#3 - The Mad Apple
The metal woman had bailed out first. She seemed long ago and far away. She had fled after the hypnotic black tide first engulfed them. They had seen it coming for a moment, and then after it had first washed over them, it seemed like it had always been there. Time became more fluid, tougher to grasp.
Then they heard all the noise, like cars crashing, and heavy, meaty things hitting sidewalks from heights, and the screaming – of all ages, sizes, genders, and species. It seemed there was a lot to scream about in the black murk.
The glowing red playing card man, and the stranger to most of them, the woman in gold, both lit up, incandescent, like streamers, like skyrockets…and they, too, shot themselves up and out and away, taking their lights with them.
And then they were four. And realized they should have been five, and had lost another member of their party, but unnoticed…the man who was a door.
They were four.
They stayed together as a group out of instinct…at first.
But then, the black-haired girl, like a silver bullet: “Do you got my back? You look like you’re dozing, and I keep seeing things moving out of the corners of my eyes.”
Big man, real able to get bigger. Much bigger. “Mind your own damn corner of the compass, sweetheart. I keep seeing stuff, too, and mostly up above. Maybe one of you fliers could make like a periscope.” Jitters through impossibly broad shoulders, now seven and a half feet off the ground.
“No, we stick together, and start moving in toward the source. The others will regroup and come back. This is all mind-games, this gooey black fog. It can’t hurt us. Just keep cool. Remember…” Fierce, darting beauty, like an undersea elven princess.
“She’s right. Nita…Namorita…Nita’s right.” The good old human rocket. The Man Called Nova. “Nita…and Mickey...Josten, you, too, even…I know why this all seems so familiar…”
And just then, the first of the creatures came swooping out of the darkness…
“My name is Jocasta,” said the metal woman.
“I know who you are,” said the glorious brunette, who somehow managed to turn ‘brawny’ into pin-up caliber sex appeal. “My name is Zarda. I am also called Power Princess. Our equipment registered this disturbance, and we scrambled to investigate. We are the Squadron Supreme, and stand ready to aid you if you can explain the situation.” Around her, a most uncommon array: an athletic-looking man glowing all the various colors of the rainbow…a leopard-man with blind eyes, nevertheless roaming the world with all the ease of the sighted…an eyeblink of a man, a speedster flickering, shuttering in and out of view as he ran reconnaissance around the emergency scene and then checked back in, dozens of times per second.
“We were at a ceremony, a memorial.”
The brunette nodded, as did the chromatic man, while the leopard-man touched one fist to the center of his chest in a show of respect.
“We were the last group left, and preparing to leave when this woman here, known as Moonstone, joined us. We were simply conversing, and then this black fog you see, rolled in upon us from the north. We had no idea what it was or where it came from. It seemed to have some sort of negative effect on the human psyche, but I was much less impacted than the other Warriors and the New Yorkers caught within. I left the group for a moment to head up and try to see how large an area was blanketed by the shadow, and how fast it might still be growing or traveling. These two followed me up and out, I suppose using their generation of light to diminish some of the more harmful aspects of this unnatural darkness. Then we ran into you, and you know the rest.”
“Not all the rest,” said a new voice. They all turned to find another of the Warriors, the teleporter known as Doorman, standing by with his own oddball assemblage, all seemingly having just materialized from the ether, and which included longtime-but-not-expected-on-this-particular-scene-at-all ally, Silhouette. “It’s a door, Jocasta. Whatever’s at the center of all that blackness, it’s a door.”
“You know this for sure?”
“Lady, I actually go around calling myself Doorman. Remember? Do you think I just use that name because it sounds so cool? If I’m telling you there’s a door in there, there’s a door.”
Behind the Doorman, between Silhouette and a tall blonde woman whose hands danced with black light, a very large, very well-muscled man in a black cowl and cloak spoke up. “He’s right. We all sensed it. It’s a portal leading from here to what some of us call the Darkforce Dimension. The world of shadows and twilight. Your two allies here and the lovely Darkstar all use it to travel from place to place, as do I. It’s within our abilities to access that plane. Some of us can manipulate its substance as well, and use it in ways you’ve never even thought to consider. But it truly is its own place…a land with its own rules…and its own inhabitants. And it shouldn’t be spilling into our world like this.”
“Some of those inhabitants,” said the blonde that the cloaked man had called Darkstar, “are most likely even now infesting this affected area like some newly annexed territory. Some of them can be dangerous.”
“But,” added Silhouette, “the madness element is new. There’s nothing like that that occurs naturally in the Darkforce Dimension. It’s a totally alien place, but it doesn’t actively attack your mind, like with some sort of haunted house telepathy. Even the Shroud agrees, and he’s spent the most time exploring the Darkforce of any of us.”
The man in the cloak and cowl nodded. “I believe some force on the other side, something in the Darkforce Dimension, discovered a weak point between the two worlds, or a door left unguarded, unregulated, punched its way through, and tore a hole large enough that the planes began to meld. Darkforce energy is pouring through to this side, and I believe that somehow, the same force that tore the hole is also responsible for the madness that seems to have contaminated the shadow substance that’s collected here.”
