Supergirl:

 The Apokolips Agenda

 Part 30

 by DarkMark

Steve Dayton, alias Mento, had sat in his helmet and costume for so long it was beginning to reek.

When the Phantom Stranger warped himself, Raven, and Changeling into his mansion room, he stiffened, and stared at them like a confronted animal.  Which, in a very real sense, he was.

Changeling found that he couldn’t emotionally prepare himself for the shock.  The room was strewn with trays of half-eaten food and soda cans which, opened, lay on their side and stained the white carpeting.  The room had a terrible stench, and he wondered if the house staff was even allowed entrance anymore.  He guessed not.  He also thought of Howard Hughes.

“Steve, it’s me,” he said.  “It’s Gar.  We’ve come...we’ve come to help you.”

Raven said, “Please let me through, Steve.  I have come to try and heal you.”

Mento responded by standing up, pointing at them, making his dark-blue-and-gold headgear crackle, and aiming a killing mental bolt at them.  But the man in the cape and hat stepped forward, held up his own hand, seemed to catch the bolt in his palm, and negated it.

“Enough, Steve Dayton,” he said.

Mento spoke.  “Who are you?” he said, in a cracked voice.

“A stranger.”

The Phantom Stranger guided Raven towards him.  “You will allow her to lay hands upon you,” he said.

“No,” said Dayton, nervously.  “No!”

The Stranger just looked at him, and Dayton subsided.  Shakily, he sat back down.  Gar Logan went up to him, knelt by his side, and took his hand.  “It’s going to be all right, Steve,” he said.  “It’s really going to be all right.”

Raven stood before Mento.  “I will attempt a healing, Steve.  I must lift your helmet off, first.”

“I!  I, I, I, I!”  He looked, again, like a fox facing hunters.  But the Phantom Stranger spoke again.

“We know what pain you suffered, Steve Dayton.  When John Constantine made you behold the Dark—“

“The Dark!”  Dayton almost screamed.  “The Dark!  No!”

“—it broke your mind.  Now we must restore it.  Let Raven remove your helmet.”

Mento was almost shedding tears.  He shook, trembling like a man with a fever.  Gar Logan’s green hand tightened about his, and he hoped he could have a calming effect.  Nonetheless, he did not resist as Raven’s slim hands went to the stays fastening his helmet to the neck of his costume.  She undid them and, gently, lifted away the helmet.  Below it, Dayton’s hair was greasy and matted.  She ignored it.

“Much has been required of you, Raven,” said the Stranger.  “You have saved the lives of two Supergirls, and helped save the life of Selina Kyle in weeks past.  We are not ignorant of the strain it has placed on you.  This must be done of your free will.”

Raven knew what the Stranger was referring to.  She was the daughter of Trigon, late demon-lord of another dimension, and placing too much strain on herself might nudge her in the direction of her father.  It was a deadly dance, but, in this, she felt she had no choice.

“I do this of my own will, Stranger,” she said.  “And because he is my friend.”

With that, Raven lay hands on Mento’s head.

Gar and the Stranger saw her head snap back and her face contort as if the demons of Legion were running through her mind, as well they might be.  The poison that had infected Steve Dayton’s mind since the day John Constantine used him as the nexus of a seance was being filtered into her psyche.  That seance had resulted in the fiery deaths of Zatara and Sargon, and, worse yet, from Dayton’s viewpoint, had caused him to behold the very hand of Evil, the entity they called the Dark, and also that of the Light.

It had driven him insane, and made him an enemy of the heroes he had once befriended.

The Stranger himself lay reassuring hands on Raven’s shoulders, and Gar wondered if he was somehow guiding her through the process.  Dayton’s hand was shaking in his as if they were in a California earthquake.  Changeling held on with both of his own hands.

The gauntlet had to be run.

Raven cried out and screamed certain words.  All that Gar could pick out was “darkness, darkness”, and he was glad enough to leave the rest alone.  He was glad he had never seen The Exorcist, or Raven might well have had to heal two minds that day instead of one.

“Dad,” he said to his foster father.  “I love you.  You’ve got to come through this.  For me, and for you.  And for the whole world.”

There was no way of telling how long the process lasted.  But, after a time, Raven went silent, hesitated for a moment, and then collapsed back into the Stranger’s arms.  He held her, tightly, but not without affection.  Her eyes were shadowed by her cloak, but he could smell the sweat of exertion on her.

“Raven,” he said.

“I cannot speak just now,” she said, with an effort.

“Gar,” said another voice.  “Garfield.”

He whipped his head around and stared into the eyes of a very sane-appearing Steve Dayton.

In another second, both of them had their arms wrapped about each other.  They stood hugging each other for a very long time.  Dayton was the one who broke the silence.

“What’s going on here, Gar?  This place looks terrible.  Just like I smell.”

“It’s okay, Dad,” said Changeling.  “It’s okay.”

“Raven,” said Dayton.  “What are you doing here?  And who...I believe I’ve seen you before.”

The Stranger said, “What is the last thing you remember, Steve Dayton?”

“I think...the beginning of that thing with Constantine,” said Dayton, frowning.  “All the other magicians.  We were sitting down at a table, holding hands.  I can’t remember anything after that.”

“It is well,” the Stranger replied.  “We have another mission for you, Steve Dayton.  But not the kind which Constantine sent you on.”

Silence.

“It drove me bonkers, didn’t it?” said Dayton.  “Whatever he did to me, it drove me bonkers.”

Gar Logan, still holding his foster father, drew an uneasy breath.

“The multiverse depends upon you, Steve Dayton,” said the Stranger.  “As Raven saved your mind, so you must save the mind of another.”

“Could it drive me back where I was?”

The Stranger said nothing.

“We...we’ll be with you, Dad,” said Gar.  “It won’t be like it was with Constantine.”

Steve Dayton made a decision.  Gently, he disengaged from Gar Logan.  Then he picked up his helmet, and held it in one hand.

“Let me get a shower first,” he said.  “And then we’ll talk.”

 -S-

On the fringes of the battle, Green Arrow’s unit found itself in trouble.

Like many of the heroes, those who had something in common found themselves fighting side-by-side.  In this case, the group was made up of the Green Arrows and Speedys of Earths One and Two, Black Canary, and Onyx, the girl-warrior from Star City.

The five of them were facing a troupe of villains who had coalesced for the purpose of taking them out.  Among their number were Slingshot, GA of Earth-1's old enemy, who employed twin slings to hurl metal spheres with deadly accuracy and intent; the Rainbow Archer, whose skill with a bow was almost the equal of the Arrow’s; Bull’s-Eye, an aging villain from Earth-2 who had been the bane of that world’s Green Arrow and Speedy for years, and who affected a clown costume along with his bow and arrow; Merlyn, the master archer and killer who had long been a member of the League of Assassins; the Velvet Tiger, an old enemy of Batgirl’s who had improved her athletic and fighting prowess considerably and, eager for a win, was giving Black Canary a tough time; and Cheshire, the poison-fingernailed martial artist whose slashes Onyx was barely managing to dodge.

The two opposing groups faced each other on a battlefield that was one of Metropolis’s industrial parks.  The heroes, for the moment, were on the defensive.

“Stand up so I can kill you, Arrow,” called out Slingshot.  “Or would you rather somebody murder you from ambush?”

The Earth-One Green Arrow, crouched behind a car with his Earth-Two counterpart, called back, “You feel like ambushing, go ahead, pardner.  Just make it that much easier to turn you into a pincushion.”

The elder GA looked at him curiously.  “You wouldn’t really do that, would you?”

Sotto voce, Green Arrow said, “Nope.  I accidentally killed a man once and that’s all I’m ever gonna do.  It was terrible.  But he doesn’t have to know that, does he?”

The old Green Arrow, still in his short-sleeved green costume, stuck his head and bow above the roof of the car momentarily and let fly a shaft.  It blasted away part of the wall Merlyn and company were using for cover.  It also earned him a considerable knock on the side of the head from one of the ball bearings Slingshot used for ammo, and a couple of arrows from the bad guys that barely missed.  GA groaned and fell back.  The Earth-One Ollie Queen caught him.

“Damn,” said the Arrow, noticing the blood from the scratch on the older man’s temple.

“I’ve taken worse,” said the old Arrow, touching the blood flow with the finger of his red glove and looking at it.  “We’ve got to hit them with a flanking movement.”

“Speedy One and Two are already tryin’ that,” said the younger GA.  “It’s about time we hit these suckers back, William Tell style.”

“I met William Tell.”

“I met Robin Hood.  I’ve done time-travel, too.”

“Then let’s go to it,” said the older man.  “Yipe!”  The outcry was prompted by one of Bull’s-Eye’s arrows, which had gone right under the undercarriage of the car and had barely missed his leg.

Young GA was burning through the lock of the car door with an acetylene arrow.  “You know how to hotwire a car?”

“Absolutely.  I learned during the War.”

“One of these days I’ve gotta sit down and trade war stories with you.  Even if you are a Republican.”

“Could we leave politics out of this till we’re done?”  Another couple of arrows shot through the windows of the car, making them brush glass shards off their shoulders.  The door lock finally parted and young GA opened it carefully, staying clear of the molten metal.  Old GA got inside, stuck his head under the dash, and, stripping wires with the sharp head of an arrow, had the Oldsmobile thrumming to life in a second.

“Get in,” he said.

The two of them climbed in and set the car in motion.  They headed it for the partly-demolished wall behind which at least two of their foemen crouched.  Old GA drove and young GA rolled down the window on his side, leaned out, and shot more arrows at them.  He glanced around for a second and saw the older archer using one hand to drive, with his head, arm, and bow out of the window.  He was holding the bow with one hand and was pulling back the string with his teeth, in which he held the feathered end of an arrow.  The old man let fly.

“Man,” said young GA, “I admire you.”

