Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

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

by Linda Thackeray

 

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

I

Battle lines had been drawn.

Across the field of combat, opposing forces regarded each other before the call to arms was finally sounded. There is a moment known only to the soldiers of the front lines. It is the pause that exists before the charge, before the war cry drove all sense from the world and the ensuing of bloody carnage. It is a moment of reflection, where warring parties would await at the edge of the abyss wondering if all roads leading to this conclusion could have been averted. For some, the pause is breath taken, perhaps for the last time.

As the Crusaders faced the Ani-Men army before them, the three men about to do battle with an indiscriminate number of porcine-human mutants considered the meandering path that had led them to this moment. The pause for them was reaffirmation of the lives they had chosen to lead and the line they had drawn to protect those who could not protect themselves.

For the enemy, there were no reasons.

The Ani-Men fought because Maximus commanded it. They could not understand the need to sacrifice themselves for their Master because they were incapable of comprehension. The tanks had destroyed their ability to question or consider the path of disaster they were about to embark. All that was true in their world was the singular directive that to be true to the master required a token of blood to be spilt.

The pause stretched for no more than a second but its length of time was enough for both sides to understand that there was no way to resolve this conflict. Already, other parts of the complex were falling into disarray. Maximus knew that the bulk of his security forces were disabled and Section 22 where Dr Lovecraft had once ruled supreme was compromised. Emerald fire was wreaking havoc throughout the structure, destroying years of work more effectively than any costumed threat.

The superheroes Booster Gold and General Glory had demolished a great deal in their battles with his wolf guard. On the other side of the complex, many of his minions had fled into the jungle after the female members of the Crusaders had gutted one side of the complex. Although their conditioning to obey was strong, Maximus made their need for self-preservation stronger. He had bred them to survive. Lovecraft had eliminated the flaw in the transformation process that would have doomed them to revert to their animal forms. Maximus was assured that even in the worst case scenario, some Ani-Men would escape before the enemy reached them.

He had one last card to play and it was a most important card. The Crusaders were not aware of the danger yet but when the discovery was made, Maximus would be well away from here. He would find his scattered flock and then disappear into obscurity, as he had done once before. He would afford some time to reflect on the mistakes made presently to eliminate them in the future. In any case, he expected things would transpire quite well despite the losses today.

"Kill them." Maximus spoke into his transmitter device. His words were carried to the tiny audio implants hidden in the inner walls of his army's ears.

Guy Gardner had no idea who made the step first forward but when it was taken, it began fast and savagely. The world seemed to fill with a loud rush of air that roared through the room when the momentary pause shattered into pandemonium. Movement was everywhere. Bodies flurried by like vague flashes of colour and sharp claws. There was no time to formulate strategy, just countermeasures to keep from being torn apart. As he saw the Ani-Men bearing down on him, he knew that this was going to get very bloody and reason had to be checked at the door.

He saw Ronnie and Ted take to the air almost immediately. Unfortunately, he had no such protection. They swarmed around him first because he was the easiest to reach. Guy closed his eyes curled himself inward. From above, he looked as if he were in a foetal position until his limbs melted against each other and he had become a single ball of muscle. The first Ani-Men that reached him had caused to regret it. No sooner than he felt the contact of skin against his body, sharp spikes tore through his skin and impaled the creature with little resistance. He heard the Ani-Men squeal in retreat. Numerous others who attempted to make contact followed its cry. The squealing superseded the war cry throughout the room. In the background, he could hear the sharp discharge of lighting bolts and the odour of burning flesh started to fill the air.

Ted was right on cue. Guy smiled to himself.

Stretching out his limbs during the few seconds as the Ani-Men wrestled with touching again, Guy ran through the mutants and leapt into the air as he saw Ronnie flying past.

"I got you!" Ronnie Raymond yelled grabbing his arm and soaring upwards.

Suddenly, a most curious thing happened. While he was in mid air, he felt the blast of plasma against his skin. The heat took both him and Ronnie by surprise. For less than a second later, both men crashed into the dirt again. Guy rolled across the ground while Ronnie hit the area next to him, covering him in small wave of dirt and sawdust.

"What the hell was that?" He demanded looking up.

"Watch out Guy!" He heard Ted shout. Ted was still in the air but he was dodging blasts of plasma like a duck in a shooting gallery.


Guy looked up and felt his jaw drop. It couldn't be!

But it was. The Ani-Men closing in around him and Ronnie were morphing into familiar Vuldarian weapons. The blast that had taken him and Ronnie down came from a weapon Guy had employed a dozen times before. The razorbacks were transforming right before his eyes with a fluidity of change that was all too recognisable to Guy Gardner, last son of Vuldar.

"Get up!" He turned to Ronnie who was somewhat dazed.

The younger man nodded mutely and groaned slightly as he got to his feet. Ronnie's eyes widen as he saw the Ani-Men transform. There seemed to be a lot more of them from a terrestrial viewpoint. Without thinking, he threw up a shield of energy protecting Ted from the volley of plasma bolts. It gave his comrade time to breathe. Ronnie caught sight of Maximus disappearing into the tunnel the razorbacks had emerged. He wanted to give chase but unfortunately, the Ani-Men leader had played another hand. The room began to fill with other Ani-Men emerging from the multiple entrances to the amphitheatre. They came in every shape and form. Bird, insect, reptile, mammal, Ronnie could not keep up with them.

"I think you better get the others here." Ronnie called out as he saw the numbers around them escalate.

Guy tended to agree as two Vuldarian juggernauts rolled towards him with thundering fury. Cannons began to appear through their skins and Guy knew the ferocity of its arsenal. He immediately morphed his skin into Vuldarian armour and ran forward to meet the oncoming attackers.

"Okay," he said under his breath. "You want to play my games, let's play." He leapt onto the side of one juggernaut and immediately felt flesh heave beneath him. He looked behind him long enough to see Ronnie soar into the air before firing a blast of fire at the second juggernaut. Guy did not waste time with such methods. His hand turned into a giant prong with sharp tines and rammed it into the thickest part of the juggernaut. He heard a screech of pain as the form beneath him altered shape and the juggernaut became a razorback again. The creature struck Guy off his body into a wall. He smashed into it at full speed and fell concrete crumbled beneath his back but the pain hardly registered. Guy landed on his feet and shook the effect off his body as easily as he shook water from his back.

His body melted around him. His limbs liquefied into a flowing column of silvery fluid. The razorback coming towards him paused a moment, uncertain of what danger a column of liquid metal could pose. Suddenly Guy launched himself towards the creature. The force behind his form knocked the Ani-Men flat on his back as Guy smothered it like a blanket. He could feel the creature choking under him as Guy slowly suffocated the Ani-Man. Within seconds, the creature stopped struggling and although Guy had stopped short of killing the Ani-Men, he was confident that it would not be rising too quickly.

At this point, he saw the numbers they were facing and decided that Ronnie was right. They needed reinforcements. Although Ronnie and Ted were fighting valiantly to hold off the Ani-Men coming from all directions, the sheer numbers of the Ani-Men were nothing to underestimate.

"Everybody!" He spoke loudly into his signal device. The transmitter was sent on a general broadcast so that every Crusader present would hear him. "Get to the amphitheatre! All hell's broken loose down here!"

Satisfied that the others would soon arrive, Guy looked down the tunnel where Maximus had disappeared.

Maximus was not going to escape.

*********

Ted Kord was feeling somewhat overwhelmed.

He saw Guy disappear through the tunnel and hoped that the Vuldarian knew what he was doing, going it alone. At the moment however, Ted had problems of his own to contend with. Since he was generally considered the strongest these days in the group, the Ani-Men were concentrating all fire on him. Although the plasma blasts were powerful and they did hurt whenever he was unable to dodge one, they were nowhere as intense as the blast Guy was capable of producing.

His concentration had wavered with the arrival of the hawk creatures that Booster had encountered over Miller Park. They flew at him, brandishing sharp powerful talons that dug into his skin as their comrades below tried to shoot him down like a duck in hunting season. Ted had yet to unleash the full intensity of his own powers. Until now there had never been a reason for it and to truthfully, their full potential frightened him a little. However, with reinforcements yet to arrive and only himself and Ronnie holding the fort, he had little choice to be delicate.

