Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 
ARENA
(a sequel to "The Crusaders")

by Linda Thackeray

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

I

The room did not look like the inner sanctum of a king.

Crossing into its boundaries was like leaving behind the safe and comfortable for the dark and desolate. It was difficult to see all of it because its architect had sought to create something quite that bordered on the insane. Its rounded walls were made of sand stoned black. Each block was cut and polished perfectly to fit. Each tile had its placement in mosaic of its curious design. The floors were polished black marble, casting everyone's reflection through the single globe of light illuminating the room from overhead. There was very little furniture. The only objects of note seemed to be a huge desk that overshadowed everything else in the room. Even the desk was conspicuously empty with two antique lamps sitting on either side of its edge. Behind the large leather wing chair was a cured animal pelt, stretching from limb to limb, across the wall.

Their guards ushered Booster and Zatanna into the darkened office. Although Booster was capable of walking on his own, Zatanna had to be carried into the room. Their guards were unwilling to loosen her bonds for any reason. Maximus must have given them strict orders to ensure her silence at all costs. Considering what she was capable of doing if it were removed, Booster could understand their caution. The rescue he was waiting for had yet to arrive. Unfortunately, with one of the Ani-Men making certain that a weapon was pressed firmly against his back during the journey here, the opportunity to escape was also lost.

Despite this however, there was something about the Ani-Men facility that seemed familiar. Although much of the facility seemed newly constructed, there were occasions when they took a corner here and there and Booster recognised something familiar. The memory nagged at him all the way here and he searched his mind to find an answer. Logically, he knew they were still in the premises of Leo Enterprises but the familiarity was something he was at a loss to understand.

Knowing that their well being depended completely on him until the others arrived, Booster paid careful attention to everything as he was being escorted to Maximus. He counted at least fifty to sixty Ani-Men but could not be certain of that number. The main security forces were distinguished by their canine characteristics. Booster doubted that common dogs would have been the contributor of genes as his own guards appeared to look more wolfish than their domestic cousins. Apparently Maximus had decided to refine his hybridisation process to suit the tasks he required of his army. Booster saw mutations of rhino, bull and even grizzly bears. The result was formidable looking creatures that he did not relish having to face even if he was in possession of the gauntlets and other weapons. Maximus had created himself a savage army and somehow Booster did not envisage the scope of his plans to be solely for his illegal gambling operations.

Maximus had bigger things in mind.

Booster would stake his life on it but he hoped it would not come to that. At the moment, Booster's own plans extended no further than stalling for time so that the others would get here in time to effect a rescue. Zatanna seemed understandably afraid because she looked as if the proverbial lamb being led to the slaughter. She was a woman accustomed to taking care of herself and being stripped of her powers like this left her vulnerable. He had the impression she was not a woman who relied on others to save her own skin. Booster prayed that Ted had received their distress signal or he was going to have to think of a way to get them out of here before Maximus did his worst.

"Welcome to my kingdom."

The wingchair had been facing the wall until that point. Slowly it swung around and Rex Maximus faced them for the first time. His Ani-Men guards had taken position on either side of the doors and were watching the proceedings closely. However, Booster noticed that when Maximus looked in their direction, their eyes quickly dropped to the floor as if it was some unpardonable sin to meet the eyes of their leader.

Maximus was almost seven feet tall. If it he had been cross bred with a lion then it had to be the biggest lion that Booster had ever seen in his life. Covered from head to foot in tawny fur, his muscles looked powerful. The upper half of his torso was clearly human but as Booster's gaze travelled downwards, human form soon dissolved into the hind quarters of a big cat. His feet were clearly lion's paws and must have made huge tracks. His hands possessed fingers but these were clearly an amalgamation of the two species. Thick stubby digits ended with powerful claws that could shred flesh with razor sharp efficiency.

Maximus studied Booster through close set eyes but there was nothing human about his face. His features were almost all feline, from the powerful set of his jaw, to the whiskers protruding from the flattened of ridge of his nose. Maximus sported a thick lion's mane of deep auburn that was tied neatly into a pony tail. His clothes were little more than thick wool covering his torso. His arms and legs were bare. Looking at him made Booster hope that the Crusaders were going to get here soon.

Maximus stepped out from behind his desk and came towards them. Booster was able to face him on his feet but Zatanna was still tied up with her stomach to the floor. Booster could see the deepening welts in her hands as the ropes started to tear at her skin. She was trying to remain calm however, despite the fear she was trying so hard to conceal.

"I don't think we've met." Maximus said looking down at Booster.

"I'm afraid I haven't had the pleasure." Booster met his stare bravely, determined not to show any fear.

"I am Rex Maximus," the leader of the Ani-Men introduced himself. "I am sure your lovely companion would have filled you in on all the details." He glanced down at Zatanna at his feet. A small smile stole across his face at the sight of her trying to look up at him.

"She's spoken about your hospitality." Booster replied. "But I didn't really believe you'd be feral enough to tie a woman up like a pig ready for a luau."

Maximus shrugged, ignoring Booster's attempt to appeal to his vanity so that he would release Zatanna from her bonds. "I'm afraid you misjudge me." He said turning away from them and returning to his desk. "She is far too dangerous to be allowed such freedom. At our last encounter, she cost me quite dearly." At that he turned around and there was no mistaking the intense hatred being directed at Zatanna. "You do remember that don't you?"

He strode up to her and knelt down beside her. Without warning, Maximus grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her head back viciously so that Zatanna was forced to look at him. Booster heard her scream through the gag as her back arched forcefully and the ropes holding her constricted until he could see blood starting to seep through the tears on her skin.

"Leave her alone you bastard!" Booster shouted in impotent fury. "You're pretty damn tough when your victims are helpless!"

Maximus turned his head and offered him a malevolent glare. "I would not be too outspoken Mr Gold." He released Zatanna who fell against the floor with a hard slap. "I have no need for you." He said as he walked towards Booster. "You're not even a true paranormal, just a mundane with delusions of grandeur. Your weapons make you what you are, nothing else. Without then, you are just another warm body." To illustrate his point, Maximus sank an inch long nail into his face and pulled back.

Booster forced himself not to react as he felt the sharp sting of tearing flesh. The pain was soon, followed by the sudden warmth of blood flowing down his cheek.

"And you are just a freak." Booster answered coldly.

"I am god!" Maximus roared, lashing out in uncharacteristic anger. He struck Booster against the jaw and sent the human backwards.

Booster landed on the floor but was determined not to show this animal that he was hurt. Instead, Booster stood up and replied defiantly. "You're nothing Maximus. You are a failed corporate flunky who couldn't save your company. If you think an infusion of animal genes makes you a god than its no wonder the League kicked your sorry ass." It was dangerous provoking him like this but at the moment, Booster did not have a choice. Directing Maximus' anger at him would take his attention away from Zatanna, for the moment at least. Besides any delay would give the Crusaders time to reach them.

"They had help!" He struck Booster again.

This time Booster felt the salt of blood inside his mouth. Why was it always his face? Nevertheless Booster continued his verbal attack. "Maybe it was just you all along? Maybe looking like Clarence the Cross Eye Lion doesn't make you king of the beasts, just vision impaired."

