth room to the left."
It only took a second for Roy to rise back from his chair. "Sweet! All right, let me know how all this goes, boss!" the sharpshooter shouted while striding briskly towards his destination. The Black Dog watched his friend for a moment and briefly wondered if he should have shouted back a word of warning but found himself quite confident that Arsenal would exercise just enough caution.
Besides, he had never been too privy to throwing cautionary statements to a gentleman's back. Still, in the time it took for Lloyd to work out his decision he had been blinded to his surroundings long enough to miss that Morrigan had already turned her alluring attentions to another target.
"You've left behind a lady that's come to mean a great deal to ya. Isn't that right, Eddie?" asked the succubus, her Celtic drawl growing more pronounced as she drew the half-demon's heart in ever so close. "Still, a wild woman can be awfully stressful on a troubled mind. Perhaps a tumble with one of my empaths would make ye a little more relaxed?"
Lloyd wasn't certain if it was possible that the coagulation of a human and a Scarlet Regid could turn pallid but Kid Devil certainly seemed to be giving his best unconscious efforts to try. The smirking Brit continued to look on as the Teen Titan tried to lean back in his chair to demonstrate his unperturbed decorum. The poker face of The Misfits' second-in-command was ultimately broken as Eddie's nervousness ultimately led him to push too hard and send his seat tumbling down with him along with it.
"I'll. . . I'll be at the party," The Black Dog heard Eddie say rapidly while he half sprinted from the room, the panicked sight prompting Morrigan to savor her accomplishments by stretching her slender arms above her head before coming to rest her hands back on her shapely hips.
"Oh my. The first shot has not yet been fired and still I've done away with half your company. Typical British military triumph, wouldn't ya say?"
"You'll do well to heed my caution that no harm should come to either of those gentlemen," Jason Blood coolly warned, the centuries old warlock remaining pointedly undeterred by Lady Aensland's impressive manipulations. "Now you claim to have owed Mister Harper a favor in his efforts to usurp Neron's recent activities and, with that in mind, the both of us will reclaim our own rewards by learning what you know of the demon that inhabited Vincent Culp."
Morrigan calmly turned away from Jason's glare and briefly shifted her gaze to an equally determined Lloyd. If one were paying intimate attention to the glimmer in her emerald eyes one may have noticed a hint of sympathy briefly flirting about her otherwise relaxed air. "'M startin' to think the starch in your suit is cutting off the flow of blood to yuir noggin, Blood. All these ten-pound words when just a simple 'please' might suffice."
"His method might be a titch pedantic but the intentions ring true," Lloyd countered, the youngest member of the trio by ten centuries suddenly adopting the role as the voice of reason. "Lex Luthor and Sabbac went to great lengths to steal the Kikuichi-monji. Now Luthor is hardly at a lack when it comes to supernatural weaponry so, despite what Athena may have said, the only possible reason for these efforts is that they want to invoke some kind of connection between the blade and Vincent's demon. Now, given that the world is on the line, we thought you might be interested in telling us just what might be in store."
The green-haired immortal briefly flirted with a touch of venom in the charming snarl of her lips. "I owe ya nothin', Condemner's Scion. Many a time I've offered to let you unburden yourself at the pleasure of my attentions and you brush me off and say yuir above such things. Now you come to me and expect me to share what's mine?"
"Well, then let's not forget that I still have something you would like for me to put on the table. . ." Lloyd replied, his eyebrows curved slightly and his lips tilted in a languid smile. ". . . or your bedchamber or the floor here or even the roof of your manor if you're feeling a mite frisky." The gamble coaxed a gasp of disbelief that Morrigan quickly shifted into a purr of laughter and a smile that showed a whisper of her perfect white teeth.
"What a cruel little liar you are, Mister Thomas," the succubus observed without a hint of hurt or malice, her torso briefly rising as she moved to cross her legs underneath the table. "Very well, I'll play yuir game. I've heard the tale of you travelin' to the isle of the Amazons so we can skip the part about what you may have had to say with the virgin goddess and go straight to the good stuff. The story begins with a being that much of humanity would be comfortable with calling an angel. For eons this creature is taught to observe and learn from not just the demons that roamed and ruled the earth but also the divine creatures on high that were chosen to keep all sides in check. Over time his philosophical sculptors made certain that their creation took heed of the truth that there were flaws in all God's creatures be they of forked tails or feathery wings. Then, when the time came an' his training was over, Gignuginnap was ordained with the task to assign punishment to The Angelus Errare, the angels who lost their way."
