Those who gathered about the Hooded One, though their power and evil were great, had some qualms about what they saw him doing.
Standing before him on a stone floor was an opened ancient Egyptian mummy case. Its carvings warned of curses should the woman who lay within be liberated. The woman was, appropriately, an ancient Egyptian mummy. Her flesh was withered, even though the ancient enbalming process had rendered it leathery, and she was not at all pretty to look upon.
Punch and Jewelee had to turn away. This was too heavy for their stomachs, and they wanted to keep lunch right where it was.
The Banshee, his face covered by a green mask, clenched and unclenched his fists. No one could read his expression, but he did not turn away.
The Madman and the Smiling Skull were not smiling at all.
Dr. Spectro spoke up, breaking the silence. "Are you sure you want to do such a thing, Hooded One?"
The cowled man turned to them, and the shadows hid all but his mouth. For that, they were all glad.
"She was, when last alive, an enemy of Thunderbolt."
That was all the green-robed savant had to say in the matter. None of the partners he had gathered about him wanted to debate him, at the moment.
The Hooded One uncorked a vial and upended it over the mummy-woman's face. A greenish fluid poured forth, wetting the time-browned flesh. It did not drip off into the dusty interior of the ancient coffin, but was absorbed by the mummy's face as if by a sponge.
The Fiery-Icer ventured a comment. "I'm not trying to be insubordinate, but, Hooded One, how can you expect this to work? This dame has been dead for probably about 4,000 years, for pete's sake!"
Without turning around, the Hooded One said, "No. She was alive much more recently than that. Now silence!"
The Squid looked at the Icer. The Icer looked back. Neither could tell the other's emotions by sight, since their masks, like the Banshee's, covered their entire heads. But both sensed the fear and near-nausea of the other. Walking into a Universal Mummy movie that turned into real life was more unnerving than either of them would have thought.
There was silence for ten seconds.
Punch cleared his throat. "Well, I, eh, suppose we should be getting on with the next phase. I mean, Cap Atom's--"
There was a rustle at the coffin.
It was caused by a female hand grasping its edge, from inside.
A second later, the occupant of the sarcophagus raised up with terrifying quickness. Jewelee cried out, certain that a living corpse would be shambling amidst them with insane furor.
The woman, clad in bandages from neck to foot, was beautiful. But her eyes bespoke the cruelty of her soul, the evil ambition of a sorceress who bargained with dark powers to come back after death...and who had now done it more than once.
"I am Evila," she said, in Egyptian.
The Hooded One answered her back in her native tongue. "I am the one who reunited your ka with your body once more. Time has not passed greatly since your last breathing. The one you fought then is also an enemy of mine. Would you hear more?"
"Yes," said the woman. She gave him her full attention, but did not smile.
Turning to his fellows, the Hooded One spoke in English. "I think we have a new associate."
She understood English as well, and looked upon the others in attendance. Gaudy costumes, like Thunderbolt's. They seemed afraid of her.
That she deemed good.
The Blue Beetle had opened the porthole in the bottom of the Bug and Captain Atom and Nightshade had flown through. Now they were talking, the Bug was hovering, and cops and citizens were gathering and gaping below like extras in a Fifties sci-fi film.
"You wanted to talk, Beetle," said the white-haired nuclear pile. "So, talk."
Nightshade was standing with her arms folded. She hadn't been in too many public cases, but she had the rep of being able to give an attacker several new ways to bend his joints after a little of her martial arts treatment.
Ted Kord rubbed the back of his neck with one hand to give himself time to think. This guy, Atom, was a real, live, super-powered hero. With one hand, he could probably blow up the entire giant beetle-ship that all three of them were sitting in. What kind of villains could give him competition? Something a notch above the Madmen, the Squids, and the Men of the Mask, that was for sure.
The atomic man was about to say something, so the Beetle decided to head him off at the pass.
