Argent - hmmaster - Young Justice (Cartoon) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Arc 0.1 - A More Horrid Reality Chapter Text Chapter 2: 0.2 - Shades of Gray Chapter Text Chapter 3: 0.3 - Displaced Chapter Text Chapter 4: 0.4 - Face That Fire Chapter Text Chapter 5: 0.5 - Into an Iridescent Abyss Chapter Text Chapter 6: Arc 1.1 - Anything Chapter Text Chapter 7: 1.2 - Lucky Chapter Text Chapter 8: 1.3 - Delectable Chapter Text Chapter 9: 1.4 - Absolute Chapter Text Chapter 10: 1.5 - Team Chapter Text Chapter 11: 1.6 - Savor Chapter Text Chapter 12: 1.7 - Anomaly Chapter Text Chapter 13: 1.8 - Morsel Chapter Text Chapter 14: 1.9 - Guilt Chapter Text Chapter 15: 1.10 - Debrief Chapter Text Chapter 16: 1.11 - Expose Chapter Text Chapter 17: 1.12 - Elation Chapter Text Chapter 18: Interlude - A Split of the Party Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 19: Arc 2.1 - Risks Chapter Text Chapter 20: 2.2 - Anxiety Chapter Text Chapter 21: 2.3 - Experiment Chapter Text Chapter 22: 2.4 - Heaven Chapter Text Chapter 23: 2.5 - Safe Haven Chapter Text Chapter 24: 2.6 - Pod Chapter Text Chapter 25: 2.7 - Suspect Chapter Text Chapter 26: 2.8 - Impure Chapter Text Chapter 27: 2.9 - Overstep Chapter Text Chapter 28: 2.10 - Panic Chapter Text Chapter 29: 2.11 - Burdens Chapter Text Chapter 30: 2.12 - Protector Chapter Text Chapter 31: Interlude - Meaning Chapter Text Chapter 32: 3.1 - Smart Chapter Text Chapter 33: 3.2 - Unit Chapter Text Chapter 34: 3.3 - Wants Chapter Text Chapter 35: 3.4 - Goals Chapter Text Chapter 36: 3.5 - Sins Chapter Text Chapter 37: 3.6 - Conversations Chapter Text Chapter 38: 4.1 - Traitor Chapter Text Chapter 39: 4.2 - Made Chapter Text Chapter 40: 4.3 - Perspective Chapter Text Chapter 41: 4.4 - Trapped Chapter Text Chapter 42: 4.5 - Extraction Chapter Text Chapter 43: Interlude - Recovery Chapter Text Chapter 44: 5.1 - Miracles Chapter Text Chapter 45: 5.2 - Promises Chapter Text Chapter 46: 5.3 - Momentum Chapter Text Chapter 47: 5.4 - Desperation Chapter Text Chapter 48: 5.5 - Duel Chapter Text Chapter 49: 5.6 - Ascend Chapter Text References

Chapter 1: Arc 0.1 - A More Horrid Reality

Chapter Text

The muted sound of what could only be shifting flesh stirs me from a horrible nightmare into a more horrid reality. My eyes shake open after a moment, only to find more shadow that clarity. Panic erupts in my chest with the realization that I am pinned inside… something. Every few seconds, that something undulates, and it is all I can do to breathe.

Would this be my coffin? Is this too dissimilar from being buried alive?

Light floods the darkened chamber, partially blocked by the silhouette of a tall, thin figure floating into view. A robe flutters at its feet, and four spindly tentacles protrude from the base of its purple-skinned, oblong head. A wide, terrifying collar extends behind its neck, and sickly eyes turn their attention toward the strange structure in the middle of the chamber.

An illithid.

A mind flayer!?

Thoughts race through my head as I consider what the hell this should mean. What could this mean?

I have never dreamed of being a character in a D&D game before, despite the hundreds of hours of playing over the past several years. Clearly, this proves I'm overdue.

Yeah – a nightmare from late-night caffeine and snacks. No way could this be anything different.

The eldritch being hovers inches above the ground, its fleshy clothing accentuating its alien nature. It stops in the center of the chamber, reaching out with its fist. As its fist opens, so too does the pod, telekinetically. A glimmering amber liquid comes into view, the pool's surface almost vibrating as its dim light fills the room.

If this is a dream, it is the most vibrant, life-like one that I've ever had.

What should I do? Is there anything that I can do?

Something else shifts to my right, and a githyanki woman, dressed in one of their infamous crystal-studded breastplates, wrestles against her bindings, stuck in the same pod-like container as me. Someone shares my fate.

The mind flayer pulls something small and slimy from the vat of liquid and places it in its other palm, then floats in front of the woman, offering its hand to her face. Something small and white – an insect, maybe – leaps from the alien's hand and onto her yellow-skinned face. She tries to pull away, but there's nowhere for her to go.

To my horror, the slimy thing burrows into her face!

"N- no! Please!"

My cries are on deaf ears.

Another of those white creatures climbs onto the mind flayer's hand. It almost gently floats toward me, as though it will enjoy watching me squirm for each second that passes. Its truly alien face is as sinister as it is bizarre, eyes glimmering with the faint light from the vat of liquid.

Something grips my head, unseen, in an iron vice, holding me in place.

That pain is real.

This is no dream.

Real!

A hand with long fingers dangles the white creature in front of my face. The slick, segmented thing lurches toward my eye, its circular rows of teeth opening to feast on a helpless target.

.A.

A grassy field stretches nearly as far as I can see. A beautiful place, ringed with valleys and mountains. Stone paths cut into this garden, and fountains spray mist into the sky, carried by the wind to douse the fresh greens around the area. The smell of honeysuckle brings me back to my childhood, running around with my friends trying to drink as much of the sweet nectar as we could.

"This is wonderful, Logan."

A deep, masculine voice cuts through my reverie.

Dressed in a fine purple robe that displays just enough chest to be enticing, a dark-haired elven man stretches lazily. The lean muscles in his arms tense as he reaches out to caress my shoulder, trying to draw me closer.

I shift toward him, mind racing at how and why this beautiful man is here. His green eyes twinkle as he smiles, perfect jawline tightening.

"Who are you?"

The calm voice responds, youthful and alive. "I'm someone who has been looking for you, searching for you for ages. And now, you're finally here."

His hand finds mine, finger tickling the inside of my palm. I fight the urge to not smile.

"Why me?"

"Why not you? You're my Chosen, truer than anything else I've ever known." A hand brushes against my cheek, and it is strangely sad that he had to let go of my hand to do it.

The longer I look into his eyes, the harder it is to look away from them. And why shouldn't I enjoy this attention?

"What am I being chosen for, exactly?"

The man chuckles wonderfully. "My only goal is to help you reach your highest potential." He shifts, pressing lightly against my neck to beckon me to lie flat on the grass with him. "You and I have great works in store. You need only let me in, and I can show you the way to destiny."

His fingers trail across my collar bone as I finally indulge him, my back buried in the grass once more.

"I-"

"Do not listen to it." A female voice whispers, seemingly from nowhere and everywhere at once. The skies almost seem to darken with this presence. "This is a trick, young one."

A flash of memory pushes to the surface – the darkened chamber, the writhing tentacles, the helpless gith. I was somewhere else, wasn't I? Or was that the dream, and this is real? Or is everything here a trick?

A sigh of something akin to frustration shakes me from my thoughts. The elven man, skin smooth as silk and almost shining with the light of the sunlight peeking through the clouds, sullies his face with a frown.

"You're not yet ready."

That stings – I want to be ready.

Don't I?

"I will return when you are." He reaches toward me, breath across the side of my cheek as he whispers into my ear, "But, I do have a parting gift."

The man's weight, previously pressed against my side, vanishes as he disappears, leaving me alone on this garden terrace.

The wind strengthens, and the cloud layer darkens the sky.

.A.

The sensation of searing heat forces me awake, and the center of the room has erupted into flames. The vat of liquid that held those slimy slugs is nearly in pieces, fire licking at its surface. I pull away from the heat on instinct and am relieved to discover that my right side is no longer pinned. Whatever damaged this room also broke apart nearly half of the pod holding me in place, and it is only by sheer luck that I am unscathed.

The relief that I can move is short-lived.

How… how is this happening?

My left eye itches, and a dull headache throbs. The realization that that slug might still be inside me nearly causes me to faint.

Panic sets in as my breath catches in my throat, fingers shaking in fright.

I need help. How can I get help? If this is real, and I am growing more certain of that by the second, then I need to do something soon. Flames will spread, as flames are wont to do, and I have no interest in being burned alive.

My eyes flash toward the pod where the githyanki woman had been held captive, but she was no longer there. The door to her pod, a warped and strange piece of metal, is in a heap on the floor.

I hope that she is faring better than I am in this situation. If anyone can help me, it would be her.

A wriggle and a squeeze later, and I haphazardly fall to the floor in a heap, thankfully not close to any flames. My eyes widen at the sight of my hand in front of me, from where I braced myself. The skin is no natural human skin tone – a light grey, almost silver hue.

I check the rest of what I am carrying, hoping for something that I could use to defend myself. Nearly skin-tight dark brown leather armor covers my torso, a dagger rests on my belt, and a backpack is still strung over my shoulder. Most surprising, however, is the gilded band around my bare bicep– it is nearly identical to the one around the elven man in my dreams. The band is almost reflective, and though I cannot be certain exactly what I am seeing, the color of my eyes is pure white.

What the f*ck?

Chapter 2: 0.2 - Shades of Gray

Chapter Text

I press forward, vowing to check the contents of my backpack for anything else I might can use when I feel safer. This githyanki woman is the best chance that I have to get out of this structure alive.

My hope is to find a proper mirror soon, to discern which fantasy race that I seem to have become, now. Silver skin, white eyes? No concrete ideas. My ears were not pointed enough to be a drow.

A platform ramps up and out of this room, and like the rest of its construction, is strangely striated to look like flesh. No – that's not right. The walls, floors, and even ceilings are carved to look like brains. I would not put it past them for this structure to be completely organic, grown out of some massive lifeform to use for their sick purposes.

This seems to be the only way out of this room, so I climb, hoping with all sincerity that I am not far behind her.

My whole body physically tenses, reacting subconsciously to what I see. The next chamber, filled with small aquariums containing brains and brain matter, is not unoccupied, of the living or the dead.

Red-skinned creatures with wings and claws lie dead on the floor in scattered messes, some cleaved in two by a large blade. The creatures are clearly imps, nasty little fiends form the Nine Hells, and one of the imps clutches tightly a piece of half-unfurled parchment.

If this were not a hard enough pill to swallow, the existences of these creatures all but confirms that atheism is a meaningless position to take, and that's… worrying. I spent a lot of time in my youth coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing out there and feeling a strange sense of comfort in that idea.

A more important curiosity: why were there imps in a mind flayer dungeon?

How am I here?

A voice, almost child-like in its cadence, calls out to me, "Come here. Help Us!"

I crane my neck to try to find the source, wondering if maybe one of the imps was still alive. Taking a deep breath, I prepare myself to be eviscerated by their claws, to be poisoned by their stingers.

When the voice cries out again, I spot the likely source: a shirtless man lying strangely on a chair, if some eldritch abomination constructed it.

The man and his chair rest on a platform nearly fifteen feet up, and a quick survey reveals that one of the odd contraptions in the room is a lift. Why the mind flayers needed a lift when they could levitate is anyone's guess, but I was far too desperate for anyone to help me in this situation to question it too highly. Perhaps they are too lazy to telekinetically levitate their slaves around everywhere they go.

A… panel? rests on the platform, and I reach a finger tentatively out to activate it. I nearly pull away in fright as the panel itself seems to react to my proximity and grows outward, stretches like tentacles, and slithers around my finger. The lift smoothly rises upward, and at is completion, the panel releases me.

Shivering at the strangeness of their technology, nothing could prepare me for the strangeness of seeing this. A half-naked elven man lies haphazardly, chin wet with drool, eyes wide as saucers with pupils dilated. Blood and other fluid drips from the open wound of his brain cavity.

Bile rises to my throat, and I find it difficult to suppress the urge to double over and vomit all over the brain-like floor patterns.

"Please! You have to help Us, so We can help you!"

My jaw goes slack.

The child-like voice is not coming from the man.

The child-like voice is coming from the brain.

The man is either unconscious or worse, but the brain itself is pleading for my help.

"I-" my face goes pale. "No." I take two steps backward.

I recognize what the creature might be: an intellect devourer. A brain with legs, it is born from the skull cavity of the victims of a mind flayer's experiments. I know how dangerous they can be, having used them as a DM against my players.

Even engaging with this conversation is a fool's errand, a mistake that will inevitably lead to even greater danger and bodily harm. There are far too many brains in a jar, brains floating in aquariums all around this room for me to trust the one brain that talks. Not in a mind flayer dungeon.

"No!" the voice of the intellect devourer cries. "We know the way to the helm. Please, free Us before they return."

I'm halfway to the lift when it finishes the sentence. "What is the helm? And who is they?"

"The helm controls the ship, and you can use Us to help you get to it!"

A ship? This is a mind flayer ship. I could be anywhere.

"They are the fiends! Enemies to Us."

My knees almost buckle, and I rally, frowning. "If I let you out to help me, you're just going to inevitably hurt me later."

"We would never do that! You are Us."

The childish voice of a truly terrifying creature that must feed on intelligence to survive grates on my cognitive dissonance. The blackish ichor of the imp corpses stain the floor below, and there are almost definitely more of them nearby. Sweat pours from my palm, from my face.

I have no combat ability. This dagger? It's useless in my hands, unless muscle memory for whomever this body belonged to before kicks in and saves me.

The gith woman might not even be on the ship anymore, or maybe she's already dead to other fiends or aberrations.

This thing might be my only hope.

"Why am I... Us?"

The brain quivers upon hearing that question. "You are one, and yet whole! We can feel you, and I bet you can feel Us if you try!"

I blink, staring. Curiosity stirs from below. I must understand what it means.

The trickle of thought from the intellect devourer is faint as it speaks to me, and I grasp hold of that feeling of connection. Visualizing myself touching that thread binding us, I tug at the bonds until taut, and the connection solidifies.

My mind awakens.

"See! You are Us."

"I am... something."

"Great! Now, free Us!"

It is only after a moment that I realize I did not speak aloud, but instead sent the message through our connection, telepathically.

Excitement builds fast, my mouth twisting into a grin. Magic! Real magic! What else could I do? The possibilities are endless!

The brain squelches audibly. Even with telepathy, and even if I have other abilities, I still doubt that I can do this alone, githyanki woman or no.

"How do I free you?"

"Pull Us out!"

Oh.

There are definitely no tools for this in the room. Whatever this surgery was, that illithid merely needed to think to make a cut into someone's skull.

All I can conclude is that I need to be careful, and that I need to wash my hands after.

"This elf is dead?"

The intellect devourer shakes slightly, and the man's face almost buckles outward before sinking back into its regular position. "Yes, Myrnath is dead."

Knowing his name is somehow much worse.

Bracing myself, my fingers splay out gently, hoping to slide into the skull cavity and pull out the brain matter as slowly and efficiently as possible. It's like birthing a baby! A really soft baby that can push itself out as soon as it's halfway free.

The tips of my fingers touch flesh, slipping into the layers of skull and membranes still attached. Several inches in, my vomit splatters across the floor, my knees buckle, and I collapse. The wetness on my elbow is either my vomit or the fresh liquids of a dripping exposed skull cavity; I do not want to know.

Breathing hard for several seconds, I stare into the dark ceiling and smile slightly - shades of gray, instead of black shadows.

The bright side to an awful situation. What races do not have darkvision these days?

"Try again! We do not have much time!" the aberration screams.

I push myself to my feet and dive right in, knowing that I have minutes, at best. I feel the weight shift slightly and begin to pull, the slurping sound nearly making me add to the contents of my stomach at my feet.

The final second passes, and I step backwards two steps as the brain leaps out of my fingers, landing on all fours. Beast-like legs ending in claws support the weight of sentient, walking brain. Tentacles slightly unravel from its folded surface of cerebral matter, as though it is stretching after a long nap.

"You will lead the way for Us!" the brain declares, scampering behind me. "We will direct you."

I do not know if it is more or less unsettling that the creature does not devour me.

Chapter 3: 0.3 - Displaced

Chapter Text

The way forward leads outside, the exit far larger than it should be. Large chunks of the wall that once ringed the doorway are on fire, and the more than passing resemblance to heaps of brain matter nearly makes me shiver.

The devourer follows closely behind and remains connected to my mind, long tendrils almost like tendons reaching out in every direction to touch everything. Like a newborn, every detail of the environment is new, information that it does not yet understand.

"What is the purpose of the shoe?"

I twist down as I make one last check around the chamber, studying the creature's lack of eyes as it seems to look in my direction.

"What?" A tendril taps the top of my boot, leaving a trail of slime. "The base of a human foot is tender. And often cold."

Its body tilts, the devourer's own clawed feet scraping against the grout. "That seems wasteful. Why not breed that trait out?"

Heh. "That's way more expensive than making shoes."

I shift carefully around a small section on fire and am surprised to see the pathway leads onto what might have once been an observation deck. Wrecked nearly as badly as its access door, something awful must have happened here; it does not look remotely secure to stand.

The devourer skitters across the metal, but the landscape around the ship draws my attention and drowns out its question to me.

Far below the flying mind flayer ship, a cracked and dusty wasteland extends as far as the eye can see in several directions, pockmarked with obsidian buttes and tall crags. Wind drag brings the smell of smoke, sulfur, and brimstone, and an ever-present gray light suffuses the sky, obscured with the occasional clouds of ash.

Hovering in the air and far too close to comfort, three tower-like vehicles – impossibly tall, almost like skyscrapers – birth dozens of smaller swarms that gather in a larger whole. Hundreds, if not thousands, of winged fiends gather and fly in this direction, toward the ship.

Is this one of the Outer Planes? From the amount of imps and perhaps other devils heading this way, I could only assume one thing: hell is real, and this is it. Which one of the Nine was this? I am only certain that this is not the one that's frozen.

Am I merely some already damned soul, an experiment from a mind flayer tapping into the school of necromancy? If that's true, is there even a point in trying to escape? Souls not just walk out of the afterlife on their own. Plenty of spells exist to help bring back the dead, but I do not even know anyone, much less some high-powered divine caster.

Anyone that I have ever known is… not here.

Even if I cannot explain why a mind flayer ship would be in one of the Nine Hells, the fact that this is a ship that can travel the stars – and likely the planes – gives me hope that the fear is overblown. I'm just displaced.

"Don't worry! You have Us now." The devourer almost hops.

The sound of something large moving behind me in the sky urges me to duck for cover, and I barely look up in time to see a large, winged reptile covered in crimson scales, fire and smoke billowing from its toothy maw. It dives past this side of the ship, its wings carrying it through the air effortlessly, and several imps dart after it, firing into its hide with crossbows. The ship fires blasts of light into the swarms coming ever closer, and one of them barely misses the dragon as it disappears from my view.

A f*cking dragon!?

Imps, gith, mind flayers, and dragons!

I would have been ecstatic to see something like this in most other situations, but damn.

If it were not incredibly apparent before, I need to get out of here even more than before.

Sprinting down the path of the observation deck the moment I think the dragon is gone, I have to skid to a stop to avoid a gap in the pathway, likely ten or more feet across.

A fear of heights is only irrational when you are not about to fall hundreds of feet. My old body – what a strange thing to think – could not have made a leap like this, but lean muscle rests beneath this armor. My arms, exposed to the air from the shoulder down, are physically fit and still very silver.

There is nowhere to go but across this gap, unless I missed a pathway somewhere obscure. I don't have time to backtrack – the mind flayer's ship is trying desperately to fight off a group of devils and a dragon, and any second now, that fight might end with the ship crashed on whichever of the Hells this is.

"I don't suppose you have any skills to get me across this thing?"

"No." The tiny brain with its off-centered feet makes the leap with little difficulty and then waits.

"Helpful."

The winds batter at my face and hair, and I take several steps back to prepare to jump. I must do this.

Pushing forward, I manage to leap just before freefall and land in a roll on the other side, breathing hard.

I did it! A muted smile rises to my cheeks.

Something moves ahead of me, and my eyes flicker up to see the githyanki woman, her yellow skin slightly glowing with the odd light of Hell above her. Dark hair tied back, her face twists into a grimace, darkened eyes trained on me. Dark, black markings line the top of her cheek bones, adding to her ferocity. The gem-encrusted breastplate glimmers in the odd light of the Hells.

"Abomination! This is your end!"

My eyes widen as she reaches for her greatsword, eyes focused on the brain.

Pain erupts in my skull, the dull headache increasing suddenly, centered behind my left eye. Thoughts squirm slick across my mind: the swipe of a dragon's wing, the slash of a silver sword, and my own inhuman face looking back at her.

What?

She clutches her head in growing menace, left eye still glaring at the intellect devourer. The mental connection brews between the two of us. Her emotions are on display, and so are mine. A flicker of confusion rises to the surface of our thoughts, but I do not know if it originated in my mind or in hers.

My head! "My head!" She pulls her hand away, face contorting with consternation. What is this…? "What is this…?"

I can sense the words she will speak before she speaks? Can she do the same to me?

"W-why do you not destroy that thing?" The greatsword pulls from her back. "I can sense you are no thrall of the ghaik!"

My arm rises, body stepping forward a half-step to partially block the devourer. "It offered to help take me to the helm, to get control of the ship! When more devils show up, I'm going to be glad that its claws are here."

"How can a planetouched of the Upper Planes be so blind?" Her knuckles whiten around the hilt.

My eyebrow rises. "Planetouche- Oh! An aasimar!" The silver tone to the skin, the pure white eyes, the darkvision – it all makes sense. Other abilities include the ability to glow, to heal, and a resistance to radiant and necrotic damage. How that applies in real life, I am not certain – what really is radiant damage? Lasers?

She does not seem amused at my speculation, though she does not rush past me to strike the brain. "Look – I don't know much about situations like this, but you seem like you do. I can completely understand how this looks, and I probably would not trust me in this situation either." Her face twists into a deeper scowl. "But can you really afford to not take the help? We do not know what dangers are ahe-"

"I know what dangers are ahead!" she spits. "There is a group of imps blocking the path to the helm."

"The imps do not like Us!" the devourer cries, and the gith winces at the mental intrusion. "We want to help!"

"This is a foolish situation. No matter how many devils are ahead, if we encounter one of the ghaik, this aberration will join it faster than the speed of its thoughts!"

"It promised that it would not hurt me, could not hurt me." I glance down at the brain.

"You won't find harm from Us either!" A tendril twists through the air, almost pointing at the gith woman.

"If that moment happens, if it tries to hurt one of us, then you can kill it."

Her gaze shifts between the two of us, and then she turns to look over shoulder. "We don't have time to argue, but this conversation is not over. We must reach the helm of the ship to take control of it, before we transform."

"Transform?!"

How could this get any worse?

She raises a fist, furious. "We carry mind flayer parasites. Unless we escape, unless we are cleansed – our bodies and minds will be tainted and twisted. Within days, we will be ghaik – mind flayers."

Us. That's what the intellect devourer means. That's the source of telepathic powers.

I pinch myself on the arm.

No. Not a nightmare.

"Imps block our path to get to the helm and return to the Material Plane." Her other hand points toward the opening to the nearby chamber. "I pray the stories of your race's success against the infernal are not unfounded."

"I don't-"

The woman rushes into the next room, greatsword shimmering in the fire before her. Tendrils dance as the clawed brain on legs skitters into the chamber beyond, preparing for battle. The screech of the fiends and the cry of a gith reach my ears.

Chapter 4: 0.4 - Face That Fire

Chapter Text

Pulling the dagger from my belt, I dash forward, hoping that the knife-fighting skills this body may have had before I arrived can carry me through the next thirty seconds of my life.

If I even last that long.

The githyanki swings her heavy blade, the weapon easily overpowering the frail imp's own. An arm flies a splatter of blackish ichor as the first of three imps falls. One flies higher in the room above the rest, taking aim with its crossbow in the direction of the armored warrior. A direct hit before she can recover to charge the next melee combatant sends her back a foot, but the bolt thankfully did not seem to pierce her armor.

The intellect devourer shouts telepathically, "Fear Us!" It leaps, a display of acrobatics that honestly impresses, and hurls itself at the nearest imp, claws first. One makes purchase, a spray of ichor from its wings, and the imp lurches back to avoid the second.

I move further into the room quickly and try to dart out of the way of any incoming bolts, keeping my attention on the one above as well as the one on the ground, engaged with the brain. When the flying imp shifts the crossbow in my direction, I snap hard to the right, the missile splintering against the ground. It scrambles to load another bolt with its tiny red fingers.

Moving toward the imp still near the ground level, I brandish the dagger in front of myself, grip tight. The winged devil turns its grotesque, red-skinned form, a hooked spear in its hand, preparing to react.

Out of the corner of my eye, I sense the bounding form of the gith woman coming in this direction as well, though from thankfully a different angle.

A jab toward the screeching imp, and it spits through its sharpened teeth in my direction. Twitching out of the way with a flap of its wings, the imp brings the hooked spear down toward my arm.

"Argh!"

I collapse at the excruciating pain, blood spewing from the wound. The creature pulls the weapon out of the gash, only serving to make it larger, but it is too late for the imp. The head rolls off its shoulders. The gith woman shoots an angry look and then snaps her head and hand upward.

Through the pain and tears at the edge of my eyes, I study the next moments in battle. A nearly unseen hand appears just above the flying imp. As the gith closes her fist, the hand reaches out to grab at the quiver of crossbow bolts, yanking the container backwards. The imp tries to resist, flying downward and spilling the contents of its quiver. With a howl of anger, it switches to a small blade from his belt, the crossbow clattering to the ground.

The mage hand pursues the imp, leading it exactly where the gith wants it. She dashes forward and into a leap, the arc of her greatsword slicing right through the gonads of the imp, its fiendish body spilling ichor and flesh all over her armor. It lands in a heap, holding its groin as it releases a death rattle.

She whips her head in my direction. "Istik! Why the ghaik did not enthrall you is beyond understanding."

I press my hand tight on the wound, trying to compose myself as the terror and wooziness begins to kick into high gear. The devourer tries to touch the area with one of its tentacles, oddly soothing thoughts radiating from it, but I pull away. "I tried to tell you that I don't have any way to fight, but you ran ahead before I could finish!"

The ship tilts to the side for a moment before stabilizing, and the gith looks wearily up the passageway to the top of the deck, then back at me. "We do not have time to argue. I have faced worse wounds and lived to tell the tale. Prove you are worthy of the weapon you carry."

I scowl back in her direction as she begins making her way toward the stairwell that will lead out onto the main deck, ignoring the intellect devourer entirely.

Aasimar have a natural ability to heal themselves or others, at least in fifth edition. Is that even… a valid thought to have, what edition this is?

Regardless, I press my palm once more onto the wound and try to consider what to do. Celestials are often positive creatures, from the Upper Planes that touch the Positive Energy Plane. Trying to think… happy thoughts? Is that going to work?

No. I have precious few moments to figure this out.

I concentrate on thoughts of wellness, of soothing experiences, of both distant and close relatives. Thoughts of friends and family, laughter and joy. With every conscious memory of something good, the sweat, grime, and ichor of this situation brings me back to an awful feeling. Sadness, anger, fear, depression!

What would my mother say?

Got it.

"When the going gets tough," I begin to sing, trying to not think about the corniness and the flat tones, "keep on going. Face that fire, walk right through it! You might get out, before the devil even knows you're theeerrreee!" The song sounds terrible, but it feels like home, to be with her.

A silver light begins to exude from my palm, faint and trickling with power. The glow floods the wound, and an itch intensifies as the skin begins to knit itself back together. A faint scar might appear, but the pain disappears. The fact that my blood is almost a pale blue color is disconcerting.

I reach for a nearby piece of debris, tapping it with a finger. An aura of silver trickles over it, enveloping it as the light from within myself spreads to brighten my surroundings.

"Hell yeah!"

My feet impact against the top of the stairs and find the gith woman looking toward me with a hint of amusem*nt on her face, even in a situation like this. She crouches near a pillar, trying to survey the area around her. The brain on legs skitters up behind me.

The top of the deck is chaos. Odd cannons fire likely pure psionic energy into the sky, dispersing clouds of devils before they can reach the ship. The dragons – for there were seemingly more than one, each carrying a githyanki rider – continue their assault despite the cannon fire in their direction. More intellect devourers scatter across the surface of the ship, some fighting imps while others are guarding the cannons.

I reach her hiding place and crouch out of view. "This is a lot more than I can handle, and I didn't handle any of that back there either."

She says nothing, just gestures toward a path up ahead. "The helm of the nautiloid is that way. Keep low and stick to the shadows."

I start to nod, but she has already moved on.

Movement from the corner of my eye draws my attention, just as I move to follow her. A human woman lies sprawling on the ground, hands twitching and limbs splayed about. She says something, but it's not clear through the din of the battle raging around us.

"It's nothing." The gith woman calls out, ten feet ahead. "She has already become enthralled to the ghaik. There is nothing we can do."

I want to call bullsh*t, but her eyes widen. Get out of my head! "Get out of my head!"

An itch in the back of my skull reminds me of what terrible fate lay in store – transformation into one of them, a mind flayer. Whatever this was doing to my brain, I could not control it – a connection to her mind was present, visualized like a tether, and I want nothing more than to sever it and move on.

I do not know how.

As she moves further ahead, now twenty-five feet away and confused as to why I am not following, I force myself into a moving crouch, the intellect devourer taking advantage of the fact that there were others of its kind around to avoid having to sneak as prominently.

A red dragon sweeps past the side of the ship, diving lower, and the gout of flame tearing into the base of the hull is audible even from this distance. If this were a normal airplane, there is zero chance that it would still be in the sky. Whatever the nautiloid is, it must stay in the air long enough for us to get out of Hell.

And we do not have long.

Chapter 5: 0.5 - Into an Iridescent Abyss

Chapter Text

The gith darts past a group of imps engaging an intellect devourer in combat. I try to follow as quickly and quietly as I can, and if they had not been distracted, I know that I would have been caught. Perhaps the fact that our intellect devourer is traveling with us granted a bit of protection – we are supposed to be thralls after all. I dip around the side of the structure, heading toward the tunnel that cuts deeper into the back of the nautiloid, and hopefully in the direction of the helm.

She cuts through a wall of flesh, a strange organic membrane, and then beckons me to hurry.

"Is this thing alive?"

She pauses to recollect. "The ghaik harvest a species of crustaceans native to the Astral Plane and imbue it with a form of false, subservient sentience. It is another of their foul experiments on the minds of mortals."

"That's horrifying." My brow rises in surprise. "Oh! I'm Logan, by the way."

The hallway opens as the rest of the membrane falls away, revealing a darkened tunnel that ends in another membrane-like door. It was a bit strange to see that what should be shadows appeared in shades of gray instead, the first room dim enough for me to notice the difference. Darkvision is an advantage.

"Lae'zel," she says simply, squinting her eyes slightly. The prominent black markings across her cheekbones gave her an almost sinister look, but I have the distinct impression that there is more to her than that. From what I understand, gith, especially githyanki, are not great creatures to be around.

The door opens at our proximity on its own, grossly widening like a sphincter muscle. A faint feeling of welcome hums in the back of my mind, the ship giving us pleasantries.

"That's never not going to be weird."

The gith does not respond.

The shadows in the room beyond are nearly darker than this hallway, except for the red glow that seems to emanate from a machine in the middle of the chamber. More containment pods line the walls, and four gurney-like slabs array around the central machine. Blood coats the two on the left, seemingly from recent use.

A thud alerts our attention, and we both realize that a woman is trapped inside a containment pod. Half-elven with dark hair and a headband on her head, an unfamiliar symbol at its center, she wears a suit of mail. A cleric or paladin? Either way, this is someone that can help us escape.

I sprint to the pod and begin searching it over. Runes run along the sides, but they make no sense to me. No buttons, no levers, no pulleys. Anxiety builds.

"Damn it!" she shouts. "Get me out of this thing!"

Lae'zel calls out from across the room, already gesturing to an exit from this chamber. "We have no time for stragglers!"

sh*t. "There has to be something!"

My fingers run along the side, trying to sense for edges – perhaps we could peel it away with the right tool. Runes, almost like physical ridges, do not seem to form a language that I understand, but…

A whisper of memory, of knowledge, of studying that I must have done, but do not remember properly. A word rises to the surface of my mind with a hiss: arcana.

Warding runes. These are warding runes, written in an ancient form of writing called Qualith, used to psionically transmit thoughts into physical form for mind flayers to store and encode information. Four lines, four fingers – maybe I can read them.

How do I know this?!

Lae'zel reaches for my arm and pulls, and I shift to the side. "I know how to read this. There might be a solution!"

Her eyes narrow as she looks toward me and the screaming half-elven woman. "We do not have time. The helm is near, and at any point, this ship can crash into the wasteland of Avernus, leaving us trapped in Baator forever."

Baator. The Nine Hells. Avernus is the first layer of the Hells, hundreds of feet below the ship moving through the sky. A battlefield of the Blood War, and one of the most dangerous places in the D&D multiverse. If this ship goes down before we can escape, I am not certain which side I want to find us first. With devils, you could bargain, but demons would simply eat you or worse.

Lae'zel is right. Even the intellect devourer seems to agree, the small creature shifting back and forth on its clawed feet as though waiting for us to get a move on.

"Commandeering the ship is our best chance to survive," I call out loudly to the half-elf, who shoves against her bindings, screaming in rage and helplessness. "I don't think I can do anything to get you out, not in tim-"

"That cannot be!" the half-elf cries indignantly. "There has to be another way! Please!"

"It cannot be helped. Come, quickly!"

I hear the githyanki's words and understand them to be right, but this is a regret that will be hard to swallow.

Listening to the squelching sound of the exit opening breaks me from my silence, and I follow to catch up with Lae'zel, wishing that I could do something more.

I am so helpless.

Touching the band around my left bicep, silver light begins to glow – one of two things that I know how to do. The darkened corridor brightens, more for her than for myself, though she does not comment on it.

Do I have any other abilities? Do I even have a class level? The other thing that I can do, the telepathy, might not even be a class feature, but instead a side-effect of the tadpole squirming around in my brain.

As the final door before the command center, the helm, opens with a sickening sound, I do not think I could have prepared for what I would see within.

A wide, tall chamber ends in a panel of windows that look out into the distant skies of Avernus. Multiple platforms ring the room all the way to its height, and it is clear that this was more than a hub for the command helm, because of the frequent panels and chairs scattered about like work-stations. Everything centers on the strange object in the distance of the room, with multiple nerve-like tentacles waving around in the air – from the feeling of Lae'zel's emotions, that was the helm.

The corpse of more than one mind flayer and a human-like fiend with wings – a cambion, I recognized - lie dead near the helm. Another mind flayer and a larger, red-skinned fiend wielding a flaming sword clash with one another, telekinesis against pure physical force. Imps flutter about the room, several of them taking notice of our presence the moment that we entered.

"Thrall. Connect the nerves on the transponder. We must escape. Now!" The mind flayer – the illithid who tortured both of us – points in the direction of the helm, while evading another strike by the devil with a levitated leap backwards.

Lae'zel turns toward me, sensing an opportunity. "Do it. We will deal with the ghaik after we escape." She brandishes her weapon, fearlessly stepping into the front and into the fray.

My hesitation will cost me, but she is outnumbered severely. An additional person with no real training to use this dagger? I am practically a nonstarter.

It is with pure fortune on our part that our intellect devourer does not change sides, running alongside Lae'zel to do battle with any imps that come too near.

At the very least, I can give a sack of hit points for them to aim at instead and hope that those two can carry us all to the transponder.

An imp brandishes a shortsword and clashes with Lae'zel, but the heaviness of her greatsword proves superior, the imp flying to the right to avoid being bisected. I rush forward at the opening, trying to take advantage, and stab into its side. Blackish ichor splashes onto the ground, but it would not take the imp down.

A crossbow bolt from a second imp narrowly avoids Lae'zel's face, and the gith leaps backwards, conjuring a mage hand with a gesture, desperate for any sort of distraction. She swings at the nearest imp trying to skewer her with a spear, the spear snapping like a twig and the imp's hands dropping to the ground before its body does. The intellect devourer leaps off of the ground with a powerful shove, tackling into the flying imp whose crossbow bolt nearly hit her.

The mind flayer waves a hand, bits of debris from the fight rising off the ground and then launching into the back of the large devil, likely a commander of some kind from the look of his armor. The devil's fiery blade cuts a large piece of a destroyed column in twain, the metal sizzling as it collapses to the ground.

I need an edge.

I need help.

Three imps converge on my position from behind, one closer than the rest. I dash forward as quickly as I can, trying to close the distance between myself and the transponder while avoiding the huge clash between two iconic D&D monsters.

However, I misjudge the space near a converging imp and lunge at the ground to avoid a swipe from a fiendish axe covered in poison. The axe misses, and then the imp sneers. A stinger snaps downward as it twirls in the air to retaliate, its barbs dripping with infernal toxins.

On instinct, my hand rises as though to catch the tail, and a word escapes my breath without thought. "Integumenta!"

Silver light erupts from my left arm suddenly, solidifying into a shimmering field of magic that briefly brightens the chamber. The barb strikes harmlessly into a hard surface, as though it struck a wall. The edges of the energy shield stretch and groan, small pieces reaching out like tentacles.

Hand still outstretched, the spell I understood now to be the iconic shield spell follows my intention, appearing just inches above my palm and draping nearly completely around my body, veiling me in a dome of force. The band of gold around my left bicep still shimmers with silver light, almost pulsating with every shimmer of the shield.

That band is an arcane focus.

I can feel more power like it, more of that brilliant silver light, almost bubbling to the surface of my skin. That feeling, a light that simply wishes to shine, vibrates in my every pore, and the more I consider it, the more I know what to do and how to do it. An intuitive understanding of verbal, somatic, and material components for different spells races to the surface of my mind.

Tapping into that reservoir of light, power gathers at the fingertips of my left hand, and I bring them together into an orb of energy. Forcing my hand forward in the direction of an imp, I shout the incantation. The silver orb expands and extends quickly, icy mist exuding from the edges of the beam of light. The ray strikes into the imp nearly as quickly as the orb formed, crystals of ice expanding and coating its form. It screeches in pain as the ray of frost brings it to a cold end.

The shining shield surrounding me fades a few seconds later, but I already feel much better about my chances.

Narrowly avoiding two separate crossbow bolts from two separate directions, Lae'zel dashes forward once more, holding out her greatsword to clothesline an imp to death. The winged devil tries to rise above, but she recognizes the maneuver before it can take purchase, and simply cleaves upward. The devil slides off her blade in two pieces, both slopping onto the ground.

"Kill them and throw their bodies in the River Styx!" the fiendish commander yells, swiping down with his huge weapon, ablaze with fire. A psionic shield, not dissimilar to my own, erupts in time to divert the strike, and I honestly did not have an idea of who to root for in this situation.

Connecting to the mind of the nearest imp is nearly second nature after a half moment of hesitation, and every memory of pain I can conjure pulses through the telepathic connection. The mind sliver cantrip causes that imp to pull at his skull with clawed hands, an infernal screech of horror emanating throughout the room. A tendril of silver light, twisting and waving like a tentacle, bursts out of his eye socket a moment later as he collapses to the ground. The light tendril fades, leaving a bleeding gap where the eye should be.

I have crossed half the room by this point, though the gith and the intellect devourer are close behind me. She cleaves at a duo that have come near her, the two already bleeding from previous blows, but both manage to dodge out of the way. One disengages and closes the distance toward me.

I back away half a step but it is too fast for me, determined, and a claw manages to find purchase before I can react. Right bicep bleeding, I wince with pain and lurch to the side. It does not seem deep, but it might scar.

The devil commander rallies after a telekinetic blast hurls it back several feet. "Split them open! Avernus is ours!"

The mind flayer does not turn to look at us, though its voice reaches out telepathically all the same. "Get to the transponder, or we're all dead."

Nodding perceptively to Lae'zel, both of us take off into a sprint again. The intellect devourer leaps backward to tackle another of the recovering imps before it can skewer us with its shortsword.

The commander actually turns his attention toward us for a moment as we pass him, the flames of his sword intensifying, and I can already feel the power brimming from inside to conjure a shield. Before he can swing, he grabs his head and screams in agony, the mind flayer's telepathy finally breaching the devil's defenses, even if only for a moment.

Skittering to a stop before the transponder, the structure is perhaps the living brain of the ship, in the false life that Lae'zel mentioned. Several thick tentacles extend out from the base of the brain embedded in a special casing in the floor, and each ends in thin, nerve-like structures.

I reach out and grab one of the fleshy tentacles, feeling somehow familiar with how this works. Why, I did not know, but I would trust my instincts for now. The tadpole's perks are useful in this moment. Lae'zel turns her back to me, guarding me should any more imps come this way. I pull one tentacle and place it near another. With a sickening sound, the end of the limb opens to reveal more of its nerve-like fingers and then latch together, nerves connecting to provide the ship focus and direction.

Crystal shatters loudly, and one of the dragons assaulting the ship sticks its reptilian head through the space, only feet from where the two of us stood. Its angry look intensifies, and then fire spews from his mouth, and it is all I can do to duck for cover. Heat and smoke sear the transponder and the surrounding area, and an almost painful wail sounds from nowhere and everywhere at once.

As the ship begins to gain speed at a rapid pace, the dragon looks alarmed for a moment, before the nautiloid suddenly snaps ahead with a crack.

Gravity becomes null due to the exposed outside, a prismatic and iridescent light show replacing the hellish dimension we were in moments ago, and I completely lose my bearings.

None of the spells I knew would help me here, and I am helpless to do anything but free float in the space of the chamber, like nearly everyone else. The ship gains enough velocity that I am pulled toward the back of the room at great speed, smacking hard into the brain-like wall. The others are not faring any better, even the two much more powerful creatures; the devil commander digs his sword into a pillar and grasps it tightly, while the mind flayer holds its palms outward in a T-pose, a psionic bubble wrapping around it, despite its current weakness and burn scars across its body.

When the speed changes, I shoot forward again, nearly back to where I was a moment ago, but Lae'zel is there, holding onto the base of the transponder and directly in my path.

I collide hard into the githyanki woman with a gasp of lost air, and there is no controlling my movement or angle.

For a half-second, my movement comes to a near halt. "sh*t!"

And then momentum pulls in a different direction. The worst possible direction.

My body hurtles through the open window and into the prismatic colors beyond. Straining my eyes, the last thing I see in the distance is a massive explosion, the nautiloid ship breaking into pieces and scattering in as many directions. Rainbow light races past me as I fall, fall, fall into an iridescent abyss.

Chapter 6: Arc 1.1 - Anything

Chapter Text

A beautiful garden stretches as far as the eye can see. The sun streams from below, almost peaking at sunset, while fountains spray water in an endless cycle that catches its orange light perfectly. The grasses swell against my feet, tickling the soles in just the right way to bring pleasure in this moment.

My shirtless back rests against the chest of another, veiny hand draped across my neck. The soothing voice of the beautiful dark-haired elven man calls out, breaking the peaceful moment with a melodic tone. "Where have you taken us?"

I train my glance toward the clouds, watching them dance in the sky. "I don't know what you mean. This is the same as befo-"

"No," the elf says curtly. "No, this is very different."

My fingers trace one of the blades of grass, another resting against a flower so pretty it belongs in a meadow. "I would not forget this garden. It's so lovely that I don't mind spending time outside."

The elf laughs heartily. "Too true. I can sense you would rather take me inside."

My brow rises. "Are you not satisfied with this garden?"

His hand lightly taps my throat as he leans up, my head falling into his lap before I shift my weight away from him and sit up, not settling back into a position until I am shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip with him again.

"I am satisfied with this garden," he says with a smile. "But what lies beyond this garden is unfamiliar to me."

"Why's that a problem?"

His perfect face deepens into a frown. "I am not satisfied with unfamiliarity. I do not like to not know." His gentle hand caresses my forearm. "Won't you help me learn?"

Leaning into the touch slightly, my smile widens. "Of course."

"You would do anything for me, wouldn't you?" His hand clasps onto mine, his forefinger lightly tickling my palm, breaking my face into an even brighter grin.

"Anything?"

"Yes, Logan." His grip tightens, forehead dipping closer until it rests against mine. I want to pull away from the intensity, but… "Anything."

.A.

Hot sand coats my skin, sticking through every opening in my clothes, roughly stabbing at every orifice. Sweat coats my form, exposed skin cooked from an oppressive heat and a lack of clouds from above.

I push myself to my feet with a groaning pain, wanting nothing more than to be in that garden again. My throat cracks from the lack of water, and my eyes nearly bug out when I realize that I am in the middle of a great desert.

Sand dunes stretch as far as I can see in all directions, the dips and valleys the product of wind and rock. Deep browns, reds, and yellows color the sand and dust, and there is nothing else.

I fall to my knees, hands gripping into the sand.

This cannot be happening.

Why does this feel worse than one of the literal Hells?

I need food, need water, need shelter. It is… roughly the afternoon, from the position of the sun, I think. Or is it almost afternoon? Would the sun peak in the sky first or continue to dip toward the horizon?

Practical thoughts will keep me sane. Keep me motivated. Keep me from thinking about my inevitable transformation into a mind flayer.

C'mon. I have powers. Don't I?

The skin on my hands is still the same shade of silver, and a bit of the sand begins to glow when I concentrate on invoking the light cantrip.

I do not know anything that could give me food, water, or shelter.

On the hope that I might have something, I pull the backpack from my back. I begin to sift through its contents, hoping for a miracle. A set of separate clothes, still made for travel and for a scrape, sits on the bottom, beneath some of the more fragile supplies. A basic kit for first aid – gauze, a half-gone packet of simplistic herbs seemingly for pain, and scissors – sits in a small burlap bag. A small, leatherbound book rests wrapped tightly in an additional layer of leather. And, eureka – a bundle of rations meant for about three days of food and a canteen of water with about a third left.

f*ck.

The rations were dry as I finally portion some for myself, letting me drink a single mouthful of water for now to go along with the bits of raisin.

This is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

With a bit of nourishment established, my attention turns to the journal. Carefully unwrapping the leather and pulling at the bindings, the first page declares this book, not much larger than my palm, to be the property of Tav.

What a strange name.

The moral implications of sitting inside this aasimar's body are not lost on me. Why am I here? Why is any of this happening? An elf in my dreams, a tadpole in my – no, Tav's head? – an escape from literal Hell ending in a hot deserted landscape, with very little food and water.

Trying to find a distraction, I flip through the book and frown. Dozens of sketches, mostly of everyday objects, fill the blank spaces. Most, if not all, are very well done, and the very last page holds a half-finished ink drawing of a grand series of towers covered in perhaps a misty fog.

Tears drop onto the page, and I press my fingers against the space, trying to rub out the moisture before it ruins the pages, but I only succeed in making it worse.

Tav is a person. An artist who may never finish his last sketch. Not unless I leave him, somehow, but I would not have the faintest idea how to do that. Is this some strange soul magic? Perhaps I was always Tav, and my memories of what I thought to be real life are fabrications.

Pushing the tears aside, knowing I cannot possibly wallow in self-pity, I have no choice but to choose a direction and walk. Closing the book and carefully re-wrapping it, nearly the way that I found it, I stand and brush off the sand from my everywhere.

As the sun settles in the western sky, night will fall soon. Lacking any better direction to go, I walk roughly north, keeping the setting sun to my left. This will have to do.

.A.

Hours of arduous travel fade into monotony, and every second fills with pain in my joints, sweat across my skin. Swollen feet and strained calves are my reward for this trek, and death may still be my punishment.

When the sun finally sets, the temperature drops significantly. Pulling on the second jerkin from my pack feels awkward, but I feel warmer regardless.

The unmistakable sound of a series of helicopters alerts me to their presence before I see them in the sky, coming roughly in my direction. As they descend and the sand begins to whip haphazardly in their cyclical wake, I fall to my knees, scrounging for cover where there is none.

A foreign voice calls out over a loudspeaker, a spotlight twisting in my direction. Shielding my eyes, the lamp is perhaps a bit brighter than it normally would be with my darkvision. I wish I knew what language they were speaking.

"Do you speak English?" I try to shout over the din of the loud, spinning blades. There are three copters, hovering roughly to surround me, and from the amount of noise, there is almost no chance they can hear me.

Men in desert camo, rifles on their back and pistols on their hip, begin descending dangled ropes from all three copters. Six men, two from each angle, drop into the sand with a small splattering of dust, and their guns level at me.

I fall to my knees nearly immediately, hands held tightly overhead. f*ck. Going from a medieval hellscape to a modern setting? What is happening?

Another shout in a language I do not recognize – Arabic, maybe? – comes from one of them, his rifle never leaving its trained position on me.

My brain spins. If this is somewhere in the real world, I do not look like a human. At all. This is no natural skin tone. They're gonna think I'm an alien, or worse.

"I can't understan-"

A bark from a soldier behind me interrupts me, the bark equally as foreign as before, and it does not take a genius to understand his tone: shut the hell up.

Two of them pull out restraints and begin stomping through the sand, the others ready to finger the trigger at any moment.

Powers or not, I am as squishy as anyone else about a bullet or twelve fired at me. At best, I could hope for a shield spell, but I can only do that twice. Must be a first-level caster class of some kind, though which one is still unclear.

"Please! I am lost!" I plead, but from the looks on their faces, there is no chance that this goes my way.

The sound of something large, perhaps several whirring engines, echo across the sand dunes. All six of their radios ring out at the same moment, messages that could be warnings. The copters pull away from one another and from their comrades, just as the first shots from a third party begin firing into the area.

I peek over the nearest dune to see a half-dozen military-grade trucks tumbling over the sand, dipping down out of sight before ramping up, almost enough to gain a few inches before obeying gravity again. That's fast!

The men around me shift into battle gear quickly, kneeling to a crouch and letting loose round after round into the oncoming onslaught. I lose track of the helicopters as I duck myself down, wondering exactly what I can do to take advantage.

Anything.

Pulling on the knowledge of one of my spells, my mind connects with the nearest soldier. His thoughts are vague, quick, too difficult to translate in just a few seconds, but a few seconds is all I need. Hundreds of whispering voices, like a chorus of power, begin assaulting his mind, and the slick sensation of a silver tentacle reaching out of my mouth to accompany the dissonant whispers spell is almost... pleasant.

The man grunts in pain, clutching at his head in a horrified scream, and then he bolts out of position, running as fast as he can away from me.

Directly out of cover and into the firing line.

A bullet from an incoming enemy soldier impacts against his throat, another against his chest, and he collapses into a heap.

The spectral tentacle reaching from my mouth slithers back inside as its light fades, and a scattering of memories flickers across my mind. His memories. Bialya. Qurac. A border skirmish. A strange energy signal, one that the higher-ups weren't expecting.

I feel... sated.

Chapter 7: 1.2 - Lucky

Chapter Text

The firefight between the two groups continues, despite the loss of one of the Bialyan (?) soldiers. The rush of his memories across my mind propagates into my every conscious thought. The idea of drowning in them excites me to my core.

A man without a son, without a brother, due to the Quracis and their American allies in the Middle East. The fanatical loyalty to his queen runs deep, the kind of beauty that leaves a lasting impact.

I want - no, I need to understand him.

But I cannot afford to do that, should not do that, for more reasons than I can count.

Bullets spray into the sky at the circling helicopters from the direction of the trucks, even while the Bialyan soldiers try to take advantage to shoot at the Quracis. One of the men next to me shouts an order in Arabic toward his men, the command consumed by the sound of gunfire and revving engines. A grenade from one of them explodes in the distance, a spray of smoky debris rising into the night sky with a flash of light.

I push myself to my feet, legs straining from the nerves of this situation and the entire day spent in the desert heat. The air is much cooler now, but I cannot dwell on this.

At the sound of a man's yell from behind me, directed toward me, I spin quickly, shouting into the wind as my hand pulses through the air. A silver beam of light snaps toward him, parts of his torso flash-frozen in ice as it impacts against his chest. The rifle drops from his hand as he dies of exposure to the ray of frost cantrip.

Before the others can retaliate, some wheeling toward me despite the enemy onslaught of trucks that threatened their position at any second, I have to move. My feet pound against the sand of a nearby dune, cresting over the top just as stray gunfire peppers the sand nearby. I tuck and roll, nearly losing whatever remained of the rations in my belly as everything whirls around me. Picking myself up from a heap at the base of the dune, my mind scrambles for what to do, knowing the precious seconds I may have gained for myself will not last long. If I am lucky, the firefight will continue long enough to consider my options.

One of the cantrips I know could be useful to hide, but I… need one of those trucks. Desperately. A truck could get me out of harm's way, could get me out of this warzone before I starve to death or die from thirst. The helicopters can pursue, but if I can take them out surreptitiously, then maybe…?

The whirring blades of the nearest copter stirs a cloud of dust, and a mounted rocket launches itself into the distance. A whistle and then a boom sends fire, smoke, and dust cascading nearly twenty-five feet high. I pull myself from cover slightly, terror reaching into my core. The vehicle slides through the air overhead, before veering closer to the battle and away from my hiding position.

I can try to take it out.

But doing so will leave me unable to shield. Already, I may have made a fatal error with that dissonant whispers trick, for I can only perform two major spells during a day. Everything else I can do is a cantrip – useful tools against humans, not so useful against vehicles unless I can get multiple attempts.

Or get really lucky.

If I do this, I will have no defense against gunfire, and definitely not against those rockets.

And yet, the one advantage that I have is that they likely have no idea what I can do. If I can use the unknown to my advantage, maybe I can do something.

A plan starts to form in my head, and I would just have to risk it!

I stand even as my hands start to shift. Thin silver tendrils rise from my wrists, glowing slightly in the darkness of the night sky. They expand outward, undulating like exposed prehensile neurons, and the silver glow intensifies at their ends.

I jut my hands forward, shouting, "Primum!"

Power collects together between my hands and then explodes upward toward the back of the helicopter in a bolt of chaotic silver light. A split-second before it hits the spinning tail, the silver shifts to a brilliant crimson hue. A scorching flame erupts for an instant as the metal of the copter melts, the helicopter tilting downward dangerously.

For a moment, I hold my breath, and the nerve projections in my wrists pulsate. A split-second later, the silver light forms again just over the spot where it collided with the tail blades of the helicopter, and then arcs through the air like a lobbed grenade, angling toward the ground. The impact is loud, the hiss of sizzling electricity and the scream of a soldier accompanying it.

The copter pilot loses control, the tail a melted mess of superheated gunk, and the high-pitched complaint of its whirring blades snapping into the sand below is painful to hear, thankfully transitioning into the crunch of metal as its body crashes into the ground quickly.

It worked!

The chaos bolt spell is unpredictable, exceptionally powerful even at low-level if the caster's luck is with them. It can produce the primal power of any element, and there is a chance it can leap from one target to another. I doubt seriously that anything miraculous like that would happen again – the chances are so low.

The implications that I have access to chaos bolt are not lost on me: it's a sorcerer-only spell in the traditional rules of 5th edition. Do those rules even apply here, or was this some homebrew? I… need to stop thinking about this like a game.

The second half of my plan requires me to get to work, and I dash back down the dune quickly, nearly losing my footing. "Terraforma!"

Silvered light, almost the color of moonlight, expands down into the sand dune in front of me, and a silvered dust cloud billows outward, growing as the hole below it deepens. I throw myself into the gap, before casting the mold earth cantrip again.

Sand shifts around my body until the hole closes and the space around my body widens slightly. Large enough to give me a space to breathe, not large enough to make me feel good about my circ*mstances. The first casting of the spell fades away as the sand shifts into position above me, hopefully making it look as though I disappeared completely.

This hiding place will not last long before I start to run out of oxygen, but another mold earth can let air inside, at the cost of potentially exposing my hiding place if I am not careful. My thoughts drift again to the one advantage I have left – they do not know what it is that I can do, and I have to hope that is enough.

.A.

The sound of the fighting dies down after several minutes, the distant sound of engines and copters fading.

Without confirmation that they are actually out of the immediate vicinity, I am honestly terrified to break concealment. What if they are looking for me en masse, whichever side survived the confrontation? Whether a Quraci or a Bialyan soldier finds me first, I doubt either would treat someone who looks as strange as I do kindly.

Where in the world even is Qurac and Bialya? From the tone of their language, this feels like a Middle Eastern conflict, especially with that soldier's thoughts worrying about American influence. I am not hugely interested in geography despite a passion for social studies, but neither of those places is real. At least America is! That has to mean safety, right?

My reverie breaks as something hits the ground nearby, heavy enough I can hear it from here and strongly enough that some of the sand above comes loose, a stream of dust hitting my chin.

A moment later, another crash into the sand much farther away does not shake my hiding place's foundations, but the muffled impact is somewhat audible, despite the distance.

What could make a sound like that? More fighting, clearly, but it's odd.

I press on the sand with my mind as I whisper the incantation, the mold earth cantrip shifting sand out of the way long enough to let the air inside. The moonlit sky peaks in from above, and I take a breath of fresher air before letting the spell fade, watching the sand filter back into place.

Without warning, something slams hard into the dune above me, the sand pocket collapsing. Sputtering for breath as some of the particles get into my nose and eyes, I try to push deeper inside, away from whatever that was, but someone breaks through the layer of sand and traps my arm in an iron vice, yanking me upward.

My shoulder snaps out of place, and my scream of pain surely alerts anyone around.

A white teenage boy with dark hair, bright blue eyes, and a strong jawline holds me effortlessly with one of his bulging arms, suspending me above the ground by my dislocated shoulder. The scowl on his unblemished face stretches menacingly, as a seeming fury burns within him.

As the sand falls away and out of my eyes, my clearer thoughts push through the pain. "What are you-"

He tosses me to the side effortlessly, proving his immense strength, and my other side impacts hard enough into the sand to nearly half bury me.

My eyes bulge when I recover enough to get another look at him, and his torso turns toward the moonlight: a black t-shirt with a familiar red symbol emblazoned on his chest, tight jeans stretching down his legs.

No cape, no tights, the youthful face, the impossible strength.

"Superboy?"

Chapter 8: 1.3 - Delectable

Chapter Text

DC Comics? D&D into DC Comics? Am I going to wake up tomorrow and end up in Star Wars? Some anime I've never heard of? A dystopian book series?

Why is this happening?

I understand vaguely what happened immediately before coming here: ejected from a spelljammer ship while it was in mid-transition from one plane to another. Is this just mere chance, or did someone guide the hand of fate to bring me here, of all places? Must have slipped through the planes and found myself in a different crystal sphere.

It is unfortunate that I do not recognize exactly which version of DC this seems to be. All I know is that Conner is more likely to wear that t-shirt in one of the non-comics properties. Not that that helps much. Need more conclusive evidence.

The teenager does not seem to recognize that name, from the look of confusion on his face that twists after a few seconds into one of anger once more. His knuckles tighten, gleaming white in the moonlight, and his breathing intensifies, forming small clouds beneath his nose from the cold air of the desert night.

I am absolutely going to end up with a fist full of Kryptonian in my chest. Why is he so angry?

"Superboy, listen to me. You're not in your right mind. I know this is a warzone, but surely nothing these guys could do would make you so mad. And I don't even know you!"

Moving in several quick steps, the clone leaps toward me and latches his hand around my neck, squeezing so hard I begin to see stars. I try to pull away, but his fingers dig harder into my trachea, stinging in pain.

The mental connection shifts into position without my prompting, and a hum beneath the surface of my skin, almost roiling in my blood, tells me the culprit: the tadpole.

"Superboy," my voice cuts into his mind, silver psionic energy flooding into the unseen Astral Plane around us. "Let me go, and maybe I can help with your anger."

The words are no command, no mental suggestion – I would need a spell to properly subjugate his will, and I do not know one. Not yet.

Even if I did, I need to sleep, to rejuvenate the energy that I've lost, for I have no spell slots left. Are cantrips enough to damage a half-Kryptonian clone, if a fight needs to happen here? The usual situation is that Kryptonians have no more resistance to magic than the average person around, so perhaps I have an edge.

Superboy's mind is like an open book as he listens to the words, responding without any special consideration for whether he wants to share his thoughts with me. The connection I can make allows communication, not probing – I would need a spell like detect thoughts for that – but every thought radiates through the connection toward me, with very little variation.

He does not think in words – everything is a jumbled mess of emotions. The baser instincts are in control: anger, survival, lust, hunger, thirst. He wants nothing more than to tear into the environment with every fiber of his being, to destroy everything around him, to tear off my head just for being in the way. In the way of what? I do not know.

"Why can't you think in complex words?"

The grasp on my throat lessens, and I pull myself free with a bit of difficulty, nearly collapsing into the sand and agitating a cloud of dust. He does not re-engage, but his thoughts are not one of fear, but instead curiosity. There is no way I walk away from this without severe bruising on my neck, aasimar healing or no.

"Superboy, do you recognize that name? Conner?"

His face twitches, thoughts uncertain. He does not recognize them.

"What name do you remember?"

A finger traces the symbol on his chest. "Superman."

The telepathic voice is not his voice, but rather a high-pitched whining voice, the kind you would expect from a small child. It sounded a bit like he played the memory of someone else saying the name, to reply to me, instead of using his own thoughts to communicate that. What does that say about his mental state? It's like he has almost no language processing at all, even in his mind.

Is this Superman? Did I assume incorrectly? Could be a very early Clark, maybe before he went to Metropolis. This does not seem to be Tom Welling, but nothing really pointed in that version's direction anyway. It doesn't explain why he would be in the Middle East, or why he would only remember his name.

"Okay, that's good. My name is Logan," I try, not sure if he can really understand me if he has such difficulties with language. "What else do you remember?"

The teenager does not know how to respond, a sense of emotional confusion and turmoil building beneath his conscious mind and brimming to the surface. Someone with a mental filter could protect themselves from displaying their thoughts to a telepath like this, but he has none – all emotion, all instinct.

"So you don't know anything else? Your memories are gone."

What could remove the memories of someone as strong as Superboy, or even Superman? One version of the first guy broke the fourth wall so hard that he reset the universe!

I curse the tadpole. For all the telepathic power I did have, gifted from it somehow, I do not have the tools to fix this man's mind. He'd need a stronger telepath, or perhaps a stronger mage to undo the affect on his mind. I need to level-up and fast. Is that even a valid thing to think about? Would I level-up? How would that even happen?

The teenager tilts his head slightly, looking off toward the right suddenly. A flash of understanding through the mental link, and I knew what he heard – distant gunfire, so distant that I could not hear it with my own ears. He roars in anger, moving purely on instinct, and leaps into the night, disappearing into the dark sky above. Unexpectedly to me, he falls instead of flies, crashing into the sand hard, before leaping off again. He chose not to fly, or can't?

As soon as the teenager leaves to chase the next fight, I wrap my hand around my bruised neck, trying to muster the feeling of happeier times to imbue my wounds with celestial light. Yet the light does not come - perhaps not the right headspace, or perhaps it hasn't been long enough since I last used it to use it again.

I do not want to abandon the teenager, but I am not certain what the right thing to do even is at this point. I am running on fumes, both physically and magically.

And yet.... Wherever this teenager went, whether he is Superman or Superboy or someone entirely different, I need to follow.

Surveying the surroundings and the aftermath of the firefight, I begin checking for supplies. My hands move on auto-pilot, shifting through the uniforms of the corpses, both Bialyan and Quraci, while my mind races. I need time to decompress, to talk to someone professional when all this is over. I was never one to ask for help when dealing with mental issues, but this is... a different caliber of situation.

Two canteens of water, a half-bag of rations, and a set of keys later, I pull away finally. I quickly shift from vehicle to vehicle, to check over the wrecks to see if any of them are in better condition than another. One is a destroyed heap of misshapen metal and debris, the unfortunate victim of an explosive missile. Bullets thoroughly pierced three more of the trucks, but one seems relatively in better condition.

I have never driven something like this before, and I've definitely never driven anything in a desert. Relying on the hope that it is idiot proof, I skitter into the driver's seat and begin looking over the controls, knowing I might lose the Kryptonian if I am not fast enough. The smell of the cabin grows more rancid by the second, but if I can get it to work, then I can-

When the controls finally flare to life, I pound my fist into the cushion next to me in excitement.

Squelch.

When my skin touches something wet, I glance down to see a puddle of light pink goo sitting in the middle of the cabin, splattered haphazardly across the leather.

I lick my lips.

My stomach rumbles in protestation, and vomit expels across the floorboard, mixing with the bodily fluids of a likely dead Quraci soldier. How he managed to crawl out of the truck is anyone's guess, but some of his bra-

The engine purrs, and my fingers clasp tighter around the wheel.

In the distance, somewhere out there, is a Kryptonian. He represents a connection, a wider universe of contacts who can research just what exactly burrows within my head, who may be able to stop it. I-I need to focus on that now, but it becomes harder and harder with every passing second, my thoughts drifting to the man who died in this cabin, whose brain matter pools delectably in the seat next to me.

I press on the gas pedal.

Chapter 9: 1.4 - Absolute

Chapter Text

The truck speeds across the sandy landscape, the moonlit night and my limited radius of darkvision the only ways to tell exactly where I need to go. The headlights do not seem to work, or I cannot decipher the control to turn them on. If I had the forethought and time, I might have tried the light cantrip on the front of the truck, but that wouldn't be as good as a high-beam.

Occasional radio transmissions call out into the cabin of the truck, through the receiver, but Arabic is still a mystery to me. From the tone of the voices, they seem to be orders, but were they for the men in this truck or for other deployments in the area? I cannot tell. This border skirmish must be a big deal, or perhaps this really is a warzone.

A sense of dread burrows in my mind – I cannot find him. I expected to see a sign of battle, but there is none. I've driven for nearly an hour, and I am no closer to civilization, nor closer to the Kryptonian. Frequently, my head droops, eyes heavy – the relative safety of this truck and the monotony of driving slowly lulls me into a dazed, half-slumber. I expected adrenaline would push me further than this, but this is my limit.

Fingers clasp tighter to the steering wheel, yet my head dips toward my neck. My eyes must have been closed for long enough that I am jolted awake as the truck crests over the top of a sand dune and then lands hard. The vehicle tilts quickly forward and drifts to the right sharply enough my forehead smacks hard against the glass of the window.

The engine sputters to a stop, and I pull my hands away from the ignition. The pain of a dislocated shoulder, a bruised neck, and a throbbing headache erupt into focus all at once, and everything screams for me to simply rest.

"Fine. A little nap," I announce to no one, feeling the stress of the previous two days intensifying. A few hours of rest would get my spells back, and I would be better prepared to handle the threat of the day to come. It is a risk to sleep for multiple reasons, but I can mitigate a few of them.

Pushing myself out of the vehicle, multiple castings of mold earth left me with a chamber under the sand, connected to the surface with thin tubes to allow oxygen. I could never do something like this while in immediate danger, but with enough time to plan, it would work. As the final casting of the cantrip ends, the silver glow from the band on my left arm fades, leaving me in relative darkness. With a wince, I pull Tav's book from the bag on my back, enveloping it with the light of an aasimar.

.A.

"Welcome back."

The soothing voice of a dark-haired elven male is melodic, and I sit up after a time, grateful to not feel any pain in any of my injuries.

The field of grass within this garden smells wonderful, freshly mown and carefully tended. My legs move almost on autopilot as I race toward the fountain, dripping my hands into its cool, wet flow. The feel of the liquid passing between my lips is delightful.

The elf's back is to mine, as he stands at the edge of the garden, near a terrace overlooking the vista below. The vista itself is different than before: a vast, roiling desert stretches as far as the eye can see in any direction, bathed in the sunlight far above us. The garden has become an oasis.

"You have done well, Logan." The elf's lips turn upward into a handsome smirk. "I am starting to sketch a portrait of the greater whole, but much more work lies ahead."

I frown as I join my place next to him, his hand meeting the small of my back. "I do not even know how I helped you."

The elf chuckles. "With each mind you touch, my understanding of this unfamiliar land grows. You open my eyes to see, train my ears to hear, prime my tongue to taste!" His arms stretch wider with every word.

"That sounds nice," I say truthfully. "I don't want things to be unfamiliar to you, to leave you in the dark."

"Wonderful to hear!" His grin brightens. "For too long, I have waited in the dead of night, in the darkest of depths. But no more. With you, in this place? My understanding will know no limits."

The sun begins to dim in the sky above, color bleeding away and shadows extending ever further. What was gold becomes gray, a brilliant silver light replacing the natural hue of the sky. Every surface, from the garden itself to the sandy vista below, becomes ethereally beautiful, all cast in an alternate light that brings forth the green in the elf's eyes.

"Wow."

He laughs. "Yes. Wow indeed. All can be ours."

I frown. "All?"

The elf looks toward the horizon, then back toward me. "Do I sense apprehension?" The look in his eyes could be disappointment, but all I sense from him is curiosity.

A moment of pause. "No. Not that. I just wish you would not talk in riddles."

He shakes his head, fingers tracing along my shoulder. "I have no use for riddles. Tricks born from the unclear language of mortals. Lies to make the fools feel false knowledge."

My brow furrows. "Unclear language?" Hmm. "What do I call you?"

The elf chuckles. "Names have their uses for even immortals, but titles can convey meaning to both friend and foe. I am the Absolute."

The Absolute.

What a fitting name.

