Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

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

by Linda Thackeray

CHAPTER EIGHT

I

Following what Sigrid had learnt from the DNA sample and Booster's account of his encounter with the creatures over Miller Park, Ted decided to convene an emergency meeting of the Crusaders. Suddenly, the search for Guy had taken an unexpected turn. Although Ted did not voice it, a race against time had slid into motion. It was no longer a matter of simply finding Guy alive. It was about finding him human.

Instead of holding the meeting at Warriors, it seemed more expedient to hold the gathering at Booster's penthouse since most of the Crusaders were already present. Donovan Wallace who lived in the same area as most of Guy's students, was the last to arrive. As he entered the luxurious apartment through the balcony windows, with its panoramic view of New York City, he immediately noticed the tension in the air. It had taken a matter of minutes to fly across town in but somehow it did not feel soon enough. The rest of his colleagues seemed unusually grim and Booster appeared injured and was being tended to by Sigrid.

"What's happened?" Donovan asked immediately, forgoing the pleasantries.

"Take a seat," Ted gestured to an unoccupied lounge chair. "We'll get started." He replied quietly. More than ever, Ted wished Guy was here. Although he had been giving the orders during the last few days, Ted Kord was never comfortable with leadership. Such things came naturally to Guy who was super confident in most situations. Ted was comfortable with what he knew and it was now clear that the investigative part of this search was no more. Strategy was now required to map out their next moves and that was Guy's department.


Maybe they did need Batman.

In any case, he did not have time to argue the point right now. The faces staring at him needed reassurance. Beatriz in particular was having great difficulty maintaining her calm. Her fear for Guy was overwhelming her ability to function. Losing Tora had almost unhinged her and Ted dreaded to see what would result if they learnt they same about Guy. She sat on the sofa with her arms crossed, biting nervously on her lip and her eyes met no one. Zatanna was similarly distressed but for different reasons. Ted sensed she knew something about the Arena but when he questioned her, she was as elusive as ever. Not until the others were here, she had replied.

"Most of you know that Beatriz, Zatanna, Booster and I went to the Arena tonight." Ted began. "As expected it was a private gambling operation. As Booster said, Vegas on the waterfront."

"Only thing missing was Robert Goulet." Booster remarked, flinching as Sigrid cleaned the bloody wound he had acquired during his battle with the bird creatures. She was wiping away the blood oozing from the laceration with some alcohol that was stinging the hell out of him. "That hurts." He complained.

"It must have been hell." Sigrid mumbled, ignoring his whining. "First those cheapskates couldn't afford Wayne Newton and now I'm killing you with treatment."


"Hey, you muscling in our act?" Ted retorted and offered Booster a glance to desist in the comedy until after the briefing. Although he appreciated Booster and Sigrid's attempt to lighten the mood, it seemed in appropriate at the moment. "There was also a fight between a cheetah and sabre tooth tiger."

"You're joking." Donovan exclaimed.

"I wish I was." Ted sighed. "This was an honest to god sabre tooth and both cats had to fight to the death."

"That's barbaric." Sigrid declared, looking up from Booster's injury.

"I agree." Ted nodded. "Unfortunately, to find Guy, we had to let the fight continue but there was something about their behaviour that was strange. I mean I've seen trained animals but nothing like this. It was like they knew what was expected of them and how they were meant to behave. The guy who was hosting the show, was in the cage with them and neither made a move towards him."

Ted went onto reiterate the events during the evening, including in the debriefing, Booster's encounter with the bird creatures over Miller Park and the results of the DNA test by Sigrid. No one spoke after the discovery that the creatures fighting in the Arena might have been human.

"That makes sense." Booster admitted. "Those things I saw were definitely ornithoid but they had human features. Although their instincts didn't seem calculated like the animals at the arena."

"I may have some answers." Zatanna spoke up finally. She had not wanted to speak of this until she was sure of her facts but it appeared now that speculation had become academic. She offered Ted a look of apology, hoping he understood why she had not spoken earlier. The incident had been one of the worst cases during her League career and she had tried hard to forget the horror what she had seen. To this day, she had never been able to shake the feeling that they had left things undone all those years ago.

Now she knew for certain that they had.

"We're dealing with an old League foe." She said finally.

"How do you know that?" Beatriz demanded rising to her feet. "We've come across no one to be able to make that determination."

Zatanna could sense her mood was fiery. However, Zatanna could not say any thing to make this any easier, on them or her. "Hear me out," she looked at the Brazilian. "Please."

Beatriz said nothing further and returned to her seat. Zatanna scolded herself at not having spoken earlier. Perhaps something could have been achieved out of her knowledge. However, she had not been sure until she reached the arena. After all, it was so long ago and the enemy had not be sighted or heard of in all that time. There was every reason to assume he was dead.

"I was only a League rookie when we came across this case." Zatanna began. "There was series of hi - tech robberies taking place all over the country. Metropolis, Central City, New York, you name it. It brought the attention of all the major players, Superman, Wonder Woman and even the Flash, not Wally but Barry Allen, the original. These half human-half animal creatures were carrying out the crimes. Superman got taken out by a human-whale creature that was the size of the actual animal, may be even larger. This was genetic manipulation on a scale we've never seen before." She replied.

"But that's impossible." Sigrid spoke up. "You can't merge the cells of two different species together. That kind of splicing is theoretical at best."

"Hello," Booster looked at her. "Our fearless leader, wherever he is, is case in point. His human and Vuldarian. I think it is safe to assume that it can be done even if you science guys had worked it out yet."

Sigrid looked at him with narrowed eyes. "I think you need some iodine on this."

"You just stay away from me with that stuff." Booster pulled away from her touch as she reached for the bottle of purple fluid that promised nothing but pain.

"Some superhero." Ted retorted and then gestured for silence to allow Zatanna the chance to continue.

"Thanks," Zatanna replied, still amazed by their ability to joke at the worst of times. "It was Firestorm that brought Reena to us." Zatanna still remembered Reena and wondered whatever became of that poor woman. "Reena was also a mutation, half cat, half human. She told us the whole story about how a company called Repli-Tech was going to be liquidated and its senior heads decided to save the company by conducting a series of burglaries to re-finance them. Repli-Tech was on the verge of fantastic discovery. I think you can guess what. The theory was, they would undergo the procedure, get enough money to save the company and at a later date, be returned to human form."

"A perfect getaway." Donovan remarked.

"Exactly," Zatanna agreed. "However, things did not work out that way."

"Why am I not surprised." Ted mused softly. "So what happened?"

"Once they were altered, most of them liked the new power and the abilities. They liked it so much that they felt that they were the pioneers of a New World order. The group began enlisting others, creating more and more of these, Ani-Men, if you like, until they had a small army. In addition to using burglary to finance their operation, they resorted to kidnapping humans and making them fight in an arena for a lot rich people to watch. The fights were usually to the death so you can imagine which group was the bulk of the casualties."

"Oh my god." Booster whispered, no trace of humour in his voice now. He remembered the carnage they had witnessed earlier that night and imagined how terrible a death that must have been to a defenceless human being.

"I was sent in to infiltrate the group." Zatanna continued. "I impersonated Reena to get to the leaders and the League went in, with Superman and Wonder Woman in assistance. We discovered they were based on an island off the Florida Keys. We destroyed the facility and discovered that the transformation process was flawed. The Ani-Men had believed that procedure was meant to create a hybrid of two species but they were wrong. The mutation was ongoing and that meant it would not stop until the original animal was turned into one or the other."

"So if the original species was human, they would turned into the creatures who DNA they were trying to emulate?" Sigrid inquired, trying to wrap her mind around the science of such a process.

"Exactly." Zatanna nodded grimly. "By the time we were involved, they had reached the tertiary stage of metamorphosis. During our battle with them, they began transforming completely into the animal half of the hybridisation."

"And Reena?" Booster asked. "What happened to her?"

"Reena disappeared." Zatanna said sadly. She had often consoled herself that Reena had returned to the wild and lived still. Except the part of Zatanna that saw the world beyond the mirror reflection of its existence, did not sense Reena's life force. Deep inside, Zatanna knew even if she did not like to admit it, Reena was dead and the other, the one who was so filled with power and hate, she sensed he was alive. "We saw some paw prints disappearing into the shore of the island but we found no sign of them, nor did we ever find the scientist responsible for the procedure. Lovecraft was his name."

"So it is very possible that the leaders may have escaped." Donovan declared.

"For weeks after that, we searched the island but all we ever found were what was left of the Ani-Men after the reversal. With Lovecraft gone, there was no way to change them back to their human form. We felt that it was best to leave them where they were. It's bad enough being a human trapped in an animal body but to locked in a zoo as well? We thought we were being merciful."

