Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

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

by Linda Thackeray

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

I

Emergency klaxons began screaming throughout the complex.

Maximus had been aware that one of his prisoners had escaped. To be truthful, he was unhappy at the progress of the search to retrieve the man. Unfortunately, it appeared that one super human was still capable of being more than a match for a dozen of Ani-Men. The process of transformation could be refined to make the merging of two species into a superior animal of physical prowess. Unfortunately, it seemed that there was yet to be any process that could make the specimen any more intelligent.

Booster Gold remained at large even though his security teams were scouring the complex like dogs on a hunt. Despite a minor annoyance at the slow progress of his capture, Maximus had no doubt that they would find the human. It may take time but eventually Booster Gold would be captured. Maximus had faith in that. However, the moment he heard the emergency sirens screaming out danger throughout the building, he came to the awful realisation that perhaps he had not as much time as initially believed.

Reaching for the intercom on his desk, he contacted his security people. "What has happened?" He demanded without introducing himself. Although they were unaware of it, Maximus had instructed Lovecraft to condition every one of his Ani-Men to respond to his voice with total obedience.

"We have a Level 1 security alert." The unfamiliar voice on the other end answered promptly. "Our security camera in Section 22 has picked up multiple intrusions." Maximus wondered momentarily about the whereabouts of the Ani-Men called Fang.

"Section 22?" Maximus thought quickly, trying to remember why that area was familiar to him.

"Doctor Lovecraft's laboratory."

Maximus said nothing and turned to console screen behind his desk. From the terminal, he was able to keep a watchful eye over his domain at all times. Maximus keyed the instructions through the keyboard at the foot of the screen and watched as it came to life with a burst of static. Lovecraft's wing of the complex was one of the least guarded areas in the entire facility. The doctor disliked company when he was conducting his work. Because of his vital part in the organisation, Maximus had allowed him that courtesy. Maximus had never expected this complex to be infiltrated. Particularly since they had moved operations here only a matter of days before. He should have known keeping paranormal prisoners was never as simple as it appeared. Their tenacity was beyond reason.

Accessing the cameras in Section 22, Maximus was offered a view of the corridor outside Lovecraft's lab. At the moment, a trio of his security wolf men was attempting to break down the steel door, with little success. He wondered a what point would these fools decide to focus their attacks on the walls of stone instead of the door made of iron. They had more than enough artillery in their arsenal to take care of the one and gain an instant passageway to the room. There were about a dozen Ani-Men in the narrow corridor, barking orders at one another without actually getting anything done. He reached for the intercom again.

"Fang!" Maximus roared.

Wherever he was, the Ani-Men quickly responded. "Yes master?"

"Proceed immediately to Section 22. The buffoons there have no idea what they are doing. I want Booster Gold's little siege ended immediately or I'll have your head instead. Do I make myself clear?"

Fang remained silent as he contemplated his answer. "Of course master. I will take care of it myself."

"Good," Maximus retorted and turned back to the screen. Fang was one of his better lieutenants and if he succeeded in this particular task, perhaps Maximus would see to it that he was rewarded. A promotion perhaps. The situation in the corridor had not altered since his attention had strayed from the screen. Things were still in pandemonium and Maximus expected no remarkable change until Fang arrived. What did concern him was why security had felt it necessary to upgrade the alert to a full scale emergency. All he could see before him was evidence of blundering. The situation was urgent but hardly warranted the fanfare of putting the entire complex on alert.

"Maximus!" Lovecraft barged into his office.

Maximus swung around in his chair to face the doctor. Lovecraft was dishevelled and breathing hard. He had obviously run all the way here from his office.

"I know, I know," Maximus retorted deciding he had little patience for the doctor's histrionics. "Booster Gold has invaded your bastion." He said sarcastically.

Lovecraft adjusted his glasses and took a moment to catch his breath. "You don't understand! Zatanna is in that room with him!"

If it was possible for him to turn pale, Maximus would have. "You left her alone with him?" He roared, almost jumping out of his seat. For a moment, Maximus contemplated the merit of leaping across the desk and pulling the coward's throat from his neck. However, now was not the time for such action. Lovecraft stepped back in fear, unable to ignore the savage glint in Maximus' eyes. Now Maximus understood the reason for the emergency. In the background, the klaxons seemed to scream louder now as if they were reflecting his understanding of the situation.

Turning around, he accessed the camera inside Lovecraft's laboratory. Maximus knew what he was going to see even before the picture appeared on the screen. It was the same thing that the security division had seen and the reason why they had precipitated a full scale alert throughout the complex.

"How bad is it?" Lovecraft asked as he came along side Maximus.

"Bad enough." Maximus retorted. His voice was little more than a low growl.

As the image flickered into existence, both men saw that 'bad' was an inadequate assessment of the current crisis. "Oh my." Lovecraft managed to say. "Is that all of them?"

Maximus ignored his question and responded with one of his own. "I am assuming you are going to tell me that Project V is ready for initialisation?" The leader of the Ani-Men turned his massive head towards the man and narrowed his eyes in deadly intent. Lovecraft swallowed visibly, knowing that the wrong answer at this time could cost him dearly. Fortunately, he did not have to lie.

"They've been going through their paces in the training compound." Lovecraft answered. "Their performance so far has been encouraging."

"Good." Maximus nodded slowly. "I think its time they made their debut."

*******

Zatanna was the first thing Ted saw when he materialised in the room.

Only seconds before, the Crusaders had been gathered at Warriors, awaiting any news that Oracle might have garnered during her search through every bit of accessible information available online regarding Leo Enterprises. The waiting game had eroded everyone's tempers to flash point. Ted could personally attest to the deterioration of his patience the more time passed. Things had almost reached critical mass within the group, when suddenly the familiar walls of their meeting room dissolved around them and they materialised in these strange new surroundings.

As always, Guy was on top of things. "What the hell is going on?" He demanded on top of his voice. The pounding against the doors had grown louder now but no one seemed to notice as they were still somewhat disorientated by their sudden change of environment.

"What does it look like!" Booster barked. He was still holding Zatanna in his arms. Although she was breathing easier than before, the magician was still weakened from her ordeal. A situation not improved by having to use her powers before she had sufficient time to recover.

Ted crossed the floor in second and upon approach saw the effect of Lovecraft's alteration. She was beautiful to him no matter what but it twisted his insides knowing that she had been subject to such ghastly experiments. He slid to his knees on the wet floor when he reached her.