"Some of my old enemies have gotten sprung from jail," he said. "Some of yours, too. Sounds like the same character's behind it all, whoever he is."
Captain Atom, his metallic uniform gleaming in the sunlight that penetrated the one-way mirror of the Bug's eyes, nodded. "Fiery-Icer, Dr. Spectro, Punch and Jewelee," he said. "Plus several others in various detention centers throughout the nation. Only things in common: the crooks fought super-heroes, and Asians have been seen in connection with the breakouts. Helping with getaways, that is."
"Not that we've fought any Asian supercrooks," put in Nightshade. It was the first time he'd heard her speak, and her voice was reassuringly normal.
"Me neither," said the Beetle. "But there's more guys wearing costumes than just us three. The Question operates near my town. Then there's that guy in the costume colored red on one side, blue on the other..."
Captain Atom said, "His name's Thunderbolt. I'm not sure, but I'd bet some of his old enemies are on the prowl, too."
Nightshade said, "There's that international guy, Peacemaker, too. We haven't met him. Have you?"
Blue Beetle shook his head. "No. I've never met anyone else in a costume, outside of my predecessor."
"The first Blue Beetle," said Atom. "I remember him. How is he?"
"Outside of the Fightin' Five, whom I don't know a whole lot about, the only other guy I can cite in the same line is the Son of Vulcan," said the Beetle. "He hasn't been operating for years, so I guess we can rule him out. Unless some of his old waltzing partners are out."
Nightshade shook her head. "I wouldn't know. He was a year or two before my time. But...some of our old foes, and some of yours. Probably some others none of us have fought, on top of that."
"The Banshee," said Blue Beetle. "He fought the Question once, got lost and was presumed dead. But he's been sighted recently, too."
Captain Atom shifted his stance. "Beetle, listen. I don't just fight guys in costumes. Doctor Spectro and Fiery-Icer have real power, enough to challenge even me. If you go up against those two, they could, well...squash you. Like a real bug."
Nightshade stiffened. Nat Adam was being blunt, military-style, but this guy looked to be a civilian. He wasn't going to take this well. "Beetle, what Cap Atom means is..."
"I know what he means," said the Beetle, evenly. "He thinks I'm a lightweight. I've taken on gangs of ten men all by my lonesome, Atom, and come up smiling. I've designed this ship. It runs on antigravity and is at least fifteen years ahead of anything the guys you work for can come up with. On top of that, some of those mugs who've been sprung from stir are old enemies of mine. You think you can handle them. I know that I can. But they're probably all in the same thing right now. So, don't you think it's a good idea that we be part of the same thing, too? At least till we get this thing straightened out?"
The two heroes regarded each other in silence for a few seconds, and Nightshade found herself silently praying, as if she was a little girl again, that the Captain wouldn't make another faux pas.
Then he smiled.
"Sounds good to me, Beetle," said Atom, and stuck out his silvery hand. The Blue Beetle shook it, and smiled, with obvious relief.
"You too, Nightshade," said the Beetle, and offered her his blue-gloved mitt. She took it and pumped it, venturing a smile. He thought she looked great, except for owning the ugliest mask in the world.
"Now," he said, "considering there may be enemies of Ques, the Peacemaker, and T-Bolt in that bunch, what do you think we should do about it?"
Atom leaned on the Bug's control panel. "Probably just what you've done with me. Have you got the time?"
"Hey, I'm my own boss," said the Beetle. "Thunderbolt operates in New York City. Want to try for him?"
"Let's go find Mr. Two-Tone," suggested Nightshade.
The Beetle grinned, and took the wheel of the Bug.
Vic Sage walked the streets of Manhattan, coat over one arm, hat firmly planted on his head. He never liked walking around bareheaded, and detested current fashion.
So. How did one go tracing the Banshee, or contacting Thunderbolt, in this foreign town? He'd considered sending one of his Question cards to a local paper, with a message included. But there was no guarantee Thunderbolt would respond. Still, it was better than any other idea he'd had so far.