Lloyd briefly ran the tip of his tongue against his teeth, a common reaction of his when he received some information he needed some time to mull over. "Well, at least I have a name now. But see? This is the third time that I've heard that Lugae allowed Vincent to be possessed by an angelic entity! Lugae was an expert in demonic physiology? If he wanted his study to bear fruit then he would have stuck with something he knew about! Not the polar bloody opposite!"
"And why would those that were responsible for overseeing this creature's duties allow it to remain in a position to be captured and corrupted by humans?"
Morrigan first rolled her eyes at Lloyd before shooting an annoyed glare at Jason. "Good heavens, the both of you! Have ye blinded yourself so fervently with your noble deeds that you can only see in black and white? You, Lloyd, who has served as the host of Za'hafal-nesh and been favored by no less than The Demon King himself! Can you not accept the simple truth that demons can be virtuous? And if these sinful creatures can demonstrate morality then would it not be true that the divine could be depraved?"
Lost for words, Lloyd briefly turned to seek silent counsel from his elder half-demon only to discover that Etrigan's host was merely firing a pensive look directed towards an uninhabited corner of the room. Left unmoored, The Black Dog let out a sigh as he leaned back in his chair and moved to pull more of his chips into the pile.
"So I'll play detective here. Gignuginnap spends some amount of time delivering justice at the behest of his superiors. Could have been a year, could have been a thousand but it hardly makes a difference. What matters is that he realizes that who he serves may be no better than the souls he's sent to bring in. Then, maybe borrowing from The Demon King's example, the overseers of the world decide to nip their project in the bud and cast their angel down from the heavens to remain imprisoned on the world that he was supposed to protect. Then, whatever odd number of millennia later, Lugae manages to unearth the thing and somehow give the power to Vincent."
The twinkle that once briefly teased about in Morrigan's eyes returned with a broader exhibition as the succubus offered the young half-demon a prim round of applause. "Bet ya didn't even need to consult Za'hafal-nesh for that, did you? Since you've managed to start piecing together the story of Gignuginnap then I'll be happy to go into greater detail if you manage to survive the ambush."
"I beg your pardon?" Jason asked suddenly even while Lloyd felt an icy spike flow through his blood. Noting The Black Dog's reaction to his premonition more than the request for clarification, Morrigan presented her guests with the slow smile that had doomed the fate of countless thousands over her grand existence.
"Oh, yes. Ya see, I've been consorting with your mutual foe Ishmael Gregor for the past several months. Did I fail to mention that?" Dashes of crimson and black now ran through her once perfect eyes as more and more hints of Morrigan's true form began to slip from the surface, a clear sign that she enjoyed the stolen emotions she had gathered from Jason and Lloyd's alarm. "Imagine that. You claim that you wouldn't be but yet it turns out that you're the morning's entertainment after all."
Day 2 of Investigations – San Francisco – 11:58 A.M. Pacific Standard Time
Kara was momentarily startled how the years since her arrival on Earth had changed the way that scenes like this appeared to her. The lost refugee from Krypton who giddily allowed herself to be guided around downtown Metropolis by her cousin and had been fascinated by everything from 220 story buildings to hot dog stands would have just taken the outdoor garden and greeting center outside of the headquarters of Megadyne Industries as just another picturesque exemplar of 21st century Terran corporate architecture. But now, after dozens of hours in training within everything from The Batcave to the manor above the catacombs to the Otisburg business district in downtown Gotham or nearly a half dozen other metropolitan havens, the former Supergirl had come to learn how to find the little details that could spell success or failure on a potential battlefield.