"I'm sorry." Booster said quietly. "I tried to stop them."

"Don't be stupid." Zatanna declared offering him a quick glimpse before turning back to Ted. "You got me out there." Her voice was still croaky but it there was strength behind it. Her eyes met Ted's and she forced herself to remember that he was not a superficial man. How she looked would not concern him. "I'm afraid I won't be able to fulfil my duties as Miss America this year."

Ted broke out into an involuntary smile. He did notice how she looked but it was unnecessary to point it out at this particular moment. She was alive. Right now, he was more grateful for that than he cared about her appearance. "Well," he said trying to inject some humour into his voice. "I'll just have to return that tanned suit."

She smiled and even though she looked like Catwoman personified, Ted thought she still looked beautiful. On a more serious note however, he simply had to ask. "Are you alright?"

She was not but Zatanna nodded affirmative any way. "I'll live." She answered and suddenly decided she needed a hug. Zatanna reached for him and let him wrap his arms around her. For a few moments, feeling his closeness was a better tonic than any that could be manufactured with the aid of stimulating drugs.

"Somebody wants their way in here, really bad." Ronnie declared walking right up to the door. Dissolving his molecular structure, he leaned through the solid wall for a few seconds and then pulled back hastily. He turned back to the others. "Do we have company behind door number one."

"How many?" Guy asked.

"At least 10 of them. All big and ugly. It looks like pet show out there." Ronnie wrinkled his nose in disgust.

"No kidding?" Booster exclaimed. "I've been dodging those jokers out there for hours. Where the hell have you guys been?"

"Excuse me, Mister!" Beatriz declared haughtily. "We've been worried sick about you. We followed your signal trace to Leo Enterprises and found the place completely empty! We're not psychic you know."

Donovan Wallace watched the group descend into its usual bickering and let out an exasperated sigh. "You got to be kidding," he said in disbelief and then took a deep breath before hollering out loud. "Would you guys knock it off!" He retorted.

"Thanks Junior." Guy said gratefully.

"You call me junior Guy and I'm going to call you Skipper." Donovan said sweetly.

"Skipper?" Ronnie exclaimed.

Ted returned turned to Zatanna. "Aren't you glad, we're all together again?"

Zatanna rolled her eyes in resignation. "Oh yeah, its just peachy."

II

While the rest of her comrades were enjoying the bonding process of being together again, Sigrid Nansen was involved in heavy study of the equipment and data sheets present in the room. Like all good scientists, Lovecraft kept impeccable records that were easily accessible through the computer terminal in the corner of the room. As Guy began to map out their strategy for attack, she was focused on the methodology of his experimentation. Although the genius behind the work he conducted could not be denied, there were certain immutable laws that even Lovecraft was forced to adhere to in his work with genetic manipulation. Fortunately, most of the work on Zatanna was available in hard data present in the room. Lovecraft had documented the process of transformation meticulously and reading his journals allowed Sigrid to understand something of what the man had accomplished.

She looked around the work station housing the terminal and immediately began searching for disks. Rummaging through the drawers, she found a box full of unused Verbatim diskettes and immediately began downloading of every byte of information Lovecraft had stored in cyberspace. If they were to restore any of the Ani-Men back to normal, this information would be vital. Although Lovecraft could probably expedite matters more quickly if they had him in custody, Sigrid did not want to take that gamble. The last thing she wanted was for Lovecraft to slither away into some cushy minimum security prison for what he had done. The man deserved nothing more than cleaning toilets for the rest of his life, preferably in Blackgate or some place equally barbaric.

Meanwhile, the steel door that kept the Ani-Men away from them was beginning to buckle under the pressure. Using his X-ray vision, Ted was able to see what was taking place on the other side of the wall, instead of Ronnie having to stick his head through the solid structure at random intervals.

"Someone's brought the heavily artillery." Ted reported after seeing one of the Ani-Men arriving with a bazooka.

"Okay," Guy spoke up. "We take them down hard." He said looking at all of them. "They need to be completely on ice because we may be able to help them later."

"So what's the plan?" Booster asked.

"You are taking Zee out of here." Guy replied.

"You're not leaving me out of this." He protested. "I owe that bastard some payback."

"Maybe you do." Guy responded. The tone of his voice indicated he was not tolerating any argument on this matter. "Zee's been through the ringer and without your gear, you're going to have a tough time protecting yourself let alone taking those guys on. Its going to get nasty Booster, I don't want you to become a liability."

Booster wanted to refute Guy's argument but he could not. The injuries on him may have been mild but they should not have been there at all. He was about to speak when suddenly, Zatanna made herself heard. "I'm not going anywhere." She said firmly and broke away from Ted's grasp before standing up shakily. Covered in a blanket created by Ronnie's matter transmuting abilities, Zatanna rose to her full height. Without looking at the others, she turned the door behind which the enemy lay in wait.

"raeppasiD" She said simply. Her voice was dripping with venom as that one word escaped her lips.

The pounding behind the door stopped abruptly.

"fles eurt ym ot em erotseR" She spoke again.

The blanket covering her nakedness disappeared before their eyes and Zatanna Zatara stood before them as they had always known her, without a trace of the mutation that had altered her so terribly. Although she was not completely restored, a minor glamour made them see her as she was before Lovecraft had turned her into a genetic freak.

"Zee, where are they?" Ted demanded because he could see through the door and knew that the Ani-Men behind it were gone. All that was left of them, were their weapons clattered across the floor.

She looked down at him and the fire he saw in her eyes made him shudder. A faint smile stole across her lips as she answered. "Gone."

"Where?" Guy asked.

"Just gone." She retorted sharply and walked towards the door. ".nepO" .

The objects barring the door and making up the barricade were flung across the room to the empty places where they had originally occupied. Heavy equipment was thrown aside as if a giant invisible hand had swept it all away. Once the way was clear, the door creaked open. Zatanna walked through without a second thought. The others could merely stare after her as she departed.

"Jesus." Guy managed to say.

"Talk about being upstaged." Beatriz exhaled loudly.

