Hey everybody. I've been away a long time… and I'm extremely grateful to those of you who have stuck around for the ride this long, through all my hiatuses and delays and excuses. School and work and life have been pretty successfully consuming all of my waking hours, and in the midst of it all, I kind of lost my passion for this. It's been months since I've actually sat down and written something… but the moral of the story is, I'm back on the horse now, and I can't begin to explain how much it means to me that many of you, even throughout all this time, have kept in varying degrees of contact with me and continued to request more updates, some of you in rather creative ways (One of you recently threatened to set me on fire. That was a new one). Thank you again, to the fans who have stuck with me and been patient; you're my favorite people ;)

Due to the delay, a lot of the details of what's going on up to this point are probably rather fuzzy in your minds, so I'll provide a quick recap to refresh you; Flo is the traitor, Chris is dead but Sky and Jesse found his robotic arm loaded with a database of all Apokoliptian activity, Allie and Tommy declared their undying love and all that good stuff, Mckayla is brandishing a fancy new Green Lantern ring, Connor wounded Darkseid with a radion bullet, Quinton is missing and possibly dead, as are Kio and Prome, Ethan is under mind control by Flo, Alex is allied with Troy in a hunt for Granny Goodness, and Troy just went full-psycho and ripped the jaw off some poor guy which had Alex shaking in his boots. If you want a more in-depth recap but don't have time to go back and re-read old chapters, feel free to PM me and I'll see to it that you're caught up as quickly as I can manage.

I'm making it a point to never have to do another one of those recaps again, even if I have to give up precious sleep to get these chapters out faster. If you've stuck with it this long, you deserve to see the ending in a timely fashion way more than I deserve to be lazy about it. So now, without further ado, here is the long anticipated chapter 27! Enjoy.

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Assembly

Troy Prince stood atop an abandoned warehouse with a self-satisfied grin, the moonlight shimmering off of his steely eyes as he awaited his clandestine ally. Slowly, from the shadows, an oily black substance oozed into the center of the rooftop. The slime crawled from seemingly all directions, coagulating into a writhing, bulbous mass several feet from the young half-Amazon. The mass of charcoal-colored ooze rose into a pillar, and began to slowly take on a humanoid shape. The blackened sludge began to lighten in hue, taking on the appearance of pale skin. Soon, Troy was greeted eye-to-eye with the shimmering gaze of a young woman with a polite smile. She shifted on her feet, hands folded daintily behind her back; her smooth, pale complexion seemed almost translucent under the equally pale light of the full possessed a piercing gaze with eyes that continually shifted color, and oily black hair that fell over her breasts. "Do you really have to present yourself that way?" Troy rolled his eyes, irritation seeping from his inflexion.

"I like this form," the girl shrugged, slinking forward with a casual step. "Makes me feel pretty."

"Pretty girls wear clothing in public. What you're doing is called slutty."

"Prude," the girl groaned, her tone now evenly annoyed. Her torso swirled into a mass of black fluid, and rematerialized cloaked in a sleek black dress. "Satisfied?"

"With your performance earlier? Very," Troy smiled, looking out over the ledge of the rooftop. "Alex was shaking in his boots."

"It was like seeing a five year old watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre," The girl laughed, and then quickly morphed into the form of the blood-soaked prisoner whose jaw Troy had ripped off with the hammer. In a suddenly masculine voice he/she pleaded, "Stop it! Please, don't hurt me you monster!" Then she morphed back into the female figure, laughing hysterically. "You put on a pretty good show yourself, Troy. If I hadn't known better, I would have believed you really were some psychopath."

"Yeah," Troy grinned, moonlight glinting off his eyes. "If you didn't know better."

"So now Alex thinks you're some kind of bloodthirsty sadist. How exactly does that benefit you?"

"Because now Alex will be easier to control," Troy turned around to face her, a methodical pacing in his speech. "He's clever. And he can't be trusted if he thinks he can outsmart me, because he'll try. Fortunately, fear is a powerful motivator. He's afraid of me now. And if he's afraid of me, he won't challenge me. And that means I can feel confident taking him into the fight with Granny, without having to worry about getting stabbed in the back."

"Clever, clever," the girl morphed into a thin pillar of black slime and snaked swiftly behind Troy, rematerializing and wrapping her arms around his neck. She whispered into his ear, "Where'd you learn to be so manipulative?"

"Same way you learned to act so well," Troy looked up to the sky. "My father taught me."

"Charming. Now, about my payment…"

"Of course. Just a moment," he reached into his pouch, and withdrew a slim green shard. "Four ounces of de-radiated Kryptonite. It has value on almost any planet… to some buyers more than others."

"Much obliged Mr. Prince," Ink slithered in front of Troy, taking the shard in her palm. The skin on her hand pulsated ever so slightly, and the shard sank beneath her flesh, absorbed into her body for safe keeping. "But I do believe our agreement entailed a payment of eight ounces."

"You've done half your job, you'll get half your pay. The rest will come after we get through the difficult part," Troy returned his hand to the pouch and withdrew a faded old photograph, handing it to her carefully.

"What's this?" Ink questioned, studying the photograph.

"Your canvas," Troy turned and walked toward the ledge. Upon reaching it, he glanced back at her and said, "Get ready for act two."

.