"I am glad that you like it." He pauses a moment, blinking. "I do have a question though, about names and words."

The shimmering silver light stretches across the garden as the sun continues to rise in the distance. "I will do my best to answer."

"That Kryptonian." The word sounds foreign on his tongue, like he does not quite know how to say it. "You called him a superhero in your thoughts. What is a superhero?" The question sounds genuine on the Absolute's lips.

Hm. "Well, there's a genre of fiction about them, where I came from originally. They often have great powers, through things like magic or equipment, and they go out of their way to jump into harm's way to save innocent people from crime and other dangerous situations."

An idea forms in the Absolute's head. "An adventurer."

I blink. "Yes, I had not thought of it that way." I chuckle, my hand reaching out to clutch his. "But these characters often keep their personal lives separate from their lives as a hero, wearing masks while on duty so that they can keep their identities secret."

He contemplates that for a second. "So, these characters were fiction."

"'Were' is the operative word, yes." I pause. "Lots of things used to be fiction these days, apparently." He drifts into deep thought, fingers interlocked with my own. "Can I ask another question?"

The elf nods, saying nothing.

"So, when you say 'all,' you mean it? You want to know it all?"

"Yes." The elf just grins, then gestures toward the silvered landscape view. "Be my argent light in this dark unknown."

.A.

My hands shake with a feeling of writhing pressure beneath my palms, beneath my skin, that snakes through my arms, toward my chest, toward my head. There should be pain, but it feels sweet. A power trickles passively from my head, silver light drifting into view for a few seconds within the dark underground chamber.

As that sensation fades into the dull background of my mind, I understood its purpose: a new route of influence, a new font of magic.

A level up!

A pool of sorcery points and a few ways to use them. The knowledge of a new spell, to innately cast from my pool of spell slots or from my sorcery points.

I pull on that feeling of magic writhing within myself and shout, "Terraforma!" As mold earth forces the sand to spill away, the light of the morning sun burns into view.

With new powers at my beck and call and the knowledge that the Absolute is at my side, I feel far better than I did before about my chances of surviving this, finding the League, and figuring out the next steps. Each day I sleep is just another tick of the clock, until the day I inevitably become an illithid.

Chapter 10: 1.5 - Team

Chapter Text

Feeling incredibly lost and incredibly overwhelmed with everything that has happened so far, I am almost grateful for the sound of the explosion in the distance, a smoke cloud rising quickly into the air, above a series of mountainous ridges. Either this is the chance to find the Kryptonian I am looking for, or this is just a chance to interject myself into the path of two warring states. Maybe both.

I crane my neck over the steering wheel, searching the ridges to scout for an opening that would get me closer to the conflict. Something catches my eye that I did not expect to see at all, however: a strange figure lies prone in the sand, nearly obscured from sight in the shadows of several rocks.

The truck comes to a stop, and I pull myself free of the cabin, stepping into the considerably warmer air of the desert heat. Checking for any enemy forces that may be watching, I slip behind the stones and study the figure.

Unconscious or worse, a dark-skinned man in a black skin-tight wetsuit lies prone in the sand. The symbol on his belt, shaped like a stylized letter "A", makes far more sense when I glimpse markings on his neck: gills. This is someone connected to Aquaman, someone in a Middle Eastern desert. What kind of superhero adventure is happening in this desert right now?

Careful not to touch the gills, I reach to check for a pulse, studying the man's face for changes if the pulse is not clear.

This man is a god. Face delicately carved from marble, a body for the divine, he himself is proof of intelligent design. Surely no one this beautiful could have happened on accident. He has nothing on the Absolute, but…

Even better, the man appears to be alive, but it's difficult to say what his prospects might be. I have no skill in medicine, yet it takes little to conclude that an arid desert landscape cannot be good for an Atlantean, for prolonged periods of unconsciousness.

When I touch his mind to see if a telepathic message may awaken him, the connection takes hold, but unlike the Kryptonian, this Atlantean does not respond at all. Perhaps you have to be conscious to speak to me telepathically, or perhaps he too has difficulties with language.

I come back after a few moments with one of my more full canteens of water, willing to do anything to get this man to awaken. Surely, he would also have resources to connect to the League, if only through asking Aquaman, and the League is my best chance to get someone to check on this thing in my head, on my presence in this world.

Placing a hand beneath to collect the excess water, I lightly and gently pour water into the space of the gills, while admiring the dark tattoos that run down his muscular arms, ending in a pattern shaped like the open mouth of a snake or an eel. The man's body shudders suddenly, and a word shifts across the telepathic connection: "Tula!"

"Can you hear me?" I say into his mind, but there is no response as his body goes stiff once more. The gills almost seem to react passively to the presence of water, undulating against his skin to breathe. I doubt that he has difficulty breathing – his whole body likely needs exposure to moisture, badly, but I do not have enough water to let him soak.

I tear a spare piece of cloth from my bag, drench it with water, and then begin the process of lifting a far more muscular man than myself into the back of the truck. It takes effort to place him carefully, but once he is secured, I lay the makeshift washcloth over his forehead, hoping it could break a fever.

"C'mon, Logan. You can do this. Get him to safety, so you can be safe." If both an Atlantean and a Kryptonian are in the area, then surely the odds are good I will find someone I can use to assist me with my issues, with the added benefit of saving a man from harm's way to do it.

.A.

I instinctively duck for cover as I round the bend, trying to follow the sounds of fighting: several tanks inch across the dusty landscape, ready to fire onto something in the distance. There are no obvious vehicles or larger targets in the area for these Bialyan tanks to engage, so what exactly is happening here?

The smoke clears enough to see a bare-chested teenager launch himself through the air with an impressive leap, shouting loudly enough that his cries echo to my position several dozen yards away. The Kryptonian lands not too gracefully on the tank, ignoring the guns of the soldiers who recover from their surprise enough to begin firing point-blank. He hurls one of them away effortlessly, bends the tank's barrel with ease, and then lifts the entire rotating top of the tank from its position, seemingly without a struggle.

The second tank swivels to aim its barrel and fires, its own point-blank explosive round hitting the teenager square in his back. This time seems to have an effect, the blast sending him hurtling through the air, smoke trailing his position in the sky as he lands in a heap, mere feet from my truck.

Latching onto his mind and already shifting into a ready position, a message reaches the teenager's inner, primitive thoughts. "Know this is not the time, but I could really use your help. But first, tank!"

The teenage Kryptonian's eyes dart toward mine, and he lunges for the truck, instead of taking aim toward the tank that is already shifting its aim toward me.

The Atlantean!

"No!"

I shove myself through the door into a tumbling heap on the ground, just as he takes the vehicle into his grasp and begins to spin, preparing to hurl it at the enemy. Through the mental connection, the mind sliver cantrip rips into the mind of the Kryptonian, and the truck hits the ground a few feet away as he clutches his head in pain. A silver spectral tentacle, an apparition of pain, erupts from the corner of his eye.

"There's an innocent! Someone in danger! Don't touch the truck!" I cry aloud, pleading with the teenager as he recovers from the spell's effect, the tentacle fading away. The piercing blue eyes lock onto mine, but before he can decide to attack me, he twists in time to take a rocket directly to the chest. He roars, shoved with full force from the enemy tank again, perhaps inadvertently saving the Atlantean and myself from that blast.

The teenager rips his fists through the rock beneath him, bringing a boulder of stone with him as he jumps nearly fifty yards again, almost from a stand-still. The boulder smashes into the pile of debris where the tank once was, where the soldiers may have been, before the Kryptonian himself lands hard onto its position.

Movement far to the right draws my attention as the teen continues his rampage, the sound of metal grating against metal ringing out through the area. A pair of other teenagers wearing what can only be described as superhero costumes, even seen from this distance, pull themselves to their feet, eying the Kryptonian's rampage. This marks four superheroes in one place, and the other two were not either unconscious or in a semiconscious rage state!

The boy wears a black suit with a lightning bolt symbol a few shades darker than his mop of messy red hair – I would recognize Kid Flash anywhere, even with the strangely colored suit. I just don't know which one this is – did Impulse have a black costume, or is he always depicted in red and white? Regardless, the boy's body language screamed his need for speed, especially in this moment as he eyed the Kryptonian.

The girl is more conventionally dressed as a teenage female version of Green Arrow: a bow in her hand, a dark forest green outfit that stood out a bit too much in the desert climate. Is she actually a teenage female version of Green Arrow, or is this one of Oliver's many female sidekicks? Thea, Mia, Emiko – did any of them dress in green like this, or were they usually in red?

The more I see of them, the more it becomes clear that these are sidekicks, and that rampaging Kryptonian is definitely Conner Kent. What that means and how he came to be here, without the ability to speak a language, is very unclear. I'm only aware of one Aquaman sidekick, but the racial background of that one seems different than this one: is this a version of Garth?

When the girl points in my direction, it takes only a moment for the speedster to find his way face-to-face with me, a threatening look on his face.

"You with him?" he thumbs lazily in Superboy's direction, despite the threat he seems ready to dish out at any moment. "Don't have all day for you to stand there, alien."

"I'm not an alie-" I shake my head, spinning with the realization that I may as well be one. From a different dimension instead of a different planet, but the effect is the same. "Actually, I am, but it's complicated. I don't want any trouble." I point toward his chest. "Which one are you?"

He blinks in my direction, a look of consternation slowly growing on my face. "How many times do I have to tell the people that I'm not Speedy?! It's Kid Flash."

"That sounds real rough, buddy." I point toward Conner, not wanting to waste these precious seconds. The clone sends a fist through the panel of a tank, preparing to hurl it into a dramatic arc through the air. "That guy's going to hurt someone. You know him – is he usually this reckless and angry?"

Kid Flash shakes his head curiously. "I don't know what you're talking about, but he sure does seem like a ball of rage. Why was he about to attack you?"

"Why is he doing anything right now?" I ask, gesturing. "Anger."

He tilts his head, nodding after a time. "How long you been on Earth? You know the language well."

I shake my head. "Look, there's an Atlantean in the back of that truck that's in need of medical attention. I can answer your questions, but-"

Kid Flash looks at me quizzically but shifts toward the door to open it in a movement nearly too fast to see. "Whoa! Why's Aqualad here?" He shoots a look in the direction of where he had been standing with the archer, and then leans over to check his vitals. "Okay, you're-"

My ears perk up, twin drones flying high through the sky, descending toward our position fast. Bullets begin to pepper the ground, and I hurl myself prone just beneath the truck, losing sight of the speedster as he dashes to safety. I have no idea whether the top of the truck or Aqualad are more bullet resistant, but I have to hope either would be enough to keep a sitting duck safe.

The drones make a pass overhead, angling back toward us for another pass, but one of them unexpectedly explodes as something collides with it mid-air. I did not quite see what it was, but when Kid Flash and the archer suddenly appear feet from my position, the girl is already in the process of nocking another trick arrow.

The archer takes cover near me, a spray of bullets dotting the ground around us. Kid Flash shifts out of sight again as he dashes somewhere – it is exceedingly hard to tell if he went right or left, everything a bit of a blur.

"Why are all of you in Bialya? What happened?" I shout over the sound of gunfire, my face twisting up to see the archer's response.

"Don't know. Don't care," she says after a moment, waiting for a moment to come out of cover. "Not the first time I've woken up somewhere I don't recognize. Doubt it will be the last."

"You don't remember coming to Bialya?" I ask, starting to put the pieces together: they've lost memories, a lot of them. "Do any of you remember?"

The blonde of Asian descent ignores the question and steps out from around the corner, her bowstring snapping as another arrow flies toward the sky. The shot goes wide this time, and she curses under her breath.

"I don't know who you are, but this conversation can really wait for later."

Fair point.

Another boom from overhead, accompanied by a blast of heat and smoke, occurs, almost source-less. I don't quite see what happened from my perch on the ground, but the archer relaxes her body language by a noticeable margin, though I did not have to attempt to read her emotions to know she remains guarded.

I shuffle to my feet, trying to put the pieces together on just what may have happened to them. Could this have been a spell, perhaps, or maybe a curse? A powerful memory charm, or another telepath with far fewer limitations than I have?

Kid Flash rockets into position once more, coming to a stop a few feet away and staring into the remains of the smoke cloud that was once a drone threatening to destroy us.

A figure floats into view, shifting from a not quite invisible state into a green-skinned girl wearing the insignia of Martian Manhunter. I vaguely recognize who this might be: a sidekick of the Martian Manhunter. A sidekick of Green Arrow. A sidekick of the Flash, of Aquaman, and of Superman. All in the same place at the same time, on the same mission.

A team.

Chapter 11: 1.6 - Savor

Chapter Text

The girl pulls her hood down, revealing a cute face and bright red hair, contrasting with the tone of her skin in a way that only worked because she has naturally – no, artificially? – pretty features. A shapeshifting alien species could look like anything. For all I know, her natural state is a super-dense pile of sludge that can think. Regardless, this is quintessential teenage girl.

Her head tilts in confusion when she spots me, eyes peering in my direction. "Who are you?"

"Logan. I-"

"He saved Aqualad," Kid Flash interrupts, pointing toward the unconscious form in the back of the truck. "I have no idea why one of my buddies is here with me. And honestly, J'onn, this new look is interesting-"

"You know my uncle J'onn?" the girl says in surprise. "Hello, M'gann! Of course you do. You're Kid Flash, Wally! And you're Artemis."

Ah, so this is Wally. Would that mean that Barry is around and the Flash? Artemis is a little on the nose, but a good name for an archer sidekick, I just don't recognize her from anywhere.

"I don't know you, Logan." Her peppier voice fades as my name is stated, and she moves a little closer, studying my face. "Is there a reason why being around you feels so odd?"

The touch of her mind on mine is clear a moment later, and I bodily flinch. A moment later, and she winces, pulling away.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you-" I say, as she shakes away the feeling and does not press further. I did not actively push her out, so that must have been the tadpole. "There is a lot to explain, and we don't have any time to do it."

"We?" Kid Flash asks. "Look, I'm grateful that you saved Aqualad and got this far, but-"

I conjure the first steps of the ray of frost spell, watching as silver light drapes across my fingers and exudes frigid air. "I've got abilities that can help you, and I've got no way to get back to the States without you."

Kid Flash nods after a moment, eyes affixed to the spell. "You've made your point. We can use the help."

I clear my throat. "I think your memories are gone. Not sure how much is gone, but there's no way that this many protégés of Leaguers would be here at the same place at the same time, without there being a common thread. Why would you all be in the Middle East?"

Artemis frowns, placing her hand on her hip. "I've been to the Middle East before, but yeah. You've got a point."

"I was going to say the same thing!" the Martian shouts. "I've pieced together some of the memories I lost, but we're on a team! With Superboy and Robin. I baked you cookies once!"

"Super-what now?" Wally asks, confused.

Ah! Robin. Which one? Tim seems the most likely, given that Conner is a thing.

The speedster points toward me. "But this guy wasn't on this team?"

She shakes her head after a moment, still looking a bit wearily in my direction. "No, he's unfamiliar to me."

I hold up my hands. "I don't think I'm missing any time, but I've got my own issues that I really, really need to ask the League about. It's incredibly time sensitive – life or death. You guys are my ticket to get a conversation with them."

"Your life or someone else's?" Artemis asks.

"Mine."

And others. If the tadpole gets its wish and I become an illithid, survival will require some hard choices, if I get to make choices at all.

Wally raises an eyebrow. "You went out of your way to help Aqualad, so I'll see what I – what we can do. Once we get out of here."

I glance back toward Superboy, but the clone is nowhere to be seen. In the distance, more smoke rises in the sky.

"We should find Robin," M'gann says, "and then come back for Superboy."

I nod, though the others do not seem to look toward me for confirmation of any sort of plan. It is odd to see these three, none of them a day older than sixteen, able to take charge in situations like this – they are very much still kids. I taught kids who were about the age of Wally. Now, they are teaching me how to survive in a warzone.

As the speedster looks to get into the truck and take the wheel, Artemis shakes her head. "This thing's just a bigger target. We should move on foot."

He looks like he may argue but shakes his head after a time, more at himself than at her. "Good point. We'll drag him with us, make a gurney."

M'gann interrupts even as Artemis begins tearing out a seat cushion. "Wait, I can lift him. May have to stop and rest a couple times, but it would be easier."

Telekinetically lifting the Atlantean out of the truck is child's play for her, as is keeping him at a distance of about six inches above the ground. Her mind is far stronger than mine.

Kid Flash shifts through the truck's contents, eyes glossing over some of the more awful-looking stains from its previous owners. He stops suddenly, a smile growing on his face. "Hey! Food!" Tearing into a pile of rations, he chews and swallows rather quickly, not taking the time to savor any of its drier flavors. For him, I imagine that it's all about energy. "I was starving. Takes a lot to keep me going."

"We need to get going," I say, knowing that more tanks, more trucks, more helicopters, or more drones could be here at any moment.

"Yeah, yeah, we know. But I'll be better off because of that, so thanks."

"I've got some more in my bag if/when you need it," I explain after a moment, and the redhead's grin only grows.

.A.

The day bleeds away into night once more before Miss Martian – M'gann's hero name – notices something in the distance, an excited yelp rising from her throat. "He's here!"

Throughout the desert trek, the conversation stays relatively quiet between the four of us, though I have so many questions I'd have liked to ask. These are real superheroes, characters whose stories I read growing up. It's insane.

M'gann's yelp breaks the monotony of that journey, and Kid Flash zooms forward at her urging. Nearby gunfire purges the relative silence of the night, and I push myself forward faster, climbing over the top of a nearby dune.

A cloud of dark smoke gathers, the sounds of fighting exuding from within. Dark shapes shift back and forth, my darkvision not able to provide any details.

As the smoke cloud billows away, the acrobatic form of Robin comes into view for the first time, the boy swinging his body through the air on nothing. He tucks into himself, aims for a roll, comes to a stop on bended knee, and then hurls a metallic disc into two Bialyan soldiers. An explosion of concussive force knocks both of them away, and the boy grins.

Kid Flash zooms into the throng of soldiers, removing rifles from hands and guns from holsters. He waves at them with an open hand before dropping the pile nearly thirty yards away. Diving back at the group with far more speed, a left hook smashes into one of them, sending him spiraling away.

I push into the mind of nearby soldier, a spectral tentacle rising from his eye. The mind sliver cantrip delivers a wide array of phantom pains, and the soldier screams and falls to the ground, twitching but alive. Another starts to rush at me, or perhaps in my direction, but a bolo arrow takes out the man's legs, restraining him in a heap on the ground.

M'gann waves her hand, telekinetic force shoving two of them prone and burying them halfway into the sand of the wasteland around us. Her cheery grin fades when she refocuses her attention on holding Aqualad just out of sight.

The last of the soldiers finally goes down, their threat evaporating after a good decision from the speedster left them defenseless. Either tied up or unconscious, the soldiers that tried to ambush a highly trained thirteen-year-old ninja are failures.

A large machine rises from the ground, and I haven't the faintest idea what this is supposed to do. A server, maybe, or a generator? Robin studies it for a moment before returning his attention to the assembled group, an expression of worry forming over his face as he sees the unconscious Atlantean.

"What's wrong with him?"

Kid Flash jerks his thumb toward the eldest of them, then another toward me. "This guy found Aqualad dried out, alone, and managed to find us. I'm not sure he'd have made it much longer."

"It's nice to see a friendly face, but these are odd circ*mstances," Robin declares. "I don't know why I'm here. Any ideas?"

Kid Flash smirks. "I don't know either. Memory loss."

"I've lost six months!" Robin explains. "Let's hog-tie these creeps and compare notes."

I watch them work, pulling a canteen of water from my bag and taking a swig. "M'gann," I turn to her, and she meets my eyes. "You wouldn't happen to know how to help heal Aqualad, would you? I tried to pour some water I collected over his gills, but I'm not sure it did anything."

The girl tilts her head, thinking. "I don't, but I bet the Bio-Ship does!"

"Bio-Ship?"

"An organic spaceship from Mars. I think it's around here somewhere, but I don't remember where it is." She blushes, embarrassed. "If anything can diagnose the best way to help Aqualad, she can."

I furrow my brow, thinking back to the nautiloid. The nerve-ending like transponder that controls its movements, the explanation from Lae'zel that they are essentially grown from sentient astral snails. I wonder idly if Dungeons and Dragons is a game here, too – if so, I need to do some research.

Robin gestures in our direction, and the two of us walk over to join the others. "So… we're a team."

"Not me," I say quickly, hoping to cut off anyone else from clarifying. "I happened to be in the right place at the right time."

"Convenient," Artemis replies, though not too negatively. Not sure what to make of that reaction.

M'gann turns to Robin, then points toward the unconscious Aqualad. "Yes. The five of us, plus Superboy."

Robin pulls something from his belt – a ripped piece of black fabric, a red symbol stretching across it. "Then this must be his!"

"I think so," I add. "We left him behind to find you. You're squishier than he is."

He blinks.

"Some teammate he is," Kid Flash says. "He looked ready to attack us at any moment, and actively attacked Logan over here."

"He doesn't know who we are," Artemis declares. "Hell, I don't know who we are!"

Robin paces slightly. "I remember Batman ordering radio silence. Our team must work for him!"

"How do we know that our team doesn't work for my mentor?" To emphasize the point, the speedster presses his finger to his chest, the colors of his suit shifting from black to yellow. "Whoa." Another press, and it shifted back.

"Stealth gear!" I say with a smile. "That makes sense."

Black to yellow, yellow to black. Artemis sighs, "Quit touching yourself! Look, we need our memories back. Now."

My eyes meet M'gann's, the Martian girl growing more determined by the second to try something to solve the problem. She places a hand to each side of her head, her eyes glowing with green light.

Robin goes slack first, followed closely by Artemis, Wally, and then M'gann. I expect the same reaction to hit me, but nothing. She must have formed a telepathic link, to put the pieces of their memory back together. I did not have any missing time, so she must have left me out.

A thought occurs to me. I want to know what this moment looks like, if I can share the experience with them. A thought probe snaps from my mental focus, burrowing into the threads that bind them all.

Flashes of memory - lights and smells, sounds and tastes - filter across my perception. In this moment, even my basic connective abilities can break into a deeper bank of thoughts and experiences.

A young boy swinging from a trapeze, a moment of triumph turned to tragedy.

A young girl sobbing in a hospital waiting room, rubbing at the raw skin between her fingers and the blood beneath her nails.

A teenager racing from one end of the street to another, trying to practice for the day he can repeat Flash's experiment.

A young boy in deep blue hues, cold water soaking his skin, as he stares longingly toward a cute redheaded girl.

An alien creature with white skin folds, webbed fingers, a grotesque face, facing punishment for existing in a crowd of green.

The probe retracts nearly as quickly as it formed, as it burrowed into their thoughts. I don't know why I can do that – shouldn't I need a detect thoughts spell? Either way, a strong sense of satisfaction builds from the core of my being, and I savor the flavor of those memories for a moment. The sensation of being so connected is wonderful.

As the team of heroes pulls out of M'gann's mind, the four of them look none the wiser at my own intrusion. Aqualad may not have awoken, but she apparently tapped into his mind just the same.

"We were investigating an odd power surge," M'gann begins, explaining. "We brought that spectrometer here to investigate and found Zeta beam radiation."

I frown. "What's that? I'm not good at physics."

"It's a kind of radiation left over from teleportation tech," Kid Flash explains. "Capable of transporting matter from one place to another."

Could something like that be used to plane shift? Food for thought.

"I know we went into a nearby command tent we found to look for the source, but I don't remember the rest," Robin says. "We should get Aqualad to safety, find Superboy, and finish the mission."

"We need to get to Superboy and fix him," M'gann argues. "Six months ago, he had no memories. Just animal impulse. I'm the only one who can help him."

"Aqualad really needs a rehydration treatment as soon as possible," Robin declares. "Every second we waste is a second his condition may get worse."

"Can you get him to the ship?" I ask Kid Flash, the speedster eyeing the distance.

"I have enough juice in me," he says and turns to M'gann, "but he's too heavy to move for a longer run. Can you call the ship to us?"

M'gann shakes her head. "It's out of range."

Damn it.

Robin looks toward me after a moment, a look of pensive thought on his face. "Can you take him there?"

My brow furrows. "I can try, but will I be able to access the ship or do this rehydration treatment?"

The Martian gives a half-smile. "She's smart enough to help you, you just have to reach out with your intent. She'll sense Aqualad's close and in harm's way."

"Your ship's telepathic?"

"All Martian ships are."

I file that piece of information away for a later time, eventually nodding. "If I get close enough, I think I can manage. I'm a telepath too, just not a strong one."

Kid Flash's face twitches. "You didn't mention that before."

"It didn't seem relevant until now. I've got a few magic spells and abilities up my sleeve."

He raises a hand, as though he is about to say something, then brushes the moment aside, looking toward the horizon. "Keep him safe, yeah?"

This group of teenagers are remarkable. Every bit of anxiety that I have about my ability to do this and keep Aqualad out of harm's way rushes to the forefront of my mind, but they trust me to do this. I knew if they could afford to split up and help me, they would.

"I will do what I can to keep him safe."

Robin tosses a small device to me, a red prong with a silver button atop it, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. "If something happens you cannot handle, then hit that button and we'll be alerted. KF'll be there as quick as he can, and the rest of us will follow." He tosses something larger to me, a disc with a button on the side. "That'll guide you to the Bio-Ship."

I press it, watching as a display lights up, revealing a small holographic map with a compass, pointing somewhere west.

Artemis claps me on the back. "Good luck. Note this: he gets hurt, I kick your ass."

A bit abrasive, but I get the memo.

Moments later, the group of five heroes rush toward danger, leaving me alone with one of their friends in the middle of a desert night, the air cold and dreary.

I hope the ship is not far.

Chapter 12: 1.7 - Anomaly

Chapter Text

Pulling a man through the desert wasteland around us is a difficult prospect, even with a makeshift gurney to drag him across the dust. Every ten minutes or so, the Atlantean groans, giving me pause to check his mind, but he does not stir to consciousness.

The wind bites at the skin, dry frigid air so cold it takes my breath away. I hope, in a backward way, that the nighttime air helps Kaldur – I think that's what they called him – because the excess heat from the day here cannot be good for someone who lives underwater.

Every few moments, I check the device that Robin gave me, a holographic compass lighting up the night around us. Its soft hue flashes periodically as it updates the distance from the signal, and it has grown steadily closer. One step at a time.

I flinch at the sound of occasional distant gunfire, expecting at any moment that my luck will run out, that I will have dragged Aqualad into harm's way once more, that more soldiers will engage on our position. But they are distant – were they the sounds of gunfire from the sidekicks' position, or were they from the clashing soldiers of Bialya and Qurac?

A groan cuts through the silence of the dark.

My instincts tell me to look at Kaldur, but the sound came from ahead, not behind.

Carefully, I ease the gurney to the ground and begin stalking ahead, trying to be as quiet as possible. Darkvision is immensely helpful here, adding to the natural moonlight bathing everything from above. Someone like Robin with my eyes would be a terrifying opponent to face.

I crest around a nearby rockface, gently placing one foot in front of another. A prone form in the sand catches my attention, dressed in the uniform of a Bialyan soldier. Sound exhales from his mouth once more, clearly in a lot of pain.

But it's the eyes that haunt me.

A gaping hole lies where his left eye socket once was.

I skitter to his side, letting out a breath I did not know I held. "Hold on, you're going to be fine."

I did this.

I did this.

I did this.

The image of a spectral silver tentacle bursting from the face of a man – was it this man, or was it another of my victims?

He says something in Arabic, a pleading look in his right eye, but I shake my head, tears welling – I do not understand him. I tried to reach another of their minds earlier, but I can't translate for him – not even his own thoughts would.

Blood pools from the wound, a dark gash of twisted flesh to make room for something unnatural.

I take a deep breath that does not succeed in calming me down whatsoever, reaching out both hands to touch the place where flesh once was. That inner light in my soul, my celestial heritage – I have to summon it, to try to heal this. It's the only way.

The only way.

Light fixates in my palms, memories of happier times fading in and out of my focus. That radiance flickers like a candle, wavering with every thought of how truly f*cked up this situation was.

I did this!

I have to fix it.

Fix it.

Power floods my palms and extends downward into the wound. I can't regrow flesh, can't replace organs – this is beyond my ability, and would be for quite some time, if ever. But I can stabilize him, keep the wound closed for better treatment to come.

That would work, wouldn't it?

Wouldn't it?

Something touches my finger, and my eyes shoot open. Flesh shifts on its own, flesh that should not move, and the soldier screeches in pain, twisting every part of his body away from me. Blood splatters from the wound as something shivers through his skull.

He rises from the ground just as a true flesh tentacle, blood and muscle and sinew, snaps out to taste the air. The man's jaw goes slack, his body twisting unnaturally.

He races toward me.

My hands move even as I fall back to the ground, a word escaping my breath.

Ice scatters across the soldier's chest, the writhing, lashing tentacle twitching through the space around his head. It moves so fast that it threatens to force the skull cavity open even further, bulging outward.

I did this.

I did this.

I shift back like a crab, throwing another hand forward. Another beam of silvered frost shoots through the night, the cantrip building ice forms further and further until the man lay encapsulated.

Tears dot the edges of my eyes.

The weight of everything hits hard. I - killed. Murdered. Kill or be killed is something that you can say from your armchair, but here I am, trying to save a superhero. Someone who would not kill. This is not the only man I've killed, and… I don't know if it will be the last.

The sound of faint applause rises through the din of my thoughts.

"Bravo. Bravo."

My head turns toward the sound, arm already trying to push away the tears.

A cloaked man stands in the distance, only the bottom half of his face visible. His skin is putrid white, a sneering look on his face accompanying a rising grin. He continues to clap for several seconds, before placing his palms calmly into his pocket.

"That was a good show. Your fears are quite tasty."

The soldier in the ice vanishes, leaving a pile of mush where an ice sculpture once might have been.

"Who are you?"

The stranger tilts his head to the side, as though watching with interest. "Someone very interested in your unique telepathic signature. I have never seen something quite like you, never experienced something quite like you. You are an anomaly."

The cloak billows away at that word. Pink markings run along his face, while his skull is nearly transparent, revealing the brain matter inside.

I pull away, wondering what creature this was. A character from DC Comics? A type of mind flayer I don't recognize?

"Why can I not read you properly?" he asks, eyes focused on mine. "It is as though something pulls the string of your thoughts away from my grasping hands at the last second. Is it you? Or something else? Psimon says explain!"

A flare of power erupts invisibly around him, and the entire landscape bleeds away until all that is left is void.

Chapter 13: 1.8 - Morsel

Chapter Text

Flashes of light drift in and out of view, splinters of music and conversation that no longer hold any sense. A collection of smells and tastes add to the mix of sensation, until all that is left is myself and this stranger, floating in the soup.

Psimon.

I remember the name from the comics, but I don't remember any real details.

"Whatever you're doing," I try to shout, though my voice sounds far less resolute than I hoped, "it won't work. I'm not going to give you whatever it is you hope to find."

His body grows three sizes, expanding at the same rate as his grin. A bulbous brain rests behind a glass-like dome, only growing larger by the second. "I have already tasted your fears. You think I cannot pry into your hopes? Your dreams?"

The world shifts on its axis until we stand on a rooftop overlooking a grand cityscape. Police sirens, car alarms, honking horns echo like a wide cacophony. Behind me, the golden globe of the Daily Planet stands as a symbol in the sky, the sun just beyond it.

A handsome figure steps through a distant roof access door, pulling away his button-down and revealing the blue and red costume beneath. "You ready for patrol, Logan?" The affable look on Superman's chiseled face, the piercing blue eyes – all carefully crafted after years and years of practice to be as defusing as possible.

Superman produces a hand, waiting for me to take it.

Even as my fingers ache to take them, a strong sense of error rises to the forefront of my mind. Too much, too perfect.

"You can have it all." The sinister voice of Psimon echoes in my mind, his reduced size sitting on the rim of the globe. "The pinnacle of humanity interested in you, willing to fight crime alongside you. Ironic that he's an alien, but who am I to judge your fetishes? It is not beneath me to indulge baser fantasies."

The feeling of the Kryptonian's arms shocks me to my core, his gentle hands pulling until our bodies are flush.

I glance at Psimon and shake my head, power flowing from my hands. "Primum!"

The bolt of chaotic energy flickers through the space separating us, the energy knocking the image of Superman away. The enemy telepath conjures a barrier of bright red light, but the spell shatters the forcefield in a cascade of brilliant silver lightning.

Psimon flinches back in surprise, barely avoiding the crackling energy reaching out toward its target. "You have more fight in you than I expected. Where do you get your power?"

Light lances forward at a flick of his wrist, piercing through the space between us. I skitter into a run, already channeling the next spell. But I cannot dodge - the telepathic attack strikes into my back. I slam hard into the guard wall of the rooftop, hearing it crack behind me from the impact of my weight.

Pushing through the pain, hoping this to ultimately be some sort of illusionary battle between minds, I take a stand and hurl another chaos bolt in his direction. The silver orb of magic pulsates as it travels through the air, shifting into a brilliant green color and then expanding suddenly.

Psimon's eyes widen as the emerald energy sizzles as it touches the rooftop, a splash of acid hitting his body. He screams in anger more than agony. The rooftop burns away until all that is left is a flaming void, an inferno of possibility surrounding us.

The heat and smoke is striking, but this is an illusion.

"How does it feel Psimon? Talented mind like yours, facing difficulty from an amateur."

The flames surge as his anger rises, and power floods from him and crashes toward me like a wave of liquid fire.

His face erupts into a sneer once more. "You are nothing to me!"

I remember my newer skills, feeling my own psionic power flooding my body, increasing my endurance as I consume sorcery points. Silver light flashes across my skin, shining almost like a thick mucus. No – that is a mucus, staining my clothes.

The wave of heat twists and flows like the ocean as it cascades down around me, yet that protective field of power lasts at best a fraction of a second – a useful ability, but not one suited for something like this. Fire engulfs me, and I fall to my knees in agony. Sheets of skin and hair burn away by the second, muscle and sinew exposed to the intense energy. I collapse, breathing heavily, and the flames die down in an instant, at his whims.

I am a husk on the ground, barely able to stay conscious.

Psimon lifts me up with a tendril of focus, pulling me toward him effortlessly. "Tell me the source of your power!"

The psychic willpower to resist him wanes with every moment, every forceful tug, in this weakened state.

If I were stronger, more experienced, maybe I could have resisted him, but this is too much.

"I-"

Memories flash across the void around us, and I sense the interior of the nautiloid, the smoke-filled atmosphere of Avernus, the red-skinned wings of devils flapping through clouds of sulfur. Psimon stares with awe at the expanse around him, finally feeling my defenses slipping away.

What can I do?

"Nothing." The telepath chuckles. "Your mind is mine."

I wish I could hit the button on the device that Robin gave me, bring forth the team of sidekicks. I doubt I have enough control over my own body in the physical world to do it at this point. This telepath must have wiped their memories, so if he could do that to them, what chance could I possibly have had?

Psimon drags me through my memories, walking the halls of the nautiloid. A hazy recollection of the battle at the transponder reveals the cambion fiends and the mind flayers to the telepath, and he watches with clear surprise.

"What eldritch horrors were involved in the crafting of you?"

He shifts from one moment to the next, while I lay helpless, sizzling. Meeting Lae'zel, collecting Us the intellect devourer. Until finally, the moment ends on the imperfect memory of the moment I awoke, trapped in a pod. The vat of tadpoles lies open and exposed, their forms shifting through the amber liquid in the darkened expanse of the room.

"Well, well, well. Is this what you are hiding?" Psimon stares over its open surface, the pink exposed brain tissue an odd hue in this strange light.

The tadpole!

Can you help?

The scene flickers just as Psimon reaches a hand toward the vat of liquid, and it bubbles away out of sight. The ship itself washes away, and the beautiful garden replaces it. The sunset sky, the gushing fountain, the fresh grasses.

The lithe elven form saunters into view, his beautiful dark hair and green eyes staring directly into my eyes. "This is a surprise, but not an unwelcome one."

I point in the direction of the invading telepath, the pain from the burns a few seconds ago still raging. "Can you do something about this?"

Psimon looks between the two of us, power brimming around him. The confusion on his face is palpable. "Who are you supposed to be? Another mind inside this one?"

The Absolute ignores him, eyes trained on me. "Could you not manage with the power I have given you?"

My brow furrows, the flesh on my face shifting just enough to ignite a new twinge of pain from the burns across my skin. I have one spell slot left and no more sorcery points. "Clearly not. Please? For me?"

The elven form studies my expression, ignoring Psimon's taunts in the background. As his eyes begin to glimmer in the sunlight, I knew I had him.

Psimon begins to back away as the Absolute approaches him.

"How kind of my love to have brought me a snack. Don't you agree?"

My heart flutters at the word "love."

The Absolute raises a hand to level with the enemy telepath, Psimon unable to resist as purple power visibly floods the air between them. A pressure flows like waves across the space, the sheer force of the Absolute's presence becoming palpable in the air, even to me. I cannot image how Psimon must feel, with every force of it pointed in this direction.

"You made a grave error bringing yourself here, to my domain," the elf explains. "Were you not a fool, I would not have been able to decimate you for my love."

Psionic forces gather and tear at his defenses, great clawing gashes of purple light ripping into red. The white-skinned telepath winces, forced to his knees from the onslaught.

The elf turns toward me, able to split his attention without affecting the output of psionic power. "Come and share in his demise."

The soothing voice of the elven man of my dreams brings me to my feet, the lingering aches of the burns across my form fading away as they vanish with a tickle, my skin returned anew.

My own paltry power adds to the assault, beams of ice and slivers of mind pricking and prodding at Psimon's defenses. The telepath screams and tries to pull away, but the Absolute finally crosses the distance, his hand forcing its way through the last barrier of crimson light and grasping Psimon by the throat.

He gasps. "Don't-"

Using my last spell slot at the Absolute's nod, whispers echo throughout the mind of Psimon like a discordant melody, the cognitive dissonance growing ever louder as the telepath grows in fear. The faintest flecks of light representing Psimon's influence fade to nothing.

Weight leaves my shoulders.

The Absolute holds the body there, dangling a foot over the ground, his perfect fingers clasping around the telepath's neck. The elf's expression grows into one of wonder, head tilting over his shoulder to look my direction.

"Dine with me, my love."

The dome of Psimon's head shatters, the transparent skull-like glass case falling to pieces at a flex of psychic power. The shards fly perfectly to avoid tainting the flesh of the brain beneath, the smell wafting into the garden around us beautifully.

A hand reaches into the space and pulls, easily yanking a piece the gray matter from its housing. A pile of slick brain matter lies helplessly in the delicate elven hand, all that Psimon once was.

My mouth waters. "Is that a good idea?"

"Does it not feel like a good idea? Smell like a good idea?" The elf presents his hand toward me, inches from my grasp. The smell is heavenly.

"That's too much."

"All I require from you is a taste. A morsel."

I shake my head. "No, not that. I mean, this is all too much. You want me to eat his brain?"

The elf looks up slightly toward the sunlight in the distance. "If it makes you feel better, Logan, this is merely a representation of the mind. His physical brain will remain intact."

I sit in the grass, though the Absolute does not move, continuing to offer the brain toward me. "Why…? What is this?"

"I sense your struggle, my love." The elf sighs. "I predicted that this may happen. Do you think this will be the first in this reality to come after you? Do you think it will be the last? You are not supposed to exist here, you will invite challenge by your very presence. Psimon's intrusion into your mind is a unique circ*mstance, a boon for our side, but a curse for theirs."

"Whose curse?"

"Everyone else's." The Absolute nods, gesturing with his free hand toward all around him. The light bleeds away until all that remains is the silvered landscape he showed me before, the argent light he expects to deliver for him.

"You promised me no riddles."

He smiles. "I did. And I will explain, in time, once I figure out the answers to the riddles for myself." He raises the brain to his lips, nose flaring as he takes in the moment, and then offers it back to me.

"That's why this is pivotal, Logan. An early opportunity, a silver platter of increased knowledge brought directly to my doorstep by his own telepathic powers." He sighs. "I am not as strong as I can be, and neither are you. But we can be, in time, for I sense the threats in this new plane will only escalate. Take this next step, my love, to progress in power and rise to the occasion."

The Absolute and I take the first bite together.

Chapter 14: 1.9 - Guilt

Chapter Text

The Bio-Ship lies across the Qurac border, camouflaged into the environment to be nearly invisible to the naked eye. At night, it is almost impossible to see, and if I were not looking for it with the tracker Robin gave me, I might never have found it.

It seems to shift slightly at my proximity, and my mind reaches out to touch it, to embrace its odd character. It feels silly to talk to a vehicle in my head, but the connection forms just the same. Could I have talked to the nautiloid ship?

"Aqualad needs your help!"

The ship thrums with understanding, communicating not in words but in an attitude of acceptance, of assistance. A doorway into the ship opens, a panel folding outward to create a makeshift ramp that touches the sandy ground below. The cloaking tech fades, revealing its red surface and winged design – sleek, futuristic, and alien - exactly what you would expect to result from a different culture and technological development tree.

I pull the Atlantean onto the ramp, the ship helping me along the way as the ramp itself undulates to pull him inside. A shapeshifting, psychic ship for a shapeshifting, psychic species. How did the Martians develop something like this?

Morphing out of the material of the walls and the floor of the sci-fi space within, a slab of soft material appears from beneath Aqualad, raising him up a few feet to form a makeshift bed around him. A panel opens along the wall to reveal medical supplies, including the materials necessary for an IV treatment.

"How does this work?"

A screen forms along the nearby wall, detailing a diagram of Aqualad's body and readouts of his vitals, translated thankfully to human languages. Step-by-step instructions of what to do array into a list. I've never done something like this before – the most first aid I've ever done is using my healing hands, and that doesn't count nor is it applicable here.

I fill an IV bag with fluid from a supply crate, taking a bottle of water and a bag of salt and turning it into a life-giving treatment for a man used to a different environment altogether. The portions are not exact, according to the instructions, but the ratio of salt to water seems close enough that it just might work. My nerves nearly prevent me from going through with it – what if these ratios do need to be exact? I push those thoughts away and carry on, hands shaking slightly as I do.

When the IV bag is in place, a tube delivering the rehydration treatment into his bloodstream, I give a contented sigh and collapse to the ground. A seat forms beneath me before I even manage to hit the floor, rising just enough so that I can view the Atlantean and keep watch on the space where the door will form again.

"Thanks," I mutter under my breath. A sensation rises in my mind as the ship cloaks itself once more, and I exhale deeply.

This is the first safety I have had in days. The first time to think. The first time to consider this new scenario, in a way that is not hiding in a pit beneath the desert sand. The first time to consider my own actions, the depth of what I have done.

Psimon lay at my feet only an hour ago, looking like a corpse. Brain intact, as the Absolute had promised. Was he alive? In a coma? I didn't stick around to find out - I could not stomach the thought I might have killed him.

Newfound strength runs through my veins, and the understanding of a new level of spells races across my mind. More importantly, metamagic – the unique feature that sorcerers possess, the ability to trade sorcery points to bend the effects of spells to their will. I could cast faster, cast stronger, cast without words or gestures – all the options in the book are available to me now. This is what sorcerers dream of doing.

But was it worth it?

The taste of Psimon's thoughts and memories races across my mind again, and drool rolls down my chin. The feeling of my telepathy is stronger too, in ways that seem deeper than what the game would grant a sorcerer of my subclass. I need to do some testing.

But was it worth it?

Psimon was a terrible man, abusing his psychic powers to warp the senses, to destroy lives and ruin futures. He turned people into his playthings, his demented fantasies run amok, all to better the lives of his benefactor, the Queen of Bialya. Taking down one of her enforcers, one who is capable of assassinating world leaders by walking into the right room? That cannot be a bad thing.

But was it worth it?

I have always been fond of an "ends justify the means" approach in the abstract. Is this a necessary end? Is defending myself from these soldiers using lethal force really justified? I couldn't exactly let them kill me, capture me, or worse – ending them could not be a bad thing.

Could it?

"Tula!" a voice breaks the silence of the room, and I look up from my sullen state to see Kaldur shoot upright. Sweat pours from his gaunt face, features almost sunken from dehydration, but he is alive. "My head is killing me… Who are you?"

"Logan," I explain, trying to shake off the last half hour of worrying over my actions. "Your teammates helped me get you here, while they went to finish the mission and collect Superboy."

He peers at me for a moment, confused. "I remember… M'gann fixed my mind. Someone attacked our psychic link, removed some of our memories."

I nod. "You were left to bake in the sun all day, but I found you and managed to get you to the others in time. They'd have come back here with me too, but Superboy was still in harm's way, and Robin thought it best to finish the mission. Not really sure why they trusted me to do that for you, for them."

"I am grateful that you succeeded." He stares for a moment, studying my face, his toned torso held upright while he rests his weight on his elbows. I raise an eyebrow, and Kaldur looks away. "I am sorry, I am just not used to seeing many individuals on the surface world with unique physiologies like your own."

"No worries." I chuckle nervously. "I imagine you get some interesting looks sometimes, what with the gills and the webbed hands and feet."

He considers that for a moment, looking away once more. "I do, from time to time, but my duties as a protégé to a famous hero lent credence to my character. The world grows ever stranger by the year, as more individuals threaten the status quo."

I smile, thinking about how many heroes and villains in the comics had strange bodies of their own, including things like Martians and people like Psimon. Being an aasimar is not that odd in the grand scheme of things.

He tries to stand, but a beeping response from the ship's monitoring systems stalls him, and he lays his head back down onto a makeshift pillow. "Are you a local hero I have not met?"

Hm. "No, on two accounts. I am not actually from here. From Earth. From this plane, even. And I'm no hero."

He rests his head on the back of his forearm, his muscles stretching in just the right way that I have to look away. "A different plane? How long have you been here?"

"Two days and some change," I explain after a moment of consideration. "I don't actually know how I ended up here – a magical mistake, I think. It's honestly a long story, but the biggest piece of it is that I am in desperate need of help, from the kind of person who can look into a magical problem that threatens my livelihood, sooner than later."

The Atlantean considers that for a moment, a look of concern growing on his face. "What is the issue? My powers come from sorcery, perhaps I can be of assistance."

"You're a sorcerer?" I ask, curious. Surely this is a different case than my own. "I would have expected an Atlantean to just be a fish-man. No offense."

He shakes it off, a distant look on his face. "Some of us are born influenced by the sorcery we use to adapt to the underwater environment, but others simply take on those aquatic characteristics through magic."

Huh. An interesting idea. "Well, maybe you can help. I am probably going to have to explain this more than once, but now's as good a time as any. I will spare the more complex details for now, but a highly sophisticated magical parasite lives in my brain, against my will. That parasite should grow over the course of the next few days, until I am slowly transformed into a really horrible psychic creature that eats brains to survive."

Kaldur blinks, not prepared for the last sentence. "That is an awful thing to hear and surely even worse for one to experience. I am truly sorry."

I don't know what to say to that, but simply nod.

"I have to admit, I am at a loss for how to approach something like this. My skills in Atlantean sorcery are focused in combat specialties, though some of the more esoterically trained specialists in Poseidonis may be able to assist you. The Conservatory is a place for many in Atlantis to learn magic far beyond my means." A look of sadness crosses his face, but I push that observation aside for now. "I will ask Aquaman about this, and perhaps he can connect you to Queen Mera. If anyone could do something about this or know something that could help, she could."

I smile. "That's the most I can ask from you, Aqualad."

"My friends can call me Kaldur."

.A.

The Bio-Ship's door opens with an almost alien sound, and the Martian girl is the first to enter, floating into the interior effortlessly with a smile on her face. "Kaldur! You're awake!"

Kaldur rests now in one of the chairs up front, no longer in immediate need of treatment. I share a glance with him as M'gann rushes over to embrace him, and then she steps away. The rest of the sidekicks filter into the room, though with one additional passenger aboard: a strange metallic sphere, rotating of its own accord. Superboy presses his palm against it, and the machine sings in contentment.

"Glad to see you're feeling better, man!" Wally declares, giving Kaldur a simple high-five before floundering into the seat across from me, letting every limb drape as though he is the most exhausted individual in the room. "You did good work, Logan."

I nod, the rest of the team saying their greetings to their leader. I'd have expected Superboy to lead, but that was probably super-family bias. "I did what I had to do."

"We're grateful for it," Robin declares, cape flowing over the seat as he sits. "But we need to debrief. OpSec says we should-"

Kaldur clears his throat. "You are not wrong about that in most situations, Robin, but this is not one of those times. I owe a debt to Logan, and I am too tired to watch what I say around him. He's earned my trust."

A pang of guilt wells in my chest, the taste of Psimon's mind on my tongue.

"Let's get moving first." M'gann gestures with her hand, twin spheres rising into the interior as she sits in a special chair in the center of the room, a chair that forms around her as she does. Pressing her hands into the spheres, the Bio-Ship lifts into the sky and begins its ascent into the clouds, away from the active warzone.

"You can keep me out of your debrief session, I honestly do not mind," I explain after a moment of watching the skies in awe.

Kaldur shakes his head. "I appreciate the offer, but let us continue with our normal report." M'gann presses a button on the sphere, a screen lighting up in the windows before us to begin recording the conversation. "Start from the beginning, and feel free to contribute your part in the events as needed, Logan. You can entrust each and every person here with what you told me."

I nod, and the sidekicks begin to explain their side of events, their memories now restored. A mission to investigate a strange power surge in the Bialyan desert led the sidekicks to encounter Psimon, who removed six months of their memory and left them abandoned to their fate in the desert. The source of the power surge appears to have been the sentient machine they picked up, which Superboy aptly calls Sphere, and scientists were performing experiments on it.

"Anyone got an idea of what exactly Sphere is and why they were studying it?" Kid Flash asks, before turning his attention to it. "Any chance you could tell us yourself?"

Sphere beeps unhelpfully.

"Until we know, we're keeping it around," Superboy declares, and no one else had reason to argue with him.

I don't recognize whatever it might be from the comics, so I can't argue with their decisions. Not that I have a place to do that – I'm a glorified passenger.

"So why were you in the desert?" Artemis asks me, her fingers dragging a washcloth over her bowstring.

I clear my throat, explaining the story as I told it to Kaldur, nearly exactly.

"You've got a magic psychic bug in your head?" Kid Flash asks, incredulous.

"I think it's more complicated than that," I say after a moment, "but you're probably right. I need to get assistance from anyone who can offer it, and fast."

"Is that why you're a telepath? You're already turning." M'gann looks perturbed. "Something strong forced me out of your mind. I thought it might have been you, but it was this… tadpole."

"I think so, and if I don't stop it or remove it, I'll turn into a mind flayer by the end of the week." I sigh. "It was already strong enough to stop Psimon."

Superboy's head shoots in my direction. "What?"

"I should have led with this but I was not sure what you'd think," I explain, trying to calm my nerves. "On my way here with Kaldur, I encountered Psimon. I think he tried to attack my mind, but I don't remember what happened. All I know is that when I woke up, he was unconscious or worse."

Kid Flash shifts in his seat uncomfortably. "Why didn't you tell us?!" I do not need to touch Superboy's mind to know that he's upset, too.

I glance down at my feet, at the floor of the Bio-Ship, trying to carefully pick my words. "I was ashamed and scared. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I didn't know if there were more like him around, so I ran even faster, scared of running into something worse."

"You left him there?" Robin asks. "Without showing us, telling us, warning us with that beacon I gave you?"

I look away, ashamed. While I am leaving out important details, I do feel ashamed that I cannot come clean. "I did not know what to do. I might have a few magic spells I can cast, but I'm not trained for this. I panicked – all I knew was that getting Kaldur here was important, and as soon as I got here, I was not sure what to say, how best to bring it up."

Tension fills the chamber as the ship continues its flight pattern, M'gann's fingers dancing across the sphere while she contemplates what exactly she thinks about the situation.

Kaldur clears his throat. "I think we can forgive Logan for not knowing what the proper response should have been. We have all been in his shoes, making a judgement call that may be incorrect. Dangerous situations require risk assessment as a skill, one we are all developing."

Artemis eventually shifts her attention to me. "I can respect that. We were all new once." No one else responds, but the tension in the group lessens at Kaldur's words.

A few moments pass before the speedster wheels his body toward me again, preparing to ask the million-dollar question. "Is that thing in your head going to do whatever y- it did to anyone else? Was Psimon even alive afterward?"

"I don't know."

An uncomfortable silence fills the rest of the flight.

Chapter 15: 1.10 - Debrief

Chapter Text

I am honestly surprised that they took me to their hidden base, apparently trusting me to keep the secret. They already broke protocol once by letting me hear their report procedure, so it seems that they decided to take it one step closer.

The central chamber of this hollow mountain fortress is massive, strange technology acting as its central focus. Nearby amenities include a kitchen, a living room with a massive television, and an underground pool connected to a tunnel leading into the Atlantic Ocean.

I stand in awe of not their presence, but the presence of their leader, Batman. The Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, the World's Greatest Detective. His sleek black cape and grey suit catches the teal light of the mountain's holographic computer tech in just the right way. The iconic symbol on his chest reveals his need for the shadows of Gotham's alleys and rooftops.

Why is Batman coordinating a team of sidekicks? Which version of DC are we working with? This situation is not familiar to me – normally, the Titans are independent from the League, and especially from their mentors. That is the whole point of the Titans' original purpose, in many ways, and yet Dick Grayson stands opposite his mentor as Robin, not Nightwing. I touched enough of his memory back there to know his identity, though I think I'd have figured it out from context clues eventually.

"I read your report before I arrived," the experienced veteran suggests, breaking the silence of the room. He glances toward my presence a few feet away from the collection of sidekicks. The odd metallic Sphere rolls around distractingly in the background of the room, seemingly studying its new digs. "This is unprecedented."

Robin itches to explain, but Kaldur clears his throat. "In our defense, Batman, the situation that Logan finds himself in is a unique one and arguably more pressing than the failings listed in our mission report. I advise that we adjourn until -"

His gaze turns to the leader of the team. "I have already sent word for Zatara and Martian Manhunter to join us. They will arrive within the hour to assess his situation. We shall discuss your failings in the interim and continue with protocol."

The dejected look on Kaldur's face only lasts for a second, but it is enough for me to feel another pang of guilt for allowing them to be in this situation. Had they been able to confirm the status of Psimon, to bring him in for interrogation and capture if I somehow left him alive back there, then maybe they would receive a very different debrief.

"There is no one to blame for what happened in your initial encounter with Psimon. You did not know to prepare for an enemy telepath, and it seems clear that you did not understand him to still be at large when you reconnected as a team.

"However, you did not yet know the source of your memory loss. In that ignorance, you entrusted a relative unknown with the safety of your own mission leader. Had one or more of you been present when Logan encountered Psimon, the outcome could have been different."

Batman's clear displeasure is stifling in the room, and no one dared speak up until it was certain that he was finished. I would give anything to use my newfound abilities to slip into the surface thoughts of each person in the room just to better understand what they think. If I understood that M'gann could not sense that intrusion, I might have been more tempted.

"The situation was complex – your need to stand together to finish the mission and find Superboy is not an incorrect decision on its own merits. Yet the context of the situation, the potential threat to the safety of a civilian in enemy territory and the life of one of your own, outweighs the perceived benefits of remaining together. We cannot know with certainty that the outcome would have been positive had the decision you made been different, but it is imperative that the decision calculus be considered extensively before you act." He pauses, shifting his attention to his mentee. "I expected better from you, Robin."

Moments pass as Robin and the rest of the team consider Batman's words, the Boy Wonder staring at the floor.

"Sir, if I may?"

The veteran hero nods at my question, and I step forward.

"I hold no ill-will toward the actions or words of the team you've created. They did good work out there, and they're still learning. Emotions were high, and part of the conversation on the Bio-Ship you witnessed in the report came from a raw place." I can feel all eyes on me, and I'm reminded of why I hate public speaking – why did I become a teacher in the first place? "You seem to be upset, and I want you to know that I don't personally blame them for anything, for what my opinion is worth."

"Duly noted," he says after a moment, a hint of mirth in his voice. "I am not upset at them, I just know they can do better."

Several moments pass, and I step out of the limelight, glad to have said my piece.

M'gann looks toward her companions, toward Aqualad, and then perks up. "Sir, what are we to do about Psimon?"

Batman clicks his fingers across a holographic keyboard, pulling up the League's file on the telepath. The information does not look complete, and the only true record of his presence they had recorded is a snapshot from a CCTV camera in bad lighting, only displaying part of his face beneath his hood. "Due to the volatility in the region, we cannot engage directly to assess the status of his health and whereabouts. The League will address the situation at this time, even with our limited ability to act."

Wally and Artemis do not look happy to have heard that the League are stepping in to take care of the situation, but what could they say at this point to argue?

As the debrief winds down to a close, I find myself sitting alone on a couch in the living area, sand coating every surface of my body beneath the leather armor. The need for a relaxing shower comes to the forefront of my mind, and I know that I am filthy, in places visible and invisible.

"Hi."

M'gann sits across from me, her uniform having changed from the darker blue variant with pants to a bright blue skirt and white top. The red diagonal cross of her mentor still runs across her torso, and I can't help but feel that she fit in better in the other uniform.

"Hey. Can I help you with something?"

She leans in, trying to make her voice a bit quieter. "I think the tadpole read our minds, could sense that connection when I was repairing our memories, and exploited it."

I remember the moment where I siphoned away some of their memories, while she was trying to repair them. A bit more guilt for the pile. "I'm sorry, I didn't know-"

"What does the tadpole want?" she asks. "Martians do not have anything like this, so it's a little-"

"Uncomfortable?"

"Yes. I know that's probably nothing compared to how scared you must be, so I feel bad for even bringing this up, but I could feel it tugging at that connection, and I'm scared it's going to do it again!" She breathes heavily, ending her spiel in a huff.

"I don't really know what the tadpole wants," I answer, somewhat truthfully. "Ultimately, I think it just wants to change me into a mature version of itself, but I don't know why it may have done that to you. It likes information, to know things, so it may have done that to get a better idea of who you are-"

"Recognized: Zatara, 11. Recognized: Martian Manhunter, 07."

A computerized woman's voice calls out to the whole room as a flash of golden light erupts from an opening in the wall. The machine's light whirs down as two individuals appear in the room, teleporting into the base from somewhere else.

With excitement, I stand and brush off M'gann, heading over to get a closer look. "We'll talk later!"

The green-skinned alien looks exactly as I expected him to look, a black uniform and dark blue cape over his shoulders. The other individual is more unfamiliar to me, but his name is not. From the black suit and top hat, this is someone connected to Zatanna Zatara. Her father, maybe? How old is Zatanna?

The Italian gentlemen bows his head slightly as I approach, but the Martian stands stoic, watching with red eyes. He is noticeably more inhuman than his niece.

"Logan, it is nice to meet you, though I wish it were under better circ*mstances. My name is Zatara, and this is Martian Manhunter." A thick accent accompanies the man's words, and I wonder how long he's been away from Italy. Perhaps he lives there now? "Please, come with us. As you've explained, there is no time to waste."

He mumbles something under his breath that I do not quite catch. Martian Manhunter types in a command to a nearby panel, and the machine whirs to life once more, beckoning me inside.

Chapter 16: 1.11 - Expose

Chapter Text

A pale, nondescript room looking every bit the interrogation room that it likely is would be terrifying to someone who does not have every conceivable reason to already trust the Justice League. For all I know, they could have teleported me through their machine to any place on Earth and were going to just dump me somewhere, in a padded cell, forever. If this were one of the worlds where the League were evil, I think I'd have heard of it by now. As it is, they seem to be every bit the paragons of virtue that I expect them to be.

Martian Manhunter says nothing as he pulls the table in the room away to the side, leaving ample space for his companion, Zatara, to work. J'onn makes me nervous for all the right reasons, as his psychic powers are likely at a higher level than his niece, than Psimon's were. At any point, he could be listening, and I have no guarantee that I would be able to tell.

The thought of that nearly makes me panic, and my knuckles clutch tighter together.

Zatara steeples his fingers together, his stage magician costume a clear inspiration for his daughter to eventually adopt. "Now, Logan, let us get down to the business of the hour. What can you tell me about this magical parasite?"

An idea comes to mind, and I press my hands together. "Can I use a spell to show you?" I have not had much reason to use this cantrip so far, but it's good for something like this. It may just be that I am not creative enough.

He waves his hands forward. "Please, be my guest."

The golden band on my arm flashes with silver light for a moment, and I bend my fingers in time with it. Holding out a hand, a holographic image of the white, segmented tadpole appears to float above my palm, stationary, as the minor illusion takes effect.

Zatara leans forward to examine the image of the creature, the memory of its open mouth and ring of teeth like a lamprey clear and present in my mind.

"It was placed near my skull and then burrowed into my head, slipping underneath my left eyelid."

J'onn's brow furrows, an almost human enough gesture that I wonder how much our culture rubs off on him. "That must have been painful."

I did not have to answer verbally, my body shuddering slightly at the thought.

"If this is a tadpole, then what does it look like when it matures? Did you see that?" Zatara asks, bending back to stand up straight and meeting my eyes.

Another minor illusion forms, the head of the mind flayer who did this to me appearing in the room. Its four tentacles do not move in the static image, but it is not difficult to imagine exactly how they would undulate.

"This is what I saw of the creature who did this to me," I explain, pointing with my free hand to my left eye. "It's known as an illithid in its tongue, a mind flayer in common parlance. Think of them as intergalactic psychic slavers. Those tadpoles are how they reproduce, to make more of their kind."

Zatara blanches at that. "So, the tadpole matures in a host body and turns the host into one of its own."

"And you are already showing symptoms."

I look toward J'onn, but the Martian shows no compassion, yet no animosity. His face is… implacable.

"I think so?" I answer truthfully. "I don't know much about the process, but I know that I was not a telepath or a magician before a few days ago. Whatever powers I possess now, they seem to mostly come from whatever the tadpole is doing to my body."

I would start explaining exactly how sorcerers work from the game's flavor text, but it was technical information that I was not certain really applies.

"Mostly?" Zatara asks, catching something that I did not mean to imply.

I clear my throat. "Well, I am not human. I am something called an aasimar – think of it like I have an angelic ancestor. The blood of a celestial. Some of my…"

I trail off at the strange look on Zatara's face, the man looking at me like I have grown a second head. "Is there something wrong?"

He shakes away the feeling after a moment. "I am sorry, I merely did not expect to hear that. Please, continue."

"I can manifest light, can heal minor injuries in myself or others, and I can see in the dark around me pretty well. I think I can manifest wings for a few minutes, but I have not yet tried it." If the conventions of the game apply, then it might be an option now that I have progressed to what feels like level three.

But was it worth it?

He still seems surprised and looks away for a moment, not sure how to take any of this in. Clearing his throat, Zatara continues, "So this heritage you have is not the result of the tadpole."

"No."

J'onn meets my gaze. "Let us discuss another matter further. Do you know what symptoms should manifest?"

"The process is called ceremorphosis," I explain after a moment to consider it. "I do not know a lot more about it beyond its name, and the fact that it takes about a week to complete. What stands out to me is that I feel like I should be sick right now, or sprouting tentacles, or something, but I feel fine. Better than fine."

"These symptoms are supposed to be debilitating to you, but they are not?" J'onn asks.

"Maybe it takes a few more days to be noticeable, but I think so? All I've noticed is an open mind and an innate understanding of spellcraft I did not know before."

A few moments pass before Zatara clears his throat. "I would like to run some tests. They should not be painful or invasive, I merely wish to use my own spellcraft, as you say, to analyze your condition for myself. Do you consent?"

I nod, my throat constricting from nerves. Would he find something horrible? Something good? Somewhere in-between?

Zatara pulls a wand from nowhere at all – was it hidden up his sleeve, or did he conjure it? Knowing him, it could be either. "Esopxe ym dnim ot eht seigrene fo siht elopdat!"

My neck goes slack as I collapse against the wall, sliding to the floor.

.A.

Zatara blinks, rubbing at his eyes with his free hand, a surge of foreign power surging through him, through his perception. This conference room of the Hall of Justice is still partially present around him, but the wall across from him fades away into nothing, showing a grand void that stretches as far as the eye can see.

Logan's unconscious form lies with his back pressed against that expanse of black nothingness, exposed to it, partially enveloped in it. Shadows caress him, twitching against his skin but leaving no sign of its presence.

He feels J'onn's familiar touch enter his mind, witnessing what he sees, as he appears bodily in the vision next to Zatara.

"What are we seeing, J'onn?"

"I am not certain."

The shadows pulsate and reach further into the conference room, almost like an arm reaching for something that it cannot yet grasp, cannot find. Zatara feels panic spreading across his form, but J'onn lays a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Why do you intervene?" the shadow asks in a masculine voice. "Are you the one preventing us from taking what is ours?"

Zatara clears his throat. "We are worried for him. What is it that you seek to claim?"

The darkness snaps out once more, but it does not harm them.

"We need a body, a host. And yet we cannot get it. Something we do not yet understand holds us back."

Zatara looks toward J'onn, sharing a look of concern. He steels himself for a moment, and then holds out his wand.

"Laever ot em tahw sdloh kcab eht swodahs."

A flicker of silvery-blue flame flickers over Zatara's eyes.

The magician's newfound perception reveals a latticework of silver light, like countless threads stacked in limitless patterns, enveloping the boy completely. Dark tendrils from the void beyond endlessly extend outward and press against the latticework, trying to reach past them and touch the boy, but the somewhat pliable threads do not relent.

This protective field is the most impressive spell that Zatara has ever seen, and he has no idea what to make of it.

His eyes return to their normal hue as he glances toward J'onn. The room returns to its normal state as the spell ends, leaving the magician with a lot to consider about the horrifying state of the boy. His face pales. "Your turn."

.A.

J'onn presses psychically against a torrent of resistance. The creature within Logan does not wish for any intrusion, and its alien presence is the clear driving force trying to press the Martian back.

This is not the first time that J'onn has faced telepathic resistance, though this is perhaps more potent a defense than he has ever seen. Even still, the Martian had years of practice under his belt, uncovering secrets that no one wishes to anyone to find. Relying on that skill, he pulls back a moment, and then attempts a multipronged attack against any train of thought he could touch.

Foreign words and images, scents and tastes, lap against his senses, until finally, he feels the mind within open, the resistance slipping away.

He stands on the precipice of a mountain peak, on a garden terrace overlooking a vast landscape that is too blurry to see. The mist of a nearby fountain lightly touches his skin, but it burns to the touch. The heat from the sun is ever present – this is not comfortable.

"Why are you here, invader?"

A lithe man with dark hair and green eyes steps into view from around the bend. Fury stretches across his features, sharply pointed ears visible beneath the tresses of his long hair.

J'onn feels his body shift into a defensive position, every pore of his being shouting that this is a threat. "I merely wish to understand what is happening to Logan."

"That is none of your concern."

The sun's heat accelerates, fire and smoke pouring into the garden from all sides. Alarmed, J'onn pulls away abruptly, feeling the interrogation chamber reassert itself into his reality.

"Is everything all right?" Zatara asks with concern as the Martian breathes heavily, a sign of strain on his face.

J'onn blinks; the room seemed darker than it was before. "A secondary presence in Logan's mind – the tadpole, I presume – threatened me with fire to force me to flee. I learned very little, though I suspect that the tadpole was merely defending itself, calling me an invader."

Zatara's eyes widen with surprise. "With fire? Did it discern your weakness?"

J'onn does not know. "One thing is certain – the voice of the presence in his mind and the voice of the shadows are one and the same."

Zatara gravely looked toward the boy's unconscious body at that news, thinking of the strange protective field of magic. "A powerful spell seems to hold back the influence of the parasite, though it is apparent that it is not a perfect defense. I am uncertain of its purpose."

The Martian nods. "I do not believe that the solution will be as simple as brain surgery. Let us take him for a medical analysis, explore all options. Perhaps a keen mind of science can offer a solution we cannot foresee."

Zatara and Martian Manhunter gather the unconscious Logan and prepare him for further study. From the Team's report, it is clear that they would need to be cautious – if it protected itself from Psimon, then it may lash out at anyone who gets too close to the truth.

Chapter 17: 1.12 - Elation

Chapter Text

I blink at the sight of an unfamiliar ceiling, perhaps fifteen feet up, and deep gray shadows appear in its farthest reaches. The smell of mahogany from the four-poster bed fills my nose, and the touch of soft sheets brings no small amount of comfort in the immediacy of the moment. An IV drips fluids into my right arm, and the pillow behind my bed is a bit too stiff for my tastes. A window nearby has the curtains drawn, bits of soft daylight visible at its edges.

I really need to stop waking up in places I do not recognize.

Was this real? Another dream from the Absolute?

I push myself to my feet, slowly rising from the bed and pulling the needle out. At the sight of almost purple blood pouring from the wound, I press a finger into it and emit a soft silver light, feeling the skin stitch itself back together.

Purple blood? Is that the normal color of an aasimar's blood, or a sign of something that has changed within me?

The room's décor is old – I am no expert in interior design, but this could easily fit in some seventeenth- or eighteenth-century historical home. The chairs in the corners of this bedroom are antiques, and the lamps providing the light from the room are so old that they may as well be torch sconces along the walls.

Sitting on the chair nearby is the set of leather armor I wore when I arrived in this body, and it's only then that I realize I am wearing nondescript gray sweats and nothing else. The dissonance of modern sweatpants and this ancient-feeling room is not lost on me.