“You oughta see my kid,” said old GA.

The arrow arced over the wall and sent up a plume of smoke.  Gas arrow, thought young GA.  “Get ready to ditch,” he warned.

It was an apt warning.  The denizens of the wall, Bull’s-Eye, Slingshot, and Merlyn, came out from behind it, coughing, gagging, and crying.  But Merlyn still had the capacity to notch a shaft and let it fly at the car’s engine block.

Young Green Arrow grabbed his other-self by the collar, threw open the door, and tumbled them both out to a rough, rolling landing on the grass-covered ground.  He covered his partner and lay face down.  The incendiary shaft Merlyn had launched into the car’s engine caused the vehicle to explode.  A bit of burning debris hit young GA on the back.  He cried out.  The older man brushed it away, then slapped his glove on the ground repeatedly to put out the flame.

The Earth-One archer gritted his teeth against the pain of his burn, pulled another arrow from his quiver, and launched it at their foes.  The tip expanded into a boxing glove which was inflated with gas from a small, hidden tank, at enough pressure to make the surface of the glove sufficiently solid.  It contacted Bull’s-Eye in the jaw.  The clown archer went over backward, his legs flying up in the air.  He hit the ground and didn’t come up.

Slingshot loosed another pair of ball bearings, which young Green Arrow barely managed to dodge.  Merlyn had another arrow at his bow, and old Green Arrow could see its warhead.  High explosive, to be sure.

“You’re dead,” said Merlyn, with a businesslike tone.

And as he said it, two arrows whooshed in from overhead, dropped two intertwining nets, and tangled both him and Slingshot inextricably.  Merlyn, his eyes still tearing, swore loudly.

“Watch the language, brother,” said Speedy of Earth-Two, emerging from hiding.

Speedy of Earth-One did the same and grinned.  “That’ll teach ‘em to ignore the next generation.”

Old Green Arrow raised his head and looked at young GA.  “What’d I tell you?”

The Emerald Archer of Earth-One got up and gave the red-clad heroes a thumb’s-up.  “You done good, kids.”

“Not good enough,” said another voice.

The crew turned to see where it had come from.  The Rainbow Archer stood on the roof of an industrial building nearby.  He had a telescopic sight and an arrow with a warhead that looked just as deadly as the one Merlyn had been packing.

He was smiling.

But not for more than one second.

A gunshot rang out.  It struck the Archer’s bow, demolishing it.  The multi-colored maverick gaped for an instant, his weapon gone to flinders in his hand.  As the deadly arrow dropped, another shot was heard from another direction.  It struck the arrow in an impossible manner, sent it over the rooftop, and caused it to fall to the ground, where it detonated spectacularly but without harming anyone.

Two men in cowboy clothes, complete with bandanna masks, rose from separate locations.  Both had guns.  Said guns were trained on the Rainbow Archer.

“Advise yuh to put up your hands, ranny,” said one of them.  “If yuh don’t wanna take one in the shoulder, that is.”

“Do what he says,” advised the other.  “My trigger finger’s still plenty itchy.”

The Archer knew when he’d been licked.  He raised both hands to the skies.  “Come on down, pard,” advised one of the gunmen.  “You make a move for one of those arrows, you’re gonna live to regret it.”

“Who the hell are you, anyway?” groused the Archer, starting for the ladder to the roof.  “What’ve you got to do with the Arrows?”

“Two of ‘em are my partners,” answered one of the masked men.  “We go way back.”

“And one of ‘em is my friend,” said the other.  “We worked together against the Doomsters.  As for what our handles are...you can call us the Vigilantes.”

“My God,” said the Archer, stopping stock still.  “You’re not...”

“NO,” said the Earth-1 Vig, emphatically.  “We don’t have a thing to do with that killer.  One of these days, I’m gonna bring him down.  But we shoot better than he ever thought of.  Get it?”

“Got it.”

“Good.”

While the Archer started to descend the ladder, the Earth-One Vig regarded his counterpart.  “Bubba, you still sing country?”

“Oh, yeah,” said the Earth-Two Vigilante.  “Not as much as I used to, but there’s still a few honky-tonks that’ll have me.  Why?”

“Ever think about doin’ an album of duets?”

“With you?”

“Yeah.”

“Only if we get to do Hank Williams.”

Behind his mask, the Earth-One Vig smiled.  “Try and keep us from it,” he said.

Young Green Arrow wiped his brow with his forearm.  “Okay,” he said.  “Let’s get these turkeys trussed and canned.  Speedy, you’d better check back with the Titans.  But thanks for coming on short notice.”

“Think nothin’ of it, GA,” said Speedy of Earth-One.

“Think nothin’?  I think everything of it, kid.”  Green Arrow slapped his ward on the shoulder.  “You done good.  Just like always.”

Speedy grasped his mentor’s hand.  “It’s good to work with you again.  It really is.  Now, I’m gonna run.”

The two held their handshake for a minute, then released it.  Young Speedy turned to Old Speedy.  “Is this as weird for you as it is for me?”

“Maybe,” the Earth-Two Speedy allowed.  “It’s hard to imagine I used to look as young as you.  But in a few years, you’re going to look like me.”

“Yeah,” said young Speedy.  “That’s why we don’t call my team the Teen Titans anymore.  Want to come with me?”

The older Speedy looked towards his mentor, who had tied a rag around his wounded temple.  “Go ahead, if you want to,” said Green Arrow of Earth-2.  “Us old men’ll catch up later.”

The two Speedys headed off to another part of the battle.  “Old men,” scoffed Green Arrow of Earth-1.

“Not getting any younger,” said the Earth-2 Arrow.  “But I like your style.”

“Yours, too,” said GA.  “Except for that old outfit.  I ditched mine a long time ago.”

“At least this way they can tell us apart.”

“I imagine,” said young Green Arrow.  “Hope you’ve got enough handcuff arrows on hand.  We need to get these types clamped jig-time.  I’ve gotta find out what happened to Pretty Bird.”

“If you want, the Vigilantes and I can take care of these.”

“The Canary ought to be able to take care of herself,” said GA.  After a pause, he added, “Let’s get ‘em done quick.  Then I’ll check on her.”

 -S-

Abby Cable was used to the unexpected in her part of the swamp, but that didn’t mean she ever got used to it.  And she never liked John Constantine.  Even if he had some kid whom she’d never seen in tow.

“Get out of here now,” she said, standing in the front door of their shack.

Constantine, sweaty in the trenchcoat Tim had never seen him take off, mopped his face with a handkerchief.  “Abby, is that any way to talk to an old mate who helped your hubby save the universe?”

“No, but the way I should talk to you I can’t do in front of children,” Abby shot back, standing there in her cutoffs and red T-shirt.  “Alec is not at home to you.  Now go away.”

“Can’t,” said John, standing at the foot of the steps, patiently.  “He’s necessary.  We have to speak with him.  Ring him up for us, would you?”

“Get the hell out!”

Tim Hunter stepped up.  “Ma’am, if you please,” he said.  “All hell is breaking loose, and I’ve seen it.  Personally.”

“So have I,” said Abby.  “I’m looking at it right now.  He’s wearing a sweaty trenchcoat and has a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and he’s something I’m not going to talk about as long as you’re around, sonny.  And if you have any sense you’ll get away from him as quick as you can and forget you ever saw him.”

“I can’t,” he said.  “He’s my friend.  Lady, I just watched the Spectre die. Have you ever heard of him?”

Abby started.

From behind them, they heard a rustling.  And then a voice.  “The Spectre...is dead?”

Tim and John turned to see a manlike shape grown from Spanish moss, with two red eyes and a V-shaped shelf over his nose and mouth.  John thought about lighting up one of his Silk Cuts, then thought better of it.

“Well, technically, he’s been that for over 40 years,” said Constantine.  “But this time, he’s gone Beyond.  Good to see you again, Swamp.”

“Holy crow,” said Tim, in a tone of wonder.  “Is this the guy you told me about?  The plant elemental?  The Swamp Thing?”

“The very same,” said Constantine.  “Permit me to intro my young friend, Tim Hunter.  He’s one of us, with a lot of potential.  Occult, the Stranger, and I have been showin’ him the ropes.”

“Be careful...one of them...is not about...your neck, Constantine,” rumbled the Swamp Thing.  “I have been...in Atlantis.  I know...of that which...disturbs the Multiverse.”

“I was there, in the room where Jim Coracle died,” Tim burst out.  “They sent me to another place to try and save the Spectre.  But I couldn’t.  That Dr. Fate bloke and another guy were fighting over him, and he just ended up turning into smoke and blowing away.”

“What in hell have you been getting this kid into, Constantine?” demanded Abby.

“No more ‘n’ any of the rest of us have been into, darlin’,” shot back John.  “Don’t you know there’s a war on?  Since the last time you saw me, I’ve logged travelers’ miles in the future, got back here, helped give Tim his orientation, and then got locked into this thing with the rest of the boys.  Now the Stranger says that Swamp here is one of the few blokes that can help us.  It ain’t about us.  It’s about if he doesn’t help, all of us are gonna be zombies in short order.  And the papa houngan is gonna be Darkseid.  Ever heard of him before?”

There was silence for a moment.  Then the Swamp Thing spoke.  “Are these things...true?”

“They’re true, Mr., uh,” said Tim, hesitantly.

“Call him Alec,” said Abby, tiredly.

“You have...placed me...in desperate circumstances...before, Constantine,” said the Swamp Thing.

“I know,” said John.  “And you came through, Swamp.  Like a champ.”

“You have...taken me away...from my woman before,” the Swamp Thing continued.  “I have...been dissolved...by nuclear waste.  I have...faced horrors...without numbering.  I have...faced the Dark...and survived.  Barely.”

“So have I, Swamp,” said John, quietly.  “Twice.”

