The Apokolips Agenda
Part 4: Darker Than Shadows
It took considerable money to rent the Waldorf-Astoria for a wedding and a reception, but the Challengers of the Unknown had done it. Prof Haley and June Robbins were getting hitched in style. But the guest list showed where they stood in the heroic community: on the second tier.
JLA marriages were being attended by the entire team, plus guests from other Earths. The Challs had only worked with the League members once, before the latter team had banded together, against Martian invaders to save J'onn J'onzz. The Legion of Death-Cheaters had done well on their own. But, like it or not, they had no super-powers. Their purple uniforms weren't as individualistic and classy as other heroes' outfits. So the invitations they half-heartedly sent to the Justice League satellite were responded to by a note of congratulations, but little else.
However, the Challs had rubbed shoulders with other heroes who ranked below the biggest, and they showed up for the wedding. Now Rocky Davis, Ace Morgan, Prof Haley, and Red Ryan, who had become a daredevil crimefighting team after surviving a plane crash that should have killed them, were shaking hands with the members of the New Doom Patrol. They'd worked with the old team before, of which only one member, Robotman, now survived. The other three they'd briefly seen during the Crisis, when Harbinger summoned the heroes of five Earths to the Monitor's satellite. But this was the first time they'd had to really meet Celsius, Negative Woman, and Tempest, Cliff Steele's new teammates.
The Patrol weren't the only heroic guests. The Sea Devils had helped the Challs on one adventure, so Dane and Judy Dorrance, Biff Bailey, and Nicky Walton appeared, out of their usual wetsuits and wearing tuxes (or, in Judy's case, a formal dress). Since Dane and his crew were also members of an amorphous band called the Forgotten Heroes, those worthies had also turned up as guests. Rip Hunter, the "time master", and his three-person crew were on board, as were Rick Flagg, Congo Bill, Animal-Man (the only guest wearing a costume), Dolphin (who frequently fled to the washroom or a nearby water fountain to resaturate herself), and Gardner Grayle, who called himself the Atomic Knight. All these, plus the usual relatives and friends, packed the place for Prof's and June's vows. One of the friends was Tino Manarry, Red's kid brother, an ex-rock star who sang "The Rose Absolute" for the couple with the lyrics changed: "For this is the rose absolute / The flower of my sweet June's love". Red promised to break the other Challs' arms if they didn't applaud, so they did. F. Gaylord Clayburn III, the unofficial "Fifth Challenger", was also there for the occasion.
But the guest the Challengers were most enthused by was Corinna Stark, the sorceress who had been a real "fifth Challenger" herself for a time before leaving the group. Ace Morgan, the Challs' leader, was first to welcome her back, and big Rocky hugged her hard until she squealed, "Put me down, you big ape!"
"Sorry," apologized the big man, and placed her back on her high heels. "Whattya been doin' with yourself, Cory?"
The redheaded woman brushed her hair away from her mouth. "Of late, continuing my studies. Both in magic and at Stanford. I've been working on my masters in education, believe it or not. But I just couldn't keep away when I heard about the wedding." She extended a hand to June. "Congratulations, dear. You've got a great man on your hands, and I don't think your marriage will live on borrowed time."
June grinned and shook Corinna's hand. "And you shouldn't stay away so long, Cory. After all, three of the boys are still bachelors. Are you?"
"Yes," said Corinna. Then her expression sobered. "But that isn't the only reason I've come here, though it'd be reason enough."
The Challs and Robotman, who was standing nearby, caught her import. "Oh?" asked Red Ryan. His eyes showed that, after all this time, he was still in love with Corinna. "What's the other one?"
Prof shifted his jaw a bit. "If I know Miss Stark, it's probably in the line of a premonition. Is that the case?"
Robotman, whose orangish metallic body housed the brain of Cliff Steele, a former racecar driver, stepped closer. "If it's trouble, let us in on it. The Doom Patrol hasn't been gettin' enough action lately to even make the National Enquirer."
Corinna Stark hugged herself, as if cold. "Just dreams, at first...dreams of darkness. But something within the darkness, itself...cold, calculating, all of that. On a level I never faced before, not even with you."
Animal Man, who'd been eavesdropping, opined, "If it's magic, maybe the Enchantress is in it. We fought her when she was with those Forgotten Villain pipsqueaks awhile back."
