Old Hands on Deck
Aensland Manor – 3:47 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time
Lloyd wasted no time or artistry as he delivered a pump kick that sent a Fyarl demon soaring into and through the foundation of a brick-walled fireplace that bordered Morrigan's chamber and the hallway outside. The trembling impact brought a stir of gasps and cheers from those still populating the balconies above but The Black Dog made certain not to linger long upon the crowd that the illusory succubus had coerced him into entertaining. The manor had been structured so that all the rooms were situated along the outside perimeter while the expansive core of the three-story structure remained free of ceilings and other impediments so that anyone hanging about the interior lanais could see nearly everything taking place on the floors below. It was the sign of a neo-Victorian architectural style that sought to demonstrate openness and an opportunity to observe the lavish goings on while providing solitude for those who didn't wish to put themselves on full display. Needless to say, it was quite a fit for a profoundly old demon who took no shame in flaunting her power, riches, and connections and how she came to acquire them.
Not that the young half-demon had a great deal of time to wax poetically on psychology as a trio of lion-like warriors awaited him as he emerged from the gaping hole in the wall created by his last unsuccessful opponent. Each of them were at least a foot taller than Lloyd's two meter high frame, sported plate mail armor with the emblem of a warrior race long rendered extinct and they all held swords and hatchets in their menacing mitts. It was clear that the group had at least some experience with working as a team given their successful attempts to avoid getting in the way of another's attacks but Lloyd had far greater power and experience to draw form.
Leaving his gleaming silver saber resting within the scabbard strapped to his back, The Black Dog slid around a trio of downward swipes before sending one of his opponents skittering across the profligate battleground with a simple pulse blast from his right hand. The forceful impact also sent the warrior that was to the right of the victim into a stumble leaving Lloyd to casually intercept the charge of the third with a Shotokan-style sweep kick before rising to his full height in an instant and delivering an axe kick with the same foot. The strike was solid enough to leave a heel-sized hole in the archaic symbol and the portion of the chest behind it as the regal looking monster let out a howl of agony. The quick loss of his comrades was enough to bring the last remaining foe into a rage that Lloyd easily interrupted with a short but forceful uppercut imbued with enough of The Black Dog's assembled telekinesis to send the brawny armored warrior soaring through the roof above like a rocket.
Lloyd tried not to take too much from the applause that followed. He may have appreciated, well, the appreciation but there was the matter of professional integrity.
Identifying his next objective in an instant, the half-demon turned northeast toward an expansive day room to find Ishmael Gregor awaiting him. Looking just as menacing as he had been just several weeks ago when he had successful stolen the Kikuichi-monji, the greater demon more commonly known as Sabbac bore the confidence of his previous victory with a knowing smirk.
"Found a way to get back into those high-ruble suits you're so fond of, I see," Lloyd offered in a mocking greeting as he noted the sleek, black double-breasted suit that had been tailored to fit around Gregor's muscular and towering frame. "Gregor, I've come here on behalf of the demihuman community to tell you that you're becoming a bit of an embarrassment with all these continued failures. Some are even beginning to call you the Wile E. Coyote of hell beasts."
Gregor's smooth exhale stretched out the white Oxford tweed shirt that clashed against his reddish-pink skin. "Then perhaps they haven't been paying attention to more recent events," he then countered with his slightly coarse but quite coherent West Russian burr. "I just recently won control over a powerful supernatural blade from no less than the greatest Amazonian warrior of her time while making you look like an absolute fool." Pulling free a blade from a snakeskin scabbard that looked quite similar to the one at Lloyd's back, Sabbac briefly twirled about the 50-pound Mahkesh broad sword in his right hand as if it were a toy. "However, I can't help but find that the exploit that I'm most proud of is when I incinerated that little Green Lantern like a sow on the spit right in front of her mentor. I would guess that you would have liked to have seen that first-hand, da?"
The Black Dog looked straight back at the victorious gleam in Sabbac's tawny eyes before firing back with a snarl. "Stephanie's alive and well. So is Wonder Woman. I would credit you for returning to the living but is it too early to congratulate you seeing as how you're seemingly at the beck and call of your sugar mamma?"
There was a splinter of righteous anger that managed to push through Sabbac's otherwise solid stare and Lloyd regarded it with a sneer of his own. "Don't fall into jealousy simply because I had the good sense to accept an offer that you foolishly declined," the former mob boss replied, his beefy hands glimmering with the sparks of hellfire burgeoning from his palms.
"Morrigan doesn't give offers, mate. What you are to her is a toy; the latest one out of a cast of thousands."
"Now, now. That's enough chattin' from the both of you," Morrigan cut in, her shout of an order heard clearly from her vantage point at the center of the largest balcony along the second floor. "Distinguished guests, please remember that wagers will still be accepted so long as no drop of blood has been spilled!"
Lady Aensland's kindly reminder was almost instantly rendered moot as Sabbac rushed forward in a flash and landed a sturdy haymaker across Lloyd's jaw. The impact of bone on flesh produced a kinetic convulsion that knocked over a nearby ottoman and Lloyd let out a curse after expecting to deal with the demon's blade and thus misjudging the first step of the dance. Swallowing the dollop of blood along his cracked lower lip, The Black Dog let out a curse while drawing the Mugalshir from its casing. The swordplay to follow was as fast and focused as one would expect from two warriors with millennia worth of knowledge to draw from. That expertise forced both parties to play along with the strengths and limitations of their respective weaponry as Lloyd sought to keep close with a series of horizontal blocks and lashes while the larger demon attempted to force back his more maneuverable adversary with the frightening power of his slashes. The winner of the exchange ultimately boiled to a case in superior weaponry as the dozens of blocked strikes ultimately wore down Sabbac's Mahkesh-made blade until the greater demon was forced to abandon his nearly broken blade with a roar and a gout of hellfire from his maw.