"I think we better go after her." Ronnie suggested. He knew Zatanna longer than anyone else in the room. Most of them had never seen her like this but Ronnie had heard how she had been after the demon Wotan had captured her father's living soul. Zatanna's power stemmed from her ability to wield it. She was a powerful mystic but the purity of her soul kept the full wrath of her power from being unleashed. Considering what had happened to her in the last few hours, Ronnie had no illusion that Maximus was about to get the full treatment.

"No kidding," Ted said running out of the room in close pursuit. Ronnie was not far behind him.

"Wait a minute Booster," Guy turned to Booster as he started out of the room. "Since you're not going to be leaving, I got something for you to do."

"What's the plan?" Booster asked, pleased that Guy had dispensed with the notion of sending him out of the firing range. After what he had put Zatanna through, Booster wanted to play some part in Maximus' defeat.

"I need you to find Kevin for me." Guy replied softly. Despite his own feelings of vengeance towards Maximus, Guy had not lost sight of the boy who had led them to discover the resurgence of the Ani-Men. Guy had made the boy's mother a promise to find him. Dead or alive, Guy intended to fulfil that promise. He hoped when they found Kevin, it would be in the latter condition rather than the former.

It was a request Booster did not intend to refuse. With everything that had happened since the beginning of this entire affair with the Ani-Men, Kevin Sharp had been the forgotten one in all this drama. Booster also had the idea that Guy wanted him away from the heart of the fighting. The Vuldarian was still mindful of Booster's weakness without his 25th technology and giving him this task was a compromise of sorts that Booster could accept.

"General," Guy turned to Donovan. "I want you two to find him. I don't care what shape he is in. If there's even the slightest chance that we can save him, I'd like to try."

"We'll find him Guy." Booster said looking to Donovan. "Right?"

"If we have to tear this place apart." Donovan reaffirmed Booster's determination because he wanted Kevin Sharp to be all right too. Kevin was from the neighbourhood Donovan Wallace had sworn to protect as General Glory. A part of him was still incensed that Maximus was able to snatch so many to become Ani-Men right under his nose. General Glory was the guardian of the slums and ghettos. Allowing Maximus to do what he did made Donovan feel like a failure and he had enough baggage to deal with on that issue.

"Ice." Guy turned his attention to Sigrid who was strangely quite. She had been seated at the console for most of their time here. He had no doubt that what she was doing was important. Guy had a great deal of respect for the young woman, more so now that she had restored him from a stark raving monster back to his old self. "What are you doing?" He asked.

"I'm downloading all of Lovecraft's data." She announced, not looking up from the screen.

"Are you almost done?" Guy inquired. She was a typical science geek when she was in discovery mode, he thought with a begrudging smile. The Crusaders were lucky to have her.

"Pretty much." She replied, still engrossed by the data on screen.

Guy decided to leave her to her work. He understood the importance of it. Instead, Guy turned to Beatriz. "Stay here and keep an eye on her." He ordered. "When she's done, I want the two of you to see if you can find that bastard Lovecraft."

With that, Guy started walking out of the room.

"Where are you going?" Beatriz called out.

"I'm going to stop Zatanna before she finds Maximus and kills him."

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

I

She was pushing herself and she knew it. However, at the moment, Zatanna did not care.

Her body was exhausted. The spells she had conjured up had drained her reserves even further but Zatanna was not going to yield to the heat of her emotions. Until she dropped down from utter exhaustion, she was not going to stop until Maximus was within reach. It had been a long time since she had so much rage. Not since a mysterious shadow creature had killed her father and not since the demon Wotan had stolen his soul on route to its eternal rest. Being a superhero meant suffering indignities at the hands of would be demi-gods. Zatanna had accepted that as part of the game. However, Maximus had crossed an invisible line she had set for herself years ago. A margin if you would, of what she would tolerate and what she would not. She seldom called upon the power that came with unbridled fury but when she did, those who had chosen to incur her wrath had good reason to regret it.

Maximus was going to understand that before the sun set on this day.

"Zee!" She heard Ted call once she left the laboratory where her indignity began.

"What?" She responded tautly.

"I won't let you do it." He said quietly.

She paused in her footsteps and turned to face him. He stood before her with concern on his face. "What do you mean?"

"You've got a right to be angry, I know that." He answered calmly, his voice measured. "But I don't have to tell you that its wrong to kill him. You know that. We live in a world with laws and as much as those laws may feel meaningless at times, they still apply in every situation. Even more so to us."

"He has turned me into a freak!" She shouted. "Look at me!" Zatanna exclaimed. "This woman you see is hidden underneath a cheap parlour trick. Its a minor glamour to hide what I've become. I won't live my life having to hide who I am!"

"No one said you had to." Ted tried to convince her. "Killing him isn't going to change that!"

"He has to pay!" She cried out furiously. Of all the people, she thought Ted would understand. He said he loved her! Did that not mean anything in comparison to his ideals? "How could you question that?"

Ted took a deep breath because he wanted her to know that he was angry at Maximus as well but he had also had a line of conduct that he chose to live his life. "I love you Zee, I couldn't care what you looked like but I won't let you kill him. It's not who you are. This is the anger talking, perhaps even a little of what he did to you. All I know is that there are rules to which we have to abide. If we disregard them at our pleasure than we become exactly what people think we are. Self style gods who rule above them not heroes sworn to protect. You know that better than any of us."

Zatanna turned away because she could not deny what he was saying to be untrue. "I won't let him do this again."

"None of us will." Guy stated as he came around the corner with Ronnie. The two men had heard some of the conversation between Ted and Zatanna as they approached. "This ends here Zee." Guy said firmly. "But we're doing it clean."

"Come on Zee," Ronnie said gently. "I want him dead for Reena but that won't bring her back either. Now Ice is down loading everything about Lovecraft's research. If there is an answer to help you and all the others, its in there and she'll find it."

Zatanna stood before them, her fists were clenched. Their words had breached the walls of her anger, to the person who believed all life was sacred. She had no more thirst for killing than any one of them but Maximus had frightened her. In all her life, she had never felt such fear as those few hours in the forming tank, when she had contemplated the possibility of a living hell. The fear had been so intense that Zatanna had been tempted to give in to it and the exposure of that vulnerability made her furious.

"All right," she conceded and saw Ted let out an involuntary sigh of relief. "I won't kill him." She answered looking at her comrades. "But when we are done here, I want him."

The men exchanged glances and it was Guy who spoke. "Why?"

Her eyes narrowed with cold fury, tamed but unabated. "When we have him." She said coolly. "When we have him."