Opening the door slowly, I slip into the dark, wood-paneled hallway just outside the bedroom, wanting to figure out exactly where I am. Nervous energy builds quickly, and the silence feels immense.

"Hello?" I call out into the shadowed interior. Odd portraits of likely very old individuals line the halls, and a stairwell stretches up on one side of the hallway and another stretches down at its opposite end. Small lamps giving off faint incandescent light filter through the space, but they do nothing to provide clarity. If not for the eyes of an aasimar, then I would be far more nervous.

At the silence that only grows, I begin walking slowly down the hallway, each footfall against the creaking floorboards making me wince. Am I in danger here? Do I have any reason to feel like I should be quiet?

I am just at the top of the stairwell looking down the stairs toward the next floor down when I hear footfalls from behind, and I turn quickly, fingers twitching with silver light.

A young teenage girl dressed in a black suit, tailored to look both professional and feminine, rushes down the hall with a positive smile on her face. Her long dark hair and blue eyes provide a familiarity that nearly instantly causes me to calm, my shoulders releasing tension.

"Hi! You're awake! Dad will want to know." She reaches me in the hallway and offers a hand. "My name is Zatanna Zatara."

I take it, and it takes a few moments to quell the rush of meeting one of your favorite characters. I am surprised at her age, but maybe this is all before she becomes one of the most powerful people on the planet. "I'm Logan. Where am I, exactly?"

She rolls her eyes. "Ignore the house. She's in a temperamental mood today." Zatanna kicks one of the groaning floorboards with the end of her shoe. "This is Shadowcrest, my family's home for generations. There's probably more magic here than just about anywhere, in my opinion."

"Your house has moods? I wish I could stop interacting with intelligent rooms for once."

She smiles, though with a hint of confusion. "I'm not sure what you mean, but let me guide you to Dad. Keep your eye on me, Logan – she likes to make newcomers get lost."

I glance at the darkened décor and realize what exactly feels wrong. "You live in a haunted house."

She shrugs. "It's all I have ever known. Treats the family well, does not always treat our guests the best way. It's mostly harmless, poltergeist-level stuff unless you piss her off. Don't do that, K?"

At my incredulous look, she starts to laugh. "It's a joke! Mostly. Dad and I won't let anything weird happen to you."

"Why am I here, again?"

"Best to let him to explain the details, but you'll be staying with us for a while. I don't actually know the details myself." She stops moving through the stairwell for a moment and then points. "Cardigan or hoodie?"

"Um, I guess hoo-"

"Sserd mih."

Appearing out of nothing at Zatanna's words, a black hoodie materializes and wraps itself around my bare torso and right arm, while the left arm is sleeveless, the band around my left bicep slightly glowing.

"What is that thing? Dad tried to remove it for medical reasons, but it did not want to easily come off."

I pull my arm up until it's in my line of sight. "It's a focus for my magic. Let's me avoid having to handle things like bat guano to produce my spells."

Her brow rises. "Bat guano? You have a spell that needs that?"

I chuckle. "Actually no, but it's an example. Some need feathers, some need specific gemstones, some might need sulfur."

"Huh. Well, I've got some spells that need specific components, but they're usually more advanced. Takes a bit of prep. We should talk shop later! Compare notes."

The idea of comparing magical notes with Zatanna Zatara is both an exciting and terrifying prospect. "Yeah, that's a good idea."

She continues down the hallway and into a grand atrium, a contemplative look on her face. Shelves upon shelves are filled with knick-knacks and books, some of which are written in languages I cannot begin to recognize. One stands out among the rest with a quick glance – Horticulture for Dummies. Grand sofas and other furniture perfect for reading and studying spread in an array around the room, and the young girl plops down in one of them, looking at a watch on her arm. I sit across from her, out of fear of anything better to do, almost afraid to touch anything that might be older than a few days ago.

A set of oak doors opens, and Giovanni Zatara steps into view, though nowhere near as well-dressed as his daughter. Hair still wet from a shower, the Italian man wears a simple white undershirt and faded, old jeans – perfect loungewear. Surprise fills his face upon seeing me, and he claps his hands. "Welcome to Shadowcrest, Logan. I see you have met my pride and joy, Zatanna."

"Dad!"

"Uh, yes, thanks for the welcome." As Zatara sits across from both of us, he makes a gesture to his left toward the empty air. "Can I interest you in breakfast? Err, do you require sustenance?"

Oh. Real food. I almost forgot.

At my nod, he looks uneasily toward me. "We have a hot drink that is caffeinated-"

"Do you have bagels, or maybe a crossaint? Oh, and I'll take that coffee with cream and sugar."

He smiles uneasily. "You understand our dietary customs? Do you share them?"

"Mostly."

He waves his hand once more. A few moments later, a silver platter filled with fresh bagels, croissants, and three steaming hot mugs of coffee float into the room from a nearby doorway. It settles on a table nearby, and Zatara gets up to fix a plate for each of us.

"You never let us eat here, Dad."

"Special occasions require a break of the rules," he says after a moment, a smile on his face. "We do not often have guests."

I take a sip of the coffee and gag.

Zatanna's face pales, and Zatara's eyes widen. "Is everything okay?"

After a moment to recover, I nod. "Yes, it just burned my tongue. I was too excited."

Taking another sip after bracing myself and pretending to cool it off, I fight the urge to react negatively. It does not taste bad – it tastes like nothing. More neutral than water. Looking back, it tastes almost exactly like the rations from the desert, but I'd chalked that up to rations not being tasty.

The bagel and the croissant on my plate? They are the same. They look amazing, even smell amazing, but the taste is… neutral at best. I force my way through the first bite, keeping my experience neutral, as the disappointment flows. I want to ask why the manor would provide terrible food, just for me, but I do not want to embarrass them.

"So, Logan," Zatara begins, drinking his own coffee without incident. "Let us discuss business. Do you have any issues with my daughter sitting in on our discussion? I am trying to bring Zatanna into more delicate matters of magic as she develops."

Zatanna preens at the words, and I shake my head. "No, that's fine. She can listen."

The father clears his throat. "After extensive study of multiple avenues for your condition, medical and magical, I have come to a few conclusions. I should warn you, there is much that is still uncertain, much that I am trying to still understand, so these conclusions can only have so much weight."

Elated, I plead, "Lay 'em on me, sir."

"A source of magic that I cannot quite comprehend is keeping the parasite within your brain from changing your physicality, though Martian Manhunter suspects that it can influence your mind. Have you experienced an elven figure while awake? Or while dreaming?"

My eyes widen. They have seen the Absolute.

"Yes, in dreams," I explain after a moment of consideration. Fear rushes through my body, but my face remains perfectly still. "He does not say much of anything, we just sit together in a garden, overlooking a beautiful vista. I did not know this had anything to do with that, though."

Zatara frowns, nodding. "I am afraid that it does. It forced Martian Manhunter out of your mind. There is some reasonable worry that it may be influencing you."

I shake my head fervently. "No, I don't think so. I've never been someone easily influenced. I'd see through it."

Zatara looks toward his daughter for a moment and then back toward me. "Ultimately, the League has ordered you to be under supervision until we can ascertain the lengths to which this influence may present itself. You will be staying with the two of us until then. Shadowcrest Manor has not the most luxuriously modern accommodations, but it will do."

Zatanna rolls her eyes. "At least Dad installed wi-fi."

The man laughs for a moment. "There is some good news amidst the bad, Logan. While I will have to check it periodically to be certain I am correct, the tadpole cannot transform your body into a mind flayer. Whatever magic is in play should hold off the process of ceremorphosis, if not stop it completely."

I exhale deeply, tension rolling away from my shoulders. "So I have more than a week?"

Zatara nods. "I believe you should be in the clear, for now. Should that magic fail, then I am uncertain what would happen, though it shows no signs of weakness."

"Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you!"

The question of what this magic is and how it is holding the tadpole back is a curious one, one that I will have to uncover.

Zatanna perks up at the lull in the conversation. "Dad, can he and I go pour over some notes? I want to know how his magic works. Maybe it can help with my training."

Zatara looks between the two of us carefully and then nods. "We will talk more later. If you need me, you need only yell while in these halls."

The girl gestures to a small side door in the atrium, and it opens at her whim – being master or mistress of Shadowcrest comes with many benefits. As she steps through and beckons me to follow, a sense of elation fills me.

I am not going to die soon.

I will live
for the Absolute.

Chapter 18: Interlude - A Split of the Party

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

"I think this will fit you beautifully!"

The delightfully pretty woman holds a new black and white doublet with her long, delicate fingers, made ever longer by the false nails she wore. Why she wore them, Astarion would never understand – they could not be used to rip someone's throat. He sighs and supposes that ornamentation has its purpose, as he would not be here getting new clothing if he did not have reason to care.

"I don't like looking at it as much as I like staring at you," he flirts unabashedly, looking more at the nape of her exposed neck than at her face. "Find me something to redirect my attention."

The blush on her cheeks is incredible to witness, and her little blond curls scurry off as she disappears further into the racks of this clothing boutique.

A curious thing, this rampant consumerism – there is simply so much of it, so many seemingly nice things sold in stores across this entire little district of the city called Gotham. He spits – if there is so much of it, how does anyone display their status? Where are the truly expensive stores?

The little woman comes back holding a much nicer piece of similarly-colored fabric, something that will loosely fit for a nice and comfortable occasion. A night on the town! What a gorgeous thing to imagine? No interruptions, no pesky rules.

"See if this will fit you. We have dressing rooms right over there."

He surveys the room for a moment and sees they are alone. Wide windows in the distance show the night life of this city stretching for several blocks, but none step into this small shop. Those strange contraptions, wagons without horses, propel themselves like magic every few seconds. Did they work like the carriages in Sigil he's read about? He doubts it – so far, none of them seem to fly or levitate.

Shucking his doublet, the woman stares for several seconds before looking away in shame. He takes the new shirt from her hands and chuckles. "Don't be so prudish. You can watch."

"I really shouldn't-"

"I insist."

He feels something shift from within him, unseen power escalating outward to wrap itself around the woman. This is nothing like anything he can produce from his basic arcane studies, and it would confuse him if he did not already have reason to suspect the truth: that f*cking illithid.

Her mind twists like putty, and she stares openly, eyes flickering up and down his bare chest. He takes his time pulling on the new shirt, relishing in the feeling of dominance, of power. The ring on her finger designates that she already belongs to someone, and he feels a sense of pleasure. This is what his Master must have felt.

"Ah, yes. This will do nicely." He stretches and begins walking toward the exit.

"Wait!" she exclaims, running after him. "You have not paid yet."

"That won't be necessary," he says, trying to put force behind his words, but the woman's expression does not budge and he feels no surge of power. "Hm. Inconvenient, but fine."

He shifts quickly through the space between them, fangs extending from his jaw and biting into her neck. The sweet nectar of her essence pours into his body, revitalizing his undead nature with strength.

He may not be on Toril anymore, but he is going to milk this plane for what it is worth.

.A.

"I cannot say that I have played this variation of chess before, much less with the apparition of a dead man."

The chess board is different from dragon's chess, but the point of the game is similar enough that he catches on quickly, magically shifting a pawn piece diagonally to take a rook.

"This is not the first time I have played the game with a mage from another dimension."

The illusion of golden light in the shape of a human man in his late eighties, perhaps older, appears to sit in the chair opposite his opponent. He counters the pawn with a knight.

The mage glances at the bizarre chamber surrounding him, prismatic colors shifting into the walls. He could feel its intense magic flowing around him, without needing to incant a spell to sense it.

"Is this a demiplane with countless doors to other realms? A fancy portal gone mad? Or simply a modified Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion?"

The apparition laughs slightly. "You're an inquisitive one, Gale."

"I wouldn't want to be the apex of wizard-kind if I weren't."

The apparition makes his next move in the game of chess, putting Gale's king into check. "This is the Tower of Fate, a nexus of reality – one of few fixed points in the multiverse."

"That would explain how I came to be here unexpectedly." Gale balks at that, shifting his pawn to move out of check. "Truly? How did this place come to be? Something like that would be teetering on the divine."

"The Lord of this Tower is of pure Order. Nabu. Personified law in the universe, a constant."

Gale does not know what to make of this news. He has studied many uniquely magical stories, entreated with the goddess of magic herself, but this is new. Perhaps not as impressive as courting Mystra, but who is he to judge?

"Kent, were you the lord of this tower? In life, I mean."

"No, I am not Nabu, merely an old suit he wore to deal justice in the world as Doctor Fate." The apparition seems sad to admit this. "I am merely a projection now to watch over the Tower in his absence."

Gale's brow furrows. "Absent? Where did he go?"

"I suspect the Justice League have custody of the Helmet of Fate now. Nabu cannot return to the Tower without a body of his own."

"Hmmm. Well, I was hoping I could get him to look at a couple of problems of my own, while I am here. I don't suppose you could peek inside my brain and see the status of an illithid tadpole?"

Kent – or the projection of him – stares blankly at the wizard. "I am afraid that I do not have autonomy to craft spells. I merely manage the Tower's functions. What is an illithid tadpole?"

"A powerful mage like yourself does not know what an illithid tadpole is?"

When the apparition shakes his head, Gale sighs. This will be harder than he thought.

.A.

Wyll snaps his fingers as he points, sending a cascading blast of white-hot eldritch energy in the direction of a group of goons. He had spent the last day or so studying their movements, uncovering their plans to deliver illegal weapons into the hands of a cartel, a kind of grand company that felt a bit like the Zhentarim to him.

This is exactly what he needed to make her happy. She has not been happy since the debacle with the illithid, but he can fix that.

The men scatter, especially as one of them lands on the ground a few feet away, blasted off his feet with a wound bored through his skull.

One of the goons levies a weapon, a metallic contraption that fires projectiles so quickly that you cannot see them coming. Wyll leaps to the ground in time to avoid the gunfire, rolls onto his feet again and takes cover behind a series of metallic crates.

They shout something in a language that Wyll does not recognize, and he can hear them running around the cover to converge on his position.

He conjures his shimmering rapier and then douses the ground with a spreading cloud of pure darkness, darkness his eyes can perceive just as clearly as if were sunlight. The cloud of shadows spreads around corners, steepening an entire half of the building in chaotic confusion.

Wyll pierces into the shoulder of one of the unsuspecting men and soaks his blade with blood, causing a scream to tear through the darkness spell. moving onto the next as they begin to recover and dash backwards where they can, some bumping into crates. Another eldritch blast of power sends a man flying into another, the two tumbling end over end.

They begin to pepper the cloud with bullets, and he takes cover once more to avoid the chance of a stray bullet.

The sound of their vehicles – a truck or a van, he thinks they are called – erupt into the chaos of the moment, and tires screech as they begin to flee. He sees them plainly through the cloud of inky black darkness and fires another blast of his patron's power, the back of a truck bed careening to the side from the force of it and nearly knocking them off course.

Yet the men recover and continue fleeing, leaving their dead or wounded behind.

Wyll pulls himself free from his hiding place and scorches a message on the brick wall nearby, leaving his mark through repeated blasts of eldritch power.

"The Blade of Frontiers was here!"

.A.

A grand forest spreads around Shadowheart for miles, and none of it is recognizable. Is this even the material plane any longer? She remembers her training at the temple about some of the Outer Planes that might fit this description, but perhaps this is merely a jungle of some kind.

This is mightily inconvenient for more reasons that she can count, and there is no amount of frustration anyone else can muster that could possibly compare to her own.

She pulls the Infernal puzzle box from her bag, expecting that the gith and their dragons that followed her onto that mind flayer ship would be here at any moment to steal it back. Her people died for this, she the sole survivor, and she highly doubts that she will be safe until she can secure it with her coven. They would know where exactly to secret it away so that it cannot be found.

Shadowheart looks on in surprise as a group of humans pass her in the darkened woods of this forest at night. They carry odd contraptions that produce light, perhaps arcane foci, and she feels a sense of urgency come over her. Wizards.

Power flows from the holy symbol on her forehead crown, and an image of her flickers into existence in front of them, shadows drifting off it long enough that they begin to panic.

"What the hell?" the tallest of them shouts, as they begin to back away.

"Some kind of local spirit? Knew we shouldn't have gone hiking here!"

"There's no such thing. Ma'am, do you know English? Can you please tell us where we are? We're trying to find Mayan ruins – the world's supposed to end in two years, you know."

"Look at her ears! An elf or something!"

Both Shadowheart and her illusory duplicate raise an eyebrow. She places the gith artifact in her bag once more and calls out from her hidden place on the treeline. "Whichever one of you arcane idiots tells me what plane this is will get to live." The duplicate tilts her neck at an odd angle and begins to glow.

"Jeremy, let's get out of here!" The tallest of the humans pulls on the arm of the eldest-looking, and the group of four begin to run through the thicket of the trees, right into her real self's direction.

Shadowheart launches herself through the ferns, brandishing her mace, and the men tumble to the ground out of terror. One of them holds a long, curved dagger up, but it's clear to her there is no training behind those movements – it's a cutting tool in his hands, not a weapon.

"There's an airport about twenty miles that way!" one of them shouts, pointing.

"What is an airport?"

The one called Jeremy stares at her, pulling himself as far away from her as he can. "You asked about planes, you can find one there! We got great rates for tourists. Just leave us alone, freak!"

Shadowheart understands that these individuals are not wizards – surely they would have defended themselves by now with their spells. Even so, they could be useful.

She sighs. "No, I don't think I will. If you want to live, you'll take me to these planes and tell me everything you know about this place, and where I might find an accomplished healer."

.A.

Us is not sure why Us shifted from Us's form as a devourer and became a rat, nor is Us sure why Us is here and not there.

Us can feel someone watching through Us, and Us hopes that Us is able to make them happy, wherever they are. It is not the first time Us has sensed this, but it has not stopped ever since Us came here. It feels nice for Us to have a purpose, to serve whomever this someone is.

Us moves through a small grate in the brick wall nearby, its tiny rat feet scurrying across the pools of muck. This sewer might have felt gross to Us once, but it feels like home now. The smells, the tastes, the touch of grime against Us's tail! Heavenly.

It does not take long for Us to find the target: an ordinary rat, minding its business trying to feed on its supper.

That just will not do.

Power bombards from Us and into the other rat, and after a moment, the other rat blinks and looks toward Us with sudden understanding.

The other rat scampers off away from Us, but Us can feel it now.

A third and fourth rat become part of Us.

Eight.

Sixteen.

And more.

Now, Us truly feels like an Us.

.A.

"I have never seen anything like her, General."

A physician surveys his eyes across his notes, the results of an MRI scan held tightly in his fingertips. He tosses the print-out onto the nearby table in front of the other man, the only man in the room with the clearance to know exactly what they had found.

"Her musculature is denser, despite the emaciated features. That is not jaundice, but her natural skin tone, and those black markings on her face likely have a biological purpose, as they are not tattoos. But more importantly, look at the MRI around her brain."

The general trains his eyes at Dr. Hamilton's scan. A growth in the shape of a small, tentacled creature has burrowed into her cerebral cortex and begun integrating itself into the larger whole. Some kind of bug, it seems, to him.

"What's it doing to her?"

"I don't know, General, but it's remarkable that she's even alive."

He taps his fingers against the table, staring through the glass window and into the alien's containment cell, her unconscious body strapped to a slab of metal.

"Could that bug be the source of that power she used to fling people around before we took her in? Maybe this is a Martian after all."

Hamilton shakes his head. "I don't think she looks like anything we've seen before from Martian Manhunter. But I don't know about the parasite. It could be that her race has psychic power, or something else entirely."

The general takes that information in, wishing that Hamilton knew more. What do they pay him for, exactly?

"If I did not have contradictory orders, I'd ask you to remove that bug."

Hamilton gasps. "But, Eiling, that would kill the host! Too much damage to the brain. She would surely die."

"Which is why I'm not giving that order." He studies her for a moment, strapped and trapped in place. "Keep her sedated and comfortable. I need to have a conversation with the Secretary of Defense."

Emil Hamilton can do nothing but nod as the general ascends the stairs, leading out of the base.

Notes:

And we have our companions from the game - minus Karlach, who was not a playable option when I originally wrote this, prior to release.

This is very much a story that follows Argent's path, but the path of the other companions will occasionally cross his.

As of this chapter, Argent and the rest of the companions are at the narrative equivalent of level 3. Game mechanics < narrative.

Chapter 19: Arc 2.1 - Risks

Chapter Text

The last few days inside Shadowcrest have been interesting, to say the least. It took two days just to simply be able to walk from place to place within her halls and feel confident that I know where I'm going, but Zatanna's warning does come to mind every once in a while.

The food never gets better – even water tastes blander. I need to taste something that is not the result of the house's magic.

Pages upon pages of etchings and sketches, written shorthand questions that are unanswered, rest across the desk in the grand library. This chamber is filled with perhaps thousands upon thousands of arcane tomes, musings about arcane theory, and historical books about the arcane. A wizard's dream!

Part of me always wondered if the Zataras from the comics were uninterested in the theory behind things and simply used their innate talents for the glory, the spotlight, and the coin. Clearly, that is not the case, as there are thousands of pages alone sitting on the desk Zatara uses for study, a desk that his daughter and I have not touched in the library. I suspect that he is just as much a wizard as he is a sorcerer, if I had to grant him class levels like my own.

One of the more intriguing discoveries I have made, if not the saddest, is that I can access the artistic skills of the body I now inhabit. What Tav can do on the page to turn his thoughts into art, so can I – art has never been a strong suit of mine, but this is a clear improvement.

Every time my pencil touches paper to sketch a diagram from one of these books, part of my heart dies, guilt free-flowing through my veins. Some part of me understands guilt is merely a chemical imbalance that can be conquered, but it does not feel any less real and awful to take advantage of Tav's muscle memory like this.

"You still have not told me what you're really trying to figure out," Zatanna says as she plops down on the couch opposite me, a half-eaten apple in hand. "Is this more tadpole business? I already know about that. I can help you with your project."

"Don't you have school to get to?"

She peers at me. "A little harsh. We're out for the day."

"This early in the semester? It's September."

She merely shrugs. "Private schools. Don't know what to tell you."

I smile after a moment, pulling my nose away from my simplistic sketch to show the eight schools of magic from D&D. Can't quite figure out the proper arrangement. "How does enchantment work?"

She blinks. "Well, I suppose you'd need an incantation that could ensnare the mind of someone, get them to-"

"No, not that," I say with a sigh, holding up a pen. "How does creating items with magical properties work?"

Feeling raw energy in the form of sorcery points flow through my fingertips and into the pen, the pen itself seems to reorient our attention, on its own volition, in a way. As it becomes magical, it becomes a fixture in the room.

"I can imbue something with magic, making it stronger, more durable, more effective for a minute or so, but I cannot figure out how to make it permanent."

Zatanna steps forward and takes the pen from her hand and tries her hardest to bend the pen and snap it in half, but it does not budge, is not even remotely pliable. "Why would you want a durable pen?"

I fight the urge to roll my eyes – she's a child, just curious. I'm just frustrated that this is not intuitive. "I don't want a durable pen, but being able to create something as simple as a pen that never runs out of ink would be proof-positive that I can focus on bigger enchanting projects."

She hums and hands the pen back to me. "Dad might know more about it, but enchanting an object with permanent effects is a rare art. Something that would need to be done with a high level of skill, the right energies to draw from, and the right incantation to get exactly what you want. And even after all that, you can have risks that are hard to mitigate."

"Risks?"

"There might not be a huge risk with something as simple as this; in fact, I can probably do it with a bit of time this afternoon. But if you wanted something more powerful, magic can sometimes fight back. There's an ebb and flow, a give and take that you have to obey."

Hmmm.

Enchanting rules in earlier editions of D&D were a lot more complex than the rules in Fifth Edition, which aimed at making the game more simplistic across the board for ease of access. For better or worse, it worked well to sell games, but damn if it is not frustrating that there are not very many specific rules for how enchantment worked. All it basically says is that you can spend eight hours a day for X number of days and that it will eventually work, and that the rarity of the item determines how many days you need to spend and how much gold you need to spend each day.

Hearing that enchantment works differently here is not unusual – DC Comics magic is different from the world of D&D. In fact, that's an entirely new train of thought to consider when Zatara returns from his mission with the League: why do I have power at all in a different multiverse? Was this a different multiverse, or was this merely one of the countless prime material planes, with its own crystal sphere?

I pull away from that thought lest I spiral and return to the subject at hand. "Are there any permanently magical items in Shadowcrest? Beyond, I imagine, the Manor itself?"

I figure half of these knickknacks in every corner have some magic to them, but it could just be the Manor and not the actual objects.

Zatanna nods, chuckling. "Tons. Want to see one?"

.A.

"Is this the basem*nt?"

"I call this basem*nt thirteen," she explains, as though that tells me anything at all about the doors in front of us.

Several long corridors through the house and more stairwells than could possibly have made sense – could this somehow be more complex than Hogwarts? – finally ends at the base of a set of simplistic stairs, a torch sconce burning with amber light in front of a set of oak doors.

"Zatanna."

"Yes?"

"When did this turn into a dungeon?"

"Scared?"

"No," I lie, hearing the creaking noise as the oak door opens echo through the dark halls. Light flickers into existence around the arcane focus on my arm with a thought, bathing the space in silver light.

Basem*nt thirteen appears to be a simplistic stone chamber with shelves lining every wall and two wooden tables running the length of the room, with attached benches on either side. Almost like a dining hall, perhaps, but a few cardboard boxes lay askance across them. From the amount of dust, it is clear that no one could have possibly eaten here in a very long time.

The shelves draw my attention. Every couple of feet, an item or object rests on the wood, isolated from any other item. Each draws my eye for different reasons, and these feel intensely magical.

I point at one excitedly as Zatanna escorts me to the nearest shelf. "What's this box do?" A pink and grey cube only a few inches tall and wide rests alone, a handle on its side.

"That music box records music forever," she explains, an almost solemn look on her face. "You merely need to open it in the presence of a song, and it will record the tune. Not as useful as a smartphone or even an old CD player because there's no interface to choose the song you want it to playback for you."

Hmmm. "Who made it?"

"Some French mage a long time ago. I wish I could remember his name, but the story goes that he made it to impress a rival noble's daughter. She thought it a wonderful trick and they began an affair, right under the noble's nose." She frowns. "The mage lost his own daughter later that year."

"Not exactly a happy ending, was it?"

She shakes her head, gesturing to another object down the way. A gnarled wand made of thick wood, with ivory ornamentation at either end, it lies locked behind a glass case and is presumably otherwise protected. "That's the Wand of Spiders, when translated to English, and maybe the strongest thing in this room."

From the name, it sounds intriguing.

"A focus for an old Native American shaman who used it to stave off a plague of insects with his own influence over spiders. His village lived through the winter, yet he caught a plague of his own and died months later."

Never mind.

"Is there anything in here that does not have a sad story attached to it?"

"Depends on what you think is sad." She leans against the nearby table and surveys the room. "I should really have Dad explain the specifics, but that's what I want to show you. Bad things can happen when you toy too much. Dad and I come from a bloodline that allows us to mitigate some of the risks that other mages may face when performing the same tricks, and you fall into that category. If you're serious about enchanting something, you should know the risks others have faced performing even minor feats, like making an MP3 Player four centuries early."

I think of the artifacts from DC Comics that I can remember, things like the Helmet of Fate, the Lasso of Truth, or one of Aquaman's like fourteen tridents. They do not seem to have any risks involved, but why? Why would inconsequential magic items like a music box or a wand that controls a few spiders lead to death when tridents that can summon tsunamis don't?

Or did they? When they were created, did they face punishments as well?

I cannot disguise my frustration. "Why do wizards do anything here?"

"Not a lot of us try to do something powerful and permanent," Zatanna explains. "Cursing someone into a toad forever is possible, but you would need to draw on some seriously powerful stuff to keep that curse ongoing. Most wizards in that case would build in limits on the curse, to keep the drawbacks from affecting them, or maybe they would ensure that the curse only lasts a few minutes, instead of forever. If you're smart, you can mitigate risks."

I do not like being discouraged from doing something. This is important. With so few spell slots available each day, having resources in magical items would be incredibly useful to keep me alive. All the great spellcasters in DC have them, it's expected in D&D, so why can't I make my own?

"So what? It's pointless to try?"

Zatanna holds up a hand. "Hang on. That's not what I mean."

"What do you mean, then?"

Her lips twist into a frown. "Look, you're not giving me reasons to find you easy to work with, here, but I…"

The sound of Zatanna's voice trails off, fading into the background of my attention.

It would be so easy to press on her mind and force her to listen. Perhaps make her do the enchanting, face these risks. That would be safest for me.

My face pales as the realization hits. I almost stumble into the bench behind me, and the young girl stares up at me with concern.

"Is everything all right? You look sick."

After a few seconds, I nod. "Just got a little woozy. Magically taxed, I think. I'm going to go rest."

My feet clamor up the stairs and out of basem*nt thirteen, leaving a very confused Zatanna behind. The sound of her footsteps rushing after me through the halls of Shadowcrest almost echo, but I pull on a second-level spell and vanish into invisibility.

She cannot find me.

I do not trust what I'll do if she does.

Chapter 20: 2.2 - Anxiety

Chapter Text

Shadowcrest Manor truly is a maze. I have spent the last twenty minutes trying to find my own room, or at least a quiet place to contemplate exactly what I should do moving forward, but neither seem like they are getting any closer. Every few moments, the sounds of the house settling in its age nearly make me panic, because this feels like the setting of every haunted house in fiction.

The invisibility spell is useful to avoid detection, and a fantasy that I have long had. For what reasons, I have yet to unpack, and I would undoubtedly do so if not for the moral dilemma racing across my every thought. I enjoy introspection and would much rather consider something fun, but damn – this situation is bad.

In the midst of the eighth-floor hallway of what might be a four-story house, I find a window seat overlooking the grand yard outdoors, purple draperies ringing the view of the woods that encircle the property. A grand cityscape – Gotham, apparently - rests on the horizon, but despite the millions of people that likely live there, I do not believe I could feel more alone right now.

Huh.

Am I ever really alone?

My fingers shake, hands slowly going numb. Pain twinges in the back of my skull. Is that the tadpole or just a headache?

Will I ever know?

Magic I cannot sense halts the creature from consuming me, and at any moment, that magic could stop. I need to know how it works before it's too late, but if that magic could confuse someone like Zatara, then it must be big.

Did one of the gods do this? An archdevil from the Hells? Maybe some Great Old One out there is tinkering with other creatures from the Far Realm like the mind flayers. Or maybe the mind flayers wanted this outcome, though for what purpose I am not sure.

Despite that magical protection, the tadpole has clearly altered the way I would normally think. In big ways or small ways, it is still not clear, but I would never do that to Zatanna. An intrusive thought like that, to mentally dominate her and force her to enchant some stupid pen for me? No.

I need a plan.

A long-term plan, if I have that much time and can progress in my magical skills, is to learn how to cast the spell mind blank. The ability to no-sell effects that can influence your mind would be a powerful tool. Yet, an eighth-level spell is nearly the pinnacle of what magic for mortals can do, so that is so far away – if even obtainable – that thinking about it is pointless. Could Zatara, Zatanna, or another magical character from DC Comics do something like that for me? Hell, is that spell even on the sorcerer list?

My fingers drift toward the drapes, running my fingers along some of the frayed fibers.

A short-term plan….

Tell the League. Reveal to them just how incapable I am at controlling my own actions. Allow them to lock me in a padded cell and keep me from all contact with the outside world. Ruin any burgeoning trust I can build within them for me to be able to take care of myself. Lose my agency to use these powers for something greater.

If I am going to be here for a while, then I have to do this right. Is telling the League the right thing to do?

I do not think so.

And yet…

If I want them to trust me, then maybe being honest and hoping that they do not punish me for thoughtcrime is the right play. These are the good guys – I have to believe that. They would not lock me up in some cell forever.

The house creaks behind me.

My teeth chatter. They already have locked me up. Zatara would not let me leave. I am under observation already for the very thing I have just confirmed – undue mental influence. If I told them the truth, then there is no telling what they will do with that information.

The Gotham skyline creeps ever closer. Arkham is mere miles away – they could admit me in under an hour. I doubt it would take much for Zatara to strip me of my powers, to keep me from escaping. Maybe the same psychologist who keeps someone like the Joker from rehabilitation would see me.

f*ck.

I used to have panic attacks, in my previous life. Not frequently, but the stress of this situation? It is absolutely going to break me.

Absolutely….

Talking directly to the tadpole is a plan. Either short or long term. I could have answers in under an hour. This is my body now, my mind now! Something holds the creature back from taking me over, but that open line of communication is there. If I can get the Absolute to leave me alone, then I am free to do what I want, without influence.

I place my head against the window seat and shift into as comfortable a position as I can muster, letting the invisibility spell fade from my concentration. I have never had trouble falling asleep, so let's hope I can reach out in my dreams.

.A.

"You're awake."

I stir, blinking up at the ceiling of the darkened guest room. To my right, Zatara sits by my bedside, dressed in his full costume, his face and jacket slightly covered in soot.

He notices the confusion. "Ah! My apologies, I have not yet cleaned myself after an altercation with a particularly rambunctious demon." A backwards word later, and the grime from the aftermath of a battle disappears.

"I tried to tell him," Zatanna says, the young girl leaning against the doorway, arms crossed in front of her.

"How long was I out?"

"A few hours," Zatanna clarifies. "You scared me a bit there, Logan."

I shift to sit up in bed, the day's events coming back to me quickly.

It did not work. I… did not dream of him, the Absolute.

"Is everything all right?" Zatara asks, leaning forward in his chair. "The house is not usually this temperamental with its guests after this many days. Were you not able to find your bed?"

I shake my head. "No. And… the food is awful, too. No offense, there is just no taste. At all. Does the house do that?"

The father and his daughter share a look. "That has not happened before to my knowledge, though it is not in the realm of impossibility."

Zatanna pulls a smart phone from her pocket. "I'll order pizza." She peers at me for a moment. "Do you have... pepperoni where you're from? Or a different flavor?"

My instinct is to say Hawaiian, but that would be a bit more information that they would know that I know. "I know what a pepperoni is, but I'm not sure if I've ever had pizza before."

She laughs. "Oh, then we're getting New England Deep Dish. Only the best for our guest." The girl slips from the room, a smile on her face.

Zatara touches my shoulder to get my attention. "Do you have a sleep disorder, or are you simply not resting well? Or is this a symptom?"

I hesitate, considering how best to answer the question. If he does not want to talk, then fine. I hope he enjoys the view from a cell.

"I don't have a sleeping disorder. I was trying to reach the Absolute."

His brow rises. "The Absolute?"

"The tadpole. That's what he calls himself, appearing as an elf in my head, in my dreams. I napped to try to talk with it."

He pales. "You were trying to communicate with it? Alone?"

"I know that it was stupid, but I have noticed some intrusive thoughts. I… need more help."

Zatara considers what I have said for a long moment, long enough to trigger my anxiety.

"Let us table this discussion until I can meet with the League, with Martian Manhunter, in the morning. Do you feel at ease now?"

"I think so."

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a sleek metallic device, passing it over to me. A smart phone of my own.

"You didn't have to do this-"

"It was nothing. This is a user-friendly device that is popular among our plane, capable of sending messages and communication to anyone, so long as you know the number of their device. There are several numbers already programmed into it, including mine and Martian Manhunter's. If you notice any strange behaviors or impulses, you can reach out at any time, day or night, and one of us will assist you."

I beam, feeling the screen flash on at the press of a button. You do not notice just how addicted you truly are to a smart phone until you go without one for a few days.

"Thank you. And I will report anything strange, I promise."

He points toward the door. "Freshen up down the hall, and then let us go find Zatanna and enjoy a late dinner. I have added you to the wards around the Manor. Normally, it is not a requirement for temporary guests, but I sense your stay may be longer than anticipated. You should find it easier to get around."

I thank him as he turns to leave, closing the door behind him.

This phone will be monitored. There is no way that Batman would allow something like this to be given to me without that expectation. A useful tool regardless, so long as I am careful. Yet another way to be observed.

But, it's a good thing. I do not want to be a danger to my friends.

Chapter 21: 2.3 - Experiment

Chapter Text

"It still tastes like nothing. Somehow more neutral than water."

The pizza looks appetizing and even smells appetizing – the cheese is melted in just the right way, a thickened golden-brown crust. The weight of it in my palms is just right.

And yet, nothing.

Zatanna's face turns to concern halfway through her own bite, the fire from the nearby fireplace flickering. "Tastes fine to me. Why would that be happening? Dad?"

Zatara puts his slice down and wipes his greasy fingers carefully on a handkerchief nearby. "This is concerning."

My fingers shake slightly as I try another bite, the aroma of a well-cooked deep dish pizza wafting through my nostrils.

Nothing.

Zatara pales as a thought occurs to him. "You mentioned that mind flayers have a… unique dietary need."

I slowly nod to answer him, and Zatanna just stares with confusion.

"What need?"

My jaw clenches. "The brains of sentient and even sapient creatures."

She nervously laughs, uncertain where to put the energy of that revelation. "But – wow. These things are even nastier than I thought."

"You said they weren't able to change my body!" I shout to Zatara. "Some spell protects me. Are my taste-buds just rewired now?"

He holds up a hand in a placating gesture, one that does nothing to soothe my mood. "Logan, there is only so much I can do to understand the magic of another plane of existence."

"Some use you are then."

"Hey – don't talk to my dad like that!"

Instant regret fills my veins like a cold shower.

"I am so-"

"No need. I cannot begin to understand your stress." The fatherly old man shifts to sit in the chair across from me. "You think I cannot take the outbursts of the youth? Of someone in a terrible situation? I have been around a long time. There are no hard feelings."

Long moments pass as Zatanna still seems agitated, and for good reason. If I were in Zatara's shoes, I do not know if I could so easily forgive.

"What do we do then? If I'm not tasting food, am I digesting it?"

Zatara uncomfortably looks down toward my abdomen and then back up to meet my gaze. "Have you…?"

I exhale a held breath. "Yes, I have used the restroom since coming here." Zatanna giggles nervously – I was fourteen once, too. "Does that answer the question though?"

The man shakes his head after a moment of thought. "I can attempt a spell to run a diagnostic scan of your digestive track, but more general scans showed little change to any part of your body."

At my nod, the man walks forward and has me stand, before placing a hand lightly on my stomach. Words flow from his mouth in backwards speech – a trick that honestly is starting to irk me at its implications – and his gloved hand begins to ignite with light. After a few awkward minutes, he trails his hand higher, following my esophagus, until he gestures for me to open my lips with his other hand. Sticking out my tongue, he lightly touches it with the tip of his finger for a fraction of a second, and my whole mouth goes numb.

He pulls his hands away and stares, uncertain. "I do not sense its influence over your body, Logan, but I must admit, you are not human, nor from this plane. Your angelic heritage may result in different physiology than I expect to see in a scan like this. It is possible that I may have missed something in my initial search."

Hmm. Frustration builds – am I or am I not safe? "But you seem convinced that my body has not changed?"

"Within the limits of my understanding, yes. Your taste-buds should be working as intended."

f*ck. The need to contact the Absolute builds in my mind again, but if it he did not want to talk to me last time, I doubt he would want to this time. Convenient.

"But is he digesting food?" Zatanna asks, frowning at the once delicious-looking meal.

Zatara nods. "From what I can tell, yes."

A breath escapes my mouth in relief. "That's good to hear. Just… wish I could enjoy it."

I grew up overweight, with a penchant need for good food to distract me from my problems. The divorce at only eleven, the pressures of an overly Christian small-town environment on a budding young gay boy – all of it led to the bad habit of eating my feelings. This is honestly awful.

It is not lost on me that the last thing I tasted had been the mind of Psimon. Delectable – a mixture of fury, contempt, fear, delight. I was lucky that it had been purely telepathic, rather than a physical experience; I am not sure that I can stomach the idea of actually eating a brain. Either way, the experience had given me an increase in my abilities, and the taste of it had been … wonderful.

Ugh.

This is awful.

"Can I distract us with a different topic?" I ask the room, more for myself than for them. The change in tone forces the father-daughter pair to look toward me. "Zatanna has some interesting comments on how enchanting an object works, and I wanted to hear more about it from your perspective."

"Are you going to freak out again?" she asks, looking more amused than anything accusatory.

I shake my head with a slightly embarrassed smile, forcing another bite of tasteless pizza into my face.

"What do you want to know?" Zatara asks.

I drain the glass of water next to me with a disgruntled sigh. "On my plane, enchanting an object is as simple as putting time and effort into imbuing magic into something, long enough that it eventually becomes permanent." I can feel foreign knowledge stirring in my mind, representing knowledge of the arcana. "In less layman's terms, you must affix an object to the threads of the Weave for it to maintain magical properties, and that process takes time, research, and sometimes even strange components for a particular formula."

"The Weave?"

"The body of Mystra," I explain to him, a little concerned that he does not know who the term. "She is a goddess of magic from my plane of existence. She envelops everything there within her threads, forcing everyone who uses magic to follow her rules, with very few exceptions."

Also, an excuse for the universe to follow the rules of a convenient game system, and something for DMs everywhere to break for the Big Bads of their high-level games.

"So, this goddess maintains the laws of magic through the Weave," he says after a time. "Does this extend to other planes?"

"Officially? No," I explain, deciding not to breach the topic of Realmsspace, crystal spheres, and how the outer planes work for now. "In effect? Yes. It is not impossible for spellcasters to travel the planes, even to other worlds with a different planar cosmology, and they usually do not have to struggle to re-learn how to cast their spells." I remember vaguely reading once that the great wizard Elminster himself had to learn new practices during the transition from 3.5 to 4e's magic, but it is of dubious canon.

Zatara paces about the room as he thinks. If I did not want to get kicked out of the house or worse, I'd love to read his thoughts – hearing the thoughts of an experienced mage during this conversation would be beautiful. If I could get the ability good enough that no one notices that I'm doing it, then maybe….

"Spells in other planes still draw on this Mystra's rules?" he finally asks.

"Maybe not draw on, but the most famous spell, fireball, usually works the same anywhere, in my plane or not."

Zatanna perks up after a moment's pause. "So, if enchanting works in your plane through the Weave, do these other planes you mention not use the Weave for the same purpose? Or do they just not have enchanted items?"

I shake my head, surprised to hear someone so young notice something that I had not. "No, they definitely do, in all the stories I've read about planeswalkers."

Zatara stops and stares at his daughter and then wheels around toward me. "This enchanting process works in other planes. Would it work in ours?"

My eyes widen. "It depends. Does this count as a different multiverse with different rules, or merely a different Prime Material Plane in my own? If it's the latter, then I don't see why it wouldn't be possible."

This is one of the nerdiest conversations I have ever experienced, and I used to have Versus Battles conversations with my friends. It is especially nerdy because it might actually f*cking work!

"So, what do we need to try it?" Zatara asks, looking strangely excited to experience this.

"Dad, isn't this risky?"

"Maybe," he admits. "But experiencing this extraplanar magic firsthand may provide insight into the workings of this tadpole and the spell inhibiting it. I am willing to weather the minor risks – we can start small."

Zatanna shifts off the couch and presses her hand to her father's forearm. "Are you sure?"

He clasps her hand within his and squeezes. "It will be all right. I have a working theory that if we follow your style of magic, Logan, and avoid utilizing ours, then perhaps there will be no risks, no potential blowback."

I grin, the feeling of doing an actual arcane experiment with one of the most famous magical families in DC Comics washing over me.

"We'll need a formula," I explain after a time. "I think that's what I was missing before. With the right ingredients, the right diagrams, the right amount of time – I am certain that we can do it."

Chapter 22: 2.4 - Heaven

Chapter Text

I expected this morning would involve an impromptu meeting with Martian Manhunter, but the alien telepath is busy working a case. Zatara reiterated his call to let him know if something ever feels amiss, but it does not particularly make me feel any better to play second fiddle. I try to remind myself that saving lives should take priority, after all, and my life does not seem to be in immediate danger.

Pulling my things into a bag, I wonder idly whether I should even take them. Tav's journal rests in the middle drawer, alongside the few scant outfits that the Zataras have provided for me. As bad as it would be for that journal to get waterlogged, this new phone would be far worse, even while wrapped in a Ziploc bag or three. Still, I want to bring it if only to get pictures.

A knock at the door reveals Zatanna, still in her pajamas and with a look of frustration on her face. "I want you know to know that I'm very jealous."

"You really have not been? A quick portal through the bathtub?"

She rolls her eyes. "You know the kind of power that would take."

"Yeah, but your family cheats."

She laughs. "This again? Jealous much?"

I chuckle. "A little bit. You can do anything you want – within limits, I know – but you have a solid foundation for anything with just a few tricky reverse syllables."

She opens the door to beckon me downstairs, where her dad is presumably waiting for me. "Is this why you're so focused on enchanting?"

I nod. "Partly."

Magic items in every iteration of the game are the difference between a 'balanced' character and one that breaks the rules, one that has extra resources to spend. I doubt seriously that I can do much very soon, but the potential to one day craft my own Robe of the Archmagi or a Staff of Power is incredible. If the League were to fund my research into these topics, I could do some wonderful things.

"If this plan works, then Dad swears we'll have figured out something groundbreaking. It's a bit out of character for him to be so interested."

My eyebrow rises. "What do you mean?"

"Don't get me wrong – he likes to study as much as the next mage – but he's much more a showman. Magic for research's sake is not the usual way he spends his day."

That lines up with what I knew about the Zataras. While I still tend to think of them as wizards, they have some key similarities to the way sorcerers work as well – magic tied to bloodlines, using the force of their charisma to work their…

Oh. They are sorcerers.

Or at least, the closest thing this universe – multiverse? – has to the D&D sorcerer.

Hmmm. Food for thought.

The front foyer extends before us at the bottom of the final stairwell, the darkened interior of the house reminding me not for the first time of 12 Grimmauld Place. Muted sunlight streams into view from the stained-glass windowpanes nearby, the decorations reflecting the saints of Catholic faith. Not much for religion myself, but these are very pretty to look at.

Zatara drifts into view with a swirl of his magical cane, a focus for simplistic tricks that did not seem to require his usual backwards speech. Dressed in his sleek uniform, he puts the hat on his head and grins. "Are you ready, Logan?"

"Of course. I have never been to a place like this before." I perk up at a thought. "Is there a chance that Aqualad would be available to come with us? He mentioned that he would put a good word in with my situation."

Zatara nods after a moment of hesitation. "It would be helpful for you to have a guide. I have only been to Atlantis a handful of times."

.A.

Seeing the inside of Mount Justice again feels a breach of protocol once more, but I am not going to argue the decision. Zatara seems to possess good judgment, so far.

This is a real superhero team's headquarters! I was too exhausted and terrified of the thing inside my head to enjoy the moment last time, and I want nothing more than to explore to my heart's content. Biting my tongue, I wait by the teleporter technology, a device that sends Zeta beams from one location to another.

I majored in philosophy in college, and everything about this device screams teleporter problem. Have I been disassembled and then reassembled at another location, more than once now? I could spend hours thinking about this, and if I were not already busy, I might have done just that.

The beep of a distant device alerts me to the presence of the aptly-named Sphere, a strange robot with even stranger implications. The device rolls into the room and closer to me, studying me for a moment, before it spins out of sight down a distant hallway. What exactly is it?

"Apologies, my friend."

Kaldur steps into the room, hair wet from a shower. The skin-tight wet-suit armor on his chest is a deep maroon color instead of black, now, and it suits him far more. He waves a hand toward Zatara and then extends a hand toward me. "It is great to see you again. I hear your situation is less dire?"

"It's great to see you too." I waggle my eyebrows in the direction of my forehead. "It's still up there, but… maybe."

Zatara clears his throat, lowering a communicator on his wrist. "Kaldur'ahm, I need to ask a favor."

"Yes?"

"A situation has arisen with the League," Zatara begins, looking apologetically in my direction. This is news to me. "I promised that I would take Logan to Atlantis, in search of an ingredient for an enchantment ritual we are looking to perform. Would you be willing to take him, in my stead?"

Kaldur considers it for a long moment, studying both of us. "I would be willing. I… have been looking to better meld my life on the surface to my former life beneath the sea."

I can sense an odd expression on the man's face, a distant look in his eyes. "If it's too much of an imposition, then it can wait until Zatara is back, Aqualad."

He shakes his head, eyes returning to focus on the moment. "Please, remember – call me Kaldur." I rub the back of my neck sheepishly, trying not to notice how immaculate his cheekbones truly are. "And no, this is fine. I was considering extending an invitation to Miss Martian and Superboy anyway. What ingredient are you planning to collect?"

I beam at the idea of going on a trip with the three of them, even if my mind flashes to the time that Superboy almost bore a hole through my chest with his fist. "I am looking for an ink sac from a giant squid, and perhaps the essence of a water elemental." My thumb points to Zatara. "He seems to think something like that might be sold in a market?"

He nods. "The agora of Poseidonis is well known for its eccentric goods, though I am less certain if the latter is sold. Maybe a private collector?"

Zatara gestures toward the Zeta-Tube. "I wish you both luck in finding what you seek. Remember, Logan – if you have any trouble as we have discussed, do not hesitate to contact me."

As the wizard – no, the sorcerer turns to leave, Kaldur clears his throat. "Excuse me, Zatara, but I am uncertain how I am to protect Logan from the pressure of the depths, much less the-"

Zatara smiles slightly and waves his wand before me, pointing to the leather armor around my torso. "Etalusni mih morf eht peeD. Evig mih efil ot ehtaerb."

Straps of leather expand slightly at the touch of his magic, and two of them slither up to wrap around my neck.

"That enchantment should last for roughly seventy-two hours, even without my being there to enforce it. If you notice them begin to loosen, you'll know the magic is fading, though I suspect you will have returned far sooner."

I grin at the feeling of Zatara's protective words. "You're such a cheater, sir."

He laughs. "Perhaps, but I must hurry. Again, good luck on your travels, and keep him safe, Aqualad."

The Atlantean bows slightly. "Of course, sir."

Zatara disappears into the Zeta-Tube as the computer acknowledges his presence aloud, leaving me alone in Mount Justice with a bonified superhero.

A well-proportioned superhero that is about to take me to a magical underwater city.

Is this what heaven feels like?

Chapter 23: 2.5 - Safe Haven

Chapter Text

The familiar surroundings of the Bio-Ship impose a different mood on me this time around. Before, it was a safe haven from a dangerous environment – now, it is a safe haven on a trip to a fantastical destination. The first one that I have had the choice to visit.

The dulcet tones of its intonations are audible when I force the telepathic connection between us, just merely to observe the organic ship at work. The Ship does not think in words, images, or even other senses – it guides its attention through an alien feeling that I cannot quite process into my own words. It is honestly a surprise when I realize that small empathic connections bind the Ship to its passengers, allowing it to read the emotions of those it ferries across the stars.

Whatever the next trip is, it has gotta be to Mars. A society with technology like this must be truly strange.

Miss Martian pilots the ship through the waters around us, diving deeper and deeper. Given the leisurely speed of its flight, we would be reach Shayeris within the hour, and I could not be more excited.

She sees me watching her and smiles. "I am glad that you could tag along, Logan. It will be nice to get to know you on better circ*mstances."

Superboy pipes in before I can reply. "Still got that thing in your head?" She shoots a look at him, but I wave them both off.

"Yes, but can we not talk about that?" I try not to frown, but can feel my reaction is not totally controlled. "I am trying to enjoy myself."

"As you wish," Kaldur says after a moment, eyes darting across a flesh-like screen in front of him as he reads mission report files.

Part of me knows that they are just curious and likely surprised to be ferrying someone they hardly know, so I feel a bit bad to throw them off like that. A magical brain-eating parasite would be enough for anyone to be concerned, even if you just recently saved a spherical robot from a group of Middle Eastern mad scientists with a telepath on their payroll.

Are their lives weirder than mine?

On the face of it, comic book storylines might actually be weirder than anything I could cook up for a D&D campaign.

Superboy turns, shifting into a more guarded stance, to the Atlantean. "What's Atlantis like? I have these… ideas in my head, but it's hard to compare that to experience."

Miss Martian frowns at that but says nothing, fingers drifting across two strange glowing orbs to guide the ship through the ocean. I can feel the bond between the Martian and her Ship was much stronger than the other empathic connections, but was that because of M'gann or because those orbs act as some kind of strange steering wheel?

Kaldur sits straighter, his posture somehow becoming more perfect. "We live an isolated life, having long avoided the peoples of the surface in our history. This has led to some cultural practices and traditions that I think all of you will find interesting. I wish we were visiting near the Summer Solstice – it's my favorite of our festivals." He turns to me. "I am curious how this experience will compare to the cultures of the tritons that you mentioned, from your own plane."

In truth, I do not know much more than Kaldur does, but I can piece together lore from my experience running the game and reading descriptions of old wiki entries.

"I have not visited any of the great triton cities myself, but they are largely heavily traditional and religious societies, and usually originate from the Elemental Plane of Water."

"A plane where everything is water, I take it?" Superboy asks.

"Not everything, but almost everything." I shift the attention back to the tritons. "They are roughly human in shape, but they," I point to Kaldur, "sometimes have visible fish parts, like fins and webbed hands or feet. I think you'd fit right in."

His brow furrows at that for a moment.

"It sounds like they're really similar!" M'gann says chipperly. "Mars does not have any oceans, so all of this is exciting to see."

My eyes blink. "Did it?"

"Did it what?"

"Did it ever have oceans?"

"There are myths and legends about what exactly happened to them, but I think so?" she explains after a moment. "The water we do have had to come from somewhere like that, right?"

Hmm. Every scientist from my earth would kill to see a real Martian, to learn what they knew about their planet's history. This is already shaping up to be an incredible experience, and we are not even there yet. If this ship goes fast enough, could I tag along and visit Mars myself next time?

A long few minutes pass while we leisurely wait for our arrival. I want to pester Kaldur with hundreds of questions about exactly what we will see in Shayeris, how it compares to the capital city-state of Pseidonis, exactly why they are so intimately connected to Greek culture. I once taught social studies to middle school students, so the kind of cultural geography is incredibly engaging to me. And yet, none of those questions feels like the right one, and I expect that there will be time to ask these questions while the city stretches around us in a few short minutes.

A particularly murky patch of water clears away as the Ship glides through it, and a pull from M'gann's fingers draws us away from an impending cliff-side, a mountain that may one day break through the surface to become an island above. As we clear the peak of the underwater edifice, a brilliant light show draws our attention.

"Wow…." M'gann's excitement is palpable. "It's spectacular!"

Shayeris, an Atlantean city-state. One of seven, if the information I gleaned from Zatara is correct. A massive, almost pyramid-like structure rises from the ocean floor, pockmarked by frequent glowing spires along its lower rims, while dozens of smaller structures surround it. The buildings are wide, sometimes spherical in shape, and crafted as colorfully as any coral reef you can imagine. Likely bioluminescent light sources glow in frequent patterns along the floor and along the sides of homes, of businesses, and every building in between. Scattered fish of every color and species you can imagine gather in schools, as unperturbed to be near people as squirrels on college campuses.

"Welcome to my birthplace… the Atlantean city-state of Shayeris."

"Everything on the surface must seem so boring and lifeless to you," I say to Kaldur, gesturing through the Bio-Ship's viewing portal.

He smiles faintly, not meeting my eyes and watching the city expand before him. "It has its moments."

Superboy stands as we prepare to disembark, finding a place to cloak the ship. "Are you… shorter?"

M'gann gestures down to herself, a small smile on her face. "It's the pressure. Even the Bio-Ship is smaller at this depth."

I furrow my brow, staring down at myself. I seem the same proportions, but…. "Hang on. You're shrinking even while inside the Bio-Ship?"

"Yes?" A look of confusion settles on her face.

"Is the inside cabin not protected from the pressure?"

She glances toward the Bio-Ship's ceiling, a concerned look on her face. "I… don't think so?"

If not for Kryptonian and Atlantean physiology, would the other two heroes have shrunk? Is there something unique about Martian bodies that reacts to that?

"It must be," Superboy replies, holding out a hand. "I don't feel any extra pressure."

This is legitimately concerning. The Bio-Ship should be a safe-haven to me on this trip, a place with air and protection from the environment, should we end up staying longer than Zatara's spell. A place I can retreat to, while the others finish up any of their business on this leisurely trip and enjoy ourselves.

"Does this Bio-Ship have a manual?" I ask after a moment, and I can feel it react positively to that idea through the emotional bond.

"Well, no, but I can share what information I know about the Bio-Ship's functions." She points to her head. "It might take a few minutes, but-"
Do it, my love.
"Go ahead. I… want to know if this is as safe as I thought."

Her mind connects to mine, information about the Ship and its functions flowing freely into my psyche. The light touch of her psychic presence is gentle, as though liable to pull away at any moment.

But no psychic resistance will meet her today.

Chapter 24: 2.6 - Pod

Chapter Text

As we land the Bio-Ship and prepare to enter the wider world of Shayeris, an undersea city that is truly amazing to see, it is difficult to distract my brain from thinking of the "manual" I had in my head of this particular Martian technology. Grown from a telepathic bio-organism that the Martians cultivate, it is a true wonder and something that I have to see for myself one day.

The knowledge came with a few touches of M'gann's memory – I wonder how difficult it is to not transmit memories when you transmit information telepathically. A flashbulb memory of the girl stowing away on her uncle J'onn's ship comes to mind, the fear she felt when she ran away from home.

As strange as it is to feel that twinge of emotion when I reflect on her memory, it is more important to know that the Bio-Ship is pressurized. Of that, I am confident, but it is still uncertain why her body reacts that way. Mystery aside, I feel significantly better than I did only a few minutes ago.

"It will be all right," I explain after a moment. "M'gann, you think that J'onn could procure another one of these eggs?"

M'gann does not know much about the creation process for these ships – or she did not share the information with me – but the fact that they seem to create them in an egg form is hilariously alien and will always amuse me.

The girl stares at me in confusion for a moment. "I do not think so. He had to call in a few favors just to get this one for me."

"Must be some favors. It's a spaceship!"

She smiles gently. "They are not common on Mars, but not unheard of either."

"So not as rare and valuable as on Earth?" I ask after a moment.

"No, I do not think so."

Superboy shuffles through a cabinet nearby and pulls a device from it – a fancy rebreather, a device that would be endlessly useful if they worked at all like this one does in real life. He affixes it to his face, a strap tightly bound around his neck, and I frown. Of all the things that Kryptonians can do, breathing underwater seems so ordinary.

He offers a second to Miss Martian and to myself, but both of us shake our heads at nearly the same time.

"I've got a spell keeping me…." Voice trailing off, I consider the danger of outside for a moment, and then take the item from Superboy, placing it in a sealed compartment of my bag. "On second thought, just in case."

He smiles slightly at that, a far cry from the dangerous rage monster he was only a few days ago. The man nearly tore his fist through my chest!

M'gann stares intently at Kaldur as she shakes her head to Superboy's offer. "Not for me."

Like magic, her body and her unform shifts into one suitable for an underwater environment. The bright blue cape folds away into nothing, and her skirt extends to become like a second skin that covers her legs.

Her clothes shift too?

More impressively, the skin around her neck begins to fold in on itself, slits forming to match the gills that Kaldur himself possesses.

Like a more advanced version of the alter self spell, she transforms herself into a form suitable to swim and breathe in this environment. She is almost as physically attuned to the sea as Kaldur himself is, and I'm starting to wonder if everyone cheats.

"Awesome," I say after a moment, earning a wide smile from the Martian.

"Gills. Nice touch!" Superboy declares, and a very human blush appears on her cheeks, a sheepish look crossing her face.

Cute.

Kaldur pointedly gestures to the cabinet again and says, "Should any of you need it, I've stocked appropriate clothing as well."

The clone reaches into the compartment and pulls out a wetsuit similar to the one that Kaldur himself wears, the color a bit brighter red. An identical one rests beside it, and my mind wanders impractically to the effect it would have on my armor class.

I have to roll my eyes at my own thoughts. This is not actually a game. While this wetsuit is probably less protective than the leather armor I currently wear, I'm not trading some stupid numerical bonus for another. I'm trading a bit of protection for the ability to more easily swim through the water. I won't need the armor anyway.

It's a business trip – I should look the part of an Atlantean while I'm here. It'll be more fun to assimilate.

.A.

Swimming through the water through this gorgeous city is a unique experience, in more than one way. What distracts my thoughts the most is the fact that my head is completely dry – Zatara's spell keeps the water from reaching the skin from the neck up, though the rest of my body is not as protected.

Occasional passers-by are a mix between humans who just happen to live underwater in appearance to men and women with the tails of a fish, looking every part the merfolk I expected them to be.

A synergistic relationship must exist between the local sea-life and the people who live here, because there is almost no difference between the shape and style of most of the architecture and coral growths. I have always enjoyed thinking about how different groups of people adapt to their environment, so seeing them use the resources around them to create such fantastically interesting sights is beautiful to witness.

What stands out the most are the holdovers from Grecian architecture. Columns of marble carved from local rock, seaweed growths embedded and stretching hundreds of feet – it's marvelous. I wonder not for the first time how similar the Atlanteans are to the Amazons. Do they still worship the same gods?

An almost pancake-like domed building lies directly in our path, and a voice calls out into my mind. "This is my parents' home. My home."

A psychic link binds the four of us together, an easy feat for M'gann to accomplish. As far as I can tell, it does not allow for more than projected surface thoughts, but I want to learn this trick as soon as I can. Perhaps J'onn can work with me on it, when I have my first session with him.

Touching down into the home through an open window-like portal, the furniture and technology are nearly as alien in feel to the Bio-Ship. I want to touch everything that I see, and only halt that impulse out of respect to Kaldur.

A man and woman float into the room with brilliant smiles on their faces, and what strikes me first is how ethereally beautiful Kaldur's mother truly is. Her flowing golden hair stretches behind her, undulating as if alive with the changes in the water around us.

She embraces Kaldur and speaks an unfamiliar language. My ears hear the words of Atlantean, but my mind understands their meaning as filtered through the psychic link. I can do something similar using my own telepathic connection, but it is not necessarily as passive as M'gann's effort seems to be.

"Kaldur, you look thin."

"Mother," an exasperated look appears on the stoic Atlantean's face, "please…"

"Sha'lain'a, let the boy breathe." Kaldur's father is impressively built, his dark complexion almost glimmering in the light.

Does everyone have to be hot down here?

"My friends, these are my parents, Sha'lain'a and Calvin Durham. Mother, Father, meet Superboy, Miss Martian, and Logan."

Calvin perks up at the last name, looking toward me. "No fancy name for him?"

I shake my head after a moment, not sure how to answer it. "No sir."

I have some ideas, but the thought of becoming a hero and fighting crime is something that has not quite been at the forefront of my mind. Now that I have some relative sense of safety from the tadpole, maybe I should consider it?

At their surprise, Miss Martian explains that we are not actually speaking Atlantean, but that she can translate the words for us. Strangely enough, however, Superboy perks up, "G-gnomes programmed me to speak Atlantean."

Programmed? I remember something vaguely similar to that was mentioned back in Bialya, but that's new. Does this have something to do with him being a clone?

"What's a G-Gnome?" I ask, imagining a gnome from D&D wearing a silly costume with the letter "G" emblazoned on the front.

Superboy looks toward me for a moment. "It's a long story." A man of few words.

Kaldur leaves to speak with his father, while his mother gestures for us to make ourselves comfortable. "Would you like a beverage? I admit some unfamiliarity with surface customs."

I nod, fascinated to see what exactly she would bring us, but Superboy shakes his head, pointing toward the rebreather. "Not a good idea, I think."

She frowns. "Oh, of course. Apologies, I did not consider that. How do you plan to-"

"I have a ship with an air pocket," M'gann explains. "We plan to return to it for meals, during our trip."

"Are there places with air in Atlantis?" I ask, very curious to hear the answer.

She nods. "Yes, but they are not common. Reserved for special circ*mstances. I hear there are surgeries that require an air bubble chamber."

"Neat. So how are they maintained?"

"I'm not a mage myself, but I understand that magic is involved. I think a lot of your questions about the logistics of our society will involve that as an answer." She smiles brightly, and it is truly incredible how beautiful she is. "So, how did the three of you meet my son? Are you on this team that he mentioned?"

Superboy clears his throat, a strange sound while he wears the rebreather. Sound itself is a bit strange down here, and it becomes weirder the more I think about it. "Kaldur helped save me from a place called Cadmus, the lab that cloned me."

She hears the last part of that statement and frowns, uncertain how to respond. "I am so sorry to hear that, but I am glad that he could be there for you. My son has a truly empathetic heart!"

He says nothing in response, just nods lightly, a conflicted look on his face. That's a look of extensive trauma if I've ever seen one. As bright and cheerful as Sha'lain'a seems to be, it does little to break the boy's soured mood.

My mind pulls away from the moment at the realization that Cadmus exists. When I think of that place, I think of the secret conspiracy that cloned Supergirl and nearly wrecked the Justice League in the DCAU. From what I can tell, this does not seem to be the DCAU – the Justice League membership does not match, and their HQ is the Hall of Justice, not a satellite watchtower.

Does that mean Lex is part of Cadmus? Or is Lex not involved in the creation of Superboy here? Is Luthor even a thing? I have not had enough time to confirm my suspicions.

I did not hear all of M'gann's response, but his mother looks expectantly toward me.

"I ran into these folks in Bialya," I explain, not sure how much to tell about their mission history. So far, they did not seem to be holding back any confidential information from the woman, but you cannot be too careful. "I was lucky, too, because without them, I know I would not have made it. Kaldur had been almost injured," Sha'lain'a's eyes widen with alarm, "but I helped get him to safety. Now, they're helping me with a problem I'm dealing with."

She swims into a more upright position and looks toward her son and her husband in the distance. "Kaldur'ahm, why did you not tell me that you were nearly injured?"

He swims over to meet her, his father lagging behind with his own look of concern stretching across his face. "I am fine, Mother. You need not worry about me."

She frowns. "You know that sentence means nothing to me every time that you say it, right?"

He chuckles. "I know, Mother, but I promise that I am all right. It was merely a case of extended dehydration."

Aghast, her frown tightens. "Tell me everything."

.A.

Night rapidly approaches in Shayeris, the outside of the city becoming darker rapidly as the muted sunlight from above slowly vanishes. Bioluminescence keeps the city alight with vibrant light, and the light fixtures inside his parents' homes are fascinating to see as they come alive even more than before.

"You can sleep in here for the night," Calvin explains as he guides us to a sleeping chamber. As the door opens, vibrant golden light flickers to life from several coral growths along the floor. "But feel free to stay up as long as you like." It feels strange to hear that, but half of their guests are still children.

Centering the room are several odd contraptions affixed to the ground, almost silver in nature with transparent crystal running alongside their sleek construction.

"These are Atlantean sleeping pods," Kaldur explains, "but if you would be more comfortable, we can adjourn to the Bio-Ship."

I stare at the pod closest to me, remembering the pods aboard the nautiloid. "Do they close?"

He blinks. "What do you mean?"

"If you lay in them, do they close?"

He blinks again and then shakes his head. "No, not these kind. There are some built for much younger children that close, to ensure that they stay stationary while sleeping."

"If they do not close, then I'm okay to sleep here."

It would feel wrong to not get the Atlantean experience.

"All right. Logan, I apologize that we will not get a chance to see the markets here, but I am not certain that they would have what you're looking for. Poseidonis' markets are twice as larg-"

"It's okay, Kaldur. Enjoy the time with your family."

"We can always come by here on the way home if we do not find the ingredients you need in the capital?" M'gann offers.

"That is a good idea," Kaldur accepts, an apologetic look on his face.

At my wave of the hand, he nods and leaves to enjoy some alone time with his parents, something that would feel like an intrusion to me to interrupt. M'gann gestures a moment later toward the door. "You think that they would let me use their kitchen? I think it'd be fun to learn an Atlantean dish."

"I'm sure she'd love to teach you."

The Martian scrambles excitedly through the water around her and then swims effortlessly down the hallway, leaving me alone with Superboy.

The teenage clone carefully tests his weight in one of the pods, a look of contemplation on his face. He turns toward me, face unreadable. "Back in Bialya. You… called me Conner."

My eyebrow rises. Did I do that? Oh god.

Pining for more information, I swallow. "Yeah? I don't remember saying that."

"You did," he confirms. "I don't have a name. Why did you call me that?"

Doesn't have a name?

"You look like someone I used to know, from back home. Dark hair, blue eyes, very fit – I must have called you by his name without realizing it."

It is not even a lie, technically. He does look similar to Conner Kent from the comics.

"Oh." He looks away for several seconds, deep in thought. "Was he a good person?"

My brow rises in surprise, realizing the metaknowledge problem very quickly. "Oh, yeah. He was the best. The kind of man who had a legacy to live up to, and he shouldered that burden and excelled at it."

Superboy turns and lays down in the pod, crossing his fingers together above his stomach. He stares at the ceiling for several seconds, and I go to fiddle with the clasps on my bag to attach it to the pod, so that it does not float away.

"I like the name."

Chapter 25: 2.7 - Suspect

Chapter Text

We did not spend much time in Shayeris, opting to head straight to the capital at dawn. When Kaldur finally told us what he had learned from his father, it was hard not to leave even earlier than that.

"These could just be rumors," Superboy – Conner says, finally, as the Bio-Ship speeds through the water, twisting ocean currents coalescing all around us. Their capital – a name that suggests that they do still worship the Greek Gods, or at least Poseidon – is not far.