Consciousness crept in upon Quinton Sage slowly, a faint ray of light burning through the deadened shadows permeating his psyche. One by one his sensations were brought to life; he was cold, wet, sore both inside and out. He smelled sulfur, dust, thick smoke… decaying corpses. Every fiber of his being hurt. As the ringing in his ears began to dissipate, he became aware of the sound of dripping water. He could taste blood in his mouth. Suddenly, the meticulous dripping of water was accommodated by the sound of two distinct, childlike voices; "Is he alive?" One voice inquired.

"Shut up! I think he's trying to say something," The second voice rebuked.

"Not if he's dead, numb nuts."

"Shut up!"

"Maybe we should poke him with something…"

"I got a stick."

"Give it here."

"No, it's my stick!"

"Don't be mean!"

"You just called me numb nuts!"

"Give me the stick numb nuts!"

"You want the stick?" Whack!

"Ouch! You're a jerk!"

"Just hurry up and poke him, I want to see what happens."

A jabbing sensation rocketed into Quinton's ribs, jolting away any remaining shred of unconscious euphoria. Quinton shot his hand outward, grabbing the stick, and opened his eyes, the fuzzy images of Kio and Prome manifesting as his vision regained functionality. "I've never punched a child before, but if you don't put about fifteen feet of distance between you and me in the next four seconds, I just might."

"Shoot, I thought he was dead," Prome folded his arms resentfully. "I was gonna' fry him up so we'd have something to eat."

"That's disgusting!" Kio looked to his red-haired twin in horror, "We don't even have any seasoning!"

"Have you kids ever read Lord of the Flies?" Quinton groaned, pulling himself to his feet."

"No," the twins replied in unison.

"Never do. I don't want you warped little freaks getting any ideas," he surveyed his surroundings, hands shoved in the pockets of his charred, tattered coat. He could see nothing but colored blobs. "Where are my glasses?"

"Oh, Prome took those to try and reflect the sun through the lenses and burn ants, and I told him that was stupid because he can just make fire anyway, and we had a big fight and started wrestling and they got kinda' broken," Kio answered.

"…are you kidding me?"

"Don't worry, we fixed them for you…" Kio held out Quinton's orange-tinted glasses, the two split halves of its right lens stuck together with old chewing gum.

"Awesome," Quinton groaned sarcastically, feeling around on a chunk of debris to ensure that it was what he thought he was seeing before taking a seat on it. His red hair hung over his face in a shaggy, unkempt nest caked with grime and blood. "Where are we, exactly?"

"We don't know," Prome shrugged. "We woke up in the Clock Tower and everybody was gone so we went out to try and find you guys, and then we saw bad guys coming to search the woods so we hid in this cave and found this big fortress underneath the ground. And then a Boom Tube opened and you fell here, except you were sleeping. And we kinda' thought you were dead like the other two. But now you're awake."

"I came through a boom tube?" Quinton raised an eyebrow. "The last thing I remember…" sadness set in on his face, "…I was thrown out of an Apokoliptian ship… apparently I never hit the ground… why?"

"No clue, dude." Kio handed him a can of fruit, "Here. We found a bunch of canned food that's really, really old but it still tastes okay if you swallow it really quick."

"Thanks," Quinton attempted to read the label on the can for an expiration date, but his vision provided only a white and black blur where letters should have been. "Um, Prome…you said that you and Kio thought I was dead 'like the other two.' What did you mean? What other two?"

"The two people who were already in this cave when we got here. They look like they've been dead a long time."

"Can you show me where they are?"

"Yeah, sure." Prome got up and created a surge of flame in the palm of his hand, "It gets really dark once you move this far in, I'll light the way."

Quinton followed the orange blur of the fire down a long, damp corridor. The temperature seemed to decrease dramatically as they traveled. Soon, they came to a stop. "Here you are," Prome said, holding his nose to try and mask the scent of death, and from the look on his face, it wasn't working.

"Alright…" Quinton put on his cracked glasses, and despite the visual impediment of the gum stuck between the two halves of his right lens, he was able to make a fair assessment. "The cave comes to a total dead end here," he observed, running his hand along the cold stone wall against which the pair of bodies were laid. "They were running from something. It drove them here and they had nowhere else to go." He looked down at their petrified faces, largely preserved from the effects of decay due to the preservative effects of the cool, isolated environment. He studied the looks of horror and despair forever emblazoned on their lifeless countenance; a man and a woman. Age was difficult to judge due to the withered state of the corpses, but Quinton surmised they had been in their forties. Two matching wedding rings shimmered in the light of Prome's fire, the only aspect of the corpses left unaffected by rot and decay. "Love withstanding the test of the time," Quinton rolled his eyes, "What a load of bullshit." He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and withdrew his sketchbook, filled with drawings of Flo. He tossed it onto the cave floor, looked to Prome and said, "Burn it."

"Sure?" Prome asked, looking surprised.

"Go to town, kid."

Quinton exited the corridor with his head hung low, and tossed the can of fruit back to Kio. "I'm not hungry." He approached the mouth of the cave, looking out into the desolate, lifeless forest. A ghost of former beauty. At his feet was a steel door with a combination lock, which had been ripped off of the cave's entrance, no doubt by Apokoliptian forces right after the invasion. "I think that dead couple back there were a pair of doomsday preppers. This was probably their big hide away, where they were prepared for the apocalypse." Quinton laughed, a melancholy laugh filled with contempt. "Nobody was prepared for Apokolips. Not really." Suddenly, a bizarre thought set into Quinton's mind; Prepared. I came here through a Boom Tube. Who could have opened a Boom Tube? The only ones who saw me fall were Darkseid and Flo. Neither of them would have saved me. Unless… no, stop it… don't get your hopes up like that… Flo didn't save your life. She's a traitor. She used me. She manipulated me. I fell right into it. I'm an idiot. I wasn't prepared. No one was prepared. No one is ever prepared. But who opened the boom tube? There's no other reasonable conclusion…

Quinton turned around and studied the cave again. "Why here?" He spoke aloud, "What did she want me to find here? What game is she playing?" Quinton looked down to the damaged door at his feet and took notice of yellow, cursive lettering on it. It read; Suscipiet fillis nostris. Though his Latin was rusty at best, after a few minutes he was able to determine the meaning of the phrase; "Protect the children."

