The Apokolips Agenda
The three Martians had the advantage of invisibility. Unfortunately, they couldn’t use much of their other powers in that status. That was why two of them remained unseen while J’onn J’onzz spearheaded the attack.
Atop the Daily Planet building, Mantis saw him. The Martian Manhunter was closing fast. Not as fast as his peak speed would have allowed him, true, but quickly enough. The other two flanking him, unseen, had some of their flight speed drained by their invisible state. This was risky. Like grasping the flamesnake in his lair, bare-handed.
Still, it was no more nor less than all else he had been asked to do, most of his adult life. So J’onn J’onzz came on.
Mantis was there. Mantis, parasite of power. In his body rested the stolen energies of magic and science, of occult and atomic power, and so much more. Surrounded by a few flunky villains, deadly in their own right, but not really the Martian’s problem.
“Come at me, green man,” said Mantis, loudly enough for him to hear it. “Come at me and die.”
J’onn J’onzz opened his mouth and blew.
Martian Breath, as the power was called, wasn’t quite as powerful as Kryptonian super-breath. But it did the job. Especially when Mantis wasn’t expecting it. A gale force wind struck the villain and toppled him from his perch. A look of surprise and anger crossed the Apokoliptic’s face, just before he fell from below the big Planet globe atop the building.
He didn’t fall far. The glider membranes under his arms caught the wind and buoyed him up. Mantis had his hands up, pointed at the green man before him, and was unleashing energy that could have poked holes in Fort Knox without obstruction. But by that time, J’onn J’onzz had turned invisible.
The two Martians flanking Mantis did the opposite, and hit him hard.
Both of them had power enough to tangle with Kryptonians and at least make a good start. T’omm J’onzz and J’en R’ass smashed into the green-clad villain like a pair of pistons, and they could tell that, for all his power, Mantis was hurt. An instant later, J’onn J’onzz himself joined in the assault, visible, smashing punches at whatever area the other two weren’t punching, blasting away with his Martian vision. Together, the three of them might have taken down Superman.
But Mantis had absorbed too much power. He braced his back against the wall of the Planet building some thirty-five stories up, raised his palms, shouted, and sent forth a power-burst that repelled the three of them with crushing force.
His right hand came up and glowed with sparking power. “There’s been altogether too little killing,” he said, favoring the few villains who still clustered atop the Planet Building and the battling masses below who could hear him. “Time we changed that.”
That was when four streams of atomic power hit him right in the face.
“Pour it on, Firehawk, pour it,” said Firestorm, his flaming head like a beacon, his face grim and set. His hands and those of Firehawk, his female partner, were outstretched and blasting nuclear energy right into the parasite’s body.
“‘Storm, this isn’t the way,” she said. “He’s gonna suck it up like a Sno-Cone and turn it back against us.”
“We don’t have a choice,” he said, pointing one hand upward, unleashing his transformative power, and turning a water tower into a fluid-covered fist that slammed Mantis against the side of the building. “Try and overload him.”
“What about the Martians?”
There was no time to worry about them. Mantis, roaring, tore the metal-and-water fist apart and launched himself at them. His hands were outstretched, and he meant to place them on Firehawk’s face and crush it to pieces.
But there were others in the battle, despite their being many stories below. And one of them created a gravity well that bisected Mantis’s path, causing him to drop from the air as if an angel had pushed him from above. With a cry of surprise and anger, Darkseid’s warrior plummeted, hit the street, broke through the surface. Firestorm and Firehawk breathed a sigh of relief.
It wouldn’t last for long, but while it did, they were grateful to Geo-Force, to whom they waved.
J’onn J’onzz, falling, struggled to use his imitative powers, elongated his arm a la Ralph Dibny, and caught a cornice of a neighboring skyscraper. His green, strong fingers closed about it as he retracted his arm, allowing him to cling to it safely. As soon as he did so, the thought came to him: What of J’en and T’omm?
He looked outward and saw J’en in the hands of a flying figure quite as alien as himself.
Her rescuer had blue skin, flaming red hair, and a purple-and-white uniform. On his chest, a white triangular medallion was visible. He was not of this world; that much was clear to J’onzz.
“Stranger,” he said, “thank you for saving her. She is my beloved, and I am J’onn J’onzz of Mars.”
“You are fortunate,” said the blue man in an even voice. “I lost my beloved. I am Mikaal Tomas of the Outerworlds. Some here call me Starman.”
J’en, regaining her strength, said, “J’onn, where is T’omm?”
“Down here,” said another Martian voice.
The two of them looked below and saw, impossibly enough, T’omm J’onzz lying in the midst of a human net strung across a wide Metropolis street, anchored by elastic legs twisted around facing buildings. The net was composed of the bodies of Plastic Man and Elongated Man, both of whom looked up at the others and smiled. “He’s safe, gang,” said Plas.
The Creeper, standing on a ledge just above Plas’s left foot, said, “Which is more than most of the rest of us can say, compadre.”
“Look out, look out, look OUT!” yelled Halo, doing a fly-by from above. The complement of heroes saw what she was talking about immediately. With a terrific roar and a fireball to boot, pieces of street came vaulting upward. Ralph and Plas immediately disengaged, with the Elongated Man bearing T’omm to safety on the side of the building he grasped. They got away just before the atomic burst came up between them. The heat and fire weakened the Martian trio badly.
Firestorm and Firehawk darted in, using their transmuting powers to change the nukeburst into a hail of feathers. But their powers were taxed, thanks to their foe’s absorption of them. When Mantis raised his head above ground again, the two of them took to helping get their fellow heroes out of harm’s way.
“You feed me with every blow!” raged Mantis, in ecstasy. “You empower me with every stroke! Now, feel the might of Mantis!”
Even as he unleashed a wall of atomic power at them, Geo-Force caused a wall of street, earth, and concrete to contain it. Lead of the Metal Men appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and formed a colossal dome of his body to overlay it. Halo blasted Mantis with her stasis aura just before the Lead-dome came down, trying to retard his power.
Starfire helped get the rest of the heroes out of the way, then dive-bombed over the jiving mass of superhumanity brawling in the streets, peppering friend and foe alike with starbursts that shot just over their heads. “Get out of the way! All of you! Get to safety, now!”
The Flash sped through the melee, trying to force the combatants to a safer place downstreet, and dealing out a few knocks to the opposition as he did so.
“We...could not...stop him,” muttered J’onn J’onzz.
Who could? Superman and his friends? The Marvel Family? Perhaps. Perhaps he was even beyond them.
All they had was the material at hand with which to work. Mantis wouldn’t be satisfied with just baiting heroes to attack him anymore.
He was climbing out of the hole in the pavement.
He was readying himself for a strike.