Conner is right – they could be. Would they be? It's uncertain. Trouble brews in Poseidonis, notable enough for Calvin to report it to his son, the superhero who once guarded the place alongside his mentor, Aquaman.

I thought this would be a simple trip. I still hope it will. Nervous fingers twist in my lap, swirls of icy magic flowing between them. Calling on a spell and holding it in your mind is easier said than done, and this is all I can do to keep the nerves of being in yet another dangerous scenario at bay.

"My father would not speak idly of these matters," Kaldur explains after a few moments.

Not helping my anxiety, here, Aqualad.

"We can still hope, right?" My voice almost cracks, and a new wave of anxiety about sounding so damn nervous comes to mind.

The Atlantean meets my gaze. "Perhaps. We are going to meet with Queen Mera and learn what she knows. It may be nothing, but we should leave no possibility to chance."

A few more minutes pass before we finally spot the tall, glowing dome peeking over the horizon. M'gann angles the Ship upward with an excited smile on her face, and we crest over the seafloor shelf in front of us.

The reveal is spectacular. I thought Shayeris was beautiful, but this huge, domed city is so brilliant. What seem almost like towers of light – bioluminescent coral, maybe – mark the tallest structures in the city, but what surprises me more is how wide everything is. Dome-shaped buildings are common on every street, every thoroughfare of a truly massive underwater city.

"Incredible."

"It is," Kaldur says after a moment, and then gestures to M'gann. "They are expecting us at that dome threshold, just ahead."

His finger points toward a space near the base of the dome that is discolored from the rest of the nearly translucent bubble, and as we get closer, several of the city's guards make their presence known. A few hold strange weapons in hand, their blue armor almost camouflaging them from their surroundings.

One of the guards, a woman with a human body and jellyfish tendrils for hair that poke out of her helmet, floats through the dome threshold as though it is not even there. Tattoos on her arms slightly glow as she gestures, an odd Greek symbol appearing for a moment before the faint barrier vanishes entirely.

"Should I go throu-"

Kaldur nods to M'gann's question, the girl pressing her hand forward on the odd orb and feeling the Bio-Ship respond to her intent. As soon as the vehicle crosses into the dome, the barrier shifts back into position, almost like a bubble popping in reverse.

"Give me a moment to send my regards to G'rina."

A hole in the Bio-Ship's floor slides open beneath Kaldur's feet, allowing him to pass into the depths beneath him. The water does not rise to fill the chamber, but my fear that it would is not without merit. Then again, this is kinda like a diving bell, right? Maybe it wouldn't fill the space, because of the pressure, or maybe the Bio-Ship does it.

Kaldur grips the hand of the female guard – G'rina – in greeting, her almost translucent hair glittering with movement. They must have a rapport with one another, from the respectful smiles on their faces.

Seeing royal guards shaking hands with Kaldur, a thought about that relationship occurs to me. As the man returns to the Ship and G'rina returns to her post, I clear my throat. "Kaldur, do the people in Atlantis like you?"

He frowns, a distant expression falling across his face. "I-I have no reason to think the majority do not like me."

I wave apologetically, and M'gann shoots me a look that's hard to parse. "Sorry, that was phrased wrong. I meant, how do the city and its leaders look at its superheroes? It has to be different than the surface, right? Its king is one of them."

A small smile rises on his lips. "Ah, I understand now. Atlantis has a strong love of mythic heroism. There is… pushback, now and again, for how my King chooses to operate, but the public is usually pleased. Aquaman reminds them of the old ways, even if they argue he spends too much time on the surface."

I remember a few stories featuring Aquaman have had that iconic struggle at its center, whether the surface is worth saving. As fantastic a problem as it sounds in Atlantis, even the U.S. has debates about how much aid to send to other countries, or whether to get involved in foreign conflicts.

"I ask because I think what you guys do is awesome," I explain after a moment, "and I wonder how the public reacts to it. Back in Zatara's house, I read a few newspaper headlines that were critical about some of the violence that heroes do."

As I speak, the Bio-Ship cuts through the space above the city, angling toward a massive building near the central district – the Royal Palace. A guard escort from the dome follows us partly into the city before returning to their posts.

"The public doesn't know I exist," Conner says after a moment. "I don't think they know about M'gann, either."

"Well, I don't know about that," the Martians says. "They probably don't know the details, but I've been on camera before. Someone published a blurry photo spread of me after what happened in Salem. I'm surprised they didn't catch me in action sooner."

"Salem?"

Kaldur interjects. "We fought an evil sorcerer and stopped him from claiming the Helmet of Fate."

My eyes widen in surprise, shaking my head. The Helmet of Fate! One of the most powerful magical artifacts in all of DC Comics. This group of sidekicks saving that is a big deal. Which evil sorcerer, though? Faust? Mordru?

"Whether you're public or not," I add after a moment, pulling back to the topic at hand, "your actions always are being judged, right? Whether here or up there?"

The Atlantean hero says nothing for a moment, eyes fixated on the view of the city below. "There is a fine line between heroism and vigilantism that we must never cross."

"Batman has talked about this with us," M'gann adds. "Our team and who we work for is off the radar. If we can help it, we don't deal with a lot of the public eye. Captain Atom's been trying to teach us to-"

"We are here," Kaldur says suddenly, as the Bio-Ship slowly hovers above the central dome of the Royal Palace. Royal guards begin to swim up in mass to escort us down into its depths, and the man nods. "Let us revisit this conversation. I doubt that anyone will treat you differently because you are with me, but just in case, keep your eyes and ears open."

Conner and M'gann prepare to leave the ship quickly, but it takes a moment for me to follow in their example. Being inside a royal anything is a big deal, and we're about to just walk – or swim - right in. How privileged I must be, just being a tagalong to a superhero?

.A.

One day, I will tire of calling anything undersea beautiful, but the innards of the Royal Palace of Poseidonis will not stop me. This place is gorgeous. A combination of old Greek architecture styles with whatever style Atlantis has cultivated over the millennia. Strange light fixtures glow with magic, or perhaps with light-forming coral, or perhaps both. Statues detailing old Atlantean figures are perfectly carved from marble and somehow not ruined by the constant flow of water currents around them.

The building is abuzz with activity. Armored guards patrol the walls, while servants and petitioners go about their business. A feast of food rests in a large dining hall-like room, the food somehow staying in place along the long tables.

The guards escort us into the main chamber, Kaldur at the head of the pack while I trail behind, staring at everything. The wide, clam-like Throne of Atlantis sits on a raised dais, and floating in front of it is the exquisite figure of a queen. The red-haired woman wears a green gown that exposes her toned abs and a crown frames her face.

Good lord, that's Queen Mera. One-time Red Lantern, one-time League member, all-time badass.

Kaldur salutes her with a fist to his forehead, as she gestures in welcome. "Kaldur, it is an honor to finally meet your friends and teammates."

M'gann moves to address her, excitement palpable. "The honor is all ours, Queen Mera. I lived on Mars my whole life without ever meeting a member of the royal family!"

Mars is a monarchy too?

I start to respond, to greet her as well with something more than a weak wave of my hands, when an individual swims into view from one of the side passages and interrupts.

"There is a certain wisdom in inaccessibility when the Queen carries the heir to the throne."

The handsome man shows no sign of aquatic features, and neither does Mera for that matter. Not even gills like Kaldur. A smile widens across the man's face as he looks toward the three of us.

"Allow me to introduce Prince Orm, my overly protective brother-in-law."

My throat tightens.

"How can I be anything else, while my brother is off playing Aquaman?"

f*ck.

The next few words spoken do not register, as the man who may secretly be Ocean-Master greets Kaldur with a familiar hand on his shoulder. The man who notably wants to be king so badly in nearly every iteration of the character that he would do anything to harm a pregnant woman to keep her from having that baby.

What, if anything, could I possibly do?

Telling someone of my suspicions without evidence would be ridiculous. And, who knows? Maybe in this universe, he's not evil.

I had a few tricks I could do, to confirm his innocence or guilt. The best one would be to tap into his mind with an enhanced detect thoughts spell and then ask the right questions. It could reveal any nefarious plans, but would risk retaliation if he resisted and realized I was poking around in his head. Were Superboy, Miss Martian, and Aqualad enough to stop him from gutting me with whatever trident he may be hiding? Ocean-Master regularly fights Aquaman – how large is the gulf between the mentors and their sidekicks?

"You okay?" M'gann asks as she places a hand on my upper arm, breaking my reverie. "I know Prince Orm said that there was trouble at the Conservatory of Sorcery, but you don't have to come with us."

Queen Mera waves as she swims over gracefully, effortlessly. "You may stay here, if you wish, until their investigation is complete. We can prepare a room for you, while I gather what I need to look over the parasite that I have heard so much about."

"It's not that," I mutter, surprised to be standing so close to royalty and to hear her offer. "I want to come along. I can help. And I want to see what magic schools are like around here, anyway." She looks at me warily and then nods.

"I am certain that we will have time to look it over before you leave. Kaldur has told me about your troubles."

I have to force a smile, even while worried about Orm. "I am just glad that you're willing to look at it."

"It would be foolish to leave something like that alone."

I cannot help but agree.

The prince grips Kaldur's wrist in greeting once more and then swims deeper into the innards of the palace, out of sight.

I would do anything just to get away from that man, lest I feel compelled to do something stupid and ruin everything. Time to look into whatever Orm told Kaldur about.

If we're lucky, it's not a trap.

Chapter 26: 2.8 - Impure

Chapter Text

The trip to the Conservatory of Sorcery, the premiere magical academy in Poseidonis – if not Atlantis, is a swift jaunt through the water above busy thoroughfares. The geography of a city built to support three-dimensional movement is enough to distract my brain from the nerves that fill my brain, anxiety about Ocean-Master filling my every thought.

The main entrances of several structures are near the top, not the bottom, of spindly spires of coral. Phosphorescent light bleeds into the water around structures, giving everything a multi-colored ethereal glow that peeks through even scant clouds of murkier water. The busy patrons of the city swim both near the ocean floor and far above it, and their bodies are often not as humanoid as I would expect.

Four younger children playfully swim circles around each other within a courtyard, each with merfolk tails of various shapes and sizes. A woman with a clam for a mouth carries watertight scroll cases into a building that might be a library, passing three human-passing men who almost sneer at her. A man with the upper torso of a sea serpent sells something I cannot quite see from this distance within a kiosk, though not many seem to accept his business.

"Getting to meet a prince and a queen on the same day. How wonderful!"

M'gann's cheerful remark sobers me to the reality of what to do about Prince Orm, the survey of the city sliding away from the forefront of my brain.

"Hn. It's unexpected," Conner declares simply, the rebreather mask obscuring his facial features despite its transparent exterior.

Could my information from the comics and cartoons I've seen be wrong? I don't-

"Have you ever met royalty before, Logan?" M'gann asks with a sincere smile. "Does your uh… world have royalty?"

"It does," I explain after a moment, thinking of the few monarchies along the Sword Coast that I can remember reading in wiki crawls. "But I've never met a major political leader. I did meet a woman who became a local judge once, after an election."

My face contorts into a frown as a memory of home races through my mind – my mother ran against her and lost that race. If the others sensed the change in my face, they do not comment on it.

I… want to get back to her. One day. If I play my cards right, then maybe I can plane shift there one day. It's a… sobering moment.

"What kind of trouble do you think this might be, Kaldur? Are there any common criminals we should look out for?" I ask, just to change the conversation. Black Manta comes to mind as the other nemesis of Aquaman that might be involved here, and damn if that wouldn't be the most complicated mess.

Kaldur shakes his head. "I am not certain. A few days ago, I fought the villain known as Black Manta and stopped him from stealing a frozen giant alien starfish from our Science Center. This could be related to that – whether it is him, or perhaps members of his organization, I do not know."

Hmmm, I really do not want to be right about that. Two Aquaman-tier villains wandering around Atlantis right now does not sound like a good time. Not a good time at all.

"Why would the Conservatory be involved if it's Black Manta?" Conner asks, a poignant question for a man who is sometimes of little words.

Kaldur does not have an answer for that, and it's more worrying now than before. "I wish we had had time to take you to the Agora before this mess interrupted things."

I sigh. "It's all right, this is more important." While I want to get the ingredients for my ritual, this really is more important. And besides, Kaldur's mention of the Agora does get my brain spinning though, about how to deal with Ocean-Master.

.A.

I could spend hours reading every book, every scroll, every piece of slate I can find in this place. The Conservatory of Sorcery is almost as impressive a building as the Royal Palace, and considering the place is run by the Queen herself, it makes sense. Queen Mera as a magic teacher in this version of DC is so interesting. The magic I have access to is mostly innate, mostly intuitive – unlike wizards, I do not have to study to know what I know, to learn what I learn when I "level-up." But damn, there's still a lot I could learn from a woman like her.

The group of students Kaldur left behind when he became a sidekick to Aquaman are a strange collection of both familiar and unfamiliar faces to me. Motherf*ckin' King Shark is a teenage student of magic? Awesome. A merfolk girl I do not recognize clasps the hands of Kaldur as he enters the place, while the dark-haired human-looking Atlantean of the group immediately draws my eye. That's Garth, the Aqualad I remember from the comics. He stands next to another more human-looking girl with short auburn hair, and the two seem chummy with Kaldur. The literal humpback whale for a teenager is probably as weird as the shark, but at least I recognize the shark. And is that the Creature from the Black Lagoon?

"M'gann M'orzz, Conner, Logan, these are some of my former classmates." He outlines their names, and I take particular interest in the whale-looking boy named Blubber and King Shark's real name, Nanaue Sha'ark. And La'gaan, the youngest of the group, has almost the silliest naming convention, because he really does look like he came from an evil lagoon.

Kaldur explains briefly that the biological differences are partly magical, partly scientific in nature, forced adaptations to survive the sinking of the city from so long ago that stuck around over the generations.

"So, you're not actually a shark?" I ask with a teasing grin, trying to fight off the urge to run and hide from the baring of his sharpened teeth.

His own frown widens – an impressive feat, considering he does not seem to have lips. "I'm a shark when it's useful."

I would laugh, but he bares his teeth. My body flinches backwards a few inches in the water, and his eyes narrow.

The youngest boy swims over, his green fins, slimy scales, and beady red eyes glinting in the light. "And are you three typical of the surface?"

Conner barely has time to say, "Not exactly," before M'gann rushes through the water over to Lori Lemaris, her body shapeshifting in only a few seconds to match the mermaid girl's lower half. "I've always loved mermaids! What do you think?"

"I am… flattered?" the Atlantean girl says with a nervous chuckle.

The blonde human-looking student named Ronal leaves the group with a gruff dismissal. King Shark looks like he wants to say something to him on the way out, but his eyes focus back on mine. He really did not like that joke….

Garth and the girl float closer into the pavilion, touching down across from Kaldur. He gestures toward them. "These are my dearest friends, Tula and Garth."

Tula clasps Garth's hand into hers. "Yes, any friends of Kaldur's are friends of ours."

Their touching moment passes after a few seconds, and then I feel the itching presence of M'gann's mind for a moment. "Ah. He didn't just bring us for company, or to help Logan shop."

"Hm?" I ask, not entirely sure where she is going with this.

"What do you mean?"

"Kaldur's in love with Tula. It radiates off of him in waves. But she's with Garth. And Kaldur could not bare to face them alone…"

"Damn it," I say telepathically, a smile of exasperation forming on my face. "Why so many straight love triangles?"

Kaldur's eyes pull away from their conjoined hands, reacting to the presence of another student entering the pavilion.

"Mind flayer!?" I shout into the telepathic link.

A juvenile mind flayer swims into view, pudgy from its latest engorged meal of brains. A cephalopod head with purple skin ends with long tentacles at the mouth, dancing in the watery currents.

This is the trouble. It has to be. f*ck – if I managed to get here, why couldn't there be other planar creatures? It would be naïve to believe that I am alone. In theory, aren't all material planes just floating in the same Astral Sea?

And then Kaldur asks, "Topo…?" He swims up to greet the mind flayer, clasping onto his arm gently. "Topo, I want you to meet my friends."

"I don't think this is that, Logan," M'gann says after a moment of hesitation. "At least, I hope not."

"Uh… maybe some other time," this Topo says, trying to swim away while clutching something on his chest. A trick, maybe he's dominated these students....?

Kaldur twirls him around, and the young creature starts to resist. My body begins to move, swimming up and preparing to go into a fighting stance. Ice begins to swirl around my fingers, freezing the water around my hands into small ice floes that float around them.

"What is this?" Kaldur asks, alarmed and staring at a brand of burned skin on Topo's exposed chest, some kind of ancient runic word spelled out in his flesh. "Topo, who did this to you?"

Lori floats forward and pulls Topo away from the hero, while Blubber, La'gaan, and King Shark begin to follow without a word. The latter is watching the magic in my hands with intensity, as though waiting for me to attack so he can have any excuse to rip off my head. The spell fizzles out as fear grips my chest.

Lori waves off the sidekick. "It does not concern you, Kaldur'ahm."

I start to shout a warning, but M'gann's words ring in my thoughts once more. This… is just a boy who happens to look like a squid. Just like how King Shark is not some weird more shark-like sahuagin, and Lori Lemaris is not actually a merfolk. At least, I think.

Whatever danger this might be, Topo seems the victim here.

Conner's question about the runic brand breaks my reverie. "Spelling what?"

Tula swallows audibly. "'Impure.'"

Chapter 27: 2.9 - Overstep

Chapter Text

The search for Topo is taking far longer than anticipated, and the entire situation stunk of uncertainty, confusion, and gross prejudice. I had been prepared to deal with Topo when I thought he was a walking eldritch abomination – he had all the traits! Purple skin, tentacles around the mouth, mucus across the skin, the head of an octopus!

But now? Now I am starting to understand some of the societal pressures in Atlantis.

The three of us from the surface follow Kaldur and his two closest friends, a walking love triangle cliché. It feels so… teenage. A plotline that would absolutely fit into one of the teen-based comics, or maybe one of the cartoons. It's enlightening to provide more information for which universe this was.

Swimming through the waters above the city, passing kelp forests and clusters of sea life that you would not find anywhere else, my mind is focused entirely on what might be happening to the little tentacled teenager.

"Speak to me of Topo…" Kaldur asks finally, after having taken a long time to consider exactly what might be happening.

The dark-haired boy turns back to look toward his friend, a solemn look on his face. "He was a victim of the purists."

Purists.

Off-brand racism.

Kaldur swims to a stop as Tula and Garth do, prompting us to follow suit. I glance toward M'gann, wondering idly what she thought of this. Is there racism on Mars, when everyone can look like whatever they want to, whenever they want to?

"They consider themselves descendants of the original Atlanteans," Garth explains.

"And attempt to scare anyone they consider impure into leaving Poseidonis," Tula finishes, her left hand rubbing her right elbow nervously.

Before I could ask the question in my mind, Conner interrupts, "What qualifies as impure? You all breathe water."

Hmm. 'You all bleed red.'

"Tula and I appear human, and thus are considered pure."

But Kaldur is not.

"Damn," I finally say after a moment. "So, something as silly as gills, fins, or webbed hands can cause this?"

Kaldur nods, gesturing toward his neck with a webbed hand. "Unfortunately, yes. I am impure."

My mind goes back to the love triangle before me – is this an after-school special? Don't get me wrong – episodes or comics or movies to teach kids about racism is good, but it feels awful to be saddled with the reality of it in front of you.

My eyes study the skin of my exposed hand, no longer the pale white of my previous life. I have not spent much time in public since I arrived here, but I guarantee that I will receive strange looks, if not outright negative behavior. It's not… the same thing, and I can only imagine it feels worse to be part of other groups who've faced it a lot longer than I have.

Even my own sexuality is an invisible identity – until someone sees me with a boyfriend hand-in-hand or until I tell them, I have the privilege to avoid persecution if I just do not say anything. I've never liked living in the closet, but in the right environment, it provides some level of benefit.

This is real, and I hate it.

"Let go of me!!"

The sound of a furious shout distracts me from my thoughts and drives us over the nearby ridge. The voice is familiar, somehow, and it looks like Garth's suspicions about where their classmates might go is correct.

King Shark grasps the blonde "pure" Atlantean Ronal by the torso, claws gripping into his clothing. Swimming behind the most fearsome looking teenager, backing him up, are the other "impure" students, forming a wall in front of poor Topo. Behind Ronal are several other human-looking teenagers. A real standoff between two groups.

Lori Lemaris points a finger forward. "We know you are purists!"

Oh, a real accusation. This grows more complicated by the second.

La'gaan bares his teeth, sharp in his mouth. "You can't hide behind your robes and hoods!"

f*cking narrative parallels.

"Do we appear to hide, barbarians?!" the female purist shouts.

"Your kind already infects Tritonis, Nanauve, Neptunos, Lemuria, Shayeris…" A dark-skinned student wearing an odd band around his forehead shouts.

"Even Crastinus!!" The most well-built purist student holding a mace shouts.

I don't know the political realities of the city-states that they just mentioned, but boy was this out of hand.

I must know the truth. As Kaldur rushes forward to try to intervene, my own mind snaps outward to form a connection with Ronal, trying to read his surface thoughts. The teeth of the shark-like Atlantean are mere inches from his face – he's the most likely to be thinking fast.

"Too much, too soon. A mess. He's gonna eat me. Need distance!"

The Martian swims into view and hurls out her hands, a pulse of psychic power shifting through the water. "You will let him go!"

Ronal gets the distance that he wants as her telekinesis effortlessly separates the massive shark-like teenager from his prey. His thoughts, without the imminent threat, become more subdued, but a few simple words catch my attention. "Should have taken him out sooner."

Was that about Topo or someone else? Casting a spell to find out through a deeper detect thoughts may reveal the answer, but also allow him a chance to resist and learn that I am interfering.

Superboy rushes into view as King Shark finishes threatening M'gann for interrupting their tussle. "Try me, instead. You'll break your teeth… chum."

Kaldur face clenches with anger and determination. "Who started this!"

Both Lori and Ronal shout at the same time, "They did!"

Ronal's thoughts reveal his side of the story mere seconds before he explains the same out loud, broadcasting every worry right to me. "My friends and I were minding our own business when the fish-heads attacked us!"

"And what was Topo doing when you and your friends attacked him?!" Lori shouts back, grasping the young Topo with a firm hand on his shoulder.

"Please. Leave me out of this…."

Ronal grits his teeth. "You cannot know that was us!"

The female purist breaks into a grin. "But if your kind like not your treatment here, you are welcome to leave Poseidonis."

Fury fills Superboy's face as he prepares to swim forward at that threat, but Sha'ark turns to him with teeth bared. "This is not your concern, earther."

Magic flows from the tattoos of the three Atlanteans around us as Kaldur moves into position, grasping onto two tools from his back in each hand, water currents shifting around him as he moves. Tula and Garth are right there with him, arms glowing with their own light in similar tattoo patterns that are not normally visible.

"But it is ours," The sidekick declares, water shifting into twin swords made of pure glowing liquid.

If this breaks into a fight right now, this could be bad. A new spell of mine could maybe break the tension, but I cannot promise that I will not paint a target on my back if I use it. These other teenagers were assholes, sure, but were they villains? As much as I believe that Ronal may have branded Topo, I have not found hard evidence yet. It is not my job to decide like this – Kaldur and the other Atlanteans should decide.

Several more tense seconds pass between the two sides. The psionic magic flowing within me itches to come to the surface, to defend me from harm and take down a group of scum. Superboy's knuckles are white in his grip, and M'gann's shapeshifted tail looks ready to force her forward into the fray.

Finally, King Shark grips Topo's shoulder. "C'mon, Chum. Let's swim."

As one side breaks away from the confrontation, so too does the other side, leaving us with Kaldur, Tula, and Garth uncertain of what exactly to do.

.A.

I do not know what to think as we return to the main districts of the city. The sidekicks have protocol when dealing with things like this, I'm sure, requiring evidence before they try to arrest people. Taking in a bunch of racists who may not actually be a terrorist organization would be bad news.

Even still, my mind is made up. "They're lying."

Tula sighs, bubbles clouding her face for a moment. "I think so too."

"We aren't going to let them get away with hurting that boy!" Miss Martian shouts, almost swimming in a circle.

"We should tell someone," Conner adds, looking determined. "Who should we tell, Kaldur?"

The tallest of us has an incomprehensible expression on his face. "I do not know."

"What do you mean?" I ask, confused.

Garth shakes his head after a moment. "There is little we can do besides report the interaction. It is our word against theirs." He shakes his head again at the sound of M'gann's outburst. "It may be likely that these students could have harmed Topo. It is also possible that any citizen with a grudge and a superiority complex could have harmed someone who looks as fish-like as Topo."

I frown. "Is the movement really that widespread?"

"It has accelerated in recent weeks. Scattered rumors confirm similar attacks," Tula replies. "I hate to admit it, but Garth has a point."

"They have hoods and cloaks," I interject. "These purists. If we sneak into these students' homes, maybe we can find where they've hidden them and have solid evidence."

"And what if they do not have them hidden at home?" Kaldur asks, eyes intense. "What then?"

"We could find one of them and follow them," M'gann suggests. "Stake them out. If they meet up and put on cloaks, then-"

"It is too risky," Garth declares. "Given the number of incidents, it's almost certain that there are more than just these four as part of the group. We do not know the magical skill of the group, nor their equipment, nor their numbers. There could be dozens of them, with skills higher than all of us combined. Any movements we take against them should be carefully considered before we act."

"And with the Crown's permission," Tula adds.

I had no metaknowledge that could help narrow down their identities. I do not remember any such purist group in any stories that I've encountered, and the only individuals I recognize in this situation at all are Kaldur, Garth, and King Shark. And Ocean-Master, but he's usually got a hate-boner for the surface, not for fish people. It doesn't seem likely that he's involved, even if he did point us in that direction.

Maybe this really is just a terrorist organization of undefined number, strength, and technology. Whether they have these four teenagers among their number is unclear, no matter how strong the hunch we have.

The conversation stalls as the rest of the group are deep in thought, and it's me that finally breaks the silence. "Are the situations that you guys deal with always so complex, with so much red tape?"

Thinking back to the only other mission I remember them going on, I cannot imagine the kind of red tape involved in sending a group of American teenage superheroes into hostile Middle Eastern territory. Especially on undercover orders from the League.

"The work we do can be difficult," Kaldur explains after a moment. "Not always because of the actions we take, but of the actions that we cannot take."

"You can't just bust in heads until you find the evidence," I say after a moment.

"No. That way lies an abuse of power."

"Aren't you already doing that?" I ask, pointing to the three heroes of the Team. "Going on covert missions that no one in the public knows about?"

Aqualad smiles slightly, bristling under the question. "It is not an abuse of power to work against our enemies from the shadows. The League sponsors our actions, and they are a legal entity in most countries around the world through the United Nations."

"But not Bialya." I had confirmed that while looking into it back in Shadowcrest, trying to understand exactly how this covert team operates.

Kaldur does not respond to that, a strange look forming on his face.

Hmmm. I am once again unsure of what to think. I did slip into the mind of one of them to try to confirm their identities as terrorists, so I am hardly one to question working from the shadows. I just am not certain what the right approach is.

Is it more moral to wear bright colors, a fancy symbol, and be upfront about your intentions?

.A.

The agora of Poseidonis is a beautiful mess of haphazard shops, brilliant light fixtures made with both magical and mundane means, and dozens of people in every row and every column of a gridded, open marketplace. The noise of scattered conversations fills my ears at every turn, though no one seems to give me a second glance despite my appearance.

There were several people of various body types and humanoid shapes wandering the streets, though not a small number of them were doing so with thick clothing to cover their features and were moving with quick purpose to be in and out. Just how widespread was this movement? Without a general sentiment, a movement doesn't just spring up – there must already be general dislike of "fish-heads."

"You are looking for what, exactly?" The words are said both telepathically and aloud, translating them into English for me in my mind.

Tula's voice is muted from my side, but it's still clear enough despite all the background noise to hear, knocking me out of my thoughts.

The redheaded girl offered to take me on the shopping trip I originally came here to do, while Kaldur and the rest finished up a report with the Royal Palace. I am grateful to be away from them for a moment, to think and to avoid an interaction with someone like Prince Orm. Besides, it was nearing the end of the second day of Zatara's spell, so if I didn't try to get the materials now, when would I?

"An ink sac from a giant squid," I say a little uneasily, wondering idly if that was really the right material for what I want. "And the essence of a water elemental."

Tula nods after a moment. "I may know a few merchants we can talk to, but one in particular should be tried first. More complex studies at the Conservatory can involve spells and rituals with interesting ingredients. I had to do a locater spell once using the fang of a tarantula for a project."

"A tarantula? From the surface?"

She rolls her eyes. "We aren't barbarians, Logan. There is some trade between here and the surface, though it happens more in Shayeris than Poseidonis."

"I just expected everything to be-"

"Fishy?"

I shake my head nervously. "Kinda, yeah."

"Most of our magical traditions involve the sea at its most basic elements, but we are not incapable of learning other disciplines. In fact, Queen Mera has been responsible for some reform in recent years to include a few studies of surface-style magic, though I think that took her a lot to get what little we do have."

I could get lost in listening to the politics involved in running a magical school for hours, but I want to find this and move on. If the purists cause any more trouble while I'm here, I want to be involved.

"So, I have a handful of drachmae," I explain, gesturing to a pouch of gold and bronze coins depicting the former Queen, Atlanna, "and Zatara swears that this will be enough."

"Depends on who you ask," she says after a moment, swimming up and over a crowd gathered around the closest thing to a street performer I could imagine.

A strange instrument that is most certainly magical blows multicolored bubbles of air out of a long tube, the bubbles bursting at different points and releasing torrents of controlled sound. The crowd – and myself – are delighted to see and hear the display, the deep reverberating sounds spreading through the water.

Tula continues shifting through the crowds with expert kicks in the water, intentionally trying to limit herself to avoid swimming faster than I could. As great as it is to breathe underwater and survive the pressure, Zatara's spell did not grant me any additional ability to swim better.

"So, how long have you and Garth been together?" I ask, feeling the urge to dip my toes, for just a moment, into the drama of others.

The girl blushes as she swims ahead. "Oh, not long. A couple of months. It is still very new."

"That's great to hear," I say truthfully, thinking back to my own teenage years and what M'gann had said to Conner and I, over the psychic link. "Your situation is similar to something that happened to me. My best friend growing up was crushing hard on a girl our age. He and I became friends with her first, and we used to do everything together. And then they started dating, and I got jealous."

Her eyes widen. "That sounds... awful. I'm sure she would have loved being with you."

I snicker. "Nah, I was smitten with him. Let my own jealously ruin a perfectly good friendship."

Tula frowns deeply. "Jealousy is never good."

"No, it isn't, but that's human nature - whether you're human or not. You want what you can't have. Poor guy wasn't even into other guys, but I'd convinced myself that if he cared enough about me, something as simple as attraction wouldn't get in the way. We drifted apart, and I think he's married to that same girl now. We lost touch a while ago." Now, there was a whole universe separating us, and I still think about him sometimes. Does... someone like him exist here?

Tula's head tilts slightly as she considers my words. "Why do you think that the situation is similar to mine?"

"I see the way Kaldur looks at you. Have you talked to him?"

Tula's face becomes terse as she looks almost incredulously at me. I put up my hands. "Hey, sorry, I overstepped."

She shakes her head. "Yes, you did, but... we have talked."

"Good," I say after a moment. "That's something he and I never did. Putting it out in the open is good."

Tula does not say anything else, just presses on through the agora, trying to find whatever or whomever she is looking for. Not a single bit of that was my business, and I really should have kept my mouth shut, but... gossip. I'm gonna be kicking myself over that for weeks now.

"Here we are, we're lucky she's here."

Tula swims to a stop amidst a small shopfront that is exposed to the open water around it from all sides, a canvas canopy dangling above the wares. The shop did not seem to have any current business, unless I misunderstood Atlantean customs.

The woman behind a small counter is younger than me, short blonde hair shifting in the currents around her. Some combination of glasses and goggles sits on her face, while a scaly green tail stretches back behind her. The platform in front of her is covered in pieces of slate and plastic-sealed containers that could be scroll cases, like she was reading books made of real paper. Arranged around her are shelves filled with odd knickknacks that do not reveal their purpose to me at a glance.

"Ulla, it's good to see you again."

Ulla? And Tula?

The girl looks up at the two of us skittishly, nearly knocking a piece of slate to the ground. "Oh! … um, hi."

English?

Who was this girl? Her accent is unlike any that I've heard in Atlantis. Maybe Eastern European? Danish? Bulgarian?

"Ulla, this is Logan. He's from the surface too, visiting."

The blonde girl's eyes widen as I wave at her. "Oh, this is… unexpected. You're visiting. Are you a mutant too?"

"Mutant?"

Tula clears her throat. "Ulla, if you wouldn't mind, we're actually on a time crunch. Logan is looking for a couple of rare ingredients for a ritual."

Her eyes light up. "A ritual? You a cultist?"

"Uh… no, just a sorcerer."

She shakes her head. "A shame. I like cultists."

Tula intervenes again to explain the ingredients, sidestepping that admission, and the odd teenage girl sets about looking at her arrangement of goods.

"Ulla's parents are Atlantean," Tula explains psychically, through the bond I had created between us earlier, "but she spent much of her childhood in Europe, away from all this. She hasn't told anyone what happened to her adoptive parents, but she returned to Atlantis a few years back and has carved a place for herself."

"And that place is being the weirdo from the surface?"

"Don't be rude. Again," she says after a time, watching as Ulla pulls a sealed bag from a chest below and allows it to float in the water around her for a moment. "She's a collector. No one knows exactly how she does it, but-"

Oh, no. "Where in Europe did you say?"

"Hmmm. I think Denmark?"

I roll my eyes. "Surprised her name is not Ariel."

"You've had enough time on this plane to see The Little Mermaid?" Tula asks, incredulous.

Oh, let's twist that conversation point away. "I may have rented the movie before I came here, as research. The music was nicer than I expected."

"But not accurate to our lives at all."

Even this universe has not escaped the reach of Mickey Mouse.

Ulla turns around in the water suddenly, holding a orb-like glass container in one hand and a plastic-sealed black bag in the other. The glass orb almost glows with an odd white light, as something undulates within it. "This should do."

"I'm surprised that you had what we needed," I say truthfully, expecting to have to go to more than one place or vendor. "You're good at what you do."

The girl could not be more than fifteen years old and already has a business worth tending to. Amazing.

"That'll be twenty. Fifteen for the womb of an oceanid, five for the squid sac."

"The womb?"

"You want it? You buy it."

"Tula," I ask telepathically. "Is that close enough to the essence of a water elemental?"

She shrugs.

I hand over the coins and take my purchases from her, hoping for the best and trying not to think about how this girl managed it. "Thank you, Ulla."

"Yeah, yeah. Don't be a stranger. Visit again."

"One day, I will," I add, wondering how often I may have to buy strange ingredients for these enchantment rituals. If they work this time, then a next visit is a possibility, if I can get Zatara to support me again.

.A.

The Royal Palace is quiet when I finally arrive, and night has fallen far above the ocean. There is light, of course, from the city all around the palace, but the benefit of an aasimar's darkvision is clear once more.

Tula escorted me this far and then returned to her own quarters, leaving me to find my way back to the others. She was probably just glad to avoid that minefield of a question again. With my purchases in tow, the looming shadows of a darkened palace stretch before me.

Passing through a cluttered mess of kelp that stretches nearly up the side of the building, I push myself to a stop in the water, feeling suddenly exposed and afraid.

Drifting lazily in the water near the bedrock is what remains of a royal guard with fish-like characteristics, a cloud of misty blood clinging to the area around him and almost obscuring his features.

A second is in similar states not even twenty yards further ahead, and it is abundantly clear that someone has made their move. Ocean-Master? The purists? Whomever it may be, they are taking advantage of Aquaman's absence and attacking the palace.

What do I do?

I'm alone, there could be enemies all around, and I'm at least a hundred yards away from any back-up. Unless the others are not here, or perhaps they're already attacking. Maybe they're already dead.

f*ck.

Power flows around me as the gold band around my upper arm glows with silver light, and then I disappear as an invisibility spell takes hold. It likely would not be as effective in water as it would be in air, but it is my best option to get to the others.

I cannot sit this out. If Kaldur and the others are in trouble, then I have to do something to help.

Chapter 28: 2.10 - Panic

Chapter Text

The soft light inside of the Royal Palace spreads through every corner, as I swim swiftly through its open-spaced corridors. An eerie quiet does nothing to soothe my panic - am I too late to help?

The field of magic protecting me from the sight of others thankfully continues within the boundaries of the palace, a worry that did not occur to me until now. Not a great example of its security…. Maybe they are not worried about invisible attackers? The water reacts to my presence still, like it would if I left footprints in a dirt road. To the expectant eye, that might be enough to let others know something is there.

A spell that allows me to pass through objects and remain invisible would be ideal in this situation, but that would be far beyond my grasp to create. Would I even be able to create spells anyway? That feels like more of a wizard's job. The closest existing spell, etherealness, would be a seventh-level spell per the game rules, something that I know I can't muster now.

The corridor before me opens into a large chamber that connects to the even larger throne room, and I push forward and stop just inside the entrance, surveying the room carefully. They created this grand feast hall with three-dimensional movement in mind, with different platformed tiers for seating arrangements. Coral and seafloor plant life decorates the room, bathing it in beautiful colors.

I can't enjoy the scenery for four guards float at different heights, either unconscious or worse, in murky clouds of their own blood.

At least I am going the right way.

Here's my chance to do some good.

I swim upward as rapidly as I can to check the nearest guard. Skin the color and texture of a goldfish is visible beneath seafoam green armor, small fins sticking from his cheeks. Three wounds spill blood into the water around him.

Damn it, that looks bad.

I check for a pulse, aping every time that I've seen something like this in movies, trying to feel a heartbeat. It's not as easy as it….

Nothing.

I steel myself and push outward with my mind, trying to find a psychic presence within him. Seizing hold of my psionic prowess, a mental probe lashes out to attempt a connection, but… finds none. He's dead.

My fingers shake with newfound panic, leaving small undulations in the water.

I swim to the next soldier, but a gash across his eel-like throat is surely fatal. Without even spinning around to look, my mind reaches out with a haphazard rhythm to any other thoughts nearby, and manage at least one - the only female soldier present here, and the only one who lacks any visible aquatic features. The last soldier shows no signs of life.

...

f*ck these purists.

The surviving soldier's thoughts are a dizzying mess, a frightful haze of sensations that drifts from sound, to smell, to taste, to sight. Her only coherent thought is a strong, disorienting sense of fear.

I float closer to her as swiftly as I can, a visible gash on her right leg spilling blood into the environment. A bit of bruising is already starting to form beneath her helmet, near her right temple, and her face is twisted in pain.

"C'mon, you can do this," I project into the psychic connection, though I suspect more for myself than for her.

I place my palm against the wound, trying to concentrate on my own happy thoughts to pull on the celestial power flowing through me. That's what worked before, so….

Easier said than done. Thinking of my mom, my upbringing, my job, late hours playing League of Legends online with friends to pass the time.... All I can muster is panic.

My breath escapes with increasingly frantic bursts. I try to relax, try to start again.... Deep breaths.

Silver light begins to gather around my palms, wrapping my fingers in their glow. I push the energy outward, my angelic heritage flowing into her body through the gash on her leg. The color is not right, but my healing hands make me feel like a whitelighter. The thought brings a smile to my face, even amidst the chaos of this horrifying moment.

The guard gasps for breath, an odd sound underwater, as she swallows a bit of murky water into her throat. She shifts in surprise, a hand still against her leg that she cannot quite see. I pull away as she does, swimming back a few feet to collect her bearings.

"I don't have time to explain," I say, still invisible, "but who attacked you?"

The young guard searches for the voice, still confused. "What ar- who are you?"

"No time! Where were the purists going?"

She weakly gestures in the direction of the passage leading toward the throne room, though her eyes are focused on one of her dead comrades floating helplessly in the room. "Ocean-Master… he's with them!"

My blood goes cold.

Fighting Ocean-Master is like fighting Zod, or Sinestro, or Deathstroke. Defeating Bialyan soldiers or even imps from the Nine Hells are one thing – fighting Aquaman's nemesis? That's not on my radar, and I'd wager that it isn't on Kaldur's either, even with Superboy and Miss Martian at his side.

How far away were the others staying? Can I get to them to warn them? Is Ocean-Master even still here?

… Information. That's what I can do here – provide information to the more highly trained, the more experienced. I push my invisible form forward, leaving the young guard to tend to the rest of her wounds and to care for her fallen friends. I may have brought her back from the brink of death, but it's up to her to get better.

I do not take the time to study the throne room as I enter it, my eyes and ears focused for the presence of the purists and their leader (?), Ocean-Master. The anonymity of the villain is likely his greatest strength, and I have an opportunity to exploit it after this. Taking him down may not be possible, but denying him the opportunity to act as Prince Orm? That I can do. How to do it without letting anyone know that I did it...?

A flurry of movement in one of the many passages leading out of the chamber draws my eye, and it takes a moment to realize that that was the waving of cloaks through the water. Purists.

"Logan!"

The telepathic touch of M'gann is like music to my brain. I don't see her anywhere, though. How far is her range? "Get to the palace, quickly! Something's going down with someone called Ocean-Master!"

"We're on our way! Queen Mera warned us. She's under attack!"

"Two minutes out." Kaldur's voice is curt, a sense of worry evident in his usually calm voice. "If the Ocean-Master is involved, this matter is far more serious."

"I think he's working with the purists. They've left a trail of bodies, and I'm following after a group of people wearing identical red and black cloaks."

"Do not engage until we arrive." A sense of tension floods the psychic link from Aqualad.

"I- I'm invisible. I'm going to keep following until you get here. I just passed the throne room- they're heading to the..." Western? Eastern? My sense of direction underwater is nonexistent - there's no easy way to check the sun's position underwater. "I think the left side of the building, if you're heading through the main entrance."

A moment passes. "Understood. Keep us updated."

.A.

The Ocean-Master. Thick purple armor plates cover his form, a green cape billowing behind him. His iconic helmet fashioned to have beady red eyes makes him look almost insectoid. The glittering golden trident in his hand is likely brimming with power. Is that one of the famous tridents in DC Comics, or is it merely part of his loadout?

A group of nearly a dozen purists swims in a group around their leader, and one of them holds the unconscious form of Queen Mera in their arms. Their red cloaks with black and orange accents menacingly obscure identifying features, somehow staying affixed to their heads despite the uneven movement of water.

"They have Queen Mera! Is Ocean-Master this man in purple armor and a trident?"

Kaldur spikes frustration into the psychic link. "Yes. How many purists are with him?"

"I see eleven, but there could be more in another group I don't see." A viewing angle is difficult to keep from this far back, but I do not wish to move much closer to avoid provoking them somehow. I don't trust that this spell would keep someone as highly trained as Ocean-Master likely is at bay for too long. "They're nearing the exit! Please tell me you're close."

"We aren't far. I can hear them," Conner states simply. Kryptonian hearing must be a blessing, unless you're underwater.

The enemy group takes a further left up ahead and disappears briefly from sight, before I accelerate slightly to catch up to them. The greater light of the city is visible in the distance at the end of the hallway, and soon they'll be out of the-

"There!" Kaldur's alarming voice echoes telepathically. "Hold, traitors!"

Aqualad spins into view from a side hallway, his hands tightly gripping the devices that allow him to command water into shapes. A thick morning star and a blade of hard-water protrude from it with ease, and he swings with all his might into the chest of a purist. The robed figure bowls over, clutching their abdomen, almost going into an uncontrolled front flip.

Despite my jittery nerves, confidence surges the minute I see him. My fingers begin going through the motions of components, the golden band around my bicep that serves as my arcane focus glimmering with light. The concentration of my invisibility spell wanes to nothing.

Superboy kicks hard off of a nearby wall, his incredible strength shoving him through the environment like a torpedo. He swings and collides with the shoulder of his opponent, and then turns that momentum downward to shove them hard into the now cracked palace floor.

"Release Queen Mera! Unhand her!" Aqualad shouts as he prepares to engage further.

Miss Martian twists into view with a flick of her hand, telekinetically shoving two of the purists into each other. Her mermaid tail not too gracefully flounders behind her, before she spins and hurtles another purist backwards nearly thirty feet with a pulse of her mind.

Motes of ice coalesce as silver light streaks through the corridor, the ray of frost cantrip meeting the watery environment with interesting effects. The beam does not find purchase on its intended target, but three purists separate and slow their movement to prepare for my next volley. The second attack does not have a great angle, impacting against the corridor floor and leaving a twisting mass of frozen saltwater in its wake.

"Delay them!" Ocean-Master yells to the group behind him. He ushers himself and the lackey holding Queen Mera ahead.

A shimmering shield of water grows between two of the purists as several of them turn to engage the four of us. It expands until it covers nearly the entire diameter of the cylindrical hallway, a barrier to hold us back. Smart, if it can hold.

M'gann latches onto a nearby potted plant with her mind and then hurls it forward, the kelp and clay shattering against the barrier, to no affect. "Remind me to apologize to the decorator."

A purist moves around the shield and conjures a smaller barrier shaped like a ram, and then rockets forward with a burst of Atlantean speed. With a cry of rage, Superboy tanks the blow with his left forearm, instantly shattering the construct ram. He then spins and sends a powerful right hook directly into the corridor-wide watery shield. Cracks spider-web across its surface, and for a moment, it looks as though it will hold.

Until Superboy grits his teeth, shifts backward, and then delivers his knee with an tangible shockwave of force.

The barrier shatters into pieces, the watery-construct returning to the sea as their spell falters. A smirk rolls across the Kryptonian's face for a moment, at seeing their panic.

Aqualad is the first to respond as the purists try to collect themselves, many of them retreating several yards. He angles his devices with a wave of his arms, a whip of water congealing in an instant and then snapping around the waist of a purist. He yanks them in, even as they try and fail to blast him away. Electricity crackles around his hands for a moment as his skin icons burn with bright light, and then he snaps his arm up to send that incredible current through his opponent's body.

"You will not take her anywhere!" Kaldur shouts as the purist flounders into unconsciousness.

Another ray of frost spirals energy through the area ahead, finally managing to find purchase on one of the retreating purists. A solid block of ice almost anchors them in place.

The rest of them finish their retreat down the corridor and into the greater sea beyond, following after their master. Kaldur moves with confidence to pursue them, and even my nervous energy doesn't stop me from moving with them.

"So now the fish-head issues commands."

Ocean-Master confidently swims forward, the trident glimmering in the space before him. The purists who managed to get outside gather up around the one holding Queen Mera and begin making their escape.

"A little time among royalty, and he believes himself royal as well?"

He knows he has us. Can Aqualad, Superboy, and Miss Martian really defeat him? Can I do anything to swing things into our favor?

"But proximity does not create majesty, fish-head. Nor wisdom, apparently. The Royal Palace has spells in place, allowing only the use of defensive magic."

But I attacked...?

The spinning trident crackles with energy, the only warning before a torrent of magical lightning launches toward the four of us in an instant. Panic floods my brain, my fingers moving on autopilot. With a snap of psionic power, the shield spell erupts a silver dome-like barrier into existence around my body. The power of Ocean-Master's trident strikes the shield so hard that it pushes me back several feet without even touching my real body.

The shield holds.

Miss Martian, Superboy, and Aqualad.... they were not so lucky. Are they... dead?

The armored Atlantean tilts his head in interest as the energy from his attack vanishes. "Hm. A foreign mage. An alien?"

"Something like that," I answer as the spell fades, desperately trying to prolong this moment in the hopes that back-up arrives. There must be other palace guards, or even city guards, who are not far and may see the commotion. A lighting blast like that is bound to draw attention.

A telepathic check reveals that the three others are merely unconscious, rather than dead. I have no doubt that if he wanted them dead, he could have. Maybe Superboy would live, but magic counters him just as much as the rest of us. Why would he leave us alive? If I hadn't healed that woman earlier, then maybe I could heal Aqualad and...

"An impressive feat, to hold against the Trident of Neptune," he says, an odd sense of mirth stretching across what I can see of his face beneath his helmet. "Let's see how long you can last as its sole prey."

I go to shout for him to wait, to delay, but he spins the artifact again. A storm of lightning rages, and my second shield spell flickers into existence with a snap of my fingers. The silver dome of light withstands the full might of his magic for only a few moments, before it shatters into motes of light.

Indescribable pain.

Chapter 29: 2.11 - Burdens

Chapter Text

With a start, I gasp, blinking. My eyes drink in the familiar terrace, overlooking a vibrant world painted in the light of a silvered sky. A gorgeous ocean stretches to the horizon, a mosaic of brilliant reflections of the stars and moon above. Storm clouds stir in the distance, flashes of lightning and booms of thunder breaking the immaculate scene.

A smooth hand touches my shoulder, thumb lightly caressing the exposed nape of my neck.

"My love."

I swallow and turn to see the beautiful face of the Absolute. Pale, elven features prominently glow in the serene atmosphere, though it pains me to see that he is not looking at me. Instead, he focuses his attention on the budding storm.

"Why am I here?" I struggle to think of what was happening moments ago. A flash of lightning invigorates the greens of the Absolute's eyes as the figure turns to see me. "Am I…?"

The Absolute shakes his head and finally meets my gaze with twinkling pools of emerald. A chuckle escapes his throat. "No, you are not dead. Don't be foolish."

I stare at him expectantly, my hand reaching forward to clasp his. "What worries you then? Are y-you worried about something?"

"It is not my worry that brings you to me."

The Absolute releases himself from my grip and saunters to the edge of the terrace, the toes of his bare feet sinking into the grass at the edge of the worked stone. Strong wind, the first sign of a thunderstorm, blows through the nearby trees.

I remember that I wanted to talk to him about something. Something important. A moment with Zatanna…?

"Do not fret," the Absolute says with a voice that drains my worries away. "I believe I understand what it is that you seek from me."

"Oh?"

Thunder rocks the terrace and impossible waves crash against the shore below.

"Your immediate worry: a man who claims dominion over the seas."

With a wave of his hand, a marble statue appears above the water fountain in the middle of the terrace. I recognize the armored figure and the weapon he carries, though I cannot quite see what was so frightening about him. Not with the Absolute here.

The elven figure nears the statue with a graceful step and places his hand on the statue's replica of the trident. "As far as I can tell, he's nothing more than a mortal propped up by paltry magics and an artifact he does not deserve."

"Huh… I never thought of him that way."

He smiles. "This Orm does not have near the experience that I do. It is unsurprising that you consider him a greater threat than he seems to be. You are only at the beginning of your journey, after all."

My mind focuses on the statue's trident, still resting in the fingers of the Absolute. "Would you deserve it?"

He tilts his head with curiosity. "This Neptune's Trident? Based on the name and what I can tell from your own knowledge, I am uncertain if this is a divine artifact, or even an artifact at all – this universe has strange magic. I have little personal experience with divine artifacts, but it certainly seems quite powerful. Even still, I have created far greater relics."

In D&D lore, an artifact is the kind of magical item that can spark wars and spawn crusades. In the hands of the right or wrong person, they can cause entire campaigns to change swiftly. Items like the One Ring, the Holy Grail, the Deathly Hallows, the Orb of Corypheus – they are all examples of artifacts. And the Absolute has dealt with greater?

"Teach me."

The beautiful elven face grows amused. "Now is hardly the time to discuss such intricacies."

Memories of my last few conscious moments return to me. The looming figure of the Ocean-Master and his weapon, the pain of his attack and the unconscious bodies of my companions. The distant storm extends its reach ever closer.

"Later, then." My gaze hardens, and the Absolute's eyes brighten. "I want to learn." I already started conversations about this with Zatara, but who better to learn from than someone as powerful as the Absolute? Someone already used to the magic of the D&D multiverse – it all makes sense.

His foot begins to tap, and his lithe fingers grip his chin. Sheets of rain begin to pour into the terrace, but not a single drop reaches the two of us. The elf slides closer, senses my anticipation, and smiles. As he touches my temple with the tip of a single finger, a deep and profound satisfaction fills me.

"I have little doubt you will survive the encounter with this pretender. Afterward, I shall teach you."

.A.

"Logan…!"

I gasp awake, my breath challenged slightly by the environment. Zatara's spell still holds, but it takes a moment to adjust to the feeling.

Conner, M'gann, and Kaldur float in the waters nearby, and I blink at the appearance of the palace once more. My head is on fire, and the discomfort only increases when I realize that Orm is watching us with concern. Unarmored and out of costume, he resembles the friendly brother to the king, and the brother-in-law to the woman he kidnapped.

The audacity of this man, to pretend to care for us.

If I were… if I were in his shoes, I would probably do the same thing.

"Where is the Queen?"

Kaldur nods at my question. "That is what we are about to discuss, to plan our next move."

He helps me to an upright position in the water and then gestures for Prince Orm to lead the way.

"My sincerest apologies that your visit to Poseidonis has been so fraught with peril," the man says to the four of us, his eyes resting on me for a few moments longer than the rest. "You are more capable than I expected, to quarrel with these insurgents. As a representative of the Crown, I must commend you."

I frown slightly. "I'd rather the commendations come from Queen Mera, once she is rescued."

If he bristles at that, he does not show it. "Of course."

The traitorous prince guides us to a wide chamber that can only be a meeting place for military purposes. A circular table displays a glowing illusory map of Poseidonis and its surrounding territories, topographically showing undersea mountains and valleys. Members of the palace guard, most of them human in appearance, stand watch, while one who seems to be in charge waits for the prince to approach.

"I have already sent word to King Orin, but Aquaman is on a mission with the Justice League and cannot be reached. So it is up to us to save our Queen."

"And the heir she carries," Kaldur declares.

Perhaps Aquaman and Zatara are on the same mission. It is not a convenience that Orm planned his attack here and now – that is premeditated. If anything, it is convenient that the four of us are here.

A realization hits: Mera is pregnant. Orm wants her dead, I'm sure of it. I lock eyes with M'gann, and her eyes show her worry.

Prince Orm nods as he places his hands against the map, a ripple of magic flowing across its display. Two bright red dots begin to glow, pinpointing locations of interest. "Now, my sources inform me of two possible purist strongholds… but as members of the royal guard may have been complicit in the abduction, I will investigate one location with the few guards I trust implicitly, while you and your three surface friends investigate the other."

Trap. Trap. Trap.

I cannot warn them. Not without displaying I know more than I let on.

Unless….

"And you trust this information?"

Prince Orm blinks, and I can sense Kaldur's surprise.

"I do not mean to question your leadership, sir, only to remind you that subterfuge could be at play." His brow rises. "If the palace guard could have been purists, whose to say that your spies aren't either? What if one or more of the locations leads either group into a trap?"

He bristles at that for a long moment, considering my words. If I can shift his attention to another location, perhaps whatever ambush he has in store for us is too difficult to set up elsewhere, on such short notice.

"While what you say is a valid concern from an outsider," every word is like ice, "rest assured that I trust these sources."

I nod. Of course he would say that. "Are you prepared to answer for the consequences if you are wrong?"

Orm guffaws. Kaldur clears his throat. "Logan, a word."

The Atlantean pushes me out of the door and down the hallway, before gesturing to his head and then mine. I connect the two of us mentally. "I value your input in this moment, Logan, but you are questioning the prince of my homeland. Decorum is necessary. This is not the first time since you descended beneath the waves that you have said something that can be misconstrued as insensitive or unbecoming."

"I just," damn it, I can't tell him anything. "I apologize. I wasn't trying to question his authority, I'm just overly nervous." The second part is even true.

He says nothing for a few seconds. "You need not put yourself in harm's way, if this has been too much for you. I should not hav-"

"No!" I shake my head fervently. "No, that is not it. I could never live with myself if I stayed back and let something happen to Mera."

Kaldur's gaze softens. "Do you feel the burden of your gifts?"

I sigh and then nod, staring at my hands for a moment. "If I were to do nothing in this crisis, then I would be a failure. I wouldn't deserve them."

Kaldur glances back toward the entrance to the meeting chamber. "I can ask for you to have a role that would be helpful yet not involve direct conflict. You are not trained for this."

"I don't want to sit it out somehow, but…" I sigh. "I want to come with you. If I see an opportunity to do something, I will."

The trap that the Ocean-Master has planned for us could easily hurt any of the three of them, and I need to be there to help. I would lose my mind if something happened.

"Rest assured, Logan, we are not going to go there alone. My friends have some unfinished business with these purists."

Great. An opportunity to apologize to the shark-man, then.

Chapter 30: 2.12 - Protector

Chapter Text

Old Roman's Trench – a ravine cut into the seafloor shelf that rests only a few miles from Poseidonis. A swift swim for a group of Atlanteans, whose speed in the water is significantly faster than my own. Kaldur has to take a considerable dip in his speed to allow the three of us to catch up to him.

"I am glad that you are with us," M'gann says after a moment, the psychic link established among our group. Her tail twists through the water behind her, causing her to spin in a way that simply looks fun. Her grin is infectious.

"Me too. I wouldn't sit this out."

This situation is tough. My knowledge from the comics gives me every reason to hate this man, and I have little doubt that the purists, Ocean-Master, or both are going to fight us within minutes. The reasonable part of me knows that Aqualad means well with being apprehensive toward me joining them for this mission. It is a valid concern; I have not done this before, in the way that he and his friends have. Not only is this team trained well, but his classmates have all been trained under the Atlantean military. I have enough power to make a difference, but… it still hurts to have my suspicions not be valued.

I just need to prove myself to Kaldur and the others. My role in this, should an ambush happen, is information - that's what I can do. My enhanced telepathy after... what happened with Psimon is perhaps my greatest tool to do that.

We approach the ravine carefully, and the sea is considerably darker here than it is in the city. Thankfully, darkvision helps lighten the environment, but for the benefit of the others, I invoke the light cantrip to create a glow from my armband.

Whether there is a trap or an attack on a stronghold up ahead, I am running from a deficit. I have utilized half of my pool of available lower-leveled spells, and I could only manage one more of my higher-leveled ones, without bleeding other resources. Cantrips like ray of frost or mind sliver I could do all day, but my stronger effects are limited. Unfortunately for me, being unconscious after the fight with Ocean-Master did not count as a "long rest."

"According to Orm, one of the strongholds should be deep within the trench," Kaldur says into the link, breaking my reverie. "Stay alert."

Conner surveys the surroundings for a moment. "Are the others on standby?"

"I can feel them nearby," M'gann confirms. "They are at the ready."

Tense moments pass, while I consider what an entrance to a hideout may look like. Would it be disguised magically? A simple cave entrance? A metallic door the color of the nearby rock? A trapdoor in the bottom of the ravine?

A loud commotion above forces me to shoot my neck upward. A blast of white-blue light fades as a massive boulder begins tumbling down the walls of the narrow ravine. I kickback in the water hard, and it's only the grace of the slightly slower descent that I manage to swim away fast enough. If that had been on the surface, I'm not entirely sure I could have gotten out of the way.

The others were safe, and all I can feel is a sense of vindication and dread.

Dark cloaked purists line the top of the ravine, their imposing figures staring down at us.

Their magic cascades as pressurized jets ablaze with light. Attacks flow light rain, and I plead with my eyes toward M'gann. She propels herself to the right even as she shoves a hand toward me, telekinetic force pulsing through the water. It carries me out of the way of a beam, and it collides harmlessly against the stone nearby.

I roll to a stop and concentrate on the rock around me, my own telekinetic efforts through the mold earth cantrip raising a small barrier of stone between myself and their onslaught. Blasts pepper the barrier and the area around me, but I know that this spell won't hold this off for long.

Aqualad and Superboy did not fare as well. The former's tattoos glow with light as he tries to hold off the attacks with a thin barrier of his own, but they've forced him hard against the rocky surface behind him. The Kryptonian takes three attacks head-on, though these magical attacks truly can hurt him.

I prepare my own blast of cold light to attack the moment I peek around the wall, but the volley stops suddenly. Peeking overhead, I smile – the cavalry has arrived.

Blubber, La'gaan, King Shark, Lori Lemaris, Tula, and Garth make their own move against the ambushing purists, attacking them from a hidden position behind as they arrive on the field. Blasts of water fire from multiple positions, as Kaldur's friends change the course of the battle in moments.

I snap my left arm upward, frigid silver light cutting through the water and entrapping a purist's thigh in a sheen of ice. My second shot misses, however, and I push off the ground and begin to swim up to join the fray. I can't do much from down here.

Superboy moves through the ocean with strength only he can muster, leaving wide disturbances in the water behind him. He catches a purist with a tackle into the gut, though his opponent manages to swing a blade of water into the teenager's shoulder. Conner cries out in pain, which shifts to a roar of fury as he backhands the purist across the left arm, sending him rolling through the sea.

Aqualad catches a single blast of water against his sternum and responds with a peppering of small blasts of his own. A cloud of bubbles is left in its wake as it strikes into a group before they manage to scatter.

I lock eyes with the nearest opponent, a spear of water in his hand, before they can respond to my sudden presence. My mind snaps into place alongside his thoughts, even while I prepare a mind sliver attack. "Where is Ocean-Master hiding the Queen?"

"I…"

The furious sight of King Shark, grinning with rows and rows of teeth, is a welcome one. He grabs hold of a purist whose almost tentacled whip of water dissipates upon contact, and then hurls them into a throng of people. "La'gaan! Catch!" The green-skinned boy's beady red eyes widen, slowly morphing into an inhuman smile. Tattoos burn on his upper arms as he suddenly expands his entire torso, shaping himself into a solid boulder of muscle. It only lasts a second, but it is more than enough to barrel through the oncoming purist, knocking them out cold.

"You want to face that?" I point toward the two of them. "Tell me!"

The movements of the battle distract his surface thoughts, but the deeper movements of his own mind are clear to me. He knows the other students by name, knows exactly who each of them is, and… yes. He is one of their fellow students. Ronal.

He tries to snap his spear forward quickly to attack me, and the attack grazes me on the hip. Wincing in pain, I redouble my efforts.

The flap of a purist's cloak distracts me from my deep dive into his mind for a moment, and I look up in time to see Tula throwing a frisbee-sized ball of water into the back of the purist before he could rush me from the side. She looks at me curiously, and I can sense her confusion. "Cover me, would you? Trying to get info!"

The girl nods after a moment, coming to defend me. Ronal, whose mind is still mine, dispels his spear, kicks off the seafloor, and attempts to flee.

"I have you now. There is nowhere you can hide."

A bubble of water surrounds him as Tula enchants, and he beats against it helplessly. His thoughts begin to show signs of worry, of restraint, of panic, of horror.

"Tell me where Ocean-Master is keeping the Queen, or I will-"

A tangible wave of magic erupts from somewhere in the distance, pulsing rhythmically. Tula glances up at the same time that I do, eyes scanning the surroundings. "What is this?"

Many of the purists are already down, but many on our side are clutching their heads, groaning. Kaldur and his classmates, excepting Tula and Garth, look lethargic, weak, and this… is not good.

"What is this spell!?" I ask the trapped purist, as the nonhuman Atlanteans begin to fall faint, some slipping into unconsciousness.

Kaldur's watery weapons fail, and Tula watches in horror as he begins to droop.

"The Master has succeeded!" a female purist shouts in excitement in the distance. "The tide of battle has turned!"

"Finish off the fish-heads, the race-traitors, and the earthers!" another purist commands.

I press harder against the man's mind, knowing I have precious seconds before the enemy takes advantage of our group's sudden weakness. The cut on my hip stings, but I have to keep going.

A nearby cave, well-known as S'atiroman Cave, comes into view within his thoughts. Ocean-Master has fashioned it into a base, decorating an ancient temple site to his own making. Queen Mera is weak and chained to a ritualistic platform that lies at the base of a throne shaped from a giant clam. The purist tries to stop himself from thinking about the plan that Ocean-Master proclaimed, but I pressure him for a moment: wiping out the impure from Atlantis with a ritual borrowing the Queen's power.

"I have it!" I shout into the telepathic link. I share the image of the cave's entrance, the state of the Queen, and what the purist knows of how to get there from here. Kaldur tries to weakly reply, but whatever ritual that Ocean-Master planned seems to have already begun. This is awful!

Superboy tries to shove a group of purists away from him, while one of them brandishes a dagger of water over the unconscious body of King Shark.

Damn it!

I pull on my psionic sorcerous abilities to empower my spells further and fire a quickened ray of frost. The silvered light drags ice in its wake, but it misses. The purist hesitates long enough to glance toward me, as my mind sliver attack assaults his brain. A silvered tentacle of light seems to burst from his temple as the spell takes effect, and he screams in agony and doubles over in pain.

Movement in my peripheral vision is the only warning before a cloud of darkness suddenly spills into the water, spreading around every combatant, both conscious and not.

All sense of where I am and what is happening fades, and the enemies panic. "What is this sorcery!?"

"It's Topo!" Garth exclaims.

The little octopod that could is here, too, a surprise even to us. I smile, though I am a little grossed out that this is Topo's ink. It surrounds everyone, allowing a small amount of time between the next-

I feel the disturbances in the water as someone engages someone in battle. And then another. A cry of pain, an exhale of breath, and…

The cloud dissipates slowly, revealing a group of unconscious purists and an at-the-ready Kryptonian clone. Bubbles escape his rebreather as he takes in the moment.

"Superboy has won the battle!" Tula cries.

His enhanced vision must have come in handy.

"Logan has located Ocean-Master and the Queen," Kaldur says weakly, not even taking a moment to breathe. Garth's arm is wrapped around him to support him in the water. "We must make haste."

Kaldur pulls twine from his belt and hands out several rolls, and those of us who are not as weakened by Ocean-Master's spell begin binding the purists' hands and feet. I've never tied a knot like this before, so I have to hope it's good enough.

While tying the last knot, I glance toward the recovering King Shark and give him a sheepish smile. "You were awesome out there."

He grits his teeth but says nothing for a long moment, merely shining them toward me. "I do not like being saved by a surfacer."

I shake my head, breathing hard. "No, no, I…" I sigh. "I want to say that I-"

"Do not apologize." He grimaces as he tries to right himself, clearly weak from the spell. "Actions, not words, chum."

… I do not know how to respond to that.

"Logan!" Kaldur calls me over. "Allow us to depart."

Lori, Tula, and Garth will be joining the four of us to the cave, while the others stay behind to recover and watch over the captured purists.

"You sure you two are good?" I ask the two nonhuman Atlanteans. This… is a good group, but fighting Ocean-Master? I am not sure how strong Lori is, but….

The mermaid girl nods, somewhat weakly. "We have something to prove."

I can understand that.

.A.

We approach the cave's entrance, Miss Martian scouting ahead while using her Martian camouflage. I almost offered to go with her, but I may need that spell slot.

Lori and Kaldur's condition has improved over the last few minutes, but they still show signs of wear. Throughout the journey, she has carefully been working to tie a piece of cloth from the bottom of her own shirt around my hip. "I appreciate this."

"You should be glad that it is not deeper," Lori says after a moment, finishing the binding. "But this is the least I can do."

I doubt that it is a significant wound, and I look forward to the opportunity to lay my healing hands on it after a good night's rest, to prevent any scarring. But the pain from it is still noticeable, though nothing in comparison to the memory of Ocean-Master's trident.

"Are we going to be all right?"

She watches me for a moment. "It is risky, but I believe that we will be. Kaldur'ahm and Garth have succeeded against Ocean-Master before."

Hmm? "I did not know that."

"That is how Kaldur'ahm earned his place as Aqualad. The villain had hatched a plot against Atlantis, but they saved the city."

My respect for the two of them rises. We may just win, after all.

M'gann breaks away from the group as she vanishes from sight, her body almost translucent but not quite invisible. She slides into the cavern first, as we finish our last approach.

A precious few seconds pass before a flash of bright blue light alerts us to the battle. Kaldur's skin icons burn with intensity as his water-bearers glitter into two identical maces of hardwater. "Let us go, now."

We enter the cave swiftly, just as the armored villain angles a magic-covered hand in the direction of M'gann. His trident glows in the same vibrant light. An aura of glowing water surrounds her and then she screeches as gaseous bubbles of heat coat her skin.

Heat!

"Leave her alone!" Superboy shouts, shooting ahead of the group.

I begin to chant as Ocean-Master moves to counter Conner. He proclaims something that I cannot quite hear from the distance, and Neptune's Trident burns with light.

Ice, to hopefully counter the heat, snaps into existence as the ray of frost collides with the trident's own beam attack. A silvery explosion erupts just in front of Superboy, sending him barreling backward.

"Clever." The villain turns toward me, as Lori moves closer to potentially unchain Mera from her platform. "I am surprised that you survived. I felt certain that you would perish."

"I am tougher than that!" I taunt, trying to keep his attention. Superboy prepares to rush him again, as M'gann tries to recover.

"You cannot fight us all, villain!" Tula exclaims, as everyone slowly begins to take positions around him.

"Are you so sure of that, child?"

Energy siphons from the Queen as she writhes in terrible pain, the power collecting in the pronged trident. Sensing what he may do, I pull on the pool of psionic power within me and coat my body with its energy, toughening it temporarily. He throws an armored hand forward, and pure force pulses throughout the entire cave, washing over all of us in a single burst.

The attack forcefully pushes me into the cave wall, but the pain is subdued. Manageable. It takes a second to recover, in time to see his next move.