"Protect the children…" Quinton looked back at Kio and Prome. "Is that why she sent me here?" He pondered the idea for a moment longer; "Why would a pair of doomsday preppers brand that on the entrance to their door? Unless…" he shot his gaze to Kio, "You said you found a bunch of canned food. Can you take me to where you found it?"

"I thought you said you weren't hungry?"

"Just go with it Kio, this is important."

"Um, alright…" Kio motioned for Quinton to follow, and crawled behind a large boulder. Quinton followed, coming out into a small cove hollowed into the cave wall, in which a pantry had been built. The shelves were stocked with cans of food, but much to Quinton's horror, a large majority of it consisted of baby food. "Dear God…" Quinton picked up a jar of baby food, and looked back down the corridor where the dead bodies had been. "She was pregnant. They built this fortress to protect their baby… and Apokolips came in and butchered her…" Quinton fell against the wall, feeling nauseous. "She was pregnant…" he thought back to three months prior, the night at Corey's base where he and Flo had spent the night together. "Oh no… oh please God no…" he sunk onto the floor, clutching his scalp. "Is this what she wanted me to find?" His hands were shaking so violently that he dropped the jar of baby food, only vaguely aware of the sound of it shattering at his feet. "Pregnant…"

"Dude, are you alright?" Kio knelt down to meet his eyes, "You don't look so good."

Suddenly, the sound of thrusters outside permeated the cave, echoing from the stony walls. Prome peered out the mouth of the cave and called, "Guys, we need to get out of here…"

"What is it?" Kio questioned.

"Apokolips ship, headed this way… fast."

"Damn it…" Quinton got on his feet, wobbly, disconcerted. "Not now. I can't deal with this shit right now…" He ran a hand through his hair, putting all of his energy into trying to collect his thoughts. Protect the Children. He looked down to Kio and Prome; "They want you two. That's why they're here."

"Why us?" Kio cocked an eyebrow, "What makes us so special?"

"You don't remember what happened before you two passed out? During the fight at the Clock Tower?"

"Nope," Prome shook his head. "It's all really fuzzy."

Quinton thought back to Firestorm, the being that the two children had merged into when their lives were threatened. He considered explaining it to them, hoping that perhaps they could do it again, but logic dictated that the risk of failure greatly outweighed the chance of success in that endeavor. Instead, he began to formulate an escape plan, knowing full well that they wouldn't survive a fight. Think, Quinton. Think. Analyze your surroundings; what resources are available to you? He took inventory of other items in the pantry; diapers, baby blankets, baby powder; all sorts of products stored as preparation for the couple's coming child… the child they never got to have. "Kio, I need you to ice the entrance."

"But there's no other way out of here!"

"Just do it. Trust me."

"Okay…" Kio approached the mouth of the cave, held out his hands, and unleashed a burst of blue energy. The temperature in the cave instantly dropped, and the blue convalesced at the opening of the cave, growing into a thick, jagged wall of ice that completely sealed them off from the outside. This stopped any light from entering the cave, rendering the area pitch dark. Prome created two balls of fire, one in each hand, to illuminate the cavern in a basking orange glow. "What now?"

"Go drag the two corpses out of the tunnel and into this area."

"What? That's disgusting!" Kio objected, throwing up his hands. "I'm not doing that!"

"Do you want to end up like them?"

"Well, no…"

"You can put a layer of ice along the floor so that it's easier to drag them along; less friction. Just get them over here. While you're doing that…" Quinton found a wooden crib shoved into the far end of the pantry, and began breaking the bars off of the frame.

"Why are you destroying a crib?"

"There's no time to explain, okay? Just do what I tell you." Quinton grabbed the boxes of diapers and baby oil, tossing them to Prome. "You can empty those boxes out and set them on fire for light, and then fill all of the diapers with baby powder. Be sure to fill as many as you can," Quinton ordered as he continued to break apart the baby crib.

"Are you sure you have a plan? This all seems really pointless," Prome mumbled as he went to work pouring baby powder into empty diapers.

"When your resources are limited, you need to improvise," Quinton readjusted his glasses, "And improvising is what I do best."

Darkseid slouched into his throne, the wound in his chest from Connor's radion arrow gradually becoming worse. "When I commanded that you heal me, I expected that I would in fact be healed…" he growled to Flo, in her Apokoliptian armor as she ran a glowing hand over the wound.

"I'm trying," Flo made every attempt to bury the irritation in her tone, not wanting to anger Lord Darkseid. "I've never had to work with anything like this before. It might take a few days to get the proper remedy balanced; lots of trial and error."

"I suggest you expedite the process before the delay outweighs your value," Darkseid warned. "And what of your progress in finding the experiments, Khione and Prometheus?"

"Kalibak has a lead on their location," Flo pursed her lips. "He's leading a squad there now."

"And of Thomas Grayson and his allies?"