"Was Reena ever found?" Ted inquired. "I don't mean as herself but as an animal?"

"No," she shook her head. "Reena's genes were crossed with an ordinary domestic feline. If she had changed she would be a cat and we never found one." She paused a moment to remember Firestorm's face when they had found nothing. Reena had approached the young man first and they had formed a close friendship during the brief time of their acquaintance. "Firestorm was particularly sad about that. He and Reena were close."

"Ronnie?" Ted looked at her. Next to Booster, Ronald Raymond, aka Firestorm was one of his best friends. They had met during their tenure in Extreme Justice and had become close comrades during the group's short-lived existence. Ronnie had always seemed a little flighty and much too arrogant to display such depth. "Ronnie knew her?" He looked at Booster in surprise.

"Yes," Zatanna nodded, unaware that he and Firestorm were so close but then she and Ted had only been seeing each other for a month. "It was Firestorm that Reena first approached about getting help from the League."

"May be we should get him in on this." Booster suggested ."If these guys could take down Superman, then we'll need the extra power."

"What are we going to do about Guy?" Beatriz suddenly spoke up for the first time.

Ted gathered she would at some point. Considering what Zatanna had just told them about their enemy, the possibility that Guy might have been used a guinea pig for the mutation procedure was more than likely. If he were attempting to creature a superior animal, then Guy Gardner would have been the perfect candidate. Despite the alarm this would raise, Ted decided she had a right to know his suspicions.

"Sigrid," Ted turned to the Nordic woman, side stepping Beatriz's question for the moment. "You've had a chance to examine the Vuldarian gene haven't you?" He asked.

"Yes," Sigrid nodded. "Apparently, Guy's genes tend to surprise him with new abilities now and then. A few months ago, he was attacked by Major Force who injured him very severely."

"Major Force put a hole through him." Beatriz retorted. "What this about Ted?" She demanded impatiently.

"In a minute Bea," Ted replied. "So what happened?"


"His organs have the ability to spontaneously regenerate in the even of massive damage. Guy wanted to know what else he was capable of so he came in for some tests." Sigrid answered. "Why?"

"How accessible is it to mutation?" Ted asked softly, waiting for the outburst to come.

"Do you think they turned Guy into one of these animals!" Beatriz almost shouted. "How is that possible, he is Vuldarian!" She was almost hysterical at the possibility.

"Bea," Zatanna said to her after crossing the floor in a second. "You must calm down. If this is what's happened to Guy, you need to be strong for him. You're no good to us the way you are! The Ani-Men were in their hybrid forms for months before they reverted. If we find Guy soon, we have a chance to help him." Zatanna's voice had a measure of calm that most of the Crusaders found hard to ignore. She had more experience than most of them put together and there was a serenity about her that inspired others the same way. "The enemy who has him is dangerous and we must proceed carefully. Guy's life is at stake."

Beatriz took a deep breath and nodded, knowing in her heart that Zatanna was right. She was highly emotional and that was blocking her ability to think clearly. To help Guy, she had to trust in her friends that they knew was they were doing. "I'm sorry," she apologised. "Please continue Ted." She answered, her voice still shaky.

"Are you okay?" Ted inquired warmly.

"Yeah," she nodded. "I'm terrified but I'm okay."

"Good," he offered her a smile and turned back to Sigrid. "Can they manipulate Vuldarian DNA?"

Sigrid considered the question. "I don't know anything about this procedure that Zatanna is talking about." She admitted. "I will have to consult the League computers and dig up whatever scientific information they have, to say for certain. However, for right now, I can tell you that Vuldarian DNA is excessively adaptive. If something foreign is introduced, the DNA accepts it and then adapts it to suit its purposes. It is one of the most densely coded strands of DNA in existence. Its even more complex than Kryptonian."

"So even in the worst case scenario, he'll be tough to mutate." Ted stated.

"Not necessarily," Sigrid interjected. "The Vuldarian gene will do whatever it can to remain dominant but you must remember, it is highly adaptive and that could be a disadvantage. Vuldarian genes are extremely aggressive and while it protects the body, its fault lies in its need to evolve. Foreign genes are not destroyed. They are assimilated. The Vuldarian genes extract anything it considers an improvement and incorporates them into its own DNA sequence." Sigrid had not meant to dampen their hopes for Guy's safety but she had to make them aware of the situation. In the event Ted was right and they were facing a worst case scenario, they had to be aware of the possibilities.

"So we'd better find him soon." Zatanna mused, knowing better on anyone what was at stake. "We'll need him when they come after us."

"Come after us?" Donovan looked at her.

"Yes," she nodded grimly. "The leader of the Ani-Men is no fool. Now that he is aware of our involvement, he'll attack and we better be ready for him."

"Who's him?" Booster inquired.

"Maximus." Zatanna said finally, reluctant to speak it as if the name had some power to harm her by simple utterance. "Rex Maximus."

II

Discovery was inevitable. He had known from the beginning that it was only a matter of time before the super humans became aware of his presence. Although he had hoped to stave off a confrontation for some months at least, it did not trouble him greatly at the current turn of events. The enemy, he believed, was never formidable. Their victory years ago, had come from the betrayal of one of his own and he was not likely to repeat that mistake again. However, he was unwilling to let the situation escalate any further and decided that it was time to take precautions, or at least delay them until he was prepared to face them on his own terms.

He reached across the heavy oak desk and activated the intercom device at the corner of the table. The desk was one of the few things he had managed to salvage from Repli-Tech after the company had fallen into liquidation. It was a reminder of another life, gratefully left behind for his ascension to godhood. Nevertheless, it was always good to remind oneself of the past, in order to avoid similar mistakes.

"Send Doctor Lovecraft in." He said in his low, rumbling voice. Even in this visage, he was weak to trappings of his corporate past. Instead, now he sat before his minions not as the former chairman of the board, but as their master. It was a most satisfying feeling.

Lovecraft entered the room a moment later. Unlike the others, Lovecraft did not cower in fear. The doctor's confidence came from the knowledge that the Master could not do without him. It pleased Maximus to let him believe that for now. The Doctor had been a useful ally in the past years. Despite his ruthless nature, Maximus did not permit himself to forget that loyalty. Therefore, Lovecraft was given liberties he afforded no one else.

"Doctor." He greeted. "Any news on our new acquisition?" He inquired.

Lovecraft had changed little over the years. He still remained human because it served the Master that he should. Lovecraft was their agent in the real world and his loyalty was assured. He was still a funny little man with his thick glasses and nondescript manner but he was rarely offensive and therefore tolerable, in Maximus' opinion.

"None." Lovecraft answered, adjusting his glasses as he stepped forward right up to the desk. "The experiment is rapidly getting out of control. Our strongest containment facility is starting buckle under the strain. The only way we can contain him is to continuously sedate him but the Vuldarian gene is already adapting to it. In a matter of days, it will make him immune to the sedation."

"Is he lucid?" Maximus inquired.

"No." Lovecraft shook his head. "We must have triggered some defensive mechanism inside him because he's almost in a state of berserker frenzy. I've never seen anything like it." Lovecraft did not add that at least five Alphas had been killed in various periods, trying to restrain the Vuldarian but he was certain nothing escaped Maximus. "His testosterone levels are rising well beyond tolerable levels. Eventually, it will kill him but not before he takes us with him."

"I see." Maximus said in silent contemplation. Initially, the idea had been a good one. Lovecraft had been toying with the idea of creating a new kind of Ani-Men, utilising one of the super humans as a test subject. Maximus had given him the opportunity with the Vuldarian Warrior. With his morphing abilities, Maximus had believed his genes would be pliable for what was required. Unfortunately, the experiment had been fraught with problems from the beginning and even Lovecraft's understanding of genetics could not match the intricacy that was Vuldarian gene splicing. His attempts to create a super human Ani-Man had ended in failure as the alien seed inside Guy Gardner would not be seceded by any other. However, the end result of so many conflicting genetic codes had created a time bomb awaiting critical mass.

And time was getting short.

"Turn him loose."

Lovecraft stared at Maximus in a mixture of astonishment and horror. "Rex, he will kill anything in his path. He's half insane by what we've done to him!"

Maximus smiled faintly. "Which is precisely why we will release him to his friends. They have interfered in our business in their attempts to find him. Let us be reasonable with them and return Gardner."

"But he's uncontrollable…." Lovecraft started to say. "He'll barely recognise them let alone keep from killing them."

"Needless to say, they will be far occupied with his recovery than they would by any continued interference of our affairs." Maximus leaned forward and the dim light of the room reflected off his amber coloured eyes. It was difficult to tell when Maximus was smiling, but judging from the gleam of his long white teeth, Lovecraft was confident enough to believe he was grinning widely.