All Nightmaster knew was that he didn’t want to be there.
He had fallen in behind the Warlord, not knowing whether he should have or not, and not knowing that he had much of a choice. They were shortly joined by another sword-wielder, a short and deadly Asian woman in a red and yellow costume who swung a katana and didn’t seem much to give a damn whether or not anybody got out of her way before she swung it. Mostly, they did.
Dear God, what am I getting into here? Are they dragging me into a killing?
Travis Morgan looked back a moment. “Kid. Lift ‘em. We don’t have time for stragglers here.”
Nightmaster whacked a Gotham villain known as the Black Spider a good one with the flat of his humming blade. “Don’t know if I want in on this campaign, captain,” he said in a surly manner.
The Grasshopper, another long-forgotten foe of Batman, tried to spring at Morgan. The white-haired man kneed him hard, almost nonchalantly, and took no note of him when the villain sprawled in the street. “You don’t have a choice,” he said, and looked tougher than Clint Eastwood when he said it.
“I always have a choice,” said Nightmaster, defiantly.
Katana looked at them. “Will you, when others die because of what you have not done? Come with us, you young fool!”
Nightmaster hesitated again. In that moment, another adversary dropped from a ledge above them, but not upon him. This time, the target was Katana, and the attacker caught her from behind. His name was the Copperhead, he was an original member of the Super-Villain Society, and his limbs and prosthetic tail held her fast in a crushing grip that did not permit her to use her sword.
That wasn’t the bad part. The venomous fangs of his helmet spread wide, and readied themselves to be buried in her exposed face.
Jim Rook heard a yell, felt some muscles in action, saw his perspective change, saw a sword before him, held firmly, ramming into the shoulder of Copperhead through muscles and bones, making the super-villain scream, pinning him to a brick wall, his deadly jaws flailing helpless in agony.
Then he withdrew the sword, his hand beginning to feel the wetness of the blood that dripped down its shaft and guard, and Copperhead fell writhing and screaming on the ground, clutching his ruined right shoulder.
Katana looked at him. “My thanks, Nightmaster,” she said, and raised her sword.
Travis Morgan caught her arm by the wrist. “No,” he said. “Nothing more needs be done to that one.” To Nightmaster he said, “Well, son? Still think you’re not one of us?”
Jim Rook looked for a long time at the maimed villain rolling on the ground. “I think I did what I had to,” he said, finally.
Morgan nodded. “Come on,” he said. “It isn’t finished yet.”
Dr. Fate stood with his back to a lamppost. Jennifer Morgan, still hovering protectively over Amethyst, reached out to touch him in sympathy. Beneath his golden helmet, he sighed.
“I’ve just put in a telepathic call to the Society, and to Isis,” he said. “We can get them here, but it’ll probably be done by the time they get here.”
“If we succeed,” said Dr. Mist.
“Even if we don’t,” said Fate.
Jennifer cast a glance towards Amy. Despite her brave front, the nervousness underneath it was visible. Well, that was just fine. In her purple boots at this moment, Jen allowed she’d be nervous as hell, too. As for Dad’s suicide mission...well, best not to even think of that at the moment.
Dear God, why did I take lessons in magic in the first place? It’s been an aid, an empowerment of sorts, in Skartaris and here, but...such a deadly burden as well.
But not all warriors wielded swords, after all.
Shade and Mellu Loron stood by, waiting for what was to begin. They had hand-weapons from their world of Meta ready, in case someone from the ranks of the opposition should try to attack the mages before their work could be accomplished. Shade cast an eye at the battleground some blocks distant, as much of it as he could see through the buildings between them. “The enemy is advancing,” he said.
“We’re lucky they’ve waited this long,” said Mellu, and checked the rooftops for snipers as she did so.
Dr. Fate reached out his gold-gloved hands and lay them on Amy’s shoulders. They felt reassuringly human to her. “Grasp my arms, Amy,” said Fate. She did so, holding onto them just above the elbows.
With her inner nature, she could feel a hint of his power.
Dr. Mist lay a hand on a shoulder each of Amy and Fate, resolved to be the buffer in the event which was to come. He had seen much since his immersion in the Flame of Life at Kor, thousands of years ago, but he wagered he had seen nothing quite like what was to come.
“This is a thing of the Spirit, Amy,” said Dr. Fate in his more-than-human voice. “As is all magic. But ours are spirits which differ from those of common mankind. Mine is the indwelling of a Lord of Order. Yours is one of a Lady of Order. We must form Union. Not with our flesh-bodies, but with our other-bodies. Will you accept this burden?”
Amethyst hesitated only a second. “I will,” she said.
“So be it,” said Fate. That was all he needed to say.
Then it began.
An instant before, Amethyst had only been looking at the man in the helmet with her physical eyes. Now, as a strange flow of half-felt energy poured from his arms into her body, finding the forces it needed there, kindling them to action, and circulating them back into his own form and back to her again, she saw more than that. More even than the aura men had hypothesized lay about every human body. Even with mystic sight, it was impossible to see it all. As if it lay within six or more dimensions, and she was only equipped so see three, or perhaps four.
A being overlay the blue-and-gold aspect of Dr. Fate, and she could tell that a similar one must be coming from her, as well.
More than that, her consciousness was infused into the Being, as was Fate’s. Her femaleness, young as it was, melded and matched with his maleness, as old as it was. Yet the things within them were Old, indeed. The particles which composed them were as orderly as cells in a honeycomb, as the atomic pattern of a diamond, as squares on a checkerboard, natural and manufactured at the same time. Ordered.
Dr. Mist chanted in a language earlier than any known on Earth at present, adding his own powers to stabilize the mix. This was as precise and deadly as experimentation with high explosives in the physical realm. A mage of less expertise would have been doomed within seconds. He managed.
Shade looked upon the tableau of three. The M-Vest heightened his perceptions just a tad, enough for him to see an iota of what was going on. He didn’t like looking at it. The manifestation was more than any illusion he had ever produced to frighten a foe.
The Being leapt up from the forms of Dr. Fate and Amethyst, and the two bodies left behind collapsed flat on the pavement, still entwined. Dr. Mist followed them down. He still maintained contact. He saw the Being arcing above the nearby buildings, pausing for a moment at its apex, then heading downward.
A breakout squad of villains poured out of an alley. Shade couldn’t recognize a one of them, or he might have named them as Major Disaster, the glowing Dr. Double X, the Rainbow Raider, Hawkman’s old foe Chac, the Golden Glider, Lady Lunar, and, yes, even the Kryptonite-hearted Metallo II.
“Those are the two,” said Metallo, pointing at the prone sorcerers’ bodies while running forward.