"We… are uncertain of their whereabouts, Lord Darkseid. But we have several teams searching and-"

"There are always teams searching. This game of cat and mouse has gone on too long. I want them found, and I want them dead."

"Lord Darkseid, we may have a more severe problem on our hands…" Desaad's voice resounded as he entered the throne room.

"Explain yourself."

"We've received word from our scouts that Troy Prince is mobilizing forces… it appears as though he is building his own team, my liege."

"A team? Consisting of who?"

"He has thus far been largely successful at keeping his allies under the radar, but-"

"Who?"

"…we have footage of Troy conversing with Alexander Luthor, as well as Synthia O'Brian, the daughter of the former Earth hero known as Plastic Man, and Jack Quinzel, a young vigilante who claims to be the child of The Joker. We believe there are more, but, as I said… Troy has done a fine job of covering his tracks up until now. We believe he could have been readying these forces for at least a year."

"His stint undercover with Thomas Grayson's team was, no doubt, a trial run to see which of these 'League Kids' were skilled enough to enter his ranks. Troy is acting soley on the orders of his… benefactor. And it would appear that benefactor is building a task force to oppose us."

"Lord Darkseid, if I may…" Flo interrupted, "Who is Troy's benefactor? Who is he working for?"

After a long pause, Darkseid spoke, "The last major threat left on Earth. Someone who I should have destroyed when I had the opportunity nearly two decades ago." Darkseid then looked to Flo imperiously and commanded, "This development has pushed our deadlines forward. We need to see that the potential threat of Firestorm is eliminated. Send your attack dog."

"Sire, Ethan is recharging. He expended a lot of energy during the battle at Central City, and-"

"For him to kill Khione and Prometheus should require no great deal of energy, provided you ensure that he wastes no time and does not allow them to merge into Firestorm."

"But-"

"Do not contradict me again, Atlantean. Bear in mind that you owe your continued existence to my judgment; it would be wise of you not to question it."

"So the database stored in Chris's arm could potentially give us access to all of the information Apokolips has?" Allie Queen held the piece of machinery with a sense of bewilderment and even a degree of reverence; a smile appeared on her otherwise sickly face. "Even in death you're showing off that big brain of yours, Christopher."

"You just found it lying in the rubble?" Tommy asked, eyebrow raised.

"Yeah! Awesome, right?" Sky grinned, expecting praise.

"How can we be certain it wasn't planted there by Apokoliptian scouts?" Connor chimed in, spinning an arrow on its head to occupy his busy hands. "For all we know, that thing could be pointing us directly toward traps or, worse, signaling our location to them!"

"As much as I hate to admit it, he's got a point," Tommy sighed. He turned his head to Kavita and asked, "You're our expert on all things Apokoliptian. What do you think?"

"This doesn't seem like a setup to me…" Kavita answered after a moment's contemplation. "Don't forget, Darkseid is always underestimating human intelligence. To him, we might as well be a bunch of braindead apes. If this device was buried underneath rubble and hidden like Sky and Jesse say, then it's probably legit. Darkseid would have had it placed right out in plain sight where it would be easy for us to find."

"Maybe this thing can even help us find Q!" Jesse zoomed by Allie, grabbing the arm out of her hand in a blur, and waved it to the group. "Come on, why are we still sitting around?! The database that Chris left here can lead us to Quinton, food, water, Quinton, weapons… Quinton!"

"Jesse," Tommy cut in loudly, but not aggressively. "We need to be careful. We're weaker right now than we've ever been, and behaving recklessly will get us killed in a heartbeat."

"But…" Jesse slouched his shoulders, "Guys, come on… we can't just sit on this…"

"I didn't say we wouldn't act," Tommy took the arm carefully. "We just have to be smart about it. If we go charging in somewhere, we're dead."

"I think we should sit tight for now, wait a couple more days until the search for us thins out a little," Mckayla opined.

"I agree," Kavita nodded.

"We're wasting so much time!" Jesse threw his arms up in the air, and they were quickly grabbed by Zatina, a gentle smile on her face.

"Calm down," she whispered.

"My best friend is missing," Jesse shook his head, "I'll calm down when we find him."

"Where are we now?" Alex questioned, following behind Troy patiently as the duo stepped off of a small speedboat and onto an island shore.

"Alex, before we go any further, I need you to promise me something, okay?" Troy turned around to face the young Luthor, utter seriousness in his eyes. "I need to know that your loyalty to Tommy is dead. Because once we step beyond this threshold, there's no turning back to him."

"I never possessed any loyalty to Tommy," Alex shook his head. "My loyalties have always been my own."

"Well now they belong to me," Troy spoke with a threatening inflexion. "And if you can prove that, then I'll let you in on the big secret. You'll get to meet my employer."

"How can I prove it, then?"

"All in due time, Alex," Troy smiled. "Until then, you'll have to settle for meeting my employees, instead. They're not far." The two proceeded along the island, silent yet rife with tensions. After a brief trek through the skeletal remains of what had once been a forest, they came to the ruins of an enormous structure. The sign above the doorway, which now hung decrepit and rusted out, read; "Arkham Asylum."

"Arkham?" Alex's eyes widened in surprise. "Why are we at Arkham?"

"This is where my friends like to hang out."

"You have friends?"

"More or less," Troy pushed open the heavy, rusted steel door. "Coming? I'm sure they're just dying to meet you."