"No questions Doctor," Maximus replied, his voice rumbling low enough to send shivers through Lovecraft's spine. "Release him. I'm sure it will be a memorable homecoming." He paused and then added almost as an afterthought.

"If any of them survive that is."

CHAPTER NINE

I

Even after the Justice League had closed the files on the case permanently, Ronald Raymond was never able to let her go.

She was his friend. The first friend who made him understand that beauty was in the eye of the beholder. In his way, he loved her. For the short period he had known her, she had enriched him in ways he could not imagine. When she was gone, it left a void that was never filled. At times, he wondered how his life might have been had he not failed her. Perhaps the downward spiral that became of his existence after her disappearance might not have happened at all.

When the dust had settled after the League had ended the threat, he had sought out her family. It was the only true request she had made of him during their friendship and he was not about to disappoint her again. In retrospect, he now believed she had known her fate. Perhaps she had even decided that was how it would be. She was never one to leave things to chance. He had admired her immensely for that because he had a tendency to run when his personal life became too tiresome. Firestorm had been his safety net. A persona in which he could lose himself when being Ronnie Raymond became too much for him.

He tried to explain as much as he could to her family, without being forced to reveal that she had disappeared, a mutation of feline and human. The truth was too much to bear that if she lived, she would probably be roaming the jungle of that deserted island as a fully transformed domestic cat. For months after the book had been closed on the case, he kept searching, hoping to find her. Of course, he never did. He found the others like her, living a savage existence in their island retreat, far from the world.

Reena herself remained elusive.

When Ted had called him the night before, Ronnie was home in New York. He spent a great deal of time commuting from coast to coast these days. Apparently, there was enough mileage in being an ex-model to warrant interest by the general public to provide him with a B-grade acting career. His medium was mostly television although occasionally, he did some film work. His agent made mention of some stage work but theatre did seem to be him. Ronnie had enough work on TV to give him a comfortable lifestyle. Last week, he was the brooding preacher who aided Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. Next week, America would see him as a low life drug dealer on NYPD Blue. With a couple of TV movies under his belt and a growing resume of character roles, Ronnie Raymond was surprisingly content with the way his life was progressing.

He would have been perfectly happy to allow things continue as such if Ted Kord had not told him that the Ani-Men were back for Ronnie knew, if they were back, so was Rex Maximus. That name brought back a tidal wave of memories, rapidly followed by all the feelings Reena still inspired within him. Despite the years that had gone by, Ronnie had not forgotten her or what she had meant to him. Reena had trusted him to help her and yet, she had denied him the chance when it mattered most. This time, he refused to let that stop him.

In truth, he was somewhat surprised that Ted even contacted him. Ronnie had hardly left Extreme Justice on the best of terms. Although he was a little wiser than he had been back then, he was unrepentant for leaving the group. At the time, he had just recovered from what he believed was terminal cancer. If not for the intervention of the Elemental Firestorm, he would be dead by now. Having been given a new lease on life, Ronnie had decided that he would never waste any of it again. He proceeded to enter a period of hard living in celebration of his renewed existence. As a result, he had been less than reliable during his tenure in Extreme Justice and succeeded in alienating most people until it culminated in his decision to leave permanently.

Ted did not appear to have any hard feelings regarding his departure and Ronnie still considered him a good friend. This and the situation with Ani-Men compelled him to inform his agent that he was taking some personal time before heading to Warriors as Firestorm.

*******

"Ronnie." Zatanna called out his name. "Are you alright?"

He turned around and saw the beautiful magician looking thoughtfully at him. Even after all these years, Zatanna Zatara had not changed. During their League days, they had been close friends. With his arrival, he had liberated Zatanna as the newest member of the group. Knowing how a rookie might feel in such elevated company, Zatanna had offered a hand of friendship because she knew how it felt to be the new kid on the block. Later on, when he had pulled his life together in the wake of his leukaemia, Zatanna had asked her own agent and friend, Jeff Sloane to provide him with the name of a reliable agent when he moved into acting.

"Yeah," he turned around and offered her a confident grin. "I'm peachy." His eyes moved over the shoreline. The island was as pristine as ever, with the warm Florida sun burning down on them. Rays of light bounced off the crystal blue ocean, appearing like diamonds on silk. It was hard to believe that this island had been the centre of such terrible events, not when one looked up and saw a flawless stretch of white beach, flanked by lush, tropical jungle woodland.

"Not much of it has changed." Zatanna offered, feeling the same things as she followed her gaze. Not far from here, was the site of Reena's last confrontation with Maximus. They were fighting to the death with every last shred of humanity that still existed within them. Maximus had murdered Reena's mate; a canine-human hybrid named Rowl. Rowl had dreamed of sharing a life with Reena away from the madness of Maximus' insane vision. When she learnt that Maximus has torn Rowl's head away from his body in a completely unmatched battle in the Arena, Reena became a woman possessed.


The island had been in chaos then. The Ani-Men aware of what they risked fought to the last man. Every member of the League was engaged in the ferocious battle and no one gave a thought to Reena or Maximus until it was all over. When the fighting had concluded, all they found were paw prints of completely transformed animals. With no trace of Lovecraft, there was little the League could do for the Ani-Men and so it was decided to leave them where they were. At the time, Ronnie had protested the action but against the voices of the others, he opinion was forgotten. So Reena was left with the others, a sad reminder that not all battles could be won.

"Nothing has." He stated, breaking away from his memories.

With the threat to Guy Gardner's humanity hanging precariously in the balance, Ted had chosen to split into the Crusaders into two groups. His team, consisting of Booster and Sigrid, would search the former headquarters of the Repli-Tech Corporation. The key to finding the Ani-Men was Doctor Lovecraft. According to Ted, it stood to reason that if the Ani-Men still existed, they would require a human agent to act for them in the outside world. An organisation liked that could not exist with such practised anonymity otherwise. Another factor that fell under Ted's consideration was the fiscal side of it. The operation they had witnessed at the arena took money and lots of it. Somehow, Ted believed that Repli-Tech held the answers to the Ani-Men's financial autonomy. Although the ashes of trail were cold after so many years, Ted hoped there was a paper trail that might lead them to their quarry.

In the mean time however, the rest of the team made their way to the Florida Keys. The island were so many had met their grisly end was still home to a vast underground complex that had been left virtually unclaimed since the League's previous visit. The imperative to find Guy could not leave anything to chance. If there were clues to be found anywhere, they owed it to Guy to find it. Besides, Ted had confessed to Zatanna, they needed to give Beatriz some direction before the hotheaded Latino took matters into her hands and went on a rampage to find Guy.

As they made their way through the foliage towards the main entrance of the underground complex, Ronnie noticed little about the jungle that had actually changed. It was still as dense as ever, with the humid tropical heat, creating a damp mist over everything. Although every one of them possessed flight ability, it was simpler to cover this ground on foot. From the air, everything looked the same. While Zatanna could teleport them to their destination in an instant, it was decided that this way would allow them to conduct some reconnaissance.

"I never thought you'd join another group Zee." Ronnie remarked as he swatted a mosquito on his cheek. He glanced briefly at the smear of blood on his palm before wiping his hand on his suit.

"I'm not really a full time member." Zatanna replied, brushing some foliage out of her face as she trudged through the soft ground. "I participate when I am needed."

"Are you still on the road?" He inquired about her career as a stage magician.

"Not as much as I used to." She confessed. "I've decided to take some time off. Poor Jeff is going crazy," she laughed as she thought about her friend and agent. "He says his life is too normal without me."

Jeff Sloane was among other things, Zatanna's agent. When she had been a full time entertainer, he had always made certain that she would never be considered anything less than a true illusionist. Thanks to Jeff, she had been placed in the same status, as David Copperfield on the professional circuit, even though he was aware that making a Learjet or the Eiffel Tower disappear was too simplistic for Zatanna's talents. Jeff had never questioned Zatanna's strange history and although their relationship remained platonic, he was still one of her closest friends.

"I know what you mean." Ronnie admitted. "I have been doing way to much television and not being Firestorm enough. Still, I think I'm too much of a pain in the ass for most people in the game."

"Perhaps you should consider joining this team." Donovan spoke up from behind them. "We seem to home for pains in the asses."

"Speak for yourself." Beatriz remarked. It was the first time she had offered anything close to the way of conversation. None of the others minded however, they knew her thoughts were mostly centred on Guy. "I don't think I'm a pain in the ass."


"I agree." Zatanna replied. "We're more like misfits I think."