Lloyd's third mistake in as many minutes came as he teleported to Sabbac's back in response. Letting loose a flare-like blast that sent a chorus of shouts and screams from those in the balconies above, The Black Dog swerved to his right in order to begin the same vicious series of strikes that had allowed him to tear Sabbac limb from limb in their first battle over three years ago. But, as Sabbac himself claimed, Lloyd's target had grown far savvier in the months after his dark revival. The roundhouse kick that served as Sabbac's counter connected soundly with Lloyd's wrist and the Brit could feel the bones in his wrists straining from the force even as his saber was thrown from his grip.
The Black Dog immediately felt the crackle of unholy energy spinning around him as Sabbac lunged for his throat. He managed to catch the half-demon's trunk-like wrists when Gregor's massive hands were only inches away from their target but the Brit found himself encumbered to keep his opponent from creeping forward. Caught in a test of strength that no one outside of Hulk Hogan would be foolish enough to engage in, the young commander managed to turn away before he caught a mouthful of hellfire and instead suffered from a firm kick to the gut that sent him stumbling back. Instinctually bending low to prepare for the attack to come, Lloyd found himself caught unawares once again as he noticed Gregor dashing to retrieve the Mugalshir. A somewhat desperate telekinetic retrieve quickly hustled to the front of his forebrain but the race was interrupted as a golden force bullet crashed into Sabbac's own belly and sent the hulking warrior soaring through the wall and back into the chamber where Lloyd had last emerged.
"Well, isn't that a bout of unsportsmanlike conduct," Morrigan announced from her ascended sanctuary. "Ya know we were conductin' some friendly wagers there."
Jason Blood fired an enormous pulse of energy that effortlessly scattered against the force barrier above. The members of the audience that were less inclined as it came to the supernatural screamed, ran for cover and asked for refunds but the warlock made certain to keep his attentions on the smirking succubus.
"Come now, Lady Aensland. You're the one who maintained that I did not know how to have a good time."
Day 1 of Investigations – Bludhaven County Clerk Office – 10:32 P.M. Eastern Standard Time
Over twenty years of combat experience had given Nightwing the ability to evaluate violent situations and categorize them into a variety of classes designated by the likelihood that he would emerge safe without any significant worry. The lowest rung on the danger ladder, the kinds of situations he often found while patrolling Bludhaven alone or working the Gotham route with one of his more powerful adopted siblings, usually gave him the opportunity to embrace his inner showman and try out new tactics and maneuvers to see how they would fly in a grander and more stressful setting. The middle rung, usually found on missions with The Misfits or The Justice League, are the types that allowed him to gain the vast majority of his major scars and other impressive looking injuries as he was forced to combine his blood and sweat with the knowledge taught to him by Batman and other people that mentored him along the way.
As for this situation? Outnumbered and surrounded by fighters that could easily rip his heart out and feed it to him? This fell squarely upon the top rung of the ladder where his primary goals were to try and figure out how fucked he truly is while waiting and hoping for the timely rescues of others who were more physically inclined to handle these kinds of mighty affairs. The cavalcade of Themysciran warriors was bad enough but the addition of whatever Mannheim could offer and the bonus of having to defend the unconscious Black Canary quickly ratcheted the whole thing up to a matter where he wasn't even feeling jazzed enough to fire out a quip.
"Black Canary's stirring! Stave them away until we can determine what we have to work with!"
Nightwing heard the whizz of a crossbow bolt being fired from Huntress's wrist holster as he allowed his former love interest to shout out the obvious observation in his stead.
"You know, I hate to point this out but we're having enough trouble defending ourselves!"
Encumbered as he with employing his escrima sticks to lash back at any target that might slow down the determined offense of his sturdy foes, Bludhaven's resident vigilante could only hear Huntress's candid declaration while sparing barely an ear to the exclamation of his father's patrol partner.
"And, no, I'm not saying that I'm incapable of doing this! I'm just pointing out the degree of difEEE. . ."
Sparing a corner of his left eye in response to the cut off explanation, Nightwing looked on as Helena stumbled backwards while clutching her gut. The lack of red fluid trickling onto her violet gauntlets told Batman's former ward that Huntress had just been caught with a fist or a foot and not the dangerously sharp weaponry of the Amazons. The acrobat didn't even have time to breathe a sigh of relief as Batman's quick use of a flurry of electric Batarangs kept Circe's warrior women away as The Huntress rolled back to her feet and let loose another pair of crossbow bolts from her wrist holsters. The shrill grunt from his left told Nightwing that at least one of Helena's shots found her target, a blessing given their disadvantage, but the domino-masked crime fighter knew that was a drop of rain the desert. Their opponents weren't getting any slower, they were still far stronger, and he and his comrades were racking up wounds in a hurry.
And the building is shaking, Nightwing suddenly noted, his ears having been so focused on helping him stay aware and alive that he didn't really detect the rumblings until it sounded as if the building was about to fall around their ears. No. That's not shaking. That's crashing. Why would there be crashing?
Nightwing bent in his arms at his elbows in preparation of conducting a Mantis-style defensive designed to maximize the defensive properties of the short metal staves that had long proved to be his preferred weapon of choice. He knew he couldn't match the speed and strength of his predators but he could still read their movements and respond in kind. Keeping the escrima sticks running parallel to his body, he ensnared the short sword of one of his opponents before it could plunge into his heart. A tilt to the right and a quick kick to the wrist forced the Amazon to drop her weapon and stumble into the path of her partner and leaving him with a fraction of breathing room. Pleased with his minor success but realizing that there was a long way to go, Nightwing was quickly rifling through his options until the wall to his left was broken through as if it had been hit by a missile.
The missile, as fortune would have it, was doubtlessly the same source of the voluminous collisions that rang through Nightwing's ears just a handful of seconds before. The figure even had some missile like qualities from his rotund center of mass to his comparatively tiny, obscenely round and otherwise misshapen cranium (although Dick was certain that no missile in history had ever been topped at the tip by a messy, spiky thatch of blonde hair). He also drew the kind of attention from his targets that warranted a potentially destructive creation as Mannheim bellowed at his troops to charge the new arrival en masse. The first to arrive at their destination, the same Amazon that had been shot through the eye by The Huntress, was rewarded for her expediency with a quick and easy death as the warrior slammed the blade of his hatchet down on her skull with such strength that he split the mystic metal of her helmet like butter before digging almost cleanly through the skull. Needing to rid his weapon of choice from the sudden addition, the destructive warrior flung the trapped corpse against two of her former comrades before forcing aside the fourth fighter with a shove of his hatchet's long pommel. The fifth was floored with a ferocious head butt while Lucky Amazon No. 6 had the unpleasant fortune of having her two-handed slash cut short as she was cut cleanly in two through her hip.