"It's magic, but something more," said Corinna. "Like a great work is about to be undertaken. I didn't know anyone else to contact but you." She looked up at Prof, wondering.
Prof sighed, and looked at June. "Shortest honeymoon on record, maybe," she said.
"Not necessarily," said Prof. "Unless Corinna can give us more specifics on this darkness-whatsis, the Challengers can't take action. We can't just fight a dream."
Tempest, the Doom Patroller, was about to add a comment. But as he opened his mouth, he beheld something that stopped his speech entirely.
A potted plant near the elevator was growing larger by the instant, and shaping itself into something vaguely and hideously manlike.
Tempest pointed, and the assemblage of heroes reacted. They surrounded the plant-being, ready to attack. Super-villains had crashed assemblages of heroes before, and most of them half-expected such an occurrence at this wedding.
Then the plantman spoke.
"I seek...the Challengers," it said. "We have...worked together...before."
Rocky Davis gaped. "Holy Chrysler! It sounds like the Swamp Thing."
Red Ryan said, "It is the Swamp Thing. But I didn't know you could do that...morph yourself out of a plant."
"It is...a talent I have...acquired...since we met," allowed the Swamp Thing. "My con...gratulations...on your wedding."
"Thanks," said Prof. "If we'd known where to send it, we would've given you an invitation."
Corinna Stark examined the Swamp Thing closely. "A plant elemental," she said. "Like Jack-In-the-Green, and all the others. It'd be an honor to study you, sir, if I might."
"Some other time," said Swamp Thing. "For now...I must tell you...the Crisis is not over. The Green...has told me...of Darkness."
The heroes reacted individually, but all who heard his labored words reacted.
A concierge ran up, with a look of terror on his face. "What, ah, what is, that is, who is, that thing, that, uh, person...that plant..."
Ace lay a reassuring hand on the man's shoulder. "It's okay, friend," he said. "He's with us."
Kara rose up in bed and held her head in her hands. Dev was drowsing. It took him a while to notice her posture. He cursed himself. Being slow to wake was deadly, in his business.
She made no sound. Dev reached out, touched her bare back gently. "Kara? What's wrong?"
She drew in a breath and let it out, not wanting to speak. "I don't think it's going to work, Dev."
"Well, why not?" He raised himself up on one elbow and encircled her shoulders with his arm. Both were sleeping in the nude, sharing a hotel room in Seattle. They had registered as Mr. and Mrs. Dev Emerson, paid in cash, and gotten a look from the night clerk that was all too wise for her tastes.
So that was what it felt like to be that kind of girl.
Kara said, "I don't think it's going to work because we can't live in the same time. You don't...don't want to live in this century. I can't go live in the 30th, away from all of my parents all the time. You don't want to get married, I don't know if I do or not, and my folks don't approve of it--"
Dev was giving her a light neck massage. "If it makes you feel any better, my mother thinks you're simply the tops. She told me."
"Oh, Sheol," Kara snapped. "All right, thank her for me. But..." She turned to him with a look of anguish in her eyes. "How can we make this work, Dev? How do you think we can make this work?"
He paused. "Aren't we making it work as much as we can, Kara? Aren't we, I don't know, going the second mile to try and please each other? What more do you want, right now?"
"I want us to be together."
"Well, we are together."
"I want to come home and know you'll be there waiting for me. I want to know that I won't have to wait till the weekend to see you."
"Then come to the 30th, Kara."
"All right, then." He let go of her neck and shoulders and lay back in the bed. "You want to call it quits?"
She looked at him, horrified. "No!"
Dev put his hands behind his head. "Why not? As you've pointed out, we've got ten centuries of separation between us, and I'm a disagreeable bastard as well."
"You're the man I love," she said, looking straight at him in the darkness. "Damn it," she said, softly.
"And you're the girl I love," Dev said, matter-of-factly. "Whose mouth would get cleaned out with heat-vision by Kal, if he heard what you just said."
"I don't give a rip what Kal hears! This is my life, Dev. Mine. I've...just got to get it in order, somehow." She sighed, bringing up her knee and hugging it. "I've been in love before, Dev, but not this deeply. Have you been in love before?"
"Sure. Not quite like this, though."
"Because I'm a Krypt?"
"Because you are you."
She touched his bare stomach, feeling it come up and down with his breaths. "Flatterer," she said.