"I don't know," Ronnie mused, considering the idea. "I seem to rub people the wrong way though. I can't understand why, I'm such a charming guy." He offered them a smile of mischief.

"Yeah, imagine that." Donovan rolled his eyes.

"You're worried about being charming?" Beatriz retorted. "On a team that has Guy Gardner? The man who used to call himself the One True Green Lantern and the rest of us wimps?" There was a fondness in the way she spoke however and Zatanna guessed Beatriz was trying to make herself feel better by thinking about Guy in a positive manner.

"Hey, I liked him as a bad ass." Ronnie objected. "No false sense of morality, a man who knew tail when he saw it and went for it."

Zatanna let out a short laugh of disbelief and Beatriz shook her head. "I can't believe it, we've found another one!"

"Quiet." Donovan said suddenly, ending the moment of levity. General Glory's senses had been enhanced and thus his hearing was better than the rest of them. He motioned them to be silent as he listened to the sounds of the jungle, hoping that what he heard would make itself known again. The sounds were soft, like leaves bending and branches moving in the wind. Except the heat in this green canopy allowed no cool interference from the outside world.

"What is it?" Beatriz asked breaking the silence first. Her voice was hushed.

Suddenly they all heard it. It was a low rumble that could have been easily been a feral growl. Donovan listened closer than the others and wondered if they suspected what he knew. Whatever was watching and waiting, was not alone. He could hear multiple footsteps approaching. They were closing in around the heroes. From the corner of his eye, he saw a flutter of movement.

"Zee, get down!" He shouted and jumped forward. He pushed her to the ground as the lightning fast shape pounced at her from its hiding place in the bushes near the magician. As if a signal to attack, other creatures began emerging from the foliage, bearing fangs and snarling their intentions in savage growls.


Zatanna rolled onto her feet as she saw Beatriz flame on. The sudden appearance of green fire forced the creature attempting to attack in retreat. The others around the super heroine hissed their outrage at her use of man's oldest enemy. Firestorm had taken flight and was caging as many as he could with his powers of molecular manipulation. The creatures were varied. Some were from the family of big cats, Zatanna saw the familiar striped markings of a Bengal tiger and the ebony fluidity of a Black Panther screaming ferociously behind Firestorm's freshly made cages.

The screeching of a cougar as Donovan tossed it back into the bushes effortlessly, almost like he was dealing with an ordinary household cat captured her attention. Suddenly, she heard the lethal hiss of a predator near her and she looked at the enormous timber wolf making its approach. Its fangs were bared but unlike the others, it did not attack straight away. As she heard it snarl in its advance, she saw its movements were deliberate as if there was purpose to its actions.

With a flash of clarity, it came to her. Wolves were mostly pack hunters. Her eyes darted around to see the yellow eyes hidden in the shrubs around her, watching and waiting for the moment when she would be theirs. Despite the situation, she admired its cunning and to a certain extent, the harmony of their actions. She wanted none of these animals hurt.

".sdneirf detoof ruof ym peelS" Zatanna said softly.


The wolf glared at her for an instant, not comprehending the words but judging the action as retaliation. Its snarled once more before the spark of aggression in its yellow eyes faded away. As the rage drained from it, she saw its front legs, buckle under the weight of the spell. Inside the cages and out, the animals began dropping to the ground as the drowsiness overtook them. Zatanna looked into the shrubs and found the yellow eyes that had been studying her for attack were no more. She did not feel confident enough to go prodding in the covering of leaves to make certain that the animal was asleep. She had too much of a fond attachment to her fingers to risk them in such a venture.


"What happened?" Ronnie asked bewildered.

As Donovan came towards Zatanna and offered her a hand to help her to her feet, the young magician dusted herself off and replied. "Just a tiny sleeping spell." With a faint smile, she added further. "I seem to be needing them a great deal these days."

"Do you think there's anything left in them that's still human?" Beatriz asked as she peered at the tiger asleep inside Ronnie's cage. The animal purred as it slept, it magnificent coat of stripes rising and falling with each contented breath.

"I hope not." Donovan replied, even though it was obvious that some humanity remained in the creatures. It was unknown in nature that big cats of different species and wolves could kerb all their instincts, in order to hunt together. The only way for such co-operation to exist would be through the medium of a human element. "I hope that there isn't enough left for them to know who they are."

"Reena would have been killed first." Ronnie suddenly spoke, his voice was nothing but a whisper. A terrible realisation had brought itself to the fore and crushed all hopes he might have had. His voice began to falter as he spoke. "She would have become a cat and these things would have killed her." He wanted to weep but inwardly, he must have always known the truth. Even if he had never been able to face it.

"You don't know that." Beatriz placed a hand on his shoulder. Right now, she could empathise perfectly with how he felt. She did not know if she was ready to come that conclusion about Guy yet but like Ronnie, she would have to acknowledge it some time, if it were true.

"Yes, I do." He nodded. "I guess I've always known it, I just never wanted to admit it." He took a moment to compose his feelings before he looked at the others again. "Come on," he said walking past the menagerie of animals. "Let's get moving or we'll never find Gardner."

With that no one could disagree.

II

Despite the length of time had been since Zatanna and Firestorm had last seen visited the Ani-Men's secret complex, it was still relatively easy to find. Although the main entrance had been concealed under thick vines and vegetation, they could see the place had remained virtually undisturbed throughout the years.

"Bea, could you get rid of these vines please?" Zatanna asked as they stood in front of a sheer rock face. Maximus had made this the gateway to a vast underground complex, where he housed his Ani-Men, Doctor Lovecraft's experiments and the macabre games to the death where so many had met their bloody deaths.

"Sure," Beatriz stepped in front of the group. "Stand back would you?" She ordered the others.

The burst of flames splashed against the wall and expanded outwards in a spectacular flash of green fire. Through the smoke, they could see the disintegration of all the vines, climbers and creeping moss that had made the smooth, iron surface its home. When the vegetation had burned away and the air was thick with their residue, the tarnished door appeared from under the diminishing flames. Beatriz had produced a controlled burn so that the fire would not harm any of the surrounding vegetation.

"Firestorm," Zatanna looked to the younger man? "At your convenience." She gestured to the door.


Ronnie stepped forward as Beatriz made her retreat and aimed his matter altering powers on the iron door that was the entrance to the Ani-Men complex. With little more than a thought, the molecules of the metal barrier were re-arranged to a more gaseous state, which the others notice as little more than an unpleasant odour as it escaped into the air. The end result was wide gap where the door had been waiting their entrance.

Zatanna stepped forward into the dark passageway. As she stood at the periphery into the tunnel, she took a deep breath and offered another little spell. ".yaw ruo thgiL" It took less than a second for the enchantment to take effect as a bright yellow ball of light appeared before them, illuminating the path before them.

"I'm starting to feel a little ineffectual here." Donovan muttered.

"Don't worry General," Ronnie remarked. "If any of those nasties come out at us again, we'll send you out first.'

Donovan threw Ronnie a dirty look. "Don't do me any favours."


The air inside the tunnel was musty and dank. As they moved deeper into the passage, they could smell the distinct odour of things decomposing. Fortunately, the smell had lost most of its potency and was partially bearable. Despite the illumination provided by Zatanna, it still felt dark and foreboding as they made their way through the corridor. Shadows waited like predators as they hid small, creeping things that made scratching noises as they moved across the metal floor.

A thick layer of dust had rested on every surface of the passageway and there was every indication that this place had been deserted for many years now. Certainly no one had appeared to offer any proper burial to the comrades who had fallen during the last battle. The Crusaders said nothing as they walked past the skeletonised remains of Ani-Men, their corpses distinct by their hybrid configuration. Although the League did not believing in killing, inflicting serious injuries on their opponents could not be avoided at times. Obviously, Rex Maximus if he lived, did not believe in going to the trouble of rendering his subjects any aid. It was likely most of them could have been saved if they had received the proper medical attention, however Maximus had left them to die. Those who had not gone quickly had the unfortunate experience of transforming completely to their animal forms to contend with.


When the League had returned years ago, Hal Jordan, the original Green Lantern had been with them. His Oan power ring had detected no signs of life in the wake of their battle with the Ani-Men. Seeing this made Zatanna wished that they had entered the complex itself instead of leaving it the ring to make the determination on the status of the place. These poor unfortunates deserved burial at least.

The group was unusually quiet and Zatanna could understand why. There was little that could be said in the face of all this and words did not feel appropriate at the moment. She just hoped it would not get any worse than this.

CHAPTER TEN

I

"Well at least we found something." Ted declared, trying to see something positive in the way the last few hours were spent. They had wasted hours inside the dusty confines of a warehouse, searching through paper and computer records belonging to the company formerly known as Repli-Tech. This was done out of a vain hope of finding some clue to the current whereabouts of Doctor Lovecraft and by extension, Rex Maximus.