The hawk creatures had been attacking him from all directions, trying to wave his concentration from the plasma being hurled at him from below. Ronnie was in no position to give him any cover as the rest of the Ani-Men kept him busy. The younger man was working laboriously to cage as many of the mutants as he could, moulding strong enclosures out of whatever materials were present.

Ted felt another talon dig into his face as one of the hawk men flew at him and decided enough was enough. Taking a deep breath, he concentrated hard and fired a full spread charge of electricity at the creatures flying towards him. Electricity cackled through their feathered bodies and the air was filled with their agonised squawking. He saw them jerk spasmodically in mid air before they started plummeting downward. Ted watched them spiral downwards and shouted after that. "I warned you Alice! To the moon!"

"Hey Ralph?" Ronnie barked at him with annoyance. "You want give me a hand here?"

Ronnie was under some heavy fire himself with trying to deal with the razorbacks and also his attempts to cage the bulk of the Ani-Men rampaging throughout the amphitheatre. "Sure Norton." He replied flying towards the thickest section of razorbacks. He had the power to subdue them and it was time that he started using them. He was still thinking in terms of his previous abilities not the powers granted to him by the scarab.

The Chosen One was about to kick some butt.

They converged on him when he was on the ground like a pack of dogs. Ted did not waste any time with formalities and began throwing punches like a man possessed. He knew how to hit and where to hit. Power enhanced a person. They did not make him. Before he came into possession of the Blue Beetle scarab, Ted had been an expert in unarmed combat. It was time to put that training to use.

Ronnie looked up to see Ted sending Ani-Men after Ani-Men out of the area with his powerful punches. One after another, they were sent sprawling as the crime fighter pummelled them senseless. Most had started retreating, perhaps realising that they were thoroughly outclassed. Ronnie was used to seeing Ted inside the Blue Beetle Bug, protected by tonnes of steel. Ted was not only more formidable with his new powers but coupled with his intellect and years of martial arts training, he could certainly be considered one of the big guns now.

And they said the Blue Beetle would be player when pigs flew.

II

There was nothing as relentless as a Vuldarian aroused by the heat of the blood rage. It pounded in ones' ears until the sound became the universe and the thirst became a void only an ocean could satisfy. The scent was thick in the air. Subconsciously, Guy knew it was Maximus. His rage had sparked a memory and the scent was imprinted on his mind. As he ran through the long tunnel, he also knew that Maximus was leaving.

Whatever shape or form super villains, would be conquerors and self-styled demi-gods often arrived, they all shared common characteristics. The foremost of which was usually self-preservation. They knew how to get going when the going got tough. Maximus was no exception. While his subjects were properly fed to the Crusaders as fodder, the great man himself was taking the opportunity to escape.

Even as Guy maintained his pursuit, he knew the tunnel was ascending. It was hardly surprising when he saw sunlight break into the darkened passageway. Maximus no doubt, had an escape route somewhere on the surface. Suddenly Guy paused. He could smell the enemy scent close by. The passageway was all shadows and although his Vuldarian senses were enhanced, they did not give him powers to see through darkness. Yet he knew Maximus was very close. The smell of fear and rage was unmistakable. It produced a salty odour that could not be ignored.

The attack came from behind him.

He saw a flurry of movement in the darkness and glint of teeth as they came rushing towards him. Guy let himself fall backwards as Maximus landed on him and rolled gracefully as he threw the Ani-Men leader of him. Maximus hit the ground and landed on his feet with feline grace before roaring at him with sharp teeth bared.

"Not so fast kitty." Guy sneered. "You're not leaving the party just yet."

"You are not going to stop me." Maximus growled. His words sounding like guttural reverberations in his throat.

"I'm going to stop you." Guy said firmly without any trace of doubt. "You're not escaping the hell I got in mind for you."

Maximus sprung like a wound coil. His arms and legs moving so fast that it was almost a blur. This time, the Ani-Man's attack was better co-ordinated and he landed on Guy's chest. Guy hit the ground hard, feeling sharp claw dig into his skin before he had time to strengthen his skin. The power behind those claws drew blood even before Guy had time to cry out. He felt hot fluid spill over his skin and sticky wetness seeping into his pants. Guy shoved his fist into Maximus' torso and was about to fire a full load of plasma when the Ani-Man chose wisely to disembark. He rolled out of the Vuldarian's reach and tried to sink his teeth into the man's throat when Guy's body morphed into Vuldarian armour.

"Did you like my razorbacks?" Maximus goaded.

Guy let loose a hail of plasma that lit up the tunnel as the energy impacted off the walls. Maximus dodged with feline agility, barely avoiding them as they blasted rock to pieces behind him.

"Inferior copies will never stand up to the original." Guy retorted. "They're just wannabes, like you are."

Maximus snarled at him and then shouted. "I suppose I should warn you about the explosives."

Guy stopped firing immediately and glared at him. "What explosives?"

Maximus was breathing hard but he did not intend to show that Guy had given him cause for concern. On the contrary, it was he who was about to bring understanding to the superhuman at who was really in control of the situation. "The explosives I have wired throughout the entire building. The blast radius will wipe out a considerable amount of rainforest I guarantee you. I have to admit I am curious to find out whether you super humans are capable of surviving a nuclear detonation equal to 5 kilotons."

"You're bluffing." Guy responded but knew Maximus was smart enough to take precautions. Even if he was lying about explosives, Guy could not take the risk. There were innocent people in this place that Sigrid might yet be able to save but not if they were all reduced radioactive ashes. "You blow this place up and you die with us." Guy countered hoping the gambit would work.

Maximus produced a small detonator from his suit and the flashing red light had the momentum of secret timer somewhere in the complex. "I will not live in a cage. I would rather die than face that nightmare. If it looks like I will be spending my existence is such a manner, I won't hesitate to kill all you freaks with me!"

Guy fought the urge to tear this creature apart but knew the few steps he took to reach Maximus was ample time for the maniac to detonated the explosives. For the moment, it appeared Maximus had the advantage. "All right," Guy nodded begrudgingly. "You win."

"I always knew I would." Maximus said confidently. He strode past Guy, circling the superhero victoriously before moving towards the planned escape route he had been taking before their confrontation. He walked backwards, ensuring that Guy made no move to follow him.

Guy Gardner watched him go with one thought in his mind.

This is not over yet, Maximus.

**********

They did not locate Kevin but they did find something almost as good.

Behind them, the trail of destruction was evident. The wolf guards were still coming but Booster and Donovan had the satisfaction of knowing that for every handful that came in pursuit of them, the odds facing Guy, Ted and Ronnie would be significantly reduced. They had yet to search Section 22 thoroughly when Guy's emergency signal had come through. Abandoning their search, both Crusaders hastily proceeded towards the amphitheatre, a route Booster was more than familiar with. It was pure chance really, that caused them to stumble upon Maximus' office.

Even without the leader of the Ani-Men presiding over them behind his desk, the room still felt sinister. Booster walked in cautiously; as if expecting Titus to emerge from the shadows and scare the hell out of Booster like he had done hours earlier. However, Booster shook such concerns from his mind. Titus would not be foolish enough to remain here now that all hell had cut loose throughout the complex. If the damage he and the General had accomplished was any indication of how the others were faring, it was no wonder emergency klaxons were screaming themselves raw throughout the complex. Booster was here for a specific reason.

Maximus had already removed everything of possible value in regards to his future whereabouts. CD boxes were lying empty at the base of the computer screen and the open drawers indicated that he had either removed or destroyed any paperwork that might work in favour of his enemies. None of these interested Booster because if all went well, Maximus would not escape for them to require the information.

"I found it!" Donovan exclaimed as the two men rifled through Maximus belongings. The General held up gauntlets for which Booster Gold had been desperately seeking. The products of 25th century technology seemed no worse for wear despite their period of inactivity.

Booster was across the room in two strides and reclaimed his weapons like a man thirsty for water. Snapping them around his wrists, he suddenly felt like a member of the team again and not a fifth wheel that required protection.

"Thank Christ for that." Booster remarked. "I was getting really sick of that gun."

"Speaking of that," Donovan looked up at him. "Where did you learn to shoot?" Being on the force had made learning to handle a gun a required skill but Donovan wondered where Booster would have had occasion to learn to use a gun, not when his arsenal was so completely different.