*******

Zatanna's display of power had more or less ensured that no more Ani-Men would be attempting to breach the empty corridors that made up Section 22. No doubt, Maximus was at this moment formulating new strategy, holding his forces back until a plan of attack had been devised. As Booster and Donovan left Lovecraft's laboratory, both men were aware that this room was only one in an entire wing. If Kevin Sharp was still alive, he would be found in one of the rooms that existed in this labyrinth of steel and concrete. Unfortunately, the wing consisted of a dozen different doors and the interlude before Maximus made his move was all too brief.

Even though Booster felt vulnerable without his gauntlets, he refused to let such considerations affect him. Guy had given him a job to do and it was one he accepted without question. This was not just about saving one boy. When he had been inside the arena, he had looked up and saw countless faces, twisted beyond the wildest nightmare that Poe or Barker could concoct. It was likely that none of those transformations had undertaken voluntarily. The people behind those feral eyes had been destroyed by Maximus' conditioning process. He did not know if they could be reached after such genetic damage but Guy had been saved. If it was possible for one man to recover, it might be possible for all of them.

After separating from the others, Booster and Donovan began searching the rooms in Section 22. Some rooms were no more than storage areas for equipment and biogenetic material used in Lovecraft's procedure. Then there were rooms containing the forming tanks. Booster counted at least a dozen in each room. If one did the math, it was possible to understand how Maximus had created such a formidable enemy.

"I didn't think this could get worse." Donovan remarked as he stared through the green fluid at a figure that was slowly being transformed into a human-crustacean hybrid. He could see the thick plates of its exoskeleton beginning to over lap skin. Some of the specimens were awake and pounded at their cages for freedom. Others were so deranged by what was happening to them that they were bordered on the hysterical and on total catatonia. "When we saw the old base," he turned away from the tank. "They were all dead and I thought that was bad but this…."

"Easy there kid," Booster said forcing himself not to look. "Let's just concentrate on finding Kevin."

"But we can't leave them here." Donovan glanced involuntarily at the crustacean man who was staring at him with its rotating external eyes in desperation.

"We're going to have to for the moment." Booster answered, knowing how difficult this was for the young man. In truth, he was finding it hard to walk of this place himself but the reality of the situation was evident. "We don't know if they're a threat or not. Frankly, we don't have the time to find out. Once we take Maximus down, we'll deal with this. Perhaps Sigrid will know how to help them." He did not want to add if these people could be helped.

"Let's get out here." Donovan retorted and started for the door. Suddenly, he wanted these unfortunates out of sight and mind for a while. He was never very good at admitting defeat, even in the face of the obvious.

The door slid open and Donovan stepped out of the doorway, just in time to hear the loud crack of bullets, whizzing past him. Booster pulled him backwards before he was caught in the hail of flying projectiles. Both men fell back into the room and Booster stuck his head long enough to see a pack of Ani-Men security coming up the corridor. Without wasting any time, he pulled out the gun he had kept near him and returned fire. The Ani-Men quickly retreated down the corridor and jumped for cover at the nearest corridor.

"Come on!" Booster shouted and leapt into the air.

He need not tell Donovan twice as the younger man suddenly sprouted wings from his back and fell into pursuit. They had not managed to get a few metres ahead when more bullets erupted behind them. Booster wished more than ever he had access to his force field. Although his Legion flight ring was a formidable asset, it was not going to keep him from taking a bullet if the right one had his name on it.

"Down the corner!" Booster shouted over the sound of exploding bullets.

"We can't keep running like this." Donovan retorted and looked up at the ceiling. He stopped flying in mid air and called out to Booster. "Follow me!" He replied. Without further warning, Donovan smashed through the ceiling. Plaster and concrete flew in all directions as he made a sizeable hole through the hard material. Booster had to fly through the cloud of debris that followed Donovan sudden exit from the corridor.

The Ani-Men wasted no time and immediately aimed their fire towards the ceiling where their quarry had disappeared. Letting loose a vicious barrage of gunfire, the bullets dug into the concrete surface as far as they could. The corridor began to fill with the smoke of discharging weapons, until the noxious gas began to seep through the opening into the narrow passageway where Booster and Donovan were taking temporary refuge.

"I hope you have more of a plan that this." Booster declared, wrinkling his nose as the smell started to thicken.

"I do." Donovan said confidently. "Levitate." He instructed.

Booster looked at him.

"What am I, David Copperfield?"

"Do it or you're going to fall on your ass when I do this!" Donovan exclaimed with exasperation. Without any further coaxing, Donovan smashed his fist on the hard surface. The power behind his fist impacted against the concrete like a jackhammer. Immediately, Booster began to see cracks appear in the concrete, running through the even surface like the fissures from an earthquake preparing to split the earth in two. Donovan delivered a second blow and the fissures than ran across the length of concrete heaved in final protest before shattering.

As Booster and Donovan hovered above in safety, they watched as the concrete ceiling collapse like a ton of bricks. When it finally crumbled, there was no sound or warning, merely a strained groan of the floor as it crashed onto the enemy below. Already weaken by the projectiles that had penetrated its underbelly in a dozen places, the ceiling broke up into large chunks, partially burying the Ani-Men who were attempting to use them for target practice.

"Not bad for a rookie." Booster remarked with admiration. The Ani-Men below were in varying stages of injury. Some where unconscious, others were merely rendered immobile by broken bones but most were simply disorientated. Neither Booster nor Donovan anticipated that this condition would last indefinitely, so it was probably wise to depart immediately and resume their search.

"Thanks," Donovan grinned as they emerged from the torn ceiling. "I'm known for bringing the house down."

Booster groaned at the bad pun and made a face as if he had tasted something bad. "We have got to work on our witty repartee."

II

It was strange how old habits always surfaced once fed with the proper incentive. For the better part of a decade, Beatriz De Costa had been one half of a double act. Even when her code name was Green Flame, she was always spoken synonymously with Ice Maiden. Later when duo had decided to make the name official with change to Fire and Ice, it seemed perfectly natural. When Tora Olafsdotter had died, Beatriz had believed she had lost the better part of herself. Ice was not just an elemental contradiction in her life but it was also existed as part of her soul. The hardest thing one ever has to overcome is the realisation that things change, people move on and some even die.