"Do you think I won't hesitate to kill you?" Maximus hissed into his face. "You are nothing, not even worth the time of putting you into my tanks. Do you think your pathetic attempts to goad me will avail you anything? I am beyond your reach but you are not beyond mine."

"You don't have a lot of time." Booster said with similar threat in his voice. "You can bully us like this but the others know where we are. They'll be coming."

"Really?" Maximus declared unperturbed by the prospect at all. "Are you certain about that?" He asked, wearing a look that could only be considered triumphant.

The arrogance in his manner put Booster on guard immediately. He exchanged a furious glance with Zatanna who did not appear surprised. Suddenly Booster wondered what she had been trying to tell him earlier. What didn't he know? "They're coming." He insisted, trying to hide that Maximus had rattled him.

"They might well be." Maximus nodded before adding. "But they won't find you. You were unconscious for quite a while. Did it never occur to you that we might have taken the precaution of vacating the premises? When you infiltrated my facility, I gather you noticed an exodus taking place?"

Jesus. Booster realised what he was saying. No wonder he was so confident. The signal transmitted to Ted would have led the Crusaders back to Leo Enterprises but no further than that, if they had been moved to another location. He tried to hide the realisation but his eyes betrayed him. Maximus seemed to be smiling even wider now as Booster came to the awful conclusion that no one would be coming for them. There was not going to be any rescue, not in time anyway.

"No witty comeback?" Maximus goaded, basking in his victory of verbal jousting.

Booster swallowed hard, refusing to allow this set back to upset his morale. He had to believe in his friends. "It changes nothing. My friends are smart, they'll find us soon enough."

"That may be so," Maximus agreed. "Unfortunately they won't arrive soon enough to help either of you."

"It's the risks we take," Booster said with bravery he did not feel. "We may die but they'll put an end to you permanently. You're not dealing with Justice League, you're dealing with a one really pissed Vuldarian who wants to mount your head on his trophy wall. Not to mention what the Blue Beetle will do to you if you harm one hair on her head!" He shouted looking at Zatanna.

"I don't intend to harm her at all." Maximus replied unconcerned by Booster's outburst. His calm frightened the Crusader more than his words.

"I admit," Maximus said returning to his desk. "I do want some compensation for the injury she caused to me but revenge is such a pointless exercise. I learnt that vengeance is much sweeter when it is prolonged. Death is quick and less satisfying. Take Reena for example." He glanced at Zatanna. "In retrospect, I think I would have preferred her to remain at my side. Treacherous as she was, Reena was an intelligent woman and she would have made a formidable ally."

He rounded the desk and went to the foot of the wall, where the animal pelt was hanging prominently for all to see. Maximus ran his fingers over the dark sheen of fur and then gazed back at his captives. "Unfortunately, I made that realisation too quickly and Reena's potential was lost. I traded a few minutes of satisfying vengeance and lost an important resource."

Booster saw Zatanna's chest heave as she realised that they were no more doubts about Reena's fate. Maximus had killed her. In retrospect, the sorceress wondered if there was ever doubt that her fate had been anything else. That poor woman, Zatanna grieved inwardly. Reena had risked everything to bring her story to the League and they could not even save her life for that sacrifice.


"You murdered her." Booster stated with disgust.

"Yes." Maximus nodded, surprised that there was any question of that. Suddenly, a shrill beeping sound emanated from his desk and the leader of the Ani-Men leaned over and flicked a switch.

"Doctor," Maximus asked not waiting for the speaker to announce himself. "How goes the tests?"

"Her DNA is absolutely compatible." Lovecraft's familiar voice responded. "There are two extra chromosomes as expected, mostly to do with the higher brain functions. I believe that is how the Homo Magi are capable of wielding magic. Other than that difference, there is little to distinguish it from normal human genes."

"Excellent." Maximus replied. "I'll have her brought to you shortly. Prepare the tanks."

At the mention of that, any measure of calm that Zatanna might have retained disappeared with a gut wrenching cry of protest that manage to escape the gag. She struggled violently, forcing the ropes around her to constrict so tautly that Booster was frightened that she may hurt herself. She was almost hysterical with fear at what was coming. Maximus relished in the reaction and strode over to her full of triumphant bluster. "I have special plans for you my dear." He ran his fingers over her sheeny hair, despite her efforts to avoid his touch. "I have a need of a consort." He looked at Booster and grinned, his fangs gleaming in the light.

"My kingdom needs an heir."

II

Booster was powerless to do anything when they came and took Zatanna away. She was still kicking and screaming, although neither action did very much to help her situation. His heart went out to her and wished there was something he could do now. However, he had to bide his time or he would doom them both. Undoubtedly, the situation had now taken on an urgency that could tolerate no further delay. He had to get out of here and get help. Even though he was tempted to use his ring, he was reluctant to give up that advantage until he was completely sure of a probability of success. For Zatanna's sake, he could not afford to gamble on a maybe. He had resigned himself to abandoning all hope of assistance from the Crusaders. Although he had confidence that Ted would find them eventually, he could not afford to risk waiting for their arrival. Ted Kord was the closest thing Booster had to family and Zatanna was his friend. Booster was unwilling to let either of them down.

"Now what shall we do with you?" Maximus looked at him in contemplation.

"If you're after another consort, I must object to being already taken." Booster said sarcastically.

Maximus laughed, at least that is how it sounded to Booster. It was difficult to tell because his voice was deep and throaty and while he was articulated, the limitations of his vocal cords could not be denied. "I am glad you are getting your spirit back." He answered. "I thought my little bombshell earlier would damage that irreverent wit permanently." He of course referred to his plans for Zatanna, which Booster was still having a lot of difficulty dealing with him. Maximus was right about that much at least.

"It takes more than an empty threat to shake my irreverent wit," Booster retorted. "You see, even if you managed to turn her into one of your circus acts, how are you going to control her? That's not some high school kid you got there, that's a member of Justice League. She is probably the most powerful mystic in this planet. I've seen her destroy men for less. What do you think she's going to do to you when you cut her loose?" Booster knew he was exaggerating a little. In truth, he did not have the slightest idea whether Zatanna could make such a claim or not. He simply believed it after what was done to Dreamslayer and how she had restored Kooey Kooey Kooey after a nuclear holocaust.

Maximus smiled. "The forming tanks do not only shape the body Mr Gold, they alter the mind. After my experiences with Reena, you will understand if I was reluctant to give my Ani-Men too much free will. I will not again suffer treachery by one of my one so the transformation process has been enhanced by a mind conditioning sub-routine. Your powerful mystic will emerge from the tanks as my Queen but she will be a fitting consort as well. She will be complacent, obedient and utterly devoted to her master. Most importantly, with every moment of her slavery she will have the memory who she once was."

Booster's stomach sickened at the thought of Zatanna enduring such a terrifying fate. He had to stop this monster and he had do to it soon. A situation that would be easier deliberated if he was aware of what Maximus had planned to do with him. So far, the lord of the Ani-Men had prattled on about his vengeance but not about Booster's fate. "Am I destined for your tanks?" He asked.