Once again it was The Batman that managed to find words despite the shock of the scenery.
"Thornton! Focus your attention. . ."
Nigel Thornton, having already had to go through the trouble of escorting his former student to Aensland Manor, looked to be in no mood to sit around and wait for marching orders.
"No need, boss. Kin smell the mojo off the pastrami smellin' bastard from a farthing away."
Displaying more of his deceptive agility, the plump axe-wielder bounded over the table with his stubby legs and his hatchet readied to be buried into Mannheim's neck. The Brit was met with a wave of crimson energy that poured from Mannheim's gullet and the caustic supernatural force was quick to burn through the clumps of fat and sinew that surrounded his radii and ulnas. Nigel threw up his forearms to keep the blast from melting into his vitals and continued to push through the force being thrown at him with alarming gusto. Perhaps Mannheim's attack may have been enough to burn through all of the British barbarian if the fiery spatter had more time to take effect but the Intergang leader soon had to keep from losing his head as he turned away to avoid the double-handed slash that was powered by the axe man's regenerating arm muscles. The best option Mannheim had was to lean forward and endure Nigel's beefy fists glancing stiffly against the side of his head as the blade of his hatchet harmlessly sliced through the open air between his head and the wall behind him. The accidental contact still rang through the tiny work quarters like a sledgehammer against the cement and soon the two heavyweights were bulling their way into close combat that ultimately sent the both of them through the western wall with another mighty CRASH!.
Yet again the spotlight is so unfairly taken away from me, Nightwing thought with a sardonic glint to his thoughts as he continued to wage war with one of the three remaining Amazons that were still up for a fight. The reduced numbers went a long way to eliminating the Themyscirans' advantage in terms of physical prowess and Dick put his superior skill to work as he swerved around the charge of his opponent and slammed the staff in his right hand against the back of the woman's neck. Her sturdy helm doubtlessly cut down on the potential damage but the jolt to the cerebral cortex was enough to stun his quarry so that Nightwing could follow up with an extended chain of strikes to the few vulnerable spots not covered by mystic armor. Three quick drumming strikes against the back of her right knee to keep her from scrambling for better ground. Alternating clouts from the spare spots in her plate armor along her abdomen, hip, and torso to limit her breathing and separate her defenses. It all ended in a fearsome smack of both staves against the bridge of the Amazon's nose that sent her backpedaling and in position for a spinning roundhouse kick that sent his stronger but unconscious opponent spinning like a top into a stocked bookcase that bordered the door.
His primary duty done, Nightwing naturally turned his attentions to what he thought to be the weakest spot of their defenses (although he would never dare to tell that to Helena personally). It turned out that he would have been doubly damned if he had voiced that opinion for The Huntress had somehow managed to acquire the long spear of her opponent. A battle cry and a charge emboldened the part-time English teacher as she plunged the razor sharp edge of the pike through the jaw of her downed opponent at an angle that allowed her to punch through the uppermost ridge of the Amazon's throat for a messy but effective victory. Convinced that his father's patrol partner had her matters well in hand, Nightwing looked behind him to find his adopted guardian was sporting a nasty gash across his chest while being forced against the wall by his opponent who was obviously on the verge of finishing the job.
Huntress and Nightwing's joint cries of "BATMAN!" were easily drowned out by the recognizable KREEEEEEEEE of Black Canary's sonic cry. Forced to clamp his hands down firmly against his ears, Nightwing could only look on as the jarring noise brought the lone remaining Amazon into a pained paroxysm as the high-pitched vibrations crashed against her eardrums. Apparently more used to the unique excruciation that those around him, Batman managed to summon the fortitude to bring the ring and index fingers of his right hand to a point and stabbed them against an exposed portion of the Amazon's neck. The nerve strike produced an almost instantaneous stalling of the flow of blood to the warrior woman's carotid arteries causing her to fall like a stone, her unconscious body still twitching from the neural backlash of Black Canary's sonic assault.
"Jesus Christ! What the hell happened, Bats?" Nightwing asked, the dulling ringing in his ears coercing him into asking his question a little louder than he should have.
"Never mind that. We have to check and help the fat guy with Mannheim!" Black Canary shouted back. The martial artist had an ugly, purplish-red blotch on the right side of her forehead but she seemed more than all right with playing through the pain. Nightwing wagered that the quick snap back to consciousness was a strong clue that his comrade in the Justice League was suffering from a concussion and the fact that she was still pushing on earned her yet another ounce of respect from Batman's former ward.
Of course, Dick also realized that Dinah was largely guessing as to how much "trouble" Nigel Thornton could get out of on his own. Dashing along the hallway with his beaten-up comrades, Nightwing was completely unsurprised to see the fat barkeep standing tall (or at least as tall as a five-foot, 350-pound man could stand) amidst the last bits of wreckage along the path. The bodyguard of the late Mao Tenryu sported a wide variety of burns along his arms and bare torso and his brown moleskin vest was sporting ashen marks throughout its hideous perimeter but the warrior with the ridiculously spiky blonde hair was treating the seemingly grave injuries like forgotten bug bites.
"Ruddy hell, that bloke sure scarpers off fast for such a wide load," observed Nigel while he used his stubby fingers to pick against a particularly revolting looking blister along the right side of his neck. Some of the flecks of black, pink, and red skin would come to fall onto his vest and the owner of The Rusty Sambo responded to the affront with a grumble.
"Bugger, it's always such a pain to regrow the skin along the jugular vein."