Since Repli-Tech came to the attention the League, the liquidation so feared by its former management, quickly happened. Without the funds the Ani-Men were stealing to rebuild its shaky structure, the company quickly collapsed into bankruptcy. The Wayne Foundation who was more than generous in allowing the Crusaders to examine its sensitive records had salvaged what remained of Repli-Tech. A helpful Wayne Tech employee had explained that the Repli-Tech take over had not yielded much of a profit for the company. Other than the buildings and some minor patents, Repli-Tech had been virtually penniless.

From what Zatanna had told him, Maximus had coordinated a series of hi-tech burglaries to keep Repli-Tech afloat while Lovecraft was developing Ani-Men virus. While the League had intercepted some of these crimes, most had remained undiscovered and the monies and items were never recovered. Another part of Maximus' financial program had been the arena where rich, wastrels paid to watch Ani-Men and humans engaged in their gladiatorial matches to the death. This led to the question of what had happened to all of its ill begotten gains?

Most of what they needed to answer this question had been destroyed, probably by Repli-Tech staff who feared indictment or implication in the Ani-Men incident. However, some records remained, Unfortunately, it required painstaking effort to sieve through the paper trail and find some clue to where Repli-Tech's money might have gone.

At the eleventh hour, Sigrid had made a discovery in the document journal of a former typist. It was a memorandum from Rex Rogan to the legal department. It took another half-hour to find the memo buried under a sea of others, but eventually the document surfaced. It contained little more than three lines and was a request for an application for the establishment of a new company. There were no further details beyond that but its implications were clear enough for anyone who understood the history of the situation.

"I know," Booster groaned. "We need a flunkey to do some of this crap." His best friend complained as they descended before the main entrance to Warriors. Deactivating his force field as they touched the ground, Sigrid emerged from the dissipating energy field that had carried her through the sky.

"I'll call someone at Lightspeed," Ted agreed. "We need to run down the establishment of any new companies during that period of time and see if they tie into Repli-Tech. At some point, money had to be transferred."

"Actually," Booster looked at him. "I have a better idea."

"Isn't that a contradiction in terms?" Sigrid remarked, as she joined them in front of the glass doors.

"Hey!"

"I always thought we needed a third person to complete the act." Ted grinned at her as he slid an arm around her shoulders in warm friendship. Even Booster was smiling because like Ted, he knew that Sigrid was finally starting to emerge from her self-imposed isolation.

In the short time of their acquaintance, Sigrid had been reluctant to make comment about anything. It was understandable that she should be feeling so much initial trepidation around them. After all, she was the second person to call herself in their company. He knew how hard it was for any outsider to establish oneself in a close knit fraternity. Even with Beatriz's endorsement, it had taken time for Sigrid to trust her fellow Crusaders and even longer for her to consider them friends. It was nice to see that she was comfortable enough to engage them in the banter for which they were infamous.

It was mid afternoon and through the glass doors of Warriors; they should have been able to see staff preparing to open the restaurant to the public. However, instead of waiters and cleaners moving across the floor tending to the rituals of opening, the place seemed unusually deserted. Yet the doors were wide open. Ted motioned the others to be quiet as they walked through the entrance.

The interior of Warriors was strangely quiet. Ted who was now the strongest of the Crusaders, felt the humour drain from his face to be replaced by a darker, steely emotion. Taking cue from his instructions, Booster and Sigrid held back. The only sound they could hear was the wafting of air from the motor of air conditioning unit. As his eyes scanned the area, he began to see traces of violence, small as it was. An overturned napkin holder, covering a small portion of carpet in white linen, a crooked picture of the Teen Titans and finally the shattered remains of a mirrored picture frame.

He knew Verona and Wargo were chasing leads themselves. At the moment, they were scattered across the city trying to find any information about the Ani-Men. Verona had checked in with him this morning and confirmed that the group would be away from Warriors until tonight. The normals that ran this restaurant whenever its owner was pursuing one adventure after another were competent enough to handle things in Guy's absence. So Ted knew, they simply would not leave the restaurant like this.

A groan escaped from behind a booth at the far corner of the room. It was loud and hoarse, as it had not been the first and its speaker was strained from the trying. Ted approached it slowly. He was in full costume but was nevertheless cautious as he moved stealthily towards the vinyl-padded booth. Even though he was now considered a superhuman, Ted had yet to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer a mere mortal.

The groan was louder. There was a desperation to it that hollowed his stomach as he rounded the corner of the booth and looked into it.

Oh Jesus.

Thick, sharp spines rippled across taut human skin. They surfaced and submerged like sharp angular waves. On the same flesh elsewhere, skin bubbled like hot oil as bones extended, contracted and then extended again. Eyes looked at Ted, eyes wild with pain, almost incomprehensible with excruciating agony that he could not begin to imagine. For an instant they pleaded with him, conveying a thousand horrors with in singular moment. The groan came louder as the skull heaved visibly, cheekbones stretched as a jaw protruded outwards in some parody of the human face.

"Guy?" Ted finally spoke, recognising the tortured blue eyes that were quickly losing all traces of restraint from its unbearable torment. Ted had seen Guy morph before but not like this. Nothing even remotely like this could convince Ted that this as the result of any Vuldarian genetic design. This was not genetic manipulation or even mutation for that matter.

This was an abomination.

The word held no meaning for him. The name bounced of Guy as if it did not exist. Ted watched Guy who was forced into a tight ball of muscle cry out once more with such pain that the groan quickly descended into a weak sob of desperation. Guy rolled onto his back as his body spasm sharply. He extended outwards like a man stretched upon a crucifix. His torso was wrong. That was the only way Ted could describe it. His stomach area was lengthened and impossibly lean for a human. Muscles that should have been there were not. The legs were thick and struggling to maintain shape. Human limbs were quickly giving way to unmistakable animal haunches. The shape would hold for a moment and then it would return.

As the seconds ticked by, Ted watched Guy's clawed hands tearing at his misshapen face in a horrific stupor. His jaw had pushed out so far that he no longer looked hominid. Hair was growing on his clean- face like a bad advertisement for Gillette. As his cheekbones started to narrow, forcing his skull into a shape impossible to contain a human brain, Guy let out a final gut wrenching scream of utter agony.

As it reached a crescendo, the scream cut short. Guy rolled over again and landed on all fours. His hands were clawed, as were his feet. He lifted his head and met Ted's eyes. The look inside them made the Blue Beetle breath quicken.

There was no hint of recognition, only mindless rage burning without reason or understanding. Full of pain and unable to articulate it in any form other than violence. If there was anything left of Guy Gardner, he was buried so deep within the abuses of his genetic code, that there was no way to reach him.

Guy or not, this thing was about to attack.

"Booster!" Ted yelled without taking his eyes off Guy. "Get back! Get everyone away right now!"

No sooner than he completed the warning, the creature that was Guy Gardner, Warrior opened his mouth full of inch long teeth and roared. There was no sound but a hot jet of plasma surging towards Ted. He leapt into the air as the blast impacted on the ceiling just behind him. It immediately disintegrated an ample sized hole through three-inch concrete. Fine embers of hot cement and plaster drifted to the floor. Ted had little time to think as Guy jumped up and grabbed his foot as he was ascending. Like all restaurants, Warriors had a low ceiling and Ted had little room to move.

Thanks to his super strength he was able to kick Guy away from him. Guy fell on the floor, collapsing the table under his weight. The fall did little to shake him. He was on his feet in seconds. His eyes followed Ted with manic frenzy and within seconds he was making another attempt to reach the Blue Beetle.

There was too little room to manoeuvre, Ted decided very quickly and immediately made his way towards the door. Booster and Sigrid were on the street, yelling at people to get indoors to safety. Although there was some initial confusion, it appeared that most people were aware of strange things taking place at this corner. Apparently, Guy had put his neighbours through enough harrowing events for them to know when it was time to batten down the hatches. People were running into doors and pulling it shut behind them as Booster sounded the call. Sigrid had built a wall of ice to block the streets from any cars that might consider driving past Warriors. Car horns were screeching as angry motorists started hurling abuses at the disruption of traffic.

Ted did not have to look over his shoulders to know Guy was still following him. He could hear the crashing of furniture as Guy felt in pursuit. Ted was weaving through the restaurant as he avoided the energy blasts Guy was firing at him. A wall exploded beside him, spraying him with cement and paint. The heat from the blast had melted the plastic on the booth against it. Blackened pools of ooze began forming against its metal frame. The room began to fill with the noxious odour of toxic gases released by the burning plastic.