"Of course not." Maximus replied automatically. "I told you once before. You are hardly worth my time. I'm afraid it's the arena for you Mr Gold. My Alphas need some sport."

Images of what he had seen in the arena by the docks immediately sprung to Booster's mind. He did not relish the possibility of going toe to toe with one of the creatures he had seen earlier but it still was a better alternative than what Zatanna was undergoing. "Why are you doing this Maximus?" Booster found himself asking finally. It was the one question that the Ani-Men had not answered despite all his verbose declarations. Since Booster was here, he might as well get some idea of what the freak was planning.

"You know," Maximus looked at him. "I'm somewhat disappointed it took you so long to ask."

Despite his icy demeanour, Booster could see that Maximus was eager to indulge his vanity by telling his enemy about his plans, confident that the Crusaders would be powerless to stop him. "After my last encounter with your kind, I decided that perhaps an outright attempt at world domination is not the way to proceed. Its too much work work. Leo Enterprises is only the beginning. With my Ani-Men in the shadows, we will take corporate America without anyone knowing and then the rest of the global conglomerates. After that it far more simpler to achieve the same by simply controlling the governments through economic power. My gladiatorial escapades at night will allow me to buy my way into the boardrooms."

"You can't buy your way into every company in America or the world for that matter." Booster retaliated. "People will stop you."

"A few dissenting voices might try but my Ani-Men can take care of them easily enough. Accidents will happen and we know how kill without detection. The others will follow simply follow the money." Maximus declared arrogantly. "Other than what your witch has told you and your companions, the public has no idea of our presence. As far as everyone is concerned, the Ani-Men threat to the world ended years ago. We will remain hidden, killing in the dark as predators always do. No one will know the truth until I control it all and then it will be too late. I will have people everywhere and then I will turn my attention to the super humans."

This should be interesting, Booster thought silently. "Really?"

"Its easier than you think." Maximus looked at him confidently. "The problem with meta-humans is you frighten normal people. Oh, they look up to you but they cannot help of being afraid. All it takes is a few well-orchestrated displays of violence in the right place and at the right time. In the fallout, the media will be screaming for anti meta-human laws. It's no secret that the majority of governmental bodies consider you people little more than super powered vigilantes. How long do you think it will be before public opinion is swayed to believe the same? You'd be surprised how little a nudge it will take for the fear to surface."

Booster did not need to imagine such a thing. He had seen it. The formation of Justice League International had risen from the ashes of such sentiments. Gilbert Godfrey had gone across the country in tirade of meta-human hatred that inflamed every corner of America. If it had not been for a few heroes who chose to defy the order, it was possible that the planet Earth would have become another notch in Darkseid's stable. Of course, these were truths unknown to the public who had no idea how close they had come to an invasion.

"When you are gone, "Maximus sneered with open contempt. "When your stink no longer fills the world, my Ani-Men will emerge from the shadows and we will take it all. It is just a matter of time. I have learnt to be very patient."

"A nice plan." Booster answered. In truth, he was more concerned with what Maximus was intending to do now rather than his long-term agenda. These world domination plans always sounded the same no matter how ominous they appeared to be at the time of hearing. Booster was too much the veteran to be frightened by such delusions of grandeur. As all would be conquerors, his supreme arrogance would allow him to believe anything was possible no matter how outlandish. Left unchecked, Maximus could conceivably carry out his threat. However, Booster had faith in the Crusaders that his plan would never progress beyond the confines of this room.

"You are sceptical." Maximus realised unsurprised was still confident in his grand vision.

"That's just me. I didn't believe in Clinton's innocence either." Booster quipped.

"That is unfortunate." Maximus said reaching for the intercom on his desk. "Titus, attend me." The Ani-Men demanded.

A docile voice responded automatically. "Yes Master."

"Is our little chat over already?" Booster inquired. "I was so hoping that we could do the whole male bonding thing."

"You've wasted enough of my time, Mr Gold." Maximus snapped.

"I'm sorry I wasn't more enthusiastic about your little plan." He continued, adding further insult to the Ani-Men leader. "If you've heard one plan for world domination, you've heard it all."

Booster heard the door open behind him and into the room walked a behemoth that left him with his jaw open for a few seconds.


"Oh god." Booster managed to say through his horror.

For a few seconds, he could do little but gawk at the creature. It took all his self-resolve to keep himself from succumbing to his disgust and puking his guts out right there in front of Maximus. Booster had seen much in his career but nothing that brought out such potent feelings of revulsion. This particular Ani-Men was obviously created by an unsavoury mix of human and arachnid genes. Booster found himself staring at huge red compound eyes and sharp mandibles that looked capable of rendering flesh with ease. He remembered his biology classes and knew that spiders preferred their victims desiccated. The thought of those mandibles performing such a grisly task on him was enough to make him retch. Through the long robe it was wearing, he could see the joints of its extra limbs protruding through the fabric.

"Titus," Maximus smiled, enjoying Booster's reaction to the creature immensely. "Take Mr Gold to the Arena."

CHAPTER TWENTY

I

The building was empty.

In retrospect, Ted had almost expected as much before the Crusaders even saw the facility belonging to Leo Enterprises. They had arrived at the facility less than an hour after Booster had activated the emergency transmission on his signal device. The signal had lasted no more than ten minutes and its termination had left all the Crusaders uneasy. Ted continued trying to contact either Zatanna or Booster following their departure from Warriors, but was rewarded with nothing more than cold static.

With the destruction of the Blue Beetle Bug on Kooey Kooey Kooey, the Crusaders had lost their main mode of transport. Since Sigrid and Guy did not possess any flying ability, they had to be carried to their destination on an energy field produced by Ronnie. At the moment, the Bug II was being rebuilt by Lightspeed using Ted's specifications but it was months away from completion. Despite their current transport difficulties, the group had managed to cross the state in less than an hour, although the question of a permanent means of travel would soon have to be addressed.


As they approached the five-acre facility bordering what most New Yorkers called the country, they saw little signs of activity. This area was mostly populated by weekend homes that were largely vacant during the working week. Leo Enterprises had picked a good location to place their base of operations because they could be ensured of their anonymity. With most of the country homes belonging to frantic city dwellers who only made weekend visit to escape their urban existence, the company could operate with scrutiny.

The first thing they noticed as the tall perimeter of the facility came into view was the gate. Judging from the signs placed at random intervals in the fence line, the Crusaders deduced that the fence was electrified. However, the gates had been left wide open. The sentry box flanking the gate was also vacant. The boom gate between the opening offered entry in its crooked stance.

On the manicured lawns fronting the main building, there were similar signs of inactivity. The parking lot was completely deserted, unusual enough when considered it was a weekday. At the far end of the main building were gaping doors that led to the warehouse section of the facility. Like gates at the main entrance, it too had been left wide open. As the Crusaders landed in the middle of the empty car park, they came to one conclusion quickly enough; the evacuation must have been completed only a short time before. It was highly doubtful that Booster or Zatanna would sound an emergency alert if they had simply found the place like this.