A visit to the local police station had only buttressed the known details. A character matching the general description of Max Bine had been seen briefly in a bar, ordering a drink. Several Asiatics had come in shortly afterwards, made their way over to him, and told him in pidgin English to come with them. Bine looked annoyed, rather than worried, according to the bartender. That had seemed odd, since these Asians were tough enough to be Triad types. As the barkeep had put it, if those guys had come up to him, he'd have been scared out of his wits.
Well, he'd put it in more colorful language than that. But the intent was the same.
Bine had finished his drink and left with the Orientals. The guys in the bar had been a hard enough crowd, but they gave the party a wide berth. The whole affair had been strange enough for the barkeep to break his usual practice and notify the cops, but the guys were long gone by that time and no laws had been broken. He had, however, given a verbal description of his customer to a police sketch artist and there was a decided resemblance to Bine.
Only no one had seen the Asians or Bine since that time.
So. What was known of the man called Thunderbolt?
Surprisingly little, Sage had found, despite his research in newspaper morgues around the city and talking to cops and reporters. Thunderbolt had appeared a few years back, during the incident in which ancient dinosaur eggs were hatched and tyrannosaurs actually matured to full height in minutes, menacing the city. From nowhere, a blonde man in a cape, a two-colored outfit divided down the middle, and tennis shoes had appeared. He had destroyed the dinosaurs with the help of explosives and defeated the gang of crooks who had capitalized on the great lizards' rampage. He had come and gone, said one policeman who saw him, "like a bolt of thunder". The reporter who took down his statement finagled the term a bit, and dubbed the masked man "Thunderbolt" in a headlined story.
Thunderbolt had battled some very strange characters in this town and elsewhere: a female crime-boss named Evila, who had been rumored to be nothing less than a reanimated mummy (which Sage discounted); Eric Gore, a scientist who had an ape's paw transplanted to replace a missing hand; a criminal named the Cobra, who used the venom of that snake to create mind-slaves; a costumed Japanese bandit called the Dragon, who had died using his own fire-device; and several others. The strange, grim man had taken every one of them down, usually at great peril to his own life.
What was most amazing about Thunderbolt was brought out in the eyewitnesses who were quoted in those news stories. Exaggeration from victims of crimes was nothing new. But these extraordinary claims were, once or twice, backed up by photos taken of Thunderbolt in action. The man was said to be able to leap at least fifteen feet from a standing start, to pull bolted metal benches from their housings, to run at greater speeds than even an Olympic sprinter.
If the stories were true, he had even killed the Cobra's pet snake when his hands were tied by biting it in the throat.
Sage decided he'd not reenact that feat to see if it could be true.
Whatever the man had going for him, it apparently hyped him beyond normal human performance. Perhaps it was drugs. That was likely, considering the foul brews that Olympians had taken to improve their best efforts. Or perhaps it was just something more. Whatever the case, Sage had to admit he was intrigued. As a newsman, he would love to nail an interview with the mystery man.
As a mystery man himself, he wanted to consult with him.
Most of the sounds of the metropolis were known and familiar to Vic Sage; New York sounded not unlike Hub City, if a little noisier. He filtered such things out, as a country dweller ignores the songs of the birds outside his door. There was one thing he did not ignore, though: the sound of a police siren's wail. And he heard one now.
The people of the great city weren't jaded enough to let the Black Maria pass without catcalls and waving, sometimes with the middle finger. Sage stepped back from the curb and wondered where the heck the cops were going.
"Must be that hostage thing," offered an Hispanic youth standing nearby, apropos of nothing.
Sage turned to him. "What?"
The youth, in a PUERTO RICA MI ENCANTA T-shirt, looked at the guy in the suit with the nonchalance given to out-of-towners. "Buncha bad guys. Guns ‘n' bombs, I think the friggin' TV said. Natural History Museum. Say they wanna blow it up for five million. Or maybe they won't blow it up for five million." He shifted his stance, not giving a damn except as the news was entertainment. "Whatever."