And then Sigrid emerged out of obscurity and suddenly Ice was not a dead friend but a living hero. At first, Beatriz believed her to be an imposter. It took a great deal of time for her to understand that Sigrid was not Tora, that in assuming the mantle of Ice, she did automatically become Beatriz's lost half. It was a difficult lesson to learn and it was a long time coming before Beatriz was able to understand that Tora was gone and with her, the team that once Fire and Ice.

Still it was nice to feel the cool against her fire once again.

The group had separated because the complex was vast and more ground could be covered. Despite the dangerous potential of the enemy, Guy had decided that this was the best way to proceed. He also knew that while Beatriz had the experience to cope with any situation, Sigrid was a thinker. She was as cool and deliberate in her actions as she was capable of freezing the air inside the enemy's lung. They made a good team and he was learning how to exploit the differing nature of his comrades to create a formidable fighting force.

Beatriz understood his reasoning and thus it felt strangely comforting to feel the blast of ice against her skin as they fought alongside each other. It was obvious that Maximus had not anticipated the breach of this fortress for his Ani-Men seemed to attack without proper direction. The two women were slowly advancing towards the heart of the complex. Under such circumstances, it was reasonable to assume that Lovecraft would be staying close to Maximus. The doctor was a valuable resource and it was unlikely that Maximus would permit him to be anywhere he could be harmed.

In the instance that Maximus chose to make a hasty exit, Guy wanted Sigrid and Beatriz to sever any alternate routes of escape. He expected Maximus to run and if that happened, then Fire and Ice would cut him off before the rest of the Crusaders closed in on him. Chances were good that Lovecraft would be in attendance when this took place.

"Behind us!" Beatriz shouted as another horde of Ani-Men engaged them in another corridor. The place was maze of nondescript corridors and although Beatriz felt somewhat claustrophobic as they encountered one corridor after another, she could not help feel some familiarity about this place.

Beatriz reacted before Sigrid had even turned around. The Norwegian looked over her shoulder to see a powerful gust of green fire surging overhead towards the Ani-Men. Like the others, they seemed reluctant to engage either herself of Beatriz and their manner caused her mind to start racing. From the moment they had left Section 22, they had encountered numerous groups of Ani-Men security. Their attacks seemed uncoordinated, since they did appear long enough to be seen but not enough to engage the two women.

Understandable, Sigrid decided, considering Beatriz use of her powers could be fatal to them had she truly intended it. On a basic level, they feared the fire. It seemed ironic that fire was still man's greatest weapon against the savagery of stronger predators. However, these Ani-Men were not all primitive life forms. They possessed even in the most meagre portions, the intelligence of man.

"Come on," Beatriz declared. "We don't want to hurt them more than we have to." The veteran Leaguer urged turning down another path through the catacombs of the complex.

The corridor ended with a glimmer of sunlight in the distance. As they hurried up the steel floor, Sigrid could feel the ground making a sharp ascent towards the light. Obviously, this led outside. However, something did bother her about this. No Ani-Men seemed to be following them. Throughout their journey here, the Ani-Men had dogged their every step. Minutes could not pass without Beatriz or Sigrid running into the creatures. Suddenly, they had chosen not to follow.

By the time Sigrid began to ponder the reason for such strategy, they had reached the top of the corridor that emptied into the outside compound. High electrical wire fencing surrounded the large circle of land. It ran upwards and then extended into a lattice work of steel that kept the sky from them. Whatever this place might have been, it certainly was not for escape. For a minute, she expected to see a goat tied up in the corner and a glass of water beginning to shudder on someone's dash board.

"At least its one way to get out." Beatriz landed close to her and forced the flames around her body to quick submission. It was possible for her to burn her way out but it would take time. In either case, she was not worried. Guy or Ted could easily tear their way through this with little difficulty.

"I don't like this." Sigrid remarked. She looked around the place. Although it was quiet, she could feel its sinister purpose. The section of compound against the structure of the facility revealed a small set of doors at regular intervals. "My spider sense is tingling." Sigrid replied, approaching the nearest door gingerly.

"Your spider sense?" Beatriz looked at her. "You watch way too much Buffy."

"Like you don't." Sigrid returned her gaze sarcastically.

"I occasionally glance at it." The Brazillian replied hotly. "Besides, you gotta love Cordelia."

Sigrid was not surprised. "Sorry," she returned. "I'm for Willow."

Beatriz was not surprised either.

The conversation froze when the two women reached the doors. Sigrid kept glancing over her shoulder at the way they had come and it disturbed her that none of the Ani-Men had yet to appear. The doors in front of them were small. For either women to enter it, they would have to stoop and even then Sigrid was not sure it could be done without getting on all fours. While the length of the door way might be short, its width was another matter entirely. It was a good metre and half across and Sigrid was at a lost to fathom its purpose.

Sigrid walked right to the base of the metal doors and saw that it was controlled electronically. The hinges on the entry way revealed that the door did not part but rather slid upwards when activated. As she pressed her ear to the cool metal surface, she could hear sounds behind it. She pulled back when she realised the sounds were of something alive.

"Hey." Beatriz exclaimed. "Look." She pointed to the cameras that were mounted strategically against the walls.

"He's watching us." Sigrid stated and then suddenly realised.

"Oh damn." Beatriz met her gaze in wide eyes shock when both women reached the same conclusion.

Almost on cue, they turned to they way had come through to the courtyard and saw the door that they had not seen earlier, snapped shut with sharp descent. The steel dug into the dirt floor, kicking up a small pile of dust as it hit the ground and sealed them inside the courtyard. Sigrid had taken a few steps forward in a vain effort to reach it but it was futile. She never had a chance of reaching it.

"I guess we definitely underestimated them." Beatriz pointed out as her body slowly burst into flames. "I'm going to burn us out of here." She responded, leaping into the air and closed the distance between herself and the lattice work in seconds.

No sooner than she had spoken, both women heard the soft scraping of metal sliding against metal. Sigrid turned around and saw immediately that strange doors were sliding open. Instinctively, she stepped away from the multiple exit ways.

"Sigrid," Beatriz called out. "Make yourself some high ground!" She ordered.

She need not say it twice. Sigrid was already in the process of freezing the air underneath her to form a thick column of ice that lifted her off the ground. The sounds she heard were becoming louder, as if the openings were the mouths of long passageways that created echoes. She could not place the sound although it sounded strangely familiar.