The absence of life left an uneasy silence in its wake. Except for a few errant pieces of litter tumbling across the bitumen like the obligatory tumbleweeds in a bad western movie, there were no signs of movement on the quiet landscape. There was something terribly eerie about this hasty departure and the Crusaders forced themselves not be affected by the sinister atmosphere in this tranquil deception of silence.

"It's a tomb." Guy was the first one to speak after the group had spent a minute surveying the scene before them.

"I wish you would pick a better choice of words." Donovan retorted. He did not like to think that they were too late to help Booster or Zatanna. Although he knew superheroes could die, Donovan had wrapped himself in the comfort of his own invulnerability. If the worst had happened to Booster or Zatanna, Donovan did not relish the idea of having to re-evaluate that perception.

"Sorry," Guy apologised realising that it was not the best terms to use in the state of mind Ted was in. "It's damn quiet though." He repeated.

"They're cleared out." Ted declared, not requiring to investigate the rest of the facility to justify that assessment. Instinct told him that Booster and Zatanna were no longer here. They must have stumbled upon something for there to be such a drastic course of action on the part of their captors.

"Come on," Guy motioned the others forward. "Let's check out the main building. We still don't know what's happened." In truth, Guy had come to the same conclusion that Ted had reached. Whatever precipitated Booster and Zatanna's distress signal had forced this mass exodus. There could be no other reason for such a rapid evacuation of the facility.

"How long ago did Booster and Zee transmit the emergency signal?" Ronnie asked, as his eyes surveyed his surroundings. This was not a small facility. From overhead, he had seen an administration building, several large warehouses and smaller structures extending over the length of the property. Such an area could not be evacuated so quickly. It simply was not possible.

"Almost an hour ago." Ted answered automatically.

"They could not have cleared out here in an hour." Beatriz declared. A thought suddenly came to her head. "If they've just left, we might be able to spot them on the highways." She suggested. "I think I should have take a flight and look."

"Good idea." Guy agreed. "General, you go with her. If you see anything, contact us. Don't go it alone either of you." He said sternly so that they would not mistake the seriousness of the order. "Maximus plays rough. Trust me, I know."

No one could refute that statement. Beatriz and Donovan nodded before they withdraw from the group. Both heroes leapt in the air as the others reached the doors. Within seconds, they had become tiny dots against the clouds of the afternoon sky. Personally, Guy did not expect much success of their mission but he was leaving nothing to chance.

"Ted," Guy looked at him as they reached the glass doors. "We'll do this together." Guy stepped against one set of doors while Ted who understood his intent, immediately took up position against the other.

"The rest of you, stand clear." He instructed before the rest of the Crusaders moved out of the main path of the entrance.

"Now." Guy nodded at Ted and the two heroes pushed open the doors abruptly and entered the building.

Their entry was uneventful. For a moment, they both held fast, waiting for an attack if any were to come. Seconds ticked by as they stood cautiously in the door way of the building. Although the fluorescent light overhead still provided illumination to the structure, there were no other signs of occupation. The corridors extending from the main foyer were deserted, with the same discarded look to it. There was trash in the hallways, evidence of packaging and a few upturned boxes strewn about the place. Some furniture had been removed but most of it had been left behind. Somewhere, an open window forcing its blinds to sway back and forth with its current while scraps of papers danced through the air.

"Its clear." Guy announced to the others behind him as he and Ted continued into the foyer.

"They're gone Guy," Ted admitted as he sat on the reception desk. It too was bare, with its drawers hanging out precariously after someone had ransacked it for anything useful. Even the telephone was taken, leaving an empty connection to the wall as evidence of its former presence.

"Yeah." Guy nodded walking far enough to look down a corridor leading further into the building. "I think you are right."

"I don't understand how they could have left so fast." Sigrid exclaimed. "This isn't a small facility. Evacuating like this would have required time."

"They knew we were coming." Guy stated, looking over his shoulder at Ted who nodded in agreement.

"How could they know that?" Ronnie asked bewildered.

"Maximus ain't stupid." Guy retorted, venturing further down the corridor. As he past a door, he paused a moment and pushed it open cautiously. It was the same scene. Empty drawers, filing cabinets that had been hastily cleared and the removal of anything valuable. Apparently office furniture did not fall into that category. Guy turned back to the others and continued answering Ronnie's question. "After watching me and Ted on TV, he might have guessed we'd track him down. If he is as smart as we think he is, then he closed up shop and got the hell out of here before anyone came looking."

"Then where is Booster and Zatanna?" Sigrid asked.

"They're with him." Ted finally spoke. Although the others believed that his silence was due to his concern about Zatanna and Booster, in truth Ted Kord was thinking. Ever since they had arrived here, his eyes had been scanning everything closely. He had no disagreement with Guy's summary of the situation. There was nothing left here to find. Guy was correct. Maximus was no fool. If Leo Enterprises was indeed his company, then he would have recognised the remote possibility that the Crusaders might be able to connect Repli-Tech to it. In that instance, Ted could well see the wisdom in relocation if the heart of the Ani-Men operations were on these premises. Zatanna and Booster may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time when they had chosen to investigate.

"Oh crap." Ronnie swore under his breath. "Now what?"

Ted shared his frustration. Guy had been released because Maximus had chosen to let him go for whatever reason. Despite their investigation, the group had uncovered little information that could tell them if Maximus had a secret base somewhere else. Finding Leo Enterprises was mostly luck and now that this lead had become a dead end, there was no other option left to explore.

"Are you okay Ted?" Sigrid asked concerned. She was not used to seeing him so silent. Even if Ted had not expressed his feelings regarding the disappearances of Booster and Zatanna since they had begun their journey, she did not doubt that their well being was foremost on his mind.

"Not really," he sighed before looking up at Guy. "I don't know what to do Guy." He looked at the Vuldarian helplessly. "We don't have any other leads as to where they might be."

Guy Gardner had rarely seen Ted so shaken or unnerved. Despite his juvenile behaviour at times, Guy knew that Ted was a consummate professional who could manage his emotions no matter what the situation. Guy also knew that Ted used humour to mask those emotions so its absence concerned the Vuldarian greatly.

"We'll figure something out." He said with a confidence he did not feel.

In truth, it now appeared that the possibility of finding Zatanna and Booster before it was too late, now seemed terribly remote.

II

This was bad.

No, Booster Gold recanted that thought a moment later. It was very bad.


He looked up and was almost blinded by the powerful glare of a strobe light rotating overhead with the flamboyance of stage lighting. For a few minutes, he wrestled to see as colourful spots of light obscured his vision with illuminating resonance. Fortunately, it did not require him to see for Booster to know where he was. Around him, the sound of guttural cheers of the crowd roared through his ears. The voices could barely be called human but they were more than incomprehensible bellowing. The sounds were sophisticated enough to fall into the rhythm of a primitive jungle chant. All that was missing were the drums.