Day 2 of Investigations – San Francisco – Headquarters of Megadyne Industries – 12:07 P.M. Pacific Standard Time
Nearly three-and-a-half had passed since the remembrance of Connor Kent had all but encompassed downtown San Francisco. In those hours tens of thousands, most of whom had never met the teenaged clone of Earth's most famous hero, paid tribute to the noble sacrifice of one of their adopted heroes. Photographs of makeshift memorials and grieving citizens dominated the pages of Time, Newsweek and thousands of other publications big and small and the Internet was flooding with video footage and testimonials and public thanks.
With all that in mind perhaps it made sense that the expanse of time would add a potent ingredient for the present reaction as more and more of the public and press corps members registered that Superboy had apparently made his return. The supernatural phenomenon of a creature zooming in to meet them at nearly 200 miles an hour was unusual enough to startle and shock the surrounding audience but the exultation and applause was quick to follow. Disbelief and skepticism were found to be surprisingly hard to come by. After all, this was hardly the first instance of a Teen Titan, or any other critically acclaimed hero, to return from the grave. Why should this instance be any less of a surprise than Superman, The Green Lantern, or Green Arrow?
That answer, of course, could be found in the reactions of those that legitimately loved the man behind the public personas and newspaper headlines. Kara heard the sharp hitch in Tim's breathing and the jagged upward acceleration of the young detective's heartbeat. She didn't want the poor man to notice how quickly he had given his façade away and made certain to keep focus on one useless sight or another while making certain that the San Francisco-based Robin could go through it all without having to worry about her prying eyes. Besides, she didn't need to examine his deep, cobalt-tinted eyes to realize that he was warring between wanting and refusing to believe. Who could blame him? Cissie had told her of Tim's ill-fated attempts to match Lex Luthor's success in creating a half-Kryptonian clone and that kind of lunacy from an otherwise rational individual simply screamed of how much Bruce's former student had cared for Connor.
Then there was the woman on the stage whose heart seemed to lurch between breaking and putting itself back together again. Kara took close heed of Cassandra's own rabbit-like heartbeat and felt a horrific pang of sympathy for the woman who had been confronted with the possibility. The adopted Amazon was trying desperately to not give in to the truth that the strapping lad in the blue jeans and black-and-red t-shirt was not Connor Kent and Kara wasn't certain if she was succeeding. It was nothing but another copy, a mockery of what might have been and the mere thought of the same thing happening to her allowed Kara to imagine just what Wonder Girl was going through.
Step by step. Shock, wonder, reasoning, denial, hope, hope, hope. . .
"And, ladies and gentleman! Without further a due the man responsible for this revolutionary surge forward in the realm of metahuman defense! Lex Luthor!"
Check, Kara thought to herself as the scent of cloves and sandalwood wafting from the former president became united with the confident stride and winning smile of the murderer of millions and the savior of perhaps far more. Watching Luthor move towards Cassandra and what was supposed to pass for Superboy, the former Supergirl examined the gentleman's attire and started to piece out more of what they had just gotten themselves into. Gone was the $5,000 Oxford suit and perfectly aligned dress pants and in its place was a comparatively humble ensemble of beige slacks and a simple white button-down work shirt with the sleeves rolled up at the elbows. In an unbearably long instant the confusion and shock that had been spawned from the previous arrival from on high jumbled with the surprise from the shadows and produced an allure that swept through the crowd like a late winter squall. Applause and cheers and excited words reared their heads where there should have been critical inquiries and damning suspicions.
Even the members of the press corps had been caught in the enchantment. Kara would have liked to condemn them for that but she was just as guilty. Even her own senses didn't piece together what should have been so blatantly obvious until it was right next to her face and the anger that always seemed to fester inside of her gut momentarily turned itself inward before she managed to let out a quiet breath. Taking a moment or two to gnash teeth or engage in some good ol' fashioned obloquy would have been the status quo but Kara quickly guessed that now wasn't the time for her to gather wool. One glance at the cold fury streaming from Tim's narrowed eyes and the somewhat panicked whimper that escaped Beast Boy's canine jaws provided further evidence and, if she required some finer confirmation, Cassandra's frightfully wild and wide eyes as she looked upon the advancing Luthor provided a potentially grisly hat trick.
But Lex had already nipped that potential problem area in the bud. He was damn well aware that his takeover of the audience would circumvent any raging or righteous reaction that Wonder Girl or any of her fellow Teen Titans could fire back with in response to the baleful sacrilege. The ball was in his court as he took the podium after a quick handshake with his master of ceremonies and now it was all Kara could do to make certain that her comrades didn't set fire to the arena.
"I understand that a great many of you may have some questions at the ready," Luthor began with his familiar calm and dulcet manner, the ridiculously blatant understatement drawing some welcome laughter from the public and press corps alike. "However, before we continue onward with the future I know I would be remiss if I chose to ignore the confusion of the past."
Luthor slid his hands away from the podium and presented his open palms. Kara heard the steady cadence of his heart beat and couldn't help but show some sick respect for how calm the monster could be while weaving his tapestry.
"I recognize that the tragic series of events that surrounded the final days of my presidency still leave behind many questions that deserve answers. In these last, long four years I have tried my hardest to search inward for what drove me to such bold and rash behaviors as it regards to those that have defended us from the awe-inspiring threats that originate not just from our own soil and oceans but also from planets far away. What I find truly disconcerting though is that I still believe that some of the brightest spots of my administration could be found in my administration's attempts to coordinate global military operations with that of our superhero community. Together we were able to synchronize providing defense as well as pave a path to the future, an avenue for those with such astonishing godlike gifts could employ their blessings to better mankind rather than merely defend it."
Kara took another deep breath as Luthor's admission drew a subdued round of applause. It was true that more than a handful of Luthor-led initiatives had led to some significant advances in alleviating hunger and environmental stress the world over. Of course, Kara also recognized that the former president's "bold and rash behaviors" were attributed towards Lex's seemingly ceaseless envy towards her cousin and an addiction to liquid kryptonite that he had apparently used to attempt to become the equal of the metahumans he envied and hated. The physical augmentations he received coincided with a drastic decrease in cognitive stability that inevitably allowed Bruce Wayne and Talia Al-Ghul to all but snatch Luthor's chief financial holdings seemingly without his notice. All that was left for the cherry on the self-induced humiliation sundae was a public thrashing at the hands of Superman whilst Luthor screamed and launched threats that he would bring about the near extinction of humanity.