Troy led Alex through a series of dimly lit corridors, the walls rotting, the stench of death seeping out from the building's very foundations. Empty cells hung open, the graffiti on the walls left untouched by the destructive specter of time.

Finally, they came to the door of what had been the asylum's library. "Because I like you, Alex, I'm going to warn you ahead of time…" Troy grasped the door handle, "Some of these people might try to kill you."

"I'm used to it."

With a grin, Troy pushed open the door, inciting a slow, ominous creak. "Ladies and gentlemen," Troy waved inside, "Meet our newest recruit, Alexander Luthor."

The group within the library called to mind a demented circus. Troy began to introduce them; "Alex, meet Jack," he waved to a boy sitting atop a tall bookshelf, with his arm cradled atop one knee, the other leg dangling freely; he had pale skin and bright red lips. The majority of his hair was dyed green, though his bangs, which hung over his eyes, were a crimson red. He wore a purple hoodie with ripped sleeves, revealing the sleeves of a tighter shirt underneath; one sleeve red, the other black. Two jingling bells dangled from his collar, and he wore what looked like a utility belt, each compartment a different color.

Below him, leaned against the same bookshelf, was a figure wearing a bright red hat, an orange-tinted pair of glasses, a yellow jacket, green gloves, blue jeans, and violet-colored shoes with indigo laces. He had a cocky smile, and was chewing gum that smelled strongly of some sort of fruit flavor. Troy introduced him as Lucian.

Next was a girl who Troy identified as Natisha, with her feet propped up on the table, reading a book. She was a small girl, Alex judged her to be about ninety pounds, and had a strong analytical flare behind her steely gray eyes. Then came Amal, who was easily the youngest person in the room, looking to be about twelve. He had dark skin and appeared to be of Egyptian descent. He wore a black hoodie and a shimmering lightning bolt necklace. Then there came Melissa, a girl sitting in a yoga pose on the floor. She wore a pair of yoga pants and a black tank top, with sleek black hair tumbling over her pretty face. Her smile revealed sharpened canine teeth.

And finally, there was JJ, a red haired girl with shimmering green eyes, a yellow t-shirt, red shorts and a worn pair of running shoes. JJ stood off to the side by herself, and watched Alex intently, her expression devoid of emotion. She seemed interested in him, but he wasn't quite sure why.

"Jack, Lucian, Natisha, Amal, Melissa, and JJ," Troy repeated, "But in the field, you'll know them as Jester, Spectrum, Queen Bee, Thunderstrike, Catgirl, and Apple, respectively."

"Luthor, huh?" Jack jumped down from the bookshelf, approaching Alex. "Lot more hair than the Luthor I'm familiar with," he withdrew a playing card with a razor edge, "Maybe I outta' give him a cut?" Jack smiled wide, but Alex simply stared back at him, expressing no emotion. At this, Jack put the card away and grinned, "Relax. That was a joke."

"Jack thinks himself to be rather funny," Melissa spoke; "The rest of wouldn't mind cutting out his tongue."

"This one time, I put Jack in a box," Lucian grinned. "Unfortunately, the post office wasn't running that day."

"Good one L," Jack laughed.

"Were you expecting anything less?" The two high-fived.

"Troy has told us quite a bit about you, Alex…" Natisha closed her book. "Apparently, you're rather intelligent."

"I know a thing or two."

"We'll see."

"Is it true what they're saying?" Amal looked up, his youthful face adorned with intrigue. He was playing with his lightning bolt necklace, tumbling it between his fingers. "Has Darkseid been wounded?"

"To the best of my knowledge," Alex nodded.

"I'm going to be the one to kill him," Amal said, determination thick in his tone.

"We'll see about that kiddo," Melissa laughed, roughing up Amal's hair.

"I will! Just wait and see!"

"Who are they?" Alex asked, questioning Troy.

"My team," Troy smiled.

"Are they League kids?"

"Mmm… close."

"What the hell do you mean close?"

"Well, the beautiful miss Melissa, here, is the daughter of Catwoman, for starters."

"Melissa Kyle, at your service," the girl shook Alex's hand politely.

Troy patted Lucian on the back, saying, "And our colorful friend here is the offspring of the hero Starfire, father unknown. So more of a Titans-Kid, really."

"Guilty as charged," Lucian shrugged, the grin ever-present on his face as he blew a bubble.

"Amal, our enthusiastic young lad here, doesn't have any special parentage that we know of, but after his aunt was killed by Apokoliptian forces in Egypt, well… he found something marvelous. I would have him show it to you, but it's a bit risky while we're inside. You'll see his party trick soon enough."

"Yeah, when I use it to kill Darkseid!" Amal shouted, enthusiastic.

"Then we've got the misses Natisha Irons, granddaughter of the hero called Steel. She's the brains of our little operation; she's not only an expert in robotics, but she's replicated the shrinking technology used by The Atom, back in the day."

"Wasn't really too complicated," Natisha shrugged.

Troy began to continue, "And then we've got-"

"Me!" Jack stepped in front of him. "Jack Quinzel, son of the Joker, at your service."

"So he claims," Melissa rolled her eyes. "I think he's full of shit. Who would reproduce with that lunatic?"

"Your mommy banged a freak in a bat suit for years, so…"

"Don't worry," Troy grinned, "She's not mine and Tommy's long-lost-sister, I checked."

"My mother… had her fair share of suitors, yes," Melissa folded her arms. "What of it?"

"Then there's JJ…" Troy looked to the corner, at the red-haired girl, still fixating her gaze on Alex. "But she likes to protect her secrets. I'm sure you of all people can understand that, Alex."