“And yet,” said the plant-man, “I have never...known you for...a liar.  If...this situation...requires me...what is...my part?”

“Alec, no!” Abby exclaimed.  “You’ve just gotten back.”

Constantine looked at her with as much gentleness as he could summon.  “I’m sorry, love.  Really, I am.  But your husband’s a soldier as much as any of us.  And soldiers get called up on short notice.”

Tim Hunter looked on the scene and felt sudden pain on Abby’s behalf.  He stepped up and put his hand on her shoulder, which was comfortably soft and warm.  “I’m sorry for you, ma’am,” he said.  “The Stranger said we should come get Mr. Alec.  If he hadn’t said so, we wouldn’t have come here.”

Abby said, sadly, “Be sorry for yourself, son.  And sorry for my husband.  Any time this idiot wants a fifth for world-saving, he always comes here.  The next time, I’m going to come after him with a rolling pin or a meat cleaver, whichever is closest to hand.”

“That’s my girl,” said Constantine, with a smile.

“And then I’m going to do the same thing to Alec for being such a nitwit!”

The Swamp Thing uprooted his feet and ambled over to Abby.  “I must leave,” he said.  “I regret it...Abby.”

“Just go, Alec,” she said, turning away from him.  “Just go.”

“No,” said the Swamp Thing, taking her by the shoulder and turning her around.  “Not before...this.”

He clasped her to him with the power of an oak tree, but gently.  Abby resisted for a moment, and then returned his embrace, running her hands over his leafy back.  Tim looked on, gape-mouthed. Constantine touched his shoulder.  “Give the couple some privacy, chum.”

“That...will not...be necessary...Constantine,” the Swamp Thing said, loosening his grip on Abby.  “I shall...return.”

With that, his body collapsed into a pile of leaves and roots.  Abby sighed and crossed her arms.  She knew who’d be left to shovel all this off the porch.
Out of that, a small, six-inch Swamp Thing walked.  Tim couldn’t manage to speak for astonishment.  John Constantine knelt down on one knee and let the miniature elemental walk into his hand.  The tiny Swamp Thing turned his head and, in a piping voice, said, “Goodbye...Abby.”  Then Constantine popped him into his coat pocket.

“Small economy size,” he said to Tim.  “Best mode for travelling.”

“Tim, your name is Tim, right?” said Abby, resignedly.  “Are you hungry?  If you are, I can fix you some dinner before you go.  If you’re travelling with him, you’ll be lucky to eat at McDonald’s.”

“Thanks, Abby,” said Constantine.  “But we’ll be headin’ back to Baron Winters’.  He’s got a dinner table that’d shame the Queen, and a chef they’d kill to get at Antoine’s.  We’ll be all right.”

“What are you going to do now?” she asked, plainitively.

Constantine looked at her.  “Going to wait for a Lantern.  ‘Ta, darling.”

“Be seeing you, Mrs. Alec,” said Tim, and waved to her with a sympathetic look.  She gave it back.

She watched the two of them turn and stride off into the swamp.  She would have followed, but knew that as soon as they were out of sight, Constantine and the kid would probably be riding what Alec had said he called the Probability Highway.

She hoped someday somebody would turn John into a dead armadillo on it.

 -S-

Black Canary had never met the gal she was fighting before, but she was good.  Too good.

The Velvet Tiger, who wore an orange tiger-striped mask and costume with white trim, was an old enemy of Batgirl’s, though Dinah had no way of knowing that and wouldn’t have much cared if she did.  What was important was that this bitch was matching her blow for blow, kick for kick, and move for move.  When you were up in the Black Canary’s league, that meant you were very, very good.

The roundhouse kick she aimed at the Canary’s head would have been good indeed if Dinah hadn’t ducked it.  The backwash from it made the blonde hair of her wig fly in the breeze.  The Canary lunged in daringly and hit the Tiger with a palm strike to the diaphragm.  The villainess responded with a palm heel to the jaw that racked the Canary’s head back.  Dinah tagged her with a kick to the ribs even as she fell back.  Then she did a handspring that put her out of the Tiger’s reach when the latter sprang at her.

Panting a bit, Dinah found her back to a wall.  She felt the cool of the concrete through her fishnet stockings as she regarded her foe.  “Not bad, honey,” she said.

“I’m better than not bad,” said the Velvet Tiger, both hands stretched before her and ready for business.  “I’m damn good.  And you’re just going to be an appetizer before Batgirl.”

“Dream on,” said the Canary, and flipped over her foe, catching her head with her crossed ankles as she went over.  Dinah landed on her hands and jackknifed her superbly conditioned body, flipping the Tiger overhead and making her land on her back with a crash in the rundown lot that had become their arena.

For a second, the Black Canary allowed herself the luxury of looking into the distance.  Onyx was still sparring with Cheshire.  But how in Heaven’s name she had managed to avoid a deadly strike from those claws was beyond Dinah’s knowledge.  If and when she finished the Tiger, she’d have to lend a hand.

That was enough of a respite.  The Tiger was back on her feet.

Dinah took a defensive stance even as her foe charged.  She decided to try for an aikido bit, using the Tiger’s momentum to throw her in a circular manner, but apparently she was wise to that.  Dinah found her arm hooked and her body thrown for a loss.  Before she could get up off the ground, its gravel and dirt pressing into her back, the Velvet Tiger elbow-dropped right to her throat.

It hurt.

For the instant that she was paralyzed by the pain, Dinah found herself picked up, hoisted bodily to shoulder level, and then slammed back-first across an outstretched knee.  It was a wrestling move.  A crummy, showy wrestling move.

It also felt like she’d just about broken her back.

The Tiger was grinning down at her.  “This is the end of it,” she said.  Her hands went to the Canary’s neck.  Dinah gave her throat over to the Tiger’s questing fingers, and felt their strength.

Simultaneously, she summoned what was left of her own, and struck up at the Tiger’s eyes.

The Velvet Tiger shrieked in pain.  Dinah hadn’t blinded her, nor was such her intent.  But she had hurt her, and managed to dislodge her throttling hands.  The Black Canary, her back to the ground, struck again with the hard side of her hand, slamming it into the side of the Tiger’s neck.  With a little upward thrust from a knee, the woman was dislodged.

Dinah stood, looking the worse for wear.  The Tiger crouched, wiping her eyes.  “I can still get you,” she snapped.  “Come at me.”

“Dream on,” said the Canary, and snapped out a kick that slammed hard into the Tiger’s abdomen.  The villainess’s mouth went open wide and all the breath seemed to leave her in one whoosh.

Dinah grabbed the Tiger’s arm and twisted it painfully enough to make the bad girl cry out.  Through gritted teeth, the Canary said, “You’ve got style, baby.  You’ve got strength.  But what you haven’t got is experience.  I’ve got that.”

With that, she slammed an elbow into the back of the Tiger’s head.  The villainess cried out.  Dinah repeated the blow, and then torqued up on a sleeper hold just for insurance. She kept it on enough seconds after the Tiger had gone limp to make sure she wasn’t faking, almost up to the danger zone.  Then she released her, and the Velvet Tiger sprawled in the dirt.

Dinah stood, and went to a chainlink fence nearby.  She leaned against it with her butt, bending down to grasp her ankles as she caught her breath.  She put one hand up to her face, felt some wetness, and judged she had a bit of blood at the corner of her mouth.   A decent amount of pain was throbbing through her body, now that she came to think of it.

She knew she didn’t have time to take account of that.  Onyx was still in danger.  She had to lend a hand.

That was when the Canary’s instints kicked in and she sensed the four figures who seemed to materialize from nowhere, like ninjas.  She kicked herself into a pose of readiness and waited.

One of the four, a redheaded man in a red short-sleeved shirt and loose pants, spoke to her.  “Don’t worry.  We mean no harm.  Congratulations on your fight.”

“Yeah, well,” said the Canary, “I’ve got to help somebody out.  So if you’re not the opposition, maybe you could lend a hand?”

The woman of the group, a cool, tall Chinese in a casual green outfit, regarded her calmly.  “Your ally fights her own fight.  She must win on her own.”

“Oh, the hell with it,” said Dinah, and started off in Onyx’s direction.  “You can come if you want.  If you’re really on our side.  If not, I may be tired and hurt, but you’ll still be in for a fight.”

“That’s what we expected, miss,” said the one in the tiger mask.  “But with you, not against you.”

Sprinting off, Dinah tried to ignore the pain in her side as she ran.  She saw Cheshire kicking at Onyx, knocking her to the ground, and lunging at her with her deadly fingernails.  The Canary knew that, whatever happened, she was going to be too late.

Onyx struck upward with her silver boots and caught Cheshire hard in the chin, knocking her up and back.  Then she delivered several more kicks, whirling like a ballerina, targeting the mercenary’s face and abdomen.  Cheshire was being driven back.  Good for her.

The villainess in green still gave a deadly sweeping kick that connected hard with Onyx’s face and made Dinah wince.  Then Cheshire tried still another lunge with her left hand, nails outstretched.

From the back of her belt, Onyx whipped out a pair of nunchucks and snapped them forward, smashing them across Cheshire’s wrist.  Despite herself, Cheshire screamed in pain.  Onyx brought the weapon across her foe’s other wrist with deadly accuracy.  Dinah didn’t have to look to hard to know the villainess’s wrists were broken.

“I didn’t want to have to use them,” she heard Onyx say.  “But you left me no choice.”

With that, she snapped a kick into Cheshire’s jaw.  It sent the Asian woman back and down.  Onyx leapt on top of her, splaying her arms out with her legs and pinning them with her knees.  She hit Cheshire three more times with her right fist, hammering away at her to make sure she was out.

That was her status when Black Canary finally arrived.  “Hey, BC,” said Onyx, smiling through bloodied lips.  “Who’re your friends?”