Booster felt as if he was in the midst of bad dream from which he could not awake. In his dream, he was the beast required to perform the circus tricks and the animals were the audience. Unfortunately, this was no dream. The nightmare was at present, his reality. Maximus had ordered him sent to the arena and Booster had no illusions as to what this meant. After what he and the others had seen, Booster knew what was coming. However, this arena was nothing like the one where Kevin Sharp was forced to do battle with a sabre tooth. This was going to be far more brutal and certainly more final. This was not shackled by the limitations of the paying public.

The arena resembled a Roman amphitheatre. High concrete walls encircled him as savage crowds waited for the revelry to begin. This arena did not possess the glamour of polished steel mesh and bright lights. This was a human kill zone.

His audience were all Ani-Men. When assembled above, Booster realised that his estimation of their numbers being about fifty or sixty to be incorrect. From this vantage point, he saw that they numbered in the hundreds, appearing every variety and classification of the animal kingdom, from mammalian to reptilian. All of them were looking at him with savage eyes, barely able to control their primeval instincts and demanding that the show began. Booster scanned the arena for a way to escape and saw there was only one entrance or exit onto the gladiatorial stage. The entrance was sealed with a heavy stone door with no discernible way of opening from this side.

It did not matter anyway, Booster decided, because he would not be escaping through the door. He looked up and studied the ceiling overhead. Despite the lights glaring down at him, Booster was able to place the ceiling at about twenty to thirty feet from the floor he was standing to the rafters from which the strobe was hanging. There would be ample room for him to manoeuvre when he made his bid for escape.

Suddenly, he heard the grinding of stone against stone. The roar of the crowd became deafening as he turned around and saw the door slide open. Morbid curiosity kept him in place instead of making his escape attempt immediately. He did not want to play his only trump card prematurely but Booster was running out of time. More precisely, Zatanna was. He expected some monstrosity to come lumbering through the door with every intention of rendering him from limb to limb. After seeing the creature called Titus, Booster had very little fear of anything else this place had to offer, although he did have a slight problem with the whole rendering thing.

However, nothing came through the door.

The audience had become quiet and their sudden silence filled with him unease. The open door seemed to beckon him forward and Booster tried to resist the urge to take a step forward and investigate. It was a trap, of that much Booster was certain. However, curiosity was a hard thing to overcome. Minutes passed and still nothing had come charging through the door. Booster began to toy with the idea that if nothing was coming through, perhaps he might have a chance to get out. Gingerly, he took a step forward

It leapt onto him like a flash of lightning. The creature moved like nothing he had even seen. Booster saw a blur of sharp claws and teeth that sprang from the door like a coiled serpent. It knocked him of his feet and he regained enough composure when he saw the thing about to sink its formidable teeth into his neck. Without further thought, Booster flipped the creature over his shoulder and rolled onto his knees. The Ani-Men screeched in outrage as it hit the sawdust on the ground. It recovered instantly and charging towards him.

It's a wolverine!

At least the hybridisation of man and wolverine anyway. In this case, it was the human characteristics that had managed to endure through the process. The Ani-Man not very tall but its body was clearly human. Although it was covered in hair from head to foot, it was possible to see the powerful muscles barely hidden by fur. Its face was shaped like a wolverine as he bared sharp teeth under a stunted animal nose. Although it had four fingers and an opposable thumb on each hand, the digits were capped with razor sharp talons that had the ability to tear Booster to pieces if he gave it the chance. Saliva ran down its thin lips as it snarled at Booster during its onslaught forward. Above head, the crowd was almost fanatical as their cheering seemed to shake the walls of the building.

"Okay," Booster said running forward to meet the creature head on. "Let's party."

As he began to propel himself forward, Booster extended his arms and balled his hands into knuckled fists. At full speed, Booster Gold was capable of outrunning a 747 and his rate of acceleration rivalled a gunshot. He struck the dead centre of his opponent with the force of a jackhammer. With his speed increasing by the second, he swept the Ani-Men off its feet and slammed the creature into the wall with one loud crunch of bone and concrete.

The creature spasmed once as the fight flooded out of its body and by the time Booster had started scaling the wall vertically, the Ani-Men had slumped to the ground trailing flakes of broken concrete. The room felt silent with his collapse as the Ani-Men looked in disbelief and astonishment at the apparent defeat of their champion. Booster was not wasting any time and began to gaining altitude immediately. Their confusion would not be last indefinitely and he needed to put enough distance between this group and himself before they recovered from their shock.

As expected, the confusion wore off quickly and very soon the Ani-Men were aware that the human was making an escape attempt. As Booster soared above the spectators of his would be gladiatorial debut, he saw that Maximus was not present. However, there were security cameras in place throughout the amphitheatre that indicated the leader of the Ani-Men would be aware of his escape soon enough. The room descended into pandemonium as their instincts heightened them to a state of total frenzy.

Booster saw a number of wolf security men making their appearance. They were all carrying weapons and Booster decided he had better even the odds before they started using him for target practice. He swooped down at the last one of the group as they opened fire on him, barely dodging a hail of bullets as they impacted on the roof behind him. Booster threw a fist in the creature's face and distracted it briefly, while he took its gun. Now armed, Booster aimed the weapon at the Ani-Men guards and started firing continuously. The creatures dove for cover as the other Ani-Men began to emerge from the amphitheatre. Booster did not relish having to contend with that many Ani-Men, not before he had a chance to contact Ted and the others.

Although he hated running from anything, Booster Gold looked for the nearest exit and made for it while he still had the chance to do so.

*********

No matter how many times, she told herself this could not be happening to her, Zatanna Zatara was faced with the terrible conclusion that it was.

She had almost convinced herself that this was a terrible nightmare. She would wake up in her bed and feel foolish for allowing herself to be caught up in such a wave of terror. Except she was not waking up. The pain she was feeling was no illusion of the mind but something potent and tangible. In other words, it was real. For someone practised at seeing the darker nature of all things, even Zatanna had difficulty dealing with what she saw around her.


When she had seen the laboratory hidden in the old Ani-Men base, she had been gripped with cold horror when she saw the specimens trapped in their glass coffins. Even defunct and derelict, their power to frighten was just as intense as it was when she had first seen them so many years ago. Most of the specimens trapped in the formaldehyde remained intact. The fluid had preserved their bodies well over the course of the years gone by. She remembered the rictus of agony in their faces, frozen forever in death.

As Zatanna watched helplessly while Doctor Lovecraft prepared to lowered her into the forming tanks, she could not force the image from her mind that she would be found in such a terrible pose. Around her, she saw others already in place within their coffins of glass, watching in mute horror as the fluid within destroyed everything that they were and turned them into an abomination of life. Zatanna wanted to kick and scream but tube in her throat that prevented her escape also silenced her voice with its rigid intrusion into her body. Nevertheless, she struggled hard even though her arms were pinned behind her back and she was suspended over the tube of green fluid.

Her struggles barely rated Lovecraft's notice. The good doctor was far more concerned with the chemical content of the forming tank he was readying for her than he was of the subject herself. Zatanna's gag had been replaced by a tube that was forced down her throat while she had been sedated. Following Maximus' instructions about her to the letter, the doctor had sedated her in order to remove the gag from her lips. While she was unconscious, he had placed a thick plastic tube down her throat, held in place by straps across her face. This would provide her with oxygen to breathe while the solution encasing her body did its work.