"7  11." Booster retorted. "Where else are you supposed to learn?"

Donovan was about to respond when suddenly, Booster's head snapped to the open door and without further warning, shot out his arm and fired. The blast struck the torso of an Ani-Men wolf guard who had approached stealthily during their search. Had Booster allowed him it the opportunity to shoot, the Ani-Men would have cut them both down savagely. The creature felt backwards, its chest smoking. The gauntlets were not meant to kill but they were designed to deliver enough force to ensure that the Ani-Men would remain unconscious for the next few hours.

Booster met Donovan's surprised gaze and grinned. "I'm back."

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

I

The Calvary arrived shortly after Guy's disappearance.

Beatriz signalled her return with the sudden eruption of green fire encircling some of the warring Ani-Men groups. It coiled around them like an emerald serpent, forcing them deeper into the centre of the blazing ring of flames. Although the Ani-Men had been created from the genes of two very different animals, the basic fear of fire remained in their consciousness. Beatriz saw the group, a collection of rhino, possibly alligator or a reptilian of some description, retreating deeper away from the fire. Some of the birdmen had taken to attacking her but gave up when they discovered that she was not simply able to command fire but was could become it. Some had tried unsuccessfully to attack had passed through her and set ignited their feathers.


Her eyes searched for Guy and saw that he was gone. However, Maximus was nowhere in sight either and she assumed that he had given chase to the Ani-Men leader. Now that she thought about it, Zatanna was nowhere in sight either. Of all the Crusaders, Beatriz was most immune to the attacks. Although Vuldarians had more than just plasma weapons in their arsenal, the razorbacks below had no knowledge of that. Guy had told her once that part of his knowledge came from the genetic memories that had been imprinted into his DNA. As a full-blooded Vuldarian, he had complete access to all those memories but the Ani-Men did not. They were able to use the powers they had seen Guy used and their minds were too limited to imagine anything else more formidable.

In the centre of the Arena, Ted was flinging razorback after razorback out of the stone enclosures. The Ani-Men bodies were littered around the stands, knocked senseless by their graceless landings and the pummelling they had received at the hands of the Blue Beetle. Beatriz watched with some measure of astonishment, never having seen Ted vent the full potential of his powers. It was quite frightening actually to see him wielding such strength.

Despite the ferocity of the battle, Beatriz knew the tide of it had come in their favour. Even with the enhancements of Vuldarian genes, the razorbacks were being beaten into submission and those who were not unconscious were being trapped inside steel cages, courtesy of Firestorm. Ronnie was mopping up Ted's leavings, altering the molecular structure of the air around them into something more tangible. Although Ronnie could sometimes behave like a hot headed teenager, it was evident that he was consummate professional. He still reminded Beatriz of how Guy used to be during their League days, except Ronnie was marginally tolerable.

She turned her attention to what looked like a giant snake slithering towards Sigrid. It was almost thirteen feet in length and sidled sideways like a desert rattler. It was beyond comprehension how it was able to navigate through the rows of chairs that made up the stands. It was almost three feet thick and would easily crush Sigrid if it were fortunate enough to catch the Norwegian in its coils.

Since Sigrid was busy dealing with a number of Ani-Men wolf guards, Beatriz flew towards the reptile. It must have noticed her approach because it stopped its advance towards Sigrid and raised its massive head in her direction. Amazingly enough, despite its enormous bulk, the creature was able to sit up quite easily like a cobra. The crown surrounding its narrow head flared outwards, shuddering like one of those Australian lizards she had seen on discovery. The snake regarded her with its narrowed eyes before hissing at her, bearings its dual fangs. She saw venom gleaming in droplets at the tips of its sharp teeth. It drew its head back and then spat something at her.

Instinctively, she backed away even though she knew fluid would have little effect on her. Like everything else it would probably pass through her harmlessly. However, as the venomous liquid passed through her body, it sizzled in the heat and thick, noxious gas began rising around her. The scent of it burned her lungs and caused to cough. Even though she was a being of fire, she still required oxygen to exist. The sudden loss of it disorientated her and Beatriz felt the world swimming around her as she spiralled towards the floor.

She hit the stands hard, feeling bones snap beneath her as her form returned to flesh. Beatriz felt aches in a dozen places as she tried to stand up. Taking advantage of her momentary weakness, the snake slithered forward, making its intent all too clear by his widening jaws.

"Need a hand?" She heard a voice inquire as she was suddenly lifted off the ground. Beatriz looked up to see Booster carrying her to safety inside a bubble of his force field. Donovan flew past her and threw one focused punch into the side of the creature's head. The snake barely had time to register the attack before Donovan straddled the back of its neck and wrapped both muscled arms around its neck. The snake bucked and for a moment, Beatriz had the absurd though that he would probably do well at one of those country bars that Guy liked so much.

"What is it about women?" Booster asked mischievously. "Most of the time you are perfectly intelligent things who have no trouble facing up to anything. Put anything that crawls and slithers near by and you immediately jump on a chair and start screaming."

Beatriz glared at him with narrowed eyes and then remarked. "You mean like a wharf rat?"

Booster's smiled faded away and he frowned. "Touché."

Meanwhile, Donovan was holding fast. The snake was struggling hard, lashing its tail from side to side in a furious bid to unseat its unwanted rider. Donovan felt powerful muscles trying to force him off but that only strengthened his resolve. He could feel spittle and venom flying in all directions as the creature tried helplessly to poison him with its noxious saliva. Some drops of it did find his way onto his skin and Donovan flinched slightly as it burned into his skin. However, the effect produced no more than a sting and he was able to ignore it with a slight wince.

Plastic chairs were dislodged from the stands as the snake's massive tale smashed the seats with powerful blows. Some had been forced free of the steel rivets holding them in place and were flying through the air with the speed of deadly projectiles. Donovan hung on, starting to feel the creature's resolve weaken. The fight was starting to drain out of it and its struggles were getting weaker. Donovan had no intention of killing the beast but his taut grip on its wind pipe would ensured its submission was only a matter of time


"Ride him cowboy!" He heard Ronnie declared from the air. Donovan glanced upward long enough to see the superhero go to Sigrid's aid. With Donovan and Booster having joined the other Crusaders, the rest of the wolf guard were able to join the battle and their numbers beyond the dozens.

The snake struggled for only a few more minutes until its muscles started to slacken and Donovan could feel the exhaustion in every futile attempt to dislodge him. Eventually, the venom stopped flying, although evidence of its presence could be seen on every surface. Hissing white threads of smoke where the corrosive fluid had began eating away at anything it had landed on, began rising into the air. The creature focussed all energy into one last heave before collapsing on the ground, in utter exhaustion.

Snakes, he shuddered as he let go of the unconscious animal, had always given him nightmares. He wondered if this could be considered therapy.

**********

Except for the newly arrived wolf guards, Sigrid felt she had been handling these Ani-Men quite well. She was trying hard not harm any of them permanently. With Lovecraft's data in her possession, there was a good chance that she and her colleagues at Star Labs may be able to decipher his transformation process and reverse the effects on these Ani-Men. She knew it was imperative for Zatanna's sake that she discover the secret to returning the humanity back to these creatures. She would have preferred to have Lovecraft's input but obviously that was no longer possible since the good doctor had made his escape.

She had been moving steadily through the Ani-Men, preferring to encase them in ice rather than Beatriz's method of using fire to subdue them. Right now, the area beyond the stands of the amphitheatre looked as an ice museum with Ani-Men trapped in blocks of ice. In their frozen state, they looked more like displays than prisoners. Between Beatriz and herself, they had managed to neutralise the bulk of the Ani-Men group until the sudden arrival of the wolf guard.

Bullets ripped through the air and she had to jump behind the plastic seats to avoid being hit. Unfortunately plastic was little resistance to the projectiles and very soon, Sigrid was running again, trying to keep some distance between herself and the bullets before she was able to attack. As she saw a wall rushing towards her, Sigrid realise that her time had run out and she swung around, creating a curve of thick ice in front of her as she moved. The wall of ice formed like a wave before her with less than a second to spare as the bullets impacted against them. She saw fissures appear immediately and knew they would not hold from a sustained hail of fire. Producing a column of ice beneath her feet, she decided she would go up if she could not go forward.