Jocasta considered. “We need to get back inside,” she said. “The rest of our team is in there. Zarda, can the Squadron hold the perimeter? Stay on the outside, and keep civilians away, inform the authorities when they arrive, liaison with any other super-human aid-givers who might appear, maybe do some analysis on this ‘darkforce?’”
The Squadron’s strong-woman nodded. “Dr. Spectrum and I can watch from the air, Cyclone can use his great speed to patrol the borders of the shadow, and Tagak can work the edges, perhaps retrieving any poor citizens on the outskirts of the darkness. We will watch over you, Warriors.”
Jocasta bowed a formal thanks, and then turned to the small group of Darkforce-wielders Doorman had brought. “I think you all should come with us. We need to find our group, then we need to close this portal, and shut down this force you speak of that’s broadcasting this madness through the shadow region.”
A chorus of ragged screams reached their ears just then, emanating from out of the inky black fogbanks, and several of the heroes winced at the sound.
“We’re with you,” said the Shroud, and the others nodded their agreement. He gestured toward the swirling dark. “Step into my office…”
The thing was a bit like a pterodactyl, but with no head and no legs. Perhaps an airborne manta ray would be more apt…except for the face. It had a face on its underside, where the belly of a pterodactyl or a manta ray would be. It was a humanoid face, in that it had two cavities where the eyes of a face would be, a small fin to approximate a nose, and a rippling, fleshy-looking slit for a mouth. It seemed to make expressions – all of them harrowing to behold – and it made wet, hissing sounds as the wind passed through it.
It fell out of the middle-distance, from the almost unbroken backdrop of blacks and grays there in the fog-ridden land, and it swept toward Atlas, the giant-man. It came from behind him, two fast for Mickey Musashi, young mistress of the Turbo battle-suit, to react (and for the record, Mickey was indeed watching the big man’s big back, despite the fact that the ill thoughts the black fog was inspiring in her, had her madly questioning why she shouldn’t just break formation and blast a wind-tunnel through the guy’s now elevator-sized cranium, forth-frigging-with – since his career did after all feature highlights such as 1) throwing a car through the outer wall of Avengers Mansion with the stated intention of calling out the heroes within for a death-match battle on their front lawn, 2)joining a gang of about a dozen other super-behemoths in beating the unaided Avenger Hercules nearly to death, and 3) allying himself with one of the most enduring Nazi champions of the age – and that way she could focus on the environmental problem upon them without all the distraction from his possibly wholly unbalanced and murderous nature…but Mickey Musashi, the core of what she was, fought that, knowing something was wrong with it…even if it did seem to make a hell of a lot of sense at the moment…). The manta-dactyl thing shot by Atlas’s head, only a few feet away, and then paused, banking for a return sweep. When it slowed, they all saw the face. Hard not to recoil. It reached its own relative zenith, then came swooping back, going for Atlas’s own enormous face, its wingspan looking still large enough to encompass most of the man’s mug if that’s what it was going for on its return pass.
“Josten—” Nova was ready to get airborne himself and meet the creature in its own element.
“I got this,” said Atlas, growing even larger. He launched one huge missile-strike of a punch that stopped the incoming thing in its swooping tracks, and dashed it apart – the effect was like a combination of a smoke cloud being dissipated and a water balloon being ruptured. “Didn’t feel much wind when it went past me the first time. Thing didn’t have much substance to it.”
“Good,” said Namorita Prentiss, pointing toward the direction she still believed was north, the direction the black fog had come from. “Because we have a whole congregation of shadow-things coming at us from up ahead this way.”
The Shroud and his shadow-posse were so effective in transporting the small group of Warriors to the vicinity of the portal that they easily lapped Namorita’s group, still struggling along slowly on foot.
“Your friends,” the Shroud told them all upon arrival, “are that way…” He pointed off into the swirling darkness. “While the portal is over there. Several of you seem able to generate various forms of radiant energy – I suggest one or two of you link up with your allies, who should not be too far, while the rest of us press on toward the broken doorway and see about closing it. Bring your teammates back to us – the portal shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
This was an understatement; this close to it, the black fog clearly flowed in one direction, so it should prove to be a simple matter to track it back to its source.
“Jack,” said Jocasta, “perhaps you could take Moonstone with you and retrieve our group? I can stay here with the darkforce-wielders and try to help analyze this portal with my sensors.”
“Sure,” Jack Hart started to say, when Moonstone interrupted him.
“I’m not part of your group, sweetheart, not yet, and even if I was,” said the manipulative former villainess, “I wouldn’t be taking orders from you.”
“Hey,” said Jack, “she asked, she didn’t order. You want to stay here, fine. You want to go do your own thing, that’s cool, too. Just don’t get in our way.”
The blonde woman with the darkforce group chimed in, her words clearly shaped by a Russian upbringing. “I would remind you all that the presence the Shroud believes to be behind all this has proven able to cause madness and extreme hostilities to infect all within this dark region. We must not give in to this influence.”