It started with the simple persuasive aesthetics; the fact that the well-manicured topiaries and artificially babbling brooks were designed to present the building behind them as a haven from the metal and mortar of a potentially stifling commercial landscape. After all, how bad could a former subsidiary of the nasty Lexcorp be if they were allowing children to play about their front door? Then came the simple realization that the square was placed on the eastward entrance that faced Mission Dolores Parkrather than the towering apartments to the west or the neighboring office buildings to the north and south. The deliberate placement was punctuated by two enormous rotating silver globes bordering the entrance, the structures each nearly 15 feet high and 8 feet wide. It all served to gobble up every bit of attention, provide every hope of what the future could have in store while sparing none of those potential blessings in return.
"There's not a single good sight line thanks to the statues blocking the podium. The only way a sniper would get to anybody giving a speech up there would be by putting themselves right out into the open."
That too, Kara mused to herself. Then, reminding herself that she hadn't been the only starry-eyed soul to be tutored about these things by The Batman, she turned to face the black-haired gentleman to her right. "Are you always thinking about these kinds of things, Timothy?"
Tim Drake, clad as he was in a ragged pair of blue jeans and an aged Jerry Rice football jersey, was making no effort to inform the gathering crowd that they had been joined by perhaps the greatest detective of his generation. "Luthor-model buildings have always fallen under the same setting. They have enough height to just barely reach over the surrounding buildings and there's always a portion of the near exterior that would look open but is far and away the most guarded spot in the complex. By doing that it's like he's extending his hands outward just so he can clap them shut when he wants to."
Noting the thoughtful silence of his company, the former Gotham-based Robin and the current field commander of The Teen Titans turned to examine Kara and gave her a crooked smile. "And, yeah, I do always think like this. You've spent four years working with him and you're telling me you don't?"
The shrewd but toothy grin Kara offered back provided at least a hundred words. With whatever ice that could have been between them now broken and gone, it was fairly likely that the both of them would have shared some insightful chatter before the event began but they found their prospective plans interrupted by a beagle that was purposefully trotting its way towards them. The canine soon came close enough so that his tiny tail could whap against Kara's right shin and, standing as they were underneath the shadows of a healthy elm tree, it would have taken a bit more than a look to realize that the dog was covered in olive green fur.
"Well, I see you're maintaining your usual low profile," Tim said chidingly to his affectionate comrade. "Garfield, what have I been telling you about making certain that you don't make a scene?"
The beagle, which was obviously an achingly thin cover for Garfield Logan, the team's resident animorph and shape shifter, responded by acquiescing to Kara as she nudged him away with her sneaker clad right foot. Taking a moment to sit on the grass as a properly trained dog would tend to do, Beast Boy followed that by dashing off into a pile of nearby leaves and diving inside. Scattering the brown and orange foliage aside with his pounce, the former Doom Patrol junior member gaily made a show of himself as he rolled about in his wreckage with his tongue lolling out from the right side of his snout. This went on long enough for Kara to feel the stifled laughter rumbling up from her lungs and for Tim to complete his sigh of annoyance before Garfield looked to be suddenly struck by a shock collar. Rolling back to his feet, Beast Boy remained perfectly still for a handful of seconds before shamefully walking to the base of the tree and lying down.
"All hail Raven's telepathic disciplinary system," Tim declared with his tongue poking against the right side of his cheek. Centering his countenance, the 20-year-old master detective reacted to the sound of footsteps muffled by the grass and turned to meet their source. "I take it everything went well with the conference organizers?"
Cassandra Sandsmark, the only member of The Teen Titans currently dressed in her usual superhero garb, responded with a nod while coming to a stop. "Apparently their spokesman is going to bring me right onto the stage after making the introductions so I better get back." The adopted Amazon looked a bit uncomfortable as she tucked a stray strand of blonde hair back behind her right ear. "I think I'd be just about as comfortable with cutting the ribbon for a book-burning factory," she glumly admitted as the sun caught the peerless silver of her star-spangled bangle wrapped around her right wrist.
"You know it's just a part of the game, Cass," Tim said softly and with a hint of sympathy for his longtime friend. Applause rang out from the throng in front of them and that quickly coerced the investigator to examine the figures approaching the dais. "Hmmmmm, looks like they're sending 'Squealer' up to the plate."