“Come and get them,” said Shade, activating the horrific illusion-power of his vest and aiming his gun.
But Metallo found himself dumped off his feet by a sidewise tackle from a red-and-blue costumed man who shot from around the side of a building. The both of them skidded on the street, striking sparks as they scarred the asphalt. Metallo was in no mood for this. Snarling, he reached out a hand, grasped the street, dug in his fingers, and stopped their motion. Then he pulled back his other hand, balled it into a fist, and let fly at his opponent’s face. He expected it to go right through the man’s head.
It struck, and it hurt. As a matter of fact, it bloodied the hero’s nose. But the older man in the red, white, and blue costume gave him a solid look back.
“I was takin’ worse than that forty years ago, Kilroy,” said Commander Steel. “Let’s see how you like this!”
And Metallo learned that more persons than himself could sport a metallic-hybrid body, and that they could hit hard, too.
Three others turned up from the same source, all of them friends of Superman and Batman. One of them, Sonik, a black hero from Metropolis, blasted Major Disaster off his feet with his vibratory weapon. Dr. Double X unleashed a power blast from his energy form that almost rendered Sonik unconscious, but was in turn counterblasted by Swordfish and Barracuda, a male-female team who hadn’t been seen in several months but whose powers were nonetheless up to the challenge.
“We’ve got more than enough power to keep ‘em busy,” advised Lady Lunar, the group leader. “Go ahead and waste those fools.”
Shade stood his ground and aimed his weapon, then loosed a burst of destruction that barely missed the flying Lunar and Golden Glider. Chac, the Aztec wonder-worker, raised an ancient talisman and produced a glowing bolt that hit the ground near Shade’s feet, knocking him and Mellu sprawling.
“Yours,” grinned Chac.
But behind the fallen heroes, a section of building wall began to glow, warp, and open up, disclosing several new arrivals to the battle. Shade and Mellu raised themselves up as quickly as possible, hurt though they were, to see if they were welcoming friends or foes.
Uncle Sam led his band through the barrier. In his wake came the Ray, the Human Bomb, the Black Condor, the Phantom Lady, Usa, Doll Man, Mr. Mystic, and Firebrand. They broke ranks around the fallen five and reformed in a group in front of them.
Sam began to roll up his sleeves. “Looks like we picked a good time, brothers,” he said. “At ‘em!”
Commander Steel, grappling with Metallo, looked at the new crew and grinned. “Do me a favor and fold up fast, pard. I want to shake hands with that ol’ boy. Haven’t seen him since 1942.”
Metallo only growled.
Mantis surged forward, blasting away with both hands, and the heroes gave way. Atomic power, latent Green Lantern energy, magic...it all seemed combined within those bursts. The backwash that struck the building walls of Metropolis’s business district melted and penetrated the stone and steel, and made some of them sway dangerously.
The downtown section was, to a large extent, a disaster area.
Even those who stood with the Apokolips agent kept well away from him. The light of madness was in his eyes–-how could it be otherwise, when he had consumed so much power?–-and there was no guarantee that being his ally was much more safe than being his target.
Cyborg didn’t even bother trying to blast him with his sonic beam anymore. He just concentrated on helping get himself and his fellow heroes out of the way. The Shining Knight and Team Metropolis, the remnant of the Justice League, the New Titans, and the Outsiders, all fell back. There was no choice. Mantis had even guarded himself against Geo-Force’s gravity well power.
He advanced, and they fell back.
The Dial H team vaulted forward, hitting him with Tsunami’s water power, Kid Rock’s earth-heaving might, Firebolt’s flame-blasts. For a second, Mantis spluttered. Then he raged forward with a sweeping burst of green and red power which sent the threesome sprawling. Giantboy scooped the trio up in his massive hands and retreated.
“We need Superman,” said Nightwing, among the retreating group. “We need the Lanterns. Why don’t they come?”
“Ask God that question,” Batman snapped, “because I don’t know.”
Starfire blasted forth plasma from her hands to set up a barrier across the street, separating her and her allies from Mantis and his troops. It gave them a few seconds’ respite, but the villain in green and gold strode through it, cloaked in flames for a moment, then walking forward as the starstuff fell away and sizzled on the pavement. The villains behind him stopped, seeking one of them whose powers could breach the barrier.
Then, from above:
Mantis, and those with and against him, looked up.
Above them, in the sky, overshadowing the tops of the buildings, hovered a Being.
Its shape was colossal, humanoid, but hard to see in definition. Its dimensions extended into realms beyond the Fourth. What facial features it had shifted, sometimes quasi-male, sometimes quasi-female. For a Being of Order, it seemed curiously chaotic. But that was just in human perception.
NO FURTHER, WARRIOR.
“In the Pit,” snarled Mantis. “Do they send gods against me? Very well, I challenge a god!”
With that, he pointed his arms upward and blasted.
The impact was staggering, spattering the energies of Magic and Science across the great chest of the Being of Order. It kept on for fully half a minute, and the backflash from it was blinding. The Metal Men formed a cover over the heroes present to protect them from fallout.
Finally, Mantis ceased his barrage. He stood there, hands smoking, breathing heavily, looking upward.
The Being was still there.
NOW—OUR POWER, it said.
It pointed a massive hand at Mantis, and a beam of white-hued power engulfed him in a moment. The heir of Apokolips screamed in pain.
For a long moment, it looked as though the parasite villain was finished. He went to his knees, battered, smashed, almost destroyed by the power of the Union above him.
Then his scream turned to a snarl, as he began to suck in the power that was directed against him.
Mantis’s body grew more massive, expanded, as the power of the universe’s magic infused him from a direct tap. He was pulling forth power from the Being, and the Being apparently could not stop him. Mantis’s aspect began to subtly change, as if he, too, were growing aspects that could not be contained by three primary dimensions.
As if he were becoming like unto the Being itself.
And, while over a hundred heroes and villains stood back in terror to watch the transfiguration and battle...
...three others broke through and ran for him.
All of them were bearing swords.
Mantis looked at the two men and the woman coming at him. All of them bore the look of humans who knew they would not survive the battle, but would do their best to kill the enemy in the act. Well, all short but one.
The man in the black cloak with the humming sword looked like he didn’t really want to be there, somehow.
“Fools,” rasped Mantis, in the voice of a demon. They heard it and still came on.
With the merest effort of the mind, Mantis sent blue-fire sparks from his body. They arced from him, struck the threesome. Katana and the Warlord grimaced, staggered, went down.
The Nightmaster stood, shaking, as the blue fire played up and down his sword.
But he did not fall.
Mantis actually smiled. “I am busy,” he said. “But I’ll make time for you.”
Jim Rook looked at the writhing forms of Katana and Travis Morgan and met the latter’s eyes for a moment. Just a moment. That was enough.