“What she said,” Jack told Moonstone. “Now I’m headed out to find the others. Are you coming or not?”
“I am,” said the Russian woman. “My name is Darkstar. Perhaps my own abilities will be of aid, and I can help transport your comrades here much faster than they could go on foot if we should find them.”
“Okay, welcome aboard, lady. I’m the Jack of Hearts, or just Jack if you want. Let’s hit it – Jo, we’ll come find you at the portal. Good luck. Moonstone...?”
The woman in gold did not look happy, but she nodded once, crisply. “Fine. Let’s go.” And without waiting for the others, she let a pulse of light flare along the entire length of her lithe figure, took to the air, and sped off in the direction the Shroud had indicated earlier. The others watched her go, shaking their heads.
“I know she’s Josten’s pal, and dropping her an invite to the group will probably come up when this is all over, Jo” said the Jack of Hearts, glancing after Moonstone, and then looking appreciatively at Darkstar beside him, “but when we do get to that discussion, let’s remember which blonde was cool, and which one wanted to be a pain in the ass in the middle of a crisis situation, okay?” And then beckoning Darkstar to follow, Jack Hart shot himself off after Moonstone like a bullet riding a compact fountain of crimson light.
The Warriors realigned around Nita.
“Okay,” she said. “Safe to say I have the best eyes here? I count three things that look like big serpents, a humanoid riding something that actually looks a lot like a seahorse, a thing that looks like a centaur but with six legs and four arms, a swarm of flying bug- or bat-creatures (each one is maybe hummingbird-sized, with the whole swarm looking like it could fill a microbus)…something that looks like two humanoid torsos sharing one pair of legs…and four or five shapeless, gloppy-looking things that keep morphing like lava lamp stuff and sharing their body substance with each other.”
“I can’t see anything yet.”
“Me, either. Sounds like an attractive group, though.” Erik Josten, the big man, sounded a bit shaky. Something about the idea of two torsos, he was assuming with complete sets of arms, head, eyes, ears, etc. apiece, growing out of one set of legs, was for some reason really creeping him out. Was it something he’d seen once in a nightmare…?
“Nita, I’ll take the swarm.” Mickey was guessing the Turbo suit’s wind generation abilities could disperse almost anything of that size, and taking the swarm out quickly would free them all up to focus on the larger threats without distraction.
“Okay, Mickey. On the far right, then. Take them out, then see what you can do with the gloppy things, they’re right under the swarm. Erik, the serpents are leading – we’re going right over them, so once we’re clear, feel free to see about beating them into paste. You take them out quick, help one of us, or maybe move on to the two guys with one set of legs thing.”
“Rich, stay with me, straight across when I give the word – I’ve got the guy on the seahorse, you have the centaur thing, okay?”
“Okay. And then after we clean house on this gang, we go find her.”
“Her?” asked Mickey Musashi and Erik Josten, both at exactly the same time. “Who’s her?”
“You’ll have to tell us later,” broke in Namorita. She pointed, and now the others could at last see the small crowd of shadow creatures shuffling purposefully toward them, the dense and inky fog having concealed them from vision until they were little more than twenty feet away. Their features began to resolve, even more unsettling than the Warriors had pictured, and then Namorita was yelling. “Mickey, follow us, and take care of the swarm! Rich, now!”
And like desperate arrows, they flew.
In times past, he had been mighty. And not just once, but twice, and in two different ways. He had stood toe to toe with legends and demigods, and he had given even them pause. In times past…
That was the problem. That was then, as the saying goes, and this is miserable now.
He was no longer mighty. His might had been stolen from him. His might, his vitality, his capacity to give proper vent to his rage and hatred…he was nothing now. He was a husk.
How old had he been, really, when he was “killed?” Hard to say, he had been through so many transformations now. Around forty, maybe, though, give or take a few years?
But now? He looked sixty…and a hard sixty at that. Had his hair been blonde? Originally? The memories darted away, tiny little silver fish, far, far away below the darkest of waters. He let them go. It didn’t matter. His hair now was like the ashy remains of a wheatfield after a firestorm. There were a few gray stalks here and there, a few long crinkly hairs that wanted to single-handedly form comb-overs by themselves, and some grizzled-looking fringe in the back from ear to ear, but that was about it. Even his individual eyebrow hairs looked like gray pieces of hay ready to break off at a touch. His skin was parched-looking and equal parts gray and a singed sort of brown. He did not look healthy. His chest was sunken and his arms and trunk and shoulders unmuscled, and his belly huddled in a small basketball-sized paunch.
He was no longer built for exertion…but he was exerting himself now. He felt his body protesting, and his head pounded with a migraine’s trip-hammer nightmare. He was digging through rubble. Would he have a heart attack, or a stroke, if he kept up, something so prosaic? Were such things even still possible for him? He had no idea. But if so, it was worth the risk.