When she peaked the top of the ice wall she had created to shield herself, she saw the advancing wolf guard, still bombarding the wall with ice. Sigrid sent a blast of cold towards them and froze the creatures in their tracks. Their skin iced up as a thin film of ice trapped them in place. Behind them, the rest of the guard had retreated but were not withdrawing. She saw them fan out around her as they recalculated their strategy. Sigrid looked around to see if she could spot Beatriz because she could sure use the assistance about now. However, it appeared Beatriz had trouble of her own as she was in the midst of confronting a large snake.

Great, first bugs and now snakes. Beatriz was going to be into a terrific mood when this was all over. Despite the urgency of her own situation, she tried to see if there was any way she could reach the Brazilian. Fortunately, less than a second after that thought had crept through her mind, Booster Gold and General Glory had made a timely arrival. Booster had spirited Beatriz away to safety and Donovan was dealing with the colossal reptile.

The shattering wall beneath her brought Sigrid's attention back to her own situation. The Ani-Men were closing in on her like a ring of steel. Their strategy gave her cause to think quickly. Obviously, they meant to charge her at once, knowing that she could not possibly freeze them all at once. Sigrid saw a way out of this but it required split second timing that she was not certain she was capable of producing. Spinning around on the tips of her toes, the ice formed as her body twirled. For a moment, she seemed like an ice skater in one of those Winter Wonderland revues. The bullets flew the instant she began moving and despite the speed in which the shield was forming around her, Sigrid realised with a sinking realisation that some of the bullets would reach her. She prepared herself to feel the sting of bullets.

Which never came. There was a moment of confusion when the ground seemed to disappear under her feet and she felt arms around her. Sigrid looked up and saw Ronnie was carrying her away from the torrent of bullets that was tearing her ice shield apart. Chunks and splinters were sent in all directions as bullets hit the rock hard surface. The fissures became cracks and the entire structure crumbled spectacularly.

"Thanks." She said letting out a sigh of relief.

"It was a good try." He commented glancing over his shoulder at the wall she had tried to build. "You might have made it if there wasn't so many of them."

"I owe you one." She offered him a warm smile.

"You can make it up to me with dinner." He said offering her his most charming smile, the one that made him a poster boy on so many billboards. "How about it? Dinner by candlelight and I've got a great Elton John collection for the smooching afterwards."

Sigrid's eyes flew open. Oh Dear. His timing was unique, she had to give him that. Only Ronnie Raymond could bring up a most delicate subject at the most inopportune time. "I'm flattered by the offer," she stammered wishing she was still facing the Ani-Men instead of having this particular conversation. "However, I think there's something about me you ought to know." Sigrid confessed unhappily.

"What?" He looked at her curiously.

Sigrid let out a frustrated groan before leaning over and whispering in his ears.

Ronnie stared at her in a mixture of shock, dismay and ultimately embarrassment. "You're kidding."

"I'm afraid not." She shrugged unhappily. Sigrid had been in similar situations before and the number of times did not diminish the awkwardness of the situation.

Unfortunately all Ronnie could do was shake his head with that stupefied expression on his face. "But its such a waste!" He paused a moment and then added. "I've been told that I'm worth changing for."

Sigrid rolled her eyes and slapped her hand on her forehead in resignation. "Ronnie, shut up."

II

"Where the hell have you been?" Ted shouted at Guy as he emerged from the tunnel.

"I was trying to get Maximus!" Guy retorted as he leapt out of the way of a stunned razorback flying at him. The space around Ted was littered with the unconscious bodies of Ani-Men enhanced by his Vuldarian genes. Ted had single handedly managed to take most of them on his own. Guy had to admit he was impressed.

"Where is he then?" Ted demanded, understandably annoyed. He was not a violent person by nature and these powers had shown him just what he was capable of if he set his mind to it. While he was better equipped to handle these Ani-Men than anyone in the group, with the possible exception of Guy, he did not like the scene before him. These Ani-Men were almost mindless with rage. Even though many of their comrades had fallen and were being immobilised by Booster and the others, those still standing were still coming at him, oblivious to the odds against the success of any attack.

"He's got the entire place rigged to blow." Guy retorted as he launched himself at an approaching Ani-Men and slammed a hammer shaped fist into the creature's snout. Guy felt muscle heave under his fist as the razorback squealed in protest. It retaliated however by shaping its arms into sharp blades. It made an attempt to impale him but Guy grabbed both its arms and produced a sledgehammer through the centre of his chest. It connected with the creature's jaw and sent it sprawling.

"What is to say he isn't going to do it anyway?" Ted yelled as he threw a flying kick at another razorback sending it through the air like the winning kick at the next Superbowl.

Guy managed to make his way alongside Ted. The number of razorbacks had dwindled significantly but it appeared they intended to fight to the very last man or Ani-Men in this case. Fatigue was starting to show in Ted's face even though he was trying to hide it. "You think he'd blow this joint up?" Guy asked.

"He is prone to the extreme when he feels threatened," Ted responded letting loose another discharge of electricity.

Guy joined his fire with a burst of plasma. The razorbacks were scattered and uncoordinated. Guy had started to suspect that their purpose was never to defeat the Crusaders at all more likely to delay them while Maximus made good his escape. "Damn, I knew I should have pounded him into dust."

"You did the right thing!" Ted retorted, shouting over the sound of razorbacks screaming in pain from the mild electrocution. They were jerking about like marionettes, with tendrils of blue electricity bouncing off their skins. The smell of burning flesh was becoming pronounced and Ted knew they could not take much more. Eventually, their hearts would give out unable to suffer such abuse even though it was meant to immobilise, not kill.

The group in front of them cease to become threatening. It was evident that the razorbacks would not stop despite the eminence of defeat. Programming would force them to continue until they were rendered unconscious or seriously injured. Neither Guy nor Ted had the stomach to inflict any more suffering on these creatures who were twisted into parodies neither human nor animal, through any fault of their own.

"Firestorm get over here!" Guy shouted into his signal device. Already, the razorbacks were struggling to their feet. Some had succumbed to the battle but there was still enough of those refusing to admit defeat.

"Yeah skipper?" Ronnie's cocky voice answered through the signal device.

Guy winced at the word skipper but decided taking issue with it could wait. "Get your ass over here." He said through hissed teeth.

"Sure Skipper." The young man quipped knowing perfectly well how Guy felt about being referred to in such a way.

Guy bristled once again and glared at Ted who was enjoying his chagrin immensely. "I'm going to kill whoever told him about that."

"Oh come on," Ted teased as he saw Ronnie appear overhead. "You used to love it when it was Jonn."

Guy merely scowled at him before turning his attention to Ronnie who was approaching them quickly. "Hey Junior, think you can turn the air around these guys into knockout gas?" Guy glanced at the razorbacks that were preparing to launch another attack. Guy knew what Vuldarian genes could do to the unprepared. Whether or not they were acting under Maximus' instructions, the blood rage would keep their aggressive instincts fired even if their bodies had sustained terrible injuries. Guy had once gone head to head with Superman when his instincts had gone berserk. Only an image of Tora was able to quell that rage and return him to reason. He would spare these Ani-Men that. Whatever they had done in Maximus' name, they were not responsible.

"No problem Skipper!" Ronnie grinned.


Guy turned his attention to Booster. "When he gets going, get us out of here!"

"You too?" Ted asked innocently, the infamous Blue Beetle humour never far away.

"JUST DO IT!" Guy barked.

Ted said nothing but the smirk he was wearing on his face was enough to raise Guy's ire. The Blue Beetle grabbed his arm and immediately started gaining altitude above the scene of the battle. They looked down long enough to see a cloud of smoke rising around the disorientated Ani-Men. At first none of Ani-Men could understand what was going on as the odourless gas entered their lungs. However by the time their limbs had started to buckle beneath them, it was too late to escape.

"God I hope we can help them." Guy whispered under his breath as he watched them succumb to the gas with its sedative properties.

Ted understood the sentiment all too well. Suddenly, he remembered something and his eyes darted to the rafters where he had left Zatanna. With the battle following their arrival here, he had completely forgotten that he had left alone supposedly out of danger. However, as his eyes reached the place where he had left her, he saw that it was empty.


"Where's Zee?"