"What do you want me to tell you, Karaish?" He ran his fingertip gently up her spine and loved the way she tilted her head back, her eyes closed. "Do you think I'd take this much time and trouble for a woman I didn't love? Even if she's so good--"
"You stop that!" snapped Kara, with a giggle, whacking him in the chest. "Now who needs his mouth heat-visioned?"
"You don't love it when I talk dirty? Especially about you?"
She lay over him, across his chest, and felt all of him beneath her, the skin, the hair upon his breast, the muscle and bone beneath that, the human warmth, the love. Not making love, but just touching. Rao, how had she lived so long without this? This was what men and women were made for.
"I want you so badly, Dev," she said, fighting back tears. "I want you all the time."
"I know you do, Karaish," he said, his arms folded about her, feeling the fine feminine body that she'd hid under that blue-and-red costume for far too long. "But...we take what we can get. And right now...we can get quite a lot."
She was on top of him then, in just the correct way, and it did not matter how many times they had done this before. This was the first time, the last time, the always time. The ultimate touching.
They entwined in mid-air, just managing not to bump the ceiling, and crashed back into bed after the deed was done.
It was a while before they could speak.
"We didn't break the bed this time, did we?" asked Dev. "I mean, we really didn't, did we? I don't want to cost you any more money."
"It's...just fine, Dev," murmured Kara. "It's all...just fine."
"I suppose," he said, cradling her head against his chest. "I suppose it is just fine tonight, Kara." He brushed a bit of tangled hair away from her face. She was already sleeping.
It was worth everything to hold her like that, to feel her warmth and weight and breath, even in this godforsaken century. Even if it was only for the night, and the next day.
Even if he was beginning to feel, as Kara had, that somehow, they were being watched.
The fortress of living stone near the world of Qward in the anti-matter universe was no longer alive. With the passing of its master had passed its animation. The Flash had destroyed the great cannon with which the Enemy had planned to destroy whole worlds, at the cost of his own life. Now, only two sorts of beings roamed its halls.
One sort was the shadows, who had done the Anti-Monitor's bidding and brought death and destruction where he wished surgical strikes to be made.
The other had just arrived recently, and, in his way, he was darker than the shadows.
The newcomer's massive body was protected by a force-field, so neither the negative matter of this universe nor the cold and deadly touch of the shadows affected him. He communicated with them, both verbally and with his mind. They did not verbally answer him. It made no difference.
"Shadows," he said. "Without substance. Really, less than even that. Shadows without a master. Wandering stars. Men fear you, but, actually, you are little to fear. Without a king, you can do little."
He felt the anger from the ebon beings, but knew that they agreed with him, grudgingly. They would have destroyed him if they could.
"I am a king," said the newcomer. "I am a king in my own world. Perhaps not as powerful as your old master, but wiser. Yes, certainly that. I can succeed where he failed. I can do this with you, or without you. But you might be of use. Conceivably."
The response was one of curiosity.
"You may spend eternity, roaming these Sourceforsaken halls," the being continued. "Or you may accept my rulership, obey my mightiest command and merest whim, and purpose, yes, purpose will be yours. And sweetest victory. Triumph over the ones who killed your master. Does that sound interesting, all of you?"
The response was positive, in the extreme.
"Feel my power, shadows. Know my wisdom. My purpose is to rule. That which I cannot rule, I will destroy. But much destruction shall be wrought, before rule is established. Shall you be the blackness at my right hand?"
If the response was verbal, it would have deafened him.
"Then pledge," he said. "Pledge loyalty. To me. To your deaths--and beyond."
He knew they had pledged.
It was his first voyage to this dimension, his first time within these walls. But without error, he strode through the halls to the room which the Anti-Monitor had once ruled from. The shadows followed, at a respectful distance.
The throne, though damaged, was still standing.
The newcomer approached it, regarded it, then sat down in it.
He could almost hear the sigh of non-breath from the shadow beings.
The throne, they all agreed, was now well-filled again.
There is a bit of subway track beneath the streets of Fawcett City that you can't get to unless you have been approached by someone who has been there before. Very few people have. Even the mayor, the city manager, and the people in charge of building and maintaining the line haven't a clue.
That was why the ghostly form of Old Shazam held court there, in a special room, summoned by the lighting of a brazier, as he had telepathically instructed Captain Marvel to do. The Earth upon which they lived had been given a designation in honor of him. Those who travelled between dimensions referred to it as "Earth-S", for Shazam.