It was as good a berserker howl as he knew how to give. But it achieved its purpose.
Mantis blasted away at him again with a bolt whose magic content would have withered Superman. For a long instant, it did show the very skeleton of Jim Rook, in a fluroscopic image. But there was a difference between Jim Rook and Superman.
Superman did not wield the singing Sword of Night.
And even as the demon of Apokolips prepared to unleash the stolen energy of a Green Lantern upon his too-persistent, too-aggravating foe, the Nightmaster hefted his sword back in a stroke that sent it almost to his own spine, gave Mantis a stare that even made the parasite prime stop stock-still for a moment, and then, with all the power he could command...
...swung it forward and up and over and down...
...until it slammed into the helmet that covered Mantis’s head and bisected it...
...and did the same to the head underneath...
...and kept on until it was buried quite in the neck.
There was no way Jim Rook could hang onto the singing sword at that moment. He fell backward, rolling, covering his eyes, until he rested half-over the legs of Warlord and Katana. With his cloak before his face, he chanced a guarded look before him.
Mantis’s body was still standing, with the sword still within it.
But, of a sudden, with a SHRAAAAAKKK! of unearthly noise, a blast of white and yellow and green and even red energy spurted up from the wound like a geyser, coursing up and up and up until it entered the body of the Being of Order, giving back the energy which was stolen, giving back that and more, giving back the power of Firestorm and Firehawk, of the Green Lanterns, of all the heroes whose powers had been stolen to fuel the agent of Darkseid.
It was blinding, and Jim Rook turned his eyes away.
Mantis’s body was splitting open, like a ripe husk, and something shriveled was falling away from within. It was horrible to look upon, and, fortunately, Nightmaster was not looking. Some of the heroes and villains managed it, though, only briefly.
“My God,” said Nightwing, from behind a barricade.
“It’s almost done, Dick,” said Batman, an arm about his shoulders. “It’s almost done.”
Jennifer Morgan charged through, an arm before her face. “Lady, no,” said Halo, who started after her. Metamorpho reached out a copper-springed arm and snagged his teammate.
“Let her go,” he said. “She’s his daughter.”
Jennifer slammed down to her knees on the street over Katana and Warlord, slapped her palms down on the pained bodies of the warriors, and spoke a spell she had never used before and never had hoped to. Like Raven, it gave her the power to channel and dissipate pain. And it worked all too well.
“Oh...dear...God...”, she cried, feeling the agony of the two before her for just a moment. But it was enough. She cried, unashamed.
And then the power-chain from Mantis to the Being was finished, withdrew into the Being’s body, and left the charred dual-hulk of Mantis and the thing which had been within him to fall in two pieces. The Sword of Night clanked on the pavement.
The Being, above, hesitated a moment, then splayed its fingers and blasted away the excess energy which Mantis had stolen. Then, it turned in a graceful arc and sped away towards a double destination only a few blocks away.
Dr. Mist, waiting tensely to guard the forms of Dr. Fate and Amethyst, looked up and saw the great Thing approaching. He breathed a sigh of relief. Uncle Sam and his partners, having put the final touches on their foes, tensed at its sight.
“It’s all right, Uncle,” said Mist. “It is one of ours.”
“If you say so, Doctor,” replied Sam, still looking unconvinced.
Only Mist’s senses were well-honed enough to see the Order Being split into two forms, a Lord and Lady of Order, and quickly whisk within the helmet of Fate and the body of Amethyst. Seconds later, Amy’s and Fate’s breathing began to return to normal from their trance-states. Fate began to bestir himself. Amethyst moaned softly, rubbed her eyes, opened them.
“Welcome back,” said Mist, gently.
“Fate,” said Amy. “Did we...”
The golden helmet nodded, slightly. “Come with me, my lady.” He stood, and held out his gloved hand.
Amethyst took it. With a slight effort, Fate took them both into the skies.
They touched down a few seconds later on Ground Zero, near the twin-corpse of Mantis. The armies of heroes and villains were still keeping their distance, but looking tentatively at each other. The Warlord had his weeping daughter in his arms and was comforting her. Katana sat beside Nightmaster, who had his head buried in his own arms in anguish.
Amy shrunk against Fate in horror at the sight.
“Who...who are they?”
The sorceror swung his gaze towards what was left of Mantis, shrivelled, gutted, and bisected to the neck. “This was Mantis. The high-warrior of Darkseid. I knew he had power, but never thought he had power enough alone to do what he did in this battle. Now I know why.”
He gestured towards the second corpse, which, in the evening light, was as ravaged as that of Mantis, but whose skin had a strange purple, scaly tone. “This is the Parasite. His abilities are similar to that of Mantis, but more intense. Darkseid must have found a way of melding the both of them. The gods only know how.”
“What do we do now?” she said.
“We shall see,” he replied. Grasping her hand, he walked her over to Nightmaster and Katana.
Jim Rook still had his head buried in his arms. “Get away from me,” he said, as Katana touched him.
“I will not,” she said, firmly.
“I said, GET AWAY!”
“Speak to me, Nightmaster,” she said. “You have won a great victory. You may have saved the world. You have done nothing of which you should be ashamed.”
“He has killed,” observed Fate.
Jim Rook took his arms away from his face and stared at them, balefully, painfully. “Yeah. Yeah, I killed. I killed a man. Me. Mister Peacenik. I took my little sword out and I, just like friggin’ Conan and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Elric, and I friggin’ killed him.”
“Yes,” said Katana. “Or he would have killed us all.”
“I didn’t want to kill! I’m not supposed to kill!”
“Kid,” said the Warlord, still holding Jennifer in his arms, “did you think you ever had a choice?”
Jim Rook fell silent.
“Pick up your sword, soldier,” said Travis Morgan.
“Pick up your SWORD.”
It took Jim Rook several seconds before he could get up, stand, walk on legs that did not want to obey his commands, step carefully about the bodies of the Parasite and Mantis, control a terrible urge to vomit, and, finally, stoop and pick up his sword. Its blade was clean, shined to a brilliance by the energies which had bathed it from Mantis’s body.
Once again, it hummed.
With a single swift motion, Jim Rook returned it to its scabbard.
He turned to see the Warlord standing before him.
“It’s always like this the first time, kid,” said Morgan, gently. “Take my hand.”
Without a word, and giving him the look that a new-blooded warrior gives to a veteran, Nightmaster grasped the Warlord’s hand.
Travis Morgan turned the both of them to face the mass of villains before them. Behind them, Katana, Fate, Amethyst, and Jennifer stood at the ready. The massed heroes of Metropolis rallied, and began to move forward.