Of course, the former Supergirl strongly suspected that Luthor's explanation would be a bit further away from the mark.
"I have had a great deal of time to reflect upon the disastrous days wherein I strayed from my rightful belief in champions such as Superman to defend us from threats that were impossible for us to control. In my failure to adapt to my inadequacies I allowed myself to surrender to the anger and hopelessness that we must all face when presented with our own human error." Luthor clenched his left fist tightly as he delivered his confession, his fingers compressing and quivering as if he were trying to wrench the emotion from his soul. "In the end I was left to leave my ambitions and fortunes in the hands of those who were still capable of recognizing the small steps that shall carry us to the promised land; people such as the brave and enterprising men and women here at Megadyne Industries."
And Bruce Wayne. And Amanda Waller and Talia Al-Ghul and Scandal Savage and so many other people that you're trying to destroy because they won't file in line with whatever you're trying to do, Kara couldn't help but silently add as she prodded the tip of her tongue against the right side of her cheek. Of course, Luthor was well aware that he had already emerged victorious from whatever public relations battle that could take place here and kindly ignored the half-Kryptonian's acerbic and silent retort and looked down upon his audience with steely determination about his brow.
"I had come to convince myself that it had become my place to stand by and allow humanity to take up my legacy from where I had so foolishly left it. However, as I spent the months searching for answers I discovered that there was a portion of me that could not allow that kind of righteous complacency. I dug deeper into that fragment of my soul, something that I must admit that I had long abandoned, and discovered the power of God's grace. And, as I draw ever closer to the winter of my life I know that I shall find no true atonement within standing idly by. I must seek forgiveness through doing whatever I can to remove the tarnishes I myself placed upon my personal legacy."
Stunned by the unexpected turn of the admission, none of the audience around the grounds or upon the stage were fully prepared as Luthor turned to Wonder Girl. Settling himself upon one knee, he reached out to grasp Cassandra's still hand and hold it against his clasped palms. Playing his part to perfection, Clancy Spacey looked quite frazzled as he hurriedly snatched the microphone from its stand on the podium and placed it near his boss's face.
"Miss Sandsmark, let me say that I did not bring you up here and introduce this painful memory to you to mock the heart and determination you put into helping defend this city. I truly wish that I could return Connor Kent to you, a young soldier who fought and died on the streets of Metropolis and a proud man whom I had come to care for as a son. What you see here is a symbol of my attempt to make things right, no matter how flawed and imperfect though that may be. What you see here I wish to present not as a tragic mistake of the past but as a symbol of the future; the truest revelation in the future of the global defense initiative that have already taken far too many young lives."
Kara counted out the cadence of Cassandra's heartbeat and recognized that her pulse was nearly double of her resting rate. The lips of the blonde-haired demigod were pulled as tight as her brow as she kept the hand trapped within Lex's clutches forcefully still. Kara knew that her potential colleague had the professional skills to recognize that a violent reaction would have touched off a potential firestorm but it was clear that the histrionic declarations were bringing about a vengeful rage that Wonder Girl was straining vigorously to keep shut. The former Supergirl did a quick run through of her senses and picked up Beast Boy's anxious growl and Timothy's clenched fists. She felt a simmering in the back of her cerebral cortex as Raven's outrage leaked through her telepathic link.
It may have been only a matter of time before everything fell apart. Fortunately for them, that was when Metallo descended towards the grounds with five of his inferior facsimiles at his back. The androids apparently chose to avoid the far more brutal but shrewd stratagem of simply opening fire into the tightly packed crowd and went with landing upon the stage. The addition of several tons of dense metal on the western half of the stage caused the underlying supports to let out an audible whine but that drone could only be picked up by Garfield and Kara as the whirr of Corben's plasma cannon drowned out the mechanical strain as he aimed the barrel at Luthor.
"Ya left a lot of people happy when you decided to go underground, Lex," Metallo began with the casual menace that one could build up from years of working together. "A smart guy like you should have known that somebody was going to take a swipe at your neck if you were going to poke your head out the ground."
Aensland Manor – 3:58 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time
A half-dozen Amazons charged into the tastefully designed makeshift arena, their ornate battle armor and gleaming mystic steel weaponry clashing awfully with the opulent carpeting and the well-maintained brick covered fireplace. Jason Blood could dimly hear Morrigan "chastising" Circe's willing puppets for their lack of dramatic subtlety but the aged warlock wisely forced to marshal his senses as well as his supernatural arsenal. His left hand tensed around the enchanted staff he had summoned during Morrigan's opening salvo, the human host of Etrigan extended his right hand like an open fang as glimmering bolts of whitish-blue energy whizzed from each of his fingertips while another exploded from his palm. Four of the six attacks found their targets as two of the Amazons were shot through the skull while two more were knocked down but saved from more grievous damage through a half-successful dodge or the strength of their armor.
This left two remaining Themysciran warriors to presumably rip the centuries old man to bloody shreds but Jason hadn't kept himself alive since the times of Merlin merely by reading books and practicing enchantments. Displaying a reflexive prowess honed through enough time and training to make his opponents seem like toddlers, Blood managed to disarm one of the muscle-bound Amazons with a precise strike to the back of her sword hand while swerving away from the slashes of the other. That advantage, in turn, lasted for roughly a second-and-a-half before a blur of bright green popped into the corner of his eye. Having sensed the demonic beast well before seeing it, Blood was able to get away with just a hairline scratch along his right shoulder as he swerved to mostly avoid the razor sharp wings of an Emerald Regid, one of the gargoyle-like beasts that had served Neron during his successful invasion of Hashmalamum. Felling the beast with a shot from the tip of his rod as the Regid attempted to make another pass, Blood let out a curse while silently summoning a protective barrier that shielded him from the assault of the other four Regids that followed their brethren into the fray. There were dim crackles along his cerebral cortex as he felt the beasts lashing against the barrier with their fearsome natural instruments but any possibility of collecting himself fully were truly cut short as Circe's warriors moved in to add their own strength back into the mix.