She looked about her at the foursome who had come with her.  “I’m not sure,” she said.  “Maybe they can introduce themselves.”

Onyx pulled a knife out of the side of her belt and began to trim the unconscious Cheshire’s fingernails.  “If they can talk while I work.  I don’t like to use weapons less’n I have to.  In her case, I had to.”

“Understood,” said the redheaded man.  “My name is Richard Dragon.”

Black Canary scrutinized him.  “I’ve heard of you.  The kung fu master.  Strange our paths never crossed.”

“We tend to follow our own paths,” said the woman.  “My name is Shiva Woosan.  You, of course, are the famous Black Canary.”

The man in the tiger outfit said, “I go by the name of Bronze Tiger.  Dragon, Shiva, and me are pretty much a unit.  I’m honored to meet you.  You’re known as quite a stylist.”

The Canary looked at the fourth of their group, a man in a multicolored costume with a mask that only left his eyes showing and a green hood-hat that stood almost as high as the riser on Adam Strange’s helmet.  “Guess that just leaves you.”

After a pause, he said, “I am the Ragman.”

“He’s not big on words, but he appears to be pretty good with stealth and fighting,” put in Dragon.  “He just showed up while we were fighting Professor Ojo in another part of Met, and stayed.”

“He was invaluable,” said the Bronze Tiger.  “Count on it.”

“So how did you end up here?” asked Onyx, finishing the last of the nails on Cheshire’s left hand and preparing to start on the right.  “Metropolis is a big place.  And this is a big battle.”

Lady Shiva answered.  “I had heard that the Velvet Tiger was involved in a fight.  I wished to see her progress with my own eyes.”

Black Canary’s eyes widened.  “Wait a minute.  You mean to tell me that you were involved with that bitch?”

“To be precise, I trained that bitch.”

Dinah found herself tensing.  Onyx looked at her. “Let it go, BC.  Believe me, let it go.”

After looking into Shiva’s eyes, Dinah reconsidered.  For the moment.  She said, “So you came over there to watch just as she was trying to kill me?”

“We didn’t get there before the end of your fight,” said Dragon.  “If you hadn’t pulled that save, I would have tried to intervene.”

“If she had learned more from me,” said Shiva, “you would not have been in time.  But congratulations on your win, Black Canary.”

“Yeah,” said Dinah, with a trace of disgust.  “Just be glad it isn’t Batgirl you have to say that to.”

Shiva seemed to relax.  “To meet Batgirl in combat would be an invigorating thing indeed.  But business before pleasure.  As your friend has said, there is still battle.”

“After we attend to the two enemies here,” said the Bronze Tiger, “we’d like to see if you ladies would join us in getting back to the fight.”

“Count me out,” said the Canary.  “I’m going to look up my man Green Arrow and check on him.  Thanks, though, I guess.”

“You can count me in,” said Onyx.  “After I finish up with Chessie here, that is.”  She carved another one of Cheshire’s deadly nails off.

Lady Shiva looked at Black Canary’s outfit.  “Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you not wear a different uniform for awhile?”

“The blue suit with the headband?” Dinah ran a hand through the strands of her wig.  “Yeah.  But GA didn’t like it all that much, and I have to admit I liked the old costume better, anyway.  It was good enough for my mom, and it’s good enough for me.  Besides, it gives me an excuse to show off my legs.”

Onyx snickered.

“Now I’m going.  Best of luck, Onyx.”

“You, too,” said the girl-warrior.  “Say hi to Green Arrow for me.”

“And one more thing,” said Black Canary.  She looked at Shiva.  “If I find out you’ve trained any more of my enemies, no matter how good you are, you and I are gonna have it out.”

Shiva smiled at her, serenely.  “I will look forward to it, Ms. Canary.  Luck be with you, as well.”

 -S-

On Earth-4, things were getting relatively back to normal.

The super-villains that had been defeated by the Justice Force and Supergirl’s team were imprisoned.  The minions that had served Eclipso in enslaving a good portion of the planet were being rounded up.  The lucky ones had prison to look forward to.  A lot of them weren’t that lucky, and paid the price from aggrieved locals.  The authorities tried to stop such things.  At least, they did most of the time.

President Mondale received Peacemaker, Sarge Steel, and Tiffany Sinn in his office.  The first named hero represented Justice Force.  He hoped he wouldn’t be recognized as Christopher Smith, a U.S. diplomat, under his helmet.  The other two were CIA agents.  Sarge had been the government’s liason with the heroes for some time, though he was a stellar solo operative.  Not too many enemy agents were eager to argue with his steel hand.  Tiffany, one of the Agency’s most beautiful ops, had been paired with Steel several times and made up in savvy and brains what she lacked in strength.

“So.  What’s your perspective on this?” asked Fritz Mondale.

“Speaking from Justice Force’s perspective, pretty positive, Mr. President,” said Peacemaker.  “Eclipso has been neutralized and taken to another Earth.  The rest of his crew is under wraps.  So far, we’ve seen no backup threats, so we’re crossing our fingers on this one.”

“As for his soldiers, we can report good results on that as well, Mr. President,” confirmed Steel.  “I’ve supervised some of the roundups and they’re moving along decently.  There have been some last-chance battles, but you know the details of those about as well as I do.”

Mondale nodded.  A lot of this he already had data on, but he liked to keep the people he dealt with on their toes.  “And yours, Ms. Sinn?”

Tiffany, in a big floppy purple hat, a black dress, and black evening gloves, looked as incongruous as any visitor to the White House had since Elvis met Nixon.  But for her, it was just work clothes.  “I’d tend to confirm those observations, Mr. President.  So far, my Euro and South American contacts seem to agree that without Eclipso or other backing forces, the revolt has collapsed upon itself.”

“Well,” said the president, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “At least something’s gone right for the first time in a month.  Maybe we can get the education bill back on track in a few weeks.  But I have one more big question, and it’s for you, Peacemaker.”

The white-helmeted, brown-shirted hero returned his gaze coolly.  “As you wish, sir,” he said.

“We’ve had interdimensional contact for the first time on record,” Mondale continued.  “Super-ops with power even beyond what we can muster, stepping into and out of this world as if the, the universal boundaries were made of Swiss cheese.  My questions are: how do we know this crisis is over with on the worlds those other heroes came from?  And if it isn’t, how can we be sure it won’t come here again?”

Peacemaker gave him back a slight smile.  “For question one, we don’t.  For question two, we can’t.  The Son of Vulcan went to another world with Supergirl and her unit.  Until and unless he comes back, we don’t have any information.”

“Hmm.”  Mondale considered it.  “Do any of your ops have dimension-crossing capabilities?”

“Nightshade has some abilities along those lines,” said Peacemaker.  “She can cross into the plane from which her mother came, and come back to our world.  But I don’t know if she can go to another Earth.  Until very recently, as you know, sir, none of us had any idea that other Earths actually existed.”

“Would she be willing to attempt this?”

“I don’t know, sir.  But I would advise that we need as many of Justice Force here as we can manage.  We’re pretty few in number, and...”

“You have Captain Atom here, don’t you?”

“Well, yes,” said Peacemaker, suddenly feeling uncomfortable.  “But, sir...”

“Also Blue Beetle, Thunderbolt, that Question fellow, and the Sentinels, do you not?”

“Mr. President, Nightshade is an independent operative,” put in Sarge Steel.

Mondale turned to him.  “She’s also worked for the government in the past.  So has Atom.  In this kind of a mess, Mr. Steel, I ask for all the cards I can get.  Peacemaker, ask her to do it.  On behalf of the government and the world.  Get over there, get some facts, and get back here.  That’s all I want.”

“I’ll deliver the message.”

“But Captain Atom stays here.  We need him here.  Is that clear, Peacemaker?”

“Very clear, sir.  Eminently clear.”

 -S-

J’onn J’onzz and the Red Tornado had been in the thick of the fight for too long.  No matter how many foes they plowed under, it seemed that more took their place like the Hydra.  The Martian considered the Earth legend he had read about dragon’s teeth that, when planted, sprouted up soldiers instantly, and wondered if Darkseid somehow had access to something like that.

He was the spearhead of the Justice League unit, or what remained of it: the Elongated Man, himself, Firestorm, non-member Firehawk, and Reddy.  Superman was gods-knew-where.  Hawkman and Hawkgirl had gone to Thanagar.  Arthur was still in Atlantis.  Wonder Woman was on Paradise Island.  Green Lantern and his fellows were in space.  The Batman was hanging back and directing operations, like Nightwing, at least for the moment.  Zatanna was somewhere else, probably with Harbinger.  Green Arrow and Black Canary had gone off to fight solo battles. The Atom was probably still with his tiny tribe in South America.  Steel and Vixen, who had both quit the League, were fighting elsewhere with Team Metropolis.  Vibe and Gypsy hadn’t shown their faces in the current crisis, and perhaps that was a good thing.  Gypsy was finding her life again as a normal girl, and Vibe had apparently given up super-heroing for good.  The Flash was dead.  The new Flash was still with the New Titans.

As for the Phantom Stranger, nobody knew if he was really a member or not.  And nobody seemed to know where he was, or when he’d turn up.

Aquaman’s old idea of a full-time Justice League was looking smarter as the battle wore on.

“J’onn,” said Reddy as he swept a horde of SKULL agents into his funnel-trail.  “We make no headway.”

“Tell me about it,” the Martian rasped as he resisted the magnetic force of Dr. Polaris and negated it with the heat of his Martian vision.  “We are outnumbered.   We just never faced our foes en masse before.”

Firehawk and Firestorm were duking it out with Killer Frost and Mr. Freeze, pitting atomic powers versus freeze-bolts.  So far, they were holding their own.  The Elongated Man was picking and choosing his foes, tangling and strangling those without powers or those who only used weaponry.  But right now he was pinned down by raybursts from such weapons, and was scuttling away like a red-costumed, red-haired snake.