As the column grew higher taking Sigrid away to momentary safety, the ground became dark as the creatures spilled out of the doors like treacle moving across a smooth surface. They quickly swept around the ice, filing the space of the compound like the water from a broken damn. Sigrid watched them, her eyes wide. Despite everything that she was, all the power that made her so formidable, she stared at them with nothing less than terror.

"Oh god," she heard Beatriz exclaim in a choked whisper. "What are they?"

"Cicindilae." Sigrid responded, recognising the breed almost immediately. She was unable to take her eyes from them as she stared at their long mandibles tearing away at the ice. After a second, she looked up at Beatriz.

"They're better known as Tiger Beetles."

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

I


Zatanna did not believe in wasting time. Even though she was weak and her body had yet to recover from Lovecraft's ministrations, she was riding an adrenaline inspired wave of fury that forced her to ignore such limitations. Although Ted had convinced her that killing the Ani-Men leader was wrong and in truth she knew he was right, Zatanna still wanted retribution.

Instead of prolonging their search throughout the complex for the elusive villains, Zatanna called on her powers to bring the Crusaders to him. After that, she would let Guy and the others deal with him. Maximus' near defeat of the League years ago because he held the element of surprise but this was not the same super group he was facing. The Crusaders were harder, less indecisive and not tethered by the moral obligations that made the League vulnerable. When a threat was exposed, they knew only to deal with it quickly and decisively. Short of spilling blood, the Crusaders were extremely effective.

The spell she had conjured to bring them face to face with Maximus placed the Crusaders on the floor of the arena. There had not been much time to talk when Booster had liberated her from the tanks but Zatanna knew that this was the arena where Booster had gambled on his bid for escape. At the moment, the arena was empty but Maximus had to be here. The spell would not have brought the Crusaders here unless Maximus was present.

"This feels like a trap." Guy declared as he looked at the empty stands above their heads. Before arriving here, it felt as if they had fought an entire army of Ani-Men. The sirens and klaxons were still screaming their warning throughout the building and it seemed splitting up the group had thrown the enemy into confusion. Maximus might have guessed that the Crusaders would be after Lovecraft but he doubted the Ani-Men leader would anticipate that Guy wanted Kevin rescued as well. To Maximus, Kevin was just another Omega for the blood sport; certainly not important to warrant all this attention once the Crusaders had learnt the identity of Kevin's abductors.

"Tell me about it." Ted scanned the area with his X-ray vision. Some of the walls of the in the structure was lined with lead that kept him from seeing through it. It was still disconcerting to use this particular power because it required so much concentration.

"I'll just zip through the place." Ronnie exclaimed as he took to the air.

"Get back here junior." Guy said sharply. "Not until Ted does a quick visual recon."

"Aw man," Ronnie complained making a reluctant landing. "It will take only take a minute."

"So will this." Ted answered, while he continued to survey the area. The range of his X-ray vision was limited but he was still able to see some of the Ani-Men closing in on them. Apparently, the Crusaders had done enough damage to their numbers to warrant Maximus using the non-security Ani-Men in his stable. "We've got incoming." Ted exclaimed as he stared through the far wall. "Although I can't see through this section here." He pointed towards the lead-lined wall only a few meters away. There were large doors attached to it but Ted could not see through it either. It concerned Ted what lay behind that wall for it seemed to run several meters beyond the range of his X-ray vision. This was their only blind spot and Ted did not appreciate the mystery. Zatanna's spell had brought them here for a reason. Although he did not voice it, Ted was certain that this was where Maximus was hiding.

"Okay hothead," Guy looked at Ronnie. "Go check it out but don't do anything stupid."

"What me?" Ronnie returned his gaze, looking a picture of innocence. Before Guy could respond, the young man flew towards the wall and disappeared into its dark surface. He looked as if he was diving into a pool of black water that would not even create a ripple as he penetrated it.

"Boy that kid reminds me of you." Ted retorted.

Guy scowled at him as he focused his attention on Zatanna who had been quiet all this time. Although her eyes were moving across the amphitheatre in meticulous examination, both men saw that she was struggling to maintain her cool demeanour. It was not difficult to see through her anger and no that she was attempting to be strong even if she was exhausted.

"Zee," Guy spoke up. "I really think you need to leave." He said trying to be gentle.


Zatanna whirled around and glared at him. "Not until I have him." She said sharply, her eyes flaring with fire.

"Look," Ted entered the conversation knowing how determined she could be when she had set a mind to something. "I know you want to be here and under normal circumstances, I would feel safer if you were but," he paused as he steeled himself for her anger. "These aren't normal circumstances. You've been hurt and you obviously weakened. I'm going to tell you the same thing Guy told Booster, you could be more of a liability than an asset in this fight." He stepped forward and took her hands in his.

Zatanna met his gaze and he knew his words had affected her even if she did not like admitting. "I won't let him get away with what he's done to me and all those others."

"He's not getting away." Ted said firmly, having a personal stake in nailing Maximus' hide to the wall. "I want him to pay what he's put you through. You'll get your pound of flesh even if I have to cut it out him."

She was about to respond to that when suddenly Ronnie emerged from the wall at top speed. "Heads up! We've got company!"

The huge doors screeched apart no sooner than the words had left his lips. Ted turned to Zatanna and swept her into his arms. No matter how much she wanted to stay and fight, Ted was not risking her life. She was exhausted and overextended. He could see that in every movement she made. Before she could protest, Ted was soaring towards the rafters. He did not look behind to see what was emerging from the doorway.

"What are you doing?" She demanded.

Ted reached a wide beamed rafter near the ceiling. "I'm doing this for your own good." He said preparing himself for an argument. Placing her on the rafter, she was for the moment, out of harms way. He knew that if she needed to get down, Zatanna was capable of using her magic to reach that end.

Instead of protest however, he was greeted with agreement. "I know." She answered and nestled herself on the safety of the beam. She was pushing herself and she could deny neither to herself nor to him. Capturing Maximus was important to her but not so important that she would risk her comrades' life by becoming a liability they could ill afford. "Be careful Ted." She placed a hand on his cheek as he hovered in mid air. Despite his bravado, Ted was still recovering from his injuries.


"You just sit tight," Ted replied confidently. "For once, I'm going to enjoy being able to enjoy kicking the crap out of these guys."