Not only was it uncomfortable but in several instances, Zatanna had nearly choked on the thick tube. Unfortunately, her comfort was not apart of Lovecraft's schedule. She had been stripped naked during her period of unconsciousness and she now hung over the forming tank of glass like a slab of meat on a hook. With each passing moment, she was beginning to lose the battle to contain her fear. Zatanna felt the edge of panic pressing up against her mind every time she looked down and saw swirling green beneath her feet.


She would not submit to this! She was Zatanna Zatara, daughter of the great magician and hero Zatara and Selinda of the Hidden Ones! She could not allow all that she was dissolve into nothingness! This was worse than death she had decided readily. To play consort and slave to an abomination of nature! She would not end this way!

God, please let the others get here soon.

"The tanks are ready." Lovecraft announced proudly stepping back from the base of the equipment, so that he could see her. As he made his announcement, Zatanna notice he bore the slightest hint of a smile before he moved to a panel near the equipment surrounding the tanks. Her eyes widen as she saw his fingers fly over the buttons with rapid movement.

Suddenly the pulley that was keeping her suspended, jerked into motion. With a low whine, Zatanna heard the pulley begin to move forward. Slowly but steadily, she felt herself being lowered into the liquid below. Her panic rose with such force that she was almost hysterical with terror. Zatanna struggled desperately as she felt her toes touch the warm, slimy fluid.

All reason left her at that point.

Whether or not her screams could be heard or not, her vocal cords made the attempt. Inside her mind, the words filled every corner of her mind.

HELPME!! DEARGODHELPME!DON'TLETTHEMTODOTHISTOMETED!

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

I

He heard her cry out with such terror that it impacted inside his brain like an explosion.

The force of it sent all his senses into disarray until the only thing he was aware of was the terrible resonance of her fear echoing through his mind. The initial wave was all hers. Fear, terror and revulsion. Wherever she was, she had breached the gulf between them to express that much. The backwash that followed that wave of intense emotions was all his. Guilt, desperation and frustration nipped at the heels of her sending. For a brief moment, the vortex of both threatened to overwhelm him with its powerful currents.

Ted Kord was not aware of that he had dropped to his knees until he heard Guy's voice shouting in his ear.

"Ted!"


When his senses returned to him and the fog had lifted from his mind, Ted looked up and saw his friends surrounding him, their faces marked with concern. He was on all fours, confused and dazed. Although the disorientation of mystical energy was no longer as confusing as it was since he initially recovered the scarab, Ted was still a novice. Zatanna had teaching him something about the mystical arts but as a scientist used to facts and data provided by sound scientific theory, letting go had been difficult. His mind found it difficult to accept things on faith even though there was no science that could explain the scarab that made him superhuman. Logically he had to believe in magic because of the scarab. However, there was a part of him that refused to believe that the scarab was not some form of technology man had yet to explain.

It took a moment for him to realise what had happened. Zatanna had told him once that communication between them was possible. When he had been fighting Guy, he had called for her. Until she appeared, he had not believed it for a second that he was capable of performing what she called 'a sending'. However, she had explained to him that the scarab was in possession of powerful magic. Since he appeared to be the channel for those energies, she saw no reason why he could not manipulate them. Now it appeared that the scarab allowed her to channel him thoughts. Zatanna had no telepathic ability of which he was aware. He knew that she could sense emotions and vague intentions but not anything tangible. Perhaps it was aware of their emotional bond and was able to amplify the thoughts directed at him.

"I heard her." He muttered. "She was calling me."

"Who? Zatanna?" Guy asked. "Do she tell you where she is?" For Guy, there was no question that Ted was telling him the truth. He had seen so many weird things in his life that questioning it was no longer an issue. Kari Limbo, a former lover, had been able to wield psychic energy of her own and she was nowhere as adept with it as Zatanna was.

"No," Ted staggered to his feet and then brushed through them. Suddenly, his throat felt like sandpaper. He made a beeline for the jug of water on the table. The Crusaders had returned to Warriors after the lack of any turning up any other leads at the complex. Although they had searched the place meticulously, it appeared that Maximus was once again, two steps ahead. Anything that could possibly be of any help was removed. All that remained were merely tools left behind to taunt them at their helplessness.

In the end, there was little choice but to contact the Oracle again, hoping she might uncover any new information that might lead them to Leo Enterprises new base of operations. Beatriz and Donovan had searched the skies above the abandon facility, hoping to catch side of any vehicles bearing the company logo. Unfortunately, none were present and the Crusaders were back to square one in their efforts to retrieve Booster and Zatanna.

Filling a glass up with water, he downed the contents quickly. Evan as he drained the glass, it felt as if no amount of water could quench the thirst in his parched throat. "She's in trouble." Ted managed to say when he put the glass down on the table again. "I heard her scream inside my head." The emotion began to seep in to his voice as he spoke. "She was terrified, almost hysterical. I've never heard her so frightened. We've got to find her!" He shouted.

"Steady Ted," Guy grabbed him as Ted was starting to shout and completely lose control. "We'll find her."

"It's not soon enough!" Ted exclaimed, shoving him away. "You didn't hear her!"

"Ted," Sigrid interupted before the situation deteriorated any further. "Focus." She ordered sharply. "She contacted you telepathically. We know her range is not that powerful so she could not have been far away."

At that possibility, Ted started to calm a bit and Guy picked up the thread of what Sigrid was trying to do. "Yeah come on, concentrate on what you heard. Did she sound far away?"

Ted swallowed hard, forcing his mind to concentrate on the question put before him. All he remembered was the overwhelming terror projected by her thoughts and her desperate cry for help. Ted had never felt so helpless in his life but he knew that if was going to help her, he needed to focus as Sigrid had urged him to do.

"I can't really say," he replied honestly after a moment's consideration. "It was loud and intense."

"So she could be close." Beatriz said hopefully.

"No," Ted shook his head. Although he wanted desperately to believe she was nearby and that this call of hers could lead him to her, he had to be realistic. Finding Zatanna would take work not wishful thinking and ignoring the evidence at hand. "She told me once that the scarab's energy source is mystical and specifically in tuned to me. I think the words I say to become Blue Beetle now are more of a voice imprint that it is able to recognise as its programmed user. It may just amplify psychic energy directed at me."

"Damn." Guy cursed. "I thought me might have had something."

"We can't just sit here!" Ronnie exclaimed knowing full well what Maximus had in store for their comrades if they were in his hands. He had made similar threats on members of the Justice League once and although tragedy was averted then, the outlook on this situation did not appear as hopeful. "Christ knows what that bastard is doing to her!"

"Calm down." Guy said with an edge to his voice. Ted did not need to hear this right now. He glared at Ronnie who did not notice the warning.

"Calm down?" Ronnie continued, unaware of the warning being directed at him through Guy's steely eyes. "After what happened to you?"

"That's right," Guy glared at him and straightened up to his full height. He towered over Ronnie easily. "I said take it easy."