"Yeah…" Alex looked back at JJ, studying her face. "I most certainly do."

"I've been assembling this team for just over a year now," Troy continued. "I plucked the most promising young people from all corners of the Earth and rallied them up in secret."

"Is that why you went undercover in Tommy's team? A recruitment job?"

"There were many reasons for my stint in Tommy's team, but that was among them."

"I'm actually curious as to your results."

"Tommy… more bark than he is bite, and far too hard to control. He was an immediate no. Allie, on the other hand… I'd like to have her on the team, but she's too loyal to him. I tried breaking those ties, but it didn't work out, so she was a no-go. Ethan was a major object of interest, but now he's under Apokoliptian control, as long as Flo is a factor… and of course, she's out of the question. Kavita could be valuable, since she spent so much time with Apokolips, but for that same reason, I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her. Mckayla was virtually useless up until recently, when she got ahold of that Green Lantern ring, and by then my cover was already blown. Connor, like Tommy, is too much of a loose cannon. Chris and Corey died, and I have no use for corpses. Zatina can barely control her own abilities as it is, I don't need that type of baggage following us. Sky is powerful, but he's so damn naïve that he'd be an accident waiting to happen against our more manipulative enemies. And that brings us to Quinton and Jesse… those two, I am monumentally interested in. Quinton's ability to improvise and adapt to impossible situations is remarkable, and Jesse is a fountain of untapped potential. I wasn't extremely interested in him until his little stint in the Phantom Zone, when the son of a bitch tore open a damn dimensional rift. Fascinating. The possibility of an instantaneous transport mechanism for my team would be invaluable."

"You'd be wasting your time," Alex shook his head. "Quinton grew up with Tommy and Allie, you'd be hard pressed to make him betray them. And Jesse… I shouldn't even have to explain that one."

"In due time, Alex," Troy smiled, glancing at JJ again. "I have plans for Mr. West. In due time."

"And Quinton?"

"Quinton…" Troy's eyes flashed, "I have Quinton running a little errand for me right now, in fact. He just doesn't know it yet."

Kalibak found the entrance to the cavern frozen solid, the wall of ice several feet thick. Snarling, Kalibak took a step backward, swung his arm to the ice wall and shouted, "Open it!" A horde of Parademons immediately opened fire on the ice barrier, blowing it to smithereens. Kalibak roared, "Attack!" Parademons swarmed into the cavern, with Kalibak screaming orders behind them; "Take the two experiments alive, and kill anyone else!"

Standing in the dimly lit center of the cave were two adult figures, slouched over, cowering. Burning with bloodthirst, the Parademons attacked the figures, ripping them apart. But it didn't take long for Kalibak to realize that something was amiss; he ran forward, light in hand, and saw that the figures the Parademons attacked were, in fact, two long-dead corpses, their bodies held upright by wooden bars from a baby cradle. "What is this nonsense?" Kalibak fumed, picking up a wooden chunk of the crib. "Where are Khione and Prometheus?"

"Right here, scuzzball!" Prome's voice erupted from the shadows, and Kalibak looked upward to see diaper sailing at him. The projectile struck his face, bursting into a cloud of baby powder. Kalibak coughed, flinging his arm to fan the powder away, and more diapers rained, coating him and the Parademons in powder.

"Insolent welts!" Kalibak shrieked, straining his eyes through the sting of the baby powder to see Quinton, Kio and Prome lined up at the mouth of the cave, flinging diapers. "Did you really believe such pathetic tactics would be of any harm to me? The mighty Kalibak?!" He aimed his club at them, and began charging a blast of energy to fire.

"Actually, no." Quinton spoke casually, calmly. "Here's a Q Fact, Kalibak…" he took a step backward, "Baby powder is flammable."

"Huh?" Kalibak's eyes widened just as he fired the blast of energy from his club. The blast instantly ignited the thick smog of powder in the air, engulfing Kalibak and the Parademons in a ball of fire. The villains screamed, thrashing about as the flames consumed them. The Parademons fired off blasts wildly, driven to panic, and began to collapse the cave around them, causing chunks of debris to begin falling.

"Go!" Quinton leapt out the mouth of the cave, and flung forth a sheet of baby blankets he had tied together. Kio, sitting on Quinton's shoulders, raised his arms and generated a powerful fire in the palms of his hands, sending up hot air to raise up the blanket sheet as Quinton and Prome held its two ends, building a makeshift parachute.

After floating through the air for several minutes, the three touched down in a densely wooded area, and hit the ground running. "I don't get it," Kio huffed, "Why are they after us?"

"They want Firestorm," Quinton shouted back.

"What the heck is a Firestorm?"

"It's a tornado made of fire, stupid!" Prome spat at his brother.

"Nuh-uh, that's a Firenado!"

"Shut up and listen to me!" Quinton whipped around, grabbing the two children. "When the Clock Tower was attacked, you two merged into one being, Firestorm. You saved everyone's lives, and then you both blacked out as soon as the fusion ended. That's why Cadmus created you, you were designed to fight Darkseid. Darkseid wants you out of the way, and he won't stop until he has that, so you need to stop fighting, and do what I tell you, okay?"

"What are you talking about dude?" Prome frowned.

"This guy's nuts!" Kio pulled back.

"Uh, okay, let me try to figure out how you might understand this…" Quinton planted his face into his palm, thinking. "Have either of you ever heard of Voltron?"

"What the heck is a Voltron?"