"How long ago was that?"
"Oh, lemme see--" The youth considered. "Well, Shayla was still watchin' Days of Our Lives, so that woulda made it..."
"Never mind," said Vic Sage.
He flagged down the next yellow cab, had to assure the driver he wasn't carrying, and got in.
He always thought of himself as Peter Cannon. Thunderbolt was just the mask and the costume he put on, and he hated them.
Being raised in a Tibetian monastery might not seem the best preparation for living in New York City. But Peter Cannon blessed his upbringing every day, because only in the High Abbot's teachings could he mentally survive every day in (or outside of) the megalopolis. Calling it a "metropolis" seemed too dignified for the city, in his opinion. "Megalopolis" combined "mega"--too big--with "lop", which sounded like something about to lop over of its own ungainly weight and improper construction.
To this American-parented but Himalayan-born boy, that was just what New York seemed to be. Many times he had wanted to return to the snowy peaks of his boyhood, to the monastery which still stood there. More than once he had gone back, when time and money permitted. But at the end of those visits, the High Abbot had always said the same thing: "You must go back to the world."
The world's needs outweighed his own. That was the message the priest had given him.
But how was he to serve? Would it not be best for him to be a teacher, a spiritual guide to others? God knew there were enough fakers loose in this land, gussied up with enough Eastern dress and buzzwords to convince desperate folk that they were the gatepaths to The Way...whatever Way was needed. The Way lay within oneself. Of that, Peter Cannon was certain.
He had been given the gift of harnessing mental and physical powers (the High Abbot had made little distinction between the two realms) that many men could tap into, with the proper training. It took years to develop the mind and body in this way, it was true. But Peter Cannon had proven he had been the Chosen One to be given the tutelage from the Ancient Scrolls, by his three trials at the monastery, and by his adventures in the outer world.
It had happened in this way:
His parents had been medical missionaries and students of Eastern culture who had come to the monastery in the Tibetian mountains just in time to help cure the monks there of a plague, though they came down with the disease themselves, and died. Their infant son, Peter, was left unscathed. The High Abbot took that for a sign, and decreed that the boy be trained as the Chosen One.
This was greatly objected to by one monk, known as the Hooded One. The Hooded One had gained his sobriquet, and the right to study from the scrolls that had been bequeathed in centuries past to them by an ancient mystic, by saving the monks from an undetonated bomb dropped by a crashed plane. Unfortunately, in doing so, his face became horribly burned and scarred. He wore his hood so that it hid his disfiguration in deep shadow, after that.
The Hooded One protested that he had been groomed to be the Chosen One, not this child, no matter how noble his parents' sacrifice. The High Abbot reminded him, pointedly, that his status as such had not been confirmed, but that he had only been given access to the Scrolls because of his noble deed. And, since only one could study the Scrolls to their completion--also, because the boy's younger age gave him more chance of assimilating them completely, rather than the Hooded One, who had begun studying them in his 18th year--the Abbot affirmed his decision. Peter Cannon would be adopted by the monks, and would be the student of the Scrolls.
The Hooded One stalked out, silently. Though he stayed with the monks, the High Abbot made sure the scarred man was never left alone with Peter Cannon.
Cannon's training began immediately, both in physical exercises, in spiritual devotions, and in mental calisthenics. When the boy, who was garbed in a red-and-blue exercise suit divided down the middle, asked the time when he would be allowed to stop an exercise, the watchword was, "Till twice the time when you can go no further." Usually, Peter was able to fulfill their wishes, with or without prodding.
Peter's greatest friend was Tabu, a local youth of about the same age, who was his playmate and confidant in the off-periods. At times, he tried to build a bridge relationship with the Hooded One, who, after all, had studied many of the same disciplines as himself. But the man with the hidden face had rebuffed him, and Peter eventually stopped trying.