************

After his last encounter with paranormals, where he had almost been transformed into in his animal form permanently, Maximus was pleased with the manner in which things had progressed this time around. With the enemy properly subdued and aware of the consequences if any attempt was made to capture him, Maximus was well on the way to making good his flight from justice. The means of his escape waited patiently for his arrival in a clearing only a few meters ahead.

Only he was aware of the secret landing field that housed a perfectly ordinary wooden shed with a helicopter hidden within for his disposal. Not even Lovecraft was aware of its existence and Maximus had kept it that way for a reason. Although, Maximus was reluctant to leave the doctor to the ministrations of the paranormals, he knew that such things had to be for the survival of the fittest. He briefly wondered what had become of the doctor but guessed Lovecraft was most likely in the hands of the Crusaders by now. Nevertheless for all their bluster, they had a code of conduct that would not allow them to harm Lovecraft. Therefore, wherever the doctor was incarcerated later, it would be an easy matter of retrieving the man.

The Bell helicopter was state of the art and did not require a proper landing pad. From the air, it appeared to be little more than a cleared patch of forest. He emerged from the thickness of jungle shrubbery into the clearing and looked behind him one last time. A billowing cloud of grey smoke rising into the skin indicated the destruction of his efforts the past few years. Maximus tried not to feel remorse. When he was inside his chopper and far away from here, he might have consider whether or not he would detonate the explosives inside the structure. Of course that was hardly feasible with Lovecraft and the bulk of his Ani-Men still inside the complex.

He looked around and saw little signs of life. He did not expect that there would be anyone around. His Ani-Men had cleared out any human settlement that remained in this remote corner of South American jungle. The complex had once belonged to Ira Quimby, an eccentric scientist who had believed in cultivating an aggression serum for military applications. Ironically, the Justice League had also put an end to that dream and Quimby was now languishing in a prison somewhere in the continental United States. The complex had been abandoned until Maximus and Leo Enterprises had bought it for virtually nothing. He mourned the lost potential the complex would never produce but knew it was just a place. Like everything else, it was easily replaceable.

"Going somewhere?" He heard a voice in front of him. Maximus had been so intent on looking over his shoulder that he had forgotten the path ahead of him.

It almost did not surprise him when he found himself face to face with her. Somehow, he knew only Zatanna would have the courage to call his bluff. She stared at him with such intense hatred in his eyes that for the first time, Maximus reconsidered his earlier actions. Zatanna was easily the most powerful member of the Crusaders and the gleam in her eyes was one he knew all to well.

Vengeance.

"I applaud your escape." Maximus remarked, his eyes darting towards the shack that seemed only a breath away. "I take it you will be handing me in to the proper authorities." He knew he could not escape her. It was pointless to try and he was not so stupid to know that he was walking upon a knife's edge. She could go either way at this point so it unwise to provoke her. There was plenty of time to escape later because undoubtedly, he would be placed in the custody of normals and they were inordinately inferior.

"That's a good plan." She said coldly. "However, I find a flaw in your logic." Zatanna's eyes narrowed.

Maximus met her gaze in surprise. "I was not aware that you were a mind reader. Obviously my dossier on you was incomplete."

Her mouth curled up to form a sardonic smile but there was little humour in her eyes. It was cold and full of hatred. There was no situation that Rex Maximus could not fight his way out of or talk for that matter. She was a hero this one and like all heroes, she was easily manipulated.

"By the way," she replied glancing at the belt around his body suit where the detonator had been. "If you're thinking of blowing up this area with your little explosives, I would rethink that strategy."


Instinctively, he glanced at his belt and saw the device gone.

"Don't bother," Zatanna retorted. "Its gone. Right now, it making its way to the bottom of a pool of quicksand about three miles north of here. Either way, it will do you no good."

"So what happens now?" Maximus looked at her impatiently. "You take me into custody?"

Zatanna almost laughed. "You think its so simple don't you?" Her eyes flared as she spoke. "You were warned about the consequences of gaining my wrath." Her octave of her voice began to rise steadily as she spoke. The fury in it was becoming very evident. What he saw in her eyes made him shudder with fear. "You almost made me into one of your creatures and you did the one thing that I swore none of your kind would ever do. You made me feel fear! So I pass my judgement on you Rex Maximus. Until the day you die, you're going to spend every minute of your life from this point on, regretting that."

Maximus started to run. Zatanna made no move to stop him. She could feel the terror exuding from his mind like a tonic that gave her the strength to continue. As Rex Maximus made a desperate bid for freedom, Zatanna watched him with a cold smile and whispered to herself.

"Your life is only begining, king of the beasts."

*********

After the fighting had concluded, Guy had left things in Ted's capable hands for a search of his own. Although Booster and Donovan had to cut short their search for Kevin Sharpe, now that the Ani-Men were more or less taken care of, Guy could now focus on finding the boy himself. He walked through the corridors of Section 22, through the floor covered with debris, unconscious wolf guards and in some places, raging fires. Throughout this entire affair, Guy had never lost sight of recovering Kevin. If not for the young student, the horrible secret of the Ani-Men army might have remained hidden and god knows how many other innocents would have transformed into monsters.

Booster had given him detailed instructions regarding which rooms they had searched so when Guy finally reached the bastion of Lovecraft's twisted genetic manipulations, he knew exactly where to go. Kevin was alive. He had to believe that or else none of this would matter. There was no victory in an outcome that would see a promising young man with a future before him, destroyed beyond recovery. It was more than even Guy's hardened demeanour could handle.

The first few rooms produced little success but Guy knew it was too soon to be to consider the search a failure. This wing of the complex had virtually dozens of rooms and not all of them had been investigated in any detail. He kept reminding himself of this fact as he moved through the place, all the while forcing the image of his vague memories of the boy when Guy had been Maximus' prisoner.

The moment he passed through a set of doors that looked no different from any other, he was overcome with the smell the acrid odour common to most zoos. The room was dark mostly because it was windowless as all others in this place and in spite of the light globes on the ceiling. Guy rectified that quickly enough and saw the lines of cages appear as light filled the room with powerful fluorescent rays.

The cages were all occupied and the creatures within were all feline. Among the inhabitants, he saw cougars and panthers, a number of lionesses and one cheetah. As he saw the cheetah in its cage, Guy found himself running toward it. The animals seemed agitated at his presence and some had taken to growling and snarling, as if noise alone could scare him away. Under the circumstances, he supposed that was all they had in their arsenal to frighten would be predators away, since being trapped in cages robbed them of any ability to protect themselves.

The cheetah was not growling however and Guy felt hope flutter in his chest. The possibility that this was Kevin was remote. Guy knew that. After all, Ted had seen a cheetah. It did not mean that the same creature could be Kevin Sharpe. However, Guy dared himself to hope as he knelt before cage. The animal regarded him with sad eyes and took a step towards the mesh. There were scars on its once flawless pelt. Guy could see the remnants of fading wounds against its magnificent coat. It was almost male.

"Kevin?" Guy spoke. His voice was almost a whisper. He had no idea if there was anything left of the young man who had been the star of his track team and for whom Guy felt responsible.

Dark eyes met his and a slight purr escaped the animal's throat. There was almost sorrow in its soft cry and Guy clamped his eyes shut knowing without doubt that this was Kevin. Guy slipped fingers through the mesh and was rewarded with the cheetah nuzzling up against his skin instead of losing them altogether. If there had been any shred of doubt in his mind, they disappeared with that one action. Kevin was communicating in the only manner left to him.

Guy took a deep breath, trying to keep the emotion from making him completely useless to the boy. "Its okay kid," Guy tried to smile. "Its going to be okay now."

*********

The Ani-Men threat was over.

When Zatanna returned to her friends, all there was really left to do was the mopping up process. The gas that Ronnie had produced with his power of atomic manipulation had put and end to the Ani-Men enhanced with Vuldarian genes. She arrived in the amphitheatre to see Sigrid tending to the wounds incurred by all the Crusaders, including herself. Guy was missing but she suspected it was mostly due to his concern for Kevin Sharpe. No doubt, he was searching for the boy at this moment.

Zatanna was exhausted.

She had the used the last of her strength to deal with Maximus and knew she would require rest for the next few days. Normally her usage of power over the last hours would scarcely require such recuperation but she was not herself. Lovecraft's procedure that tested her body in ways she had not known possible. Even now, it was difficult to maintain the glamour that was hiding the illusion of her unblemished humanity from the others.