"Squealer?" asked Kara. Then, noticing Tim's critical glare she added, "Well, forgive me for not being informed about the unflattering nicknames of corporate bigwigs."
"That's Clancy Spacey," Tim explained with a nod to the somewhat portly but smartly dressed middle-aged white male making his way to the speaking stand. "He's one of the few guys on the Lexcorp board of directors that wasn't sent to prison after the federal investigation and Talia's Al-Ghul's liquidation of much of their assets. He was also the public face behind drumming up public support for Lex's campaign to buy up properties in Gotham during the No Man's Land initiative. He'd make the nice speeches to whatever crowds they could gather. . ."
"And keep them from noticing that his boss was attempting to engage in illegal property seizure." Kara recognized while turning her own attentions to the stage. She crinkled her brow while examining the balding gentleman in the $1,000 Oxford suit as he briefly dabbed away some sweat that had gathered on his brow. There were chinks of nervousness in his composure from some quick clearings of the throat to some hasty shuffling of note cards but a simple listen to Spacey's stable heart beat informed her that it was all a show.
"Ladies and gentleman, I am pleased to speak with you here today on the dawn of greater safety and security," Clancy began, his candor crisp and clean even as he continued through the motions of a nervous man that looked surprised that he had been asked to stand before the crowd of nearly 100. "Megadyne Industries, drawing upon the limitless potential of determination and ingenuity, are proud to announce a revolutionary change to a plague that has not only struck our city but throughout the world; through even the glorious civilizations in the stars that we have come to be greeted by as we launch ourselves deeper into the 21st century!"
The loquacious front man, now completely free of any stutters or quivers, extended his arms wide enough to present his palms to his audience. The smoothly drawn silence allowed the initial doubt to slither away from those that may have been reluctant and just offer a sliver of space for the possibility. Kara could almost see the man hopping back and forth from foot to foot preaching that it was Superman that had been responsible for the destruction of the windmill. All that was missing were the angry dogs to tear out the throats of those that may eventually disagree.
"Today we reveal the first step in the control of superhuman-related violence, destruction and crime. At last we will begin a critical strike towards eliminating the chaos brought forth from monstrosities such as Trigon and The Sinestro Corps and make our claim that humanity will be responsible for its own protection. However, before we begin, we would first like to proudly introduce a sterling example of metahuman service. Her courage and determination provided all of us with inspiration to begin to shoulder the burden that she, among many others, were unfairly asked to burden. San Francisco's own Wonder Girl, ladies and gentleman!"
The dozens of citizens offered up some enthusiastic applause to what could have been the city's most favored superhero as Cassandra gracefully made her way onto the stage. Some of the members of the press corps even offered some polite praise but most of them, just like Kara and Timothy, were more interested in seeing the next step of the game. As for Clancy Stacey, he easily wrapped Wonder Girl up in a one-armed hug as he moved to share the dais with the slightly flustered heroine.
"Now let me say once again that what we reveal today is not meant to criticize the noble efforts of people like Wonder Girl and her comrades. For nearly a decade we have been proud to provide a home for The Teen Titans and now we will truly begin to repay them for their generosity."
The speaker gestured to the sky with his free hand and soon others were coerced into looking up with him at the city's bright horizon. Those who had no interest in such grandiose shepherding then found themselves convinced to join them as a rush of wind whistled through the square causing gasps of shock to filter through the crowd. The flurry died down almost as soon as it began as the source of it came to a stop nearly at Cassandra's feet. Kara clenched her teeth as she watched Cassandra's face twist and turn with fear, shock and damning hope only to turn and see Timothy in much the same distress.
And who could blame them? It wasn't every day that a fallen friend or a lost love just soared down from the sky.
Issue #148 Preview
Well, it would appear that Lex Luthor and his amazing friends may want to have another scrimmage before the game begins in full. Of course, with Batman and his comrades already on the verge of being slaughtered and Lloyd's team separated and trapped in an ambush it looks like that something more may be needed than just grace and charm. Perhaps the sudden return of Connor Kent help turn the tide in the favor of our heroes? Find out this and more in the next installment of The Misfits: Snakes in the Affluence. Until then, remember to say what you think and write what you feel!