Solving mysteries was beginning to look better to him than super-heroing, at the moment.

J’onzz looked up at the Daily Planet building, not far distant.  Mantis was still holding court there, and he was the key.  Without Darkseid’s personal operative to coordinate matters, and to hold the most powerful heroes at abeyance with his own parasitic might, the strength of the villains might be broken.

He wasn’t Superman, but he had to give it a try.

The Martian Manhunter launched himself into the air.  He dodged a few minor combatants, knocked others impatiently out of the sky, and attained the height of an average skyscraper.  His Martian speed kicked in as he shot towards the building with the big globe and the Apokoliptic villain atop it.  He regretted that he couldn’t use his invisibility power without negating his other powers while he did it.  That would be a stealth option that couldn’t be beat.  Nonetheless, he’d lend a hand against Mantis.

That was the point at which a blue ray lanced down and knocked him to the street.

J’onn J’onzz cried out at the force of the thing, a beam which exerted over a hundred thousand pounds of force per square inch and sent him over forty stories to the pavement, which he cracked.  Not even a Martian could resist that, nor could he feel its impact, brief though it was, without pain.  He gasped for breath, even as it winked out, and lay prostrate in the street between buildings and lines of cars.

At least he had the position to look up and see the beam’s source.  A very familiar capsule, one which had come from his homeworld, one he had not seen in a good many years.

A hatch opened up in its side, and three green figures descended on anti-grav belts, all of them armed, all of them known to him.  All of them Martians.

The first was Vulkor, he who had built this capsule and used it to stage an operation on Earth which Green Arrow, Speedy, and J’onzz himself had thwarted.  He was looking on J’onzz with an expression of anticipated revenge.

The second was the Marshall, who had claimed tyrannic rule of Mars not far back in the past, and who had started the Earth-Mars war which J’onn had barely managed to stop with the aid of the Justice League.  He looked on J’onzz with a planet-sized load of hatred.

The third was a woman, Bel Juz, who had betrayed J’onn J’onzz more than once and was currently the mistress of the Marshall.  She looked on J’onzz with a lust for destruction.

He struggled to bring himself to a standing position.  Alone against them, he had little hope.  But he was cursed if he wouldn’t die on his feet, fighting the enemy to the end.

“You are a long way from home,” he managed to gasp, crouching.

“We might say the same for you, traitor,” the Marshall ground out.  “It is fitting you die on an alien world.”

“You...sold out to Darkseid?” asked the Manhunter, managing to push himself up to a semi-stand.

“Let us not call it that,” said Bel Juz, giving him an infinitely cruel smile.  “Let us just call it working in mutual interest.”

“Let us call it revenge, and killing,” said Vulkor, levelling his weapon at the Manhunter.  “And let us do it now.”

“Let us not!”

The voice was a new one, and it belonged to a green figure who dropped from the skies directly on Vulkor’s back and flattened him.  J’onn looked on him with incredulity, recognition, and, finally, hope.  He called out a name, hardly daring to believe.

“T’omm!”

The new arrival turned to J’onn, grinned, and said, “Greetings, brother,” just before he pulled Vulkor to his feet and smashed him in the face.

Bel Juz was about to train her weapon on T’omm J’onzz when another female Martian form landed on the soles of her feet before her, with pinpoint accuracy.  She slapped the weapon out of Bel’s hands.  “Hello, Juz,” she said.  “Remember me?”

Bel Juz glared and shot out a hand towards her, her fingernails growing into deadly claws.  “I will not after I have finished with your face,” she hissed.

J’en R’ass grabbed Bel’s hand by the wrist with one of her own hands, made her other hand into a fist, and slammed it hard and deep into Bel’s gut.  The Martian villainess gasped in pain and tried to bring up her knee and blast J’en with her vision-powers, but she was too slow on the trigger.  J’en smashed her hard on the side of the jaw, and, when she fell, punctuated it with a blue-booted stomp to the side of Bel’s head.  The woman sprawled, as senseless as the war around them.

The Marshall cursed himself for having watched the battles like a novice, instead of using the time to make war himself.  He swung his Destructor wide in an arc, causing J’en and T’omm to duck under it.  The ray-blast sliced T’omm’s blue cape in half.  The tyrant completed the sweep and began to backtrack, bringing it low enough to hit the two he faced in a couple of instants.

But that turned out to be a couple of instants he didn’t have.

J’onn J’onzz pulled himself up from the street, leaped over the ray’s arc, and slammed into the Marshall’s upper body like an asteroid the size of Ceres.  He bore the dictator backward, smashing the weapon from his hand, blasting him with his Martian vision, pounding at him with his free hand.  The Marshall retaliated by kneeing him hard where it hurt, and then getting atop his back and grasping his head, trying to twist it into a break.

“This is recompense for everything, J’onzz,” he hissed.  “For the war, for the humiliation, for everything.  Today, you die.”

That was as far as he got before his words were choked off by two green arms snaking around his neck and squeezing hard.

“You haven’t been here...long enough...to know...what we can do here,” gasped J’onn, and did some twisting himself.

Before he could get very far, another fist crashed into the Marshall’s face and kayoed him.  As the enemy went limp, J’onn eased his grip.  He looked up at T’omm with some irritation.

“I beg pardon,” said T’omm.  “But I could not leave it all to you.”

J’onn let his foe fall to the street, shaped his elongated arms back to normal, and took the hand of his brother, smiling.  “T’omm.  It has been too long.  Thank you.”

J’en came up to them and stood not a foot away.  “And what of me, J’onn?”

He looked at her, breathing twice, and then said, “Only this.”  He wrapped both his arms about her and kissed her as hard as he was capable of.  She embraced him and kissed him back.  T’omm smiled, and folded his arms, waiting.

After a long while, the two broke their kiss.  J’onn said, “You came here to aid me against the three of them?”

“In part,” J’enn said.  “‘Tis true, we did learn of their liberation by Darkseid.  It was no hard guess to know that they would be sent here, against you.”

“But that is only part of it, J’onn,” said T’omm, the only other surviving member of the J’onzz family.  “The aftermath of the war with Earth, and of the Great Crisis, has left our homeworld wanting in direction.  They need a hero to head their government, J’onn, a proven quantity.  One who can hold us together in our time of separation.  J’onn...we need you.”

J’enn said, “And I need you, O J’onn.  Though we have been separate since the War, separate since your return to Earth...nothing could separate you from my love.”

He looked at her, holding her by the shoulders, unable to speak for a long time.

When he did manage it, he said, “J’enn.  I have been lonely.”

“As have I, J’onn.  As have I.”

“There is...need...on our homeworld?”

“Indeed there is,” she said.

He looked up at the Daily Planet building and placed an arm about her shoulders.  “The battle still rages.  It may seem local, but it is a part upon which I believe the entire Universe may turn.  If you will help, if we can win, then, afterward, if there is an afterward.  I will go with you.”

T’omm said, “You have our help, J’onn.  You only need but ask.”

“And, once there, if you will have me, J’enn, I will marry you.”

“As far as my concern is, J’onn,” she said, “we are already married.”

He looked at the three prostrate Martian forms on the street.  “Let us get Firestorm and Firehawk to construct cages of flame for our foes.  Then, if you will...we will challenge Mantis.”

 -S-

Beautiful Dreamer was scarcely aware of what had happened to her.  First blackness, and unbelievable cold.  Her Mother Box acted to keep her as protected as it could manage, but the shadow-beings’ icy touch still got to her.

There was a sensation of flight, then the noise of a Boom Tube being opened.  She didn’t have to guess where she was being taken.  Desperately, she tried to invoke the powers of the Infinity Man, but it was of no use.

Then she felt the pull of gravity again, and knew that they had emerged from the interdimensional space of the Tube.  Her leather-booted feet felt stone beneath them again.  As quickly as they had wrapped themselves around her, the shadows withdrew.

She was in a throne room, and the figure on the throne was all too familiar to her.

“Darkseid,” she breathed.

“D’reema,” he said, in a not unkindly tone.

She turned to run, saw a host of armed guards behind her, and formed illusions of attacking monsters that almost scared them into letting down their guard.  Actually, she thought she’d done quite a good job on the illusions.  The problem was the being behind her, who had gotten up from his throne and had his great hand on one of her shoulders.

“Enough,” he said.

Reluctantly, she dropped the illusions.

D’reema trembled at the touch.  It was like feeling the paw of a great granite statue on her body.  Darkseid had been likened more than once to a great stone slab of evil, and she believed every bit of it now.  She flashed back to the time in which he had captured her, brought her to Earth, sought her mind for the Anti-Life Equation, and left her for Superman and the Infinity Man.  She had been unconscious for most of that.

She did not think she would be that lucky this time.

“What are you going to do with me?” she asked.

“If necessary, destroy you,” he said.  “But I would much rather have you as a slave.”

“Never.”

He looked at her and did not smile.  “In less than 54 hours I will have Orion’s mind broken down and its final components ransacked.  At that time I will possess the Anti-Life Equation, and I will speak it.  There will be no more resistance after that.  Those who call me their enemy will, at last, call me their lord.  And once again, harmony will rule the multiverse.  I will be the conductor who strikes that note.  It will echo—forevermore.”

“I can stop you,” she said.  “I have the Life Equation.”

“Yes, you do,” he said.  “Can you speak it?”

She looked at him and breathed heavily.

“As with Orion, your gift is locked deep within your brain, inaccessible,” said Darkseid.  “A weapon too deeply buried for the wielder to use.  It is of no threat to me.”

“Highfather will beat you,” she said.  “He always has and he always will.”