"Zee!" Ted rose to his feet. He had been resting on the seats surrounding the arena when she transported into the amphitheatre and sent him running in her direction. Even as he approached, she could see the fatigue in his face and reminded herself to remember that he too, had been through much the past few days. His needs had to be tended to as well. The bandage around his injured leg was stained with blood from reopened wounds. He needed to rest more than any of them.

They met in a warm hug Zatanna was pleased to savour and the few stolen second engaged in his embrace, did much for her spirit.

"Where were you?" He asked quietly.

"I had business to take care of." She answered enigmatically but they all knew what that meant.

"Maximus?" Booster asked before Ted could reply.

"Yes." She nodded. "Maximus."

"Where is he?" Ronnie inquired cautiously. The Zatanna he knew was no killer and he hoped Maximus' actions had not turned her into one. "You didn't…." He could not even bring himself to say it.


"No." She shook her head. "I did not kill him, although I wanted to." She confessed looking at Ted's face as she answered because his belief in her was important at this moment. What she had done to Maximus was no better than death and in the days to come, she would wrestle frequently over her actions this day. Ted's eyes indicated that he did believe her although he still wanted answers.

"Zee," Donovan spoke up. "Sigrid managed to get all of Lovecraft's data, I'm sure she and those guys at Star Labs can return you to normal."

Sigrid shrugged at the vote of confidence because she did not feel she deserve so much faith in her. Her scientific skills had been getting a workout lately and although she knew she was good at what she did, it was often that others recognised it. "Let's just review the data first." She remarked, not wanting to disappoint Zatanna if she failed.

"You can do it." Beatriz grinned, having none of that modesty from Sigrid when it was so richly deserve. "You helped Guy, didn't you?"

"I have faith in you." Zatanna smiled at the younger woman and sensed the emotion welling up within Sigrid at having so much support from friends like this. It was not so long ago that she had lived a life completely alone.

"Thank you Zee," she swallowed hard. Like the former Ice Maiden, Sigrid was no good at keeping her emotions under check when she was genuinely touched. She was almost glad when Guy made his appearance because it took the attention away from her while she composed herself.

"I found him." Guy announced. There was a collective sigh of relief throughout the group but Guy's was noticeably absent. "You were right Ted," he met Ted's gaze. "It was Kevin in the arena."

"Is he still alive?" Ted asked, wondering otherwise by the look on Guy's face.

"Yeah he's alive," Guy nodded. "But if he ever becomes human again, I don't know how grateful he'll be."

"What do you mean?" Beatriz asked, recognising the pain in her lover's eyes and immediately captured a premonition of some terrible news he had yet to impart.


"His leg is wrecked. There's a lot of muscle damage. It probably happened when he was fighting in the arena." Guy admitted reluctantly. "He'll never run the way he used to, not again."

"That bastard." Donovan found himself swearing viciously, knowing what that would mean to kid like Kevin who came from the slums, who would only ever have once chance of escaping it. Now that chance was gone forever, thanks to Maximus. "I hope they lock him forever!" They all knew to whom he was referring.

"If it makes you feel any better," Zatanna said with an expression of darkness in her face. "I guarantee it he'll be begging to die for every day of his life."

Judging by the look in her eyes as those words escaped her lips, none of the Crusaders doubted it.

EPILOGUE

I

"You might have told me." Ronnie grumbled as he and Donovan rode the lift towards Booster's penthouse apartment weeks after the Ani-Men threat had ended.

Donovan was laughing so hard he could barely answer. He supposed he should not be so merciless at his friend's expense but the opportunity was too rich. Ronnie bristled visibly as Donovan made some half hearted attempt to stifle his guffaws.

"Will you cut it out already?" Ronnie glared at him.

"I'm sorry," Donovan straightened up and cleared is throat. "I supposed, I should have told you that Sigrid was gay but you never asked."

"I still can't believe it." Ronnie said bewildered. "How does a beautiful woman like that go down that road? I mean, it's almost sacrilegious."

Ronnie's reaction to Sigrid's admission made the whole situation all the more amusing. Donovan knew he should not be laughing but Ronnie Raymond went through life believing that his looks were meant for making womanising so much easier. It supposed it must have been bruising to the ego to believe that there were just some women on whom his charm failed.

"To each his own." Donovan said as he managed to regain his composure. "She told me about it the first time we went to dinner."

Ronnie turned to him quickly. "You mean you asked her out on a date too?"

"No, it was nothing like that." Donovan replied. "Sigrid and I are just friends. I like it that way. We go out to the movies and dinner sometimes. There's nothing romantic about it. Its just she doesn't know that many people in New York and me…." He paused as he inadvertently came upon a subject he did not like discussing ordinarily. However, he and Ronnie had developed a deeper understanding of each other since their talk at his apartment. Further more, it would not be premature to say they were becoming close friends in light of their tragic backgrounds.

He met Ronnie's gaze. "My friends don't know how to treat me now that I'm in a wheel chair. I have to admit they tried fitting me into the group after the shooting but it just didn't feel right and since I can't tell them I'm General Glory, its best to just keep away."

"That's rough." Ronnie responded understanding completely how that felt. When he had discovered his body was riddled with cancer, most of his friends had similarly dissolved. Ronnie understand that their behaviour was due to their own inadequacies on how he should be regarded because they feared offending him.

"Besides, being with Sigrid is easier than actually dealing with a relationship." Donovan admitted.

"How so?" Ronnie looked at him curiously.

"Let's face it." He sighed depreciatingly. "I'm not that much of a catch am I? Who would want a guy in a wheel chair?"

"Now its you whose being shallow." Ronnie stated firmly. "You shouldn't underestimate women that way. You'd be surprised how many women value an honest relationship over demi-gods like myself who think monogamy is a bad word. Believe me, I ought to know."

Donovan rolled his eyes in sarcasm but understood that Ronnie was probably right. At the moment, he had difficulty believing it was right to inflict his erratic lifestyle on any woman. Especially one he cared for deeply. General Glory was his body while he still wished to make a difference in this world; it was not his to use for his own selfish ends. He knew that stance was over simplifying matters but at this time, it was how he felt. "Anyway," he said getting back to the issue at hand. "Sigrid and I have a good friendship where there's not pressure of it leading to anything more intimate."

Ronnie let out a frustrated sigh. "I still think it's a hell of a waste."

*********

Despite the damage down to the Ani-Men complex, there was still enough of Section 22 intact for Sigrid and a number of her Star Labs companions to descend upon it with a mission. More than a dozen minds that were experts in the field of molecular biology and genetic biochemistry, were presented with the problem at hand. The scientists took Lovecraft's data apart in order to understand the scientific theory that had allowed him to perform his genetic experiments in Ani-Men evolution.

Although the task had seemed daunting at first, Sigrid refused to give up because it was imperative that a solution be found. Lovecraft's equipment was still functioning and if they could decipher the data before them, she had been confident they would find their answer. It had taken several days and nights of burning the proverbial midnight oil as learned minds studied the information like a scourge from god.

When it seemed as if success was a remote possibility, Sigrid had found the answer but learnt quickly that it was not a complete victory. In the end, Lovecraft had managed to defeat them even if it was a minor triumph. Recovery for Zatanna and Kevin was within the realms of possibility. However, for those who had been in their mutated forms for an extended period of time, the process was irreversible. To attempt such a thing would have ensured severe cellular damage and neither Sigrid nor her colleagues were willing to take the risk.

The Central American government on which the complex resided had no choice but to take matters in their own hands. Allowing the Star Lab contingent to restore the Ani-Men that could be saved, the government turned their attention to those who could. The Crusaders were forced to watch helplessly as trucks and containment vehicles loaded with the mutant captives disappear into uncertain territory. Later on, the super group discovered through Oracle's vast network of information that the specimens had been given a humane death. Sigrid could not understand how any death could be considered human but neither Star Labs nor the Crusaders were in any position to do anything. The Ani-Men complex was outside US territory and that also took their welfare out of American jurisdiction. All that was left for them to do was lodge an official protest that was all but ignored.


"So is there any word on Lovecraft?" Beatriz asked.