Water congeals into a giant glowing squid, its tentacles lashing throughout the cavern. He crushes his hand into a fist. "The key, you see, is to target your weakest opponents first. Such as those already suffering from my mystic attack on the impure."

The squid construct moves deliberately to constrict into Lori and Kaldur. Tula creates a shield of her own hardwater to surround herself and Kaldur, but Lori is too far away.

"Forcing even those unaffected into futile heroics!"

The mermaid girl tries to swim, to flee, but the attacks from Ocean-Master have left her weak. I feel myself moving before my mind is even aware, psionically preparing my own response. Golden light begins to glow around me, but I press on, to protect her.

My limbs snap outward, the ends of them shifting into large, silvery-black tentacles. One strikes forward as the effects of the arms of Hadar spell materialize, striking anything nearby with necrotic energy. As the silver and black tentacles impact against their watery opponents, the cold energy of death itself saps away some of the power holding the construct together, cutting openings through its mass. Those openings are barely enough for me to swim through and avoid getting strangled in a sea of limbs, but I can feel myself moving faster than ever before.

I place myself in front of Lori as my spell's effects end, preparing to defend her against the next round of the construct's attacks. I only have a couple options left, but they will have to do.

Lori gasps, her eyes reflecting with that same golden light. "You have... wings?"

With surprise, I feel them moving behind me, and they twitch with my recognition. Feathered in white, glinting with golden light, they extend from my back, almost sweeping around me. I stretch them out with a thought, flexing them, and grin: my aasimar heritage makes itself known in its fullest extent. It would likely only last a moment, but they would stay long enough to make an impression.

"You're f*cked now, Ocean-Master."

The villain faces me with interest, his fingers tightening on the trident.

Superboy slams an empowered fist into the head of the squid, and the entire thing begins to shake as the force nearly destabilizes it. Miss Martian holds three of the strange limbs at bay with her telekinesis, but more seem ready to join them.

Ocean-Master's lips twist into a smile. "A pathetic, meaningless display." Light surges from his upturned fingers into the squid construct, and newfound tentacles emerge. They lurch up as one, pulsing with energy, and then-

"I summon the power of the Tempest!"

Energy begins to swirl around Garth. Wind, lightning, and water meet as one, encircling him in perhaps the strongest display of magic I have yet seen: a cyclonic underwater storm. The spell directs the elements into a single point before him, whirling in place for nearly two seconds. When its full power is unleashed, a bright beam of pure energy cuts full force through the construct, through the waters between us and Ocean-Master, and impacts into his torso.

As the spell fizzles into nothingness, Ocean-Master stands strong, though the front of his armor is visibly ruined. "Oh so close, child! But the Ocean-Master is not this easily defeated!"

He may be standing strong, but so are we. The constrict squid failed, and the torrent of energy flowing from Mera to Orm is gone. The Queen conjures what power she holds to cut herself free from the chains and floats to an upright position, joining the rest of us.

Our chances to defeat him just skyrocketed with Mera alone, and some of my anxiety fades, even as my wings dissipate in a flurry of golden light.

"Perhaps not. But your spells are all broken, and without Queen Mera's power, you cannot stand against us all!" Kaldur declares, brandishing his maces of hardwater.

Mera's own skin icons, normally invisible to the naked eye, begin to appear, intensifying with azure light. "I recover rapidly, miscreant. Would you risk my full wrath?"

His grin extends, and the trident turns pale red. That same energy begins to flicker, opening a hole in reality! "No, I suppose not. Not this day. But soon. Soon." The power collects beneath his feet and then slowly swallows him whole.

As the spell fades, Ocean-Master has made his escape, teleporting to who knows where.

.A.

Upon return to the Royal Palace, the four of us gather in the throne room after a few-minute delay, and as expected, Prince Orm has made his presence known again, standing alongside his Queen and the apparently recently-arrived King, Aquaman himself. The bright orange and green armor of his usual color scheme is present, and he looks good next to his wife, arm in arm.

I've always enjoyed stories with Aquaman, so it's a bit of a strange feeling to stand in front of him.

"Once again," the King begins, "Atlantis and its king owe you a great debt, Kaldur'ahm."

Prince Orm gestures in agreement. "And rest assured, I will deal with the traitorous sources that led us both into ambush." He has the gall to look almost apologetically to me. "You were right, young Logan. I look forward to hearing about where your exploits take you, alongside your young team."

I have to think of Kaldur to avoid rolling my eyes. Of course, he and his team had to deal with an ambush at the same time.

"Yes, sir, thank you. I apologize for speaking out of turn before."

He waves it off, putting on an excellent performance. "There is no need."

Kaldur clears his throat. "Thank you for the kind words." He looks toward me for a moment, and then back to Mera. "Excuse me, my Queen, but I promised that I would ask. I understand this is not the opportune time, but could you take a look at Logan's situation?"

Bad idea, bad idea.

My eyes flash toward Prince Orm and then back to Mera. "Actually, ma'am, you've been through enough today. I'll let you rest."

Her eyes dart between both Kaldur and me. "Very well. Orrin and I will reach out to Zatara soon."

"Thank you, ma'am." The married couple both nod in understanding.

Kaldur waves toward the other two individuals with them. "We should be going now. These two have their first day of Earth high school."

The protection Zatara put in place is bound to fade in only an hour or two, so it's just as well that we're heading back to the surface in a few moments.

I look toward Orm one last time, promising to come back to enact my plan against him. Doing so now would paint a target on my back that I'm not certain I should provoke. Within reason, I'm sure I can convince Zatara to allow me to visit for another shopping trip in the near future.

That's when I'll make my move against him.

Chapter 31: Interlude - Meaning

Chapter Text

J'onn J'onzz does not know what to think of the man from another plane, another dimension, sitting before him. They sit in a quaint courtyard patio with wrought-iron furniture, while the sun bears down on them despite the clouded sky above Shadowcrest.

It may be a trick of the light, but J'onn wonders why Logan almost feels more real than his surroundings. Is there a shine to his skin, to his bearing, to his eyes that was not there before?

Everything about this individual's origins confuses the Martian. Acquaintances from the proper caste on Ma'aleca'andra would suggest that individuals crossing from one universe to another is a rare but not unique experience. J'onn expects to send a message soon, to ask for their expertise.

The more obscuring matter is this psychic parasite. A combination of magic and psionic power, this burrowing creature did not make sense. He would not call himself an expert on physiology for any species, but he doubted that this aasimar is so compatible with this creature that it would not have killed him by now. Or worse.

"Is there something on my face?" Logan wipes at his mouth with his sleeve, trying to bite down a look of disgust even as he tried to finish his scone.

With a practiced effort, J'onn shakes his head. "No, not at all. I am merely lost in thought."

The young man's eyes narrowed slightly in curiosity. "What about?" J'onn considers the question, but Logan continues before he can answer. "Can you tell me what we're going to be doing?"

The Martian clears his throat, a bit of learned behavior that is more for others' benefit than his own. "I wish for us to explore the limits of your telepathic abilities as well as your overall state of wellbeing. Given the situation, these sessions should provide us with data that can assist in your treatment."

Logan clasps his fingers together and looks toward the sky. J'onn lightly opens his mind to the man, but hears nothing.

"Do you wonder if sometimes, things are meant to happen?"

The Martian places his hands on the table, face impassive. "I believe that is a universal experience."

"Where do you fall on that?" Logan asks, meeting J'onn's eyes. "How would you answer it?"

J'onn considers for a long moment, feeling wind lightly brushing against his skin. "I have come to believe that we must each make meaning from the disorder around us."

Logan's teeth glint in the sunlight as he gently smiles. "I believe that too. Or at least, I did. I think."

The Martian made note of this line of questioning, uncertain what to make of it. Is this a warning sign? A cry for help?

"What inspired the change?"

"If you'd have asked me a year ago if any of this is possible, I'd have laughed in your face. I was just a teacher! But… now I'm in a new world, with new abilities, with an alien worm in my head. And I'm sitting with one of the most powerful people on this planet. All of that is so impossible that it can't be just coincidence anymore."

J'onn admits to himself that this sequence of events is highly improbable, sometimes even compared to the heroic life he leads on Earth.

"I helped save the queen of an undersea kingdom yesterday!" Logan almost shouts, seemingly alarmed at his own exploits. A sense of mirth fills his face. "How does any of this even happen?"

J'onn gives a practiced nod. "So your views on the matter of existence have changed?"

"Well, not changed exactly," Logan begins, "but after all this, everything's in a different perspective. I can't help but feel like I was meant to be there - all those impossible things could not have happened if there wasn't a reason for it. That if I hadn't been there, then something worse may have happened."

"You have certainly made an impact. Is this a route you would like to pursue?" J'onn had not expected to discuss this, but conversations rarely go where you expect.

Logan distantly stares, deep in thought. "You mean… helping people?"

"Every active member of a society helps others in one way or another. This is not what I mean," J'onn clarifies. "I am discussing putting yourself in harm's way to save others, to follow in the footsteps of individuals like firefighters, police officers, soldiers, or even the Justice League." The Martian is not certain that the aasimar would understand what firefighters or police officers exactly were, as the other plane may not have them or refer to them that way. Even still, he hoped the meaning would translate.

Logan says nothing for a long time. J'onn lightly opened his mind once more, trying more intentionally to touch the surface of the young man's thoughts. Years of practice had ensured that the Martian could come and go without a trace in most individuals, and he merely wished to gauge the status of Logan's mind. Could he find the influence of the tadpole? The Absolute? Were they one in the same? Logan seems to think so.

Still, his telepathy gives him nothing. If Logan felt him reach out, the man does not react to his presence.

J'onn is confident that he could bypass whatever defenses are in place, should he be more forceful, but there are several risks involved. The last time this occurred, he met the being called the Absolute, an elven figure who forced him out of Logan's mind by exploiting his weakness to fire. And there is the chance that the young man may realize he is being scanned without his knowledge.

"I- I saved lives." The Martian refocuses his attention on Logan as he finally speaks. "If I could do that again and chose not to, then the guilt would eat me alive."

J'onn understands that belief, one that is shared with many of his heroic companions. And yet… "I trust you know this, Logan, but it bears repeating. Having abilities beyond mortal men does not obligate you to do what we in the League do. There are other professions where your powers can make a difference. Telepathy alone has many useful applications in the field of mental fitness, for instance."

What is as easy as breathing in Martian society are fantastically useful abilities on other planets, yet only a fraction of a fraction take up the mantle of Manhunter to make a difference on Ma'aleca'andra. He understands all too well that having power does not mean you are obligated to be a superhero.

"I understand," Logan states after a few seconds of thought, forcing another bite of his scone into his mouth. "I… want to, but I need to think about it. It's just all so crazy."

J'onn alone cannot decide if Logan is allowed to repeat his performance in Atlantis and take up the mantle of a hero. That would be under the League's purview to support the endeavor or not, as a whole. If the League asked to give his recommendation right now, J'onn is not certain that he would approve. There are several mitigating factors against that decision, like the presence of the Absolute within the man's mind. He asked the question merely to understand his thoughts on the previous day's events.

"Let us shift our attention away from that topic," the Martian finally states, his fingers rapping against the table lightly. "Have you seen the Absolute?"

At the mention of the elven figure, the young man stiffens. "I… have. I asked him to help me learn to enchant items, and he offered to help."

"The tadpole understands this?"

"It sounds confusing to me too, but I want to take the offer."

The Martian watches Logan's face carefully, gently nudging with his mind once more in the hopes that he could slip past the defenses unprotected. The effort fails.

"Is that the best idea?" J'onn understates the question to provoke a response, trying to understand how the aasimar feels about a truly alarming topic.

"The Absolute is already in my head," Logan states gently, barely above a whisper. "I want to learn how, and because of the difference in how my magic works, I don't know that Zatara can teach me. The Absolute might be able to, since we come from the same place."

The Martian remembers from his last conversation with the magician that Zatara plans to aid Logan with this, as another discovery tool to learn more about the situation. "Afford the man the opportunity to teach you before you ask that entity for assistance." He pauses, adding, "Do not seek out the Absolute for any reason."

The young man hesitates for several seconds and then nods. "I won't." The sincerity is written on his face, but the Martian feels uncertain.

"Now, let us begin our lesson. Connect us."

A mental shift and then a second pattern of thoughts touches his own. J'onn flexes his power and pulls that string of thoughts deeper into his own mind.

The perception of their physical environment bleeds away, until all that remains is a deep, blue, cloud-filled sky. J'onn and Logan hover across from one another among the clouds, though the aasimar does not quite know how to sit still, shaking awkwardly every few seconds.

"This is the interior of my mind," the Martian explains, as the illusion deepens and takes hold. "Manifest the wings I heard so much about."

Logan's face breaks into a smile. "You heard about that?"

"I have read the file from the day's events. Focus, now, and we will discuss this later."

He nods and contorts his arms. The stream of consciousness that is Logan's presence has trouble keeping focus on what he wants to manifest.

"Everything here is made of thought. All you need do is make it real."

This is a simple exercise for budding telepaths – manifesting thoughts during a meeting of the minds. A starting point for new telepaths to develop further skills. Communicating words and intentions is one thing between minds, but manifesting thoughts and perceptions in another mind is more difficult.

J'onn, to demonstrate, split himself in two, creating a perfect duplicate of himself. Layering the voices together, he speaks in a duet, "It becomes as simple as breathing." All four hands clap together, and then there are eight of himself. Sixteen. Thirty-two.

Logan's eyes glisten with interest, even as the Martian returns to only one copy. "Whoa. This is…"

A pulse of thought, and twin angelic wings flicker into existence behind the aasimar. A manifestation of his celestial blood, the silvered wings tinted with gold are nearly as luminescent as the sun in this endless sky. There is a vibrancy to him that shines with every breath, every twitch of muscle.

J'onn smiles, knowing this image would mean a lot to some of the religious humans he has met since his tenure as the Martian Manhunter began years ago. Giovanni, Clark, even Bruce might like to see it.

Logan takes several moments to learn to flex the wings with the right application of thought, to make the illusion of his aasimar wings manifest in J'onn's mind. And then, a few seconds later, he pushes them down once, twice, and then three times with all his might to force himself upward, and then to move at a dive.

The movement is swift but imprecise, often clumsy. Banking through a cloud and then emerging like a rocket from the other side, he bursts into a powerful laugh.

"This is incredible! C'mon, join me!"

The excitement is contagious, as Logan begins to fly with reckless abandon, looping back and forth, banking to the right and then to the left. Each beat of the wings produces an almost trail of golden light behind him a few feet, causing him to streak through the sky like a comet. Bright, positive emotion fills his arcs through the sky.

J'onn cannot help himself. Telekinetically pushing his body into the right position, he takes off to join the fun behind the young man, glad that Logan can find joy, for once, even amidst the Absolute's uncertainty.

Chapter 32: 3.1 - Smart

Chapter Text

An undulating pattern of light shifts like a wave. Flecks of black bob like bubbles before bursting against silver and blue. The eldritch glow swallows the light of a nearby floor lamp and almost forcefully devours the shadowed corners of the chamber. Its warm embrace touches my skin, paints my tongue, soothing my worries and fears. It tingles my nerve endings and leaves me feeling on edge, aware of its presence.

At the center of this magical field lies the enchanting set-up that Zatara had supplied me. Based on the specifications that I provided, the mahogany table rests at waist height and is covered with runic implements, a set of specialized tools, and several bowls and containers of ingredients. Every few seconds, the swirling display of magic around us bends around the table and caresses the runes, causing them to spark in purple power. A single piece of golden jewelry rests in the center of the runes, ready to be clipped into the neck of a robe once the enchantments are finished.

Zatanna stares in wonder at the arcane substance with wide eyes. With a careful gesture, she pokes the magical material, and it bends around her fingertip and incases it for a moment, before pulling away from her.

Her father, having finished the spell to allow the three of us to watch the magic at work that would normally be imperceptible, is similarly confused and amazed.

"What is this, exactly?" Zatanna asks, face lost in thought. She hesitates and then holds out her hand, palm facing up. "Erif!"

A bright flame emerges atop her palm, hovering lightly over her skin. She holds out the flame to the odd energy, but the two do not seem to react in any meaningful way. The flame passes through it without reaction, though is it supposed to have one? Perhaps that's how it always works.

"I wished to see the energies," Zatara explains, almost mystified, "the energies that you engage with to produce your spells, to work into this style of enchantment." As these esoteric energies encircle the chamber deep in the bowels of Shadowcrest Manor, the magician looks toward his daughter. "This is different than I expected, and not what we do."

"Is it really that different?" I ask, pointing to the fire still billowing over the girl's hand. "You pull magic from within yourself, but you can also pull from the environment, right?"

Zatanna nods. "Some of the strongest spells I have memorized need it."

"I think that's what I do," I gesture to the dazzling picture around us. "How I do it is in me, but maybe it needs all of this too."

Zatara shakes his head, confusion still evident on his face. "I am no researcher. What I do, what I've learned, is mostly through practice, not through study." He leans against a nearly empty bookshelf for support, letting the energies wash over him seemingly harmlessly. "Is there something that can explain how you are producing this?"

"Producing it?"

This idea throws me.

I will not pretend to be an expert on Forgotten Realms lore, not that the lore would have an explanation for everything involved here anyway. To run a tabletop game, they don't have to get into the specifics of magic and how it works, merely to say that it does and to be a tool for the heroes and monsters to use in the games.

However… is this the Weave?

The Weave shouldn't be a thing outside of the Forgotten Realms, and certainly not in the DC Multiverse. Mystra's reach as a goddess of magic is not infinite, right? This magic, whatever it is, cannot be the Weave, and I certainly would not be producing it. Nothing can produce that except Mystra herself, to coat her world in her embrace and make magic possible.

Perhaps this is just what the tadpole does – the psionic energy it uses. It's a more reasonable explanation, one that doesn't seem to break how I thought things worked. Mystra is not here, it can't be that.

"Let me try this." Any idea that can help someone else get a sense of this is one that works for me.

My left hand hovers just over the brooch in the center of the runes, though my eyes do not leave the mystical effect surrounding me. Concentrating, I pour a bit of arcane power into the item as I complete the shield spell. Instead of producing a half-dome of silver light, the spell flows into the item and the runic circle, which brilliantly erupts with argent light for a few seconds.

The undulating wave of power flowing around us all, the same power that Zatara claims I must be creating, twists into an impossible shape at the apex of the spell. A fluttering hum like the sputtering of an engine accompanies it, and the taste reminds me of warm bread. The shape twirls and then congeals into the object alongside my own power. For a few seconds, the wave of magic is gone before it slowly begins to encircle the room again, this time more subtle and a bit muted. It smells of lavender and feels like a soft caress against my neck.

If my calculations are correct, then I should be close to finishing that-

"Incredible." Zatara points animatedly toward the brooch. "Look!"

The runic circle surrounding the now enchanted brooch fades, but a much smaller wave of magic pulses around it, twitching with power before slowly stabilizing.

A similar field of magic now surrounds the object tightly, seemingly without end. It encircles the brooch a mere half-inch away and revolves around it, following a similar pattern as the one surrounding myself. Its aura of power spools with potential.

"Well, I don't know what to make of it," Zatanna says after a time. "You two nerds know?"

Her father, exasperated, picks up the brooch. The magic surrounding it does not seem to react to his hand in any negative way, but he still gingerly picks it up. "As near as I can tell, you've tied that field around you to this, in a matter of hours of work. It now… seems to produce the same field. Its own field, different somehow."

"I'm just excited that I did it!" I take it from him, clipping the golden brooch into my shirt. Its simplistic crescent design does not match the white t-shirt I'm wearing at all, but it's meant for function, not looks. "I think I'll have to take an hour to attune to it, but after that, I'll be in good shape for you to test it."

Zatara smiles slightly, though concern still rests on his brow. "You do not know what may be causing this field to appear? A byproduct of the tadpole? Your a-angelic nature?"

"Your guess is as good as mine." I don't know if there will ever be a true answer, not without shifting back to the D&D Multiverse to ask someone native. Could a mage from here perform their same spells there?

Zatanna perks up. "Dad, it's our turn now."

He looks toward the younger girl. "My turn."

She huffs, turning to watch the slowly undulating field of magic. "But you said-"

"No, you interpreted what I said, to hear what you wanted to hear." He pulls a second crescent-shaped brooch from his coat and places it on the same enchanting table. "Zatanna, the Art bites back. I will not have my daughter facing its maw, when only I need face its might."

She is not happy, but the seriousness on his face and in his face mollifies her. I remember the independence of teenagers. The relationship with my own father dwindled when it faced similar circ*mstances. Nothing magical, of course, just a sense of wanting to do things with him and getting pushed away.

I am not sure if my enchanting feat will incur the wrath of the Art, but I hope not. As far as I understand it, I followed the process of traditional D&D rules to enchant this item. Hours of work, the right materials, and a bit of gold burned. Giovanni was kind enough to allow me to use some of his wealth to supplement this, but that won't last forever, and I don't want to be any more indebted to him. If the Art does bite back, then I'll have to prepare for the risks.

"Stand back," he demands, and both of us step back and away from the table, littered with components. "Zatanna, if you would."

Being included slightly improves her mood, and she straightens up from her slump. Her fingers twitch as she counts to prep the right words, similar to the spell her father used before. "Wolla su ot ssentiw eht hturt fo eht enacra trA!"

My head twitches as a surge of something hits me repeatedly over several seconds, before finally stabilizing as a soft hum.

The awareness of the magic field that surrounds me and the brooch fades entirely, replaced with mostly a sense of emptiness. Gone is the all-encompassing presence of magic – instead, it seems to resonate in smaller ways. Both father and daughter emanate with the touch of magic, a sense of inner power that almost vibrates within them, and not within me. The runes on the enchanting table emblazon with power. Some of the natural ingredients gathered in bowls nearby – salt, herbs, rose petals, and honey – respond to the presence of the two mages, their souls tugging at elemental forces that are beyond the reach of normal men. Did these items have power on their own, or do they need someone like the Zataras to do anything special?

Zatara pulls at his hat and places it upside down on a nearby stool. His uniform seems touched with power as well, and more of its concentrated in his hat than I would have expected. He gently touches along the rim, and the arcane energies respond with a spark of light, a scent of smoke, and the taste of iron.

"Derewopme ni thgim, decnocsne ni thgil." With each word, his inner source of magic surges outward, subtly perceptible even to the naked eye but vibrantly so under his daughter's spell. "Ekat siht teluma dna evig ti tghis!" He surrounds the jewelry with both hands and guides the surges of the arcane towards it and the runes, which burn with an intensity that I take an involuntary step back, hairs standing on end. "Tcetorp eht reraew htiw eht dleihs fo eht thgink!" Light pulses once, twice, three times between his fingers and then wraps around the brooch.

As the energy of the spell collapses like the aftermath of a splash into water, Zatara himself breathes heavily.

"Dad?" She rushes to his side, grasping his shoulder. He leans into it for a moment, a bit of sweat forming across his brow.

"Are you all right?" I ask, my own concern rising quickly.

He slowly takes it all in, pulls a handkerchief from his pocket, and wipes his face. "Yes, I will be. Performing something of this nature is physically… taxing. It is nothing more than usual." His inner thrum of power is smaller than before, nearly as small as the one burning within Zatanna.

I gesture to him. "Is that energy, er, drop normal?"

Zatara looks down at himself and then at Zatanna. "Yes, I believe so. It will recover with food and a good night sleep."

Zatanna's brow furrows. "Are you sure? That looks like more-"

He rights himself after a moment of hesitation and then lifts the brooch into his hand. "I will be fine. Both of you need not worry."

A flicker of power within himself matches a flicker of power in the brooch, and then the brooch expands suddenly into a sliver of golden metal that covers most of Zatara's torso. A runic crescent decorates the surface of the shield, the same shape as the brooch that I enchanted.

"Wow, it's awesome."

"It is not the same as your enchantment, but it is just as permanent." With another thought, the shield retracts back into the brooch, sitting in his palm. "It is yours."

"You want me to keep it? I don't think I've ever used a shield before." Shield proficiency is not a thing that normally comes with this situation, but it's also not a game so maybe I can learn.

Zatara takes a deep breath and exhales, trying to wash away some of the exhaustion. "The two items are both permanently enchanted, but through different methods. Since you're the outlying practitioner, you should carry both to see the differences between the styles of magic. Maybe you'll learn something."

He offers me his brooch, and the enchantment feels almost raw in my palm. Noticeably different than the other.

Several seconds pass as I try every way I know how to activate it, before slowly pulling on my psionic power. With a flex of thought, the shield spins to life in my hand and expands to its full size, hovering a few inches in front of me. Where I move my arm, the shield follows, as though tethered invisibly to my mind, but it never leaves my immediate surroundings. I don't have to touch it to manipulate it, and my mind swims with the possibilities.

"How strong did you make it?" Zatanna asks her father, running her hands along it.

"Considering it was made with similar runes, it is as strong as Logan expected his own product to be."

I try to casually bend the edges with my other hand, but they do not relent. "Well, I didn't make mine to be a physical shield, but a magical one. Would that have changed anything?"

Zatara shrugs. "When it comes to arcane theory, I am not an expert. I have encountered different styles of magic before, but not ones that derive from a different universe's methodology altogether."

He's said that before, but… "Well, is there anyone who could get the differences?"

Zatara looks away for a moment, solemn.

Zatanna clears her throat. "Before he died, Dad would take you to see Kent Nelson. He was Doctor Fate, kind of a big deal in the magical world around here. Fate's not really reachable right now."

Doctor Fate? I have to force the grin off of my face at the mention of the name, realizing the first part of what she said a second or two late. Even the last part sounds wrong. A DC setting without Doctor Fate sounds dreadfully dangerous.

"Did this Kent Nelson deal with stuff from other universes?"

Zatara gestures but there's something off about him now. He is not looking either of us in the eye any longer. "I do not doubt that he may have had some experience, but Doctor Fate himself certainly would."

I glance between the two of them. "I thought you said that he was this Doctor Fate."

"Kent was, in a sense. The truth is more complex," Zatara explains, leaving it at that. "Zatanna, be sure to test Logan's shield when he finishes this attunement. I need some rest."

He picks his hat up off of the stool and carries it under his arm. His daughter follows after him to help him up the stairs, leaving me alone in the basem*nt room to contemplate the idea of meeting Doctor Fate. If everything else is true, then the spirit in the helmet is still in there, right?

.A.

Zatara suspects that he would be far more tired if he had attempted that spell without stacking the deck in his favor. Most of the spell blowback he receives these days end in exhaustion and nothing more, but a permanent enchantment of anything more than a simplistic property is something that he would not attempt without significant cost up front.

As silly as it sounds, he had never considered using monetary wealth as the price of the Art before he watched Logan's enchantment absorb the gold in the process. Maybe that's all it always needed, but Zatara did not want to risk it. Too many unknown factors are involved. Would the Art respect something as simple as a few coins?

He winds his way through the loving embrace of Shadowcrest Manor, the master bedroom soon stretched before him. With a flick of his wrist and a backwards word, the blinds close and the candles alight. The door closes behind him and locks him into darkened secrecy.

Zatara bends over carefully and pulls a sheet onto the floor to avoid any unnecessary clean-up.

He places the hat into the center of the sheet and reverses the pattern he ensorcelled into it with the tracing of his finger. Pinching his nose with one hand, he reaches his other gloved hand into the hat, descending all the way to the elbow.

Zatara finds purchase and drops the sacrificed carcass onto the sheet. Blood coats the rabbit's white fur and begins to seep into the fabric. Quickly, he wraps up the old sheet – one he and Sindella likely used, years and years before she passed, and follows the steps that the woman once taught him, to dispose of a sacrifice. This would keep the Art happy.

Not for the first time, Zatara longs for her advice. With Kent dead, the pressure mounts with each passing day for him to take a step forward, to take on more and more burdens to protect the world from the mundane and the arcane. Diana and Marvel share that burden with him, but not… in the way that he did. Sindella always knew what to say to make sure he followed the right path for his soul.

He smiles at the sad thought, stifling the welling tears. She was often far more literal about the soul than he was, but given her specialty, he supposes that she had the right idea. What would she say now?

He sits in silence, the rabbit's body returned to nature, when his cell phone rings and spoils his thoughts of conducting another séance.

"Hello?"

The voice of Bruce cuts into his mood. "Giovanni. I have a business arrangement for you."

He smiles lightly. "Just once, I'd like to hear Wayne on the phone. Wayne is the life of the party, and I could use that right now."

Bruce does not react to the joke. "How is the kid?"

Zatara sighs. "His condition has not worsened. We made a breakthrough with understanding his magic today, but it's still a mystery to me."

"Did Logan go through with making a shield charm, like you expected?"

"Yes, and it seems to have worked." Zatara pauses. "Why?"

"Has he mentioned a goal? What does he plan to do while he is waiting for a cure or to go back to his home plane?"

Zatara is starting to see the train of thought forming in Bruce's head. "He has not. But you think it strange that his first enchantment is something that can help him in battle, no?"

Bruce says nothing for a few seconds. "He wants in."

"I am not certain of that," Zatara explains. "He has spoken little of his prior dangerous outings, since they were accidents at best, and his overall intentions are far less clear. For all we know, he merely intends to build an arsenal safely away from these mindflayer creatures and return home to do battle with them."

"That would be smart," Bruce says. "I don't think the kid has that kind of thinking in him. He's had a taste, and he wants more."

Chapter 33: 3.2 - Unit

Chapter Text

The Absolute hums in my ear, matching the heart pounding in my chest. The sound is beautiful, almost mesmerizing, and draws me in completely. Why would I think of anything else? Be anywhere else?

He shifts to his knees on the grass to join me in my prone position, my head swimming as my eyes open to witness the deep, argent skies overlooking the outdoor terrace.

"How much did that silly little sorcerer teach you?"

A distant thought, a promise I made to someone, is difficult to remember as I look up into the elven features of the Absolute.

"Is that what you look like?"

The elven man smiles, a glimmer of perfection in the unique silvery night. "A change in subject. Does this form not please you?" He takes his time adjusting the tunic that displays part of his lithe, shirtless form, and I lose myself in it.

"There we go," his voice simmers in the empty air. The silence reinforces that the two of us are the only two who matter in this fragment of the world – no, of all existence. Any existence. "Partake, if you wish."

The shadows flicker as the elven figure leans closer, his breath cooling against my cheek. And then, frustratingly, he shifts back.

Armor shuffles nearby, and I am on my feet before I can think. A human man in gleaming silver armor, a gorgeous blade in his hand, appears on the edge of the garden terrace. Tufts of beard stick out from his helmet, and dark, misunderstanding eyes judge our every move. The warrior does not move closer, but grips fingers around the blade much tighter.

The Absolute steps up to nestle his head into the crook of my neck, fingers dancing along my forearm, lips close enough to my own that I could take them with a twist of the neck. "I sense your strength, my Chosen. You have grown more than the others in such a short time."

My eyes do not leave the warrior, but confusion settles into my mind. "Others?"

"My reach extends to many whom I have found interest and need, Logan. Those who have risen to a special place in my heart have become my True Souls."

Disappointment fills my chest, and my heart sinks. "Have I not?"

"Show me why you are my Chosen, and I will show you much, much more. Perhaps enough to become true and absolute."

The warrior rushes forward as the Absolute steps away. A hardened frown appears beneath the armored helmet, and the sword comes down in an arc.

I jump backward and avoid showing my surprise when a dagger appears in my hand. A twist of my arm, and a spray of blood coats the grass and my right side.

The warrior collapses into a heap, his life's essence spilling into the grass and soil.

The Absolute claps.

"Wonderful! Just wonderful." He takes my hand within his and gestures toward the horizon. "This is but a taste of what is to come for you, if you continue down the path I have set in store for you. Cities, nations, perhaps even planets – all can be yours."

The landscape shifts to display the skyline of Gotham, matching the vista seen from the windows of Shadowcrest Manor. Eldritch flames twist up city streets and snake across buildings, stacks of smoke rising to touch the tips of dozens of nautiloid ships that sit in the clouds above. The buildings themselves begin to shake as an arcane shockwave billows outward from the heart of Gotham. The city itself slowly starts to rise into the air, and skyscrapers crumble from the shift in their foundation. Within a few seconds, the city and its foundations are hundreds of feet in the air, surrounded by an illithid fleet.

A cacophony of sounds and screams reaches my ears – no, reaches my mind. The scent of fear, of anger, of desperation – they are sweet on my tongue, a sickly-sweet poison. Millions of souls feel pricks of pain that last for mere moments but are like a drowning sea to one suffused within their total psyches. Like ripples in a pond, like falling blocks in a chain of Dominoes, one by one they die, become thralls, or become food. Their flesh is disgusting on my tongue, but the brain matter is exquisite.

"Wow… this is not-"

The Absolute shifts so that his eyes are inches from my own, slightly blocking the scene, his hands on my waist. The vision of the dying Gotham fades to a dull background rumble of sensation. "This overwhelms you."

The statement is not a question, but I cannot help but nod to answer.

With a look over his shoulder, the background vista of Gotham returns to its normal shape, the city reshaping itself into its proper state. The telepathic noise of their terror fades into the telepathic noise of a normally functioning city. Some part of me knows this is merely a vision of what is to come, but the stronger voices in the choir feel almost as valid as my own inner thoughts.

"Let us work together. A project and a step toward the truth."

A crackle of magic lifts a purple-colored crystal into existence from the ground, its highest spiked peaks forcefully cracking the top of a nearby ornamental column ringing the terrace. The Absolute links his fingers in mine and walks us toward the jeweled surface. This close, each facet of the purple gemstone is nearly iridescent, an almost prismatic hint of every color hidden in the spaces between each natural dip and rise in the mauve stone.

"What is this?"

The Absolute grips the stone with his graceful elven fingers. "Generate the power of your mind and place it within."

A flicker of psionic energy radiates from his hand and pulses rapidly within the structure of this crystal. When the energy settles, the crystal is more tangibly real than the rest of the environment, as though it has more weight and more depth. The reality of its existence anchors my attention, making it difficult to look at anything else.

"Now, you." The Absolute's voice feels faint, distant, when compared to the depth of the crystal.

My hands gently touch the gemstone, and words cannot describe fully how strange this truly feels. The presence of the Absolute's mind radiates haphazardly within, as though there is a sliver of his mind in each facet of the crystal, separate and distinct from the one with his hand lightly pressing on my upper arm. Each feels warm, inviting, and eldritch all the same.

In the core of my mind, I tap that psychic ability that I use to fuel and supercharge my spells, pouring sorcery points into focus and then pushing that power out and into the crystal. The gemstone reacts immediately, and I collapse to my knees and am unable to let go.

Memories, thoughts, feelings – this strange crystal spike siphons everything that is me. The feeling is not painful, but a slowly growing sense of fear begins to grow in my chest, my heart beating fast. Worse than any period of depression I've felt, my emotions and thoughts fade to nothing but anxiety, but fear, and I can't let go!

The Absolute taps the crystal with a single finger and my hand falls to my side, gripping the grass just to center myself with a familiar sensation. My senses expand, my heart slows, and my thoughts return.

The elven figure tugs my chin to look at him in the eyes, a sense of mirth on his face. "A not unexpected reaction."

"What…" my words fail me for a moment. "What was that?"

The crystalline spike still draws my attention, but the Absolute's physical touch diverts its pull. My fingers relax their hold on the grass, allowing the other man to anchor me to reality.

"That is a special material, an illithid construction, designed to turn mind into reality, to put thoughts into being." The Absolute thrums the fingers of his other hand against its surface, the crystal expanding and retracting to its touch like a heartbeat. Multicolored lines start to grow from his fingers, moving in patterns that look suspiciously like circuits. "It can prove difficult to use for the first time, but it is a cornerstone in illithid psionic technology."

My brow furrows. Something he said does not quite sound right. "Are you not an illithid?"

His eyes glint in the lights flickering across the crystal at his psychic whim. "A curious question."

"Well, you called it illithid technology. The way you said it, it just sounded strange."

The Absolute grins. "I have become more than an illithid, my Chosen. Far more."

I gesture to the crystal as I try to take in his words, still not quite getting it. "So, why show me this? Does this crystal exist here?"

His smile deepens. "You'll find that that existence is relative for individuals with powers like our own."

.A.

A tap on my shoulder startles me awake. "Logan?" I look up and try to shake off grogginess.

Zatanna sits on a nearby stool, a look of concern on her face. "You okay? I feel like you've not left this room in a few days." She takes a sniff and then immediately regrets it. "Oh, please, tell me that's just the trash can in the corner and not you." She frowns and then pokes my arm again. "Gross! Take a shower!"

I lean back off my chair and find resistance. Pooling out from the exposed skin of my forearms is a thick, oily substance, the consistency reminding me of grape jam. It looks a bit like it too, and my words fumble out before I can really think. "Oh, sorry. I must have… performed that last spell wrong."

She snaps her fingers and speaks a quick word, and the substance vanishes, both from the table and from my own body. She says something else, but I can't concentrate on anything but the unfamiliar object I'm holding.

Clasped in both hands is a single football-sized crystal of that same purple stone from the dream before. Its facets are nearly as iridescent as they were in the dream, though a certain ethereal quality is no longer present. A thin layer of what can only be mind flayer mucus covers it as well, but sloughs away into nothingness as Zatanna speaks backwards.

Mind flayer mucus. I've produced this before, back in Bialya, and now I'm doing it again. This is not a good sign, but I don't want anyone to worry over me.

"I'm not sure you could be any weirder."

The insult forces me to look up to see Zatanna looking disapprovingly in my direction.

The crystal shudders and cracks in a couple places, seemingly of its own accord.

"What's this thing do? Is it supposed to break like that?"

I almost shrug but stop myself.

"Play along."

Distorted words reach my mind, and I know immediately where they come from: the crystal. Two voices speak telepathically at once, nearly overlapping with one another, and it takes a second to realize one of them is my own voice.

The other is the Absolute, speaking outside of my dreams for the first time.

I let go of the crystal for a moment and gesture to Zatanna, mind racing to try to make sense of this and avoid showing panic. "Look, this is, uh, my favorite part."

Two more solid chunks appear to break on the sides of the crystal, and then spindly protrusions erupt from each of the shifts in the gemstone. With an exaggerated movement like a cat trying to stretch, the crystal stands up on its newfound legs, walking like an insect. After it finishes stretching and testing its new body, the crystalline creature scurries closer to me and leaps up onto my shoulder.

"Ooh, a familiar!" Zatanna's excitement is palpable. "Dad kinda looks down on mages who rely on these too much, but I don't get it. Why not have a cat or a toad or something who helps you out?"

Familiars in D&D usually appear as a very limited number of options, but I've never heard of one that's not flesh and blood. Even if it's weird flesh and blood.

"I am your psicrystal construct, Logan," the crystal's voice explains. "I am here to assist you in your endeavors."

"Err." Did something in that dream just become real? I mumble what it is just loud enough that Zatanna can hear, but the girl shakes her head.

"Whatever it is, you should probably give it a name. Dad's always stressed that names have power." She turns toward the stairs for a moment, a little sheepish. "But I came down here because I wondered if you could help me with something."

I turn my attention away from the odd familiar, trying to think of a name that would fit the creature. "Uh, sure." My fingers rub at the skin of my arms, expecting to find more mucus, but I find none. "What's up?"

"I overheard that my dad's planning a major comeback in a few days, a one time only performance in Gotham."

"Comeback?"

She nods. "My dad's been a League member for a little while now and was out there doing good even before that. He may dress for the stage, but he hasn't been on the stage for a long time."

The crystalline construct rests its body into the crook of my neck and its legs settle onto my shoulder in a new position. For a moment, it feels heavy and then the weight of it disappears completely. Zatanna must have caught me focusing on that, because she sighs.

"Sorry, this is not a good tim-"

"No!" I pull the now weightless construct – how is it doing that? - from my neck and place it on the ground, telling it to stay in place. An affirmative thought coalesces in my own mind, and its legs fold back into the main body as it returns to its near football-sized resting position. "There's a lot of my plate right now, but you have my attention."

Zatanna, still unsure, furrows her brow. "Right. Anyway, he's never let me perform with him before – I was too young to even try the last time he had a show, and this is my chance! I just… don't think he'll let me."

My frown deepens. This doesn't sound like what I know of Zatara, but most versions of him I remember were when Zatanna was an adult. "Why do you want to perform?"

She considers for a moment and then looks toward the stairs as an idea forms in her head. "Hey! Let me show you something. This might help me answer that question."

As she heads upstairs and out of this part of the basem*nt, I start to follow and then realize, with a frown, that my familiar is not following. "You following, Unit?"

The voice of the Absolute and my own voice, spoken at once, cut into my mind. "Of course, Logan." The insect-like legs made of spiked gemstone lift the main crystalline body from the ground, and then it scurries up and onto my back, clinging to my clothing. "We'll always follow you."

Chapter 34: 3.3 - Wants

Chapter Text

A pair of wide mahogany doors lit by the faintest lamplight opens to reveals an abandoned room filled with sheet-covered furniture. Soft light from the setting sun paints what might have once been cross between a private drawing room and a practice stage lined with ruby curtains. A thin layer of dust covers most visible surfaces, and the crystalline construct named Unit leaps off of my shoulder to survey the room and knock up some of the piles of dust with its crystal insectoid feelers.

"You really gotta get a new decorator," I suggest. "This horror movie aesthetic just is not doing it."

Zatanna chuckles lightly and then lifts the nearest sheet, revealing a pristine royal purple sofa, angled just right to have view of the make-shift stage on the southern wall. Her mood droops for a long moment, a frown deepening on her face.

"You, uh, okay?"

The girl hesitates. "This was my mom's favorite room when I was little. I haven't been in here for a little while."

My heart sinks. "How long has she been gone?"

She walks toward the window and leans against the curtains, looking out at the forests surrounding the manor. The tops of Gotham's dark skyscrapers poke above the distant horizon. "I was five."

I move to join her, remembering those I'd lost in my own life. "Right before I finished my education, my aunt died to cancer. She had been a staple in my childhood, more of a parent in some ways than my father ever was." My hand rests on the back of her shoulder. "I share that to say that I know a little of what that's like, not to, uh, make it about me."

She nods noncommittally and then turns away and back toward the stage, pointing at the sofa. "Mom used to carry me in here and plant me there, so that she and Dad could perform for me while they practiced for the next show. This was before I knew the family secret, so everything they did was like…"

"Magic?" I offer, smiling warmly. "The kind of thing that other kids dreamed about."

"Exactly." She steps forward and runs her hand along the frame of the sofa, gripping it tightly. "Dad's been on stage since she passed, but much less often. I worry about him."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I'm sure he appreciates that you worry."

"Thanks."

As an educator who worked with teenagers before this strangeness, and as someone who lived through it, teenagers don't regulate emotions well. Some do it better than others, but even the most mature and the most responsible don't do it well without an outlet, sometimes. For me, I wrote. For Tav, he drew. Does Zatanna have an outlet?

"Why do you think that he's performing again, now?" I ask, trying to turn it into a more constructive topic, hoping to guide her toward the idea of an outlet herself.

"Oh, that's easy. Bruce Wayne's doing this impromptu charity event for the homeless." Her brow furrows at the sight of my surprise and confusion. "You do know who Bruce Wayne is, right?"

"Errr…?" Dangerous question, there, Z. "No, I don't think so."

"He's a bigwig business guy who runs Wayne Enterprises, out of Gotham," Zatanna explains, and my breath exhales. Does she know who the man really is? Zatara surely does. "Dad saved his life once from some assassins in the League of Shadows, so I guess Bruce expects him to help again."

"Assassins?"

Zatanna shakes her head. "I don't know the details. Dad keeps his work with the Justice League mostly to himself. Wayne's a popular guy who uses his money for good, so he's bound to attract bad attention. I'm surprised he's not held for ransom once a month, considering how bad Gotham gets."

I wonder how much of that story was true. Maybe Zatara really did help Bruce escape the Shadows, back before he became Batman. How long had Batman been around, anyway? Would the internet know?

My attention returns to the Gotham skyline, visions of my dream dancing in my head. Somewhere, Unit shifts underneath one of the sheets and nearly knocks over a hidden lamp. "Why's a millionaire need Zatara's help to raise money?"

Zatanna scoffs. "You mean billionaire. The guy loves to throw a party, so maybe he thinks having a real magician and a member of the Justice League at the event will get publicity and raise more money."

I nod in agreement. "So, Zatanna, are you asking me to convince your dad to let you perform with him?"

"Yes! Will you!? Please."

The uncomfortable silence of my hesitation seems to upset her. "This feels like a really personal decision between you two, and getting involved feels wrong. I don't really know you that well."

Whether Zatanna gets to perform or not should be between them. Me pushing for his daughter to jumpstart her future career as a stage magician feels like a little much.

"Fine, then ask him to let you and me perform. We can be his assistants!"

I cough in surprise. "What?"

"If you ask him about the performance and offer to help, then I can offer to help you help him." She rolls her eyes at the last part, but claps excitedly at the idea. "It's brilliant."

"But I don't know stage magic. And I don't like performing in front of others."

I've had literal nightmares about the time I sang in front of everyone in middle-school alongside a group of all girls. It's a wonder I wasn't just assumed to be gay long before I came out. Doing all that in front of whatever Gotham audience this kind of show appeals to?

"That sounds terrifying, and it would be the first time I've been in public, if you don't count Atlantis. I'm not human!"

She rolls her eyes in dismissal. "That's nothing a glamour can't fix. And you know real illusion magic! You and I can come up with a routine that slots right along with Dad's!"

I shake my head. "I'd rather just watch you two. Getting in the middle of such a personal moment for you feels icky."

Zatanna waves it off, but I know teenagers. She may not realize it now, but this would be a mistake on multiple levels. She would regret my presence during one of their first ever performances together, and I'd probably screw it up. I still cringe about getting involved in that weird situation between Kaldur, Garth, and Tula.

"I'm comfortable with helping to convince him, but I don't think I should perform. Maybe I can help from the sidelines, as part of the crew." She does not seem satisfied with that and starts to complain. "You really do not want me up there."

She sighs. "Fine. But if Dad wants you to perform, then-"

"Then I'll tell him no."

Zatanna launches into another round of complaints, but that odd double-layered voice of Unit cuts into my conscious thoughts. "This girl is pushy."

"All teenagers are pushy. It's part of the package."

Unit twists its body slightly and then scurries up the back of my leg to settle on my back. "Why do you not show her what pushy really is? Force your mind on hers."

"No!" I relay emphatically. "We don't do that to friends."

Unit draws a crystalline claw across the back of my neck lightly as it tries to find a comfortable position. "It would be easy to avoid notice. Siphon away the memory of your intrusion. Your position among the heroes would be unchanged."

"I'm not discussing this with you." My eyes dart away from Zatanna as she mumbles something about heading upstairs to do homework.

"You're no fun."

.A.

Zatara settles into the atrium of Shadowcrest, looking awful after a long day at work. A bit of soot covers his left cheek, and the normally pristine white shirt beneath his petticoat is covered in splotches of red that might be blood.

"You all right?" I knew he had left for a mission, but this is worse than I've seen him in a while. I'm glad Zatanna's at school, so she doesn't have to see him like this.

The Italian man's posture slumps with exhaustion. "I will be fine. Things are simply becoming more complicated as of late."

"Can I ask what happened?" This is not the first time that I've wanted to know just what exactly Zatara's duties with the League are, but usually, things are kept unsaid. "Totally fine if I can't know, but-"

Zatara shrugs off my train of thought with a hand, taking a few seconds of deep breath to recover. "It is fine to ask." He stands and slowly begins to process of making tea using the set on the wall, not allowing any magic to impede or accelerate on the process.

Unit crawls from its perch on my back and skitters down to poke at the magician's legs. With alarm, Zatara freezes and almost drops a spoon. "What is this?"

"Oh, sorry, that's Unit," I explain unhelpfully. "A familiar."

The magician gingerly pokes the psicrystal creature with his shoe, and the familiar rolls away before righting itself and then coming back toward me. "So, this was your most recent project."

"Yeah. I've not figured out everything it can do yet, but it's been exploring nearly every inch of the house whenever it gets a chance." A telepathic command forces Unit to teleport back to me with a pop of displaced air and a flicker of silver magic. "It's got a few tricks."

Zatara contemplates that for a moment before clearing his throat. "Your experience before coming to this plane. What do you remember of these Nine Hells?"

My eyes widen as I shoot to my feet. "Wait, did something happ-"

Zatara shakes his head. "I can only assume correlation, not causation."

"About what?" If the Nine Hells are still a thing here, then that could mean all sorts of horrible bullsh*t. "What happened?"

"Captain Marvel and I did battle with a trio of demons this afternoon," Zatara explains with a heavy sigh. "Neither of us understand their purpose – for as much as they can have one -but they attacked the Beck Museum of Natural History in Fawcett City."

"Demons?" Hmm. "Did they steal anything?"

Zatara shakes his head. "We considered that but the museum assured us that their exhibits were in order. We were lucky we arrived when we did to banish them."

My mind runs full circle back to the Nine Hells and the Abyss, hellish dimensions that mean very different things in the context of D&D lore. "So, any chance these were native to this… corner of the multiverse, or did they seem foreign? I don't even know if that question makes any sense."

Zatara pours his cup of tea and offers me one. It'll still taste like nothing at all, or worse, but I'll drink it. "It would require a greater diviner than I to understand their true origins, but Captain Marvel suspects they are from our own Hell. Fawcett City has a history of connection to the infernal realms."

I fight the urge to chuckle at that understatement. The Rock of Eternity is a nexus of reality after all. "But we can't rule it out." The Wisdom of Solomon says otherwise, but…

Zatara nods solemnly. "Not completely. You have been here less than one month, and an attack such as this has occurred. It could be a coincidence, or it could mean something worse."

I bite the bullet and drink the tea, renewed depression about the lack of taste rearing its ugly head again. "So, we don't know. Could they appear again?"

Zatara says nothing for a moment. "It can be difficult to truly destroy a demon permanently. Banishing them back to the infernal planes is easier to accomplish."

"That tracks with what I know, from my own plane." I clear my throat, trying to get the memory of the tea's lack of taste out of my mouth. "Only way to kill an outsider like a demon or a devil permanently is to enter their home dimension yourself and kill them there. You can imagine how often that happens."

"Yes, I imagine not." He breathes deeply. "Attacks such as this do not often happen without a purpose, and I suspect that someone else may be behind it. If true, we did not find the source. Perhaps a natural portal is open, or a conjurer opened the way for them. Captain Marvel still searches as we speak."

"So until you hear from him, the matter's up in the air?"

Zatara nods, though he seems to be lost in thought. "If something were to occur again… would you be willing to come along? I would keep you from harm's way, but it would be an opportunity for your own knowledge to perhaps confirm or deny our suspicions."

Working alongside Zatara on patrol? That's... like a dream come true. If he had been able to come to Atlantis, then I could have already had this opportunity.

"I would love to. I'm not sure how much I can really do, but-"

The man shrugs off that line of thinking. "You've been forced into the field before and emerged on the other side. Perhaps you are not ready to fight creatures such as these alone, but that is why I am here."

"Well… thank you for saying that." I still don't truly believe him – I'm too self-critical for that. "If you hear anything, you can count me in."

Zatara begins making his way toward the door to get some well-deserved rest, but my mind whirls. "Wait. Speaking of someone wanting to work alongside you, your-"

"Zatanna wishes to join me for the charity event," Zatara finishes, his expression unreadable.

My throat catches for a moment, unsure how to proceed. Does he like the idea? Does he hate it? "She asked me to ask you. I didn't want to pry, but…" My voice trails off.

He leans against the door frame and reaches up to undo his tie. "I have kept knowledge of my daughter largely out of the public eye, for her own safety. I cannot be certain that my own enemies would not take advantage."

I don't know how to respond to that. Every fiber of my being wants to shout from the rooftops that Zatanna will be far greater one day than he ever was, if the stories from the comics are largely true here as well. Getting her started on that path earlier rather than later would be better. It still feels like crossing a line, somewhere, but she wanted me to ask.

Wait. "Maybe she can look like someone else."

His brow rises. "What are you suggesting?"

"A glamour to let her look like anyone else. She… wants to perform with you, but maybe you can both keep her identity safe and allow her to join you on stage."

Zatara says nothing for a long moment, looking away to think. A few seconds later, his eyes return to mine. "I will consider it."

The man turns and leaves the room, closing the doors to the atrium behind him.

.A.

A lone figure walks through the forests outside the city, winding his way just to the side of the paved road. He hates the idea of getting his cloak wet with mud and other debris, but he cannot afford to use his usual protections against such things. Not this close to the house.

As he steps closer ever so slowly, he can sense the slight changes to reality that come with the territory of a manor like this. The tree branches are more gnarled like claws, the air cools to a light autumn breeze, and dew clings to each surface and lightly drapes the ground in fog. Just enough of a conceptual illusion to keep common fools from poking their noses too close to the business of the Zatara family.

They would do nothing against him.

He creeps along the bend until the wrought iron gates appear, locked tight and covered in a rusted chain that is quite impervious to harm despite its seeming weakness. Despite the appearance of such a gate, the actual grounds of Shadowcrest extend another two dozen feet in all directions, and the man is smart enough not to approach. The manor looms in the distance, its Gothic appearance matching the dark feeling of its ambient magical protections.

Oh, how he wants it.

The man traces his fingers through the air, careful to use so little magic that it would not register above the normal levels in the area. The layers of arcane wards register in his mind's eye a moment later, designed to protect against a variety of both magical and mundane effects. One such ward, one he did not know was here until now, would protect the house against the the direct impact of a nuclear bomb.

The paranoia of a fellow magician would always amuse him, though he cannot say that he ever thought to do the same. A spike of jealousy rings in his heart – it must be nice to be so talented.

Oh, how he wants it.

Chapter 35: 3.4 - Goals

Chapter Text

A fanciful little event.... Could this be the first night in this ghoulish city that is not so dull...?

He has to hope. Otherwise, he'll move on to bigger and better things. Quaint little towns filled with maidens and bachelors, gentlemen and gentlewoman for him to claim their lifeblood as his own. Cities abroad with streets that do not have shadows that threaten to swallow you whole when you least expect it.

Yes, this Gotham reminds him of the seedy underbelly that once frequented his master's estate, in the grand annals of Baldur's Gate. That place is a cesspool of horsesh*t, people sh*t, and ... well, just sh*t. The sights of these towering feats of engineering they call skyscrapers did nothing to stop him from experiencing the dreadful darkness in the distant periphery.

Every night, from sundown to sunup, he witnesses mortal human horrors. Poisons of the mind that ensnare the denizens' right senses. Desperations of the impoverished.

Gotham is no better, if not worse, than his homeland.

He drops the advertisem*nt flier to the ground, watching the night breeze carry it away into a pile of unwashed filth on tar-covered streets. One of those behemoths - a taxi cab, he's been told - carries the slip of paper in its wake, ruining the artwork that someone must have spent hours creating.

The sun finally sets in the distance, and he realizes that he likely has very little time before the show is to start. Waving with one hand and adjusting his pilfered overcoat with the other, he catches the attention of a middle aged woman whose blood smells of foul chemicals even from several yards away. "Excuse me, madam." He flashes a smile that could brighten the dimmest of nights. "Could you inform me where Gotham Square Garden is? I get so lost."

She doesn't stop moving, carrying a bundle under one arm. "You can find it on the corners of f*ck and off."

He blinks as she rounds the corner. "Are those...-"

Her retreating footsteps vanish from even his enhanced senses, buried under the din of a truly noisy atmosphere.

Well, that just won't do.

.A.

Sitting backstage during a show like this is a strange experience. A wall of monitors display the feeds from the cameras that are fit to record the show, and this small VIP area is actually beneath the stage that rests at the center of the complex, just out of public access and view. Dozens of people are on staff to make just this area work, and there are likely hundreds involved in the whole venue.

Zatanna paces in front of me, dressed in a far less revealing version of what I remember from the comics. A welcome change, for her age and for principles. The rest of the world will see her as a twenty-something assistant to the world's greatest magician, but Zatara and I see the truth.

"You guys rehearsed here last night, but this is bigger than I expected." I gesture to one of the larger screens that displays the stands, where perhaps thousands of fans have gathered to witness the event. "Doesn't it like take weeks to get ticket sales for something like this?"

The girl doesn't answer initially, a worried expression radiating across her face. "Am I rushing into this?"

My brow furrows. "What do you mean?"

"It's probably just the nerves, never mind."

I hold up a hand. "No, talk."

She clears her throat. "It's just, there's a lot of people out there."

I don't mention that there will be many more watching on television and online as well. "Your dad's a big deal. Any show he does is bound to get the attention of the world." A member of the League putting on a performance is going to get clicks. "You wanted this."

"What if I mess it up? Forget one of my lines? Stand in the wrong place, or charge a spell wrong? Draw on the wrong type of power... tucker myself out! There's so many-"

"Zatanna."

She locks eyes with me suddenly.

"You're awesome. You're incredible. You have so got this."

She fidgets with the glamour bracelet on her wrist before her eyes meet mine once more. "This is my dad's career, and the show's for a good cause. What if I mess up so badly that people withdraw their donations, or want refunds?"

"This was your idea, and I can tell how badly you want it. Please, Zatanna, stop worrying. You were born for this!"

Truthfully, I do not know if she has this. Everything in the comics says that she becomes a true superstar, but is she one now? The girl's still in her awkward teenage phase. She could be dreadful.

But she wants it. I'm not going to point out any flaws - let's be encouraging.

The stage lights dim and the sound cues backstage begin to signal the production crew. A stage manager gestures for Zatanna to come with her for a last minute sound-check. "Have you seen Mr. Zatara?"

"Da- err, Mr. Zatara isn't here yet?" Zatanna's face blanches.

They had arrived to the venue separately, due to a schedule change, but it worries me too that he's not-

A bending of light surrounds a panel of black curtains, and then Giovanni Zatara slips from the folds as though he was always standing there. "Apologies, all, I could not pull away." Already dressed in his uniform, he slips the top hat onto his head and looks warmly toward his daughter and then myself. "Wish us luck."

The man takes the girl's hand, and I cannot feel prouder.

.A.

Popcorn floats harmlessly onto the couch, perfectly placed between them all. M'gann hovers behind it before taking her place next to Superboy, sheepishly grabbing the remote from him. "Sorry, but we can go back to your favorite show after this." The Cave's television monitor switches from an empty channel of static to the GNN channel. The Kryptonian merely grunts.

Robin leans back onto a mound of cushions, shoveling almost as much popcorn into his gullet as Wally. The redhead grimaces as Cat Grant's voice continues mid-sentence. "- vage of the fundraising event! This massive program was made possible by Gotham's own philanthropist billionaire Bruce Wayne. If you're just tuning in, we have an audio recording from the man himself, explaining his rationale for sponsoring the event!"

Wally elbows Robin in the side, and the youngest of the sidekicks shoots him a look.

"I consider it one of my greatest passions to give back to the people in Gotham City who need it the most. My company is matching one hundred twenty percent of the proceeds in donations-"

Artemis scoffs. "One hundred and twenty percent is chump change for a guy like him."

Wally whips his head around to stare at the blonde. "Well, if Zatara's first public show in years makes millions, then that's millions more thanks to Wayne!"

"Yeah, and he could have just donated that amount on his own. Why make a show of it? It's all just to improve his stock margins."

"If you'd been listening," Robin declares, "then you'd have heard him explain that he's donating any profits - including company profits after this for the next month - to the cause."

"Again, that's just chump change," Artemis says, picking kernels out of her handful of popcorn. "I'll give him credit where it's due: at least the event will be fun."

"Definitely!" Wally says as he leans toward M'gann. "We'll have to give Aqualad the play-by-play when he gets back from his mission with Red Arrow."

Artemis smirks. "You seem awfully excited by a magic show."

Wally groans at nearly the same time as Superboy and even M'gann, though the Martian tries to hide it. "Yeah, and? I can be excited by smoke and mirrors."

"This again? That Helmet didn't-"

"Shhh! It's starting!" M'gann shouts, and they turn their attention toward the television screen.

.A.

Astarion slips past the ticket line after producing some of that wretched paper they call money around here. Finding a seat among hundreds if not thousands of onlookers that is not truly terrible was a difficult prospect, but he found one at least somewhat close to the stage. Nearly twenty-five rows of seats up, true, but he has a great view of one of the four viewing screens situated around the complex.

The seat in front of him? A pee stain of a little boy sits nervously, agitated, hoping the loud noises of the announcer finally stop so that they can get started. He complains loudly to his father, a rotund and haggard man who looks as though he's not lost a meal in weeks. The boy kicks the seat dramatically in front of him, even as the father tries his best to calm him down. The owner of that seat shoots the boy a dirty look, while the father pathetically apologizes.

"That is no way to wrangle your son."

The father blinks. "What did you say to me?"

Astarion smiles and bares just a hint of teeth, the kind of predatory action that would signal to anyone that he's a threat worth taking seriously. "I was merely making an educated summation of your horrible parenting skills."

"What did you just-"

"Oh, please," he rolls his eyes. A hint of power flows from within his skull, leaping into the recesses of the man's disgusting mind. Something squirms with delight beneath Astarion's skin, writhing through his blood, through his bones, through his nerves. "Your first instance of parental neglect tonight was clean underwear - you can smell him a mile away."

The father shoots to his feet, anger exploding across his face. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

Several other onlookers are now paying attention to this section of the venue, and the little boy begins to show signs of nervousness.

"Every child needs a master for a father, for until they learn to care for themselves, they are your responsibility and your property. But property should be treated well, not treated with neglectful abuse." He lets power drape across his words. "Take him home and treat him right."

The rotund man blinks.

"And eat a salad for a change."

He blinks once more and then wipes his eyes. "C'mon, Eddie, we're leaving."

Astarion swells with satisfaction. If he can continue on this trend tonight, perhaps he will be able to ask this Giovanni Zatara for answers about his condition.

.A.

I have no regrets for not stepping out onto the stage.

Would it have been a fun memory to have? Sure - even if my part of the performance went wrong, I think eventually I'd look back on it with excitement.

It would take a while though, because I still cringe thinking about the time I performed the song "Ain't No Mountain High" with my middle school math team and was the only boy on stage. (In my defense, my mother was the one who directed the performance).

But regardless, the stage and doing stage magic is not for me. Especially not for me when there's potentially millions of people watching at home.

Then again, I did actually do a magic show when I was in first grade in front of my entire school....

God.

As I watch Zatanna do what she set out to do with her father, I cannot help but smile. As Zatara wows the crowd with a quartet of giant dancing illusory playing cards, Zatanna makes the Queen of Hearts leap into the air and then do an Irish jig over the crowd, to much applause.

This is what they were made to do.

What am I made to do?

What is my next step?

I have distracted myself with enchanting projects, but that's a short-term goal that serves only as a distraction.

A distant long-term goal? Getting this tadpole out of my head. As far as anyone can tell, it's not an immediate ticking time bomb.

What do I do in the meantime?

I can't just sit in Shadowcrest Manor and mooch off of the Zataras forever. That's a short-term solution, one that is bound to end soon anyway. I'm grateful for their help, but I also feel guilty for imposing as long as I have.

But I don't have anywhere else to go.

Would the League fund an apartment for me to help get off my feet? Hell, would Bruce Wayne help a homeless guy like myself out?

Do I need to get a damn job?

Or... should I stick with the convention?

I have powers. I've already helped others on multiple occasions.

It felt good to heal that guard back in the palace of Atlantis. To try to stop Ocean-Master and his goons.

It felt good to thwart Psimon and... it tasted good too. Ugh.

Is it time to start thinking about a name and making a costume?

The music above suddenly stops and a voice booms overhead. Murmurs and boos roar in the crowd.

"Welcome to the last performance of your life, Giovanni Zatara!"

My eyes scan the screens with terror. Hovering atop a purple circle of runes is a bearded man in a set of robes, an open book across his palm that glimmers with light. He gestures dramatically toward the stage from his perch dozens of feet overhead, and a brave cameraman stays in the editing booth long enough to zoom in on Zatara's shocked expression.

Even as stage managers and other backstage crew begin to run for the nearest exit, I push down my need to panic.

In the short-term: assist Zatara.

That's all that matters for now.

Chapter 36: 3.5 - Sins

Chapter Text

My heart thrums rapidly in my chest. I'm caught in the action. Again.

The Hells. Bialya. Atlantis.

Now? This.

I pulse psionic energy to the forefront of my mind, conjuring the familiar onto my back. The psicrystal construct with the voice of the Absolute vibrates with excitement, its purple body glittering with silver light. Checking that the glamour covering my body is active, making me look human rather than as an aasimar, I take a step forward and into the fray.

The robed spellcaster levitates on spinning glyphs, other runic diagrams revolving freely in the air around him. An open book floats above his left hand, and his right gestures toward the stage with a challenge in his mind. "You, Zatara, shall know the full might of Faust!"

Zatara rises to the challenge, his wand at the ready as a focus for spellcraft. Despite the terror pounding in my veins, the Leaguer does not show any sign of discomfort. He looks just as snazzy in battle as he does on the stage, heroic presence at hand. "Stand down before I show you why you have never bested me!"

A psychic link forms with a flex of my mind, binding both Zatanna and Zatara to my inner thoughts. "What do you need us to do?"

"Dad, this is-"

"Guide the crowds to safety! Do not engage with Faust!" Zatara raises both hands into the air and summons visible arcane might that fluctuates just at the edge of his lips. "Sniatruc, dnib mih!"

The huge, maroon curtains surrounding the edge of the stage flutter to life without warning, detach themselves from the ceiling, and fly toward Felix Faust with reckless abandon. The man flies backward a few feet on his glowing runic disc and merely gestures with the open book. Purple flames emerge from circular glyphs and envelop the fabric in a wavering aura of heat. Ash drifts softly to the ground, coating members of the audience.

The display of force between hero and villain ensures in that moment that everyone in the crowd is no longer safe. Hundreds begin to flee with screams of terror and gasps of fright, shouts of anger as people begin to pile into one another to try to escape the battle. I focus my attention on the fleeing groups on the right, then gesture to my left. "Zatanna, help them out!"

I bolt from the central platform for a stage, energy brimming underneath my palms. Slapping a fist onto my armor, I pour celestial power from within to conjure light, to draw the focus of the eyes. "Hey! Give people some space!"

I cannot hear my own voice amid the chaos. Frightened security for the venue begin doing their job near the entrance to get people to safety, and the crowd near the back stalls as they see me, some fleeing even faster in terror.

"No, no, I'm Argent!" I shout without really thinking, mind frazzled for the right approach. "I'm with Zatara, one of the good guys. Please, listen to me! We don't want to injure each other!"

Some believe me, some don't, but almost none stop their stampede into the distant emergency exits, threatening to trample men, women, and children. I urge people faster and faster, conjuring four silvery mage hands at once to usher people up and out of the building and to act as a deterrent toward people running over one another.

I do have a new spell that might work. Tapping further than before into the psionic energy of the tadpole, the band around my upper arm burns with the focus of the second-level spell just before it releases. A cascade of silvery light washes over a significant portion of the crowd, an aura enveloping the thoughts and emotions of each person within its effect. The spell to calm the emotions of the crowd mutes their responses to the crisis, and the stampede shifts to a quick but calm dash away from the scene. I pour sorcerous energy from my pool of power into calm emotions, and the magic shifts and expands to cover an even greater area, drowning as many people as possible in argent light.

Purple flame dances along one of the venue's walls in the background as Zatara continues his fight with the enemy, and Zatanna shouts, "Dad!" into the mental link. Still focused on maintaining the spell, I spot her in the distance with a look over my shoulder, magic slightly thrumming around her own form as she enchants under her breath. A group of theatre seats begins to move of their own accord, pushing people closer and closer to the outside.

Faust glimmers with a surge of arcane power and smiles brightly from far above us. "Let's see you try this, Giovanni!" the wizard shouts with an arcane amplification, the voice audible even amidst all the noise.

Several seconds pass while the magic around Faust builds, yet Zatara does not sit idly. He chants something I cannot hear and then sends a bolt of bright white light in the direction of the villain. Whatever its purpose was is unclear as it splashes ineffectively against one of Faust's many magical shields that hover into place to intercept the blast.

Faust's magic reaches its apex. Purple flaming glyphs appear in three separate places surrounding the stage, near the levitating magician. Zatara's coat flutters in the midst of such arcane power, and emerging from the center of each glyph is a monstrous form. Ruddy skin, elongated claws, pointed teeth, twisted wings, forked tail - the spitting image of three truly horrific infernal creatures: demons.

God, this just got much worse.

With a roar of devilish might, the nearest to Zatara takes no time to rush toward the wizard with a single flap of its wings, and they force the wizard onto the defensive. They rip, tear, and slash at a spherical golden energy shield but seem to make no purchase on the human within.

Someone in the crowd bumps into me, reminding me of what I am supposed to do in this moment. A member of the Justice League who has already clashed with these demons lately can handle this, surely?

"Dad!"

The forceful telepathic shout of Zatanna draws my attention, and she dashes toward the stage without hesitation. She darts and hops over seats, trying to move as quickly as she can to intervene. The animated seats near the entrance collapse as her initial spell fails, causing more confusion in the other side of the theatre.

I focus on the link. "Don't!" Zatanna cannot handle three demons on her own!

"It's my father!"