He felt something down there, was the thing. He had at first, of course, come here, into this dark, cordoned-off crisis zone through the police barricades because of his hate. He found his hate to be one of the few things in life that, when properly fed, would also give something back. He had been made mighty because of hate in the past, and pretty much because of the hate alone, to be honest. The second time he got mighty, the hate had had a tremendous focus: specifically, the one who had made him unmighty from the first time around. The one who had stolen his power. He got mighty again after that, and tried to settle the score. He had failed…and then had someone else make him unmighty. Almost make him dead. Extinguished.
But due to the nature of his second mighty-ness, he was going to be difficult to completely eradicate. He thought. That seemed to be the pattern among the others, anyway, was the general consensus. But still, it was a long way from being not quite eradicated, to being mighty, and he wanted that again. Now he had two people to hate for stealing his might, two people to revenge himself upon like a demon.
And something beneath this pile of rubble in this section of Manhattan, still awaiting attention after the brutal Stark Invasion, was calling him. It was something like a stone…he knew, for he had had intimate experience with something like a stone for quite a good while. And it had been so good…
He dug on. There was pain, and he was doing damage to his hands and wrists now, and his sweat was cold and clammy there in the black shadow-fog, but even in the near-darkness, and even with several layers of dirt and masonry still separating it, burying it, whatever this stone-like thing was, he could almost see it somehow. Maybe it wasn’t calling to him specifically, but to anyone who could hear it…but still, here he was, and he’d be damned if anyone would beat him to it now. It was being misused somehow, and had something to do with all the shadow-stuff, he knew, but none of the details mattered.
It was might, this thing that was glowing black somewhere just a bit farther into the wreckage and earth. It was might, and that was more than enough.
He dug on, pausing once to take up a nearby piece of broken lumber and drive off a questing thing in the shape of a rural mailbox with tentacles, that seemed to be made up entirely of a slightly more solidified version of the dark fog itself. A few good swings with the two-by-four sent it scuttling away into the general gloom. He heard someone, a young boy by the sound of it, screaming for a dog named ‘Snickers’ and apparently firing off a gun of some kind as well. He ignored the child, and returned to his digging, closer and closer to a whole new helping of might…
The small group of darkforce-wielders and Jocasta had quickly proven to themselves that they did not have it within their power to close the gateway. They could see it – even Jo, who had no affinity for the shadow-stuff or the region from whence it came could easily make out its outlines – but Doorman and Silhouette could only really access the Darkforce Dimension to use it for teleportational purposes, slipping into it through some collection of sufficient shadow on Earth, and then slipping back out somewhere else. This ability was of no use in trying to shut the gaping and rather ragged-looking hole in mid-air through which the darkforce was currently pouring. The rent in space was about the size of the proverbial barn door at the moment, and seemed to be slowly growing. Even the Shroud, who was able to call forth the occasional black cloud of darkforce energy, was not really equipped to manipulate it wholesale, or to force shut so large a doorway in the face of all the energy rushing through it. Perhaps when Darkstar returned, she might have more success, as she was the only one of them who had the ability to really control and shape the darkforce energy on a large scale.
“One thing I can tell you, though,” said Doorman to the group after they had withdrawn about a city block’s distance away from the pulsing hole in space. This was the third time he had repeated the phrase, only to be interrupted by one external source after another. Sympathetic Jocasta was constantly distracted by the screams of hapless Manhattanites lost somewhere in the shadows, exposed to horrors both physical (more and more dark creatures kept popping out of the doorway and ambling about New York, which they seemed to be treating as a new game preserve for their sporting pleasures) and mental. Jocasta continued to enjoy apparent immunity from the madness-inducing qualities of the black fog, and the darkforce-wielders also seemed better able to distance themselves from it, perhaps due to their familiarity with how the shadow-stuff was supposed to feel, but it was obvious that the city around them knew no such relief. The screams continued, and the occasional bizarre black denizens of the darkforce dimension showed no signs of letting up in their commute over to the earthly plane.
The Shroud leveled one such, a thing resembling a large three-tailed dragonfly, with a single forceful punch, and then Doorman tried again.
“One thing: it’s not just a new hole between dimensions that somebody tore open. I can tell that it was an actual doorway before, a door that was already there. It was just more…how did you say it, Shroud? It was regulated before, and now it’s not.”
Silhouette touched the tip of one of her crutches to a shambling thing that looked like a mass of ivy with no trellis to support it, and she released the electrical charge contained in the crutch. There was a bright flash, and the ivy thing gave out with a sound like a chorus of small moans, and then fell over and withered, bluish smoke rising from it in ill-smelling wisps. “What do you mean, DeMarr? I don’t understand.”
“I mean that this isn’t a new doorway. It’s one that’s been there for a long time…only in the past, there was usually someone there to control it. I can tell, just the way it feels…it’s hard to explain to someone who can’t do what I do, but please just take my word for it. Somebody watched over it, and maintained it. Now, whatever happened, I don’t know…but that somebody deserted their post, and something on the darkforce side figured that out, and crashed it wide open.”