It was the first time the group had been together on a social occasion since their departure from Central America following the conclusion of the Ani-Men incident. Zatanna had been discharged from the ministrations of Star Labs a few days ago and had been recuperating at Booster's penthouse for the time being until she was ready to return home to New England. Although many of them had felt their accomplishments in Central America had been a hollow victory, a small celebration was still in order, if just to boost everyone's morale. It was even better when they had the presence of an unexpected guest.

"None that Oracle has been able to find." Jonn Jonzz replied. "She's been using League resources to the fullest. Wherever the man is, he must have fallen off the face of the planet."

"We'll keep an eye out for sure." Guy declared firmly. "Scum like that usually rises to the surface after a while." He reached for a slice of pizza on the nearby coffee table and took a bite before turning his attention to Ted. "By the way, thanks for the scholarship."

Ted, who was sitting on the floor against the sofa where Zatanna was lying down, shifted uncomfortably at the remark. Although Kevin Sharp's chances of getting to college with a track scholarship had been destroyed thanks to the Ani-Men, Ted had come to the rescue by means of Lightspeed. The company had donated a number of scholarships to Guy's high school, with the provision that one of those boons go to Kevin Sharpe. Ted hated the idea of letting Maximus get his way, even in this. "Its tax deductible." He replied.

"Like hell it is." Booster countered good-naturedly. "Basically Ted went to our accountants and ordered them to get it done or else."

"Thanks a lot buddy." Ted scowled at him

"My pleasure," Booster grinned. "He's just a big softy."

"Well, I appreciate it." Guy replied honestly. "Learn to take a compliment, will ya?"

Ted tried not to seem embarrassed but he was. He handled very few things well without the benefit of humour to bolster his confidence. What he had done was nothing extraordinary and after what he and Donovan had seen of that neighbourhood, he believed those kids needed all the breaks they could get.

"So how are you feeling Zatanna?" Sigrid asked, moving the subject away from Ted because she could tell he was uncomfortable with all the attention. After being showered by similar praises all week herself, she could understand his discomfiture all too well. She wished her friends would understand that restoring Zatanna and the others was not a solo effort on her part. She had the assistance of Star Labs best minds to help her understand Lovecraft's transformation procedure. She did not want to take credit for everything when it was by no means a solo performance.

"I'm alright." Zatanna said shifting in the sofa to a more upright position. She still felt sore after the treatment she had been enduring the past weeks but felt better just knowing she was back to normal. Her scrambled DNA had been purged of the Ani-Men contaminants and just being able to look in the mirror to see her own face without the benefit of any glamour was gratifying. "I'm taking my pills and Ted's making sure I'm not exerting myself any more than necessary." She responded dutifully, offering Ted a tender smile as she spoke.

"Good," Sigrid replied, pleased by the woman's progress. "I'll expect to see you on Saturday before you head back to New England."

"Will do." Zatanna saluted her obediently.

In the meantime, Jonn and Guy had slipped away from the main group for a private exchange. Although Guy had nothing to hide from his comrades, he did wish to speak to Jonn privately. It was hard being around the Martian without reverting to some old habits. To all of them in the room, Jonn would always be a picture of authority. During their League years, Jonn had been friend, adviser, sometimes parent and disciplinarian to almost everyone in the room. It was hard to forget all that history just because they were no longer teammates.

"Jonn I want to thank you." Guy said quietly.

The Martian who was probably reading his intent directly from Guy's unguarded mind did not seem surprised to hear his gratitude. "Thanks are not needed, Guy." Jonn spoke into that often infuriatingly calm voice. "The Crusaders are your team, not mine."

"I know." Guy nodded. "But I still want to thank you anyway. I know you wanted to help us with the Ani-Men but I also know you held back for a reason."

Jonn let out a heavy sigh. "You didn't need my help Guy. Things have changed for you, for the better definitely. There's not a person out there who doesn't feel that you earned their respect. I'm proud of you."

There was a time not too long ago, when those words would have been meaningless to Guy Gardner. He knew during his days in the League, he was barely tolerated by the majority of its members. Jonn included. Guy could hardly blame them for that opinion, considering he was boorish, almost psychotic and down right arrogant beyond belief. Guy knew he had gone a long way to changing those opinions about him in recent times. Still, hearing it from Jonn gave him a sense of accomplishment that was all too infrequent in his life.

"Thanks Jonn," Guy said trying not to show that the Martian's words had affected him deeply. There were still some things about the Guy Gardner image he wanted to maintain. He took a deep breath to shrug off the moment before replying. "Come on Skipper, we'll break out the Oreos."

"And then again, I might have spoken too hastily." Jonn retorted.

"Its too late now." Guy grinned.

"Hey is this a party or what?" They heard Ronnie's voice announcing loudly as he and Donovan made their arrival.

Guy glanced at Jonn with a knowing smile. "Come on Jonn," he nudged the tall Martian in the ribs as someone turned up the music and belted out Cher's latest throughout the room. "Admit it, you missed us." The Vuldarian grinned at him, full of mischief.

Jonn did not answer and rolled his eyes in resignation. "That's one way to put it."

*********

He could not see but he could hear the movement in the darkness.

Somewhere nearby, he could hear the repetitious plinking of water droplets on stone. He could not crane his neck to see which direction the sound was coming from. He hung suspended in the filament, unable to move, unable to run. All he was allowed to do was scream but it seemed no one could hear him.

Lovecraft tried to remember how much time had slipped past since he began his imprisonment in this shadowy dungeon. He remembered Titus taking him to safety when it seemed capture by the paranormals was eminent. Titus had been one of Maximus' most loyal subjects and the doctor naturally assumed that Titus would deliver him to the Ani-Men leader. However, Titus had not brought him to Maximus and as the giant spider creature carried him away from the complex, Lovecraft was almost grateful. He had not relished falling into the hands of the authorities he was certain, would not understand the nature of his work.

However, Titus had not released him and despite Lovecraft's pleas, the Ani-Men continued through the rainforest, journeying continuously for the next two days through harsh, unyielding terrain. He had screamed at Titus to let him go until his vocal cords felt like knotted pieces of leather and still Titus continued travelling. At some point, Lovecraft had finally succumb to exhaustion and allowed himself to sleep in Titus' unfailing grip.

The journey came to an end in a cave far beneath the earth. Although Lovecraft had not been awake during the descent below ground, he knew they were nevertheless deep beneath the surface. He heard no sounds of life in this place. Not even insects would dare venture into this domain. Even if Titus was no ordinary spider, the other insects recognised him for what he was and wisely kept their distance. Lovecraft could not understand what reason motivated Titus to squirrel him in such a dismal place and more importantly, where was Maximus?

Lovecraft knew with complete certainty that Maximus was too smart to allow himself to be captured by the paranormals. However, if Maximus was free, then why had he not come to deliver his faithful servant? Without Lovecraft, Maximus had no Ani-Men. Only he understood the work and only he was capable of creating a new army for Maximus' grandiose plans. However, as the days passed there were no signs of Maximus and no indication that Titus intended to let him escape. The Ani-Men had him bounded to the uneven walls of the cave with the thick residue normally reserved by arachnids for the production of their elaborate webs. Although Titus was much too large to undertake such a construct, the resin kept Lovecraft trapped as any fly snared by a web.

For a brief period of time, Lovecraft actually entertained the notion that Titus may actually intend to use him as food. Despite the subservience all Ani-Men were naturally programmed to possess, that obedience was only to Maximus. Lovecraft never believed it would be necessary to program such safeguards. Nevertheless, for days, he wrested with the fear that sooner or later Titus would see him as a source of nourishment, instead of a remnant of a past existence.

However, that opinion soon disappeared as Titus began bringing him offerings of food. Lovecraft assumed they were still in the rain forest because the food consisted mainly of fruits, berries and an assortment of nuts. Whatever purpose Titus had in mind for him, Lovecraft was relieved to know that Titus intended to keep him alive. Occasionally, Lovecraft would draw conversation from the gigantic arachnid. The more isolated Titus had become, the further his linguistic skills seem to deteriorate. Eventually, Lovecraft could get nothing from him except a loosely strung series of words that could be considered a sentence if one listened closely enough.

When he did speak, it was difficult to understand Titus. Lovecraft understood enough to know that it was the future that mostly preoccupied Titus' thoughts now that he was no longer apart of the Ani-Men hierarchy. He sometimes made reference to being a host but the manner in which he expressed himself was getting harder to understand with each passing day. The scientist in Lovecraft came to the conclusion that the further away the Ani-Men was disassociated from normal human behaviour, the faster they descended into the animal alternative. Lovecraft wondered how long it would be before Titus forgot that his prisoner was no longer a guest but food.