"Zatanna, I could not bear to lose you-"

She shouts a spell, avoiding choking smoke and purple flame that snakes up the corridor from one of the Faust's missed spells. "Og yawa!" Her own power surges in the direction of the nearest demon, now a mere thirty or so feet from her. It washes over the assailant, and the infernal creature takes several steps away, but it does not hold it back for long.

"Og yawa!" she tries again, and the demon disengages further from the stage magician, but does not flee the scene entirely. It's working, but it's not enough.

Faust twists in surprise, turning his body to watch Zatara's running daughter. "It seems you cannot find good help these days, Giovanni. Your assistant is no match for you, nor for me, nor for the Demons Three."

One of the monsters continues its assault on Zatara's shield, dark orange flames licking at the protective light with each swipe of its hellish claws. The other two, including the one that Zatanna attempted to banish, round on the girl, and I can't just let this happen.

"Keep watch and let me know if anything comes toward the crowd," I say telepathically to Unit, and the familiar drops the ground without issue.

"I am surprised you care about the rabble."

Ignoring the voice of the Absolute, I push further on my celestial power than ever before, hoping that it might make a difference in a battle involving demons. I remember what this felt like in the mindscape with Martian Manhunter only a little while ago, and I pull on that positive memory.

Light surges from within, wavering like a hazy mist just above the surface of my skin. Positive emotion surges into focus. Everything coalesces a moment later into two wings of bright silver light jutting from my back, and their radiance shines in the darkened theatre. With an experimental flap, I cannot help but grin as the protective power of an aasimar exudes from me in its purest form.

"It's on every channel," Conner confirms as he presses the button on the remote again and again. Every major channel shows the same chaos as before: a charity performance for the homeless gone wrong, as Zatara battles some sorcerer called Felix Faust. Harried reporters and camera crews rise to the occasion, trying to get a bead on exactly how and what is happening, and their commentary is more than bewildered.

Artemis cannot help but think of her mother. If this spills into the streets and heads the wrong direction, their apartment is only blocks away from Gotham Square Garden. She itches to move, to program the Zeta Tube, and to head directly to the scene, but how does she explain this? The Team doesn't do disaster response.

"Is that an angel?" M'gann asks suddenly as one of the camera angles catches a figure flying into view on glowing wings, opposite to the three figures on darkened burning wings.

Wally scoffs. "Probably just another Thanagarian. But this whole situation is truly wild."

Robin turns his intense focus to Artemis, eyes shielded behind sunglasses that he refuses to put away, which only serves to make the thirteen year old even sillier in civilian clothes. He looks away for a moment, reaching for his utility belt.

"What are you doing?" Artemis asks the kid, itching to find her own gear.

"I'm going," he says simply.

"The Team doesn't-"

"The Team doesn't have to go," Robin challenges, cutting her off. "But Gotham is my home turf." He shifts away from the TV monitor and toward the locker room.

Conner squints at the boy. "You really think you'll be useful?"

"I'm not planning to get involved in some biblical battle," Robin declares. "But situations like this can always use a friendly face in uniform to do crowd control. M'gann, set the Zeta-Tube to Gotham for me, will ya?"

The alien girl nods, concern written all over her face as she watches the boy disappear into the innards of the cave to get changed.

Artemis fights within herself for several seconds before she nods, thinking of a convincing half-truth. "I'm going too. I have family in Gotham."

Wally does that thing where his mouth starts to open too quickly and then stops abruptly. He nods understandingly. "If you're going too, we should all go-"

Conner clears his throat. "Captain Atom made it clear. If we appear in public like this, it looks coordinated. Like a team. I don't think that's what Kaldur, Tornado, or the League would want."

"'Get on board or get out of the way,'" Wally repeats a phrase Conner once said, if Artemis remembers the stories right. "You once said that, SB. Maybe we can stay out of sight, away from any cameras."

Artemis shakes her head, already feeling like this debate is a waste of her time. Her mother is in danger. "There is nowhere out of sight. A superhero and a supervillain fighting at a concert venue may as well be the Superbowl half-time show. We start directing crowds, before some of us are even publicly known heroes? They'll start asking questions."

M'gann's frown deepens as her fingers dance across the controls near the Zeta-Tube. "I don't like it, but she's right. I'm sure the League is on their way."

"What if Zatara cannot contain it? Shouldn't we-"

Artemis ignores Wally's next argument as she leaves the room.

It must be so nice to be well-known. They won't question Kid Flash if he rushes into danger, even if Central City is several states away. They won't question Robin because, well, that's his home, and it has been for years. But the rest of the group? Conner and M'gann are not public. Artemis herself has only operated in Star City with Arrow a handful of times. Before that? She stopped some muggers, some dealers, a couple robberies, and reported three assaults; that's barely a dent in the cesspit that is Gotham City, and half of those were attributed to the press to Batman anyway.

She could go. It would change things for her, put her on a trajectory that her father would absolutely hate, all in the defense of her own mother.

Artemis is fine with that.

Astarion, all things considered, now regrets looking into this world's magicians for an answer. After all, the mindflayer tadpole lets him walk in the sun. He has witnessed the rising dawn with his own eyes, something that not even his master Cazador could claim to have seen for hundreds of years.

Oh, if only the bastard could see him now.

So, in a flight of fancy, he heads to some big mage's comeback tour, for charity of all things. But that turns out to have been a mistake, because holy Hells! Demons, wizards, and angels battling it out for supremacy within a building packed with mortal bystanders. Bystanders like himself!

To make matters even worse, he's halfway to the nearest exit when he feels something. It undulates beneath his skin, along his nerves, within his veins. The mindflayer tadpole buried in his skull longs for the familiar touch of another of its kind. He wants to ask it what it sees, what it feels, but he's only ever talked to it in his dreams, where it parades around as his master. As it is, the tadpole forces every ounce of flesh to itch with need.

It wants something here. It needs something here. Is it the demons? Was the mindflayer ship in the Nine Hells for a reason? Perhaps the tadpole wants them, somehow. Regardless, he can't bring himself to leave without finding out what.

As it is, Astarion cannot sit here and squander the moment. He's been in this world long enough to put two and two together - this is a classic battle between hero and villain, the ones that the people rave about on the television, whatever these little picture boxes even are. The wizard near the stage is a hero, and the one Astarion came to see. An opportunity rises in the rogue's mind - perhaps he can earn the man's good graces.

The vampire spawn reaches into a coat pocket and pulls a dagger, flipping it into his palms. With a bated breath, Astarion disengages from the surrounding crowd and slinks toward the fray in the shadows.

As he nears the stage, the illithid worm in his head grows ever more excited.

The pair of demons twist their almost serpentine bodies in the direction of Zatanna. As I fly forward on angelic wings, armor still glowing from the Light spell, I summon magical might into twinned rays of frost. Cold beams of eldritch light strike into the back of the demons, coating them in bits of ice as they angrily screech in pain, movement slowed. Radiance from my celestial nature leaves behind a wound that festers and burns across their crimson skin, and they immediately turn their attention to me, flame brewing in their mouths.

Psychic force activates the brooch in time to divert the infernal heat and flame, a shimmering force field of argent light emerging from the brooch as the shield spell activates. It hovers in my path like a disc of energy for several seconds, while their gouts of flame break against it without reaching me.

"Leave them alone!" I call out from behind the shield as the flames die down, feeling less protected a second later as the shield spell fades. The brooch I enchanted could do that a few times a day before it can recharge, but I have other options that might last more.

The stage magician flexes with a chanted backwards word. The gold light of his barrier forms into a fifteen-foot-long blade and swipes downward at the fiend still engaged with him. It cuts deep gashes into its demonic arm, flesh dropping onto the stage below. Wings unfurl, it roars with sizzling black ichor dripping from its wounds, a stump where his left arm once was.

Faust's glyphs flutter around him in the air, preparing an automated defense that could react to any of our attacks. The man laughs, the sound reverberating across the entire chamber from high above the floor. "An interesting ally, Giovanni. How does one court the Host of Heaven to come to a little magic show?"

Zatara locks eyes with me as he floats. "Do not engage with Faust!"

"If I can help, then shouldn't-"

"Do not engage."

Zatanna begins to speak to cast a spell, but a flick of Faust's wrist causes the fabric of her own assistant's outfit to wrap tightly around her mouth. She struggles to free herself, backing away from the demons who now have their attention on my flying, angelic form.

No pressure or anything.

Zatara is furious. "Unbind her and leave this place, Faust! Your quarrel is with me, not them, nor with the denizens of Gotham!"

Faust receives the plea on deaf ears. "I think not, for I have the upper hand."

He didn't say that I can't engage the demons.

Wings of celestial light beating, I do not want to waste their short duration, knowing that they are providing an additional layer of offense toward the demonic threat still brewing. It's through Faust's own control over his summoned creatures, I imagine, that they have not yet threatened the still retreating crowd, but that cannot last.

I empower a spell through psionic power and unleash a second-level chaos bolt toward the nearest demon. A prismatic swirl of energy forms into a sphere of magic and launches through the air, shifting to a bright purple at the last moment. In its wake, sparks of arcane cold, fire, lightning glitter across the ground. A thunderous boom accompanies the spell, but the demon was ready for it, leaping away almost like a feline predator in enough time that the spell wildly misses. When it hits the wall behind the demon, the brick explodes outward in a shower of dust and debris.

The fiend screeches above the din, impacts its wings hard against the air, and then moves so fast that I can barely keep track. Somewhere, Zatara attempts to dispel the bindings on his daughter, but Faust summons a torrent of flame that he has to move to diffuse instead. I try to move out of the way of the demon's probable attack, but its tail manages to wrap around my flank and to yank me hard in its direction.

Claws seek to impale me around the midsection, but impact with a sizzle of flesh and a burst of silver sparks in the last moment against the shield spell. The brooch of shielding proves its worth once more. It doesn't force the grapple to end, though. The tail drags me through the air so swiftly and with so much force that I'm sent into a hard, fast downward spiral.

"Logan!" Zatanna shouts telepathically.

I try to flex my wings and slow my fall, but it's too late. I crash into the floor with enough force that the wood beneath me splinters into pieces, and pain erupts in every limb and across my torso. I glance down at myself for only a moment as blood leaks from several places, barely conscious from the sheer onslaught to my senses.

The wings brighten for just a moment as I flex them to move, but the movement sputters to a stop as everywhere continues to throb and halts my focus. Tiny specks appear in my vision, ears ringing, the acrid scent of blood and brimstone filling my nostrils.

Tanking hits like that? As a squishy mostly-normal? How do superheroes who aren't flying bricks do it?

I pull on celestial power and coat my hands, trying and failing to pay attention to the battle raging on around me. Somewhere, Zatara and Faust clash with spell after spell, while the demons rage and try to rush the magician. Zatanna appears in my field of view, but her mouth remains covered. Her hands press down, renewing even worse pain. Her words telepathically do not reach me, and the link flickers to a stop, increasing the worry on her face.

I wave weak hands covered in argent light, and then press them hard into one of the wounded areas. A touch of celestial energy spreads into the wound, and for several seconds, the pain in that region slowly begins to lessen. Zatanna's eyes go wide, and then she guides my hands into each wounded place she can see.

Slowly but surely, my condition will improve, and the pain begins to lessen. Will it be enough?

Astarion watches from the shadows cast by the spotlights on stage, waiting for the right moment to strike. He crouches, muscles ready to pounce as one of the demons gets ever nearer. They seem focused on assailing the wizard, a blessing, he's sure, for the mortals fleeing the scene. By now, much of the audience has fled, leaving Astarion mostly alone with the three wizards, three demons, and the angel who seems to not live up to the legends.

When this Giovanni Zatara speaks his fancy words, three circles of metal appear out of nothing with a fanciful puff of smoke. They float in mid-air, spiraling over one another in different revolutions. It would be an impressive trick even in Baldur's Gate, which has its fair share of wizards.

"What do these trinkets do, Giovanni? You conjure some ancient Art from the depths of your sanctum?"

Giovanni says nothing as the three rings begin to separate from their dance, shimmering as they gather in the light. A winged demon attempts to dive toward the man, but a single word stops the demon in its tracks as magic pins its wings behind its back, rooting it not on the ground but in the air, suspended.

"You speak of the Manor, Faust. Is that what you want?"

Faust laughs snidely. "Oh yes. In fact, I'll spare your city, your assistant, your angelic servant if you hand over the Key to Shadowcrest right now."

Zatara chuckles. "You truly think that I would give you what you want, Faust? You have nothing. No natural talent, no Art in your bloodline. You borrow powers from those better than you, and you seek to gain from my family's own vaults? How pathetic."

Astarion rises from his hidden perch for a single moment, long enough to fling the dagger in the direction of the suspended demon. It whirls, end over end, and embeds itself in the pinned creature's left flank. The creature wails in pain as acidic ichor splatters from the wound, staining the ground black with its boiling blood. Fire explodes from its mouth like a volcano, an infernal inferno threatening to set fire to the rafters.

The vampire rogue dips back into the shadows, hoping to avoid notice. Both wizards are too self-absorbed in their confrontation to notice his presence, but react to the dagger's attack with surprise. The other two demons, covered in ichor from various wounds, move to engage with the wizard, but Astarion crouches further away to find another angle to strike.

Faust and his spellbook shimmer with renewed light as his anger spikes. Telekinetic bursts explode from his hands, a shock wave that pushes everything it touches with massive force in all directions. Audience seats are flung from their positions. Glass protecting the lights on the ceiling shatter. The walls shudder with pressurized air. Debris from the ongoing conflict spirals out of control and all across the room.

The force hits Astarion like a rampaging behemoth, flinging him bodily into the brick just behind him, leaving a cracked imprint where the force struck. He slides to the floor, dazed, blood spilling from a wound on the back of his head. It would heal with feeding, but he pushes himself to his feet woozily. There were some bystanders caught in the blast, but none are too close to offer their blood to him. He'll have to make do without it.

Zatara summoned a shimmering golden barrier in time to keep the wounded angel, his assistant, and his own body safe. Astarion wonders how long he can keep going like this. Already, the man looks exhausted and tries poorly to hide it from any onlookers. Breaths heavy, shoulders sagged, sweat dripping. The other spellcaster shows his own signs of exhaustion, but Astarion doesn't have the training to assume one is doing worse than the other; he just knows that he can smell the nearest one's sweat.

Rubbing at his bleeding head, vision slightly blurry at the edges of his sight, the vampire spawn crawls to his feet and crouches once more, wondering if he can get an angle with his daggers on the floating man. There are… rafters on the ceiling…

Yes. That will do.

I push myself to my feet the moment my celestial healing hands dim to their normal hue, though Zatanna protests. "You're not well, lie down-"

"Take my daughter and yourself out of here, Logan, through whatever means you have."

I can't listen to that, glowering at a visibly weakened Zatara. The man has conjured three magical rings that remain spinning in the air, while he holds back the demons and Faust's magic with a barrier spell, somehow providing enough power for both. "Can you handle these three demons and Faust yourself?"

"At my height and without other factors like your safety and the safety of the audience, perhaps I could," Zatara explains truthfully, eyes unfocused and his deeper, inner thoughts clearly on the wounded audience in the distance. "I only need to stall long enough for the League to send back-up."

"Yeah, but he knows that," I add, feeling the power of my wings slowly fading. "What's his play here? He wants to force you to give up the… what? The Key? He's got minutes left at best to make you do that."

"I can see his next move, and things are about to get much worse," Zatara explains. "Prepare yourself and go."

Zatara snaps his hands together and begins to speak. "LeehW fo tnemhsinaB, dnes eseht sdneif kcab ot lleH!" The magic pulses outward visibly from the magician's weakened body, and that's too much!

"Dad! You can't do that alone!" Zatanna continues pulling at her own jacket, trying to remove the cloth binding over her face, but fails. I pull on it myself, but it truly is stuck.

The three rings begin to rotate once more in a different trajectory, almost wobbling as they move before finally solidifying into a solid spin. At the same moment, Faust's book crackles with arcane lightning, a bolt zig-zagging across the air and shattering the barrier spell protecting us. I have just enough time to think! The shield amulet propels itself outward, expands into a metallic gold and silver runic disc, and tanks the blast. Sparks of arcane power hit the floor of the venue below our feet, leaving behind scorched marks across the floor.

The three demons, covered in wounds, take off flying for us the moment that the barrier fails, but the rings move to intercept. Felix Faust cries out angrily, voice still amplified through some charm, and magic flows freely from his position. "Attack the crowd!"

The fiends shift their direction immediately, sharpened claws and leathery wings flying directly for the few remaining members of the audience. Zatara and Faust once more clash, magic to magic, as the enemy's telekinesis holds the three rings from reaching their targets to do whatever it is that they are intending to do, allowing the demons to attack indiscriminately.

I don't plan to allow this to happen. "Giovanni, help your daughter and let us help them."

With a pained expression, he taps his wand to her cheek, and the cloth resists for a second and then unfurls, leaving her unbound. Beads of sweat drip down his forehead, the strain of this clearly far more than anyone expected.

One of the infernal creatures reaches its first target, a young woman trying to help an elderly man walk up the stairs and out. I dash forward as quickly as I can and propel an argent blast of cold into the back of the demon's head, coating it in frost. It twists away to look toward me, in time to see Zatanna throwing a hand forward.

"Etativel!" The demon lifts from the ground, suspended in mid-air and unable to move, even as it beats is wings."I can't hold it for long."

Another demon rears its head back and prepares to unleash a gout of flame toward some of the last vestiges of the audience standing near one of the exits, trying and failing to get out swiftly. I point with my hand, and the familiar Unit launches itself off of the ground like a telekinetic rocket. The crystalline creature pierces into the throat of the demon just before the flames manifest, and it continues to burrow inside even as the fiend tries to rip the psicrystal out of its wound.

I attack its mind with Dissonant Whispers, telepathic utterings forced through spellcraft to attack and cloud his thoughts. Unit drops from its wound just as it screams in pain, but it must have resisted the effect because it does not flee. The creature spins toward me and flies, moving without care for the blood still pouring from its throat, and, "Holy sh*t how do you kill these things?"

Seconds away from a claw through my own throat, I finish the second-level spell and vanish from sight, only to reappear more than a dozen feet away, behind the demon. It whirls toward me and rebounds after misty step, but I was ready for it, conjuring a chaos bolt. Undulating prismatic energy warbles before solidifying into a bright yellow color, a ball of acid burning a solid fifteen-inch hole into the demon's flesh just before it can reach me.

It doubles over, trying to remain standing as its flesh burns, ichor and fleshy ooze pooling at my feet and coating my clothing. I take a second to run backwards and away from it before it can recover, eyes spotting the third infernal creature ripping apart a portly man, forcing renewed screams of terror.

I consider how to tackle both of these creatures, while Zatanna holds the third at bay. One heavily wounded, the other missing its left arm, I don't have many tools in my shed left. A couple of first-level spell slots, no sorcery points, and cantrips that likely are barely able to bite through their resistances. Every second I waste is another second where I cannot stop the onslaught, and I cannot help but feel that every life lost, every second I hesitate, is another second where someone might die.

A mind sliver attacks the mind of the demonic creature, but it barely notices, continuing its assault. Zatanna crouches down, sweat pouring from her brow, and the demon she's holding in the air looks like it's about to blow fire directly on her.

f*ck!

Felix Faust screams so loudly that it reverberates throughout the theatre, the sound echoing with increased volume. I glance up in time to see him remove a knife sticking from his left bicep, his purple tome spiraling to the ground in a trail of pages and wizard blood. Where did the knife come from?

He tries to recover, tries to concentrate, but the effect is clear. A momentary lapse in concentration is all it takes for Zatara to finally break through, as Faust's telekinetic hold on the three rings fails.

Spinning through the air like a wheel, each ring reaches its target: the demons. With six revolutions, their purpose becomes clear. A portal snaps open inside each ring, infernal firelight spilling into the darkened theatre. It lasts for all but a moment as Zatara's spell completes, the portal rings sweeping forward to capture each of them and send them back to their hellish realm. A moment later, and the rings vanish from sight.

Zatanna collapses to her knees, breathing heavier even than her father. Pain I was ignoring until a second ago returns to the forefront of my mind, half-healed cuts and bruises that my aasimar heritage wasn't able to fully fix. Faust's spell glyphs start to fail, and it's all he can do to avoid falling more than forty feet to potentially broken bones or worse. When he tumbles to the ground, he stumbles to his knees and begins trying to grab every scrap of paper he can find, the book somewhere amidst the audience seats but not in sight.

"You failed, Felix," Giovanni says as he floats toward us and comes to a stop just before the wizard. "Evomer mih fo sih enacra stnemelpmi."

A moment later, and Faust lies crouched on all fours in nothing more than briefs, scraggly hair unkempt. Faust throws up a hand weakly to Zatara, but nothing happens, not even a bit of heat or sparks. A deep wound bleeds from his upper left arm, and another spell binds the area in conjured gauze.

"Unfair! Unjust! This is cruel!"

"You're going to face justice for your crimes. When the Art rears its ugly head, know that Giovanni Zatara has already delivered a punishment for your sinful greed. Won, peels."

Faust collapses into an unconscious heap.

Damn.

Zatara nearly collapses a moment later, and he leans against me as I offer an arm. "I… Am I this far from my prime, to have to rely on the shoulders of youth to even stand?"

"Dad!" Zatanna rushes over, wincing at his tired features. "We need to get you somewhere to lie down."

He waves it off. "No, no, there is much to be done once the League gets here. I must make an appearance to the press and begin the-" He winces lightly, eyes unfocused for a long second.

Zatanna's tears are fresh, but her expression is almost angry. "I told you that was too much to do alone! You're always warning me about biting off more than I can chew, but you did all that and more!"

Whatever Zatara will say next falls to the side as two titanic figures fly into the room from one of the exits, pushing past people and prepared for action. One such figure is one of my favorite heroes of all time, a tall woman who gleams with the enchantment magic of her people across her armored tiara, her armored gauntlets, and her armored torso: Wonder Woman. The second is a barrel-chested man, the pinnacle of human, wearing a skintight red suit and white half-cape with a superhero name that's just a lawsuit waiting to happen: Captain Marvel.

Zatara calls out to both of them as they touch down nearby. "The threat is over. We must-"

"You must rest," Wonder Woman orders, and Zatara's posture relaxes into my grip the moment she says it, as he lets go of the tension in his muscles. Marvel takes him from my grip with a cheery smile on his face, a bright spot in a room filled with injured - or worse - civilians. The intense woman turns to study my face. "We have much to do, but we will talk soon."

Paramedics make their way inside - or perhaps they already were - while police begin investigating the remnants of the chaos and readying Faust for custody. I ready myself for a long evening, while Zatanna stays by her recovering father's side.

Minutes of rest pass. A tap on the shoulder precedes a stirring of the tadpole within my flesh. I whirl around to see a handsome yet pale man with curly white hair, some of it in the back stained with blood. Something stirs deep within me, something familiar.

A swirl of memories, of thoughts, of expressions that are not my own fill my awareness for a brief second before it halts without warning. Oh! Something similar happened before, with the githyanki Lae'zel, on the nautiloid in the Nine Hells.

"Sorry to bother you while you're in your rest," the man dressed in dark, blood-stained expensive business attire says, "but I could really use a stroll. I think you and I both know we have much to discuss."

Chapter 37: 3.6 - Conversations

Chapter Text

The man has gorgeous white hair, a rockin' lean bod, and a posh British accent. And - oh hell, he's got pointed elven ears, too. If it weren't for the blood on the back of his suit, I'd say he's almost as attractive as the Absolute. Thinking on his offer for a stroll, I glance over his shoulder to see Wonder Woman talking with police, who've begun a sweep of any other potential dangers that Faust may have left behind, while Marvel helps paramedics lift some of the injured. The Zataras are not in sight, pulled back-stage and away from the cameras of reporters to recuperate.

"I can, uh, step away for a moment," I mutter, still a little uncertain. I shouldn't be gone long, because I might be needed for a statement or something. "Who are you?"

"Astarion of Baldur's Gate, though I suspect you might not know…"

My focus fades for a second, losing his words entirely as that revelation throws me for a loop. It should not be that surprising: he's a classic fantasy elf and we formed a similar psychic connection to the one I felt with Lae'zel. If I made it to the DC Universe through some messed up plane shift, then why couldn't he?

"You're from the Forgotten Realms?"

"Oh, I suppose that tracks, now that I think of it." He beckons for me to follow him toward one of the side exits that is momentarily unoccupied. "Hurry along, we have a short window here."

The elf takes me through the door and into a small hallway, the end of which possesses a door that spills out into the streets of Gotham. The moment that the night air runs through my finger, I breathe out a sigh of relief, though it does not last. Police cars, ambulances, news vans, and even a helicopter have gathered, while tentative crowds gather at the perimeter the police have hastily put down in the short minutes since the whole battle began. A perimeter that currently includes our side of the building.

"You have a way out of here?" I ask, gesturing toward the onlookers, some of which are already interested in what they can see. "I don't particularly want to talk to those folks." At least, not yet. I can already see how I might have made a big splash.

"I suppose that is a predicament," he answers, "but not for me." With a touch on the back of the arm, he mutters a word under his breath, and magic surrounds both of us instantly. I almost pull away from him, but he tightens his grip, both of us no longer visible to the outside world, nor to each other. "Don't be silly. I'll lead the way, we're not going far."

"Can you let go of my arm?"

"Do you want to lose track of me?"

"I'm considering it," I challenge, annoyed that he's still gripping hard enough that his fingers almost feel like claws digging into my skin. "When's the last time you trimmed your nails?"

He scoffs. "Nail maintenance is second nature to me." His grip loosens but does not break, and I'll accept that for now. I have gone this far, may as well see it through.

"I could have made us invisible, but I don't have the slot for it."

"Slot?"

"Never mind. I'm magically tapped after a battle like that. Did you see it? Did the demons give you that cut?"

The elf merely laughs as he shuffles past the perimeter barriers and the caution tape, not caring at all if some of the crowd notice the odd movement in the tape. A little boy nearby gasps, trying to point it out to his mother, but she's concerned trying to listen for a reporter to tell her the news about what is going on. I can't blame her - even for a place like Gotham, entrenched in a never-ending gang war, a big damn wizard battle doesn't happen often on its streets.

I follow him past the crowd and down an alleyway; I can't help but tense. This is how stories for characters in this city end, not how they begin. "Actually, can we find a different way?"

He stops, and I wish I could see his facial expression. If his whole plan was to lead me into some dark place to kill me or something, he'd surely show signs of it. "Don't be foolish. I don't mean you any harm, I just have questions that I think you can answer."

"That's what they all say," I challenge, thinking of pretty much every horror story I can imagine. "Let's find a bench somewhere."

He hesitates and then changes directions, shifting down the busy sidewalks, caring little for bumping into others, though I do my best to swerve when I can. There's no use making the people of Gotham think one of Batman's villains - or even Batman himself - has figured out invisibility tech or something. Regardless, it is amusing to see people freak out, just a bit. I'm glad that I have the spell - it's my favorite spell in the game for a reason, because it is ubiquitously useful.

Two streets over reveals a park, a well-kept piece of green in an otherwise dark and dreary city. It's more than a little unsettling that Gotham at night appears even more dull and colorless to me. To others, places where the lights from street lamps, traffic lights, and neon signs do not reach are black as can be, but I see them in shades of gray. Darkvision is both a help and hindrance to the whole aura of the dingy, shadowed city. There are entire dimensions safer to live in the DC Universe than Gotham City.

He cancels his spell with a flourish of his fingertips and then calmly sits on the first park bench we see, a forgotten beer can and discarded cigarettes surrounding the seat that smells faintly of bird sh*t. I sit gingerly, knowing that I'll have to wash these ruined clothes anyway. Both of us look like we'd murdered someone.

"Were you on the nautiloid?"

Astarion blinks. "Is that what they call it? The mindflayers?"

I nod. "How…" the question dies in my throat as another comes to mind. "You haven't turned into a mindflayer either, then?"

His face is impassive for a moment, almost unreadable. The light from the lamp overhead casts his hair in an almost ethereal light. "No. I'm as surprised as you are. Don't know much about them, but you pick up on some things when you've got one squirming around in your skull. We should have definitely turned into one of them by now."

"Do you think we're the only ones who made it here?" I ask, though he shrugs noncomittally. "I can't tell if it's just luck or something else."

He ponders thoughtfully for a moment, eyes glinting in the light. "Have you asked around? You seem quite cozy with that magician. Perhaps he's given you a clue about the transformation?"

I consider what to tell him and frown, wondering how much I know myself and what to even share with this stranger. We both came from the same place and are afflicted by the same situation, but I still don't know him.

Still… there's something about the shared tragedy that draws me to tell him, at least a few things.

"I have. Things are still unclear, but as far as I can tell, magic holds the tadpoles at bay. Something powerful, something that I don't understand yet. It might be the one thing keeping us from becoming monsters."

Something about that amuses him because he laughs, smiling widely. "Everyone throws around that word, but there's a bit of monster in all of us, if you ask me. I've seen the courts of the Grand Dukes, after all. Where were you from, back home?"

Tav, whose body my soul, mind, spirit, whatever now inhabits? I don't know where he was from. His sketchbook didn't have details like that, but it did have some landscapes of places he'd visited. He'd been all over the northern part of the Sword Coast. Instead of guessing, I say what I know is true. "Honestly? I'm not sure. I don't remember much before the nautiloid. Maybe the tadpole messed with my memory. Do you remember things from before?"

Explaining that I'm actually from an entirely different universe than either this version of DC's Earth or the Forgotten Realms is one step too far to reveal, even if it's not that outlandish in the grand scheme of things.

"Unfortunately for me, no amnesia here." Astarion points to his noggin, a slight frown across his face. "I went to the little magic show for answers, and instead found you, which does answer quite a few questions. I must say, I'm surprised that it works on an angel." He seems hesitant to bring that last part up, not wanting to look in my direction.

"Oh, I'm not-" I pause, realizing very quickly what I just did on a probably highly televised event. "f*ck." He raises an eyebrow, smirking. "Never mind. I'm not an angel, just an aasimar."

It takes him a few seconds but he tilts his head with recognition. "I've not heard many stories of your kind, nor have I met one of you. I can't blame them for avoiding Baldur's Gate - too much corruption for even their blood." He pauses, thinking. "I saw one other in the pods aboard the nautiloid. A half-elven woman."

"Dark hair and dark eyes? Armor, a silver headband?"

He nods. "Yes, that's the one. Part of me wondered if the mindflayers were targeting elves or those who have elven blood, but you've countered my theory."

"It's good to have things narrowed down," I agree. "What have you been doing here in the time since we… teleported? Plane shifted?"

"A little of this, a little of that," he dismisses. "Lots of dancing, lots of sex, lots of great food. I've come to enjoy this corner of existence, once the terror of the mindflayers started to wane."

"Wait- you can taste food?"

He tilts his head, this time in clear confusion. "Err, yes? Same as ever. Things here taste a little different, but better."

That's so unfair.

"I can't taste anything at all. It's like my tastebuds aren't working, or they're changing," I explain. In fact, the only thing I can remember tasting was… Psimon. I can't help but shudder at the thought, though my mouth betrays me and starts to water. "I've noticed that I get sticky sometimes after bed, like my sweat is different too." The sheets sometimes come off the bed with me at Shadowcrest, stuck to my back, my legs. "If I had to pay for laundry, I couldn't afford it."

"Sticky sheets are such a nightmare." He waves a hand, playfully smirking. "Oh, I can't relate about either of those things. I don't sweat."

Huh. "You don't sweat."

"Not for a long time," he says simply, without explaining. "What have you been doing?"

"Enchanting, mostly," I explain, pointing to the brooch of shielding. "Trying to figure out a cure, though things have stalled a lot on that front." Zatara assured me that they will figure something out, but nothing as of yet.

"Hmm. I don't like having this hanging over my head. If I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that things would stay as they are right now? The perks are kinda nice," he explains wistfully. "The uncertainty of it all is what gets to me."

"Nice?" The only nice thing about it is that I have magic now, and my understanding of it only grows deeper as time passes, as conflicts continue to happen. "What do you mean, 'nice'?"

He somehow grows paler for a second. "Where I'm from, my life before? Without getting into the details, let's just say that my time in Baldur's Gate was not kind. This has been an escape, a chance to live a life separate from any burdens or relationships. Things were positively batty back there. But here? No one knows me, no one expects anything of me, and I can live as I choose." He gestures to the mindflayer. "If I have to live with this for the rest of my life in exchange? Maybe it's worth it."

"But we don't know if it'll stay this way." Existential dread fills me at the prospect. "So far, it seems to, but if the magic fails or ends or even changes the slightest bit?"

Astarion smiles slightly, though he clenches his knuckles tighter while they rest on his lap. "That is the uncertainty. We do not yet know how much time that we have. You could turn tomorrow, I could turn the next day. It sometimes feels like a noose, and we're just waiting for the rope to tighten."

I can't disagree with him, and it worries me all the more. If there are others like Astarion and myself in this plane, then maybe someone like Zatara can understand it.

"There are people here with the ability to help. Technology is better than in the Forgotten Realms. Some have magic too, and other stranger abilities. Even mundane medicine is better. Doctors can work miracles without having to ask a priest to bless their work, or to cast a spell to ask their god for aid."

"What?" he asks, incredulous. "Could something as simple as brain surgery work?"

"I'm not a surgeon," I admit, "so I don't know what the limits of that are. Honestly, if it weren't inherently magical - or psionic, I guess - I'd be worried about personality changes with a thing lodged in my brain. There's a famous case here where a man got a metal spike stuck through his forehead and into his brain. They successfully removed it, he survived, but his loved ones said that he was different afterward. More than kinda horrifying, when you realize that there's not much difference in size between that and a worm burrowing into your brain."

"Fascinating. Terrifying, but fascinating," Astarion mutters, voice trailing.

The conversation stalls, though not for lack of anything to say. I have many questions, but I can't quite think of where to start.

"And… when you sleep, do you dream strangely?"

My stomach rolls with nerves at the thought, but I don't want to be honest about that. There is far too much that I don't yet know about the Absolute, about its wants and wishes, about what it has shown me about this very city, flying and surrounded by a nautiloid fleet.

"I didn't think elves could sleep." They trance for a few hours, like a deep meditation, if my remembering of lore is correct. "You've been having odd dreams?"

Astarion holds an uncomfortable frown, arms folded in front of him. "Sometimes. I think the tadpole wants to speak to me, to tell it what it wants. It's been enlightening, if nothing else. Have you experienced something like that?"

I start to speak, but think better of it. A change in direction to the conversation. "What abilities do you have now that you did not have before?"

He taps his temple once. "Well, I'm more insightful, and my words pack more of a punch than they did before. It's been useful since coming here. Had to charm an old lady to tell me how a taxi works."

"You can just Google it."

He just stares.

"Let me show you, hold on."

I go through the process of showing him how to access the Internet using my phone. He stares amazed, his eyes not leaving the page of search results about taxis, even as he pulls his own phone from his pocket, a bright pink thing with a sunflower for a lock-screen background. "You have a phone?"

"I'm not barbaric!" he says, offended. "I just… need a little extra time. I must say, this world is obsessed with monthly bills. Is there not some better way of handling things?"

"Capitalism is a hell of a drug."

He demonstrates that he's understood the instructions, searching up local bars in Gotham and opening up directions to the nearest one. "You mean this internetwork is also a compass?"

I sheepishly rub the back of my neck. "Well, uh, no, but I don't know how best to explain GPS technology to you."

Astarion is as amazed as any late fifteenth century citizen appearing in the year 2010 would be. "How do you know all this already?"

Well, he's got a good point, but I turn it back around to him. "I've spent less time trying to get laid and more time trying to understand the world I'm now in." He glares, dumfounded. "Uh, get laid is slang for having sex - you know what? Never mind. I should really be going back now."

Astarion laughs. "But we're just getting somewhere!"

"No, no, we're not going there," I say, trying to ignore how gorgeous his eyes look in this light. "Let me get your number, and I'll be in touch. The Justice League may want to talk to you, at some point, because they might want to test your tadpole too. You'll probably hear from them."

He looks disinterested in that, still staring at his screen for a moment as I read off my number to him, not having memorized this new one just yet. What I said seems to click for him a moment later. "This Justice League? Are they good people?"

"The best," I say without hesitation. "Think of any famous adventurer from back home. Now, multiply them by ten. That's how good these guys are at their jobs. An inspiration to everyone. A few months ago, they stopped a wizard from blotting out the Sun with some amulet. How crazy is that!"

Astarion nearly chokes. "What?"

"I read about it, I don't know. They respond to big crises around the world. One of their founding members, Batman, protects this city at night."

Astarion chuckles. "I've heard of this guy. What manner of creature is he?"

"Human? I know how it sounds, but he's pretty famously normal. Not everyone on the League is. You should really look into them on the Internet, their adventures are interesting." I click my phone to check the time. "Look, I should be getting back. Like I said, I'll be in touch."

He takes my offered hand and gives it a shake, before opening his coat and gesturing to a pair of knives clicked to his belt. I almost back away from him out of fear, before he winks. "Tell the magician, Zatara, 'you're welcome.'"

Recognition hits me as he begins to walk away. "You helped stop Faust!"

He just chuckles and continues walking, disappearing into the darkness beyond the park's lights, leaving me alone in the heart of downtown Gotham.

As I make the trek toward Gotham Square Garden, I know what I have to do.

Zatanna's exhaustion knows no bounds, both physically and emotionally. This was her big debut with her father! It was supposed to be simple stage magic, a practiced set that would make audiences fall in love with her father all over again, and her father to fall in love with performing all over again. He was happier on stage! He was happier before duties to the League took it all away from him, she could see it.

Instead, something horrible ruined the whole thing, tainted the show and forced more guilt onto her father's shoulders. She remembers a conversation from years ago, when she sat on the man's lap after he returned home from what must have been a particularly rough night of heroism. She remembers seeing blood on his shoes, and asking him about what happened. He'd told her not to worry, that he had helped save as many as he could, and that was all that mattered.

Zatanna can relate to that guilt. She can't bear to look back toward one of the exits behind her, where the demon had attacked the fleeing crowd. She remembers their screams in her ears, the stench of blood in her nose, the touch of heat on her skin. All of it - was it too much?

Is that what her father deals with every day?

How do any of the heroes make it?

The costumes, the merchandise, the television performances - there's a museum dedicated to the Flash in Central City! Her father participates in that trend every time he wears his stage persona to fight crime - it once looked exciting to her as a kid. Even a few months ago, it was exciting!

But now?

Her father emerges from the backstage area through the platform in the stage's floor. "Zatanna, I told you to wait back there." He blinks. "Where is your glamour charm?"

"Your enemies already know you have a daughter, Dad," she argues, gesturing to the discarded bracelet hanging from her pocket. "They won't connect me to the character I played tonight."

He starts to argue but then thinks better of it, noticing Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel waving him over, while they stand before a crowd of police. "We are not done with this conversation."

She sighs as he strides over to join the other Leaguers, and it's all she can do not to force herself to talk to them all. To the police, to the press, to the wider public? She's just the magician's daughter. The League probably already know who else was involved, and that'll have to do for now.

The question is… does she get involved more? And in what capacity?

"This seat taken?"

Zatanna turns her head to see someone she has yet to meet but knows by reputation. Dressed in the famous red and black, a partially yellow cape, the boy smiles widely, eyes and cheekbones obscured by a domino mask that oddly works. "Robin. Why are you-?"

"Your dear old dad didn't put me up to this, if that's what you're worried about," he admits, holding his hands up in surrender. "I just thought you might want to talk. You… haven't ever done this before."

Her eyes widen. "Is it that obvious?"

"No," he answers. "But when you're me, you pick up on some details the public won't."

Zatanna eventually offers for him to sit, and he takes his time of it, gingerly resting his legs on the cape. "You're younger than I expected."

"They don't call me the Boy Wonder for nothing."

"Yeah, that just seemed like a… I don't know."

"A ruse?" She agrees with a gesture, but he waves it off. "Nope. I'm the real deal. Robin, in the flesh." He clears his throat and leans forward, a disarming smile on his lips. "You helped your dad today against Faust. First time jitters?"

"Why are you asking me that?" she asks, a little annoyed at the question. "Why are you even here?"

"I wanted to talk to you," he adds earnestly. "And I wanted to give a report to the League in-person. I was just outside directing people to safety. Can never have enough crowd control in situations like this."

"Two birds with one stone, then," she adds.

"More or less." Robin stares ahead, the domino mask making it difficult to see the color of his eyes. "I help someone I look up to every night when we patrol, kinda like you did tonight but far less cool." He cutely chuckles. "We've been doing it for years, and it never stops being scary. I've learned how to manage it, how to talk to someone a little afterwards to let it all out, and it's helped me to deal with the stress of the life."

She considers his words for several long moments. "'The life?'"

"Oh? Oh, yeah, that's the superhero life," he explains. "It gets heavy, it gets to be a lot, but I've been coping with some of its challenges. It's not easy, but it keeps me going."

Zatanna doesn't know what to think of this sudden sidekick appearing out of nowhere. Batman is not even here - unless he is, she thinks, eyes focused on the rafters up on the ceiling. No spotting him, but she keeps her eyes peeled. "You, uh, building to something?"

"Are you planning to follow in your father's footsteps and join the League?"

She stares at him. "I don't- I don't know. I've thought about it, of course - how can you not want to be as cool as your dad is?"

He laughs. "You got that right."

"Dad's pretty adamant that I don't do it. Says I'm too young, that he wants to protect me. I… helped him tonight, out of desperation more than anything else. If I had stayed back and not intervened, that might have been really bad."

"Yeah. Look, at least you had help tonight. You weren't alone. The news - they're calling him Argent. Who was the angel guy?"

She considers it for a moment. "That's Logan. He-"

"Logan!?" he exclaims. "The guy with the bug in his head is an angel?"

"No. Not an angel, but an aasimar. They're kinda like mortals with angel blood. He explained it once, but I didn't really get it." Zatanna struggles to connect the dots on something. "How do you know him?"

Robin considers what to say for a long, hesitating moment. "He helped me and a few others with a problem a while back."

Zatanna purses her brow. "You and a few others?"

Robin ignores the question for a moment, sporting a grin that stretches across his angular face, a jawline that could cut glass. "I should go talk to the Leaguers, give them my report. When you get a chance, Zatanna, talk to your dad about how you feel. You'll regret it if you don't."

Why does someone younger than her have to sound so damn wise?

Chapter 38: 4.1 - Traitor

Chapter Text

The familiar outdoor terrace shimmers under the argent light of a false sky, the garden smelling faintly of roses and freshly manicured grasses. A serene gazebo rests near the heart of the space, where a single elven man sits invitingly, a butterfly touching down on an exposed chest.

I take three steps to enter the gazebo and to lounge next to him, while he turns his head toward mine, emerald eyes sparkling in the light of the argent atmosphere.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, my Chosen?" He takes his hand in mine, his lithe elven thumb tracing across the palm.

"I don't-" I frown, enjoying the feeling of closeness. "Don't you usually call me here?"

The Absolute chuckles, and with the brightness of the sound, the atmosphere flashes with warm light. "That is a fair assessment."

He says nothing for a long moment as the breeze settles in, sending goosebumps up and down my arm. "You've answered the call."

It takes several seconds to answer as my mind catches up with his meaning. "Yes. Is that... a problem?"

The Absolute smiles with perfect elven cheekbones. "It is but one path to greatness in this world, or any world, across the multiverse. Leech what you can from them while you're in their good graces, Logan. Heroism will serve our needs quite well."

Something about that does not sit right. "You... I'd always be in their good graces. They're the Justice League."

"Mere adventurers of another name in another age in another world," he argues, pulling his hand away from mine. "They are but the latest in a long line of individuals who deign to protect the status quo above all else, a status quo that frequently denies the possibilities of progress."

My hand reaches for his again. The Absolute's immaculate jaw sets and he grips my fingers tightly, earnestly, a warm psionic glow traveling into the core of my being and exciting every nerve.

"The League won't see the world we wish to build the same way, Logan, but you must build it all the same."

.A.

"What the hell happened here?"

The interior of Mount Justice is a wreck. Floors defaced, walls damaged, technology shattered. It reeks of smoke, and my shoes are slick with mud. The only source of light in the dark chamber bathes everything in its effervescent green glow, the constructs of my favorite Green Lantern helping to set things right within. John Stewart molds a crane out of his very will with a burst of emotional light, maneuvering a massive device into place and allowing Captain Marvel to drop it into position.

Wonder Woman places a comforting hand on my shoulder, the titanic beauty dwarfing me by four inches and significant muscle. She deserves to be as tall and broad as she likes, and if I were into women, I guarantee I'd be into her. "An attack on Mount Justice, involving the Leaguer Red Tornado and two other robots that may be his siblings. What you see here is the aftermath."

"How does something like that happen?"

"We are internally discussing the best way to address Tornado's defection," she explains. "You need not worry yet."

That doesn't help me to not worry, even when it's Wonder Woman saying it.

The members of the League's black-ops Team gather together around a table, though I don't have to read their minds to sense the tension inherent within each of them. The attack must have shaken them, because not a single one of them looks happy to be here in this predicament.

"You sure this is a good time for this?"

Diana hesitates and then nods. "Now is as good as a time as any. Perhaps your introduction will dissuade their more extreme emotions in a difficult time."

"That doesn't sound right," I argue. "They're teenagers. We can postpone this for when they're not-"

The Amazon pats me once. "Your heart is in the right place, Logan, but we do not know what the future holds. Perhaps tomorrow shall be worse. Taking the plunge is sometimes the only way to success."

I can't say I agree with Wonder Woman's assessment, but it's Wonder Woman. She's basically my favorite female superhero of all time, second only to Buffy Summers. Surely she - and the rest of the League - are doing the right thing by introducing me now, as opposed to later.

The lights flicker on as some repairs finish, bringing power back to the interior of the mountain's cavernous space. The Lantern construct of a crane fades to nothing in the blink of an eye, while others in the League like Captain Atom and Martian Manhunter continue their ministrations. I catch J'onn's eye and wave, the Martian giving a friendly nod.

"It seems you've made your decision about helping others."

I remember a conversation from weeks ago, where J'onn asked me what it is that I truly want to do. I had told him then that I needed some time, but after Gotham, I committed. No matter how I pressed the situation, I found myself again and again thrown into harm's way. Without training, without time, without assistance? Why not ask for help?

"Yes, I think this is going to work out well."

"I look forward to working alongside you in the future."

Diana pulls my attention away from the psychic conversation as we approach the table of young heroes, who appear to be mid-argument with one of the Justice League, the archer Green Arrow. Thanks to the Arrow television show, Ollie is another one of my favorites, so seeing him here in the flesh is an admittedly strange sight. He doesn't look like much like Amell, but he does have the wonderful goatee.

"What we want are answers!" the most famous of the sidekicks, Robin, declares. "About Red Tornado and his siblings."

Oliver starts to say something but stops upon seeing my presence. "Team, this is-"

"Logan!" M'gann shouts excitedly, floating over the table - and over Kid Flash - and wrapping me in a tight hug. "It's good to see you!"

"Yeah, thanks," I say, pulling away from the green girl. Conner simply nods, though his attention is more focused on the distant figures of Batman and Aqualad engaging in conversation, while the rest of the group are more focused on Wonder Woman.

"You already know him?" Oliver asks incredulously.

Artemis smirks. "Unc, do you not read our reports?"

The archer's face reddens. "Well, I, uh-"

"Don't answer that," Wonder Woman admonishes, and Green Arrow turns even further crimson. "I admit that this may not be the best time, given the circ*mstances, but meet your newest teammate, Argent."

Something clicks in Wally's mind. "You're the angel on the news? Where were your wings in Bialya?"

"He had them for a moment in Atlantis," M'gann adds excitedly. "They're very pretty."

"I, uh, didn't know how to use them yet," I answer honestly. "My abilities are a work in progress, but I'm stronger now than I was then." Third-level spells are a significant upgrade to my abilities, if nothing else. "And I'm not an angel. An aasimar. It's not a big deal."

Robin shrugs. "Welcome aboard, but you really could have-"

Conner, without warning, throws himself from the platform, anger flowing from him so strongly that I feel it even without an active psychic connection. "You knew!" He grabs Kaldur by edge of his uniform and shoves him bodily against the wall, nearly cracking the stone. "That android and his maniac family nearly killed M'gann!"

What the hell?

Wonder Woman is fast behind the clone and pulls him away from Aqualad, but the Kryptonian nearly attempts to try his luck with the Amazon and throw himself into her as well. "Settle yourself."

"Conner? What are you doing?" The Martian flies to engage, settling in beside the rage-filled clone.

Wow, I really should not have come today.

"Kaldur knew we had a traitor among us and said nothing!"

I blink. "A traitor?"

By this point, the rest of the Team have moved to follow the confrontation, and I cannot help but lock eyes with Wonder Woman.

Robin frowns deeply. "You knew?"

"And didn't tell us?" Kid Flash grits his teeth.

"I sought to protect the Team from-"

"Protect us from what?" Artemis - the archer girl I don't recognize from the comics - challenges. "Knowledge that might have saved our lives?"

Conner whips his head around to M'gann. "You almost died!"

Diana steps between Conner and Kaldur. "Disengage." The clone looks to challenge that, and oh boy do I not want to see what it looks like when a Kryptonian and an Amazon throw down.

"Enough," Batman agrees tensely, so tensely that everyone has no choice but to turn their attention to him, tension somewhat diffused. God that glare is effective, and I cannot believe that I am standing in the room with so many of the Justice League at once. Black Canary and her iconic fishnets join with Oliver to back-up Batman, who locks eyes with Wonder Woman. Green Lantern and Captain Atom watch from the sidelines as the ring continues scanning for damages, while J'onn moves to place a hand on M'gann's back.

The Team converges on Batman, though the stress of whatever this revelation means weighs on the whole group. I do not have the context that the rest have, but it is truly awful to learn that Red Tornado betrayed the Team, but to which enemy? An overall sense of discomfort slowly builds as the scene unravels and the moment continues. I don't belong here…

"With Red Tornado missing, the Team will now be overseen by rotating supervisors," Batman declares.

That decision makes sense, in my opinion - you can't just leave a bunch of teenagers in a cave alone, unsupervised. Someone should be looking out for them from above, or just making sure no hanky-panky happens behind closed doors. Bad decisions abound when you put a bunch of hormonal people under one roof.

"Captain Marvel has volunteered to take the first shift."

… Or not.

I can't help but smile. The first of the adult supervisors is not even really an adult, but a kid given the power, body, and wisdom of one?

The magic equivalent of Superman steps forward, hands on his hips in an almost cheesy posture. "I'm really looking forward to hanging with you guys. Even better, to get to properly meet and train your newest member, Argent! Give it up, fellow magic dude."

Captain Marvel holds out a fist.

I gingerly tap it with my own, cringing slightly at a moment that I would normally enjoy, but cannot help but feel off. "Yeah, it's going to be a time."

I do not want to be Kaldur right now - the eldest of the Team and their leader, surrounded by very angry teenagers who feel that they've lost his trust. This could go very bad, very fast. I open my mouth to say something but I can't think of what to say that could smooth things over.

Kid Flash leans back. "First Red Tornado, now we have to babysit-"

I roll my eyes. "I'm older than you by at least four years. And yeah, I'm new, but this is not how you treat someone you're about to work with. Grow up."

"Hey, I don-"

"Wally, he has a point."

"Oh, come on, Artemis, he didn't need to know my name."

"Everyone else here does," she counters, and he grimaces.

Batman meets my eyes, his own obscured by the lenses of his domino mask. I clear my throat, nerves forcing my fingers to slightly twitch until I close my fist. "I offered to Wonder Woman not even five minutes ago to not be here today, to not do this today. She said it would be fine, and then I get this treatment. I don't hold it against you, Kid Flash. Times are tough right now, in ways I was not really aware of until earlier this morning. I understand that you're just, I don't know, looking for a way to lash out. But why pick on the new guy? All I want is to take this opportunity to learn from the League and to learn from you all, to be able to do what you do on a daily basis."

That shuts the speedster up, something that I think actually might be a miracle from what little interaction we've had together so far. Even in Bialya, he was a motor mouth.

"Well said," Batman agrees, shifting his attention to the redhead's face for a long moment. He presses something on his glove or something in between his fingers, but I can't see what, a trick that I'm sure serves the man well on Gotham's streets. "I have an assignment for this team."

Whoa. An assignment on my first day?

A series of holographic screens alight beneath the super-computer in the center of the grand cavern. The largest displays a newspaper headline about a gorilla holding a gun turret, and a second displaying a headline from Gotham about its mayor, Hamilton Hill, going missing after a "guerilla gorilla" attack. Various data files display on the sides to add context not in the original article, but all that is lost on me.

I can only think of one thing: Grodd.

"'Gotham Mayor attacked by Guerilla Gorilla'?" challenges Kid Flash.

"Batman, please!" Robin pleads. "Shouldn't we be going after Red Tornado? He was our den mother-"

"Red Tornado is a member of the Justice League. That makes him our responsibility," Batman explains with finality. "I've checked the sources, I've studied the patterns. Mayor Hill's encounter is only the latest in a series of incidents. Aqualad," he turns to the Atlantean, face stoic in the face of the mission, "you and your team will depart from India and check this out."

Damn.

I don't think anyone in the Team is in the mood to listen to Aqualad right now. If he knew about Red Tornado's betrayal but said nothing, then that really is a big deal. A breach of trust that would be enough to remove anyone from command or even from the field at all. Would Batman even let him go if there was not more to the story than what the Team assumes?

I have to bank on that. If we're going into a mission against Grodd, we'll need no distractions.

Captain Marvel catches up with me as I make my way toward the rest of the Team, toward the Bio-Ship. "I'm glad you decided to join us, man."

"Uh, yeah, me too," I reply, not wanting to look someone with the Wisdom of Solomon in the eye. "Do you think I should have insisted on not coming today? Or even at all?"

Marvel shakes his head. "Nah. You're going to be fine. My uncle always says that we have to make do with the cards we're dealt, and who knows what your next hand will be?"

Hmm. I guess that's Uncle Dudley from the comics. I can't imagine he and his ten year old nephew playing poker, but who knows? "You think I should have joined the Team? I could have still helped people alone."

Marvel grins the widest grin. "They're really cool when you get to know them, and they're good at what they do. That's what the Team's for, anyway - to train the next dudes to take on the roles of the Justice League. You get training, they get training, and you'll learn alongside them."

I frown. "But they have years of experience-"

"Not all of them," he interrupts. "Some are as green as you are when they joined, and some have never worked in a team before July. They're all adjusting in different ways. You'll be fine, Logan!"

Someone whistles ahead, and I glance up to see Robin beckoning me into the Bio-Ship. "See you later-"

"Oh, you can't get rid of me that easily, Argent!" Marvel grins affably. He gives off this aura of peace without even trying, and I can't help but feel at ease around him. "I'm coming along this ride."

I see through that easily. "So, the League wants you to watch out for the Team right now?"

The boy-man shrugs. "I just do what I'm told, but you don't think it's a good idea?"

"It probably is, but they're not going to like it," I admit. "It feels nice to have League back-up on my first mission though."

Marvel flies into the Bio-Ship effortlessly and then turns back. "I'm happy to help. Besides, I want to see more of you in action! Zatara says you survived a hell dimension, and now you're fighting demons. All you're missing is a kickass awesome holy sword to go with those wings."

I blush slightly. "That would be rad." A badass angel warrior fighting demons… It's like an eighties album cover or something.

The boy-man beams. "Totally!"

As we settle into the Bio-Ship, I cannot help but feel nervous. Grodd, or maybe one of the other strangely numerous gorilla characters from DC Comics, lies on the other side of this flight. If it is him, then we'd be going up against someone who regularly tangles with the Flash. Some of the Team and myself have already fought against Aquaman's greatest foe and lived to tell the tale, so maybe the Team can handle someone like Grodd. A superpowered punch from Superboy, a mental defense from Miss Martian, and the gorilla might not be able to overpower us physically or mentally. Would that be enough?

It would have to be enough.

.A.

A tome wrapped in binding cloth and under one arm, Giovanni steps into a private sanctum, hidden beneath enough protective wards of magic that only he could find it, much less enter. He doubts the most powerful magic could pierce beyond this space unless he himself allows it, the spellcraft for many of its wards fueled by the combined bloodlines of he and his late wife. Even now, the wards strain at his entry, threatening to push the tome back into the hallway and across from the courtyard, but he presses on, the wards relenting at his own will.

The door to the innermost space of the Manor closes, and hundreds of ever-burning candles alight at once, bathing the place in an ominous, incandescent glow. A single top hat rests on an altar, obscuring a partial reflection of himself in a tall, silver-framed mirror. Books scatter throughout the place, many of them benign or empty, and some filled with rituals that he would not trust to any eyes but his own.

The Art is a dangerous gift. A secure curse. With it, great wonders are possible. With it, great follies are probable. Men of magic rise, and men of magic fall. Scions of great families inherit the burden of their bloodlines, while other wayward souls seek to artful works through external forces. Giovanni Zatara once more considers its Price, not for himself but for his daughter.

Zatanna has had a taste. She faced the fires of Hell and remained unburned. Giovanni remembers his first outing contained potentially greater flames. A jealous stagehand set fire to the curtains during one of his earliest shows, before any of his magic was known to the public, and he was forced to put out the inferno before it caught its strength. A moment of enlightenment followed: he wanted more, could do more.

Giovanni returns his mind to the present and places the bound tome on the altar, his gaunt figure in the mirror. Dark circles stretch beneath his eyes, skin too taut around his cheeks, muscles thin. The mirror obscures the truth with a lie to predict the path of the Art's reckoning. He can see what may happen if he continues the course, but this is but one possibility. In another, he remains fit and true for decades to come, to watch his daughter grow old, powerful, and alive.

The cloth around the tome unravels unceremoniously, revealing a navy-blue book etched in purple runes. There is power to these pages, and he considers them for several long moments.

"Wohs em eht lous of tsuaF xileF."

Faust's many bargains drip from the pages like spilled blood, collecting on the altar in rivulets that have no rhyme, no reason, no rationality. The ink across rune-covered pages remains dry as ever, though the pages themselves flutter back and forth as Zatara's spell forces the truth to be revealed. Zatara feels his head grow heavy, but he ignores the feeling and ignores the change in the mirror's reflection, revealing graying hair and darkening eyes.

The spellbook reveals a truth. Faust's latest infernal deals with the Demons Three will cost him nine years, nine months, nine days, nine hours, nine minutes, and nine seconds from his life. A large percentage of time for a man in his late fifties, but not one that would sway him to stop from getting what he wants.

Faust likely sought Shadowcrest Manor in order to cheat away the consequences of these deals, and the consequences of the Art. Siphoning magic from enchanted artifacts is a tried and true way for mages in memorium to avoid wasting themselves away with magic, the kind of effect that Zatara himself faces each and every time he does more than a paltry prestidigitation. Faust sought to avoid his own downfall by profiting from the workings of better mages than he, mages who likely faced the consequences of the Art for their own hubris long ago.

Zatara presses his fingertips to the bridge of his nose with one hand and wipes at the sweat with the other. With a click of his tongue, the spell fizzles to nothingness, and the bloody rivulets disappear from the altar, the pages reset to the beginning, and the spellbook snaps shut. "Dnib." The binding clothing wraps itself tightly around the infernal tome once more.

Felix Faust is but one magical problem the world faces. Some of Zatara's greatest foes lie in wait, still active, still seeking to remove themselves from obscurity and plunge the world into their own brand of mania. Any one of them could conjure, transmute, charm, or enchant their way into mayhem, and it was up to Zatara to manage the chaos.

Among other villainous mages, the activity of one Klarion the Witch Boy concerns him the most. The League's Team, the one that Logan himself chose to join, encountered the Witch Boy earlier this year. The Lord of Chaos attempted to steal the Helmet of Fate from Kent Nelson's care, but the Team managed to stop it from happening and kept the cosmic balance between Order and Chaos in check. The Helmet itself remains hidden in Mount Justice, but they have precious time before Klarion recovers and renews his interest in the Helmet.

Zatara feels an ongoing pressure every day, pressure that tightens and tightens until his shoulders feel like they may snap the very arms from his torso. He studies his reflection of the future in the mirror, the state of his body under the Art's cold duress. A thumb brushes lightly against the bound tome. As a member of the League, he does great works of power to save others, but that power has a toll. He… may be fast approaching the limit of what he can do.

Any solution he considers? Well, it always comes with a Price. A Price he does not want his daughter to face.

.A.

The Bio-Ship flies rather quickly from Rhode Island to the subcontinent of India. M'gann gave me a rough understanding of their inner-workings, and this was not even a note-worthy fraction of the speed they can achieve in a vacuum. The ship's… model? No, species, does not like to re-enter an atmosphere, however, as the intense heat can be excruciating, even if they can survive it. We could have probably gotten there even faster if we did that, but she does not like to stress herself.

The tense atmosphere does not go away throughout the trip, with none of the teenagers really wanting to look at Kaldur. M'gann clearly does not like to be upset, but I can still feel that pressure within her - she doesn't like that Kaldur apparently broken their trust and done this any more than Wally does.

I want to butt in. I want to get involved in Kaldur's affairs, like I did back in Atlantis with the relationship drama. This, however, is different - it involves all of us now, even if I'm new, but I don't know if I'm the right person to say it. I keep expecting Kaldur to explain himself, or for the others to demand it of him, but they're angry and want to wallow for a moment, even while they read over the reports from Batman about the mission's parameters.

The silence gets to me eventually, and I clear my throat. "Aqualad, I don't know what happened. I don't know when you knew about Red Tornado's defection, I don't how you learned about this, I don't know why you said nothing. Can you explain so that the lot of you start acting like teammates? Because if this gets in the way of my first mission, I'm going to be very upset."

Kaldur blinks as my question extends throughout the cabin of the Bio-Ship. Artemis smirks as she watches the Atlantean squirm - just a bit - under the question. Wally twists his arm back into place behind his neck, watching with delighted interest. Robin leans forward to listen, amused. Conner's anger spikes as he folds his arms. M'gann turns her attention away from the controls for a moment, even as one of the read-outs show that we are fast approaching the border of Pakistan and India from far above.

Aqualad stoically measures his words before he speaks. "Thank you, Argent, for giving me an opportunity to clear the air with you all."

"'As if' anything could clear the air," Robin counters, but I shoot him a look.

"Have some maturity. Growing into an adult means owning up to hard conversations," I offer, trying hard not to look at the only other person in the room who is an adult, except he isn't. Robin bites his tongue, and the rest do not seem ready to argue.

Aqualad breathes in deeply and then exhales for a long few seconds. "The source of the tip was Sportsmaster."

Artemis rounds on him. "What? You can't trust him!"

"I do not," Kaldur explains. "It seemed possible, even likely, that he was attempting to divide the Team with false information."

"Who is Sportsmaster?"

Robin clicks something on his arm and displays a holographic image of a muscular blond man in a metallic hockey mask. "Sportsmaster's this guy. He's like if you combined the world's worst assistant coach for a hockey team with an assassin. Surprisingly scary dude, even though his weapons are themed after sporting equipment."

"Right," I say, surprised every day at how silly some supervillains are and at how advanced the technology on Robin's wrist must be. "Considering how y'all are acting right now, you're halfway to dividing already."

"I had to consider that it might be true," Aqualad explains with a careful breath before anyone can interrupt. "As leader, I took it seriously and decided I did not wish to alert the traitor. I did take the information immediately to Batman, however."

Conner huffs. "That explains a lot. Wish you'd have told us."

"I was ready to bite your head off for nothing, man," Wally adds. "Still, you could have found a way to keep us in the loop."

"Gotta say, Kaldur," Robin whistles, eyes scanning the horizon behind the Bio-Ship's viewing windows. "I'd have probably done the same if I were in your shoes."

I guess they can get along. I don't know what I'd have done if practically forcing them to confront the situation head on with communication did not work, but Captain Marvel looks impressed.

"We're approaching the drop zone now," Miss Martian declares, twisting her fingers across the twin glowing orbs that serve as a tactile empathic interface. "Ready?"

Artemis stands from her seat and pulls at her bow. "Always. Let's get to the bottom of this gorilla mess."

Conner grumbles something about monkeys under his breath.

Marvel nudges me as the group gets into position and lowers his voice to a whisper. "Good thinking, dude. The silence was getting to me."

"Me too. I don't like it when well-meaning people argue. I'm sure no one meant for any of this to happen. Aqualad just had bad options amid worse."

Aqualad signals for Miss Martian to swing the ship into position, and then for all of us to depart into the jungles of Northern India. The dark canopy opens like a gnarled maw to swallow us whole, to defeat Grodd in the belly of the beast.

Chapter 39: 4.2 - Made

Chapter Text

The Bio-Ship slowly descends into the forests of northern India during the dead of night, naught but the stars and the moon above to light the way. I'm grateful for the angelic ability to see in the dark, but I wonder idly if the others are so fortunate. I'd expect Robin, Artemis, or both to have a fancy gadget for that, but what of the others who aren't Conner?

The two unpowered teenagers descend through a hole in the ship's floor, one that bends into existence from a telepathic command - a useful bit of shapeshifting, one that derives from this species' natural telekinetic forces. As soon as they impact against the forest floor, Artemis and Robin begin scouting the immediate area, looking for signs of danger. Assailants, sensors, technology, mundane traps, wild animals - anything could be a problem, and I'm at a loss for what would be more likely to find. That kind of knowledge requires experience and training in the art of covert maneuvers.

The back of the ship opens to deposit the rest of the Team and its current den mother, but I hold back a moment, uncertain. I could approach this in a few ways - rely on the darkness of my costume and my darker gray skin tone to keep out of sight, or burn a second-level spell slot to become invisible for the next hour. Truth be told, I don't know which would be better in this circ*mstance - are we likely to find the HQ of Grodd in under an hour? Will we face enemies in the next five minutes that will force me to break invisibility to engage?

I turn to Captain Marvel just as he levitates off of the ground and bring up the question, hoping to rely on the Wisdom of Solomon to let me know what to do. I really should learn to make these decisions myself, but I also think asking a Leaguer for advice while they're here is what this whole Team is all about.

He grins at the opportunity to answer the question, eyes shining so bright that they actually glow in the darkness of the forest. He's a beacon of positive vibes. "Oh? Yeah, I can see why that's difficult. You only have so much magic in a day." I nod, long since having experienced what it is like to call on magic that you simply do not have. Psionic energy can recharge that battery, but that can run out too. "Maybe wait until we know where the enemy's hideout is, and then rely on your other resources?"

A simple solution, but often I overthink. "Right, that makes sense."

I feel more exposed than usual as I step out to join the group, without the shield of illusion concealing my body. I've been in dangerous situations more than I ever imagined, but this feels different. Intentional. I'm not reacting to something dangerous now - I'm actively jumping into it.

Robin returns from his nearby recon. "All clear." Artemis follows suit, eyes focused on the darkness around them while the sounds of the forest assault our ears.

"Switch to stealth," Aqualad declares as he clicks his belt with a finger and shifts his normally red costume to a darker blue hue. Miss Martian's uniform shifts a moment later into one of dark blue and red, her hooded cloak ready to obscure her face. I glance toward Billy, but he's not looking at me. "Let's review mission parameters."

Wally's costume becomes black and red, a much cooler look than the bright yellow eyesore in this particular forest. My own costume doesn't do anything like that, but it's made of darker leathers, so it'll have to do. Marvel doesn't bother either, bright yellow and white cape still billowing in the light wind.

"Recon," Robin declares, face taut behind his mask. "We spread out, stay out of sight, and stay within Miss M's range to relay what we find."

I feel the tug at my mental senses as she forms a mental link between all of us, binding us on a psychic channel.

"What are we looking for, exactly?" I ask, uncertain.

"Big, damn monkeys," Conner declares, as though that explains everything. There's some anger there.

Artemis nods, a slight smirk on her face as she holds her compound bow ready, but aimed to the ground. "Apart from particularly aggressive gorillas, look for any tech that's out of place, any people stalking the woods, signs of recent vehicle movement across any unexpected trails… those kinds of things."

Hmm. "Basically anything weird."

"Pretty much," Robin says with a strained smile.

Aqualad tersely gestures to his temple and then says, psychically, "We move in teams of two. Artemis and Kid Flash, Robin and Argent, Superboy and Miss Martian, Captain Marvel and myself. If we find nothing significant, we widen our search area but remain committed to meet in one hour."

I can't help but glance toward the thirteen year old and then nod. He's probably the best at reconnaissance here, so he's bound to have advice that he can share. Working closely with Batman's sidekick is an experience that makes me almost giddy, but the nerves keep me from celebrating the moment.

The pairs disappear into the woods to begin their search, and Robin almost vanishes completely into the underbrush before stopping and holding up two fingers, beckoning me to follow. I assent and follow, struggling to keep him in my line of sight. It doesn't take a genius to know that he's intentionally holding back his ability to disappear completely, as Batman would have him do.

"We're trying to find the place where Mayor Hill was attacked," Robin clarifies psychically, even though I can only see a cape flapping in the brush. "We get that, we know we're in the vicinity."

I struggle to keep up, ducking beneath branches and trying to avoid rustling too many leaves, keeping my eyes peeled for things like motion sensors and other wildlife. The kinds of things you'd expect to find around a jungle headquarters, I guess, when you look at fiction that depicts these things. I can't help but wonder how James Bond would tackle this kind of thing. Spying in the midst of remote locations is very much his thing.