Darkseid looked at her deeply, and she could not hide her fear.  “Has he?  Was he victorious when I had his wife killed?  Was he triumphant when we fought to a draw in the Great War of the age past?  Did he manage to save my son Orion from me?  Or Lonar?  Or all the other nameless warriors of his side who have perished in the wasteful conflict which he could have prevented by surrendering?” Darkseid paused.  “Actually, I’d say I’ve done rather well for myself.”

D’reema looked about the throneroom.  “You call this world doing well for yourself?  It looks like a disaster area.  Everything devoted only to industrialism, to militarism.  Nothing for pleasure, nothing for beauty, nothing for, well, love.  Nothing except brutal functionalism.  If your people didn’t need to eat, I doubt you’d even allocate enough land for farming.”

He stepped very close to her.  “Apokolips is my image of beauty, Izaya’s daughter.  I live for the machine, not for the organic.  I run it for the benefit of myself, and only secondarily for the lowlies.  In that, I am more honest than most.  As for industrialism, it is the only efficient way of production for an advanced society.  As for militarism, surprise, my dear.  I’m not in love with war.”

She whipped her head about to stare at him.

“I repeat, Izaya’s daughter: I am not in love with war.  It is wasteful and inefficient.  Lives which could serve me for decades are lost by the thousands, by the millions.  On both sides.  Murder, to be efficient, must be specialized.  I would kill one target, rather than a thousand.  But, like it or not, I am incredibly gifted at the making of war.  I understand the deployment of forces and the ways upon which to attack simultaneously on many fronts, not all of them physical.  I am a general.  That is what I am.

“That is the beauty of the Equation.  It will allow me conquest without the wastefulness of war.  That which I have not taken by force–yet–I will take with the speaking of a word.  Or words.  And finally, when the Multiverse is mine, when New Genesis is mine, when the Source is mine, I will attempt to restore Orion’s mind to him.  But he will be mine once more, my first-begotten son.  My slave.  As will be my adopted son, Scott Free.  And yes, I will adopt you as my own daughter.  But, thanks to your adopted status, it will not prohibit your marriage to Kalibak.”

“Kalibak!”

“Kalibak,” confirmed Darkseid.  “It is to be hoped your genes can contribute the intellect that Kalibak lacks to your mutual spawn, while his strength will be conferred at the same time.  Besides, Kalibak desires you.  It will, in short, be a marriage of efficiency.  That is the key to the new Multiverse, D’reema: not love, that tremendously unreliable quantity, but efficiency.  The heart of the Machine.”

Beautiful Dreamer flattened herself against a wall, keeping as far from Darkseid as she could.  “I will never agree to wed that...that beast!  I will die first!”

“No,” said Darkseid.  “You will keep yourself alive, hoping for salvation at the last moment.  I will keep you under observation.  If necessary, you will be restrained.  And in the end, once the Equation is spoken, you will no more be able to resist my will than a cloud can resist the wind.  I assure you, D’reema, this is not unlike an operation.  It must be endured for awhile, but afterward, the health of the patient will be improved and assured.”

“Oh, Source,” she said.  “To call you insane would be an insult to the mad.  You are nonfunctional, Darkseid.  You set up your own falsities and call them truths.  You live in a world of greater illusion than any I could produce.”

Darkseid almost smiled.  “There will be no distinction between my ‘illusions’ and eternal truths in the New Order, Izaya’s daughter.  My will shall become be the Multiversal Will.  Power belongs to he who can best wield it...and none wield it better than me.”

“The heroes of the Five Earths will stop you!”

“I think not,” he said.  “They are too busy defending their own worlds.  All this quintuniversal battle has been only a distraction, a moving of forces here and there, to keep them distracted, occupied, even entertained.  Mantis defeated those arrayed against him on Earth-X.  When I moved him and his forces to Earth-One, the opposition followed.  And it had no purpose other than to keep them fighting a fruitless battle.  Should the forces of the Earths win against him this very hour, it would make no difference.  The only battle that matters is the one I wage in my mind, against my son.  And I am winning.”

D’reema breathed like a trapped rabbit.  “Superman and Kara will find you.  Their power surpasses your own.  Even you dare not challenge them alone.”

“Again, you would be surprised by my capacities,” Darkseid answered.  “But come.  I have somewhat to show you.”

The fingers of granite closed about her smooth white arm.  He pulled her along, and the guards gave way before them.  Doors opened in their path.  He took her down a hallway, through another checkpoint, and into a chamber full of machines and technicians.  There was a large screen on the wall facing them.  The scientists and guards hailed him.  He paid them no attention.

“Observe that screen,” he said, pointing.  “The sphere in the center represents Apokolips.  What do you see around it?”

She looked.  “A...circle of green,” she said.  “And about that, a circle of black.”

“Indeed,” said Darkseid.  “The blackness represents the sheath about this world formed by the shadow-warriors.  Every one of them now guards my world, forming a barrier of darkness and cold and negativity no normal hero could breach.  I doubt that even the Kryptonians could manage it.  But if they could, the circle of green denotes the inner defenses which have been erected.  A system of low-lying satellites, broadcasting an aura of Kryptonite radiation about the planet.  Should they penetrate the shadows, they would die nonetheless.”

D’reema was unable to speak.  Darkseid said to her, “I will show you something more.  I will show you the source of the inner circle’s power.”

He dragged her along through another portal, past guards and doors which had to be unlocked by several means, until he brought her to an unholy of holies.  Yet another chamber filled with machines.  And in the center of it, a single person, his entire body sheathed and shackled, paralyzed by his restraint, but aware.  His eyes showed horror.  His mouth, filled by a contrivance of plastic sensors, was unable to speak.

The Kryptonite Man’s eyes beseeched her for help.  But she had none to give.

“We have other defenses than that,” said Darkseid.  “But this should do for the moment.  Less than fifty hours remain.  I need not attack.   I need only defend.  Now, I have a place for you.”

“Source protect me,” murmured D’reema.  “Source, be my strength.”

Darkseid, pulling her from the portal, laughed for the first time.  “Within three days’ time, the Source will be my strength.  Come.”

He dragged her to another part of the underground Palace, a prison chamber which was no less efficient than its warden.  Darkseid thrust her inside and stood in the doorway for a moment.

“Keep her until the time of the Change,” said Darkseid.  “Make sure no harm comes to her, or harm will come to you.”

The woman within smiled.  “You may rely upon me, Darkseid,” said Granny Goodness, through bruised lips.  “Granny will keep the little baggage safe.”

 -S-

Superman, Supergirl, Superboy, and Dev-Em looked on a similar screen within the palace of Highfather, and were not reassured.

“He put up all that, in such a small time?” asked Supergirl.  “Unbelievable.”

“Where Darkseid’s concerned...well, fill in the blank yourself, Kara,” remarked Superman.

Izaya, standing nearby with his staff, said, “An outer layer of shadow-demons, an inner layer of Kryptonite radiation.  Should we penetrate those, we can be assured there would be more defenses below that.”

Superboy looked up at him.  “Couldn’t you Boom Tube us in, sir?  I’ve read where you can go just about anywhere with those things.”

“Kid,” said Dev, gently, “just how long do you think you’d last under a skyful of Kryptonite?”

Young Kal didn’t say anything.  Kara said, “You’re getting a crash course in superheroing here, Kal.  Don’t feel bad about it.  It’s just on-the-job training.”

He grinned, and she put an arm about his shoulder.  Superman was glad for it, as a reducer of the tension.

“What about the Marvels, Kal?” Kara asked.  “They don’t have a Kryptonite problem.”

The Man of Steel rubbed the back of his neck.  “They might be able to make it with a magic sheathing.  But I don’t know.  According to that, the shadow-demons are over a mile thick.  You know what they did to us already.”

“But we’ve got to get D’reema!”

“Yes,” he said. “And Darkseid.  But we’ve got to make sure we’ll be able to do something about them when we get there.”

“Oh.  Could we be more obvious?”  She turned away, piqued.

“What about your powers, Izaya?” asked Dev.  “Think you could punch a hole in that mess?”

“Not for very long,” admitted Highfather.  “The intelligent ploy would be to Boom Tube onto the surface of Apokolips.  But that would not enable you four to enter the battle.  It would only be New Genesites against Darkseid’s legions.”

“You seem to have held your own against them before,” Superboy pointed out.  “Even though I read about, I mean, the earlier war.”

“True,” said Izaya.  “But we need to mobilize all forces available to us.  And the Source did tell us that the two shields, obviously Superman and Supergirl, were key to the conflict.”

“But it didn’t tell us how,” said Kara.

“I’m going to call in Hal,” said Superman.  “The Green Lanterns are the force we need to counter that.”

Highfather looked at him.  “Can they accomplish it?”

“I don’t know,” Kal admitted.  “But they’re our best bet.”  His hand went to his belt buckle.  Inside was his Justice League signaller, a device which operated even across the vast distances of space, and which could be used to call individual members as well as the team.  After pressing the appropriate number of times, Superman spoke.  “Pilot, this is KK.  Do you read me?  Over.”

“KK?” asked Dev-Em.

“It’s short for the Krypton Kid,” said Kara.  “Kal’s code-name when he’s calling Green Lantern.”

After a few moments, the five of them heard a voice from within a tiny speaker in Kal’s belt.  “This is Pilot.  Go ahead, KK.”

Superman said, “We have a situation on Apokolips that must be resolved within 50 hours or less.  The entire Corps, repeat, the entire Corps will be needed.  Can you comply?”

A pause.  “Repeat message, KK.”

“We need the entire Corps, Pilot.  We cannot penetrate enemy defenses.  It’ll be a job.  Can you comply?”

She heard Green Lantern hesitate only a second.  “I’ll put the question to the Corpsmen and the Guardians, if necessary.  If they don’t agree, you can at least count on me and mine.”

Kal said, “Appreciated, Pilot.  But we’ll need more than 5 or 6 on this one.  There’s a mile of shadows and a ring of green between us and the objective.  We’re less than 50 hours away from enemy touchdown.”