“So can we close it without that same someone coming back and helping us?”
“I’d say we don’t have much other choice,” answered the Shroud. “Whoever was responsible for this doorway hasn’t shown up yet to fix things, so we may have to assume we’re on our own here. We can’t wait around for them to put in an appearance, not while Manhattan is drowning under a sea of shadow, and especially not when that shadow is bringing this madness with it.”
“So what do we do?” asked Jocasta, an almost motherly concern beaming from her polished features.
“Well,” said the Shroud, “I think we need to get Darkstar back here, for one – she might be able to force the doorway shut. If that doesn’t work…well, if that doesn’t work, New York will become a midnight madhouse on a more or less permanent basis, with the rest of this dimension not too far behind. The two planes will continue to mix, and the process will most likely speed up the longer it’s permitted to go on.”
“Okay,” said Silhouette. “Then what do you say one of us goes and grabs our Russian friend. Waiting for the others to get back in their own time might not be the smartest play.”
“I’ll go,” said the Doorman. “Staring at that big rip is making me kind of queasy. I can’t stand to see a doorway get mistreated.”
“Good luck, DeMarr,” offered Jocasta, but the Doorman was already gone.
The centaur thing had looked much worse as an opponent than it actually turned out to be. Rich Rider, the human rocket called Nova, had hit it hard in its upper torso, thinking it might be staggered at least, its forward progress arrested. Rich figured that would disrupt the whole formation of this little weird cadre of shadow-creatures, too, since the centaur thing and the guy on the giant seahorse thing that Nita had dibbed were leading their whole charge. After that, he had assumed he’d be occupied with the big burly-looking hulk for quite some time, given its sheer size, the four arms…
Instead Rich had ripped the thing’s entire upper torso completely off on his first pass. Like the flying manta ray thing that Josten had pulped earlier, the centaur didn’t seem to actually have all that much physical substance. Some of the creatures did seem to be a bit more solid – witness the haymaker that the seahorse delivered express to Nita’s jaw with its long, limber muscle of a tail – but the centaur thing ripped open like a wet paper bag in Rich’s strong grasp, and before he knew what was happening, it was dissipating away into an autumn fall of shadowy shreds.
Rich turned back toward the melee, alarmed to notice several regular citizens in the area attacking each other and going for mortal wounds, when a beam of bright gold strobe-lit the combat hot zone. It was like a giant flash, a split-second revelation that showed Rich everything in stark and almost colorless relief.
Mickey was caught in a somewhat shapeless mass, like a mobile upright tarpit, and was struggling mightily to pull free. The seahorse had snared one of Nita’s long legs with its tail, and she had responded by hooking her ankles and trying to crush the tail between her shins. Josten, Atlas, was under siege by serpents, more than three of them, more like six or seven, and the grotesque-looking two upper bodies on one set of legs thing was right behind them, seeming to egg them on. When the flash happened, the big man, about a full story in height now, had just dropped to one knee and brought a gargantuan fist thundering down on one of the darkforce snake-things. Rich heard the horrible splattering sound of the thing bursting beneath the crushing force like a tube of toothpaste, and he ground his teeth in both combat adrenaline and revulsion.
The white-gold light flash had come from Josten’s old crony, Rich saw, the woman called Moonstone, hovering near Josten’s head now. She glowed like a beacon, and started tossing pulses of laser-beam light into the shadow crowd. She shot through the amorphous, melt-y thing menacing Mickey, and the black-haired Warrior was finally able to tear herself from its grasp. Moonstone plugged two more of the serpent-things, and then Rich saw where they were coming from: the two-torso-ed thing behind them was…what? Giving birth to them? It seemed that the two torsos didn’t just join clean to the one set of hips as Rich had assumed…there was some kind of opening at the inside where they came together, like into some body cavity. The serpent-things were pushing themselves up and out of this hole, this somehow gruesome aperture, making Rich think a jumble of thoughts (not helped by the mad black fog all around him), a terrible mixture of images of birth and maggots and excrement.
“The thing behind the snakes!” he yelled at Moonstone, hoping she could hear him. “Shoot the thing behind them!”
She heard his voice, but he was too far away for her to make out the words over the sounds of the combat. He saw her pause and look toward him as he flew back – strange that sometimes when he traveled at high speed, everything seemed to slow down to a crawl. He wanted to repeat himself, but he also wanted to hit the seahorse-thing hard without breaking up his momentum…but he needn’t have worried. A different bolt of lightning did the job. This one was red. It came from just behind the shadow-creatures, blowing the twin-bodied thing apart. The serpents shrieked, and threw themselves into mad, horrifying convulsions, and even as Josten began crushing them one by one, Rich could see that the welcome beam of light had come from the Jack of Hearts, newly arrived from the same direction that had yielded Moonstone. Rich saw that there was another blonde woman he didn’t recognize hovering alongside Jack, and she was shooting out crackling tendrils of glowing black energy from her hands, that seemed to grab the darkforce creatures from a distance and somehow discorporate them. She was taking them apart, and between her efforts, and the light-blasts brought into the game by Jack and Moonstone, the battle became short-lived. More shadow-things seemed to be unhappily milling about at the edge of the pool of radiance that the newcomers were providing, but they kept their distance for the moment, giving the Warriors and their associates time to regroup, and clearer heads with which to do it, as the light also seemed to greatly diminish the effects of the ambient madness.