Morrigan's laughter rang out clear and true, far too much so for Blood to believe that the succubus hadn't amplified her presence through the aid of her own power. "Oh, what a pathetic showin' this happens to be!" the voluptuous immortal crowed while skimming her elegant hands through her rich jade tresses. "Do forgive the profoundly old man, lads and lasses. Mister Blood has forgotten most of his dance steps and he may be too nervous to show whatever he's got left."
Blood allowed the laughter of the crowd to carry on for a moment just to provide some potentially necessary motivation. Then he exploded from the increasingly uncontrollable fray with a burst of kinetic force that sent his winged and womanly opponents scattering. Disappearing the instant before his skull could crack and splinter against Morrigan's stern barrier, he emerged a moment later on the central balcony where Morrigan had been joined by some of her more noteworthy patrons. Wrapping his spare hand around the back of Morrigan's neck, Blood growled as he dug his paltry fingernails into the throat of the laughing succubus before slamming her into the bookcase that stood to the west of the doorway. Ancient tomes scattered while criminals and saints alike screamed from surprise and worry but Morrigan seemed to not be the least bit perturbed even as she took a long gaze into the seemingly bottomless black pools of Jason's eyes.
"From dull plank to poseur then," Morrigan countered with as much clarity as one could manage when somebody's hand was wrapped around your wind pipe. A simple outburst of physical or demonic energy would have allowed her to burst free but she merely settled for the mild discomfort while continuing to soak in the emotional maelstrom as if she were enjoying a fine wine. She faintly heard Jason's soft chanting and felt the smile creeping onto her pouty lips as the pressure around her neck grew tighter and unholy heat began to creep along her shoulders and trachea. The mantra-induced transformation was near instantaneous as Etrigan took the place of his human overseer, the agent of chaos initially greeting Morrigan with a hard frown.
"A fine meal this mêlée thine brought into be, my acclaim and attentions I give to thee," the orange-skinned demon growled in greeting while bringing Morrigan in closer. Kicking Jason's staff aside, Etrigan lowered his massive right paw down Morrigan's back as he went to licking at the burn scars around the succubus's neck with his long, forked tongue. "How now thy tang reeks of inferior stock, is thine truly so parched for a demonic co. . ."
"A wee lass must sometimes take resources where it can be found, old friend," Morrigan said in greeting while swirling away from Etrigan's mockingly merciful attention. "And it's not as if you're one to talk, are ya? These winds of change be billowin' about your cloak just as firmly as it does around these black wings of mine." The succubus continued to flash her winning smile while fluttering the slight but distinctive bat-like wings that hung along her lower back.
Etrigan only allowed a snarl as he bounded through Morrigan's barrier on his way towards the ground floor of the manor. Ensnaring two of the airborne Regids within the grip of his bulky but agile arms, the greater demon made sure to give the Amazons a vicious smile before smashing the skulls of his captives like ripe melons against the wooden floor. Launching one of the blood-drenched corpses at another pair of flying beasts swooping from where they had tried and failed to break through the barrier, the immortal warrior let out a laugh as he employed his other prize as an unorthodox but effective shield against the strikes of the Themysciran criminals. After several moments of this he shoved what little remained into the revolted face of one of the lovely humans before opening his maw wide and letting loose a stream of hellfire that was vociferous enough to set the carpet at his feet ablaze.
Of course, the treatment the flooring received was downright merciful in comparison to what was given to the Amazons that wound up being broiled alive within their own armor. The surprisingly fortunate soul who took the blast head-on became little more than ash left to gather about her scalded plate mail but two others that received only "glancing" blows were left to screech and squeal as the unholy fire ran amongst their limbs and chests as the infernal magic ate away at their beleaguered bodies and troubled souls until death would finally come for them. Needing only seconds to deal with the handful of beasts that possessed the courage to challenge him further, Etrigan then glanced upward at the observers who were brave or stunned enough to remain and provided them with a smile that was wide enough to display the dagger-like fangs the lined the ridges of his upper gum line.
"For those who sought brave sport and sadism hark, for now the whore's game mirrors the warbling lark. Forgive my haste and my performance on whole yet I now seek a boy with stains on his soul." Concluding his closing statement with a gentledemonly curtsy, Etrigan bounded from the broken and scorched ruins of the battlefield and darted down the hallways on all fours. The sharp nails of his hands dug harshly into the polished wood floor while his keen senses pointed him towards his destination as the demon loped through the hall like a rampaging gorilla before forcing open a door that ran along the hallway that bordered Morrigan's board room.
"Geez, Etty. A little privacy for the sated lady, will ya?"
Caught between the unique dilemma of contempt and respect, Etrigan flared out his nostrils before letting out a deep rumble of laughter. Though clearly running the risk of being improper, the demon did allow Roy Harper some quiet time as the sharpshooter retrieved his underwear and jeans from the floor. Placing both the BMFG and a recently fired Desert Eagle and the BMFG on the nightstand that bordered the left side of the bed that dominated the smallish room, the former Checkmate agent calmly buttoned up his jeans while the blue-skinned woman wrapped within the satin sheets of the bed displayed an eerily similar demeanor. Taking a second to stoop down and give the sex worker a quick but deep kiss, Roy brushed his nimble fingers across the bulbous ridges along the women's forehead before calmly stepping over one of the three dead Amazons that decorated the tiny room.
"So I'm guessing that Morrigan wasn't quite on the level?" Arsenal didn't wait for Etrigan to provide a reply as he swerved around the greater demon and jogged into the hallway. "Well, I haven't heard from Lloyd so I'm presuming that he's either all right or in something that I can't help him out of."