Robin halts just above a small drop that leads to a clearing, leaning against a thick, winding root and in the shadow of the moonlight. He gestures to a spot nearby, and I crouch in that position, studying his face. "We get into a scrap," the kid whispers, "what can you do?"

I outline some of the spells that I can bring to bear in a conflict, knowing by the rule of law in a superhero multiverse that missions like this don't end without something happening that spices up the pages of a book or the scenes of a show. I hope against hope that nothing like that happens here.

"Freezing 'em or attacking their mind is something that I can do all day, but I can perform stronger effects to take down bigger foes. As long as I don't miss, that is."

He says nothing for a long moment and then leans in again, "So you're not the kind of wizard who can wave their wand and make things happen?"

I shake my head fervently. "Nah, you'd need someone like Zatara for that."

"Good to know," he adds, and I can practically feel him make a mental note. "We'll need to discuss tactics with Aqualad and Black Canary later. See how best to do a takedown."

Takedown… I think back to Psimon, and the taste of bile catches in my throat. The first thing I've tasted in months.

"We've got some disturbances along the nearby riverbank," Artemis adds psychically, interrupting Robin's train of thought. "Around three hundred yards east of the ship."

"Huge claw prints in the mud," Kid Flash adds. "Truly massive. Not sure what could leave something like this. Not a gorilla, either."

"Fall into stealth," Aqualad orders swiftly. "Test from a distance."

I look worriedly to Robin, but the kid waves his hand. "Don't worry, stick with me. You'll be fine." He shifts into a moving crouch and leaps, coming to a rolling stop before vanishing into the underbrush ahead. I struggle to follow, my landing nowhere near as graceful, and move to keep up, wanting to do nothing more than add stealth drills to whatever training they were about to deliver.

"Incoming!" Miss Martian warns, delivering a flashbulb memory of a group of ravenous wolves launching themselves at Superboy and her.

"Fall back to their position!" Aqualad shouts, earning a barely audible sigh from Robin.

Every shadow in the jungle intensifies suddenly, as though any of them could contain a pack of wolves ready to eat tasty angel flesh. Robin pays them no mind - at least, he seems not to - as he turns swiftly to reconvene with the group, emerging out of the underbrush into a small clearing. I follow after him, but the shrieks of our own assailants are the only warning before they swoop into view and try to dive-bomb the Boy Wonder.

He flips to the side to narrowly dodge, as I charge a bolt of icy psionic power and unleash it into the group, rushing forward to meet them. The blast of silvery light cascades with frosty mist as it dances across a giant, mutated vulture's wing. It howls in pain as an icy patch coalesces across some of its exposed muscle, like someone took the skin of the creature and stretched it just beyond its limits in a few places.

He tosses something into the air, and it detonates into a fiery conflagration just before one of their flight paths, stinging at its eyes and singing at its beak. It launches itself into a different flight pattern, its long neck extending upward with a snap of sudden movement. The moonlight catches it in just the right angle to reveal a black collar across its neck, something they each share.

Robin yanks at my arm, and I duck to follow after him, twisting my arm to summon four mage hands and toss any loose branches and other debris into their flight path to deter them. He discharges another gadget from his utility belt, almost managing to pin one of their wings with weighted cords of heavy rope. Robin cuts suddenly to the right and pulls, and I only just escape one of their charging beaks.

"What are they?"

"Vultures on Kobra Venom," he explains quickly, directing us into another direction through the trees to disable some of their mobility. "Super-steroid. One that, until today, I didn't know worked on animals."

"Big crocodiles, big wolves," Artemis adds with a pained psychic gargle. "You're right!"

"I really wish you were wrong, Rob," Kid Flash decides.

I gesture toward Robin with a thumb and then turn completely around, preparing to face the creatures head on. A snap of my mental focus and a word of power pulls a mound of earth into the space just before me, and I crouch in time to avoid one of their aerial maneuvers, the top of the mound collapsing. Robin tosses some kind of disc into its path, and electricity arcs visibly in their air around the vulture, forcing one of the birds to fall into a heavy heap against the roots of a gnarled tree.

I take advantage and aim a bolt of chaotic energy at the downed creature, pouring additional psionic power into the spell to force it to elevate its damage, and then hurl it. It warbles between prismatic colors for several seconds before ending on a sickly yellow color, a bubble of acid crashing into the creature's prone form. I snap Unit into existence, the crystalline construct creature scurrying over to it to start pummeling into its flesh and keep it occupied.

"Aqualad," Robin shouts as he joins me behind my makeshift cover, knowing there were at least two more of these things preparing to dive them from any direction. "Advise."

"Your Atlantean friend is a little busy," Captain Marvel suggests, voice strained. "We got elephants and tigers!"

The nearest vulture dives toward us, but I'm ready for it, activating arms of Hadar. Tentacles of silver psychic energy emerge from the bottom part of my face, physically twisting the flesh, and wrap completely around my form and the form of Robin. The vulture crashes into that space, and I hurl up a silver psionic shield using the brooch in the next instant, blocking its talons. The tendrils of power strike at the creature before it can take off and fly away, sapping at its flesh with cold, eldritch damage.

Robin looks slightly impressed, but doesn't have time to comment on it before it and the other surviving vulture bank to prepare to strike again. The spell falls and my face returns to normal, though the psychic feeling of having tentacles instead of a mouth remains fresh in my memory.

"Conner!" M'gann cries out, spinning her cloaked body around to deliver a telekinetic wave of force in the direction of four super-sized wolves that threaten to eat her boyfriend. Each of them is tossed in different directions, leaving behind a shirtless Kryptonian clone, slightly covered in crimson… Their jaws leave behind bruises, blood! "They're wounding Superboy!"

"It's barely more than scratches!" he corrects angrily, snapping his hands together as roughly as possible to hurt their super-sonic hearing. Then he launches himself into their air to land on the nearest one, pummeling it into the earth before it can get up. "I'll be fine!"

She flies higher into the air and prepares to force away two that stalk in the shadows, knowing she can protect him, but nearly misses the huge white wolf that pounces toward her back. She shifts her body into a different shape to divert the blow, growing three more arms to hold back the monstrous canine, but the surprising force behind the blows sends her skittering toward the ground.

"No!" she cries out as she shoves the creature away as heavily as she can, with body and mind, and the white wolf tumbles, end over end, more than fifty yards away and deep into the jungle.

Superboy delivers a haymaker into the body of a wolf, sending it hurtling away with similar force, and she levitates toward him, prepared for them to back each other up in this moment.

Kid Flash skids across the river as he runs, far sloppier than his uncle or even Jay would do, but too fast for the super-crocs to catch him. He'd just… not mention that to them. He desperately hopes that she won't mention it either - no one needs to know how ineffective he is at running across water.

Artemis launches three arrows in their direction from her perch in a nearby tree, but their peppering explosions do not seem to do much more than anger the creatures. One of them prepares to deliver a tail sweep that might be strong enough to knock down the tree, but Kid Flash zips forward to deliver a punch at super-speed to the side of the crocodile's head. It staggers - and oh, god did that hurt - but it gives Artemis an opening to deliver iron into the soft tissue behind the creature's eye. It roils in pain, but Kid Flash doesn't give the others enough time to change their target, zipping forward once more.

A thick, vine-covered stick smashes against the belly of another croc, delivered at speeds almost too quick to track, and that was so much better than using his bare fist. The gloves Barry designed for him can only do so much to divert the energy of those super-speed punches, and one of these days, he'd for sure break a wrist or something.

"So we're all facing super animals?" Artemis asks.

"Yeah!" Conner shouts roughly. "Thought the bad guys wouldn't have any more of this stuff."

"These wolves have inhibitor collars, like the ones at Belle Reve," M'gann adds, clear that there is straining in her voice.

Kid Flash and Artemis share a look - if the super-wolves have them, and the super-crocs have them, then they probably all do. He cannot help but wonder what they're even inhibiting. Are they even stronger than this?

Aqualad dashes to the side of the elephant, but not before it manages to clip him with its mutated trunk, flinging him further and into the dirt. If Atlanteans were not magically resilient, that would have surely killed him.

The mental notes from his teammates continue hammering in his head, even as he watches Captain Marvel wrestle with a tiger that's almost two sizes taller than any normal beast. Aqualad barely has time to draw his water-bearers to conjure a watery-shield, tanking the direct hit of the charging elephant. He surges the water against its massive body in the same moment, forcing him out of the path.

Aqualad skids to a stop and takes a breath, waiting for what to do next - they just keep coming. Marvel hurls the tiger away for a moment and then flies forward, striking the nearest elephant in the torso with far more strength than he's seen Aquaman deliver against undersea leviathans. The massive beast lurches to the side and then collapses to the ground, too top-heavy to stand up quickly.

The elephant closest to Aqualad prepares to strike, but… there!

The black, metallic collar sparkles with electricity, indicating that it may be far more than simply a way to track the super-powered beasts. He has to hope that it's enough - if his intuition is wrong, then they may have to use lethal force against creatures that did not intentionally choose to rampage.

He brandishes his weapons, conjuring twin trails of water, and then rolls forward and underneath the next attempt to splatter him against the forest floor. He leaps up in that moment of opportunity and then spins, delivering water into the collar and ripping it free from the elephant's neck with a crunch and a discharge of electricity.

The elephant stops.

It turns.

And it runs away into the jungle.

They'd have to do something about a super-powered elephant later, but now he knows what to do. What the rest should do.

"Attack the collars! They're under someone's control!"

"Attack the collars! They're under someone's control!"

I freeze, suspicions all but confirmed. I remember the episode of Justice League which featured mental domination collars, courtesy of Gorilla Grodd. This… this has to be him.

Robin moves faster than I do to engage the remaining vultures, nowhere near as stalled by that information. He's likely used to making decisions on the fly, to take advantage of new information, and I feel like I'm half-running on Tav's muscle memory most of the time in these situations. It's carried me through this far, but… well, I can't give him all the credit. It's not like he's… doing anything, just helping me.

Yeah.

He's helping me.

An explosive disc hits the nearest vulture in the collar and rips apart the metallic structure, sending the bird careening out of the sky until it catches its bearings and flies away, mutated musculature poking visibly from its fleshy torso. Robin darts away into the underbrush with the same movement, avoiding a follow-up talon attack. He leaps to a vine, spins, and then toward another, moving constantly like the acrobat he was born to be.

I evoke icy-psionic power into the space between my outstretched hands, but I coat the spell with sorcerous energy, feeling my pool dropping once more. I concentrate on the target I want it to strike in my mind's eye, dip out from my makeshift cover, and then thrust my hands forward. The beam undulates like a tentacle once, twice, three times as it follows the vulture's flight path, and then hits the inhibitor collar with its cold light. Frost grows and grows until it cracks, shatters, and falls away from the creature's neck. It returns to its baser instincts, and I sigh with relief.

"Glad you didn't miss," Robin says with a smirk.

The others share similar excitement across the psychic link to Miss Martian - each group seems to have succeeded. A simultaneous attack by groups of wild animals? They know we're here.

"We've been made," Aqualad declares a second later. "And Captain Marvel is gone."

Chapter 40: 4.3 - Perspective

Chapter Text

The rendezvous with the Team is tense, to say the least. Robin paces back and forth in frustrated concern. Superboy grips the root of a tree so tightly that it splinters. Miss Martian floats back and forth, in camouflage, waiting for the right moment to act even while the stream of her emotions lightly crosses the psychic link. Aqualad stares plainly ahead, focused on what we must do. And I… well, I can't really even quantify how strange it is that I'm here, now, fighting alongside some of the greatest legacy characters DC has ever created. Even the ones that I don't recognize, like Kaldur, have proven themselves awesome.

The whole thing is surreal.

It did not take much longer for Kid Flash and Artemis to uncover the likely headquarters of the enemy, a structure coated in a material that almost blended into the darkened forest. I couldn't help but wonder how, exactly, a Leaguer disappeared, but if anyone has answers, it's whoever lies within that building.

Could Grodd have telepathically conquered the mind of someone with the Wisdom of Solomon? Or was it the Courage of Achilles that protects Marvel from mental effects? Whichever it was, I'm now more worried than ever that something could go wrong.

"Could they have collared Captain Marvel?" I ask, worried that Billy was powerless out there in a jungle filled with dangerous animals.

"Maybe," M'gann says with a frown, her skin in camouflage mode. "When Superboy and I were in Belle Reve, the collars had to be set up properly to block powers."

"So you can't just slap on a collar and boom, no powers?"

Kaldur shakes his head from behind a tree, watching the front of the building with interest. "No. If whomever did this has captured him and collared him, they must have been ready for such an event."

There's a pause in the conversation, and I realize what he's getting at just as they do.

"The mole?" Robin says in dismay. "You can't seriously think that-"

"No," Aqualad declares. "We are merely speculating about Captain Marvel. Miss Martian, Argent, anything on the psychic link for him?"

I can't feel him, though I can't form a link exactly the way that she can. She's the one maintaining the mission's psychic bond. And without seeing him and getting much closer, I couldn't form a separate one between he and I. I turn to her expectantly.

"He's no longer connected," she says with a sigh. "I can't feel him or anyone else inside. Could be unconscious, or…." She chokes down a sob.

Conner pats her on the shoulder. "He'll be all right. He's with the Justice League - we're going to find him and save him."

Artemis nods. "Yeah, yeah! He'll probably save himself before we can even get there."

"How are we getting in?" I ask, staring at the veritable fortress and wincing. "Can we just walk to the front door?"

Kid Flash shakes his head fervently, goggles covering his eyes. "No can do, dude. There's an energy field surrounding the place on all sides, like a dome."

I consider one of the spells in my repertoire. "I could… teleport inside the field? Do you see a way to deactivate it?"

"I see one," Artemis declares, pointing with her bow. "Panel beside that door. Got a spell to short it out?" When I tell her no, she hands me an arrow. "Stick the panel with the pointy end."

"I know how an arrow works," I defend.

She scoffs. "Go!"

I take a deep breath and race forward, hoping against hope that these energy pylons do not also send that energy to the area inside the dome too. The moment that I get close enough to surely activate any sensors that would fire turrets or something awful that James Bond would have to disengage, I snap my fingers and disappear with a swirl of silver light and then reappear on the opposite side, just near the doorway leading inside and the panel just along it.

Misty step is such a good spell.

Gripping the arrow in my hand, I stab the panel, and the pylons lurch as an electrical surge knocks out the energy field, allowing the Team to pour into the area so swiftly that there's not enough time for a swifter response from the enemy. Any minute now, an army of dominated animals will emerge and-

Something nearby howls, like only a monkey can, and more than a dozen collared howler monkeys race off of the roof of the complex to engage the Team. Alarm klaxons blare into the night, and all chaos breaks loose.

"Collars!" I shout into the mental link and conjure four mage hands. Each of them moves in concert to grab the nearest howler monkey and arrest its momentum before it can race toward me, and I deliver a ray of frost to its collar and destroy it.

The others are having as much luck, ready and waiting to divert their attacks toward the only thing keeping them under the control of the enemy. Robin's discs aim true, while Artemis shows no signs of slowing down. Aqualad keeps several of them busy with a wave of water, while Kid Flash races past to disable them with a well-placed stick lodged between the collars' plates. Miss Martian proves her own telekinesis will likely always be stronger than mine, capable of holding five of them in mid-air at a time while Superboy rips off the collars with his mere fingers.

My own focus is drawn in telepathically, expecting and hoping the Absolute would be able to defend against something as powerful telepathically as Gorilla Grodd. Could M'gann hold him off for the rest of the Team?

The doorway leading inside opens at the behest of a black-furred gorilla… one wearing a crimson beret, bandoliers, and brandishing a Gatling gun! He stands mere feet from me as he races out, eyes scouring the rest of the Team, and I barely have time to activate invisibility and dive to the side before he can turn the weapon on me.

Bullets pepper into the area where I was just standing. My ears ring in debilitating pain, a whistling bell that just won't end.

Just like that, I could have been dead.

One moment away from dead.

Superboy shouts in rage and lands hard on the ground just before the gorilla. He doesn't have time to swing the gun toward me before he's angling it toward the Kryptonian, and I scramble to my feet and back away into complex, unseen, ears still ringing.

I press myself against the wall the moment I round the corner, barely able to hear the sound of the fight over the ringing in my ears. I slide to the ground in a heap, arms around my knees, sweat pouring down my forehead and dripping onto the concrete floor below. Heavy breathing for several seconds, and then I remember why I'm here.

Billy Batson.

One of the greatest heroes in the world.

A ten year old boy who is a mere host to powers greater than himself, to knowledge greater than himself.

I can relate.

I stand and make my way further into the complex, hoping that cameras don't catch invisible targets anymore than eyes do. I should really ask Superboy if heat vision reveals invisibility, because I'm inclined to say that it doesn't. Would an infrared sensor detect my heat while under this spell? This place has some wild tech, so who knows what they can do?

Slowly, my hearing returns and I start to hear voices just beyond, a voice with a strange French accent talking animatedly. The buzzing of some kind of tool radiates up ahead, and I round the corner to see a room filled with purple light from computer monitors displaying data that I can't possibly understand. On a gurney lies strapped the form of Captain Marvel, inhibitor collar around his neck. Looming over him, ready to perform what could only be some kind of sick surgery, is an exposed brain in a metallic contraption.

The Brain!

And Monsieur Mallah.

Not Grodd, then.

I mentally connect with Captain Marvel with a mere thought, the psychic bond formed in an instant. "Marvel, it's Argent. I'm here. Advise."

The Brain does not notice me with its likely complex sensors, to substitute his lack of eyes. Somewhere inside, the tadpole squirms with delight at seeing a brain exposed like this, but I don't know if it's hunger, familiarity, or both. The leader of its kind is usually a giant version of this, an Elder Brain in a pool of liquid. The tadpoles usually are born in the soup of the Elder Brain after all.

The Brain? He doesn't even compare in power.

"Get the collar!"

The machine whirring around Billy and preparing for surgery moves ever closer, getting ready to carve into the superhuman's skull. Good god, he wants Billy's brain. Drool drops from my mouth.

For only a moment.

I slam my hands together and conjure a bolt of pure chaos, returning to visibility the moment I begin to channel other magic. The Brain reacts unexpectedly, and diverts one of the tools in the path of the magic, forcing a bladed saw to melt with chaotic heat, but deflecting the attack.

"My, my, my," the Brain states with interest, the pillar-like pedestal he sits on whirring to life. "You're ze one I've heard tant de choses. You… you may be more intéressant a patient than the Capitaine!"

My chest flutters - this could be really bad.

I snap out a new spell, one I've not tried before, and dodge to the right just as an electrical arc from the Brain would have struck.

A tiny hole in reality opens several feet behind the mad scientist, releasing a storm of tendrils from beyond the realms of men. The argent torrent psychically swallows the Brain in darkness, whipping at him as he is exposed to the pure cold of a vacuum, and the corrosive will of Hadar. I hear his screams mentally and physically as each connection siphons away a bit more of the villain's will to continue.

I don't bother questioning if it will work for long - surely the Brain's machine pedestal is made of tougher stuff than that - but hunger of Hadar will give me an edge here and a moment to try. Another ray of frost later and Billy rips himself out of his own bindings, ready to strike fear into the villain without a heart.

Mallah crashes through the wall with a sudden conflagration of stone, mortar, and dust, revealing Superboy, Miss Martian, and the rest of the Team entering the room at the same moment. The gorilla with a gun torn asunder in his grasp lands in a heap, before his awareness catches the swirling vortex of magic surrounding the Brain's pedestal. He roars in anger and then rushes at me, without a care in the world but pounding my head into the ground.

Captain Marvel interposes himself without even raising a fist, the gorilla crashing into the floating magical hero. A back hand strike from the Leaguer sends Mallah flying back several yards into an ungraceful landing.

The Brain, in the same moment, careens out of the area of the spell. Parts of his cybernetic pedestal ooze with acid and are clearly worse for wear. "Mallah, now! To me!"

The Brain's machine transforms as several pieces begin coming to life, shifting out of the way. In the same moment, Mallah reaches into his bandolier and presses a button on something in his palm. Energy pylons extend into the chamber and activate, whirling energy taking down the rest of the Team before they can intervene, their cries of pain discordant to hear. As they fall, I lose sight of them due to my own spell's vortex of energy taking up the majority of the room.

"Let them go!" I shout, canceling the spell just so that I can see them.

Captain Marvel makes a grab for the controller in the ape's hand with preternatural speed, but the Brain's machine activates in the same moment. With a flash of light and then sudden darkness, my sense of anything fades to nothing.

The Absolute shudders as a drop of his awareness in the multiverse fades momentarily, one of several footholds into another, unfamiliar reality. It returns nearly as quickly as it faded, and he feels satisfaction. That one? That one is special, his Chosen among all those True Souls who follow in his footsteps.

The entity rests comfortably within a demiplane of his own design, one that can easily buttress on the boundaries between realities. Pools of reflective yet festering pools shift and change as his awareness of the realities outside does, a mere representation of his sight beyond the confines of this immortal body. He floats to the grand desk of his office and watches the false sunset through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind it. Argent light shifts across the skies of the Sword Coast, the land appearing to be far, far below him. He considers the name, Argent, that his champion took after this very color and admires it.

He remembers the accident aboard the Nautiloid with perfect clarity, remembers the twisted mistake of a plane shift that forced a few on board to plummet through the Phlogiston and into a reality beyond even the most basic of crystal spheres, one past the farthest edges of the known multiverse and into something wholly new. How could he forget perhaps the most marvelous event that had ever happened in the history of magic?

The Absolute had forged himself into a greater mind than any could imagine, one that rivals the gods themselves - he would never forget such a momentous happening for as long as he lives, even in this state of un-life.

No, perhaps even the efforts of Karsus pale in comparison to what the Absolute may have wrought with little more than a happy accident.

What lay beyond is a new frontier, one that none in Netheril had ever uncovered. One that he suspected even the gods themselves did not know, and if they did, they were unwilling to share. This place followed its own rules, possessed its own challenges, arose its own gods, possessed its own cosmos.

A beautiful landscape yet to be plundered for all that it is worth.

With the right conquering, the right enchanting, the right inspiring? The Absolute could forge a reality that far eclipses that of his home in any age.

The Absolute's awareness dwindles again, a goblin True Soul meeting her end somewhere deep in the Underdark of Faerûn. He cares little for the individual champions of his home plane - the Absolute had plenty more there to inspire worship, to build an army, to corrupt and rebuild.

No, he cares more for the few that lie within this new reality, and he turns his attention to them.

The Absolute's form shimmers into that of the Lich Queen of the Gith for but a moment as he places a tentacle like finger into a pool of ooze and enters the dream of one of his champions, the githyanki Lae'zel. She has spent much of her time in a forced coma since arriving in this reality, under the watchful gaze of military forces. He inspires her once more, through the voice of Vlaakith, to fight for her survival, to crush those around her, to return to the Astral Sea and take her place at the Queen's side. He cares little for her success or failure - he merely wants to see her fight to survive her current circ*mstances.

The Absolute steps into the dream of another, a human warlock named Wyll with a fiendish patron. He never enjoys inhabiting the body of a fiendish creature such as this female cambion, but he'll make do. Wyll's desires remind him of his Chosen, but the man seeks a shortcut to avoid the hard work of becoming a hero. Instead, he murders his way across the countryside, building a name for himself and a record of his achievements, and the Absolute loves to watch the warlock work to rid the world of his definition of evil. Mizora, the fiend with whom Wyll made a deal, inspires him to continue on his quest, not knowing that it is that Absolute that pulls the patron strings.

The Absolute adopts the guise of Mystra, perhaps the most powerful of all of the gods, and settles within the deepest recesses of Gale's mind, the human wizard who once fell in love with the goddess herself. It is almost pathetic how easy it is, with honeyed words, to convince the wizard that he is on the right path. Ingratiating himself with the most powerful of mages in this new reality will give him the solution he seeks - a steady supply of magical trinkets to feed the bomb anchored to his soul.

The Absolute dislikes greatly to take on the next form, for the mental dominations of Cazador are not the kind he seeks to abuse. Astarion the vampire spawn simply wishes to live a life away from his old Master, and the Absolute is almost keen to allow him that luxury. But only almost - Astarion is needed in the future, and he cannot allow the vampire to completely fade into the obscurity of a noble life in Gotham.

Forgoing the form of the elder vampire Cazador, he adopts the sweet dark embrace of Shar, a goddess that the Absolute once worshipped in his youth. The half-elven cleric, Shadowheart, possesses something he desperately needs, but she has no way to return it to her betters now that she lies in this multiverse. She has no solution for the growing insecurity in her soul, and the false songs of Shar whispered in her ear are wonderful.

The Absolute has no interest in entering the dreams of the cranium rat swarm - each of them is an individual perspective that he may inhabit at any time, and combined, their power is tremendous. He can't say that their status does not fascinate him. The nature of the creature that was once nothing more than an intellect devourer became something more, something different, when the Nautiloid exploded, and he does not have much of an explanation for it. Magic still holds many mysteries, even for one who holds so much understanding.

The Absolute considers entering the dream of his Chosen, the sorcerer Logan, but he declines. He has given the aasimar many tools that he may use to escape his current circ*mstances, many more tools than that of the others. Perhaps many more tools than any of his True Souls, even those with the simulacra of divine powers. He cannot help but be intrigued - the man's insistence that everyone is merely a character in stories he's read is pure insanity, but he certainly knows a lot about the reality he finds himself in.

That knowledge can be exploited to get exactly what the Absolute wants.

Chapter 41: 4.4 - Trapped

Chapter Text

I blink once, twice, three times before I realize something is very wrong.

The Brain's cybernetic pedestal still glows with vibrant energy, flickering slightly with every moment that passes. Monsieur Mallah comes to a standing position and prepares to move closer. The Team and Captain Marvel are gone. The background of the room has completely changed - gone are the concrete styling and data readouts of a hidden medical facility. Instead, the room sits tighter to the ground and is shaped like a half-cylinder laying across the ground, almost like a small metallic hangar. Tables line the exterior walls, filled with supplies and other technology.

How…?

Teleportation technology?

He took me with him when he teleported?

Oh god.

The Brain spins around to face me, the fleshy substance visible beneath the transparent dome over the pedestal's frame. "Welcome to ton dernier lieu de repos. Mallah, seize lui! Shadows, move into position!""

The gorilla does not hesitate, bounding closer with every step.

Panic fills my every nerve.

I cast invisiblity and dive to the side, running straight into the legs of a table that could serve as an operating table. I wince, pained, but I evaded the gorilla, and that's all that matters. I scurry to my feet even as Mallah tries again, fist batting the table to the side and narrowly missing my form. I back away as calmly as I can, trying to avoid making more noise, while the Brain rages in his own digitized voice.

"He is still here! Le trouver!"

The door to this building opens on the far side, seemingly the only exit that I can see, revealing three figures dressed in all black, every inch of their bodies covered in matching uniforms. Guns, knives, grenades, and everything in between adorn their clothing, and a cloth visor covers their faces even while glowing in red. They move into a formation, but do not yet engage, two of them with fingers at the ready to fire rifles into the room.

"Do not damage ze head!"

Mallah shoves another storage container to the side, but I'm already on the other side of the room, at least fifteen feet from him, and still moving away. I'm having a hard time catching my breath, and nervousness fills my throat.

"M'gann?"

No response. Out of range.

I'm alone in a secondary location with a supervillain.

I have precious few of my bigger resources left. Most of my sorcery points, one third-level, one second-level, and a couple first-level spell slots. Both shield brooches, the one I enchanted and the one that Zatara made, are still available if I'm not able to get out of this room without a fight. I have Unit, but the psicrystal familiar is not a fighter and is nowhere near bulletproof.

There's almost zero chance that I get out of this alive if it comes down to a fight.

I have to delay. Get to safety and contact the League or the Team or both. My radio communicator is certainly out of range, but I don't want them to hear it anyway. I'll have to use one of my newer spells for a short message, but that's the last of my biggest spell slots.

I… wish I wasn't so damn limited. Why do my powers even follow the rules of the game? This is no game! This is real life, and my powers are following the slow, trickling progression of a leveling system. A few chaos bolts right now could get me out of this, and another hunger of Hadar could do damage to everyone in this room at nearly the same time. But I don't have the resources!

I approach the doorway leading outside as quietly as I can, trying to slip past the uniformed goons that are guarding the exit. If I can just get outside, I could make a break for it while invisible, and there's no real chance they find me.

The grip on the nearest rifle tightens as I try to slip past, and he very nearly turns around as I try to slip just past where he's standing. A… distraction could get me out of this.

I form a mental bond with the Brain, visualizing a psychic tendril of energy snapping to life between us. As soon as the connection forms, the villain's entire cybernetic contraption stops moving, cutting him off mid-sentence in his shouting orders. "I thought someone as smart as you would know what to do against a mage, but even someone as weak as me can slip past your sensors. Good luck finding me!"

I wave my hands and conjure Unit, the familiar appearing atop a series of crates. It needs no verbal orders, as it understands completely what I am asking it to do.

"Ah, you think yourself intelligente! You've no idea the ravage I will levy against you."

Unit launches itself at a table near the middle of the room, landing hard atop its surface and spilling a forgotten cup of coffee on the floor. Canteens roll away onto the concrete, and the three assailants near the door shift into high gear, moving just out of reach of the doorway. Mallah runs bodily more than a dozen feet in two steps, the red beret almost falling off of its head due to its impressive speed.

"Toodles! Have fun never f*cking your gorilla."

I snap Unit out of existence with a thought, the creature vanishing in a blip of argent light just as Mallah reaches for it. I don't stay to see their reaction, pushing my way outside and into the night beyond. I'm just glad this doesn't break my invisibility spell.

The Brain's emotions simmer across the telepathic bond, a confusing mix of anger and disappointment. "After him, idiots!"

Kid Flash wishes he had been faster, wishes he had been smarter. He should have seen the tech coming, should have recognized its purpose, should have understood what the Brain wanted to do. He was the Team's resident expert on supervillain technology! Surely he should have recognized teleportation tech! Perhaps a quick dash could have taken away a key component of the tech, forced it to fail.

Barry always says that one of a speedster's worst enemies is human hesitation. Wally - Wally hesitated, and now the newbie is gone.

He's glad that Captain Marvel is here, because this is yet another loss for the Team in a short time. First Red Tornado, now this? At least the League will see that the Team needs some reconsidering. Wally doesn't like that idea any more than the rest of his friends do, but at least someone with powers that make him smarter, that make him wiser, is here to take the helm.

Aqualad shifts into the foreground of their thoughts with a few simple words. "Scrounge the place for any data you can find. Perhaps the Brain left a clue for where he would go, in the event of his escape."

Robin scoffs. "As if? You think a genius would be that lazy?"

"Doesn't that kinda come with the territory?" Artemis asks bitterly. "Super-smart people often overlook the obvious. Heads too in the clouds to use common sense."

Aqualad turns his attention tersely on Robin, eyes clear. "Do it."

Wally meets Dick's eyes, and then the thirteen year old follows orders. It's a solid plan, all things considered, even if the redhead's not sure if someone would leave something like that behind. Leaving an obvious failsafe to your escape plan only makes a small amount of sense, in certain situations, and he's not sure if this is one of them.

M'gann tightens her fist. "I can't feel him! He's… not in range."

Wally fights the urge to say the thing he's thinking, knowing that the girl doesn't deserve to hear that right now. Instead, he clarifies, "We don't know how strong that tech is. He could be anywhere on the planet right now, for all we know."

Artemis can't disagree, even as she shifts through some drawers in a side room to find anything. "Or off-world."

That sobering thought leaves them all feeling breathless.

"As if," Kid Flash declares. "Outside of a handful of aliens who've interacted with Earthlings, is it really that likely that the Brain's got a space base out there somewhere?"

Captain Marvel nods with determination. "Yeah! And, like, why would he be so interested in making an army of regular Earth animals if he was regularly in space? I'd want to make an army of space animals if I were in his shoes. Think of the teeth!" The excitable adult gestures with his fingers to mimic a chest-burster, and Wally shivers. A xenomorph on Kobra Venom?

"Yeah, yeah. We've established he's probably on Earth. How can we find him?" SB asks, giving that distant look Wally's noticed when he's focused on his super-senses. Dude's intense. "I don't see him or hear him nearby."

"I can geo-locate his communicator," Robin declares from his perch in another room, all while typing at a computer terminal. Wally doubts that he's making any headway past the encryption, but Dick's the best at what he does. "It's not perfect, but if there's any signal at all, I'm convinced the Bat-Computer can find it."

Kaldur turns away from looking over the battle damage and trying to draw schematics of the building in some paper he found. "A technological solution may work to our advantage, but if that doesn't work, we should look to magic. Captain Marvel?"

The situation is so dire that Wally doesn't even really consciously notice the suggestion. His mind runs a mile a minute about every other tech possibility.

"I can, uh, reach out to some contacts," the Leaguer suggests. "It's not something I can do myself, unfortunately, but I know some folks."

"I will as well. Perhaps some in Atlantis will have the ability to find him," Aqualad declares, already readying his communicator. "We are not without options. We will find him."

Wally can only hope it's not too late.

The high-tech building shaped almost like a hut crossed with an airplane hangar is but one of many in the area, and if I weren't certain before that they teleported the three of us out of there, I am now. The forest that surrounds these buildings looks completely different, even at night, and there's no telling where I am. If I knew something about constellations and had the time to study them in the sky right now, maybe I could make a guess to help the League find me, but this is not in the realm of possibility. I'd ask Batman about it, maybe, if I survive this whole thing.

As soon as I exit the door and catch a brief glimpse of my bearings, I don't stop running. Several more of those uniformed assailants, dressed in all black combat fatigues and clearly black ops soldiers on the Brain's payroll, mill about that central building and are at the ready the moment I exit to take me down. I almost feel sorry for them - they don't have any tools to find invisible opponents. Even those who try to follow after the sound of my footsteps can't keep up, and in a second, I'm going to slow down to avoid leaving any tracks.

I hear their attempts at coordinating orders aloud but don't understand them, spoken in a foreign language that I'm pretty sure isn't French or Spanish. One of them, on a whim, tosses a live smoke bomb, but when it goes off, I'm nowhere near that area, watching the smoke fill up the night at a distance. I stay cramped in some shrubbery near one of the buildings, trying to stay low, and am still able to watch their responses. Two jackbooted thugs run past me, faces still covered completely in cloth masks, but they don't even look in my direction.

The Brain's metallic voice rings out over an intercom. "Coordinate yourselves to catch ze enfant!" The roar of a gorilla accompanies the orders, and I nervously survey my immediate surroundings.

Is this one of the places where those pylons lie in wait? They were there at the old base as a trap, in more than one place, but I don't know where they are here or if there are any. They have a rather wide area of effect, so if they are around then….

Several animalistic grunts break my reverie, and my eyes widen as I glance up to see their source.

Nearly a dozen gorillas of various sizes enter the compound from the surrounding jungle, their skin broken in several places revealing exposed muscle beneath, their bodies way too large for their own good. I'm not as familiar with the compound as the Team, but this is more of that Kobra Venom. Another facility where the Brain is making an army, though this time, it's with apes? Apes like Mallah, but Mallah didn't show the signs of Kobra Venom?

The gorillas move with purpose, eyes darting and necks swiveling - oh god, looking for me. One particularly large gorilla with white fur drops into view from a tree and gestures to its kin, seemingly giving orders. They're smart, like Mallah.

I thought, when I saw it was the Brain, that this means no Grodd. But one of these is totally Grodd, and that one is Solovar. What is this, Gorilla City?

More than ever before, I need to -

"Good evening, human."

My body freezes in place as the foreign mind touching my own. This is not like the touch of M'gann or the touch of J'onn - it's less refined, clumsier, more raw.

"We are under orders to take you in for the Brain and the Ultra-Humanite."

I don't know who the latter is, but they… are coming. The gorillas shift ever closer and closer, one of them already having connected to my own mind. I notice the distinct lack of inhibitor collars, and whatever chance that I have to fight against a group of gorillas is lost.

I shout back, telepathically, "Yeah, well, good luck. My allies are coming, and if you plan to-"

"That is what we want, too," the gorilla claims. "We need allies. Mallah, the Ultra-Humanite, and the Brain torture us, experiment on us, force us into captivity, force us to listen."

Another jumps in before I can respond. "We sensed your mind is powerful, and even now, cannot breach it. Enough to communicate, not enough to understand. You are the only one we have encountered who could… help us."

"Yeah, well, he wants to do surgery on me. I've got a weird thing going on in my head, and I think he wants it."

Another group of the masked assailants tosses smoke bombs across an area to my left, and I'm half-tempted to just run. Disappear into the forest and not look back. That would be the smart thing - no one could fault him for that.

"We will not let him have it, human."

Frustrated, I point out the obvious, ready to move at a moment's notice if the thugs come this way and manage to find me. "Why don't you just attack them? Surely a big group of enhanced gorillas could-"

"We tried," a gorilla with a female voice explains. "They have captured our young and have promised to hurt them if we do not follow orders. We have no choice."

"Our biggest advantage, human, is that they do not know we can touch minds, that we can plan, that we can help each other," the first gorilla, the one with white fur, says again in a somber voice. "Help us."

"Give me a…" I sigh, wishing I hadn't left my smartphone in the mountain. It was protocol, they said, to not be easily located. Even the League-issued ones. "I need to become visible again to contact my allies. Can you keep them off me?"

One of the gorillas affirms it emotionally.

A black-furred ape approaches a different angle and starts pointing, dancing back and forth, shouting as loudly as it can. Several masked assailants start running in that direction, alongside a few of the gorillas. When I sense that no one is around, watching me directly, I let the invisibility spell drop and begin casting sending, burning my highest level spell slot on the hopeful chance these gorillas aren't messing with me.

A telepathic connection comes to life between myself and my target, the most likely person who can actually find me fairly accurately. The face of Giovanni Zatara races across my mind's eye.

"Am safe and hidden. Mission mistake. Brain teleported me to unknown base. Kobra Venom gorillas are not hostile. Send help. Can't do it alone. Argent."

A significant moment of hesitation later before he finally responds, "Oh, no! I will contact the Team and will attempt to scry on your location. Do not engage with the enemy until you must. Help-"

That's the problem with sending. It's a short message there and back. You lose natural conversation for the chance to send it anywhere, to any plane, though there's a chance to fail if it travels across planar boundaries. Very useful spell, but very expensive when you have this few resources left. A smartphone could have done the same thing in this situation.

I reapply the invisibility spell using my last second-level slot, leaving me with only first-level spells for the rest of the day. I could make more slots with sorcery points, but I have very few of those left.

"I've contacted them," I say telepathically to the white-furred gorilla most likely to be Solovar. "Help is on the way, but it may take some time. What do we do?"

A smoke pellet explodes in front of me as assailants rush around the corner of my hiding place. I stand quickly, smoke stinging my eyes, and force my arm over my nose, wishing my uniform had some looser cloth. I can't help it - my body coughs, and the thugs act with renewed confidence.

"Over here!"

A Taser round goes wide, more smoke pellets explode into action in the area, and the assailants rush to block off any avenue of escape. A semicircle of more than ten of these soldiers surrounds the space in seconds. My nose stings, my eyes sting, and I can't help but cough again.

Three of the assailants rush into the cloud, and I run backwards as quickly as I can, but smash hard into someone dashing from the opposite direction. We tumble into a heap of limbs, and my mind loses focus for just long enough that the invisibility spell is lost.

"Help!" I cry out to the gorillas, kicking at the nearest thug to force them off of me, but another two are at the ready, aiming their rifles downward.

"We got him!"

One other option…!

"No, you don't!"

In a blaze of silver light, wings burst from my back and I push upward as quickly as I can, gaining momentum for a few feet. The feeling of angelic elation is short-lived - I don't spot the one in the distance who levies his weapons toward me and fires, electricity coursing through my veins. I twist in pain as I fall, hard, my left thigh taking the brunt of the impact. A second, a third, a fourth Taser round tags me, and it's all agony.

Zatanna bursts into Shadowcrest's Atrium, already dressed in her uniform. Her father stands before a shimmering globe, hands outstretched and guiding the magic before him. His top-hat lie haphazard on the table near his left knee, the wand lazily held between two fingers of his right hand. He whirls his head around to look at her and makes his displeasure immediately clear to her.

"You are not coming, Zatanna-"

"Yeah, right!"

"Zatanna, this is business meant for those who are trained-"

"I can't do much worse than Logan, can I? He got kid-zapped on his first day."

She stands resolute, firm, unyielding. The spell to find their long-time guest, to find the elder teenager who helped them fight demons, seems to be taking longer than expected, so she presses her way into the center of the room, standing before the globe. "Dia ym s'rehtaf lleps! Etacol tnegrA!"

She feels the toll of the Art on her body, but she cares little. The globe spins even faster, the shimmering field of magic builds to a higher crescendo, and Zatara grits his teeth further. "Daughter, a supervillain has kidnapped my charge, your friend. You cannot expect to-"

The globe suddenly stops without warning, without fanfare, without slowing first. The energy of the spell coalesces into one point and then that shimmering point spins around the globe a final time and stops in the middle of southern Africa, a third-world country called Bwunda.

Zatara releases a held breath and then presses a finger to his ear. "Batman, I've got the location."

Zatanna doesn't hear the response, but she feels a sense of exhilaration knowing that, on the other line, are members of the League trying to coordinate what to do in the event of such a dire emergency. She has been close to her father on League business before, much to his chagrin, but there's nothing quite like this feeling.

It feels good.

She wants to help.

She has to help.

"Zeta-Tube?" Zatanna says with as strong a look of determination as she can muster. "Or Javelin?"

Her Dad studies her for a long moment until finally, she sees his willingness to resist fading. "You do not leave my side under any circ*mstance, and you prepare a spell to escape harm."

She smiles tightly, glad to assist.

Chapter 42: 4.5 - Extraction

Chapter Text

For the second time in a few hours, the Bio-Ship descends toward a jungle, and yet the atmosphere could not be tenser aboard the craft. Kaldur cannot help but take responsibility for what occurred, even if he does not say it aloud. At the end of the day, it is his burden to bear for the Team's recent shortcomings. Had he been more proactive, perhaps Red Tornado would still be with the Team. Had he been more attentive, perhaps there would be no mole. Had he been more reactive, perhaps Argent would still be on board.

He opens his phone and jots a text to the one person he understands most, perhaps the only person who understands him. In another world, in another life, Roy would be the leader of this Team, not Kaldur - he's the eldest and the one with the clearest head.

"Need to talk when you get a chance. A lot on my plate, and a lot at my feet."

Roy responds quickly - he always does, no matter the time of day. "Coffee and donuts, on me, next time we're both free."

Kaldur can't help but grin as he replies, glad for the slight distraction to his nerves. The seriousness of this situation is not lost on him at any point, and he feels a pang of guilt for not keeping his mind on the mission. Batman was right - he can't split focus.

He should be preparing their guest for what will happen next. The young girl sits next to Robin, her dark hair slightly in her eyes, her fingers rapping at the end of her chair. Her uniform perfectly fits her father, and Kaldur is not sure if it's a good or bad sign from the gods that they gained a second potential teammate during the same twenty-four hour period.

"So, can you find anyone with your little spell?" Kid Flash asks. "'Cuz there's a most wanted list in basically every country that is begging for you and your dad."

Zatanna rolls her eyes, but Kaldur can see it's just bravado in the face of danger. "It's not that simple. Only reason this one worked is because we're familiar with Logan and his magical signature. Not everyone has such a unique presence to scry on."

Wally starts to say something else, but Artemis elbows him in the side.

Her father is a quiet presence in the back of the Bio-Ship, and Kaldur's honestly surprised that he didn't try to answer Kid Flash's question. At least her father allows his daughter the freedom to speak for herself.

"We're approaching the first drop zone," Miss Martian says confidently, but her lip twitches slightly and her stealth uniform keeps shifting back in a few places to her usual everyday outfit. Kaldur doesn't think she's noticed, but he… doesn't want to point it out to her. This is a stressful time. He trusts that she'll manage it correctly when the time comes.

Robin, Artemis, and Superboy drop into the jungle below without much fanfare, leaving the rest behind. Miss Martian's psychic link forms by the time Superboy lands with a light thud, letting the groups stay connected while they prepare for Logan's extraction.

Kid Flash perks up slightly as they approach the second drop zone and turns to the Leaguer. "Have you heard from him? Is he okay?"

The magician blinks slightly as though pulled from a trance. "He is in danger. If we do not hurry, he… may not make it."

"What does that mean?" Kid Flash asks hurriedly, but M'gann confirms the drop zone and opens a hole in the hull of the ship.

With that sobering thought, Kaldur guides the rest of them, including Zatara and Zatanna, through the hole in the ship and toward the second drop zone. Kid Flash's face is still white, even as he takes to a dash. Looking even more nervous is Zatanna, and Kaldur gestures toward her.

"We're going to do everything in our power to make this a success," Aqualad explains with a soft smile. "As dire as things seem, we are good at what we do, and we're even better with you and your father here."

The Brain is almost giddy with anticipation, surgical tools at the ready while he stands over the gray-skinned young man, unconscious to the world and strapped tightly into a gurney. For the second time in a day, he had an opportunity to uncover scientific knowledge about the brain that no one else possibly knew.

This young man has an utterly unique condition. When the Brain got the report, he was undoubtedly one of the most interested to learn exactly what this "brain worm" was. The report mentioned that it granted psychic powers of unknown potential and provided abilities within the realm of magic.

Unlike many of those within his mental echelon, the Brain does not actually have any real issue with the realms of magic. He understands that it has its uses but had never embraced the subject for himself, though he imagines he would be quite skilled if he took the time to learn. He's simply never had the opportunity to widen his field of expertise to the supernatural realms that some of his allies so easily walked.

Al Ghul holds the secrets to the mystic arts so close to his chest, and asking Klarion to sit still long enough to be a teacher is like asking to be turned into a duck for simply bothering him. He respects those within the Light's employ and even those without that dare to tread on those waters. He considers asking some of the Shadows to be a witness to the surgery, but he doubts that they would share any of their expertise either. Not many within the League of Shadows' employ were actually practitioners, so he doubts even more that there would be a point.

Ultra-Humanite surveys the surgical preparations from a distance, leaning near the door frame to this most private of chambers in the compound. Mallah stands closer but out of the way, and seeing the gorilla brings the damn fool's comment back to the foreground of his mind.

"Not to worry, Mallah," he declares into the silence of the room. "We need not consummate our partenariat to know its force."

The gorilla beams, understanding.

With a spiteful activation of his machines, the Brain cuts into the skull.

Artemis dashes through the forest ahead of her group, Robin close behind, with Superboy leading the rear to guard their back. Every piece of data they could learn about the location in advance, from Watchtower and satellite imagery, she knows more of what to expect than she suspects the others do. This place reminds her too much of the kinds of places she witnessed alongside Dad and Jade growing up, and everything from the positioning of the buildings to the evidence of vehicles suggests that this is as much a League of Shadows operation as it is an HQ for the Brain.

She hopes that she is wrong.

If the Shadows are involved, she hopes that the Team is ready. Their last interaction with them was a narrow victory, but a victory nonetheless. Aqualad should be more prepared, given his recent engagement with them in South Rhelesia.

Could the Team handle Shadows and an animal army? Zatara says that the Kobra Gorillas are not enemies, but that doesn't preclude others and she doesn't know that she trusts the word of the newbie just yet.

For all she knows? Well, maybe Argent is an elaborate plant all along. A brain tadpole sounds exactly like a thing the Brain would do before they send them to spy on the Team.

She sighs.

Artemis admits that the talk of a mole has her paranoid.

If he had been a spy all along, he wouldn't have been helpful in Bialya or for the others in Atlantis. The League vouches for him, and she… she'll just have to get on board.

As she crosses through a thicket of trees and realizes what lies just ahead, she sighs as she stops and signals for the others with a hand. Her suspicions might not be right about Argent, but they are right about the League of Shadows. Men and women in their standard gear stalk the area outside of a series of buildings, likely guarding a research station for the Brain. Somewhere nearby are bound to be vehicles for a speedy getaway, and perhaps hidden helicopters. She idly wonders if she could convince the others to go around and disable them, but they'd have to find them first. They don't really have time either, anyway.

"Why is the League of Shadows working with the Brain?" she asks into the mental link. "Oh, and we've arrived on site, and are outside of their perimeter."

"Miss Martian, make telepathic contact with these gorillas," Aqualad says into the link. "We are approaching from the south, one minute and thirty seconds out."

"Seeking contact now," Miss Martian replies.

"Whatever the reason is, it can't be good," Robin declares. "This speaks to a heavy amount of cooperation between different supervillains. Sportsmaster got the Kobra Venom from Santa Prisca, the Blockbuster formula comes from Cadmus, the ice villains all trying to get into Belle Reve, the inhibitor collars from Belle Reve? Now the Brain has it and the collars?"

"It can't be a coincidence," Kid Flash argues. "Right, Zatara?"

"Hmm. Yes, it seems to be a dangerous series of connections. The League has had its suspicions for some time, but this theory holds more water each day."

Kaldur clears his throat, a sound that comes through the psychic link somehow. "We can discuss these connections later. The life of a comrade is on the line."

Superboy shifts into position nearer Artemis, and she can't say that his closeness is not slightly distracting. "These huts are lead shielded, but I can hear them."

Artemis sighs - it's standard practice for League of Shadows bases to shield them with lead. Superman's too much of a threat to not protect them from that kind of intrusion.

"Can you hear Argent?" Zatanna thinks helpfully.

"No, but… there's too much noise to confirm anything that they're doing. Some are talking, some are playing cards, some are using, er, power tools?"

Miss Martian's excitement fills the link all at once, and Artemis can't help but match it, a strange feeling that she'll never quite get used to.

"I've established contact with the gorillas. They were expecting us. Aqualad, Zatara, here's what we need to do."

Fascinating.

Truly, truly fascinating.

Every medical readout and every diagnostic tool at his disposal reveals a truly incredible detail.

Nestled beneath the prefrontal cortex and attached to every organ of the central nervous system using long, almost microscopic tendrils of flesh is what can only be described as a parasitic leech. A cross between a lamprey, a worm, and something else entirely, it has bonded completely to the brain without killing or otherwise debilitating its host. It forces the body to secrete new organic compounds, compounds that under a microscope are completely and utterly fascinating. The primary product of this creature's parasitic relationship is an adhesive ooze that, from the looks of the medical readings, integrates itself into every organ group it can touch, like a new mucus membrane.

The Brain could study this for years and never understand it all. This is far more medically vexing than seeing a brain on the Wisdom of Solomon! It appears to both give and take to its host body, implying a more complex relationship than merely a parasitic one.

Less interesting than the relationship between parasite and host is the fact that one of his tools melted when he tried to remove the creature from the open cranial cavity. When he tried again with a backup tool, the metal prong bent away until it resembled a spiral. Completely useless and confounding.

Ultra-Humanite clears her throat, her voice emanating from the speaker around her neck. The Brain already knows what she's going to say before she says it. "Now it is time to kill the host and remove what you can of its parasite."

The Brain scoffed when she suggested it earlier, but he is nearing the limit of what he can do with the tools at his disposal. A more extended study would be beneficial. The Brain would shrug if he had the shoulders to do so. "Mayhaps you are correct, Delores." The ape frowns.

With a mental activation, the Brain's pedestal whirs to life as a bladed spike rises up and out of its interior. Attached to a winding cord, the blade twists through the air until it nears the open skull cap. The spiked tool nears the brain matter and slowly gets closer and closer, the planned destination the vital area of the brain stem.

Just before it can make purchase, a flicker of argent light sends the Brain and Ultra-Humanite flying across the room. He cries out for help, but his ape friend is similarly prone on the ground. His implements begin to adjust his cybernetic body into an upright position, in time to see a shadowed field of light covering the young man's body. The lattice of dark energy undulates as though alive, and it seems to draw in the light around the room, bathing everything in black.

It lasts for but a moment before vanishing. He has enough time to question what exactly that was before the sounds of gunfire draw in his attention.

Zatanna, wreathed in a protection spell, follows after the Team and her father, watching the other heroes her age and her father go to work. It is a sight to behold, one that she is glad that she got to witness firsthand.

Aqualad moves like a professional, gathering water from the environment and from the pack on his back to form a shield in front of himself, so densely packed that it can block bullets. One of the assassins tries to slip in from the back to take him down, but Artemis is already at the ready, a foaming arrow striking into the man's shoulder and encasing him in an orange foam that hardens like clay. Kid Flash uses the hardened foam obstacle as a springboard, leaping into the air at speeds she can barely track and coming down hard on the back of a prone, aiming sniper. Superboy distantly hurls a small tree trunk into two assailants before performing a leap of his own to interpose his bulletproof body between another group of shooting soldiers and the acrobat. Robin diverts his attention away from the shooters to roll away from harm, and at the same moment, use his cape as misdirection to toss an explosive projectile behind that same group of soldiers, their bodies sent flying hard at Superboy's muscular wall of a body. Miss Martian directs the Team's communication over the psychic link with aplomb, all while she finishes sneaking into the compound to release the children of these super intelligent gorillas.

Zatara glances down toward his daughter once before enchanting a spell she cannot hear from how high he perches in the sky, standing atop an almost golden platform. A squad of gunmen are forced to flee as their rifles turn into garden snakes, their ammunition into ants.

Dad, you're kinda badass.

The Team continues fighting and her father glides to impact another area of the compound, but she knows she can be more directly helpful than this. She obscures herself with a glamour charm, something to block out the senses from perceiving anything but the surroundings. Once in place, she darts across the battlefield, careful to avoid any flying projectiles, bullets, or rampaging Kryptonian clones. At one point, she has to dodge one of Artemis' arrows, an explosive kind that detonates against the nearby wall, shrapnel taking down two more of the Shadows.

Hmm. She guesses she should have allowed the Team to see her, but not her enemies. This is all, well, new to her, and she'll be more careful next time. "Lavaer em ot ym rehtaf dna maeT!" She feels the energy of the spell leave her body, and Kid Flash skids to a stop just before he hits her. "Sorry, sorry, new to this!"

He just shakes his head with a slight grin and then zips off toward one of the buildings, two of the Shadows in his path dropping to the ground without their weapons.

"When are we getting gorilla backup?" Robin asks. Zatanna doesn't see the source, but an electrified disc impacts hard against something big in the distance. At first, she thinks its one of the ally gorillas, but no - that's the one with the beret and holding a Gatling gun! The electricity dances across Mallah's form, but the gorilla barely shouts in pain.

"Grodd has them on the way!" Miss Martian declares.

Zatanna was going to go find Logan, but now she feels obligated. She's the closest one to the Brain's pet gorilla, and it can't see her right now. Trying a spell cold is… dangerous, but she feels inspired by her father. Throwing out her hands, she shouts, "Nug ot nedrag sekans!"

The weapon initially resists the effect - she can almost sense it. It was not a property of the weapon, but rather a failure for her to provide enough energy. But a second later, she focuses more intently, and half the gun slithers away from the gorilla, leaving the other half nonfunctional. The ape roars in anger, but she continues moving - she has to find Logan.

She unlocks the door to one of the metal huts with the faintest bit of energy and a single word, but inside is nothing but a bunch of storage, likely for food and other goods needed to keep a place like this, so remote, functioning for a long period of time. She's tempted to try to destroy it, to make it harder for someone to use this again, but after today, she doubts the Brain will be able to do much of anything. There's no way her father lets him get away.

She continues on to the next one, but as she steps outside, she's assaulted by the winds of what must be a helicopter nearby, and the whirring of its blades drowns out most of the other sound. Either someone is actually trying to get away, or that's an attack helicopter to try to take them down.

One of the most impressive things she heard about Logan's first adventure in this reality is the time he took down a helicopter, probably one not unlike this one as it begins to take off. She… she doesn't have the energy to plainly destroy it, not without some set-up, but is there something else she could do before it gets going? Zatanna's eyes scan the copter and she gasps - those are some big damn turrets.

Distantly, Superboy rages, but his cry is taken over by the sounds of gorillas joining the battle in their favor, not the Brain's. She takes a moment to think, knowing that if she's going to do something, it has to be now before they turn on her potential friends and teammates. She runs potential words over in her head, ducking behind cover, and then settles on something to try.

"Edalb ot flog sllab!"

The energy leaves her body in a swoosh, and she nearly falls to the ground. If this were a spell she'd practiced, that might have been easier. But, to her delight, one of the helicopter's blades pops into smaller golf balls that… carry their momentum!

She has to duck as they are suddenly shot off from their position at the speed of a whirling helicopter blade, but most of them are directed toward the forest instead of the compound. One impacts her hard in the chest, but her protective spells keep her from feeling any pain. Where they strike trees, they hit hard enough into the trunks to leave dent marks or even to go right through some of the thinner trunks.

All right, all right, so she has some things to work on.

More importantly, though, is that the helicopter cannot take off.

She ducks again and then sprints away, toward the central compound. The effort is taxing, but she can't just stop. She'd never forgive herself.

Gorillas are now throwing Shadows left and right, the assassins trying and failing to take down Kobra Venom-enhanced apes. Whatever that means, she supposes. Zatanna guesses that they'd probably have the skill and tools to take down two or even three of them, but not the dozen, and especially not the biggest one, Grodd. That guy was a monster. Add in the superheroes and it's a wash for them.

She manages to get to the central building at the same time as most of the Team, her father descending his platform to lead the way. She follows carefully through the small compound, and the psychic link connects their worries and their fears. Miss Martian shakes her head, hands shaking with fear. It's such a human response to fear that Zatanna's surprised a Martian can do that. "I can't feel him. Either he's not here, he's not conscious, or…"

She expects her father to say something, but he does not. Instead, he silently leads the group. The last of the Team, Kid Flash, zips into the chamber behind them, giving a thumbs up. "The Gorillas are waiting outside. Shadows are fleeing or unconscious."

Zatanna can't help but feel nervous.

This is going almost too well.

Logan doesn't have the best track record with these missions, even before his first official one. Something goes wrong every time. Maybe the earlier kidnapping counts, but the assault to save him has so far gone… too smoothly.

Robin unlocks the next set of double doors with a lock pick embedded in his gloves - handy. Aqualad enters the room first and the rest of them follow suit, to mixed reactions. Miss Martian cries out in terror, Robin and Kid Flash gasp, Artemis tightens her fingers on her bow, and Aqualad conjures a pair of swords. Superboy looks ready to pummel the ground into oblivion, and Zatara has a look on his face that Zatanna is sure that she's only seen once before.

Lying on an operating table is Logan, shirtless and covered in a sheet. Blood and other gore drips from the end of the table where his head rests, and his brain lies exposed to the air, most of his skull cap removed and sitting in a bowl on a small table nearby. His face looks almost peaceful, and it hurts every fiber of Zatanna's being.

"No! No, no, no, no!"

Missing are the villains she expected to see. Ultra-Humanite and the Brain are not present, and Logan is alone. A monitor is alight in the back wall of the room, showing a live feed of the Brain standing in what must be another place. Ultra-Humanite stands in the background, the albino gorilla watching intently over the Brain's shoulders.

"What have you done?" Zatara cries out in anger, eyes flashing with golden magic.

The Brain laughs a digital echo of a laugh, and all Zatanna wants to do is kick this asshole into a hydraulic press. She wonders how much energy she'd need to do that right now.

"Un peu of delightful neurochirurgie."

Aqualad seems to begin moving out of the shock faster than the rest of them. As he moves, the rest of the Team moves as well, Kid Flash crossing the room in less than a second to study the body. He starts babbling incoherently as he checks for a pulse, but she can't possibly understand him and doesn't blame him at all.

"He's… got a pulse!" the speedster declares, and relief floods the room and the psychic link.

"How? I can see his brain!" Superboy asks in anguish.

Zatanna ignores their comments and rushes over to Logan, gripping his hand. Still warm, still alive, still breathing. She mutters a prayer under her breath.

Her father steps closer to the Brain's monitor and jabs a finger forward. "If you think for one second that I am not going to find you and bring you to justice, you can think again."

The Brain merely laughs again, and Superboy chucks a chair at the screen, shattering the chair, the screen, and the wall behind it to pieces.

"How do we fix him?" Artemis asks, pleading. "Anyone have surgical training? I can do stitches, but… not for, uh, skulls."

Robin, probably the most likely to know how to do that, responds in the negative.

Kid Flash starts running in place. "We wrap him up, take the p-pieces, and I can run him to the nearest hospital. Where would that be?"

"We're in Bwunda, KF," Robin responds, deadpan. "Even if we found a good hospital, this place would never treat an American correctly."

"He's not exactly American," Zatanna corrects. "He's basically an alien."

"Even worse," Robin finishes. "That plan doesn't work. Can you and your dad do some magic healing?"

She looks toward her father and frowns. The last time she tried to do magic healing didn't… go well. It was - she doesn't want to think about it.

Zatara shakes his head. "I'm afraid not. Whatever miracle is keeping him alive needs another miracle, one that I cannot provide."

"Well, it's not really a miracle," Kid Flash grumbles. "People do brain surgery like this all the time. We just need a doctor. Call the League, get them to Zeta a surgeon here. One of the best! Hell, a whole team of them."

The doorway to the room opens, and Superboy interposes himself immediately, before realizing that it was only Grodd and a two other gorillas. She feels the unfamiliar connection from the telepathic gorilla enter her mind. "Humans, we have finished the battle. How are things on this end?"

"Not well, obviously," Superboy replies, gesturing to Logan's unconscious form and the broken debris in the room.

"Are any of you doctors?" Aqualad asks, earning an incredulous look from Robin and Artemis. "Or have the kind of training that could help?"

Grodd grunts. "Nothing like this. Given enough time and study, we could learn. We have not had time to develop like this in the short time we have been… smart."

"I wish we could help you, humans," the female gorilla behind him says.

"I guess you get to help yourselves now," Superboy declares. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we need to get out of here."

Zatanna runs her mind through every spell she can imagine, every twist of phrase, every artifact she'd logged from the storage rooms in the basem*nt of Shadowcrest Manor… nothing rings a bell to help here. Not that she'd be willing to try - she'd leave that to her father.

And yet?

One solution comes to mind.

Something her father sought for her m-m-mother a few years ago. It didn't work then, but it might work now. The injuries, the healing, it would be different.

"Dad," Zatanna calls, her fingers running alongside Logan's hand. "Could we call Wonder Woman?"

Chapter 43: Interlude - Recovery

Chapter Text

The endless sea of ectoplasm shifts into and out of solidity, shifts into and out of familiarity, shifts into and out of geometry. A twisted kaleidoscope of colors and noncolors becomes different, becomes similar, becomes different with every passing second and every passing infinitude. Space has every meaning and no meaning at all, and merely perceiving this place forces it onto a path that it does not want to tread. Adrift amongst this immaterial place are the minds of dreamers, the minds of the conscious and the unconscious, the minds of spirits alive and dead.

A being one would call golden sails through the ocean of non-stuff that is the astral plane. Where it touches, where it travels, where it follows leaves a trail of concepts behind it, and ideas coalesce into shapes and colors that would inspire the dreams of those who are close to its proximity in this planar infinitude. The nature of this place encroaches on the realm of dreams, but does not contain that sole purpose. It is more, far more, and it is through this medium that knowledge can transition to the planes beyond.

Such knowledge has become confused, muddled, misaligned. Some-things alien found their way to the realms of the living, in the same corner of that place through nothing but random chance and proximity. Most are inconsequential to the order and disorder of those that traverse the astral plane, to those that live beyond its borders in the nonliving realms. But one such entity strikes plainly at the sphere of the gods, a facsimile of divinity resting in its soul.

And for that reason, the golden being from on high must understand.

It attempts to reach into the consciousness of its mind, to touch the corners of its awareness of the astral plane with its golden essence, but something holds it back. Something pushes back the being that is golden, something powerful, something attached. It can touch, but cannot intervene - it can feel, but cannot perceive - it can engage, but cannot inspire. It presses with all of its holy might, yet finds no purchase but a single, fragmented memory.

~"Do not listen to it." A female voice whispers, seemingly from nowhere and everywhere at once. The skies almost seem to darken with this presence. "This is a trick, young one."~

The being that is golden remembers this warning.

A warning given to the fractal divine as he crossed the infernal skies of a splinter of Hell.

The golden one is confused.

It was the voice that reached out to the one with the facsimile of divinity. It was supposed to be a guide, a voice in the day and night, a comforting place to rest its somewhat divine head. Many others with fractal divinities had similar guardians, and it was meant to be!

The one with a fraction of the divine and the golden being were supposed to be connected. It remembers this.

But something… something prevents it from further connection.

It does not know if it was the one with the fraction of divinity that rejected the golden being or if it was something else, something that is dark, something that is foreboding, something from below.

The golden one cannot reunite, cannot guide, cannot influence, cannot engage, cannot inspire, cannot perceive, cannot feel, cannot learn, cannot grow, cannot, cannot heal, cannot, cannot, cann-

A thing that is dark, a thing that is foreboding, a thing from below swallows the thing that is golden.

A thing that is golden, a thing from on high, is gone.

A thing that is dark remains on the astral plane, clinging tightly to the one with the fraction of divinity.

A thing that is dark will unite, will guide, will influence, will engage, will inspire, will perceive, will feel, will learn, will grow, will, will heal, will, will.

Themiscyra is a beautiful place year round and earns its name of Paradise Island. Imbued with the protections from several goddesses, its sands are always smooth, its flowers are always in bloom, its waters always soothe, and its leaves never brown. The denizens of the island do not grow sick, do not grow weary, do not age - so perfect are the goddesses' blessings. Truth be told, Diana wishes she could spend more time here, but her activities with the Justice League and the embassy pull her away from this place far more than she would like to admit. Mother once exiled her from these shores, but she is grateful that things have changed.

Her guests wanted to approach using their ship's ability to camouflage, but she made it clear that such technologies or biologies would not work here, by Mother's decree. So in-tune with the goddesses is she that her decree bends the rules of the island to make it so. Diana knows that it is merely in response to the technology of the invisible jet, but she doesn't dwell on it.

The Bio-Ship lands atop a dais meant for the flying chariots of Apollo, but she does not mention this either. It may be beneficial, in fact - having the God of Medicine's attention may prove useful. Diana touches down alongside them and hails her sisters to approach cautiously.

"I come bearing news of a tragedy." One sister, Phillippa, stares on with concern, and she meets the woman's gaze, through the gap in her helmet. "The Queen should know of our arrival. Send word for Io to prepare the Purple Healing Ray."

Phillippa tersely bows. "At once, my princess."

The two Zataras exit the Bio-Ship carefully, and floating between them is the unconscious form of Argent, the newest member of the Justice League's covert Team. Miss Martian remains aboard the Bio-Ship, staring with a forlorn expression. When she spoke to the man yesterday, she did not expect this result, and part of her feels at blame. A not insignificant part.

The Amazons who gathered upon their arrival stare at the alien ship with distrust, even in the presence of their princess. Diana sighs - her sisters' xenophobia is something that she has found difficult to break, and if it were not based on an extensive history of good reasons and long memories, she might have succeeded by now. She considers it a success that Alexandra is not trying to prick the Bio-Ship with a sword.

"Thank you, again, for your hospitality," Giovanni says kindly, bowing slightly to show respect. Diana wishes her friends did not feel they must be so formal, even in the company of her sisters.

"Think nothing of it," she replies. "I wish your visit were under better circ*mstances. Is he stable?"

Zatara clears his throat. "His condition will not worsen so long as I am breathing."

Diana blinks. His daughter, Zatanna, seems none the wiser to what that sounds like. She pulls him to the side, out of earshot, and the young girl is too busy appraising their surroundings with wide eyes to notice.

"You didn't."

Giovanni slowly meets her gaze. "I did."

Diana is more than surprised, but she can understand his reasoning. He feels responsible, a sentiment that Diana herself shares. But does she share it to that degree? "Your life is tied to his, as much as his is tied to yours."

He nods, and for the first time, he lets himself show his current weakness. His left side sags slightly as his leg droops, and she immediately offers an arm. It looks as natural as she can make it, and she has to hope the girl didn't notice. It would be undignified.

"Your healing technology will work," Zatara explains quietly, "and then I may break the linking spell."

Diana stares in mild disbelief. She starts to think that she wouldn't do this for a stranger, much less to someone she only knows for a little while, but then she stops herself. If it meant saving a life, she would do the same if she could. She simply has to hope that Io's invention will work on someone of his particular injury.

"When this is over," Zatanna says with a glimmer of hope, interrupting her musing, "can we see the pegasi stables?"

Diana smiles somberly. "And how did you know about those?"

Zatanna beams. "I didn't!" She does a little jig. "I just can't believe those are real…" Her excitement trails off after that….

A knock at the door interrupts a fanciful dream involving a pie, a pony, and a Patricia. He doesn't even know a Patricia, but he ignores the post-night grogginess and shoves himself into a pair of pants, not bothering for a shirt. If it's the landlord, he doesn't mind giving the woman a show. "I'm coming!"

Whoever this was would just have to see how messy the apartment of a superhero can be. Laundry lies half folded in one pile, the dirty ones near the bottom of it. Takeout containers litter the coffee table, the pull-out bed, and the half-dresser where his broken television sits. Could he afford to fix it? Sure, but who has the time to do anything but sleep after fighting crime until four AM?