“I’d say this battle’s over,” said the Warlord, loudly, his sword hefted. “Unless you really think you’ve got something to prove.”
Most of the players of both ranks hesitated, considered what was before them, and thought of how little there was to gain. At least, in the wake of Mantis’s death.
But one among the enemy shoved aside several of his fellows and barged to the front. His uniform was predominantly green, with a swastika chest symbol. His hair was blonde and crew-cut, and a Heidelberg dueling scar lent extra cruelty to a face which already possessed such in abundance.
“I have something to prove,” said Captain Nazi. “Come at me, Amerikaner.”
The Warlord hefted his sword and Dr. Fate raised his hands. “Hold on,” said the familiar voice of Uncle Sam, shouldering aside a couple of other heroes to get through. “He’s mine.”
“Wrong,” said a deep voice behind him, who gently grabbed him under the arms and moved him backwards. “He is mine.”
And with that, the Seraph stood in Uncle Sam’s place.
Bare-chested, loinclothed, booted, and wearing a yarmulke, the heir of Samson faced his foe in defiance, his long black hair blowing in the soft early-night breeze. Nazi’s eyes narrowed. “You,” he said. “A Juden.”
That was all it took to set the hero of Israel charging for him like a high-balling comet.
“Hold up, friends,” said Travis Morgan, his arms barring the crew beside him. “I think we’ve got a David and Goliath situation right now.”
Captain Nazi’s strength was great enough to allow him to trade punches with the Marvel Family, and his endurance was enough to manage to survive the ones they dealt him back. He did manage to get in a few good blows of his own, and sought to land a blow that would blind his foe in one eye, after which he would concentrate on the other.
But the Seraph only needed to land one blow. It came up from the vicinity of his waist, followed through to the level of Nazi’s jaw, and shattered it beyond the capacity of even Samson to use it against an enemy. The green-cloaked, red-caped villain hit the street, skidded, and came to a stop directly before the line of villains.
“God forgive me for what I wish to do now,” muttered the Seraph. “And grant me the strength not to do it.”
Uncle Sam stepped up, put an arm about the Seraph’s shoulder, and smiled at him. “Nice goin’, young feller.” Then, to the enemy, he turned a stern gaze. “Well, gents?” he said.
Some of the villains did a quick huddle. Then the Mirror Master, elected their ad hoc representative, turned towards the heroes.
“I think we’d like to discuss surrender terms,” he said.
The Green Lanterns began arriving at New Genesis space about three hours after Highfather met with the Forever People and the Earth heroes. There was almost a confrontation between them and Izaya’s orbiting defense troops, but word reached them in time for the latter to stand down. Hal Jordan led the Corpsmen and several hangers-on, including Star Sapphire, the Omega Men, the Honor Team, and two new arrivals they’d picked up at the Phantom Stranger’s direction on the way. The king of New Genesis met them in his courtyard, with his allies in tow.
Zatanna had to rush up and give Hal a big hug. “Good to see you again, GL,” she said. “Glad to know you made it, too.”
Star Sapphire lay a hand on her arm. “Honey, don’t get too familiar, okay? I’m not only his wife, I’m his boss. I can fire him.”
“Maybe time to circulate my resume when I get back home,” said Hal, jokingly. “But let’s save it for later, okay? Right now, give us the facts, sir, and we’ll take action.”
Highfather said, “In brief, Darkseid has a bit over a day, if we are lucky, before he breaks down my son’s captive mind and fathoms the Anti-Life Equation. Apokolips is shrouded by a double layer of shadow-demons and Kryptonite radiation. Below that will be whatever defenses Darkseid can muster, and even at impaired capacity, they will be devastating. He also holds my daughter D’reema captive—if he has not killed her outright. The sheaths about his planet must be penetrated, that we of New Genesis may make war.”
Salaak said, laconically, “How droll. But we will be up to the challenge, sir.”
“You poozer, show a little respect for the guy,” rumbled Kilowog. “After all, he is a king.”
Hollika Rahn, the sorceress Green Lantern of Rhoon, stepped before Izaya and did a bow of courtesy. “Send us where you will, milord. The Green Lanterns will speed the plow on your behalf.”
John Stewart rubbed his ring thoughtfully. “Been a tough tour of duty lately. But, heck, I never signed up for this thinkin’ it was a block party. Want to go ahead and roll out, Hal?”
“Don’t be too eager to start before we know all the parameters, John,” said Katma Tui, her white-gloved hand played about his upper arm. “Even the Corps doesn’t walk into a trap without getting information first.”
Big Bear spoke up. “‘Scuse me if I’m speaking out of turn, Brother Lantern. But what about Superman and our friends on Earth? Can we ring them in on this happening? We could use their muscle like badly.”
“I’ve already resolved on that,” said Hal. “Just need a volunteer to go and get them. If they’re not still in the thick of battle, that is.”
A man in a blue and black uniform and a captain’s hat stepped up behind him and to his left side. “If you would, Green Lantern, my son and I would be privelaged to bear the message.”
Oberon, all four-feet-plus of him, leaned forward and squinted. “Who the devil are you, pal? I’ve seen lots of heroes, in the flesh and in pictures, and I’ve never seen you before.”
The Captain smiled. “Not surprising. We didn’t exactly have a long career. My name is Captain Action, and this is my son, Action Boy.”
“Hi,” said Carl Arno, beside him. “We’ve been away for awhile.”
“The Phantom Stranger told us where to find them,” said Green Lantern. “They’d been fighting a guy called Dr. Evil, if I’ve got the name right, and got lost in a parallel time continuum for a bit. We bailed them out with our rings. Have a feeling we’ll need all the help we can get. Okay, Captain, I’ll send you and your son to Earth-One. There should be enough heroes with transport capacity to get them to Apokolips. That is, if they’ve won.”
John Stewart looked at Hal, surreptitiously. It had hurt his friend to have to walk out on the battle with Mantis’s forces, and it showed.
“You say it’s been years since we left,” said Captain Action. “Is Supergirl still alive?”
Surprised, Hal said, “Yes. Yes, she is. When I saw her a few days ago, at least. Why?”
“That’s good,” said Action. “All right, send us away.”
Hal Jordan and Arisia trained twin beams on the Action Team and watched them fade away in a coruscation of green light. They would materialize in Metropolis on Earth-1 and, hopefully, bring back reinforcements. If any reinforcements were to be had.
“We’ll need time to get our ships in position,” said Izaya. “But not much.”
“We’re going to get started,” declared Hal. “Any of you who’d care to join us can come along.”
Lady Quark said, “I don’t think you could keep any of us back, Green Lantern.”
“Definitely not,” said Mr. Miracle, clenching his fist. “I have blood to settle with Darkseid.”