Ted left her then and faced the ground once more. His eyes widened as he saw what Guy and Ronnie were facing down below. The mutation that they had been subject to did not seem at all like any of the Ani-Men he had seen so far. The animal part of the collection was clearly porcine. He could see sharp tusks protruding from either side of their snouts. They were heavy set, with protruding muscles, no doubt steroid induced, with little in their eyes that could be considered human, even though they walked upright and had hominid digits.

They were wild boars; he realised as he landed next to Guy. The Australians called them razorbacks and although they were in essence wild pigs, they were nothing like their domestic cousins. In their original state, they were highly aggressive, carnivores and were relentless when it came to downing their prey. Now that those natural instincts had been tampered with, Ted was suddenly glad he had invulnerability in his arsenal.

The Razorbacks snarled at them. In the shadows behind the Ani-Men, Ted could see Maximus looking on proudly. Ted immediately felt his senses stirring uncomfortably. He was surprised that Maximus would overplay his hand so much by placing himself in such a vulnerable position. He briefly wondered where Lovecraft was during all of this.

"Maximus." Ted said nodding towards the entrance behind the razorbacks.

"Okay," Guy said taking a deep breath. His broad chest filling up with more than just air, Ted decided. The Vuldarian was getting ready for a fight. He met Ted' gaze and then did not look over his shoulder when he addressed.

"You ready junior?" He asked.

"As I'll ever be." Ronnie responded. His own gaze was fixed on the enemy. The pause between the moments was rapidly dwindling.

"Well," Guy almost smiled when he spoke. "Let's rock and roll."

***********

The oversized swarm of tiger beetles surrounded the column quickly and beginning attacking the ice that kept Sigrid aloft. For beetles, this particular genus possessed extremely long mandibles. She knew from experience what they were capable of doing with flesh. In universities, tiger beetles were used to strip carcasses to the bone. Now, they were the size of large dogs and no less efficient. Already, she started to see chips of ice flying in all directions as the beetles went to work.

Sigrid aimed a blast of ice at the base of the column. The beetles moved fast, withdrawing almost when they felt the cold current coming towards them. She snared some of them but most had escaped the gust of super cool air. They moved fast, scurrying about so quickly that it gave her trouble trying to see each beetle as an individual rather than a collective hold.


Beatriz was meanwhile working on the lattice work overhead. Although it was easy enough for her to despatch the swarm, she was hesitant to kill them. Unfortunately the effects of fire were permanent and producing more heat on the ground would only compromise Sigrid's ice column. The metal lattice began to turn red with head and she knew it would not be long before the metal started to liquefy.

"Bea!" She heard Sigrid call and turned around just in time to see a beetle flying at her. Instinctively, she raised her arms but knew she was in little danger. The insect moved through her body, bursting into flames as it passed through living fire. Beatriz heard it emit an agonised squeal as it descended into the group, trailing green fire behind it. The swarm immediately pulled back from its dying comrade, creating an island of its burning body. Others began to take to the air, their dark wings moving so fast that it seemed like they more like hummingbirds then they were beetles.

However, they did not seem to be flying towards Beatriz. Instead, they flew in Sigrid's direction. The heroine known as Ice dropped to her knees as one flew overhead but did not react in time to see two others coming at her in different directions.

"Watch out!" Beatriz shouted a warming and let loose a stream of green flames at the insects. One was quickly engulfed in fire while the other fell on the ground, crushing those beneath it under the block of ice surroundings its exoskeleton. Their burning comrades sent the beetles into frenzy as all of them began flying towards Sigrid, knowing that she was more vulnerable than Beatriz.

Sigrid tried to stay on top of the column. Inevitably, one of the creatures knocked her over the edge. She let out a short scream as she felt herself hit the ground. Almost immediately, the beetles swarmed in around her. As she saw them close in, Sigrid was almost paralysed with fear. Sharp mandibles snapped audibly and large compound eyes stared at her in meaningless hunger. Beatriz was sending gusts of fire in all directions, trying to force them away from her. However, Beatriz could not send her flames too close to Sigrid without burning her to a crisp as well.

Sigrid let loose another gust of cold ice that for a few seconds forced the beetles back. She rolled onto her knees and planted both hands on the ground. She did not intend to be eaten alive by these things and there was no way for Beatriz to intervene without placing Sigrid's life in danger. For this to end, it required Sigrid to act. Her fingers dug into the ground and she concentrated hard even as the cold air around her dissipated under the heat of burning carcasses and Beatriz' attempt to help her. The sound of their snapping mandibles was enough to unhinge her but Sigrid knew she had to act, no matter what was creeping around her.

Think cold, she told herself. Think super cold.

The ground beneath her fingers started to ice up. From the air, Beatriz saw the dirt suddenly frost over with white sprinkles of ice. The web of ice slowly expanded in a growing circle of cold. She saw the beetles withdraw further as the icy temperature and the growing frost underneath snaked towards them. Beatriz had stopped shooting fire at them because she knew it would counteract whatever Sigrid was attempting to accomplish. She could see the fear in her friend's eyes and wished there were someway she could help.

In an attempt to counteract Sigrid's action of freezing the ground around her, the beetles began taking to flight, hoping to continue their attack in the air. Some collided into her, knocking her off her feet but unaware that she was not simply making freezing the ground. Her own body temperature had plunged below freezing and anyone coming into contact with her skin would soon have reason to regret it. Unlike Tora, whose formidable ice powers allowed her to create formations so large that she could knock space ships out of the air, Sigrid's power was possibly more refined. Her entire body acted as a conduit for cold. When she became super cool, she not only created ice and drop temperatures but was also able to freeze at a molecular level.

For the beetles trying to escape the cold, they were only now starting to realise that the temperature was the least of their troubles. Those who had not managed to move out of its range were swept up by the onslaught of ice, as the fluid between their cells began to freeze. The brittle corrosion of cell against cell was fatal. Most remained trapped where they had fallen, like half-formed sculptures against a river of ice. In desperation, the beetles took the air and flew towards Sigrid, hoping to disrupt whatever she was doing. Although their intelligence was limited, the part of them that had once been human and had not become insane over the transformation knew that much.