One day, the Ani-Men had remained in its cave for most of the day. Usually, Titus would go foraging for Lovecraft's food, but on this particular day, he had not left the confines of the dark enclosure. Still pined to the wall in the web like substance that Titus was diligent enough to reinforce daily, Lovecraft watched helplessly as the creature heaved and groaned laboriously. Titus survival was his survival and Lovecraft had feared the worst. However, the incident had come and gone with Titus returning to normal and falling back into familiar patents the following day.

Today however, Lovecraft heard something new in the usual silence of his prison. He could not identify the sound but it almost sounded like tearing. He could not even imagine what there was in this dismal place to tear but Lovecraft was certain of what he had heard. Something was moving inside his dungeon and it was not him.

Suddenly, he saw them. Small and nimble, they ran across the stone floor, their exoskeleton frames tapping lightly against the ground as they moved. There were so many of them he could barely count where one creature began and another ended. With stark horror, Lovecraft suddenly recalled what kind arachnid DNA he had used to transform Titus into an Ani-Men. He remembered that the particular species was capable of asexual reproduction and it now dawned on him that Titus was subject to such characteristics.

"I'm sorry it has to end this way doctor." Titus' voice suddenly filled the cave.

Lovecraft could not see the Ani-Men for Titus was speaking from the entrance way of his birthing chamber. There was still enough humanity left in Titus for him to mourn what was to come. However, not enough for it to be of any use to Doctor Lovecraft.

"Titus!" Lovecraft started to panic as he saw the stunted horde of spiders quickly advancing towards him. "What is this?"

"The Master always told us that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Titus continued, his raspy voice seemed inordinately sad. "I have enjoyed your companionship Doctor, but I must yield to the needs of my children."

"Needs?" Lovecraft stammered as he saw the first of tiny arachnids climbing up his toes. The swarm of spiders leapt unto him from the ground, driven by hidden purpose that the good doctor was only now starting to comprehend. Realisation brought to surface blinding panic as he struggled desperately to escape the webbing that had kept him trapped, awaiting a grisly fate. "What needs?" He shouted as the spiders began to swarm. Their dark bodies moving so fast and so many that Lovecraft could see nothing else. As he began to scream helplessly, he heard Titus' final answer.

"My children must feed."

********

In this business, it paid to have connections.

There was no way a man could call himself a legitimate theatrical agent without having at least some contacts at his disposal. It was because of these connections that Jeff Sloane was called on to do a small favour for one his prized clients and closest friends.

Although there was no reason to be here, Jeff Sloane found he could not keep away. He supposed a sense of longing had brought him to this dilapidated old circus. The establishment was well past its prime and been so for many years now. In this cynical day and age, dancing clowns, acrobats and performing animals were no match to compete in any fashion with Nintendo games and Spice Girls. In its more glamorous past, all the greats had played here at one point or another. Houdini had once been a headliner of the Davis Circus, not to mention a young lady magician by the name of Zatanna Zatara who was just beginning to perfect her craft. In those days, the air was always filled with the sounds of happy children and the smell of buttered popcorn and colourful cotton candy lifted the spirits the way nothing else could.

At present, Zee had confessed no desire to return to the entertainment industry, despite her continuing popularity. Jeff had lost count of how many times he was forced to turn down requests by dozens of venues for a comeback performance. Unfortunately, Zatanna had moved beyond the need to perform parlour tricks for a paying audience. She was not only a major player in the superhero community but the woman had also taken control of her personal life in way she had never been able to do before. Although it was not in his habit to keep abreast of such things, the New York gossip columns and superhero tabloids had been diligently reporting the ongoing romance she was having with Ted Kord. Not only was the new man in her life the CEO of up and coming Lightspeed Entertainment but was also known as the Blue Beetle. Personally, Jeff felt she could do better but felt it was not his place to say. No matter how much history there was between them, Zee would not take the intrusion kindly.

"Jeff Sloane!" Al Davis exclaimed as he saw Jeff walking through the less than crowded paths meandering through the circus stands. It was easy to identify one man when the crowds were less than prolific these days.

"Hey Al," Jeff grinned, genuinely pleased to see the owner of the Davis Circus. "How's it going?"

"Not so good." Al said honestly, gesturing to thinning crowds throughout the place. "But we're hanging on."

"I'm glad." Jeff replied truthfully. Despite the drop in business, there was something about a circus that still warmed his insides. He was reminded of his youth where he and Tommy Cutter would sneak in through the fence to see the lions of the circus travelling through their town in small town USA. It was one of the reasons why Jeff had always tried to secure as many decent acts as he could for the Davis Circus. These days, circus acts were far and few but he still tried to the best he could for Al. Despite the years of questionable prosperity, Al still looked the same. He was a distinguished looking man, who cut a fine image wearing his red ringmaster's suit against his ebony coloured skin. Even though his dark curly hair had become snow white, Al still appeared as imposing.

"By the way," Al replied. "Thanks for the package. With these environmental people the way they are, circus animals are hard to come by."

"Don't thank me," Jeff confessed. "Thank Zee. It was her gift."

"How is that little girl these days?" Al asked remembering the young girl fondly.

It was easy to forget that Al Davis had been in the business when Zatara the magician was still doing the circuit across the country. Al had known Zatanna since she was a little girl, tagging along behind the great Zatara. In those days, she was Zatara's assistant, practising his famous tricks in secret and hoping, someday, she would be just as good. Jeff wondered what it was like to have known her then before the world had passed through her eyes.

"She great." He answered although he had not seen her face to face for some months now. "Can I see him?" It was still an hour before the curtains went up in the big top. Jeff knew Al was the person to ask not simply because the older man was the ringmaster but also because he was the owner of the circus.

"I don't see why not." He led Jeff towards the tents behind the big top.

"How is he doing anyway?" Jeff inquired as they moved through the sawdust streets and a group of children all sufficiently armed with candy and peanuts. Judging by their excitement, it was the elephants for them. In the distance, Jeff could see Jenny Layton guiding the circus' performing elephant (named Leela) around a patch of green, with a child riding on its back. He made a mental note to call on Jenny later.

"He was a feisty animal I'll tell ya," Al admitted as they passed through the tent flap that led to their destination. "Kit's not one to use the whip but he didn't have much of a choice with him. I swear, I don't know who had a worse time of it."

As a rule, circus performers using animals did not like using physical force during training but Jeff knew history behind this particular animal so he did not pass judgement on the practice. Thus, he said nothing as they reached the large cage inside the tent. The acrid smell of soiled hay greeted his nose as he entered the enclosed space. Animal sounds could be heard from within.


"There he is." Al regarded the creature glaring at them through the bars. The lion paced up and down the narrow length of cage that made up his enclosure, its tail swinging lethargically from side to side. Its eyes hardly left them as he moved across the hay floor, bearing teeth that glistened with saliva.

"So it is." Jeff smiled, staring into the creatures' eyes, wondering if it knew what he had been once or if Zatanna had been callous enough to let it keep those memories. Somehow, Jeff knew instinctively that she had. The malevolence he saw in the creature's eyes did not seem at all animalistic but human in its intensity. "You kept the name." He turned to Al, deciding he did not want keep the creature's gaze any longer. Looking at it, made him uncomfortable.

"Yeah," the older man nodded. "I followed your instructions, just the way Zee wanted it."

"Good," Jeff replied with approval. His eyes moved to the wooden plaque hanging from the top of the cage with its stencilled lettering.

REX MAXIMUS

KING OF THE BEASTS

He had one more thing to do for Zatanna. During their conversation earlier that afternoon, she had made him promise even though Jeff had found it strange until she explained the truth behind her gift to Al Davis' collection of performing animals. Jeff stared at the creature for a moment and then took a deep breath. The creature's eyes unsettled him. Leaning closer towards the cage, he was far enough to avoid injury should the lion decide to react and close enough to be heard. As he stepped forward, it seemed as if the animal knew that Jeff was about to speak.

"Zatanna has a message for you Maximus." Jeff said softly. "For the rest of your life."

THE END

 
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