“That’s ammo enough for a convincer,” said Hal Jordan.  “I hope.  I’ll be back to you within an hour.  Where are you?”

“New Genesis,” said Superman.

“Thought so.  Hold on, hold on...KK, I don’t believe this.  Somebody else has arrived.”

“Who?” Superman tensed.

“It’s a friendly.  The Stranger.”

“What in Krypton’s name is he doing out there?”

A pause.  “I think he’s asking about a ride.  Talk to you later.  Out.”

“Out,” repeated Kal, and broke the connection.

Kara looked at Superman.  “The Phantom Stranger?  In outer space with the Lanterns?”

Kal nodded.  “This thing has scope.”

“To say the least,” said Dev.  “But not much time.”

Supergirl sighed.  “If we could only reach the Rokynians.  Even Nightwing and Flamebird.  But I don’t think they’d be of any more use than we would.”

“Rokyn is out of phase with our universe right now,” said Superman.

“Which means they may have a few weeks before they have to become zombies,” said Dev, flatly.

Superboy looked at the three of them, and Highfather.  “Don’t tell me you’re giving up!  For cryin’ out loud, Superman never gave up!  Not when you were facing down Luthor, or Brainiac, or Metallo, or...or...any of them!”

“Son, button it,” said Dev.

“No, no, it’s all right, let him talk,” said Superman.  “Kal...Superboy...we’re not giving up.  Not by a sight.  Never.  But it’ll take a little help from others this time.  Persons with powers even Kryptonians don’t have.  We’ll have to pray that’ll be enough.”

“Prayer sounds like a good idea right now,” said Kara.  She held out her hands.  “Young Kal, come here.  We’re going to show you a bit of your Kryptonian heritage.”

“My what?”  Superboy looked befuddled.

“It’s a prayer circle,” she said.  “We join hands, and we chant to Rao.  Come here and take my hand.”

“Not a bad idea,” said Superman, taking Kara’s left hand.  He held his own out to Dev, who looked at it for a moment, then finally took it.  Slowly, he held his own up to Superboy.

“But...well, I’m a Christian,” said young Kal.

“So am I, on my Earth side,” said Kara.  “But this is about our Kryptonian side.  Take my hand, Kal.  Please.”

Superboy walked forward, a tad reluctantly, and took Kara’s hand.  She gave it a squeeze for good luck, and to reassure him.  Then he joined hands with Dev.

“Don’t be so sweaty-palmed, mate,” advised Dev.  “Just think of it as church.”

Izaya looked on, silently, not uncurious.

Superboy watched the three other Krypts close their eyes and lift their faces towards the skies.  Kara was the first to speak, beginning a chant in their native tongue. <O Rao, who gives us light and life,> she began.

<And hung the stars and worlds in their courses,> responded Kal and Dev, in decent harmony.

<To you we lift our prayers, in our unworthiness,> she said.

<And beg you cleanse our dark transgressions with your rays,> said the two men.

Superboy didn’t know what the words meant, but he maintained a reverent silence, and turned his face to the ceiling as well.  Mentally, he began: Our Father, Who art in Heaven...

The prayer went on for several minutes, and Highfather stood by quietly, noting the renewing effect of spirituality on the foursome.  Even upon Dev, the most cynical of them all, and upon young Kal, who had never prayed in this manner before.

He guessed that they were contacting their form of the Source.

Kara finished with the Kryptonian version of “Amen”, echoed by Kal and Dev.  The three of them released hands.  Dev touched Superboy’s shoulder.  “We’re finished, kid.”

Izaya said, “Perhaps I should consult the Source myself, Superman.  All knows, I could use whatever help I can receive.”

“You’ve got us, Highfather,” said Superman, putting a hand on his robed shoulder.  “For whatever good we are.”

“You have proven of great help indeed,” said Izaya, walking away with him.  “But I soon must prepare my own forces for what assault we can make.  Even if we have to Boom Tube in at ground level on Apokolips, even without your aid, we must needs make the effort.”

Superman looked at him grimly.  “If there’s a way, we’ll be there by your side.”

“One hopes, Superman.  But what will be, will be.”

Dev and Kara stood holding both their hands, looking into each other’s eyes.  “Seems like these kind of moments are the only ones we have, luv,” said Dev.

She stole a glance at young Kal, standing apart towards the other side of the room, and then looked back at Dev.  “Not always, Dev.  We’ll have time to ourselves, once this is over.  I’ve got faith in that.”

“Faith’s a nice thing to have,” said Dev.  “Then again, so’s love.  And in my case, banality.”  He grinned.

She grinned back and nuzzled her head against his chest.  “I’ll take your banality any day I can get it.  Know something, Dev?”

“Give a penny for it.  When I have one.”

“Don’t think I’ve ever been in love with a man as much as I have with you.  And I’ve been in love more than once.  Or thought I was, anyway.”

“Mmm.”  His hands stole around her back.  Superboy had his back turned towards them.  “You think we should do this in private, Kara?”

“There’s more things we should do in private.  If we have time.  But...hang on, Dev.”  She released him, stepped from his embrace, and went to Superboy.  “Kal,” she said.

He turned around, a bit red-faced.  “Sorry.  Guess I should have left the room.”

“Oh, don’t be silly.  Dev and I are in love, that’s all.  You have a girl at home?”

“Well, yeah.  Her name’s Laurie Lemmon.  We’ve been dating on and off about a year, I guess.”

She smiled, wryly.  “Another double L.  I might have guessed.  She’ll probably be trying to prove you’re really Clark Kent within a month.”

“I don’t think so,” said Superboy.  “Cripes, here we are, two days away from Armageddon, and we’re talking about my love life.”

“Sometimes, those are the only times you have to talk about it,” she said, seriously.  “You get caught up on what your friends in the masks have been doing since you saw them last, just before you go into battle.  Are you in love with her, Kal?”

“Don’t know,” he said, looking at her.  “But I like her a lot.  I think she, uh, likes me, too.”

“That’s good.  And, Kal?  When you go home, don’t neglect her because of your other self.  Being Superboy isn’t a substitute for being Clark Kent.  Take it from somebody who knows.”

Kal nodded, slowly.  “Feels like a hell of a lot’s been put on my shoulders in the last week.  I was just Joe Local Superhero back then.  Fightin’ local crooks, and all that.  Now it’s been kicked up to a whole ‘nother level.  Kara, I’m scared.”

She guided him to a bench by the wall and sat them both down.  “Don’t blame you. We all are, Kal.  That’s part of what we are.  What we do.”

“Big Kal, too?”

Kara nodded.

“Never would have expected it of him,” he said.

“He compartmentalizes.  We do, too.  You’ve come a long way in the last week, Kal.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Don’t know that I wanted to, really.”

She looked at him.  “So you’re ready to give up, already?”

“No!  No, no way.  It’s just...ah, God help me, Kara, I don’t know.  It’s just being thrown into this, so...so...so soon.”  He put his hands to his head.  “Like sensory overload.  Too much information.  Fighting people out of comic books.  People that hit back really hard.  I hope there isn’t a Phantom Zone in my universe, Kara. Really.”

“Uh huh,” said Kara.  “Know something, Kal?”

“What?”

She stretched her legs out before her and ran her hands from her knees to her thighs, idly. “When I came to Earth, I didn’t have any idea what a super-hero was.   I can tell you, I’d never have considered this kind of a thing for myself.  No way, Jose.  I knew Kal had survived the Destruction, and that he was Superman.  My father showed me on his monitor.  Then, Argo...Argo City died.  And I got sent to Earth, to Superman’s caretaking.  He took me, I guess, under his wing, or his cape, as much as he could.  But he didn’t adopt me, and I wished back then he had.  He just saw me as often as he could, to help me along, to teach me how to use my powers, and to love me as a kinsman.

“He was a super-hero.  He’d been one ever since he was eight.  So he decided, with my powers, that’s what I had to do, too.  I mean, I had the costume.  My mother made it for me so that he’d know I was like him, one of his kind.  Maybe that was what inspired him. So I not only had to learn how to use my powers, I had to learn how to fight crime.  I had to learn to fight, too.  I didn’t like that, but he made me.  Showed me klurkor, showed me how to punch and kick.  Well, I had a few scrapes when I was a girl, all kids do, but it wasn’t anything serious.  And there I was, training like I was some kind of lady glove-fighter.  That’s kind of Kryptonian boxing.

“I didn’t want to be a super-hero. But that’s what Kal said I had to be, and I obeyed him.  I...well, I didn’t know anything else I could do.  He was showing me how to live on Earth, and I felt I owed it to him.  The surprising part, Kal, is that I liked a lot of it.  Not fighting the crooks so much as helping people.  First the kids in the orphanage, in secret.  Then other people, all over the world.  I had to catch crooks, yeah, put down super-villains, and there seemed to be more of them every year I stayed in the game.  But it wasn’t...wasn’t something I was ever totally comfortable with.”

Superboy looked at her.  “Then why’d you keep doing it?”

She shrugged.  “Because of who I was.  Because I was Supergirl.  Because I was stupid enough, am stupid enough, to think that there’s something good I can do for the world with the powers I’ve got.  But I want to be more than a Supergirl, Kal.  I want to be a Kara, as well.  And even a Linda Danvers.  After this, I’m...going to concentrate more on that.  If there is an ‘after this’.”

Kara didn’t say anything.  Kal waited for her to speak again.  Finally, she did.

“The moral of the story is that, yeah, somebody else has been where you’re at.  Me.  I had this thing thrust upon me.  I had to learn how to do it.  I did.  It wasn’t always pleasant.  There were some times it was downright ugly, or depressing, or just bothersome.  But.  There were also times when it was triumphant, and good, and transcendent.  And there have been times, Kal, there have been times...when I’ve even saved the universe.  Can you believe that?”