Those beetles unfortunate enough to touch her skin froze in mid flight. Freezing over in seconds of contact, they crashed into the dirt, shattering into a thousand pieces, as their bodies became brittle with cold. The super cold gases moved over the fire and extinguish them with little thought, overcoming the burning bodies of fallen beetles with little concern over the heat. Beatriz watched in a mixture of astonishment and horror as the beetles became scrambling back to the narrow openings, hoping to escape the certain death of ice.

Sigrid was beyond reach now. Beatriz could see the ice in her hair, she could see the frost glazing Sigrid's, narrowed in deep concentration. Sigrid's normally blue skin had become translucent almost as if her entire body was becoming ice. The beetles' attempts to leave the compound became fever pitched as the circle of ground was encased completely in cold ice. Bodies trapped beneath the river of cold, protruded from the smooth surface at regular intervals. Beatriz could see carcasses through the clear sheet of ice.

The Ani-Men insects began cramming themselves through the narrow passageway from which they had emerged to escape the killing zone. Beatriz watched impotently, as they climbed over one another in a desperate attempt to flee. Sigrid had yet to stop and now the ice was snaking up the walls of the complex, forming ice particles against the rough surface of concrete. Frost was appeared against the mesh of the fence line, running up the lattice work design. Beatriz could hear the groaning of stone underneath the intense pressure of its molecules grinding against each other. The intensity of it was rapidly reaching breaking point. She estimated it would take only a few more seconds before.

No sooner than the thought had crossed her mind did Beatriz hear the loud crack that suddenly tore through the air. Mighty fissures appeared in the sheer concrete wall, racing across the stone surface and before climaxing in an earth shattering explosion of sound that sent debris in all directions. Large chunks and splintering shards of rock flew outwards like bullets. Beatriz saw the hail of concrete and mortar rushing towards Sigrid.

"Sigrid!" Beatriz cried out. "Look out!"

Sigrid regained her senses as she saw the barrage coming down over her head. Without thinking twice, she threw up a canopy of ice over herself like a protective shield. The falling debris smashed against the ice, creating perilous cracks that threatened to collapse the entire structure onto top of Sigrid. Beatriz watched the scene unfold with her breath held. However, despite the violence against it, Sigrid's ice shield held fast and protected her as the last of the rock reached the ground.

"Help!" Beatriz looked up and saw a man hanging off the side of the exposed complex. Two levels had been ripped open like a can someone had taken to it with a can opener. The man was holding onto a chair that was hanging precariously over the edge. Its leg was caught up against a small ledge of broken rock and the man's weight was pressing hard against that fragile hold.

The rooms that lay exposed to them were filled with electronic equipment that included monitoring screens and other sophisticated electronics. The man was genuine terrified as he hung in the air like a puppet who was faced with the knowledge that his strings would soon be cut. He was wearing a white coat that swayed in the wind as he dangled and suddenly, Beatriz was struck with a flash of insight.

"Lovecraft." She called to him.

The man reacted instinctively to his name. His eyes touched hers almost involuntarily. Unfortunately, it was too late. His secret was out. Unfortunately, for the moment, he did not seem to have any convenient escapes readily available.

"Sigrid," Beatriz looked at her companion "You want to do the honours?"

"Sure." Sigrid smiled. Her skin had returned to normal although Beatriz did not doubt that the ice would keep away the beetles for a while at least. Insects as a rule despised cold weather and tended to shrink away from it at all opportunity. Obviously Ani-Men insects were now immune to this behavioural trait of arthopodian life. Stepping over the debris as Beatriz landed on the ground behind her, Sigrid stepped over the debris and went to the space beneath Lovecraft's pendulous state.

As the ice rose beneath her feet, it created a narrow platform under the doctor. In a matter of seconds the platform had risen like an elevator carrying Sigrid with it. She ceased the formation when the slab of ice had reached Lovecraft.

"Greetings doctor." She said politely as Lovecraft let go of the chair and landed safely before her.

He straightened his coat and looked nervous. Straightening his laboratory coat, he tried to maintain his dignity even if he did look like a frightened little man. Sigrid expected just as much. While his victims were trapped inside their forming tanks with no way to harm him, Lovecraft could indulge in his sickest genetic fancies. However, right now his laboratory was far from here and he was facing paranormals who can end his life with a thought.

"Impeccable timing." He replied after regaining his composure. "I was not aware that you were capable of freezing on a molecular level."

"I'm glad I proved entertaining." Sigrid said coolly. This man sickened her. His breed of science sullied every man and women who dedicated themselves to pursuit of understanding and learning. It was these kinds of monsters that kept the pursuit of scientific pursuit trapped in the darkness for so long. Even now, the general public still viewed the scientific community with caution. Men like Lovecraft only served to prove that such fears were justified. "I've downloaded all your data on the mutations doctor," she spoke glaring at him. "I look forward to your personal input."

Lovecraft's eyes narrowed in hatred. "You do not steal my life's work and expect me to share my knowledge with a freak of nature!" He spat viciously.

Sigrid took a step forward. Suddenly, a dark shape appeared out of a shadowy corner. It moved strangely, too many legs to be human and for a moment, Sigrid thought this might be one of those beetles she had fought earlier. Instead, the creature pivoted its head towards her and glared at her with blood red compound eyes. Before Sigrid could react, the spider creature parted its mandibles and spat a glob of clear fluid against her. It hit her like a wet blanket and set her over the edge of the platform.

"Sigrid!" Beatriz screamed as she saw the Norwegian fell to the ground. Flaming on, she leapt in the air but the creature grabbed Lovecraft and disappeared through the door. Beatriz was tempted to pursue them but her concern was for Sigrid. The drop was not terribly dangerous but she had fallen badly against hard ice.

She landed next to Sigrid who covered in the translucent goo and was trying to tear it off her. Beatriz heard her groan as she moved and knew that Sigrid was injured. The substance that had enveloped her upper body had the consistency of glue and felt nauseating to the touch.


"Are you okay?" Beatriz asked and thought what a stupid question that was.

"I am okay," Sigrid grumbled fighting free of the sticky substance. "Did you see that thing?"

"I saw it." Beatriz replied trying to help tear the fluid from Sigrid's struggling limbs. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as the brief image flashed in her mind.

"Was that what I think it was?" Beatriz asked.

"Yeah," Sigrid groaned, feeling her ribs throb where she had landed. She was certain at least two of them were broken. "The biggest damn spider I've ever seen."

"You know something," Beatriz said with a weary sigh. "How come we always get the bugs?"

 
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