“Just make sure, husband,” said Big Barda, “that it is not your own.”
Ch’p, the chipmunk Green Lantern, bounced up toward the front. “Jumpin’ jiminy, GL, are we all done palaverin’? I want to bust a few chestnuts on this Darkseid’s head for what he got us into. I’m ready to climb.”
“So are we,” said Hal. His ring glowed, shot out a beam, and formed a large globe with a portal in Izaya’s courtyard. “Those of you who want to come, enter this globe. But make sure not to touch the sides with anything yellow, including your costumes. We’re moving out right now.”
The Forever People, Miracle, Barda, Oberon, Zatanna, Pariah, Alex Luthor, Lady Quark, Jezebelle, Bug, and the Female Furies entered the globe, which expanded slightly to accomodate them. The Omegans, the Honor Team, Metron and Lightray would travel under their own power. John Stewart sent a code-beam from his power ring to the mass of Corpsmen who were stationed in New Genesis’s orbital space, signalling that their unit was coming up.
“Let’s move,” said Hal, and they arose, covered in green auras to protect them from the conditions of space. The green globe was towed along with them.
Izaya looked after them for a moment, said a prayer for Orion, and went back inside to ready his troops.
When Kal, Kara, and Dev used their telescopic vision to check on Metropolis, it made them speed up all the more to reach Earth.
Dev chanced a look with his X-ray vision at their passengers within the metal globe they had constructed. <Not sure all this acceleration is good for them, El,> he stated.
<Let them puke,> said Superman, baring his teeth.
So the Kryptonian threesome entered Earth’s atmosphere too late to affect the battle against Mantis, using their superbreath to cool the globe from air friction, and were soon beheld in the skies over Metropolis.
Metamorpho looked up. “Hey. Should I say, ‘It’s a bird’?”
“Oh, Rex, act your age,” said Element Girl, disgustedly.
Supergirl looked at the devastation in Metropolis’s business district, grimly. Luckily enough, there were few corpses to compliment it. Just a mass of heroes taking charge of a mass of villains, Federal troops moving in tentatively to reestablish order, and a large and daunting mass of wreckage.
“My city,” said Superman. “My workplace. My God.”
Kara knew what he was feeling. Kal rarely swore, especially in her presence. “Easy, cousin,” she said. “At least not too many people are dead.”
He turned a face back to her that was frightening in its intensity. “Kara,” he said, “shut up.”
She didn’t say anything until they touched down, near Ground Zero of the Mantis battle. Kal looked at the fallen husks of Mantis and the Parasite, gazing on the latter’s body for several seconds without a word. Then he turned to Kara and Dev and nodded. They cracked open the globe. None of the villains inside looked in the pink.
“Good Lord, could you have made that flight any more dreadful?” complained the Lex Luthor who was native to that world.
“Any more like that and you should have your licence revoked,” agreed Vandal Savage.
Dev-Em grabbed him by the arm. “Any more like that, and I’ll revoke a lot more than your licence. Get me?”
Supergirl trundled Luthor of Earth-2, Sivana, and the Hooded One out of the remains of the globe. She X-rayed them once again for hidden gimmicks, and neither was sporting any. To Luthor of Earth-1 she said, “Turn off your warsuit, Lex.”
He looked at her balefully. “Surely you jest.”
“Turn it off. Or I’ll break that helmet and slap you silly.”
Without a word, Luthor touched a button in his belt and the great warsuit powered down. Kara went to him, reached around back to grasp his power source, and tore it off. He sighed. She threw it down and stomped it.
Superman stood amidst the rubble, almost unmoving. Neither Dev, Kara, nor anybody else approached him for a few seconds. Then Batman and Nightwing broke from the crowd, and stepped towards him. Kal looked at them.
“Where were you?” said Batman, quietly.
Supergirl broke in. “We were on Apokolips, fighting Darkseid and his bad guys. Then we had to pick these idiots up. When we saw what was going down here, we tried to arrive in time. But it was over.”
“Yes,” said Batman. “Yes, it was.”
Superman finally spoke. “I’m sorry, Batman.”
“We needed you,” said Batman. “There was almost a lot of death here. We just barely avoided it.”
“Blast you, I’m sorry!” Kal glared at his old friend. “What do you think, that I can split myself like Duo Damsel? I can’t be in two places at the same time. This...my city...” He gestured towards the crumbling buildings. One which had been spared much destruction was the Daily Planet building. But it, too, had been scarred.
“The city of the people who live in it,” said Batman. “And the city of the people who almost died in it. Remember that, Kal.”
The Man of Steel looked at the carnage again before answering.
“I will remember,” he said, almost in a whisper. “I will never forget. I can never forget.”
Batman lay a hand on his shoulder. “In that case, we both can. Friends, Kal?”
“Always, Batman.” He took his partner’s hand and shook it.
Lex Luthor of Earth-2 looked sneeringly at the sight. “Oh, how touching,” he said. “Almost worth the entire trip here.”
Supergirl whirled and knocked him flat. He groaned, putting a hand to his mouth. Standing over him, she said, “No. That was almost worth the trip here.”
A contingent of heroes detached itself from the main mass and made its way towards the small group, but two of them made it first. One on rubbery limbs, the other on the wings of a bumblebee. “Gee, Superman,” said Elastic Lad. “It’s good to see you and Supergirl made it home! I want you to meet my new team in a minute.”
“Jimmy,” said Kal. “Lana. It’s nice to see you as well. You took part in the battle?”
“We sure did,” said Lana Lang, the Insect Queen. “Got a whole new superhero group in the process. We call ourselves Team Metropolis. Superman...Kal...I’m very glad you’re not hurt.”
He looked at the woman he’d known since his days as a child in Smallville, saw the longing in the eyes behind her yellow mask, and knew that she still loved him. And there was still nothing he could do about it. She was with Pete Ross now, and that was better for all of them. It would have to be.
“I’m very glad you weren’t, either, Lana,” he said. “I hope you won’t be a full-time heroine. It’s very dangerous. But if you do...good luck.”
She smiled. “Thanks, Kal. I appreciate that. Let me show you the rest of the team.”
The rest of Team Metropolis moved up to howdy and shake with little urging. “Superman,” said the Guardian, pumping the Kryptonian’s hand. “It’s been too long.”
“That it has, Guardian,” said Superman. “At least we aren’t dealing with a giant Kryptonite Jimmy this time.”
Elastic Lad blanched.
In turn, Black Orchid, Steel, Thorn, the Vixen, and Blue Devil made their introes, and Kal and Kara shook hands with each of them. Blue Devil, holding Kara’s hand, gave her the once-over visually. “Well, hel-lo,” he beamed.
Dev stepped up. “She’s taken, mate.”