Ted reached open space and not a minute two soon. He made a tight loop as he flew over the street as Guy emerged out of the restaurant.

"Oh my god." Sigrid managed to say as she took her first look at him. Guy paused in the middle of the street, his yellowed eyes moving across the area, studying everything in site as predator might evaluate a new hunting ground. Guy was only a few metres away from her, breathing hard. Long canine teeth glistened in the afternoon sun; a trickle of saliva began its journey down his chin. The blank expression in his eyes told Sigrid to be concerned, very concerned.

Guy recoiled slowly and it took her a second to realise that he was springing for attack. There was only a narrow margin of time left for her to act and she did so without thinking. The wall of ice appeared in the blink of an eye and encased him before he even had a chance to know what was happening. The air around him froze and he was trapped in a block of solid ice.

"Booster!" She heard Ted shouting overhead. "Get her! It's not going to hold!"

Her eyes snapped to Guy, just in time to see a sharp spike spear through the wall of the block. It sent sliver of ice flying at her and Sigrid was forced to throw her arms before her face to shield her eyes. She saw another fracture in the ice appear as another spike impaled it from within. She stepped back instinctively knowing that her makeshift prison would not hold him for long. Sigrid stumbled as she withdrew but instead of falling onto concrete, she felt the ground lowering beneath her.

"You okay Ice?" Booster asked from overhead. He had lifted her into the air, protected by the walls of his force field. The action came none too soon because Sigrid looked down and saw the ice wall explode as the spike tore the block apart. Large chunks and jagged pieces flew in all directions. Pieces of ice surrounded Guy like the impact zone of a bomb blast. He searched the area for her when he was free, locating her quickly in the sky. He was going to react when suddenly; she saw his face contort in agony as he dropped to his knees. He let out a high pitch scream as his arms morphed into weapons, from their sharp implement. Weapons were starting to form on every part of his body, from his back, his legs and his chest.

"What's happened to him?" Booster managed to say through his shock.

"They've played havoc with his Vuldarian genes!" Sigrid exclaimed. While Ted and Booster were dealing with their astonishment, she was busy observing the changes going through his body. "He's in agony!"

Booster response was cut short by another scream from Guy. The Vuldarian was on his feet now, tearing at himself trying to stop the pain. Through the mutations of his body, blood was flowing through the tears on his skin. Without warning, all weapons began firing. Energy blasts went in all directions. Streetlights shattered, walls exploded and chaos was turning the neighbourhood into a war zone. Guy, who was almost mindless with pain, was aware of nothing he was doing. He was lashing out at any at everything like a tortured animal.

"Leave me!" Sigrid barked. "You've got to stop him!"

She was right. Guy's artillery was turning the buildings around him to rubble. Already, he could see gapping holes several walls. The street beneath Guy was being similarly abuse and bitumen was starting to melt from the heat of the plasma weapons. Fire hydrants had ruptured and water was spraying in all directions. The mass destruction had forced people out of the buildings onto the street, to escape the rogue superhero. Unfortunately, they were no safer in the open than they were locked inside their homes. Now, they had allowed themselves to become targeted prey.

Ted flew towards Guy at top speed and hoped his invulnerability would protect him from the weapons firing randomly at anything in its path. He grabbed onto Guy and began ascending; hoping to take him somewhere more isolated, to deal with this problem. Guy roared as the ground disappeared beneath him. He reacted swiftly, with typical Vuldarian efficiency and turned his arms into sharp spears. Control of his morphing abilities was strained, because each change caused pain that made him cry out. This much Ted had noticed.

Guy struggled hard in his grip as they left the city below them. Ted knew he could not hold him for long. Guy's strength was almost superhuman buy his power levels had escalated in this heightened state of aggression. Even though they were gaining altitude, bolts of plasma continued firing in all directions. Ted hoped Booster and Sigrid were able to deal with this or there was going to be a lot of people hurt, himself included.

"Guy!" Ted called out in the vain hopes; he could reach the personality beneath the Warrior seed. "Guy, its Ted!"

His effort was met by a strangled cry of rage that followed shortly before Guy impaled the flesh part of his thigh with one sharp thrust of his morphed arm. Ted screamed in pain and reacted instinctively, swatting Guy across the jaw and sending him straight through the wall of a tall skyscraper. Guy made a spectacular entry through the glass windows of the building, which shattered loudly. Shards rained twenty stories down and Ted managed a stray thought through the pain in his leg, that there was no one under that hail of glass when it reached the ground. He glanced at the wound and saw the blood oozing from a gaping fissure in his leg. The blue of his uniform was quickly became indigo as the blood flowed down his leg with its unsettling warmth. Ted had to bite down, hoping the grinding of his teeth would force the pain to manageable levels. It took more minutes that it should have, but finally it ebbed back and allowed him to go after Guy.

Ted flew towards the opening in the building and arrived to the sound of screaming as people quickly vacated the area. Judging from the pandemonium, Guy had come through the glass window and crashed into someone's workstation. His appearance would have been enough to send any one running, judging by the chaos in the room. Papers were strewn over the floor, chairs were up ended and objects were strewn about haphazardly. He could hear frightened voices down the hall and heard fire alarms screaming throughout the building. Someone had wisely tripped the alarm to force an evacuation of the building.

Ted limped forward after he landed, inspecting the remains of the destroyed desk and computer equipment. He looked under the wreckage to see if the operator this station was not trapped beneath it. Fortunately, there did not appear to be anyone. Ted straightened up and looked around. He wondered where Guy was. In his state, he could not have put too much distance between them, without attracting attention. He took a moment to examine his leg now that there seemed to be a pause in the storm. Looking around, he saw a woman's scarf draped precariously over and upturned chair.

Guy had actually hurt him. Ted was supposed to be invulnerable, thanks to the Blue Beetle Scarab but Guy had managed to hurt him. He knew Guy's power levels had been significantly enhanced now that his Vuldarian genes had been activated. Guy had once gone toe to toe with Superman and that was no easy feat. The Big Blue was the strongest of them all, bar none. To hold one's own against the last son of Krypton was no easy feat.

Not that it was any easier dealing with the last son of Vuldar either, Ted thought as he strapped the wound tightly to stem the bleeding. Once it was done, Ted reached for the communicator on his belt.

"Booster, this is Beetle. Come in." He said looking around cautiously,

"Beetle, are you okay?" Booster voice returned immediately through the device.

"Just a little bruised," he admitted. "I'm in the OCS Building. We're going to have to contain him. He's just causing too much damage the way he is."

"What's happened to him Beetle?" Booster demanded. "What did they do to him?"

Ted could not answer that question because he did not know. His expertise was mostly confined to the technological and physical sciences. He knew just as much about biochemistry and alien genetics as the next guy, which was to say, nothing really. "Sigrid would know better than I would." He replied finally. "We need to have him sedated or something, so we can get him to Star Labs and have Sigrid look him over."

"Do you think we can help him?"

The question hung in the air. The length of time between question and answer widened as Ted thought whether it was possible to reverse what had been done to Guy Gardner. Suddenly, he heard something behind him. Ted did not move but remained silent.


"Beetle?" Booster voice broke through the quiet. "What's happening?'

Ted did not answer. He tried to see behind him as much as he could without actually turning his head because he knew he was no longer alone. He could hear breathing, hard and bated. Booster's voice drew more distant as Ted heard the movement behind him. Papers were being crushed underfoot, furniture was being tossed aside. In the corner of his eye, he could see a whole desk flung against a wall with such strength that it collapsed completely upon impact.

He heard what could only be described as a growl and it was very close.

The Blue Beetle turned around finally, knowing that he was Orestes and he simply had to look. His eyes travelled up as he took in the full sight of what was before him. They widened beneath his goggles as all colour drained from his face. His heart froze in his chest and finally, Ted Kord came to an unimaginable conclusion.

The monstrosity before him was Guy.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

I

Zatanna heard him call.

His voice echoed through her consciousness like a beacon. Their emotional bond had created a psychic link between them. Lately, he had been using it to contact her. However, there was no gentle affection in his voice as his words echoed through her mind.

Zee, I need you all back here now!

The urgency in his voice was able to traverse the distance between them with such intensity that she could shivers of ice running down her spine. It took a few moments for her to compose herself and look to her comrades. The Crusaders had spent the last few hours searching through the complex, hoping to find some clue as to the whereabouts of Doctor Lovecraft or Rex Maximus. As of yet, their search had been hardly successful. Despite their best efforts, they had produce nothing for all their labour and Beatriz's anxiety was quickly passing the point of control.