Ronnie suddenly realised what Guy was trying to do and winced at his own stupidity. Although Ted was not looking at him, it was obvious his words had disturbed the Blue Beetle greatly.

Great, Raymond, Ronnie cursed at himself, just great. He fell silent immediately and noticed the stern gaze being projected at him from the others. "Hey, what do I know?" He tried to joke but no one was laughing. "I'm sure she's alright."

"Look," Sigrid spoke up, realising that their emotions were starting to make them somewhat agitated and excitable. "We can't do anything until we have somewhere to go, so I suggest that everyone just take it easy. We're no good to either Zatanna or Booster if we in here climbing the walls."

"The lady is right." Donovan added his support. "This Oracle person said she'd get back to us as soon as she found out something." He looked at the others, hoping to diffuse the situation before fists went flying. He noticed Beatriz was at Guy's side, who was still squared off with Ronnie. She was making sure that both men's volatile tempers did not get the better of them. Ted did not need that kind of display at this moment.

However, the Blue Beetle looked up as he said that with an expression that was almost defeat. "I think we're already too late." He said softly. Whatever's happened, has already taken place."

"You don't know that." Guy countered quickly.

However, Ted could not be convinced otherwise because the memory of her scream was in his mind, not in Guy's. "Yes, I do." He nodded with grim certainty. "Yes I do."

**********

Booster examined the angry streak of blood across his shoulder and knew that it was only a flesh wound. So far, he had managed to remain at large within the maze of the Ani-Men secret base. Now that he was free, the familiarity of the place leapt at him with even more intensity. For the moment, he had evaded his captors when he flew into an air duct. With his weapon slung around his back, Booster crawled through the narrow space on all fours, viewing the outside world through the narrow vents on the occasional grating he passed. The innards of the ventilation system were like a giant maze but there was miles of these tunnels throughout the complex so it would take them time to pinpoint his location.

In the meantime, he had to find someway to contact the Crusaders. Although his first impulse was to retrieve Zatanna, there was no way he could do that without endangering them both. While he was free, there was still a chance. If he attempted a one-man assault on Lovecraft's laboratory, it would only end in disaster. With him being free, Maximus was smart enough to know that Zatanna would be his primary target. Maximus did not believe humans were capable of much so Booster was going to beat him at his own game.

He had no idea where he was going or how far he had travelled through the network of air conduits. Sweat was running down his brow as he moved forward, despite the rush of cool air throughout he system. Spandex was never the ideal material for enclosed spaces as this and he felt his suit sticking to the skin. He just hoped there were no wharf rats running loose in this passageway. There had been a couple of close calls when he had heard far away squeaking and Booster was prepared to use his gun, whatever the consequence, if one came in his direction.

The light from a grating above, allowed him some visibility and Booster peered through it to the corridor below. There were no sounds of footsteps or anything else that might indicate a presence. He had to get some bearing as to where he was and made the decision to leave the safety of the vents for the moment.

Removing the vent as silently as possible, he slipped through the opening and replaced the vent as he hovered below it momentarily. The corridor was deserted and Booster wondered if this part of the corridor was restricted. As he touched the steel plate of the floor, he checked either side of the corridor and saw no one was coming.

It felt vulnerable being out in the open but Booster knew their survival meant his contacting the others and bringing them here. He knew that he could not remain at this juncture for long and he had seen cameras throughout the length of the complex. He doubted that this place would be the exception. Running quietly down the corridor, Booster held his gun poised ready to fire. Although most superheroes had a rule about killing, Booster had no hesitation about pulling the trigger to get out this thing alive. If it was the other way around, he had no illusions about his fate.

Suddenly, he heard a soft scraping sound, which made him pause. Booster looked down the corridor once again and could see nothing. However, the sound was becoming louder and the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end. He continued up the corridor but he could not escape the sound. It seemed to be getting closer. Once again, he glanced over his shoulder and saw nothing following the way he came and the way before him was clear.

Just as suddenly as it began, the scraping stopped abruptly. The seconds of silence following made him even more uneasy. A realisation struck him at that point and his eyes flew to the ceiling above his head. No sooner that his eyes had touch the plates of the ceiling, the Ani-Men dropped from its vantage point. It looked at him with reptilian eyes, its red irises contracting as it focussed on him. The creature's widening jaws revealed a razor sharp row of serrated teeth. Obviously derived from a lizard like creature, it scampered towards him on two legs, talons bared.

"I'm going to be killed by overgrown gecko." Booster managed to say as he aimed at the creature. He did not want to shoot it but the savage glint in its eyes did not give him much of a choice. Unfortunately, if he fired at the thing, it was going to alert everyone to his presence as surely as if he had sent out a flare.

With seconds to spare, Booster changed his grip on the weapon and swung his body sideways with as much force as he could muster. The curve of the gun butt smashed into the Ani-Men's jaw. He heard it screech in pain as it fell backwards. Using the same tactic as he had earlier in the arena, Booster leapt towards it. Flying at the Ani-Men at full speed, Booster slammed the Ani-Men into the rear wall. Booster did not wait to find out if the creature had arisen, he just kept going.


Upon reaching the juncture of the corridor, he saw a group of Ani-Men security, round the corner. They arrived with all weapons blazing. Bullets tore through the steel of the walls as if it was paper, causing ricochets as they impacted on seams and bounced of the thick handles of the doors. Booster retreated, leaving the deadly projectiles tearing the space behind him with a very narrow margin for injury. He rounded another corner and saw more Ani-Men arrive. The corridor was quickly becoming a war zone. As smoke from their discharging weapons began to fill the narrow passageway, it was becoming harder to distinguish enemy from ally. He was in the middle of a vicious cross fire.

He straightened up in mid air and started speeding up one end of the corridor, holding his weapon in front of him as he closed the distance between the Ani-Men and himself. Bullets were whizzing past his ears with so much frequency that Booster could feel them racing past his skin. Pulling the trigger on his gun, he returned fire with as much veracity and gave himself a small window of escape through the blockade. Booster held his head down, refusing to believe that he could die from a simple bullet when he had fought much worse in his career. It was almost preposterous that he should die this way.

The speed of his flight through the corridor caused a sonic boom. Speed overtook sound in a vortex of energy that culminated in a loud rumble that echoed through the narrow passageway. The distraction was enough for him to break through the line of Ani-Men defence and get behind them. Being animals, their superior hearing caused the force of the sonic eruption to become amplified. The roar in their ears caused most of them to howl in pain as it tore through the air. Booster looked behind long enough to see them holding their ears in pain but he knew that it would not last. He had minutes at the most. As he turned another corridor, he suddenly realised that he had been in this area recently.

Lovecraft laboratory was here! The discovery gave way to another idea and although more dangerous, would probably be more expedient in the final analysis. Abandoning his previous plan to find some way to contact the Crusaders, he knew it would not take the Ani-Men would not take long to pick up his trail. Booster flew through the corridor searching for one door in particular. It did not take him long to find it at the end of the corridor. Made of steel, the door was the only one of its kind in the corridor. As he headed towards, it, Booster glanced over his shoulder to see if the Ani-Men were behind. While he could not see any of them in pursuit, their disjointed voices and loud footsteps barked indicated they were not far away. With security cameras mounted in strategic locations throughout the passageway, Booster was realistic about his chances of remaining hidden for any period of time.