“It’s all right,” said Dan Cassidy. “I’ve already got a girl. No offense.”
“Cool down, Dev, we’re all on the same side,” said Kara. “Nice to meet you too, Devil.”
Superman surveyed them all. “Glad we’ve got a team of our own in Metropolis. I’m committed to the Justice League. But if you need a hand in a tight spot, feel free to call on me. Jimmy knows how.”
“Sure do,” said Elastic Lad, who kept his secret signal-watch in a costume pouch.
“Okay,” said Steel. “I think we handled ourselves pretty well in the current instance, but we appreciate your words, Superman. A lot. And if you need some help on one of your cases, give us a call. It’d be a privilege to work with you.” He said it with some irony, and Superman caught it. So did Vixen. Both had been members of the short-lived second Justice League, which had been disbanded after Superman and the original members returned to the fold.
“That being said,” Steel continued, “maybe you can help in the mop-up operations, and...”
“Son,” said another voice.
A man a costume similar to his own was making his way through the press. A man quite a bit older than Steel, and limping a bit as he walked.
Vixen’s fingers tightened on Steel’s arm as she looked upon the old man. Steel gently removed her hand. The last time these two had met, it had been in a brutal punch-up. It had culminated from a long series of events, beginning with the old man’s program to have his grandson turned into a partial cyborg like himself. Hank Heywood had tried to run Hank III’s life, at which point the young Steel had rebelled and helped form the second Justice League. Vixen had also been a member.
She had been there to watch when young Steel beat his grandfather in a fist fight.
“Gramps,” said Steel, evenly. “You’re hurt.”
The old man stood about ten feet away from his grandson and didn’t come any closer. He looked very tired, of a sudden. Kal whispered in Kara’s ear, “Stand by for action. We may have to separate them.”
“I hear you,” Kara whispered back.
“Yeah,” the elder Steel answered. “But that’s all right. Shoulda seen the other guy. I’m glad I got to see you, though.”
“Okay,” said Steel, not giving anything away. The Guardian and Black Orchid looked at each other, then back at the two Steels, as alert for a fracas as were Superman and Supergirl. But they waited.
“Son,” said Commander Steel, “I know there’s a lot of baggage between us. A lot of rotten stuff, by your lights. Maybe by mine, now. I don’t know. I do know that...hell...” He looked down, trying to form words. The rest of them felt like unwanted voyeurs. Blue Devil started to say something. The Thorn silenced him with a look.
“Okay,” said the Commander. “You want to hate me for what I did to you, son, you gotta right. I guess you do.”
“I know I do,” said Steel, without expression.
“All right, all right,” said the old man. “Wish we didn’t have to do this in front of other people. We ought to do this in private.”
“We can do this right here,” said Steel. “These are my friends.”
The Commander ventured a step closer. “I was wrong to do what I did, son, if you really didn’t want me to do it. And you didn’t. But if it gave you the power to do what you did today, maybe it was right, as far as that went. But maybe I still was wrong.”
“You were, gramps,” said Steel.
“Aren’t you...can’t you give me anything, boy? Any kind of slack?” Commander Steel’s hands were open and upturned. “We’ve been fightin’ since your dad died in ‘Nam. Fightin’ up till you beat me, awhile back. And you beat me fair and square. That’s okay by me. That’s okay, and I want you to know it.
“But I...but you...” Commander Steel turned away for a moment, then turned back. “I don’t want either one of us to die, boy, before we find a way to get together again. I don’t want to see you dead, like my son, before I...”
“Before I tell you I love you,” said Commander Steel, at last. “And before I tell you I’m sorry for what I’ve done. And before I tell you that I’m a mean old man, and I know it. I’ll get out of your life, if that’s what you want. I won’t try to tell you what to do. But I didn’t want this day to go by before I got the chance to see you again. To talk to you. And maybe have you talk to me. Son, I’m ready to change. As much as I can change, as old as I am. Question is...are you?”
“No, gramps,” said Steel. “No, I’m not.”
The tension increased, as the old man’s face fell.
“I can’t change,” Steel went on, “because what I feel for you won’t change. You are a mean old man, for sure. But you’re also my grandfather. I always wanted to love you, but you damn well never let me. If you’re willing to change that...then nothing else needs to change, gramps.”
That was all it took. If there was something wet and glittering in either of the Steels’ eyes, those present were politic enough not to mention it. All they knew is that both of them were in each other’s arms a second later, sealing a generational gap in a warm, masculine hug. The old man’s shoulders, for all that, were shaking.
“Gramps,” said Hank Heywood III. “How hurt are you?”
“Not bad,” said Hank Heywood I. “Fought Metallo. They ain’t makin’ cyborgs like they used to.”
“You can say that again, Gramps,” said Steel. “You can say that again, but definitely.” Then he broke the hug, but kept an arm around his grandfather’s shoulders. “Folks, I want you all to meet somebody. I want you to meet one of the heroes of World War II, a guy I’m mighty damn proud of. My grandfather. Commander Steel.”
Nobody had to tell the crew to cheer as he held his grandfather’s hand high. And Vixen, smiling, led the applause.
In the crowd, unnoticed by most, a new figure firmed into being where he was not, a second ago. He touched the shoulder of a helmeted youth standing beside Snapper Carr and startled the hell out of him. Mind-Grabber Kid turned, as did Snapper, and both of them saw the Phantom Stranger.
“Lucian Crawley,” he said, “you are needed.”
“Hey, what?” said the Kid.
“P.S., it’s you,” said Snapper. “Don’t you want to hear about the mission? And what’s this with the Kid? Don’t you want us all?”
“I know of the mission,” said the Stranger. “I need him. And I do not need the rest of you. Come, Lucian.”
Mind-Grabber Kid looked at Snapper for a second, then spread his hands in helplessness. “Should I?”
“It’s your choice,” said Snapper.
Lucian followed the Stranger. The two of them made their way to another hero’s side. Prince Ra-Man looked at both of them in curiosity.
“Ra-Man,” he said. “You are needed.”
“For what purpose?” asked the Mind Master.
Mind-Grabber Kid said, “You may as well come. He seems to know where the big trouble is. At least, up to now, I mean.”
Ra-Man followed, and before long, none of the three was present in Metropolis anymore.
Back at Ground Zero, Superman was shaking the hand of Nightmaster, who looked positively haggard to Kara. She herself was comparing notes with Jennifer, who filled her in on the Mantis battle as Supergirl told her of the mission to Brainiac’s satellite. They were still talking when, suddenly, a green glow appeared nearby and two heroes familiar to both Kal and Kara turned visible as it faded. The two newcomers looked around with drop-mouthed wonder.
“Captain Action,” said Superman, in astonishment. “Rao’s Light. It’s been years.”