Understanding the unspoken request from the bare-chested human, Etrigan broke into a dash that was just slow enough for the shirtless Roy to match pace. Passing through the enormous hub of the manor once again, the two morally dicey saviors of the world had little trouble blasting away at whatever meager resistance that came their way on the path toward their destination. Finally coming to a stop at the southwestern corner of the mansion's ground floor nucleus, the demon and the sharpshooter worked quickly to pick out their targets amongst the half-dozen Emerald Regids that had surrounded their youngest comrade and a gaggle of panicked partygoers that the young Teen Titan was nobly trying to protect. A spray of impressively sharp ice daggers from Roy's BMFG brought down two of the gargoyle-like beasts while Kid Devil was able to deliver a savage uppercut to another. This left Jason's demon to wrangle the three that remained which the orange-skinned denizen of hell did with such grisly efficiency that the innocent bystanders appeared to be more frightened of the rhyming hell beast than of Sabbac's warriors.
"All right, so now most of the gang is all here," Roy observed with a commanding shout while scouting the scene with his firearms at the ready. "Now all that's left to do is for the boss to find us."
The sound of a nearly 900-pound, three-quarter demonic wrecking ball smashed through the outward wall of a room that bordered the makeshift arena. Having only been about 20 meters or so from the source of the impact, Roy hardly had to stretch his eyeballs to catch the sight of Lloyd and Sabbac quickly leaping back to their feet after the destruction and engaging in another round of fisticuffs. A contingent of Amazons and Regids also made their way through the wreckage, the unusual group having obviously been set to stand by as their leader attempted to beat his former killer to a pulp. Of course, now that other company had arrived, Luthor's less noteworthy warriors apparently had no qualms with charging past the two brawlers on their way to more warfare.
"Gotta love that about our little English muffin," Roy said aloud, his words nearly drowned out by the screams, Etrigan's hungry growl, and the hum of his own energy pistol. "He just makes himself so easy to find when you really need him."
Kara tried not to dig too much into the fact that the surrounding chaos seemed to assure her more than the calm that had come before it. She could feel the supernatural force inherited from her Praxian mother simmering at her fingertips and was quite tempted to launch it straight at the towering leader of Lex's "attackers". The fact that Metallo seemed to have completely recovered from the damage she had brought upon the android in the battle at The Iceberg Lounge was already gnawing at her but her emotional training was quick to cut off her anger at the pass. Even so she did notice Tim swinging his right arm in front of her, a purely cautionary measure that the former Supergirl tried not to draw any offense from."
"I know, Tim. I know. This isn't the first time that I've had to avoid a fight to stay out of the public eye."
Tim could only offer a slight tilt of his head in response to Kara's gentle chiding as he was already encumbered with darting his knowledgeable eyes around the battlefield. "If Luthor is half as interested you as Batman says then at least one of his goals here is to try and get you out into the open. Just let the Titans handle this."
Kara silently acquiesced with nary a hedge to her composure. After all, the sudden arrival meant that Tim also had no real shot at suiting up and joining his friends on the battlefield and it wouldn't be proper to indulge while one of his hosts worked hard to abstain from doing the same. The response that followed the first salvo did provide some welcome reassurance as a dark violet barrier wrapped itself around Metallo and his allies only a moment before they prepared to fire their cannons and guns into the crowd. Raven's defensive efforts managed to hold up quite nicely in the precious seconds that were required for Mia and Oliver to organize the surrounding citizens and get them to higher ground. Corben himself was the first to realize the goings on and rushed to shatter the bubble but he was intercepted by a blur of red and gold that hurtled into him at the precise moment when the shield went down. The force of Wonder Girl's shoulder block was enough to send Corben hurtling through the air for at least half a block before he finally crashed into and through one of the older elm trees in the neighboring park and plummeted to the payment. Cyborg was the next to provide his share as the audible hum of his plasma cannon accompanied two concussive bursts of energy that each hit one of Metallo's lesser powerful companions with enough force to send them plunging off the platform and sliding down the stone steps.
On the other hand, Kara also found herself several seconds off when it came to her prediction of exactly when things would turn pear shaped. The first sign came when Beast Boy's attempt to soar into the fray in the form of a mighty Peregrine falcon was intercepted with a spray of plasma fire that skidded into his left wing and set him down in a pained heap. Raven's anger-inspired burst of telekinetic energy that ran against the three standing automatons managed to keep things even until Green Arrow and Speedy could rush onto the battlefield but that was also enough time for both Corben and one of Cyborg's former targets to rush back into the fray as well. Corben made certain to turn his ire on his most pressing target and downed Cyborg with a plasma burst of his own before going into close quarters combat with Wonder Girl on a far more even footing than before. The adopted Amazon managed to hold her own against the android that had lain even Superman low on a number of occasions but two of Metallo's henchmen were already gunning for Raven and the archers from Star City were already hard pressed to deal with their far stronger and better armed adversaries.
Then. . . things just went weird.
It wasn't just the matter that whatever Luthor was passing off as Superboy suddenly soared into the fray and tore apart the android that was attempting to perforate Mia Dearden with machine gun fire. What truly disconcerted the half-Kryptonian was that three other "Superboys", each of them dressed in the same casual attire as the one that came before them, all came roaring from the front door of Megadyne Industries and made a beeline for Metallo and his comrades. A kinetic maelstrom followed highlighted with tremendous haymakers that produced shockwaves that rattled the surrounding trees and windows. Blasts of heat vision soon followed and Kara took a breath as the ambient solar force washed against Kara's increasingly concerned countenance. The battle was as brief and short as one would predict as Metallo's forces met a violent end while their beleaguered leader beat a quick retreat using the same transmat technology he had employed in Gotham and Hong Kong.
For all the confusion at the start it seemed that the matter had been settled with a kind of rapid clarity that was usually hard to come by in the realm of super heroics.
Well, except for the Superboys. Kara guessed that somebody was going to have to answer some questions on that.
"Worst. Field trip. Ever."
Hal Jordan let out a tired sigh, a minute gesture that threatened to be blotted out in the face of the monolithic structure that stood before he and his mouthy companion. "This isn't a field trip, Lieutenant Brown. The Guardians of Oa have given us this mission to uncover just who is behind whatever assistance that Lex Luthor employed to acquire the Karbarran ores and metal stockpiles that he is apparently using to manufacture these mass produced Metallos. And, given that the both of us have apparently acquired a reputation that seems to precede us as it comes to these potential threats, we're the natural dignitaries for the interests of the galactic community."