"Alright, so that approach is shot."

Suddenly, the air around them seemingly began to heat up, the temperature skyrocketing. "What the…?" Quinton wiped sweat from his brow, and looked up to see storm clouds rolling into the sky. "Shit. We need to keep moving, lay low and don't make a sound."

"What's happeni-" before Prome could finish his question, a bolt of lightning exploded from the clouds and struck the ground between the two boys, blowing them in opposite directions. Through the cloud of smoke, a figure manifested where the lightning had struck; there stood Ethan Pierce, eyes glowing a deep blue, the Atlantean markings radiating all over his body.

"Quinton…" Ethan's voice was distorted, like a conglomerate of Flo's voice and his own. "You just don't know how to die, do you?"

"Do you ever get tired of using men as puppets, Flo?" Quinton spoke calmly, unfazed, hands slumped into his jacket pockets. "First it was me, now Ethan, and you're gunning for Firestorm next. That's technically two at once. Never knew you were into that."

"What makes you think we seek to control the Firestorm project? Why not destroy it?" Ethan held out his hand toward Kio, a surge of electricity radiating in his palm.

"Darkseid laps up power like a junkie needing a fix. He won't waste his precious opportunity to have their power at his disposal. Of course, I'm assuming you can only control one person at a time, since you had your paws on every single one of us at once point or another and only Ethan got brainwashed… which means you're probably planning to kill him as soon as you transfer the spell to Firestorm."

"Still prattling on as usual I see," the Ethan/Flo voice scoffed.

"Of course, by that same vein of logic, you wouldn't be able to control a separated Kio and Prome… no, you need the whole package. Which means that before you can seal the deal, you have to draw out Firestorm. Force them to fuse. Is that why you sent me here?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You don't know how to make them fuse into Firestorm, but you think I can figure it out. So you send me here through a Boom Tube, then you sick your brainwashed attack dog on me and rough me up a bit, so I have no choice but to make them fuse and save my life. Only then you turn tail and switch the spell, take over Firestorm, and use the most powerful being on Earth to kill me and Ethan on site. Is that it? The master plan?"

"Actually, Quinton, I didn't send you here and I have no idea how you got here," Ethan's face contorted into a smile, "But now that you lay it out for me, that isn't such a bad plan."

"Oh," Quinton frowned, adjusting his glasses. "That was… unanticipated. So to be clear, you aren't pregnant either?"

"What?"

"So much for that theory."

"Idiot," Ethan/Flo growled. Ethan raised his palm, prepared to blast Quinton. His eyes darted back and forth between the battered children on either side of him, and he spoke, "Look away kiddies. I have to teach my ex how to die."

Allie and Tommy fell against a slanted chunk of debris, enraptured in a kiss. Pulling back carefully, Allie whispered into his ear, "Tommy, if I were to do something really, really underhanded and wrong, would you forgive me for it?"

"Uh… like what?"

"Like… say, coating my lips in a sleeping potion put together by Zatina, so that you would fall asleep and I could take Chris's arm to go look for Quinton?"

"Allie, what are you-" Tommy yawned, becoming drowsy. Struggling to keep his eyes open, he gasped, "Allie! You didn't-" she cut him off by resuming the kiss.

"I'm really, really sorry," she said as his body began to go limp. "You'll wake up in about six hours, okay? And then I promise I'll make this up to you however you want."

"Allie…" Tommy forced the word out of his mouth as his muscles fell into a state of borderline immobility.

"Love you," she kissed him on the cheek as he finally succumbed to the drug and passed out. Allie propped him gently against the wall, and then moved for Tommy's storage section, where he hid all of his belongings beneath a chunk of rubble; his knife, his journal, and now, Chris's arm database. She took the arm, covered up his supplies again, stopped at the reservoir to wash off her lips, and then moved up to the entrance to meet with Jesse, Zatina, and Sky. "Did you guys get the others?"

"Yup," Zatina nodded. "Mckayla, Kavita and Connor are all out cold."

"Did you get the arm?" Sky asked enthusiastically.

"Right here," Allie held up the severed cybernetic limb. "Wasn't too hard, I just had to spy on Tommy for a little bit and find out where he kept it."

"Thank you so much for this, you guys," Jesse took the arm in hand, a smile on his face.

"Well, I couldn't stand seeing you sad…" Zatina grinned.

"I want to find Quinton just as badly as you do," Allie added. "And Tommy… I know he means well, and I know we're horribly short on resources at the moment, but if we keep up this whole extreme-caution thing, we're going to starve to death in this stupid tunnel. Maybe this will be a wakeup call."

"Guys, I kinda' feel bad about this…" Sky dropped his gaze, playing with his hair. "I mean, they're all going to be really unhappy when they wake up."

"Not if we come back with something we need," Allie interjected.

"Alright, so I'm looking over this database…" Jesse ran his hand at super speed over the arm's keypad, "It looks like Apokolips just deployed a large attack squad to the forest not far from our old hideout at the Clock Tower. And there are reports going back and forth about League Kids present at the scene."

"We're all accounted for except Quinton!" Sky shrugged, "This is even easier than we thought."

"How would he end up there?" Allie frowned, "That's got to be ten thousand miles from Central City."

"Could it maybe be Troy who they're reporting?" Zatina suggested.

"If that's the case, then we're definitely going. I want another shot at him," Allie said.

"Well, improbable or not, this is our best chance at finding Quinton…" Jesse smiled, "Beam us up, Z."