“Cap,” said Kara. “Action Boy. Good to see you both again. How did you get here?”
“You know them?” said Kal. “When did you meet them, Kara? I only met them once.”
“Some other time, Kal,” she said.
“Superman, Supergirl, good to see you both,” said Captain Action, holding up his hands for silence. “But time is, I’m afraid, just what we don’t have. We’ve been sent here with a message.”
Action Boy said, “The Green Lanterns picked us up on their way to that Genesis planet. They’re about to attack Apocalypse, or whatever it’s called. They need your help.”
“The man called Highfather specifically requested your aid, and that of all the other heroes you can spare,” confirmed the Captain. “The Lanterns are about to spearhead the push against this Darkseid. They need your help.”
“They’ll have it,” said Kal. “Along with any and all of the crew here who are willing to go. How much time do we have?”
“Not long, I’d say,” said Captain Action. “We can count on the support of most of the heroes here, then?”
Before Kal could answer, he caught sight of another phenomenon in the sky. He paused, ready to go into flight, before he recognized a green glow in one direction and, beside it, a warp which disclosed the flying figures of the Marvel Family and several other heroes, Isis among them. The glow resolved itself into a platform bearing heroes he recognized from the Justice Society and Infinity, Inc., plus the Bat-Squad and some independents he had never seen before.
When he spoke, he said, “I’d say you can count on even more than that.”
A female voice said, “Uh, excuse me? Supergirl? Can we speak?”
Kara turned towards the one who spoke. It turned out to be a shadow, cast on a building wall, which suddenly resolved itself into a woman. “Nightshade,” she said. “Don’t do that, you’ll give me the creeps.”
“Sorry,” said Nightshade. “But I wanted to let you know that, if you’ll wait, I’ll see if I can get Justice Force together and bring them back here. If you’ll accept the help, that is.”
Supergirl smiled. “It’s not like we’re big on rejecting people. How long will it take you?”
“If they’re still where I left them, maybe an hour,” said Nightshade. “It takes awhile to travel between dimensions.”
Harbinger called from the crowd, “Not as long for me. Let me convey you there, Nightshade, and we’ll save time.”
“Lyla,” said Kara, in recognition. “Didn’t see you in there. Good to see you too, girlfriend.”
“Thank you, Kara,” Harbinger acknowledged. She levitated herself above the throng, then touched down in front of Nightshade. “Grasp my hand, and we’ll be off.”
“O–kay,” said the Darling of Darkness, and took Harbinger’s hand. The two of them lifted into the air, warped out, and were gone.
Dev-Em said, “At least she knows where Apokolips is. And has a way to get there.”
“Yeah,” said Supergirl. “And...oh, holy Rao!”
The comment was caused by the sight of a white-clad, blue-caped blonde beauty who flew from the JSA platform to land before Supergirl and Dev. She gave them a tough smile. Dev looked between both women in astonishment.
“You mean to tell me you’ve got a sister?” he said. “And I didn’t know?”
“Sort of,” said Kara, smirking. She approached the other woman and hugged her. “Kara. Good to see you again, honey.”
“You too, K,” said the other. Still holding Supergirl with one arm, she offered a blue-gloved hand to Dev. “I’m Power Girl. What Supergirl is on this world, I am on Earth-Two. We don’t get to see each other nearly enough.”
“Um,” said Dev, taking her hand tentatively. “Pleased, I’m sure. You’ve never met a guy on your world called Dev-Em, have you?”
“That’s a relief,” he said.
Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr. were conferring with Superman. Mary Marvel caught Supergirl’s eye and gave her a happy wave. Like a class reunion, thought Supergirl. In union suits.
Finally, Superman spoke, in a voice loud enough to carry to the very edges of the crowd. “Everyone, I want your attention. I don’t expect all of you to volunteer for this duty. You’ve all had a heavy battle. You’re tired, and you have every right to be. I know you’ve fought valiantly, and anyone who wants to stay here is entitled.
“But the big push against Apokolips is on. We’ve got just over a day to stop Darkseid, before he fathoms the Anti-Life Equation. In a moment, I’m going to head for New York and round up all the recruits I can over there. Then I’m going to talk to Lex and his friends here–“ He pointed to Luthor of Earth-1. “–And we’ll try and find out what they know of what we’ll be facing. I estimate that we’ll be moving out within an hour. The Green Lantern Corps and New Genesis have already started the fight. I plan to be with them. So does Kara, I know, and many of the others. So those of you who wish to help, be here when I get back. There are enough of us with transport powers to take those of us who don’t have them. Once again, no one who does not wish to go will have it held against them.”
Nightwing sighed, and then said, loudly enough for most of them to hear, “You don’t need to make the speech, Kal. We may be tired. But you know all of us are going.”
Desaad entered the chamber of Darkseid with trepidation and not a little caution. “You sent for me, sire?”
The great granite-colored head turned towards him, slowly. “Yes,” Darkseid said. Beside him, there was only Mongul, standing against the wall, impassive, with his arms folded.
“And Darkseid’s pleasure would be?”
The Lord of Apokolips took his time about answering. “Someone impersonated you to gain access to the palace. When it was standing.” All of them were in one of the below-ground rooms which had escaped destruction in the battle.
Desaad trembled. “That could hardly be seen as my fault, my lord,” he said. “It was unknown to me.”
“Nothing should be unknown in the realm of Darkseid.”
“As, as you say, dread lord. Nothing should be unknown.”
“Unless, of course, it is something wished by Darkseid to be unknown.”
“Of course, my lord. As you say, my lord.”
Darkseid said, “You know you are useful to me, Desaad.”
“Oh, yes, dread lord!” Desaad’s aspect began to brighten. “As useful as my dread lord allows me to be. Useful and loyal, sire. To a fault, if I might say so.”
“Traits which are admirable,” said Darkseid. “And traits which ensure your survival.”
“In another form,” finished Darkseid.
With that, twin Omega beams stabbed out from his eyes, arrowed to the form of Desaad, and, in an instant, converted him into energy-essence and retracted him within the very essence of Darkseid himself. It had been done once before, when Desaad had confessed to hyping Kalibak’s strength in a fight with Orion. Desaad’s last visible expression indicated that he knew what he was in for.
“Why did you do that?” asked Mongul, out of curiosity.
Darkseid turned to him. “I need him,” he said. “And in this form, he’s easier to carry.”
The lord of Apokolips returned to his meditative state. It was a terrible thing to have to cause his son’s mind so much pain. In a way, he felt more brutal than Desaad. But perhaps the indwelling essence of Desaad would give him strength to finish out the job.
After all, once the Anti-Life Equation was spoken, no one would need to complain.