Jack spoke: “You all know who Moonstone is. This is Darkstar. She and a few others that use this darkforce stuff all showed up at this doorway that…well, they can explain. We need to get back. Silhouette is there, and DeMarr, and we need to get back and shut this broken doorway. What’s the quickest way? Darkstar, can you carry the ones who can’t fly, or teleport them or something?”
“I’ll take them, Jack.” DeMarr – as per usual, out of nowhere. The shadowy Doorman.
“Good,” said Rich Rider. “We close this doorway, and we find her and shut her down.”
“Yeah, Rich, you said that before, who do you mean?”
The man called Nova looked at his teammates, his oldest friends here. “Nita and Mickey, you know who I mean.” He was thinking back to the days of their previous group, the New Warriors, precursor group to this one for the three of them. He was thinking back to old enemies. “Remember those Psionex weirdos?”
“Oh, my…of course!” Namorita slapped her forehead in disgust.
“We’ve brawled with this lunatic before,” Rich told the group. He was still grinding his teeth, and his words came out with a raw, bitten quality. “We’re looking for a freakshow called Asylum.”
And then several screams from terrified New Yorkers lost off in the flowing darkness came to their ears, seeming to confirm everything Rich Rider said beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Doorman had them back in no time. The whole shadow spillover area seemed to be one giant teleport zone for him, and within moments of his first exertion, the entire group was back with Silhouette and the Shroud and Jocasta, within shouting distance of the gateway.
They had a newcomer with them, as well there, someone who had apparently shown up while the rest of them were away battling shadow-monsters.
“This is the Black Mamba,” the Shroud told the arriving group, introducing the newcomer, an extraordinarily shapely brunette woman with a magnificent cascade of hair as jet-black as Turbo’s. She wore a simple outfit of faded jeans and a form-fitting t-shirt, but even amid the crisis situation that prevailed around them, her copious charms and allure did not go unnoticed.
“Wow,” said the Jack of Hearts, upon seeing her.
“Damn,” said Atlas, a low subway rumble of approval.
“Yowza,” added Nova, receiving a hard elbow to the ribs from Namorita, his lover. “Sorry, Nita, but…come on!”
Even Nita assented. “Yeah, you got a point,” she allowed.
“The Black Mamba,” the Shroud told them, “has some ability with molding the darkforce. She sensed the disturbance just as we did, and has offered to help us all here.”
The men-folk made vigorous noises of approval, and the women made slower and more grudging variations.
“Excellent,” said the Shroud. “Then to recap for those of you who were not here for the original discussion…over there is a doorway. The Doorman and I believe that a formerly well-controlled portal between our world and the darkforce world has been left unguarded, and has been co-opted by whatever power it is that’s spreading madness through the shadow-force.”
“Yeah, we’re a step ahead of you there.” Rich Rider went on to tell them all of the early New Warriors adventure involving an opportunistic corporation called Genetech, and how they had created Psionex, their attempt at turning several ordinary humans into super-beings. Their augmentation procedures had yielded results, no question there, but they had unfortunately applied them to some highly questionable test subjects. Several Psionex members had been active criminals prior to their involvement in the program, and one, a nameless young woman, had been certifiably insane. After Genetech performed their experiments on her, the young woman was transformed into little more than a sentient cloud of shadow bound together by an eerie gold mask. She was given the name Asylum, and by enveloping someone within her shadowy self, she could inflict some of her own special brand of madness upon them, something she delighted in doing. She was more deranged than ever, and while mostly bereft of what is commonly thought of as a personality, she clung to her former rage and hate and sheer unending maliciousness.
“We had some success just punching her in the mask before,” said Rich. “It seemed to break her apart, at least for a while. My guess is she managed to reform after the last time, but on the darkforce side of things for whatever reason instead of on regular Earth. Her body seems to be made up of this shadow stuff, so she must be tied to that dimension somehow.”
“Yes, and now she is able to extend her madness through it. The more darkforce energy that spills through into our world, the greater her sphere of influence,” deduced the Shroud. “That does all seem to fit the facts here.”
“The problem,” said Nova, “is that we beat her before by hitting her hard enough to tear her mask off of her shadow body…but here, this whole shadow-zone might act like her body in a way. We might have to figure out a way to get her out into the regular world before we can try that trick.”
“I got a question.” The group turned to look at Erik Josten, not hard to miss at his current height of approximately seven feet. “Why would some doorway like this get left unguarded in the first place? You think there was some gatekeeper type here, and he just wandered away all of a sudden? Maybe we need to figure out why.”
“It needn’t have been a voluntary desertion,” answered the Shroud. “The ‘gatekeeper,’ as you say, might have been incapacitated or killed.”