"What a horrible use of a Star Trek reference. You should be ashamed," Zatina smiled, taking a step back from the group. "Nruter su ot ruo remrof esab!"

A purple portal opened in the center of the group, leading to the ruins of the old Clock Tower. "Ladies first," Sky offered, stepping aside for Allie.

"Well…" she took a deep breath, "Here goes nothing."

Not long after introductions had been made, Troy called his team to the council room; the former Arkham office of the late Dr. Hugo Strange. Soon Troy Prince, Alex Luthor, Jack Quinzel, Natisha Irons, Melissa Kyle, Amal Dakur, Lucien, and JJ were all gathered around a table, waiting for Troy to speak.

JJ, the redheaded girl, continued to fixate her gaze upon Alex. There was something oddly familiar about her, but Alex couldn't place it. Before he could think any further about the matter, Troy began speaking. "We're here to discuss our planning phase," he announced.

"Does that mean I can discuss my plan to poison the water and watch you all slowly die around me? Because that's about to take effect," Jack smiled, and then noticed Amal turning pale and chuckled, "Relax. That was a joke."

"Focus up, Jack," Troy placed a detailed map of an Apokoliptian building before them. "This is an Orphanage in the Florida Keys called Hell's Gate. It's the second biggest Apokoliptian Orphanage on Earth, after The Hole. And it's where they took your sister for extraction after she was captured, Alex."

"I've looked into it before," Alex nodded. "They may only be the second largest Orphanage, but they have the number one highest fatality rate. Getting sent to Hell's Gate is a death sentence."

"Correct," Troy nodded. "A lot of kids are dying there, even by Apokolips' standards. As a result, they're turning out very few warriors, and with Apokolips officially at war with Thomas Grayson's team, soldiers are something they can't afford a shortage of. So, to try and decrease the mortality rate at Hell's Gate, they're sending an inspector from Apokolips there tomorrow to try and improve the facility's conditions. Any guesses as to who that inspector is?"

"Hmm… does he, at any point, shout Go Go Gadget?" Lucian shrugged.

"Good one L."

"Thanks J," Jack and Lucien high-fived.

"Will you two shut up?" Natisha rolled her eyes, "Troy is trying to speak."

"The inspector, ladies and gentlemen, is the good mother herself…" Troy slammed a photograph of Granny Goodness onto the table.

"She's going to be there?" Alex gasped.

"Calm down tiger," Melissa grinned, "I've been to Hell's Gate. Security is tighter than Nightwing's ass. And they'll no doubt double down on security detail while Granny's in town."

"What exactly is our goal, here?" Lucien questioned.

"Granny has something in her possession that we need," Troy said, pointing to a pendant around Granny's neck. "A reliable source has informed us that her pendant contains a database of all the kids in Orphanages, both on Earth and on Apokolips, with detailed information on each one of them. Which means, with it, I can pinpoint who I need for my army."

"Army?" Natisha frowned, "So we're building a child army? That's the master plan?"

"Only a small part of it," Troy grinned. "Look at this way; it's taken me over a year to assemble the seven of you… with this pendant, I'll be able to quadruple our ranks in a quarter of that time."

"So how do we get in?" Lucien asked.

"We'll split into two different teams. I will lead Alpha Team, consisting of myself, Natisha, Lucien, and Amal. Beta Team will be led by Melissa, consisting of Alex, Jack, and JJ. Beta Team will be tasked with getting in and shutting down the building's security, here…" Troy pointed to a highlighted area at the center of the map, "Their control unit. Natisha has designed a virus that will shut them down for ten minutes. With Alex's EMP, we can triple that. That will leave Alpha Team an approximate thirty minute window, in which we can take out Granny's defenses and get the pendant. And once we do…" Troy looked up to meet Alex's eyes; "Alex will kill her."

"Why him?" Natisha raised an eyebrow.

"Consider it his initiation."

"I don't like it, Troy…" Melissa brushed a strand of hair from her face. "We've put a lot of effort into keeping ourselves hidden. Why come rushing out of the woodwork so carelessly now?"

"If they'd known what kind of forces I had assembled here on Earth, Granny Goodness would never risk leaving her seat on Apokolips. Now that she's finally here, this is our opportunity to make our move. We'll take her by surprise and get out quickly and efficiently. Any other questions?"

Jack raised his hand politely, and Troy pointed to him; "Jack?"

"Yes, Troy, I was wondering, in what part of this ingenious plan do you account for us all getting fucking killed? I must have missed it."

"Ye of little faith," Amal piped in, shaking his head. He fidgeted with his lightning bolt necklace, and looked up at their leader. "I trust you, Troy."

"Trusting Troy has gotten us far up to this point," Natisha shrugged. "I'm game."

"Well…" Melissa sighed, "All my instincts are telling me that its time to pull out."

"She got that instinct from her mother," Jack smiled, inciting a snicker from Lucien.

"I guess…" Melissa smiled, looking up at Troy. "I guess I can't really refuse, since you've made me a leader and all."

"So are all of us in agreement?" Troy looked to JJ, who simply nodded. "Good. And Alex…" Troy rolled up the map, meeting Alex's gaze again. "If you perform well on this mission… I'll introduce you to my employer."

"I look forward to it."

A/N: And the stage is set! I've already gotten to work on the next chapter, and I will probably have it up early next week, delays be damned! In the next chapter, we'll get to know Troy's team a little bit better, and there's a great battle against the brainwashed Ethan. I have plenty of surprises in store for you, so stay tuned!