Without further delay, Booster burst into the room and saw Doctor Lovecraft in sitting behind a computer terminal in the corner of the room. The doctor's head snapped to his direction and his eyes widened upon meeting Booster's gaze. Lovecraft lunged from his desk to make a vain attempt to reach a security button on a nearby wall.

Fortunately for Booster, he reached it first and shoved Lovecraft away. The doctor stumbled backwards and fell down on the hard floor. He began scrambling for the door when Booster raised his weapon.

"I wouldn't." Booster warned aiming the barrel of the gun at a comfortable position right between the man's eyes. Although Booster would never shoot him in cold blood, Lovecraft was unaware of this and froze. He stared at Booster like an animal caught in someone's headlights and Booster saw no reason to let him think any differently. If anything, Booster knew how to bluff. He cocked the trigger just to illustrate the point.

It was not lost on Lovecraft. The doctor made no further attempt to move. In the face of things, he was just another frightened little man, impotent once stripped of the devices that empowered to intimidate others. "What do you want?" He stammered.

For Booster Gold, there was only one question.

"Where is she?" He asked through the teeth of his tightened jaw.

Involuntarily, Lovecraft's eyes darted sideways. Booster followed the man's gaze to a stasis tank on the opposite wall. To be truthful, he had noticed them when he had first entered the room but necessity had kept him from really seeing them. He had wanted to remain focussed on freeing Zatanna and the faces inside those glass coffins were a distraction he could ill afford at the time. No such inhibitions held him back now.

She was trapped as the others were trapped inside their glass cages. Zatanna appeared conscious and seemed aware of everything taking place around her. She was staring directly at him. Even though her hands were still tied behind her back, she nevertheless struggled to make herself understood. He did not require any clairvoyance to know what she was trying to say so desperately.

While Booster's attention was focused on his comrade, Lovecraft took a chance at escape. He did not relish the idea of Booster's reaction once the initial shock of seeing his comrade had dissipated. The doctor made a dash for the door. He did not intend to be present when he released Zatanna from the tanks. With that prospect in mind, Lovecraft would rather take his chances at being shot rather than face Zatanna's wrath for what he had done to her.

Booster saw him escape but saw little reason to stop him. At the moment, he was too pressed for time to be concerned about a prisoner as well. Considering what the man had done to Zatanna, it was probably tempting fate if he was still here when Booster removed her from the tank. Zatanna's behaviour when she was enraged was extreme to say the least. Right now, Booster did not need the complication.

It was hard to believe that duration of time she had spent in the forming tanks spanned only a few hours. Lovecraft's procedure worked quickly because he could see her body in the intermediary state of transition. Even though the changes were slight, the effect on her was overt. She had already begun her transformation into Maximus' creature. Fortunately, Zatanna's mind was still hers. Her eyes looked at him with recognition, intermingled with a plea for help. Still, the mutations were hard to ignore.

Most of the transformation was in her face. Her forehead had become sloped, coming to an abrupt end when it struck the bone of her prominent brow ridges. A thin fuzz of golden fur had begun to sprout under her smooth skin. Her feet seemed elongated as the arch under her toes became more pronounced. They were starting to take on the shape of animal haunches. He could see her toes slowly becoming pointed with sharp claws piercing through the skin.

With Lovecraft gone, Booster had no time to lose. If the Ani-Men were still unaware of where he was hiding, they would soon know when Lovecraft reached them. Surveying the room quickly, he tore his eyes away from Zatanna to deal with a more immediate problem. Scanning the room quickly, he pinpointed the heaviest pieces of machinery and furniture. Booster wasted no time as he proceeded to barricade the steel door with everything that had sufficient bulk to keep it from opening. He tipped heavy equipment off its wheels onto its side, shoved desks and filing cabinets into place within the curious construct of his makeshift fortifications. He was realistic that his efforts could not possibly keep the Ani-Men out if they were determined to enter. However, it was that narrow margin of time upon which Booster was counting.

He stepped in front of the forming tank, forcing himself to ignore the others. He did not want to look and comforted himself with the knowledge that once Zatanna was freed, the chance to free them would also come into existence. He placed the barrel of the gun at the base of the tank, against the smooth glass surface. He made certain that the trajectory of the bullet could in no way cause harm to Zatanna or anyone else in the room. He looked up at Zatanna, conveying to her what he intended to do. Zatanna was no longer struggling and she returned his gaze and gave indication of her readiness with a simple nod of acknowledgment.

Booster pulled the trigger, releasing a short burst of fire. The bullets tore through the glass with a shattering sound. The wall of glass exploded outwards, sending a spray of tiny shards in all directions. He shielded his eyes as the splinters fell around him. Behind explosion of glass followed the inevitable gush of fluid in close pursuit. The wave of oncoming liquid swept Zatanna forward, detaching her abruptly from some of the tubes connecting her to the rest of the tank. She slapped onto the ground like a fish escaping an aquarium, covered with slippery green fluid. Zatanna lay on the floor, choking on the clear tube that was forced down her throat, now that it was ripped from its oxygen supply.

Booster was at her side immediately. She was lying in the expanding puddle of green, like a child just newly emerged from the byre of her birth. Dropping to his knees, he quickly turned her over. She was struggling to breathe as transformation liquid ran into nose, clogging up her already obstructed breathing passages. He could hear her gagging on the plastic. Dispensing with the niceties, Booster took a firm hold of the tube and yanked it from her mouth with one sharp tug. She let out a gurgled scream as the foreign object was torn from her insides. The removal of the tube elicited a sharp series of coughs. On the whole however, she seemed no worse from the experience.

"Are you okay Zee?" He asked while holding her up so she could breathe better. Even as he said it, the question felt stupid. It was obvious she was far from it.

Zatanna did not answer. She was still trying to recover from the ordeal suffered at the hands of her captors. The ordeal that was far from ended. However, at the moment, she was overwhelmed with a sense of relief at being free. Revenge would come later.

"I'm okay." She managed to croak. Her voice sounded strange after so much silence.

Booster never had the chance to answer. Their attention was captured by the sound of heavy battering on the steel door. Both their gazes snapped towards the direction of the door. It was still vibrating from the initial assault by the Ani-Men when the pounding resumed with more ferocity. The barricade began to shudder objects free with each impact. It was not far from collapsing entirely.


"Zee," he turned back to her. "We don't have a lot of time."

She nodded slowly, knowing that their survival was now up to her. Zatanna felt weak. Her body was exhausted by the process she had been forced to endure, not to mention that being tied up for hours before, had left her limbs aching from the experience. She was mentally and physically spent but Booster was right. She was the only chance they had of getting out of here alive. Zatanna had yet to look in the mirror but she knew she was altered. She could feel it. If she was ever going to be herself again, she had to act.

".ereh sredasurC eht gnirB"

It was time to put an end to this, once and for all.

 
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