“Do you think I’ll have to?”

She nodded.  “It’s in our line of work.”

“I don’t know if I can do something like that.”

“When the time comes, believe me.  You will.  And the time may be coming very soon.”

He sighed.  “So I’m supposed to suck it up, get back in line, and quit being a kid about it all?”

She shook her head.  “Nope.  Just remember that what you’re feeling is totally natural.  Remember that you’re not alone in this big, bad Multiverse.  And remember that you’ve got a lot of friends who love you.  Including little miss Kara Zor-El.”

He smiled at her.  “I think you’d better go with Mr. Dev before he drags you away, Kara.”

She mussed his hair.  “Mr. Dev knows better than that.  You remember what I told you, Kal.  You’re one of the family.”

He looked at Kara as if a million words were filling his mouth and not one of them would be able to fight its way out.  Which, of course, was the case.

“We’ll be back before long,” she said, and stood up, walking towards Dev.

“Wouldn’t count on that,” said Dev.  “And next time, lad, I’ll give you my pep talk.  Not like Kara’s, but it’s nonetheless effective.”

“Come on and affect me, Devian.”  She began to lead him back down the hall.

“Kara,” said Superman.

Dev and Kara turned their heads.  Superman had returned, with Izaya.  Kal’s look was both apologetic and grim.

“We’ve got a mission,” he said.

She tensed a bit.  “Where to?”

He sighed.  “While I was out, Batman contacted me on the transmitter.  He passed along word from Infinity, Inc.  Turns out they’ve got a line into Brainiac’s starship.  That was where Darkseid first started this operation.  Lex Luthor is there, along with some of the braintrust.  They think we can tip the balance if we get to them.”

“Oh, Sheol,” she said.

“This is a hell of a note, El,” said Dev.  “Can’t your timing be any worse?”

“I don’t like it, either, Dev,” admitted Kal.  “But the Huntress, who was their contact...the villainess, not the JSA woman...seemed to think that Luthor and company were as scared of Darkseid as it’s possible to be.  That they might be ready to cut a deal.”

“Somebody tell Darkseid, and see if he wants to up their ante,” said Dev.  “Just as professional courtesy, of course.”

“Knock it off, Dev,” said Kara.

“So how are we supposed to get there in time?” asked Kara.

“By Boom Tube,” said Izaya.  “I will transport you to the space outside their craft.”

“First, we have to pick up the tracker from Infinity,” said Superman.  “That means you’ll have to send us to Earth-Two for a moment.  Then you can Tube us to Brainiac’s ship.  Can that be done?”

“It can,” confirmed Highfather.

Superboy started forward.  “Great, let’s get started.”

Superman stopped him with a hand to his chest.  “No, Kal.  I hate to say it, but...this one, you’ll have to sit out.”

“What?”

“Lex Luthor and his crew of rats are too dangerous.  I know you made a good showing against the Zoners, but this is a whole different sort of menace.  Kara and Dev will go with me.  You stay here with Izaya.”

“But, Superman...”

Dev said, “Why not let the kid come, El?  We can play point for him, and it’d be good experience.”

Kara said, “I hate to say it, Dev, but I agree with Superman on this one.  You’re still a bit green, Kal, and Luthor is anything but.  It’s like an Earthman stepping barefoot into a den of rattlesnakes.  There’ll be plenty of action afterward.  But for this...trust us.  Okay?”

Superboy looked away and, after three seconds, said, “Okay,” softly.

“Good for you.  Remember the bit about those who also serve who sometimes stand and wait.”

“We’ll be back for you, Kal,” said Superman.  “That’s a promise.   I believe we’re ready, Highfather.”

The lord of New Genesis pointed his staff.  There was a loud BOOM of outrushing air.

Superboy looked to see the familiar circle of energy forming, and saw his three friends duck into it and fly through its tubular interior.  After a few seconds, it collapsed in on itself and faded from sight.

Highfather stepped towards him.  “Do not think you have no responsibilities, young Superman.  You will help guard our realm in their abscence.  Will you honor me by accompanying me on my rounds?”

The young man from Earth-Prime looked up at the man he had only known of as a presence in a Jack Kirby comic book some weeks before.

“I’d be honored to, great sir,” he said.

 -S-

Nightshade took a great breath and stepped from the shadows into an Earth-One alley.

The first thing she saw was the glint of a pair of antique .45's and a pair of eyes a foot or two above them.

“Who are you?” said an unnerving voice.  “Speak!”

The heroine from Earth-Four regarded the man and decided she could phase into shadow-form and avoid his bullets, if need be.  “My name is Nightshade,” she said.  “And put those guns somewhere else, or I’ll make you eat them.”

“I think not,” said the man holding them.  A red gem glinted eerily on his finger.  “Do you serve the cause of Chaos?”

“Right now, I serve the government on my Earth,” she said.  “That’s about as chaotic as I want to get.  Do you know Supergirl?”

A glint of recognition seemed to appear in the hidden man’s eyes.  “We have not met,” he said.  “But yes, I know of her.  How do you know her?”

“Met her on my Earth.  She came there with some of her friends.  They helped us liberate our world.  That good enough for you?”

“Why are you here?”

Nightshade thought of telling him, “None of your damn business,” and then, without good reason, said, “I’m on a reconnaissance mission.  My world wants to know if this war is still going on in yours, and if it could spill over to ours.”

The man said, “Look out there, and tell me what you think.”  He gestured with one of his gleaming guns, neither of which was pointed at her anymore, towards the alley’s mouth.  She looked at him, and, when he put up his guns, edged towards the opening, keeping an eye on the shadowed man as much as was possible.

She saw figures flying towards a tall building in the near distance which was capped by a globe.  Some of them flew, some of them fell.  There was, at times, an eerie glow of energy atop the building.

Nightshade turned back to the shadowed man.  “I think it looks pretty darn bad.  Are you one of the good guys?”

“I serve on the side of Order,” said the man.  “Mostly, this conflict is above my level of power. But I do what I am allowed.”

She thought about asking him just what he was allowed, then thought better of it.  “Well, just don’t shoot me, because I think we’re both on the same side,” she said.  “You have a name?”

The man was gone.

For a moment, Nightshade stared, even her darkling senses unable to penetrate the shadows.  Was this man an extradimensional spawn, like herself?

At the moment, perhaps it didn’t matter.

She began to move in the direction of the embattled building.  She had been ordered to scout, and scout she would.

She just hoped it wouldn’t be the last assignment she ever took.

 -S-

The Magic Squad was unprepared for the sight which confronted them when they phased into Metropolis with the Losers’ League and Harbinger.  Neither were the ones who confronted them.  Heroes of a hundred costumes and more, some familiar, some not.

In fact, one white-haired, half-naked guy in armor raised his sword to them, which caused Nightmaster to raise his in response.  Harbinger got between them, which was a brave move indeed.  “Hold, Travis Morgan,” she said.  “I am Harbinger, and these are allies.  Yours and mine.”

“Daddy, it’s me,” said Jennifer Morgan, stepping to the front.

The white-haired guy lowed his weapon a bit, and then sheathed it.  Jennifer rushed to him, and he embraced her.  “You made it back,” said the Warlord.

“Yes, and so did you,” said Jennifer.  After a moment, she turned to her team.  “This is my father, Travis Morgan.  They call him the Warlord.”

“I’m so reassured,” said Nightmaster.  Mellu Loron shot him a look of caution.  Nonetheless, Jim Rook lowered his singing sword as well.

“What’s going on, group?” asked Snapper Carr.  “We just got here.  What’s the score?”

B’wana Beast, newly arrived from Africa, spoke.  “There’s a battle.  You need more explanation than that?”

“It would be nice,” admitted Mind-Grabber Kid.

The Warlord pointed with his sword towards the Daily Planet building.  “The bird at the top of that is the key to it all.  We’ve been making progress against his army, but none against him.  He can absorb all the power they throw at him, and pitch it right back.  Right now, we’re going to try a surgical strike.  I’ve laid out the operational plans.  But we’re being hit hard by those damned Weaponers, and by those rank-and-file super-villains.”  He pronounced the last word as if it were distasteful to him.

Amethyst said, “Are you going to try it soon?”

For answer, Morgan stepped towards Nightmaster, still holding his daughter’s hand, and pointed with his thumb towards Rook’s sword.  “You know how to use that thing, young fellow?”

“Yeah,” confirmed Rook, wondering if he should have said it.

“Then come with me,” said the Warlord.  “I’ll give you some people to use it on.”

 -S-

John Constantine wondered for a second if he should be smoking around the kid, then shrugged and lit another Silk Cut.  You only lived once.

Tim Hunter crouched near a stump.  They hadn’t really used Constantine’s transport powers at all, yet.  They’d just walked about a mile away from Abby’s shack.  The miniature Swamp Thing was hanging his head and arms out of John’s coat pocket.  “What’re we doing here, John?”

“Told you, Tim,” said Constantine, taking a long drag.  “Waiting for a Lantern.  The Stranger’s arranging transport for our six-inch pal here.  After that, we can get back to the Baron’s for a meal.”

“It is hoped...he will have...more information...than you, Constantine,” said the Swamp Thing in a high voice.  Then he stiffened, so abruptly that the Englishman could feel it against him.

“What’s up, Swamp?” he said, in a low voice, flipping his cigarette into a puddle.

“A presence,” said the Swamp Thing.  “Beware.”

Tim Hunter was dully gratified that John Constantine didn’t see the newcomer before he did.  That was all the comfort he could get.  Because the boy before them, with his black hair, his incongruous but very proper dress, and his aura of evil, was anything but comforting to look on.

“My name is Klarion,” he said.  Then he raised his hands.

That was when the three of them began to scream in pain.

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