It was a word that never passed Captain Marvel's lips, unless he wanted to switch identities.
Now he stood before the old wizard's shade, as he had so many times since the day in 1940 when they first met. The robed and bearded ancient's form was semitransparent, and it would have caused him to shudder, had he not known him for this long. Instead, he felt a strong affection for the being whom he well-nigh saw as a father, now.
"Great sir," said Marvel, "you summoned me. For what reason?"
"The wisdom of Solomon is useless without the information upon which to work," said Shazam, seeming to wheeze a bit. "The event which your kind called the ‘Crisis' seemed to be over, a short time ago. But..."
Captain Marvel tensed.
"...even as a flame thought extinguished may rise again from a single spark...so the darkness may gather again from a single shadow," Shazam continued.
"And the...cause of this shadow?" asked the World's Mightiest Mortal.
"Unclear, at this point," said Shazam. "But the emanations derive from that universe parallel to our own. The evil is strong, young Billy, if its stench can be smelt so far from home. And if it is so powerful, then it may threaten even our world, very soon."
"Would this universe be that of Earth-One?" ventured Captain Marvel. "The one in which our friend Superman lives?"
"The very one," confirmed Shazam. "Evildoers have vanished from our world, Billy, without our knowledge of their destination. I believe, though my powers of observation are limited in that realm, that they have been taken to that plane. The entire Family will be required."
"I will summon Mary and Junior," said Marvel. "We'll be at the Rock of Eternity and in their world within the night."
"Not just Mary and Junior," cautioned the wizard. "More than they are needed."
Captain Marvel considered it. "Ibis, then? Most of the Squadron of Justice are too old, I fear, to be of much use."
"Ibis, Bulletman, and Bulletgirl still remain strong enough to serve," said Shazam. "As does the young one who is Freddy's blood relation, whom you call Kid Eternity. But even they will not be enough."
The red-clad hero looked perplexed. "Then who?"
Shazam leaned forward on his throne of granite. "You must go to a certain city. You must contact a certain woman, and bring her back to her days of power and virtue."
"Her name, great sir?"
"Her name is Andrea Thomas."
When the Boom Tube went off in the skies over Metropolis, everybody thought at first that some plane had blown up and ran around to look for cover. Fortunately, that wasn't the case.
Unfortunately, they looked up and saw a host of oddly-dressed characters who had emerged from a glowing circle in the air that was fading from sight. One was in a red suit and a grey helmet and seemed to be riding a flying exercise machine. Another was a guy in black, sitting on a flying chair. A third was a glowing dude who seemed to be leaving a trail of light behind him as he flew. The fourth was a blue-skinned girl with red hair and blank eyes like Orphan Annie's. The fifth, a shorter guy than the rest, was dressed in red and white and seemed to move quickly upon the building roof where they landed, like a scuttling sort of insect.
It just had to be some damn trick of Lex Luthor's.
Before too much longer, word had gotten out to Sgt. Thomas "Terrible" Turpin of the Metropolis PD, who had dealt with these mugs before, and to Inspector Henderson, who had hoped he'd never have to. Turpin had flagged down the immigrants from New Genesis, gotten the 411 on who they wanted to see, and, sitting them down at the station house and showing them how to work the coffee machine, he put in a call to the Daily Planet. A few yells later, he was connected to Jimmy Olsen.
"You still got that wristwatch thing to call Superman with?" he demanded, right off the bat.
"Yeah, Sarge," said Jimmy, curiously, having recognized Turpin's voice.
"Then call him and tell him to get his big blue bod to my precinct, on the double," roared Turpin. "Orion and his boys are back. And I don't want any more of my turf torn up like it was last time they were here. So get him here, so they can get out. Got it?"
"Uh," said Jimmy. "Orion? The guy from the New Gods?"
"No, I mean Paddy O'Ryan from County Cork. Of course, it's Orion from the New Gods! Now do it! Goodbye." The connection went dead before Jimmy could say another word.
He looked around the city desk. Dave Stevens, Melba Manton, Meg, Percy, all the usual gang were there. Except for Clark and Lois, who were still on honeymoon.
"You know," he said, to everybody and himself, "there really, really are times when I wish this thing didn't work."
He pressed the face of the watch in just a certain way.
A "ZEE-ZEE-ZEE" sound was emitted that only a very few pair of ears on Earth could hear.
Jimmy sighed, rubbed his eyes, and took a seat facing the window.