The situation had not improved with what they stumbled across inside the complex. With everyone's spirits somewhat dampened, their discovery in the bowels of the island was a death blow to what remained of their hopes. Was it entirely necessary for fate to let them find Lovecraft's chamber of horrors? Lovecraft had apparently enjoyed refining his genetic splicing techniques and the result of his failure was nothing less than an abomination of insanity and science combined. Like every good scientist, he kept all specimens, alive or dead, not matter how gruesome the outcome. What remained of that dreadful pastime was a menagerie of mutated corpses left to rot in stasis tubes of formaldehyde. Animal, insect, reptilian and ornithoid crossed with human genes left a stomach turning array of freaks gratefully dead and preserved for the Crusaders to find.

Each twisted visage of man and animal seemed to tear in Beatriz, until she had to leave the room. Zatanna wished she could have been spared this nightmarish find. With what they knew about Lovecraft and Maximus, Beatriz was starting to fear that perhaps finding Guy dead may not be the worst that could happen to him. With each passing moment, she was starting to believe that they would not find Guy Gardner a human, but rather an aberration of genetic tampering. Although Zatanna tried her best to be of some comfort, Beatriz was inconsolable to this outcome. Unfortunately, there was little the others could to allay her fears.


Zatanna knew that the possibility was already present in Ted's mind. Ted's determination now that they were aware of the enemy was even more focussed than before. Perhaps, he knew before all of them, just what kind of deadline they were pressed into keeping. In the mean time, Zatanna knew that while she maintained her calm demeanour for her friends, Beatriz was a powder keg waiting to ignite.

Ronnie Raymond was not much better of. He was a dozen kinds of aggression waiting to find release. The more they searched the complex and the more likely it became that Reena was not among the dead. However, Ronnie was certain that a far worse fate had be fallen her. Even though Zatanna would not confirm it, she knew he was right. Unfortunately, the Ronnie Raymond she knew in her League days was not some fresh kid new to the game. Much had occurred in his life and the Firestorm she knew from long ago was gone. Life and experience had seasoned him in a way no amount of reason could reach.

Fortunately, Donovan Wallace seemed to be the only other person to remain level headed. Zatanna wondered who he was really and what had happened in his life to allow him such depth. She did not need to see beneath the mask to know that he was young. Perhaps much too young to be so deliberate. In truth, he had and Ronnie were the same age but Donovan possessed far more maturity that Ronnie ever did, even with the persona of Professor Stein as his invisible guide.

When it appeared that things could not become any less discouraging, Zatanna heard Ted Kord's voice in her mind. For a moment, cold fear struck her heart because she thought some great peril had fallen upon him. She could almost appreciate just how much of an ordeal it was for Beatriz coping with the possibility that Guy might be gone forever.

Zee, you need to come back.

Ted was always dubious about the connection between them. This was hardly surprising considering the differing natures of their personal beliefs. He was a man of science and calculable factual theory and her world was magic and all things unseen and unproven. Their relationship had created a suspension of belief on either side It alarmed Zatanna to no end that he had chosen what he would normally consider a most unconventional method, to contact her. For him to place belief in magic indicated that he was in a desperate situation indeed.

What has happened, beloved? She allowed herself to answer him.

There's no time Zee, you have to bring the others back immediately.

The urgency of his thoughts could not be ignored. He was rarely so composed about anything. In the last month together, she had learnt that he often used humour to cloak his fear. However, no such apparatus was in force here. His state of mind was escalated beyond the point of using tools.

"Everyone." She looked up at the comrades around her. "Something's happening in New York."

Until that point, the group had more or less decided that there was nothing here from which any information could be gleaned. Leaving behind Lovecraft's menagerie, they were moving through the silent corridors towards the main entrance to the complex. It had been an uncomfortably grim departure for no one could speak after what they had seen inside the stasis tubes of formaldehyde and bodies.

"What happened?" Donovan asked. The others were looking at her with question because she had stopped in mid stride, saying nothing except that fearful look on her face that spoke volumes more than words could.

"Yeah, you like went spacey on us." Ronnie added.

"We have to get back." Zatanna looked at Beatriz in particular, remembering what Ted had told her. "We have to go now."

Beatriz could sense that Zatanna's concern was being aimed at her for some reason. She needed no psychic powers to see the magician had learnt something terrible and was not telling them. "What is it?" She strode towards Zatanna. "Tell me!" She grabbed Zatanna by the arms and made the woman face her,

"We have to go." Zatanna said breaking away while trying to collect her thoughts after receiving the bombardment of images from Ted's mind. She could not bring herself to tell Beatriz what she had seen, not yet. Ted's message had used up valuable time. Time, she was certain may cost him dearly. She did not intend to waste any more of it and jeopardise his life. Not after what she had seen through his eyes.

"I want to know what is going on!" Beatriz demanded, starting to lose any control she had over her precarious emotions.

"We do not have time for this!" Zatanna snapped in an uncharacteristic show of force. "Guy is not the only one in danger at this moment!" She said vehemently, glaring at Beatriz. "Now you will take it easy because I need to get us to New York right now before someone gets killed!"

"Bitching." Ronnie remarked and received and icy glare from both women.

Donovan looked at him in disgust before intervening in the situation before it deteriorated any further. "All right, we are friends here and we're all on edge." He replied, ever the voice of the reason. "Zatanna, we're ready. Do what you have to."

Zatanna took a deep breath and concentrated. She focused her mind for teleportation was no easy thing when it required transport for more than one person. In some ways, it required as much preparation and precise calculations as the solving of the most cryptic equations. After a moment, she looked up and spoke. ".deT ot su gnirB"

Suddenly, with a flash of light and a puff of grey smoke, the walls around the Crusaders disappeared.

II

For a moment, he simply stared.

The creature standing before him had grown considerably beyond Guy Gardner's normal height of almost seven feet. Not only was he taller but he had metamorphosed beyond Ted's ability to recognise the species' his genes had been coupled with. All Ted knew for certain, was the knowledge that Guy Gardner was buried so deep within the mutation that it may no longer be possible to reach him. Its eyes were thin slits against its skull, having no eyelids and no irises that could be seen against the tight stretch of flesh. Its skull was almost all mouth and when it widened its jaws, Ted swore to see teeth that were almost three to four inches long and sharp. Saliva glistened off their points, adding to its already lethal appearance.

A massive arm, thick and veined reached for Ted with impossible speed. Ted dropped to his feet and delivered a sharp kick to its left knees. The creature bellowed with rage as his leg gave way and a massive bony knee slammed against the concrete floor. Despite its agility, its bulk nevertheless limited the speed by which it could move. It raised both arms and brought it down in the space Ted was occupying. Ted side stepped the attack easily and delivered another powerful kick to its mid torso. The creature staggered back slightly but seemed unhurt by the action. Ted threw another fist into its massive face, careful to avoid the jaws that could easily tear his arm off if given the chance.

As his hand connected, sharp spines exploded from the slick skin and dug deep into his hand. Ted recoiled sharply but the damage was done. His right hand had been impaled in a dozen places. Blood spilled down his forearm as he staggered back and despite the pain, Ted was overcome by clarity of thinking that he could no longer avoid. He had been holding back in the effort of not seriously harming the creature but that no longer seemed possible. As much as he wanted to believe that Guy Gardner still existed underneath this abomination, Ted could no longer afford to pull his punches.

Until now, he had been reluctant to use his lightning bolt powers because he was uncertain of how much damage that could inflict upon the body that belonged to Guy Gardner. However, as the creature that possessed it rumbled to its feet and came rushing at him, he knew that the time for such sensibilities was past. Ted fired a bolt of lightning at the creature. Spidery webs of energy impacted off its body as it spasmed in pain. It stopped in mid stride, falling to its knees as electricity coursed through its body. As it paused in its advance, Ted wondered if he had weakened it.

Suddenly, the creature looked up at Ted just as two weapons began to rise from the skin of its broad shoulders. Ted jumped out of the way as a burst of plasma came towards him. Rolling across the floor, Ted fired another blast of electricity at him. This time, the creature was ready for him and before the tendril of blue electricity reached it, the texture of its skin hardened to form impenetrable Vuldarian armour.

"Damn!" Ted swore visibly as the electricity bounced harmlessly off the protective Vuldarian covering and started coming at him again.

Suddenly, the creature jerked back as if he had run into an invisible wall. Its head snapped back as if it impacted and Ted saw the indignant fury building up in its face as it reacted to the barrier. Without even seeing him, Ted knew Booster was somewhere in their line of sight. The creature backed up, seeking an alternate route to reach him but found itself caught in a bubble of energy. The rage in its face was beyond reason as Ted saw its aggression build up to a murderous climax. Once again, the artillery on its shoulders began pivoting as it prepared to fire at the force field containing it.