Stephanie offered a second for the words to sink in for the Green Lantern who spoke them before offering back a look that ached with nonchalance. "Fine. Worst community service ever," the Gotham-based Robin noted before huffing up at a lock of her blonde hair that had escaped her hair band during their latest supersonic journey. "So first I nearly get myself killed being The Guardians' guinea pig as it comes to figuring out whatever sick, twisted black arts that Leokar Kurkosaw got himself into after Sinestro was forced to give him the heave ho. Then I get paired up with you and sent to an almost abandoned planet where I nearly get myself killed again by some whackadoodle with something that looks frighteningly similar to one of our power rings. And now we're here standing in front of this. . . admittedly impressive coliseum that would give Michael Bay a boner if he could use it in the next Transformers movie preparing to meet. . . I'm sorry. What are they calling themselves again?"
Hal Jordan fired back with a glance that was nearly equivocal to Stephanie's past sarcastic efforts.
"You know damn well what they're calling themselves. Now we've been getting into the occasional scrape with these guys but right now there isn't enough information for either side to feel comfortable with diving head first into galactic warfare. Of course, if they have collaborated with Luthor to provide Karbarran materials then they are interfering with two of The Guardians' pet projects and that's going to raise some eyebrows."
Stephanie let out a droning hum. "And the puppets keep dancing along their strings all the while," she then replied, her already acerbic candor taking on a sing-song tone as she wiggled the fingers of her left hand to impersonate a puppeteer. "Hal, you do realize that you have a shit ton of questions to answer after putting me through all this with no explanation, right?"
The more experienced of the two intergalactic crime fighters turned to face his lively comrade with a sliver of the debonair smirk that had enticed many a charming lady. "Stephanie, has it ever occurred to you that there may be somebody else out there who wants to know what the hell is going on in their little part of the world?"
Rarely one to surrender immediately to the logic of others, Stephanie allowed the sight of several creatures soaring towards them to distract her from the conversation that would now be saved for another time. The youngest of Earth's Green Lanterns felt the unique energy signatures of the three airborne travelers and did her best to piece them out amongst the hundreds upon hundreds of similar mystic marks that apparently awaited them within the massive citadel. Recognizing that she was now in a situation that was potentially a shit ton more hazardous than on Maltus, she maintained her patience as the greeters came to a hovering stop just 10 yards away with a precision that reeked of military-like precision and preparation.
The organized quartet allowed their precision to serve as a silent greeting that hung for a second or so until one of them broke through the line. Standing nearly seven feet tall and equipped with long and lanky limbs to match his narrow, elongated brow and oral cavity, his mottled sandy brown skin served to mesh horribly with the crimson glow the surrounded him. Sparing a second to give Hal a contemptuous glare, he turned to face Stephanie and delivered a deep bow of his head while drawing air from the gill-like slits of his undersized nose. While parting his thick lips to speak Stephanie found that she could just make out a tinge of energy that she couldn't help but find familiar.
"Greetings to you, distinguished warriors. I am Vice, the second-in-command of The Red Lantern Corps."
Luthor hadn't even made it to the lobby elevators before he had ceased making any attempt to restrain his smile. Calmly smoothing out the sleeves of his shirt, the former president had no trouble drowning out Clancy Spacey's excited chatter about preliminary project studies and profit margins. As useful as his lively minion had been in the months since his painfully public downfall the simple fact remained that simple matters like money and reputation just needed to be ignored in the face of what was to come. This reveal of a fraction of his grand design provided a nice hint of amusement but time was running short as it came to the first true point of action.
And that! After all the years of analysis, speculation, experimentation, and decisive conclusions there was no way for even Luthor to be momentarily blinded to the present time. Of course, he wasn't nearly deprived enough of his senses to ignore the near certainty that one of Wayne's noble lackeys would inevitably arrive to interrupt his ruminations. The only question that remained was just who it would be and he found himself being the slightest hint surprised as a serrated butterfly knife punched through the button on the elevator control panel an instant before he could press it himself. Letting out a cleansing breath in the midst of the predictability, Luthor wisely ignored Spacey's panicked sputtering and turned to face his guest.
"My goodness, Mister Queen. Such a dramatic and expensive outburst for just a simple introduction? Little wonder that your constituents were so quick to evict you from your mayorship."
Green Arrow had no problems matching Luthor's nonchalance.
"Sorry, Lex. Guess I just got so darn excited about the thought of us having a little chat."
Yeah. . . well. . . guess there might be a lot of questions on the minds of the couple hundred or so that are still reading this story of mine on a regular basis, yeah? I know it seems like I'm attempting to make a landmark statement with the end of every issue but I do want to talk about what's going on because those of you who have read and reviewed certainly deserve some answers.
When I started this story nearly seven years ago I was still trying to grow up and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Of course, while I haven't figured out everything I definitely have more of my eyes on the proper prize than I used to. I'm getting married, I have a life that I'm content with far more often than not, and I have a whole bunch of obligations that can keep me from coming back to this one thing that I used to give me balance and peace of mind. And now, with me being a pretty solid grown-up, things like these can fall by the way side but I can't ever see myself abandoning it altogether. This was my first creative baby and I'm proud of the way it's grown up and I want to see where it goes. I'm just more certain about what it will be than when I used to have my eyes on it all the time.
Is that confusing? Well, such is life, I suppose.
Issue #149 Preview
Just one more issue before the century-and-a-half mark and it seems like there's so many confrontations that have yet to be resolved. There's Lloyd and Sabbac battling it out at Aensland Manor where a "boy's night out" is about to receive a significant boost in female authority while a wounded Batman suddenly finds himself between a fanged feline and a bird with an unusual sharp beak. Oh, and one best not forget that Hal and Stephanie have a meeting with the mysterious Red Lantern Corps and the possibility that this new threat may be aligned with Lex Luthor. All that and a battle between a disgraced former mayor and a disgraced former president in the next installment of The Misfits: Best Worst Interests. Until then, remember to say what you think and write what you feel!