In his 20th year, Peter Cannon was given the Three Tests. Two of them were set by the Hooded One. Only the last was supplied by the High Abbot.
In the first test, Peter, still wearing his two-colored exercise suit, faced a squad of Zen archers. The men could strike anything that moved with their deadly shafts, and they lined up like an execution squad to loose arrows against him. Cannon was forbidden to strike against them to save himself. In the enclosure of the test area, there was no way to run from them or avoid their aim.
The only thing he could do was go above them. And that would take some doing.
Specifically, it would take the mantra he had been taught since his first day as a novitiate.
The archers nocked their arrows. Cannon set his stance.
(I can do it)
The archers drew back their bows. Cannon squatted, coming low to the ground.
(I must do it)
The archers let fly.
(I WILL DO IT)
Peter Cannon, from a standing start, leaped fifteen feet in the air.
Some of the archers had anticipated a leap, but not that high. The highest-aimed arrows arced several inches below his turning body. Not a one of them hit him.
Peter Cannon landed back perfectly on his feet, like the gymnast he was.
First test was passed.
For the next test, the archers were cleared from the area, and another door was opened. He could tell what lie behind it, even before it was fully opened. He could smell the occupant, and hear its growl.
A tiger padded from the chamber within. It had been starved for a few days, and the only meat available was standing right before it. When its hindquarters and tail cleared the door, the monk in charge closed the wooden door behind it with a long pole, from above.
The tiger sprang at Peter Cannon.
There was no time for fear, for surprise, for hesitancy. Only for action, and for the proof of his ability. Somehow Cannon dodged the tiger's charge. Somehow he got behind it, over it, grabbed its head, almost--almost--avoided its claws. Not quite. The blood on his right shoulder showed that the tiger's natural weapons had bitten deep, and that the scent was spurring the beast on to acquire this troublesome lunch.
The action was beyond normal human muscle power, but Peter Cannon's power was more than that.
It was sufficient to break the tiger's neck.
The great cat, 600 pounds in weight, slumped dead in the practice area. Shakily, Peter Cannon stood, wavering, on his own two feet. He noted, as if observing a stranger, that he was in pain, and bleeding, from his shoulder wound.
The High Abbot was looking at him as if he expected more from him. Cannon guessed that he did.
He closed his eyes, concentrated, went within his body, marshalling his resources.
Blocking out the pain.
(I can do it)
Beginning the healing process.
(I must do it)
Stemming the excessive flow of blood.
(I WILL DO IT)
And, within a minute, the youth in blue and red stood more strongly before his judges, stared into their faces, and waited for the third and final test.
He looked into the Hooded One's shadowed face. The cowled man was hard-pressed to conceal his anger, even with much of his visage in shadow. But Peter Cannon gave him back a look of neutrality.
The High Abbot stood up, walked down to the test area, and motioned Peter Cannon to the great wooden doors in the wall beyond. His third test lie there.
The doors opened.
There was naught there but the mountains, the wind, the snow, and all that lie beyond that.
Peter Cannon understood, and looked to the Abbot with an expression of longing, desiring that the third test not be faced. That his steps might lead back to the monastery, to the ordered life, to the perfection of mind and spirit, to the Higher Things.
The High Abbot was as firm with him as he had been, years earlier, with the Hooded One.
You have to go, he had told Peter. You have to go into the world.
Tabu was allowed to go with him.
Peter Cannon, who was called Thunderbolt, snapped out of his memories. He crouched on the roof of the museum, ready to attempt an entrance. The five men who held hostages within had to be taken out, their lives preserved as well as those of their hostages. This, in his mind, was paramount.
He heard the noise the man made behind him, though no normal ear could have caught it.
Thunderbolt turned and saw a man in a light blue suit.
The man had no face.
"My name is the Question," he said. "I am going in with you."