It took less than a second for Ted to realise how deadly that could be. "Booster! Drop the shield! Drop the shield or you'll kill him!"

It was too late. The plasma erupted from the weapons poised on the creatures, no Guy's shoulders. It surged forward at lightning speed before meeting the energy barrier that would create recoil of all that power that would consume its deliverer. A literal ball of fire exploded outward as Booster dropped the shield. Ted did not wait around to let it reach him. He flew upwards, smashing through a dozen levels of office space before he emerged into the safety of blue sky. Ted immediately flew to a distance and saw the entire floor of the office block where he and Guy had just battled, become a blazing inferno.

Booster was already on his way in when Ted reached the floor. His best friend was protected from the flames by the force field he wore around himself when the need arose. As Ted approached, he could feel the intense heat from the flames and was glad that his goggles protected his eyes from the billowing smoke. He was no longer conscious of the pain of his injuries because he knew he must have been better of than Guy surely was now. At the moment, he was not even sure if Guy was alive inside that inferno.

The sound of sirens from fire engines tore through the air as the vibrant red vehicles meandered through the heavy traffic to reach the building. The chaos created by Guy had brought traffic in the area to a virtual halt and cars were lined up the street, bumper to bumper. The fire was starting to spread to the rest of the building and if they did not want this entire area to become a highlight from the Towering Inferno, something would have to be done.

Booster emerged just as he flew towards the ragged gap in the building he and Guy had created earlier. Wrapped in a force field, the creature that was once Guy Gardner was unconscious. The skin of its body was almost charcoal black and Ted's stomach lurched wondering if its own plasma blasts had not delivered the fatal blow Ted was unwilling to inflict. However, as Booster reached him, Ted could see the rise and fall of the creature's chest, indicating that it was still in the land of the living.

"What has happened to him?" Booster managed to say. Until now, he and Sigrid had been taking the duties of crowd control. Although they had seen Guy's earlier mutation, Booster was horrified by what he was seeing. It was impossible to associate this this thing with his friend and comrade, Guy Gardner.

"I don't know." Ted said honestly. "I'm hoping Sigrid is going to be able to help him. Where is she anyway?"


Booster was still somewhat shell shocked by Guy's appearance and his answer was somewhat disjointed. "She's gone." He said staring at the creature trapped within his force field. After a second, he shook the distraction from his mind and answered the question with a little more clarity. "She went to Star Labs." He replied. "She said something about finding a strong enough sedative to know Guy out for a couple of hours so she can examine him at the facilities."

"Good thinking." Ted nodded mutely. At least someone had some idea of what to do. The others were counting on him to help Guy. Unfortunately for the moment, he had not even the slightest notion of what to do. He was an idea man and those ideas were mostly confined to his area of expertise, that being gadgets, science and anything relating to good old fashioned, methodical research. He could not co-ordinate or come up with battle strategy like Guy could and right now they needed direction on what to do.

"Let's get back to the ground." He said finally. "We need to see if he's okay."

"He's out." Booster pointed out.

"We don't know how long that's going to last." Ted replied, wincing as the pain of his injuries started to gnaw at him with more persistence.

"You need a doctor, buddy." Booster looked at him. "You're losing a lot of blood."

Ted could not disagree but as he looked at Guy, he could not help thinking they had bigger problems that his injuries at the moment.

***********

They reached the ground in the middle of the building courtyard. Police cars and fire engines were still some distance away, locked in the traffic chaos a few blocks away. Evidence of their approach could be heard by the rising strength of their emergency sirens and alarm klaxons. It was difficult to find a quiet place to deal with Guy because the building had been evacuated at the onset of the trouble. The area was thick with bodies and Ted wondered if their examination of Guy could wait the trip to a more remote location.

The crowd cleared beneath them when they landed, creating a buffer of concrete paving between them. Ted could not say he minded their apprehension. It was probably best that non-metas stayed an appropriate distance for the time being. With Guy's physical state still a matter of question, it was best not to risk anyone. As he thought that, Ted glanced at his the blood soaked piece of cloth around his hand and his thigh. He was meant to be invulnerable and yet Guy had still enough strength to manage this. He dreaded to think what Guy could do to an ordinary human being.

Booster deactivated the force field after setting Guy's immobile form on the paved courtyard. He approached Guy cautiously; aware of how dangerous the Vuldarian was at this time. He saw Ted hobbling towards him and felt a surge of concern at the blood on the Blue Beetle uniform. Despite his effort to control the pain, cracks were starting to form in his macho bravado.


"Well you always wanted to beat the crap out of Gardner." Booster quipped.

"Yeah," Ted offered him a faint smile. "But it takes all the fun out of it when he's a rampaging mutant creature who can't say words."

"As opposed to what?" Booster looked at him with a straight face.

"You have no shame." Ted retorted.

"I have three words for you." Booster said with a sarcastic smirk.

"Give me a break." He groaned. "I'm injured."

"Kooey Kooey Kooey." Booster said ignoring the plea.

"Wharf Rat!"

Any levity that might have been shared momentarily vanished when they reached Guy. Suddenly, things became serious very quickly. The creature, they still had trouble thinking of this monstrosity as Guy, was still unconscious but the charred skin on its body was quickly evaporating. As they examined him closely, Ted could see the black flesh dissolve into a liquid pool as its skin repaired itself instantly.

"Booster." Ted began to speak as the realisation hit.

"I know, I know." Booster started backing away.

Without warning, the creature lashed out one powerful fist. It slammed into Booster Gold's face full on, shattering the goggles of his face with a terrifying crack. Ted fell backwards at the retaliation as his friend went down like a tonne of bricks. He saw a sliver of blood running down Booster's face.

"Booster!" Ted shouted as he saw hit the pavement.


The creature began to move like a giant stirring from sleep. It rolled over onto its hands and feet before stretching like a cat awaking from a night's slumber. Its massive head turned to Ted and stretched its huge mouth back in a powerful roar. The sound echoed through the place, sending anyone in earshot, running for safety.

"That's it." Ted said under his breath. "I've had just about enough of this!" Outrage and bluster aside, Ted did something else before he faced Guy again. While he did not put much stock in using magic himself, he had seen Zatanna wield it with sufficient accuracy. She said they were linked because of their feelings for one another. He hoped she was right.

Before the creature had time to do anything else, Ted dropped to the ground and threw a powerful sidekick in the face. It fell backwards from the blow, obviously not fully recovered from its fiery ordeal. Not allowing it any time to recover, Ted threw another kick into its side, flipping it on its back from the force of the blow. The creature managed to stand up, although it was still rather disorientated. Ted did not doubt that it would quickly return to its manic fever if he did not act quickly.

He rammed his fist into the side of the creature's head, biting down hard as he used his injured fist. However, he had little choice. His punches could not be pulled and they had to be fast to keep the creature from using the pause in between to recover. Ted ignored the rising pain in his limbs as he struck blow after blow. He felt his knuckles connect but the point soon arrived when the pain faded away. It disappeared to a distant place in his mind, just as forgotten as the ache in his body and any moral dilemma that still remained that this thing was Guy Gardner. Not since Doomsday had Ted Kord encountered anything as violently destructive as this creature and he was damned if he was going to let it create carnage across the city.


Guy would be the first one to admit that.

No longer holding back, he felt a rush of adrenaline surging through his veins as he threw a rapid succession of punches. Ted felt the blood rushing to his head as blow after blow was delivered, until he could feel nothing except the determination to stop this creature before lives other than his and Booster's were placed in peril. His hands ached but Ted no longer cared. He had come too far now to pull back.

Suddenly, he realised his opponent was no longer fighting. Ted blinked as the red veil lifted over his eyes and disappeared into the exhaustion that had finally come for him and the thing that was Guy Gardner.

As he saw the creature go down, Ted knew that it was done. It was back on its knees and was no longer making any move to counter his blows. Blood was running down its massive head in thick rivulets, from broken skin and split bruises. Its narrow eyes met Ted's in a gesture of defeat as it collapsed on the paved concrete.


Ted looked at his broken hands, unable to believe that he had beaten the hulk before him into submission. He did not like what he had been forced to do but this could not be allowed to continue. Although people were injured by their battle no one was seriously hurt. At least he hoped no one was anyway. However, he did not doubt could not have lasted. The hero that was Guy Gardner was not in control and Ted was sure this creature before him did not possess the restraints to keep from murdering anyone unlucky enough to get in its way.

For the moment anyway, the creature had been stopped.

Ted would deal with the rest after he caught his breath. Right now, he needed to sit.

 
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