“Yeah…” started Atlas, but he was cut off by Mickey Musashi.
“I can’t believe none of us realized this sooner,” she said. “We know a darkforce user who was killed recently…”
The Shroud stared at her, solemn and intimidating, even in silence. The others were just perplexed.
“It’s Chris!” She was looking primarily at Rich Rider and Nita Prentiss now. “His amulet! He was killed when the Stark hit New York, and his body’s still somewhere in the rubble not very far from here…his amulet must be the key to this doorway, and we just never knew about that part. And now he’s…he’s not around to control it anymore.”
“Oh!” said Nita, her long ponytail dancing on the thick shadows. “Why am I so slow today? Mickey, you’re right…it has to be Darkhawk.”
Mickey nodded, fighting emotion.
“Our friend,” said Nita to the group. “Darkhawk. He was one of the New Warriors, and even one of the Avengers for a minute or two. He had an amulet that gave him these shadow-powers – Mickey’s right, he must have been accessing this same Darkforce Dimension like the rest of you.” She nodded at the Shroud and Darkstar, Silhouette and Doorman and the Black Mamba. “And he died here defending New York from the Stark. His body hasn’t been recovered yet, and…” She trailed off, further words unnecessary.
“Well, then, we have several objectives,” said the Shroud. “We need to close this doorway. We need to find that amulet, which would most likely help…”
“And we need to find Asylum,” growled Rich Rider, sounding like it was almost personal.
“And we need to find Asylum,” agreed the Shroud, and for just a moment he hung his cowled head, as if in mourning.
His nails were broken. Even several of his fingers might have been broken. His skin was cut and abraded and bleeding all the way up to his elbows, and the sleeves of his flannel overshirt were nearly in tatters at their ends.
But he was at the threshold. His heart was hammering in his thin chest, and there was a roaring in his ears. Pain shot up and down both legs, but since none of this was actually stopping him in his efforts, he kept on. And he was so close. He could still see the thing in his mind’s eye, pulsing, but still very much reminiscent of the stone he had once had, so like it in so many ways. It was practically singing, a dirge in some subsonic scale, and he felt the music thrumming through his whole body as he dug. Nearly there.
He scraped dirt away from a piece of timber, that turned out to have been part of some structure once – a newsstand, maybe? It didn’t matter. He kicked clods of dirt off of it, clearing it, revealing it beneath the charred earth like buried treasure. But the true treasure lay just beyond…
She was close by, he knew that. He had after all followed her here in the first place. He had known she would be at the memorial, but then what? He had been unfocused. He had just come, with no real plan. It would just occur to him, he felt, some notion would suggest itself once he was in New York, and saw her again. He had nearly died when the second might-thief had fallen upon him, and he did not want to leave this world with his business unconcluded. She had to die – both thieves did, never forget the vampiric Count – but her especially. The hypocrisy of her. The sheer magnitude of sin, the obscenity of it.
How he would love to see her face when he found new might. How he would love to turn, and find her arriving just moments too late to stop him from seizing it…seeing her face fall, her control crumble as new power flooded into him, his eyes ablaze, triumphant, ascendant…
And then he shoved the skeleton wreckage of the newsstand aside, and saw it. Not just the corpse, which he did see as well, of course…but more importantly, what adorned the corpse. There in the center of what had once been a young man’s chest, was a dark stone of almost unimaginable beauty. It glowed insistently, and pulsed even harder for him, and seemed to pour itself all through his mind like the black veil around the city. He was touching it, tugging at it, without even having been aware of approaching it or reaching out, he was tugging it free, ripping it from the moldering gray corpse beneath, the almost mummified-looking thing falling away to dust as the amulet came away, came almost willingly into his hands.
He wept for joy to hold it, his wounds salved with ebony light, and his eyes leaking tears that were already blue-black, and glowing. He instinctively tore open his shirt, and then took the dark and beautiful gemstone until recently known loosely as the Darkhawk Amulet, and he pressed it carefully against the very center of his own chest, just where it had rested on the body of its previous owner. The blue-black light of the gem grew magnitudes in intensity, coruscated about him as the gemstone fused itself to his flesh, and Lloyd Bloch – known once as Moonstone, until Dr. Karla Sofen had remorselessly stolen his power and his identity away – Lloyd Bloch screamed in ecstasy, was transformed, and even the dark shapes that whirled about like evil snowflakes decided to find other alleys to haunt…
It had gone quickly, the divvying up of assignments, and it seemed like the Shroud had somehow gotten in charge. Maybe it was just his familiarity with the subject matter at hand…but then again, he was also rumored to command a gang of weird supernatural types on his own time, some extended violent Addams Family called the Night Shift, so maybe he was just the most used to dishing out orders.
Whatever it was, he had at least gotten them moving, Rich had to give the man that. He was bemused to find himself bristling that someone else should take charge instead of his girl Nita when it was a Warriors mission – Rich hadn’t realized he’d come to see Nita in the leader’s spot of the new team so unreservedly – but the Shroud’s calls made sense, so no use whining for no real reason.
The Shroud decided that Darkhawk Amulet or not, the darkforcers still needed to hang back and throw support to Darkstar while she tried to cram the gateway shut with her funky black light powers. He elected himself, Doorman, and Silhouette for that job, with Jocasta and Josten tagged to watch over them while they worked.
Meanwhile, Mickey would take the Jack of Hearts and that delectable Black Mamba dish in one search group, while Rich and Nita would escort Josten’s questionable pal Moonstone with them in the other. They were to set out doing a fairly slow counter-clockwise flight pattern, with a gradually increasing radius – the Shroud guy did seem to have a handle on search missions, Rich had to allow. If anyone found either the Darkhawk Amulet or Asylum, then the light-powered members – Jack or Moonstone – were to send off a flare, big-time. Jocasta would do the same if anything unforeseen swamped the home team back near the doorway.
They saw nothing at first, but the general craziness – people fighting, people doing horrible things to themselves, marauding darkforce dimension shadow-creatures…but no Amulet. No Asylum.
They set down near a spot of violence at one point, where a lean but well-muscled man in a blue and purple bodysuit called forth electricity from his bare hands, and fended off a horde of shambling shadow creatures that looked like tall mobile haystacks. Three young children that looked like siblings huddled behind him, two of them crying, the third holding up defiant little fists at the shadow monsters.
The three flying fighters touched down, and Moonstone made short work of the main mass of the creatures with her coherent light-bursts, while Rich and Nita pummeled the formation’s flanks. The man in blue and purple shot down the last few black haystacks with his lightning strikes and then squared off against the Warriors.
“I’m just trying to keep these kids from getting eaten by some shadow-troll or whatever the hell these things are, heroes, okay? And keep my damn city clean. This is my town. I don’t want any beef with you, but if you want to start one, I won’t lie down for you.”
“It’s okay,” Nita told him. “We’re looking for a lot bigger game than you right now, Mr. Lavell. And we appreciate that you’re helping innocents. We’re trying to put a stop to all this now. Just try to get these kids clear of the danger zone, okay, and we have no problem with you tonight. I’d suggest going that way.” She pointed the man on a course perpendicular to the direction in which the darkforce energy was flowing from its source, trying to get them out and away, and to normal ground as soon as possible.
The man paused for a moment as if surprised, and then gave an impromptu but apparently sincere salute. The three champions watched the man hustle his small charges off on the path Nita had recommended, and Rich turned back to her.
“Mr. Lavell? Who the hell was that guy?”
“The Eel. I try to stay up on all the aquatic-themed guys, you know. He’s a crook, but hey, it looked like he was trying to be a part of the solution in some small way here, and we have other things to worry about, right?”
Rich and Karla Sofen in her glowing gold Moonstone aura both shrugged and nodded.
“So…back to the flight pattern?” Rich asked his ladylove, but she wasn’t answering. “Nita?”
She had her head cocked much in the manner of an animal who hears a faint sound she really doesn’t like.
“Nita, what is it?”
And then out of the murk, from just above and behind Karla Sofen, there appeared a wash of black shadow even darker than what filled the air around them, and above that, an inscrutable golden mask. There was the unmistakable sound of cruel, maniacal laughter, and then the darkness pounced, fell on Moonstone before she could even begin to react, snuffing her light like a shaky candle flame.
“Asylum!” yelled Nova, and the laughter grew louder, and from somewhere beneath the gold mask and the smothering dark, Rich and Nita both heard Dr. Karla Sofen screaming like the damned…
Whew. Well, it’s been a long time between issues here at Warriors Central – my fault entirely, not Jason’s in any way, shape, or form. Hopefully this installment got us all back up to speed, though, and ready for the action-packed climax. He and I alternated with the writing chores on the middle two installments of this four-parter, with this one being mine, but for the finale, we’ll be teaming up again like we did in the first issue, with each of us contributing scenes. Hopefully, the results will be well received – please let us know your thoughts if you made it this far with us, and please also do stick around for the conclusion! FYI bits: all of the darkforce-using characters appearing in these pages are real Marvel creations: the Shroud is a Batman type who does indeed command the Night Shift, a monster-themed group that he uses to fight crime, Darkstar is a Russian mutant and hero who has fought alongside the Champions, the X-Men, and the Russian hero group called the Winter Guard in the past, and the Black Mamba is a former member of the villainous Serpent Society who seems to have turned over a less wrongdoing leaf in recent times. Lloyd Bloch was indeed the first villain known as Moonstone, and Karla Sofen did selfishly trick him into turning his power over to her. He later became an ionic super-being calling himself Nefarius, but Count Nefaria leeched away most of Lloyd’s energy, leaving him for dead. As seen here, in the AV2K-iverse, Lloyd managed to pull himself somewhat together, and has now claimed the Darkhawk Amulet for himself. You’ll have to stay tuned to see how he puts it to bad use…Warrior-ishly yours…Steve