He nimbly uses his toes to pick up the domino mask lying on the floor next to the couch and tosses it into the closet, shutting that door on his way to answer whomever this is. Paranoia grips him as he approaches, and he idly wonders if this is the time when the Shadows finally do him in. The peephole, however, reveals a welcome sight.

He grins widely and yanks open the door, unveiling his best friend approaching him, dressed in civilian clothes that barely cover up the gills across his neck. It's not like it really hides anything, anyway - Aqualad is a public figure without a mask, and Kaldur'ahm does not need to hide his face.

Speaking of faces, he frowns. "Why so glum, man?" He gives a one-armed hug around the younger teenager's shoulders, not giving a care in the world for being shirtless. "Not that I don't want to see you, but what's got you up at this hour? You don't look like you've slept."

Kaldur tries to smile, but it doesn't display right. "It's nine AM, Roy."

"But you had a mission," Roy adds, still feeling that the whole idea of the kiddie table was stupid, but he wasn't going to bring it up right now. Something is clearly bothering the other boy. "Please, come sit. I'd offer you coffee and donuts, but I'm fresh out."

He beckons Kaldur to take a seat on the sofa, and Roy takes his usual spot. They'd sat like this many a time before, shooting the sh*t, eating dinner, playing games. But the younger boy doesn't look interested in any of that right now, and Roy's face grows serious. "Kaldur, you gotta talk to me. What happened?"

It takes the Atlantean a long time to respond. Roy's been around his friend long enough to know that he doesn't hesitate around other people this much. If someone asks him a question, he'll give an answer - he's straight forward, and Roy has always admired that. But when it's just the two of them, Roy gives him that space to think, to be less polished, to be more real. It's a comfortable friendship.

"Our Team officially gained a new member," the Atlantean begins, and Roy struggles to think of which of the many young heroes it could be. "Argent joined us on our mission, his first mission."

Roy can't say he's not surprised, though now he's worried why exactly the other teen is so glum. "What happened?"

Kaldur grips the end of his purple tie, eel-shaped tattoos sticking from the sleeves of shirt shirt. "The Brain. You're familiar?"

"Organ or mad scientist-type?"

"The latter. We were doing recon after the mayor of Gotham was attacked by a gorilla on a hunting trip in India," he explains, starting from the beginning. The next several minutes detail the mission's parameters, the interactions with the Team, and Argent's integration into the plan.

"So, you trusted the kid-"

Kaldur interrupts, "He's older than you by a year, I think."

Roy rolls his eyes. "So, the kid had a small role on the mission. You didn't give him any more than what you thought he could handle. He helped you and the others with Ocean-Master. The Brain's not even in the same ballpark."

The other teenager shuffles on the sofa. "Be that as it may, Roy, something went wrong. We managed to save Captain Marvel, but we didn't expect the Brain to have an escape plan. He used some kind of teleporter technology and escaped, but he took Argent with him."

Roy's face goes slack, and his mind runs a mile a minute. "So… the Brain wants that worm in his head, I guess?" He stands the room and begins to pace. "That means that the Brain's in the same loop as the rest of the villains. More… information from the mole?"

Kaldur nods seriously, meeting Roy's gaze. "As concerning as all that is, what's more concerning is that by the time we found the Brain's headquarters, he already had Argent in his clutches, in surgery."

Roy stops, staring.

The real reason for this visit.

"Is he okay?"

The Atlantean doesn't know how to answer. "Wonder Woman claims he's in recovery, but time will tell. I'd be there with him right now, if I could, but she ordered the rest of us to stay away, to get some rest. Only M'gann and Zatanna are there now."

Roy doesn't know the last nam- oh, yeah, that's Zatara's daughter. She's on the Team now? "What happened to the weird brain worm?" Roy asks. "It would be bad news if the Brain got that, right?"

"When Robin looked over the records," Kaldur says carefully, "he found that the Brain could not remove it. Wrote that his surgical tools messed up any time he got close to the tadpole."

"A tadpole?" Roy asks, incredulous. "Like a frog?"

"No, but it's complicated."

Roy doesn't know what to make of any of that. Everything about this Argent guy seems weird. An angel with a frog in his brain that can't be removed? He shivers and plops back onto the couch, nearly hitting a half-eaten bag of popcorn. He deftly tosses it to the side into the trash, giving his best friend a sheepish grin.

More importantly than any of that strangeness, though? Roy knows how the Atlantean gets. "Kaldur, no matter what happens, if he… lives or dies? Put all that blame on the villains, not on yourself or anyone else in your team."

Kaldur'ahm looks away for a long moment before finally returning the intense look.

"I'm dead serious, man. You let yourself take that on, you never stop."

"We could have tested him more, trained him more, before he took on a mission with us."

Roy sighs, having already thought through some of these things before. "There's never a 'good' time to introduce a new member to the Team. You and everyone else know that the Team's going to get bigger in the future, and you've already got a new archer. It's unrealistic for the League to assume everyone who can join you is going to have years of experience like you, Robin, and Kid Flash."

"But this was a high-profile mission-"

Roy scoffs. "Don't give me that. This mission started because a gorilla attacked a mayor on the other side of the world. You didn't know there was a supervillain with teleportation tech or an army of super monkeys involved. You think it was a bad idea for Batman to send you and the newbie after a single gorilla? That doesn't sound high-profile to me."

"Roy, it's still going to be my responsibility if something happens to him or to anyone else, veteran or not. I accepted that burden."

Roy says nothing for a long time, considering how best to respond.

"Leadership means a certain level of responsibility. It sounds as though you've accepted that, and I think that's great." He considers his next words carefully. "But it's not healthy to take on more of that than you should. It's one thing to make a bad decision and take on the consequences as the leader, but it's another thing entirely to blame yourself for every little thing you can't control. There's always going to be things you don't know on a mission, recon or not. There's gotta be a balance somewhere, and I don't know where it is. You gotta figure that out, or it'll eat you alive."

M'gann floats into the depths of the Temple of Apollo, a sun god that Wonder Woman's people venerate across the island. Bronze statues of the same handsome, shirtless human man line every hallway and every alcove, amid grand columns of marble. The ceiling is open to the sky as often as possible, allowing the heat of Apollo's embrace to reach patients within.

It feels like the polar opposite to her home, where her people venerate the dark, the deep, the shadows that the sun above cannot reach. The sun represents fire, represents fear, represents the death of the surface. The sorcerer-priests would never openly display veneration to a sun god, or risk ostracization from any telepathic connection ever again in their communities.

On Earth? Things are different. Lots of places worship it as central to their belief systems, and it makes sense. Humans can't live without the sun, and in this moment, she wonders if Logan will be able to live without the sun too. He may need Apollo to help him survive this.

Two Amazonian warriors stand at the ready outside of the chamber, where the Zataras are already waiting. M'gann gingerly acknowledges them verbally, wondering what they must be thinking about her. Is a Martian disrespectful to their culture? She doesn't know much about their mythology, but she's pretty sure that the humans named her planet after a war god that the Amazonians wouldn't like. Or something like that.

They nod at her in greeting but do not stop her from crossing the threshold into the chamber. A thick column of sunlight shines atop a platform upon which Logan's body rests, while the others in the room are more ensconced in shadow. Distant music plays from a terrace overlooking the chamber, where two Amazonian musicians dressed in sheer linens lightly pluck on a stringed instrument that she doesn't recognize. M'gann wishes her boyfriend were able to hear this, because it is truly wonderful.

Wonder Woman dresses in Amazonian regalia, unarmored and beautiful. She lightly brushes her fingers across Logan's left bicep, a solemn expression on her face. Another Amazonian, nude above the waist apart from a black, soot-covered apron, crosses the room with a fervor, adjusting tools and other implements that M'gann wouldn't know the first thing about understanding. A pair of female attendants finish removing the last of Logan's armor, and M'gann looks away to protect his modesty. A sheet covers his lower half a moment later, the silvery-tone of his skin paler in the bright light.

"The Bio-Ship is at rest," she reports. "She'll need to recuperate for a time."

"Thank you, Miss Martian," Wonder Woman replies.

"How long?"

A blonde woman in an ornate white gown crosses a threshold opposite the Martian, a golden crown of laurels atop her head. She follows in Zatara's example when he bows his head, his daughter scrambling to look away from Logan's form long enough to realize the Amazonian queen entered the room.

M'gann considers the queen's question. "It may be days, it may be hours. We have taxed her, your majesty. She can be temperamental."

The queen tersely acknowledges the point with a gesture and then turns to the nearly nude Amazonian woman. "Io, do what you must to ensure that the boy's recovery coincides with the restoration of their ship."

"Yes, my queen," Io grumbles, hefting a large disc of metal from a crate and laying it flat atop a nearby table, just outside the light of the sun.

Zatara starts to speak, but Wonder Woman cuts him off. "Mother, do you believe that young Argent will recover quickly?"

M'gann hopes so, because he doesn't deserve to suffer like this. She's a little surprised humans can survive this long with an exposed brain, but she supposes he's not really a human, and they just encountered a villain who put his in a robot body. It's a moment of fortune in their favor, as far as she's concerned.

Zatanna reaches a hand out to take hers, and M'gann squeezes back tightly. She doesn't know the girl well, but she can sense the almost sisterly care she has for him.

"If it is meant to be, then his recovery will be swift."

Io wraps the large metal disc with chain, hooking one end into a pulley and taking hold of the other. "I'm sure the weird angel guy'll be fine."

"What if he's not?" Zatanna asks suddenly, and M'gann feels a spike of anger from the magician so clear that she's surprised. It's not often that she encounters minds so passionate that she can hear them passively. "It's not the first time you've promised miracles to me."

Io blanches and searches the faces of the queen and princess. M'gann feels lost.

Giovanni grips the girl's arm gently. "Now is not the time, dear Zatann-"

"You-" she sighs and slowly nods, and M'gann touches the younger girl's mind.

"What's going on?"

"I don't want to talk about it," she explains sharply. "No offense, but today's stressful enough." Zatanna pushes back on the mental connection, and M'gann relents and releases the stream of thoughts connecting them. Perhaps another time, she'll hear the story. She knows better than to pry into secrets.

Wonder Woman's eyes shift between Io and Zatara. "What are the chances that the Purple Healing Ray can remove parasites?"

Io shrugs. "Normal ones? Sure. This one? Who knows? We're dealing with something new under the sun."

Zatara is as uncertain. "I will be actively monitoring the situation with spellcraft and divinations, but I am inclined to believe it will have no substantial effect."

So the Healing Ray won't burn the parasite out of the body. What does this thing even want anyway?

M'gann shudders, reaching out not for the first time to sense for the presence of the tadpole. Streams of consciousness and subconsciousness appear in her mind's eye, but she ignores them, searching for a sign of one much more alien. A telepathic sweep so easy that children do it on M'arrz to play games, she advances it to a higher level and searches closer and closer, her physical body walking toward the exposed part of Logan's brain. She feels someone's hand on her shoulder, pulling her slightly away, but she mollifies them with a look and mutters, "I'm trying to speak to it."

The queen raises a hand. "Stop this at once!" The Amazonian servants and guards shift into position, into formation, honed from millennia of training.

"Mother, the Bio-Ship is not the only reason I asked Miss Martian to accompany us. Please - allow her to continue." Wonder Woman locks eyes with the Martian, but she's diving deeper, awareness of the surface level, of the outside world, vanishing from sight.

M'gann touches something.

She senses its familiarity, a concern once raised with they created the first psychic link together in Bialya. The tadpole - or was it Logan? - delved deeper that day than she could have predicted, taking advantage of the link. She didn't recognize it in the moment, but now? Now, she feels its presence, but cannot delve any further. A line of communication, but not an open passageway for deeper ideas or emotions. J'onn once tried to communicate with the tadpole, but this doesn't feel right, doesn't feel like the way he described the encounter.

"Why are you-?"

"Leave."

M'gann presses harder as it tries to resist, but she's reminded of trying to scale a mountain while oil coats your body. "I merely wish to communicate. There is much we want to know about you, your kind, your species."

A pause, and she senses the creature squirming in its thoughts.

"Why did you forsake Logan?"

M'gann feels a pang of guilt. "We didn't, we came as soon as we-"

"Does no one on this plane possess the means to track a teleport? A scrying orb or spell? I'd settle for a cleric's divination! A mere artificer's crude invention is bound to have flaws that one can exploit."

M'gann is not sure how to answer that question, as she knows no magic nor technology herself that could perform a feat like that. "I do not know, but our options were limited."

A smug satisfaction soothes through its voice, and she can feel it undulating within the exposed cavity. "It is nice to know that the greatest heroes of the realm could not get to Logan fast enough to prevent his injuries."

M'gann feels indignant! "Why do you care if he lives or dies? He'll die when you're through with changing his body!"

The sick laughter of a space slug comes through the connection quickly, and she feels it slipping. "You know nothing, do you?"

The tendrils of thought, of connection, release.

M'gann feels warmth return to the room, and she snaps into awareness in time to see the rest of the room staring at her, waiting for her report.

"I… I don't think I'm going to learn anything useful," she admits. "I'm not my uncle - he could figure this out."

Wonder Woman offers a consoling glance. "I appreciate that you tried. Mother, the procedure can begin."

Queen Hippolyta of Themiscyra waves her hand. "Io - prepare the Purple Healing Ray."

Io confirms admiration for her majesty and begins to pull the chain within her grasp. The bronze disc rises, rises, rises until its rather large form angles for the exposed sky above, the hole in the roof letting in Apollo's light. It snaps into place and then opens almost like a magnifying lens, and the light from the sun becomes the most vibrant purple anyone has ever seen.

The focused purple beam cascades across the body of Logan, and small scratches and bruises from the previous battle fade into nothingness in seconds, replaced with fresh skin. His breathing regulates, and the pallor to the skin of his face fades. Irritation around the site of his surgical cut disappears, and Wonder Woman moves into position next, holding the flesh and bone missing from Logan's skull in a gloved hand. Carefully, she aligns it against the open space, and Miss Martian looks away, feeling squeamish. The condensed beam of miracles glides across the man's body at Io's will until it finally focuses on the site of surgery.

M'gann holds a breath.

My feet touch upon a cobblestone pathway. A cold wind brings with it the smell of baked goods, mahogany, and smoke. Grand, towering spires break the vista of the clear sky, grand blue and purple flags billowing in the wind. Squat buildings lined with marked columns fill the view of the ground, and motes of light drift ever so softly outside each doorway and across every street corner. The streets sweep themselves of any detritus, but there is not a soul in sight. A sailing ship lies docked at the top of one of the nearby towers of white marble, hovering in the sky like it belongs.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

I whip my head around to see a gorgeous human man with bright green eyes and dark hair, tied in the back to keep it tidy, while form-fitting blue and black robes leave far too much to the imagination. His voice is familiar, but his face is not-

"It's me, love. The Absolute," he says with a glimmer of hope, gripping an ornate staff in his hand that drifts atop. "I wish for you to see my original form."

"But you were an elf-"

"I have been many things for many people," he says simply. "I once spent three months in the guise of an ancient golden dragon, while I helped my followers break the siege of a fortress far to the frozen north."

My eyes blink, and he places his fingers in mine. "That's a little hard to believe."

He laughs as he yanks me forward through an empty city street, loosely in the direction of a grand dome-like building that sits beneath one of the tallest spires. "Nothing is hard to believe in this city, once filled with the highest practitioners of the Art known to mortal kind. The sooner you learn that, the better, Logan."

I follow at the pace he sets, studying the barren storefronts and restaurants. Gilded decor, bright colors, vibrant magical adornments - but no people to buy, no people to sell. "Where is everyone?"

The Absolute frowns, a sweeping gesture that is as attractive as a human as it was an elf. "Long gone, I'm afraid."

"Where'd they go?" I ask. "What is this place?"

"This is a fragment of memory. I have been waiting for the right moment to share it with you."

Right moment…?

I… remember screaming, remember the sound of a drill, of a buzz saw, of a demented laugh. The taste of my own splattering blood…!

"This is the right time?" I challenge. "After a villain almost rips you out of my head?"

He does not answer as we enter a crossroads between several streets, and at the center of the crossroads is… a hole in the ground, looking down?

Oh.

Down, down.

This is not a hole so much as a column of rock that is missing, leading all the way down hundreds of feet. At the base of the hole is something white and reflective that occasionally drifts out of view, revealing a vista somewhere far below.

"This is Cloudview Center," the Absolute explains, staring wistfully over the edge. "People born amid the skies would often travel with their families here to look upon the lowly and the less fortunate: the terrestrial."

My stomach drops.

I remember one of the Absolute's visions. Gotham City's skyline rising from the very earth and hovering in the sky, while a fleet of nautiloid ships dance in the sky around it. This is not Gotham - it's too bright for that, but this is a floating city. A floating city the Absolute calls his home?

"You're starting to get it."

D&D lore races across my mind. "What is this? Netheril?"

The Absolute chuckles. "The height of Netheril. A pinnacle of achievement lost to time, one we must find again."

Find again?

The Absolute gestures with a finger and we are both whisked away, reappearing within the walls of a massive domed room. The sapphire-plated walls are semi-transparent, allowing us a view of the central area of the floating city. Within the room and scattered across tables and shelves are tools, equipment, and other magical and nonmagical supplies that I could not discern. Books line every wall, while huge tomes lay open in several places along the floor and across workspaces.

But more importantly than all of that is the centerpiece of this room: a vibrant, crystalline orb that undulates with blue and golden light. Swirling vortexes fluctuate into existence for several seconds within its casing, and the amount of power that flows from this object is impossible to describe. I want nothing more than to lay my hands upon its surface and witness its true power firsthand.

The Absolute leans against a column and merely studies the forceful shape of the massive sphere. I study him, instead, a sense of longing evident on his face.

"This is the peak of arcane achievement, Logan. With it, an empire could rise to the skies, arm its troops, and conquer every enemy, for none could truly stand against it."

"Why… why now?" I ask, still sputtering. Nothing he's saying makes sense, and I'm tired of it. "Why show this to me now? Why bring me here?"

"Because I want this again," the Absolute replies, running a finger across the surface of the magical sphere, its power twisting at his touch. "I want this, but better. And I want you to help me build it." He reaches to trace his fingers along my forehead, in the same spaces where the Brain just cut. "Recent events are a painful reminder that I do not have an infinite time to achieve my goals. I need you, my Chosen, to live and to be by my side to usher in a new age."

The Absolute opens his arms.

I -

I embrace the man in silent agreement.

Chapter 44: 5.1 - Miracles

Chapter Text

Water splashes my face, and I nearly leap out of my skin, magic swirling just below my fingertips. I sit up through the grogginess, blinking as another unfamiliar chamber surrounds me. Soft wind billows through my hair, through the open-air balcony chamber that overlooks a series of grand buildings that feel lifted right from the Greek stories of old. Torch sconces burn away the shadows that the brilliant sunlight pouring from above do not quite reach, and impressive mountains stretch high above the tallest of the spires I can see in the distance.

"Wake, child of man."

I blink as a buxom blonde woman in fantastic armor steps even closer, hand clasping a waterskin that drips onto the fur-lined bedspread. A sword with a simplistic hilt lies at her hip, while a shield straps across her back. If I were straight, I'd be intimidated in more than one way, but damn this woman could likely end me with a single swipe of her blade.

I stir a bit more, feeling too woozy to stand. Why am I on Paradise Island? I've loved Greek stories since I was a child, but I don't know what they'd take me to Wonder Woman's homeland, known for its staunchly man-free policies. That bent to Diana's stories have never bothered me as a reader, but actually being here? On an island where someone could kill me for stepping on a metaphorical landmine for their culture? It paints a different picture.

"Where… why?"

The woman gestures toward the stairway that leads from the open-air balcony. "Come. Princess Diana has requested an audience with the Queen, once you've awakened."

She does not offer to help me stand, but I push internal psionic power to my legs to stabilize them. It works for a few seconds until I can naturally adjust, and the Amazonian woman watches me like a hawk as I approach the stairs leading down, two flights and then into an open-air antechamber.

Nature blends into their society in such vibrant ways, and it feels incredible to witness all of this first-hand. Blossoming grape vines crawl across un-aging marble columns, while animals rest and recuperate among the trees and distant vineyards. From this high up, it's easy to see a trio of hunters slipping into a treeline, bows and quivers strapped to their backs while they prepare to bring meat for the day.

I glance once more toward the escort, uncertain if my words or presence will offend her. After another moment of hesitation, I clear my throat. "This is all really beautiful. I'm glad to have been able to witness it."

She huffs slightly. "Your presence is a blight."

"… What?"

"It is not a harsh statement, but a true one. The longer you stay, the more ugly this place will become. Our fields will fallow, our quarries will flee, and our society will suffer."

I look away, more than a little shocked. Is that literal or hyperbole?

The escort finishes her duty as she gestures with a bow toward the inhabitants of the next chamber. Familiar and unfamiliar faces mix within what can only be described as a throne room, exposed to the air and with gorgeous burning braziers that the wind from outside pulls away in soft, languish plumes. Residing in the chair beyond is Queen Hippolyta, blonde hair of a more gorgeous hue than I've ever seen, tied behind an ornate bronze crown that perfectly fits her features. A scepter adorned with bronze olive leaves lazily rests in her hands, and standing to her immediate right is Princess Diana, dressed in a white dress adorned with bronze above the breast and other adornments across her wrists and above her sandals. She gives a warm smile, but my attention is dragged away forcefully when Zatanna nearly barrels me over.

"Ooh, can you not squeeze my rib?"

"I'm just glad you're okay!" the girl shouts, and her father approaches to give a tightened hand across my shoulder. "We were all worried sick."

M'gann approaches a second after the young mage lets go and gives a much more cordial hug, the girl looking out of place among the rest of the denizens of Themiscrya. I make a mental note to ask how aliens fit into their views of the world.

"Thanks, guys," I say, but I can't help but feel a little out of sorts about the whole thing. In the back of my mind, the Absolute's plots and plans still loom, despite the appearance of all these wonderful people. I can't… quite remember why they're all here- "Oh."

My hands race to the top of my head, fingers trailing what feels like scar tissue and not the exposed edge of my own brain, skull cap lying on the floor. I… I can't…

"Easy, Logan," Giovanni soothes. "It would not do to linger on the memories of what happened, on the physical trauma you have endured."

Despite his words, I can't completely give it all up. The Brain's maniacal, mechanical glee as he cut into my head, removed part of my skull cap, laid everything that made me me bare.

"How did I… why am I here?"

"The Amazons have this really cool healing magic," Zatanna exclaims. "I don't know how it all works, but it looked really cool."

"And purple?" M'gann adds, equally as excited. "I think it had to do with a god?"

Princess Diana joins our assembled group, her gait compassionate. "You did well, Logan. Not all exposed to the Purple Healing Ray are successful, and even still, you will bear the scars of what occurred."

"I asked them to keep going when it looked like they were going to stop," Zatanna cuts in. "You, uh, should really see it. I thought if they kept going, maybe it would keep healing." She pulls a hinged hand mirror from her coat pocket and hands it to me with slightly trembling hands. "It's, uh, not pretty."

She unlatches it and holds it up until I take it from her, staring at my own reflection. The… place where they sealed my flesh back together holds a thin, white line of scar tissue that stands in contrast to gray skin. Thankfully, most of what is on my head will be covered by hair, but my forehead holds a thicker, jagged line across its entire surface, precious centimeters from my eyes. It's the…

T-the place where the Brain started.

"I am sorry, Logan, but this was the most that we could do," Wonder Woman states with soft eyes. "The light of Apollo is not without limits."

I push the mirror closed and place it carefully in Zatanna's hands, and only now realize my own fingers tremble. The presence of the Absolute bristles in the back of my mind, like a unfamiliar whisper on the wind, but I know that it is him. It is a comfort, even in these darkened times.

"Apollo couldn't… couldn't do better?"

I may as well have dropped a meteor swarm onto the throne room. The Queen lurches to attention, scepter tight in her hand. The blonde escort's stance shifts ever slightly to one ready for any order, even to try to behead me or maim me. Diana's face of alarm quickly shifts to one of calm, and Zatara presses a finger tightly into my shoulder. I brush them off.

"Watch what you say after we've given you our hospitality," Hippolyta warns, then turns to her daughter. "This is the caliber of young trainee you're monitoring in Man's World, daughter? One whom would disrespect our pantheon?"

I sigh. "That was not my intention, your majesty. I would expect a god of medicine would be capable of healing any wound."

"And you are healed," she counters. "Pulled from death's door. Fit enough to return to Man's World within the hour. Martian girl, ready your ship."

M'gann startles as she's addressed but nods. "Of course, your majesty." She telekinetically propels herself into flight and vanishes from sight. Her mental touch reaches out to mine, but I push it away.

"I believe that my charge meant to say w-," Zatara begins, but a glare from the Queen hushes him immediately.

"I apologize, again, Queen Hippolyta," I add, feeling remorse and addled that one negative comment causes this much of a reaction. "Sorry that I was feeling vain. I'm sure you all did your best, and I do thank you."

I meant it. I am grateful. Without them, I think I'd be dead. Or worse than dead. The Absolute might have a solution for this where Apollo failed. If not, at least I'm alive.

"Diana, I expect your charges off Themiscyra promptly," the Queen declares, saying nothing of my words. "And I expect you and I to have words after."

Princess Diana nods and then ushers her fellow Leaguer and the rest of our entourage away from the throne room and down large, marble steps that wind their way through the city streets and toward the beaches below. It truly is a wonderful place to witness, but I can't help but view everything differently after that interaction.

"Wonder Woman, I-"

"Do not speak, Logan," she says plainly, pushing lightly on my back to reorient me forward. "You've said enough."

"Are you mad at me too?"

She mentally sighs into the sudden connection. "I- not for the same reason. The Amazons take our oaths of hospitality seriously, as these oaths are bound to the Olympians themselves, Logan. I have a different perspective on these matters than many of my sisters and that of my mother, but I still hold these values close to my own heart. Your words were ignorant, but we should not often expect better of the youth."

I frown but let the connection fall, psionic energy returning to me more quickly than usual. I can feel the well of power I depend on for my magic has deepened, and my mind feels even more tightly bound and under my own power. At least something good came of this experience, as I can feel the experience of new spell waiting to be unleashed, one that could break any language barrier for about an hour. Could be useful in foreign territory while working with the Team, assuming they still want me.

Considering where the Absolute might be taking us in the future, it could be useful off-world.

The Bio-Ship comes into view after a several minute hike through crowds of curious, disgruntled, and amazed women. Some look on the injury with pity, some look on in disgust, and some are apathetic enough to look away after a short glance. It helps to know that these people are not a monolith, even if thousands of years of isolation might lead naturally to that outlook.

I wish I could enjoy this more.

The door to the space ship folds open, revealing M'gann hovering just inside the entrance. Six Amazonian guards hold their spears tight but in a neutral stance, surrounding the ship. Considering each and every one of these women could likely punch at a near-Superboy weight class, this was more of a threat to an alien space ship than anyone could expect. Giovanni could hold them off with a few backwards words if it came down to it, but I… I can hold my own more today than I could before. A few of my spells I can cast now without any components, making it nothing but brain power, and very difficult for trained martials to counter if they don't know it's coming.

But a fight won't break out.

"Giovanni, get them home," Diana mutters as Zatanna finally enters the bowels of the ship last. I mentally latch onto the ship's mind, muttering nothing but a hello and earning a similar, if emotional greeting in response. "I will have words with my mother about how best to treat guests."

"Don't get into trouble on my account," I stress. "It's not worth it."

She meets my eyes with an inscrutable glance. "How they treat the charges of the Justice League is worthy of discussion. You apologized, and she continued to pressure you on account of old prejudices. You are not of this plane of existence - neither you, nor your ancestors, are part of Man's World."

With that, Wonder Woman takes to the skies to return to the palace to face her mother, giving nothing to the others but a wave.

I gingerly place myself within a seat, glad to feel no pain at the sight of the injury. At least the Purple Healing Ray worked well enough for that. Zatanna sits beside me, her face studying mine for the rest of M'gann's pre-flight checks. A moment later, and the Ship telekinetically lifts itself into the sky, countering the forces of gravity using nothing but its own mental prowess. The fact that these ships are alive and can birth another of their kind? Incredible technology, incredible biology, working hand in a hand.

I, and the Absolute, want one.

Several minutes go by in relative silence, and it feels as though Giovanni wants to break it on more than one occasion. Finally, I ask a question of my own. "How are the rest of the Team doing after what happened?"

"Err, not well," M'gann replies a little nervously. "I think Kaldur's taking it the hardest, but he's not the only one. It, uh, could have been worse."

I haven't been around them long enough to expect them to be personally torn up, but professionally? Absolutely. I nearly died on my first real mission with them. That… that's a tough pill to swallow for me, much less for anyone else.

"The Team will weather the storm," Giovanni suggests. "You can plan, train, and prepare for every mission, but sometimes the unexpected will happen, and sometimes that will lead to tragic circ*mstances. We are all fortunate that you are still with us, but this will take some time to settle."

I absently rub at the scar above my left ear, thankful to feel not even an itch. "Will the rest of the Team be at the Cave when we get there?"

M'gann checks something on the Bio-Ship's scanners and then shakes her head. "They can be. Should I send for them?"

"Yes."

Wally is the last of the group to arrive, because of course the speedster would be last. "Sorry, pals, I was in the line at Big Belly Burger." He pauses a second later, wiping away at some mustard on his chin, before finally looking in my direction. "Good to see you, Logan. You… really scared us, there."

Conner nods in agreement, while Robin paces slightly in the background. Kaldur stands resolute in one corner of the living room area of the Cave, while Artemis sits opposite him, trying and failing to avoid looking at the scar on my forehead. M'gann hovers next to me in the middle, while Zatanna clings to a nearby sofa. I'm a little surprised that she's here, that Zatara would want her here after what happened, but she remains here just the same. Her father left to give us some space to work out our issues.

I hold my hand up, signaling to Kaldur to let me speak, even though I'm not entirely sure how that works. My time among them has been too short to learn their by-laws, not that I'd expect teenagers to truly have official decorum.

"I want to go after the Brain."

Artemis is the first to speak. "Is that the best idea right now? You're still recovering, and-"

"I'm plenty recovered," I counter. "What resources do we have to track him? I want to take him down before he can do any more harm."

Robin cuts in, "The League has continued to track him, but finding the Brain when he doesn't want to be found through conventional means is going to be difficult. He's one of the smartest men on the planet."

"If you can even call him that," M'gann says with a shudder. "He's not like any of the humans I've met. Truly awful."

"Then we turn to unconventional methods," I suggest, gesturing to Zatanna. "I can send a message to him magically. Can you track where it goes, if we work together?"

The magician perks up. "We might need a different approach. We located his lair through magic before, but wherever he is now, I've not any success. My dad and I have tried."

"I want to try it," I reply. "If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but I want him to know that I'm coming for him. Kaldur, can you assist with this too?"

The leader of the Team takes several moments to nod. "I may be able to assist, but what I can do is limited in scope compared to the two of you."

"Is it safe to kick the bear?" Wally asks, diverting the conversation slightly. "I'm all for it if that's what we decide, if that's what's best, but shouldn't we recover first before we jump head-on into something we're not prepared for?"

"I'm more than ready," I argue. "Someone like him doesn't deserve to freely walk anywhere. Every minute we waste is another minute someone could end up like I did. Another animal forced on that weird chemical stuff."

"He doesn't so much 'walk' as 'roll'," Artemis chuckles. "But I'm with Wally on Team Trepidation. If we're doing this, we should prepare before we act. If he's magically shielded, doesn't that suggest he has some kind of ally or a new trick that we can't account for? If we run into things without being truly ready, then we're bound to get hurt, again. And maybe worse, this time."

She has more than one point, I must admit. The Brain doesn't classically have magic himself, but in what few appearances I can remember in the comics or cartoons, he's usually got allies. One classic team is an entire Brotherhood of Evil, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of them could be involved and have enough mojo to stop magical tracking.

"I still want him to know," I mutter. "If we can find him, then we can let the League know. Maybe they," I pause, slimy sweat pouring from my ears, "maybe they can do- do something."

"I don't like the assumption that they aren't doing something, Argent," Wally argues. "They're the good guys. You really think they'd let him maim you without bringing him to justice in the end?"

"No- no, I don't think that, but I-" I frown, the room growing colder. "This Team has resources and the means to do something. We plan things right, we use our best methods, we take him down before he can do any more harm."

Conner nods once. "I agree. They don't have much of anything that can hurt me-"

"That white wolf left gouges in your skin, Conner," M'gann argues, and the Kryptonian glowers in her direction sadly. "You're not indestructible. None of us are." She shoots a look in my direction and then darts her eyes away quickly. "I'm all for doing something, but I think it should be done the right way."

"What's the right way?" I ask, turning to Kaldur. "Wait until he shows himself again? Let him set the field on his terms?"

"No, no, that's not it," Kaldur says. "Let's try your magical method, Logan, Zatanna. If it works, then we can share what we know and marshall more resources to go after him."

I start to prepare a connection for the Sending spell, but Zatanna holds out her hand. "To try something like this, I'll need a bit more power. It's harder to do something new, cold." She holds up a finger as though to say 'one second,' and then vanishes into the residential area of the Cave.

Artemis taps me on the shoulder. "Come with me for a minute."

I glance toward the others and hear no complaints, and I let her pull me aside and out of earshot of anyone barring Superboy. "What's… up?"

"You're hot, I get it," she says sharply. "I've had my fair share of wounds over the years, long before I started suiting up, from guys big and small. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take an extended break to recover and try again when you're at your best." She pauses and pulls a sleeve, revealing a circular scar just above her forearm. A cigarette burn, long healed. She hastily pulls it down again at my frown. "Getting hurt and getting back up again is part of what we do. But we have to get up again the right way."

I raise a finger to my head, trailing the visible scar, and then to her arm again. "Can I… see that again?"

Artemis tilts her head slightly and then nods, putting the scar into view again. I reach a ginger hand forward, and she hesitates, almost pulling it away.

"I just need a moment. It might work, it might not."

She slowly nods, still unsure.

I pull on what small sliver of divinity rests in my angelic blood and pull on those memories of watching Charmed with my mother, of the whitelighter Leo's healing. The happy thoughts bring a smile to my face, and even Artemis warily grins. A pulse of divine silver light radiates from my palm as I clasp onto the place of her scar. At the same moment, I pull on my own telepathic abilities to read her surface thoughts, to learn the identity of the asshole that did this was. My mental touch is light, unobtrusive, just meant to be a listener and not to pry. Prying can hurt, can leave behind signs of intrusion, but remaining undetected is child's play for an unwilling illithid-to-be.

Her train of thought is simplistic in this moment, filled with unwariness at my touch, at my abilities, but one memory comes to mind for only a second. A single man comes to my mind. A hulking blond man with a sneering face and bright eyes. Artemis may have some Asian features, but it's clear as day to me that this is her father.

The bastard.

I pull the mental connection away before I remove my hand from her arm.

The scar remains.

"I'm sorry," I mutter, feeling a little helpless and vindictive toward her father. "I thought maybe I could heal your arm."

She smiles slightly. "It's okay. I'm kinda glad that it didn't work - this one keeps me grounded."

I frown, interest piqued. "You have others like it?"

"Not exactly," she says carefully. "But that was my first." Her eyes dart to her forehead. "Is that yours?"

It wasn't my first scar.

In my first life, I had a faintly-scarred lip from a scooter accident, and I always thought it was kinda cool that I had one that almost mirrored my favorite aunt's from a similar childhood wreck. I never had to deal with anything like Artemis, and, well, I miss them. I miss them all.

It was not this body's first scar, though none compare to the Brain's machinations. Tav had been in a few scrapes, and there were some blemishes from previous battles. Nothing more than small scratches, maybe a stray tooth bite from some beast while adventuring. Until today, I'd not really put any thought behind them, but now I can't help it. Tav's journals and his scars were a record of him.

"No," I say truthfully, not exactly sure when I'd started to cry. I wipe the tears away, and Artemis pats me on the side, not quite close enough for a hug. I don't blame her, but I wish I could hug my mom and my aunt more than anything in this moment. "We should, uh, get back to the others."

"Yeah. You good to try this when Zatanna gets back?"

"Yeah." Determination fills me again. "Yeah, I think it will work."

We return to the others, and Wally claps me on the back. "Really glad to see you still, uh, around."

"Me too."

Zatanna exits the hallway carrying several candles, incense, chalk, and an elaborate feather in her hands. "Sorry, sorry. This'll make it easier."

I watch with interest as she sets her ritual on the floor of the Cave nearest to the harbor. Damage from the Red Androids' attack and Red Tornado's betrayal is still evident, but I suppose places can get scarred too.

One chalk circle broken only by several identical candles and a feather in the center appears with precise efficiency and likely arcane math that I did not know. On a day to day basis, the Zataras are natural talent sorcerers like myself, but occasionally, they can whip out spells that wizards would dream of studying to perfect. She raises a single finger to each one and lights it with little more than a single backwards word, the candles alit.

"What's the feather for?" Robin asks.

"It's, uh, from a pegasus I met today," she answers. "I thought it might hone in on Logan's angel blood and strengthen the connection."

Wally guffaws. "You met a pegasus?"

"Besides the point, Wally," Artemis says with a nudge. "You guys ready?"

"Not yet," Zatanna says, before meeting eyes with Kaldur. "Can you charge the harbor with a bit of your magic and then place a drop of it in," she points to a spot to the side of the pegasus feather but still within the circle, "here?"

The Atlantean reaches for his water-bearers using truly miraculous arms and places both of them within the surface of the harbor entrance. Magic flows from his eel tattoos and into the pool like electricity, the force dancing across the surface for several seconds. He pulls one of the tools out and draws a single charged drop into the spot of her ritual circle.

"Now, we're ready. Logan, I need you to start, and then I'll piggyback off of you."

I pull up the connection for the Sending spell and concentrate on every bit of hatred that I feel for the Brain, trying to force a magical connection between our minds. Silver light trails from my eyes, from my mouth, from my ears, undulating in tendrils of magic, as I attempt to send a message. Just before I release the magic to let it work, I dip further into my psionic pool of power and heighten the spell, to make it more difficult to resist.

"You must know that we're going to find you, we're going to stop you, and we're going to make you face justice for your crimes."

Zatanna, in the same moment, intones, "Kcabyggip fo ffo s'tnegrA lleps! Etacol sti tegrat dna wohs su erehw s'eh gnidih!"

The circle ignites with flame brighter than any I've seen in a long time, and mist from Kaldur's charged water begins to form over the pool of water connected to the rest of the harbor. Nondescript images begin to appear in the mist, swirling blurs of colors and shapes. Odd noises emerge from the lapping of small waves in the normally fairly still water, noises that don't make any sense. And then, just as it feels like it reaches its crescendo, everything breaks down and the mist dissipates.

No reply comes from the Brain's side of the connection, if one ever formed at all.

Zatanna almost collapses, but Conner supports her arm, her face covered in sweat. "Okay, okay, that…" She pauses, thinking and recuperating. "I don't know that we got anything more than we already knew. He's somewhere we can't reach with magic."

I curse under my breath. "So a waste of time, then?"

Robin shakes his head. "Maybe not totally. The Cave and I caught all that on camera. We relay the recording through the best computers money can buy and see what ticks. But, unless we're really lucky, it's gonna take a while. Days, maybe longer."

"It's a start," Kaldur says, looking over to me with soft but determined eyes. "We'll find him."

I can't help but bristle at the idea, but… well, I can't expect answers immediately. Miracles don't happen whenever you want them to, and everything about today proved it.

Chapter 45: 5.2 - Promises

Chapter Text

Black Canary sits across from me in full uniform, fishnets and blue denim jacket and all. The look of concern across her face is palpable, and she reaches for a cup of tea on the coffee table and takes a sip, steam rising from her cup. "You should try some. The Flash brought the entire League a bundle of the good stuff from London."

"With superspeed?" She nods. "Is that really that impressive when people can Zeta-Tube from place to place?" I take the proffered cup, a small hope that it might taste like something. It doesn't, but I force it down for politeness' sake.

"No, I guess not," she replies with a smile. "My sister's one of the only florists in Star City with genuine sakura blossoms straight from Japan."

Oh? "Is your sister in the League?"

She shakes her head. "No, thankfully. That life is not for her. She's just very impressed with her counselor sister's travelogue."

"I can imagine." I take another sip and can't hide the frown well enough.

"That bad, huh?"

"It's not the tea. I'm sure it's great. I just can't taste anything."

Canary jots down a note on her note pad. "Zatara noted that in your file. I guess we're no closer to a solution?"

I shake my head. "I'm afraid not. We're no closer to the Brain, either. It feels a bit like I'm spinning in my wheels."

She says nothing for several seconds as she ponders what to say. "This is a fairly common occurrence for the League. Investigations take time, take manpower, take resources. Sometimes, pointing those resources at certain targets yields quick results, and sometimes they yield slow results. It's usually the more intelligent enemies that can adapt to our methods."

I bristle at the inefficiency. "And yet, the Batman still has several villains at large in his city. From what I've read in the papers and online to try to understand this plane of existence and its threats, someone like the Zataras could magically locate his rogues' gallery and help take 'em down. There's one who owns and operates a very popular night club!"

Canary thinks for a few seconds. "I can't speak for the Batman's methods in every instance, but he has the best investigative chops in the League. And, for the record, Cobblepot has served his time."

I frown, not wanting to continue beating the bush on that point. Prison time or no, I'm sure the Penguin is still in Bruce's crosshairs. It wouldn't be useful for me to suggest otherwise. Back-door dealings, gun sales, human trafficking? It's only a matter of time before Bruce and Dick have him again. That's just how comic book villains go.

"For every action that we take, as the League collectively or as individual actors, many other things must be in place to do it the-"

"Right way," I finish for her. "So I've been told."

Dinah leans forward. "You struggle with the right way?"

"A little?" I say honestly. "I'm a telepath. If I wanted to, I could be listening to everyone's deepest thoughts all the time. If I do it the right way, they might not notice. If I walked into the Iceberg Lounge, glamoured myself with this to look like one of Penguin's guards, and got an audience with the man, I could learn every little secret he has. Crimes he's already committed, crimes he's still planning. Pin numbers, offshore bank accounts, common contacts. With enough planning, I could break his entire mob.

"Everything I said that I could do just now, J'onn and M'gann could do it better."

Dinah nods. "Possible. Perhaps such methods could lead investigators to admissible evidence against known priority targets."

"Why not?"

She raises an eyebrow.

"Why don't we operate that way?"

Dinah points slightly toward me. "You do."

I frown, confused. "What are you-"

"The Team," she explains. "That's why the Team exists. To perform the reconnaissance that can bring down even the most powerful or illusive supervillains. The Justice League continues to operate in the light, while the Team operates in the shadows, in our wake, to guide us all toward evidence of greater plans happening in the shadows. Since the founding of the Team, the League now suspects that there may be a group of villains working together that previously had no known connections. It's unclear their methods or their number, but too many things line up to be coincidence."

"Oh. I… understand," I admit. "I mainly thought the Team was for training and the occasional low-stakes missions. The last one proved really, uh, dangerous, but I don't blame the League for not knowing that in advance." I fight the urge to rub at the nasty scar. "Not really."

"These early days for the Team are for that as well. Some in your group have experience the others lack, but all are young and capable of growing into greater potential. That's why we train, that's why we choose the missions that we do." She pauses, considering. "You mentioned that you do not blame the League. Is that true?"

I let my fingers run across it this time, unable to stop myself.

"No, I don't. I… I don't expect perfection. Had you known the Brain was involved, or that things were as dangerous as they were, I doubt you'd have sent us to India."

"Yet, you question our methods?" Black Canary asks in a neutral tone. I start to respond, but she continues, "I don't blame you, Logan, if you do. I don't speak for everyone in the Justice League, but I know many are deeply regretful over what occurred. Superman wishes he'd have been there with you, and Captain Marvel hasn't spoken to us since. We are not a monolith."

Oh. My heart pings for Billy. He's just a kid - he doesn't deserve to hold onto any of my sh*t.

"I understand," I say simply. "I think part of me will always be upset, but most of my anger is directed toward the organ in a jar that decided to do this to me."

Canary scrawls across her notepad, closes it, and gives a somber smile. "I will do everything in my power to help you through all of this. It's what I do." She takes a deep breath. "For the time being, if another mission takes place, I've been tasked with delivering you some bad news. We'd like you to take a break, to assess-"

"No."

Her eyes widen. "No?"

"I want to keep going. I am ready to keep going."

She purses her lips slightly. "I can believe that you feel that way, Logan, but-"

"But you don't think so?" I challenge. "During the last mission, I sent a message to Zatara. He helped the Team find me. We got ourselves out of there. They've been supportive, they've been helpful. If they go on a mission tomorrow, and someone else gets hurt, and I wasn't there to help them? I'd never forgive myself for following your rules."

She says nothing for a long moment, her face impassive. "An admirable reaction and outlook. The League feels you need some time away from responsibilities while you recover."

I grit my teeth slightly but don't bare them. "A magic beam of light did it, Canary - I've already recovered."

Canary places her hands in her lap and looks at them for a long moment. The only sound that fills the room is the methodical ticking of the clock in the corner.

"Are you familiar with the first Black Canary?"

I shake my head truthfully - I thought she was the first one.

"In the 1940s, the Second World War was raging, and many heroes emerged in that era and formed a group called the Justice Society. My mother was among them, and she spent most of that time and the decades that followed fighting the good fight.

"She had retired long before she had me, but there were periods in her life where she was forced into inactivity due to injuries, Logan. Experimental procedures, advanced technology - she wasn't always forced to endure the aftermath of a bullet wound the natural way. And yet, my mother took the time to recover. Even if your physical health is in peak condition, your mental health during that time may not be. In this job, taking a break to consider the impact of an injury, a lost fight, or a traumatic moment is the least that we can do to make sure we have decades ahead of us to make a difference."

A deep breath leaves my lungs.

She's right - she's right.

It just…. hurts to feel benched right after your first time up to bat.

.A.

Clark settles into the booth across from one of his oldest friends in their collective business. Bruce pushes a cup of Bibbo's Joe across the table and then takes a sip from his own cup. Clark studies the darkened circles beneath Bruce's eyes that give the man a gaunt look.

"You look dreadful."

"Last night ended with little to gain - Red Tornado and the other two androids must have gone to ground. I'll find them - only a matter of time."

Clark considers his next words carefully. "Dinah's assessment of Logan. She thinks he needs at least a week. I'm encouraging longer."

Bruce shuffles the newspaper in front of him, pretending to read its words for any onlookers. A sensible habit, Clark admits. "How much longer?"

"A month off. Training resumes sooner."

Bruce says nothing for a long moment, eyes watching the waitress who readies a cup of milk for a small child in a booster seat a table over. "Logan, like the rest of the Team, is a long-term investment. Put in the time, the resources, and we ensure that someone like Giovanni can retire in a few years."

Clark has heard this angle before for many of the League's proteges. Diana may be able to stay on the League forever and remain in top form, but not all in the League are so fortunate. In ten years time, Bruce will be in his early forties, Oliver in his late forties. Aging brings limitations, and training the next generation is important to ensure their efforts continue. If the League started to dwindle, rather than expand, then the criminal element would take advantage.

"I assume that his daughter would take over."

Bruce shakes his head. "That is not what Giovanni ultimately wants."

Clark can understand that for more than one reason, and it only sourly reminds him of the complexity of his own situation.

"Then is a month too long?" he asks to divert his own thoughts.

"A month of training without the interruptions of a mission would do him some good, but training does not replace real experience in every instance," Bruce admits. "What concerns me more is that the Team is on the cusp of unraveling whatever this group of villains are planning. If we remove him temporarily from the Team's active roster, then they would have one less member to assist them in the final stages."

Clark cannot fault the logic in that, but logic is not always the guiding principle one should use.

Bruce continues, "For all we know, their next mission may be the last piece of the puzzle we need."

.A.

I step into the gothic halls of Shadowcrest Manor. Unit claws its way into reality with a crack of silver light and drops to a nearby sofa, its silver crystalline body clutching at a pillow for some semblance of comfort. I raise an eyebrow at him. "You good?"

"Sure," he declares. "This house has enough psionic presence that it feels nice. You could do all kinds of things in here that you can't do elsewhere."

I want to ask him what specifically, but I have something I must do before the man leaves on another mission. The interior of the Manor is a confusing mess of hallways that lead nowhere, stairways that somehow leave you on the same floor up or down, but I have grown far better at navigating the longer I have stayed here. Part of me wonders if it becomes easier the more magically powerful you are as well, but that may be nothing but a coincidence. Finding Giovanni within the manor is far easier to do now.

The man of the house rests at a desk surrounded by books, a personal arcane library stretching across several bookcases. Many of its topics are incredibly interesting, if technical, pieces, and I have to believe that I might one day understand them. As I am now, most of it falls into theoretical and not actual practical knowledge for me. If I were a wizard, maybe…

"Logan, I am happy to see you." A tired face meets mine, and I cannot hide my frown. "Have you any news?"

"Likewise. And no, no news." I sit across from his desk, a stack of parchment and paper resting on either side of him. The subject surprises me. "If you don't mind me asking, why are you reading about the conjuration of hellish forces? More fallout from Faust?"

He nods. "Yes - I am trying to ascertain the longer-term effects such a summoning may have. Many a sorcerer have contracted with Hell, but few can summon three upper-level demons simultaneously without severe consequences to themselves or to the surrounding area. Faust's bargain took away roughly ten years of his life, but there's a chance that his interactions with Hell may bleed into the environment."

I suppose that makes sense even in my arcane wheelhouse. Even higher-level conjuration spells in D&D typically can summon one creature of some strength, or multiple creatures of weaker strength. The effects on the environment is a different problem, though, than I can remember.

"Anything I can do to help?"

He opens his mouth as though to say something and then stops himself. His eyes dart to the scar on my forehead. "No, no, you should rest."

"Zatara, I'm not so fragile."

"I know. You have dealt with more in your short life than many can endure, and the fact that you're still up and moving is commendable." Giovanni purses his lips. "I do not know if there is anything you can specifically do to help. Much of this is beyond my own wheelhouse, much less yours."

I suppose he's right. "Whose wheelhouse would this be?"

He hesitates for a moment and then flips the paper around so that I can skim read it. A theory that involved the thinning of boundaries between this realm and the infernal realms, and the subsequent tainting or corrupting of people exposed in the aftermath. Bad news on top of worse, especially in a city like Gotham, whose crime rate is astronomically higher than the average large city.

"If Kent Nelson were alive, we could ask him to use Order Magic to restore any potential after-effects. He would not even need the Helmet of Fate - he was far more skilled than I at matters like these."

Hmm.

I have a lot of respect for Giovanni. How can you not? He warps reality through nothing but backwards phrasing, instantly creating effects that dwarf spellcasters from D&D in their sheer utility. He is a walking prestidigitation on steroids. A good father, a good host, a good showman, and a badass in a fight. But, as Zatanna and even Zatara have explained before, it's clear that knowledge of the arcane is not one of his strongest fields of expertise.

"I guess it's not as simple for you to just say, 'Stop the influx of Hell,' backwards and call it a day?"

He chuckles lightly. "If only it were. Without a significant source of power to draw from, such a counterspell might take ten years of my life just to counteract."

"How would Kent do it and avoid that?"

"Kent was a tricky man. He knew his way around magic in a way that no one else I've ever known has - he'd find a solution sooner than I can. Even after putting away the Helmet, he was an accomplished hero for decades, and many a magical catastrophe did not occur thanks to his efforts."

The last sentence sticks with me. "This is not… that, right? A magical catastrophe?"

Giovanni meets my eyes. "No, no, no. I doubt that it will come to that. This is a theoretical consequence to Faust's summoning, not an actual one."

…. "Yet."

He nods gravely. "Enough talk about what might come to pass. I'm sure you did not find me just to speak about this?"

"No, no, I wanted to thank you," I say sincerely. "I don't have anything to give you - my Mom would say that you should write a thank-you note or maybe give a gift. But I don't have any ideas for what you might like - what do you give someone who can conjure anything?"

His face brightens, a grin crossing his aged face. "There is no need to thank me."

Giovanni Zatara is an humble man, even despite his showmanship. I learned through the Absolute what Zatara had done for me until he could get me to Themiscyra.

"You bound your life to mine, sir, to keep me alive! I could have - should have - died before I even got to the Amazons. You linked us, kept my heart pumping, kept my brain active." Tears fill the edges of my eyes, and I push them away sheepishly. "I don't think I'll ever be able to repay you."

Zatara reaches across the desk to tap my hand. "You have no debt to me, Logan. I would have done the same again in a heartbeat."

"You can say that, but I… I can't help but feel that you did something incredible, and risky, and foolish, just to keep someone you've known for a few months alive. Someone that might turn into a damn tentacle monster next week and start harvesting brains to live? I feel like I owe you something."

Giovanni shakes his head fervently. "You do not owe me anything, Logan."

"That's what I thought you'd say, so I thought of this." I brace myself for how this will sound, trying to think of my words carefully. "Zatanna has had a taste of heroism now, thanks in no small part to my own self for getting captured." I hold up a hand to cut him off. "I know, I know - I'm not really to blame. But if I know anything about her, she will want to go out again, with the Team or not. I can't do the linking spell you did for me, but I promise to keep her safe, to help her grow, to help us both grow."

Zatara says nothing for several seconds, fingers rapping slightly against the desk. "You are serious about this promise?"

"Yes. Whenever she is ready to come into the Team, I will be there to help her and keep her unharmed."

He offers a hand for me to shake. I confidently shake it to prove I mean every word.

"This is not a life I wish for her, but it may be the life she chooses. If she feels that she is ready - and when I feel that she is ready - then your promise may be kept."

Chapter 46: 5.3 - Momentum

Chapter Text

The Absolute curls a finger under my chin and tilts my head in the direction of the ancient workshop surrounding us. My attention wavers between alchemical reagents, spell components, ritual circles, and arcane devices that can empower the world's best and brightest minds to prominence. A wide dais rests before us, the intricate carvings of a teleportation circle etched within the very stone until its very essence screamed with connection to greater forces and a network beyond this sanctum.

His other hand traces a finger across the scar atop my head, and I do not need to deepen our connection to know that he feels anger. With the darkening of his mood, the chemicals in the background bubble with renewed activity.

"I thought we would begin our first of many lessons under better circ*mstances," the Absolute begins, a delicate hand slowly returning to his side. "I have had time to contemplate the outside world's solution for your injuries since our last meeting, and I find them incredibly lacking. Divine magic always seems to have its primordial rules."

I remember fragments of the Purple Healing Ray and its soothing light, snapshots of time spent between fleeting consciousness. My focused thought manifests within the space around us. A moment later, the memory of the workshop shifts to include a replica of the chamber meant to channel divine sunlight.

"I don't know what to think. They helped, but I expected something more to fix the scar." I frown and contemplate the glamour charm from Zatara. "I can look like whatever I want to others, so it's not just, I don't know, vanity. But this body - this body is not even mine. When I look in the mirror, I do not see me but instead a person who does not get to live anymore. Because of me. And then I go and f*ck up a face that isn't even mine."

After a long moment, the Absolute chuckles, pushing a stray black hair from his human eyes. "Truth be told, I have an enlightened perspective of the mind, the body, and where the two meet. Let me share it with you."

He claps his hands together, and the light within the workshop space swirls. Two images emerge from fractals of color, joined together by a single, effervescent thread of silver light. On the left is the form of Tav, an aasimar with a horrifically scarred forehead and a neutral expression with eyes devoid of activity and perception. On the right is a single speck of color, indistinct and iridescent. The more I study the speck of color, the more of myself I can see - the mundane human from another world, completely ignorant to the dangers of the multiverse. A silver cord of both finite and infinite length binds the two images.

"Astral projection?" I ask, trying to tie what knowledge I have for higher level D&D spells into the situation. A ninth-level spell within the game that could allow an adventuring party to venture into other planes through the Astral Plane, by leaving their mortal body behind and ascending with their soul, bound to a nigh-unbreakable silver cord.

The Absolute smiles. "This is the foundational principle behind that, yes." The single speck comes into focus, more of the human that is Logan becoming visible, audible, tangible. Fragmented memories of my first life swirl through the magic. My mother, my brother, my friends, my career, my hobbies… "You are here."

Tears fill my eyes before I even realize.

I walk forward to prod at the magic with a finger, and for the briefest of moments, I am there. Living as Logan again. Normal problems, normal solutions. No magic, no powers, no battles, no conflicts. A completely average life, without the Hells, without the angelic blood, without the tadpole, without the Team.

A hand wraps gently around my forearm, thumb trailing across the skin. For a split-second, I allow myself to believe that it was one from memories. That I was interacting with the past again. But no - the faintest trail of soothing slime lingers, and it brings me back to the Absolute, the workshop, and the illusion he created effortlessly.

My eyes tear away from the depiction of my soul and turn to the other construction of magic. The aasimar body, dressed in simplistic leathers and breathable clothing that do not impede somatic components. Gray-toned skin, gray-toned hair. Square-jawed. Thin. Almost supernaturally handsome, marred only by the white-toned jagged scar across the forehead.

"But where- where is Tav?" I blink, confused. "His soul?"

The Absolute ponders the question thoughtfully. "Souls are tricky things, Logan. There is a great deal of magic from all major disciplines that accounts for the difference between flesh and spirit.

"Primal rituals to transform the flesh into another form, while maintaining the spirit of the caster." A memory races to life within the room as another illusion blossoms, depicting a ginger half-elven druid transforming into a white tiger.

"Divine spells to recreate or regenerate bodies for the dead to inhabit." Another flash of the past depicting a human cleric dropping an expensive diamond into someone's remains and then growing a woman's body from those ashes.

"Arcane abilities to implant one's soul into another body or into a physical object." An illusory dwarven woman leaves her flesh behind to enter into a noble's ring, to then prime herself for an assassination attempt on the family's leader.

The illusions fade until all that remains is the vision of Tav and the soul - my soul.

"I am afraid that I do not have the answers about his soul, Logan, but know this - I cannot sense its presence within this particular container." He gestures to the aasimar. "For all intents and purposes, that is your body, but it is not you. No matter what happens to the body, nor what transformations you may undergo, it need not break you."

I hesitate and consider his words. "But it feels wrong to leave him with a scar like that. He wouldn't-"

The Absolute darkens. "He is not here, Logan. You are."

"But I marred his face!"

"And?" The Absolute challenges, arms raised. "Tav holds no claim over your current vessel."

I frown. "It's no- not a vessel…"

The man paces across the floor of the false workshop, robe fluttering in breeze from an open window behind him. A terrace stretches beyond to reveal the unfettered view of the sky from a Netherese cityscape.

"If it matters this much to you, Logan, then there are methods within the arcane and the psionic to fix such damage, methods that the divine cannot touch." He comes to a stop mid-thought, whirling around to see me head-on. "I have much to teach you, but such flesh-shaping rituals cannot be our current priority. You will bear the weight of your scars for a long time, yet."

I slowly - and reluctantly - acknowledge the point. "What should the priority be, then? If the League won't let me help the Team right now, then I w-want to do something useful."

For months, the Absolute kept me in the dark about his goals, about our future, about the status of what exactly he wants for this particular corner of the universe. I know from our last dream meeting that he wishes to bring back Netheril, an ancient empire from Toril's history that involved arcane powers of the highest order and floating cities that ruled the skies. He once showed me Gotham City rising from the earth's surface to join the darkened clouds above, and… well, I wouldn't start with Gotham for that, if I had the choice.

When he does not immediately answer, and with all of the above thoughts swirling in my head, I prod him further. "How do we make a mythallar?"

During the last dream tour of the flying city, he showed me the source of Netheril's true arcane prowess: a mythallar - a massive orb of energy that acts almost like an engine for magic within the center of each flying city. Without it, I suspect the high-magic society that the Netherese operated would be impossible. We'd need one in order to recreate anything like that in the DC Universe.

The Absolute nods once, twice, three times before responding, more to himself than to me. "The secret to the mythallar is far beyond your ability now. However, there are steps we can take currently to mitigate the difficulties of such crafting in the future, and I am fortunate enough to have the advantage of psionic abilities I did not have in my youth. These abilities, in combination with the different rules for the Art in this new universe, may make it entirely possible for you to ease such burdens and circumvent challenges I once faced."

He waves his hand to a table, and several implements and silver gems rise into the air above its surface. I recognize the jewels as psi-crystals, the same material that composed my familiar, Unit. They hover in the air for several seconds and maneuver in tight, concentric circles.

Maybe the Absolute really does care - this distraction is helping.

"Why are those necessary?"

The Absolute walks over to take one of them into his palm. "One of the basic principles of a mythallar is that it acts as a self-charging battery for magic. Psi-crystals are an incredible illithid invention that works on similar principles, for psionic energy, if on a much lower scale. Therefore, we must teach you to make them."

I frown, remembering my familiar made of the stuff. "Didn't you just make Unit appear out of nowhere? Why can't you make more of it on your own?"

"I could," he admits, "but the purpose is to teach you the fundamentals. Sending magic from my side to yours is like piloting a spelljammer out of the rim of a black hole - not impossible, but highly improbable and requiring delicate work. Teaching you what arcanists take decades to learn may be a similarly improbable task, but you're firmly within the sorcerous realm. You approach magic with natural talent I myself lacked at your age. Perhaps it will be enough."

I almost deviate to ask him more about spelljammer ships, something in D&D that has always fascinated me. I once played an aarakocra fighter in a campaign setting where the world had broken apart into many pieces, pieces that were still habitable within the atmosphere. That aarakocra's dream was to go to space, and this was long before I knew that D&D had a history of space adventures. Even if the Absolute had not shown interest in outer space before, this is something I want to do eventually.

Before I can ask him more about it, the Absolute cracks open a thick, leather-bound book and begins a lecture on the foundational theories for the mythallar, his greatest of inventions. As difficult as all of it is to follow now, it is a welcome distraction from the Brain and the trauma I had to endure.

"He could at least train with us."

Zatanna offers the point to a cavernous room full of fellow teenagers. Kid Flash is too busy eating his weight to respond. Aqualad near-perfectly dodges a kick to the solar plexus, the computer ringing to grant him points in his spar with Artemis. Superboy and Miss Martian sit comfortably in the living room together, watching the display while being cute as hell. Robin leans on a stool and studies his wrist computer, coded readings she hasn't the foggiest idea how to decipher racing across it faster than she can track.

"Us?" Artemis asks with a wipe of her brow. "Bit presumptuous, don't you think?"

Zatanna hates the sound of that comment. "Look - this wasn't how I expected to join in my father's footsteps, but I'm here now. I'm surprised that he's even letting me hang out with you guys. Dad's a total nightmare about this stuff."

Conner shrugs. "Must be nice."

She senses there's some unresolved stuff there, but she - well, she'll pry that out of someone later. Kid Flash has a motormouth - she'll ask him eventually.

"We get it, Z," Robin mutters. "We're just trying to all wrap our heads around what happened. You being here complicates our vibe."

Zatanna huffs. "Oh? Well, let me uncomplicate your vibe then." She stands to leave.

"N-no, no, that's not what I meant," Robin sputters, flipping off the holographic display. "Sorry, that came out wrong."

She wonders how prevalent that feeling was. Is it just Robin? Or did they all have the same opinion? Were they doing that telepathic conversation thing again and talking about her behind her back?

"What my friend means to say is that we are in recovery from two points of recent failure. Perhaps some space before your introduction among our number might have been preferable."

Aqualad tries to be diplomatic, but offers no further explanation. She supposes the nature of the Team means that information is secretive, but it's not like they're hard to read, and she'd already pieced together the first thing that happened. The second thing is obvious.

"You lost the robot," she gestures with a wave of her hand toward the rest of the cave, "and then Logan got injured on his first mission. I get that that's complicated, but I'm self-aware enough to know that not everything's going to go right all the time."

"Android, actually." Kid Flash downs a glass of soda. "Yeah, we're coasting mostly on luck. A few of us have been doing this a while, but not all of us - adds some additional challenges on a mission. We've been really lucky."

Artemis rolls her eyes. "Challenges?"

"Well, yeah. I know my way around a fight or three from years of experience."

"Are you saying I don't?"

Kid Flash seems to realize that he overstepped and backtracks. "Oh, no, I didn't-"

"Prove it then," Artemis challenges. "Right now."

Aqualad steps between them slightly before it can escalate, and Zatanna wonders why they're working together at all if they're this close to falling apart.

"Artemis," Aqualad begins, "you and I just finished a match. Training protocol says we need a period of recovery."

"Yeah? Well, we won't get that in the field all the time, so let's f*cking go, Wall-man."

The speedster's face turns to one of determination, and Zatanna settles in to watch. Superboy and Miss Martian move to join her, and she finds it hard to understand where they lie on this particular point. Did the two of them side more with Wally's angle or side against it?

Robin sets the computer to recognize the new sparring partners, while everyone else takes several steps back. Zatanna considers practicing some defensive magic to ward herself from any harm, but doubts that they'll need it.

"Powers or no powers?" Wally asks.

"I don't need a handicap."

The computer announces the start of the match, and the redhead races forward in a move that is actively difficult to see. Artemis takes a hit to the shoulder, but shifts into a defensive stance and manages to barely knock a follow-up away with her elbow. She swipes at his leg with the back of her heel but hits the armored cup over his knee.

Wally grins further when he manages to keep his footing, and Artemis pulls back to what might be a different, wider stance. Zatanna doesn't have much knowledge in any sort of hand-to-hand, even from something like an afternoon self-defense class, and she hates that she doesn't have as much knowledge as the others.

The powered teen races backwards in just a moment of acceleration, movements a blur. She's practiced a spell with her father to hasten the body, not for battle but for household chores, and they can't approach anywhere close to that speed. It's honestly incredible to see first hand - when you're not totally trying to stop an army of animal experiments, that is.

Her life is weird.

Wally dashes forward once more, and Artemis moves to counter automatically. Instead of barreling into her guard, he twists to the side in the last second, skids across the ground, and hits her on the right instead before she has time to switch her guard. She tumbles, end over end, landing hard a few feet away on her back.

The computer announces Kid Flash as the victor, but he ignores it and offers her a hand to pull her up. She ignores it and pushes herself to her feet, a slight scowl on her face.

"No hard feelings?" the boy asks. She says nothing for a long moment and then slowly shrugs, rubbing slightly at her arm.

Zatanna does not know what to think. She has nothing against Wally, so seeing him win is exciting, but at the same time, Artemis is a girl, and girls gotta stick together. That combined with defending Logan, Zatanna, and the rest of the rookie heroes on the Team? She's prone to feel disappointed by the result too.

"This doesn't prove anything," Artemis declares, "except that I need to approach fighting speedsters differently. I know some of us have less years at all this, but we gotta start somewhere."

"Plus," Miss Martian adds, "you've won against all of us in a spar before, Artemis - even Wally."

"It's pretty obvious to me that you take a second to wind-up, Wally," Superboy declares.

"Hey, you try starting and stopping on a dime when you can break the sound barrier."

Robin agrees. "My first night out with Batman? I bruised my collarbone so badly that my school threatened a truancy violation while I was recovering. He nearly made me stop altogether, but the minute I felt better? I kept going."

"In my first month as Aquaman's protégé, I nearly exacerbated the effects of an ongoing oil spill," Aqualad says. "Learning from failure is a part of what we must do."

"Logan should be here for this," Zatanna mumbles. "We're having a damn breakthrough, and he's missing all of it."

"Where is he, anyway?" Superboy asks.

"Please tell me he's not going after the Brain by himself," Robin pleads. "I can't take another search and rescue mission for one of our own."

"Last I checked, he was enchanting some crystal thing," Zatanna explains, remembering the look on the older teenager's face when she announced where she was headed. "He was not happy when I told him I was coming here, but the League's keeping him away for now. He's trying to keep himself busy, until he gets the all-clear."

I don't get the all-clear soon enough for the next huge crisis.

A miniscule amount of psicrystal emerges at the end of the ritual, and I barely have time to be excited before my smart phone screen shoots to life of its own accord. A video message begins with the face of someone I hoped to never meet in this world. Painted white skin, green hair, and ruby-red lips twisted into an grotesque smile. Somehow more intimidating than Heath Ledger because, you know, this one is real.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you this," the purple-suited clown flicks a knife open into his palm, "important announcement," the Joker grips the camera and twists it to face six other figures, "from the Injustice League."

Six dangerous villains working alongside the Joker, and I only recognize three of them: Black Adam, Poison Ivy, and Ultra-Humanite. Despite the fact that Black Adam is undoubtedly the physically strongest powerhouse in this line-up, he's not the one who worries me the most. Poison Ivy in some continuities may as well be the Earth's goddamn avatar. And the gorilla has a connection to the Brain - I'm sure of it. The others are relative unknowns, but I'm certain the Injustice League can throw down with the best.

This is bad news, punctuated by the Joker's horrific laughter.

The one standing in the foreground of the line-up steps forward, a green cloak tied with an ornate golden crest beneath his neck. "We are responsible for the attacks on your cities."

Attacks?

What attacks?

"If you wish to save them, a ransom of ten billion American dollars is required. Delivery instructions have been sent to the United Nations."

There is no way any government would capitulate to a goddamn group of supervillains roughing up some cities. Especially not one with that bad of an accent.

"There is no time limit. But the longer your governments wait…"

The Joker grabs the camera to face him again. "The more we get to have our jollies."

The video feed for their message ends before the audio does, the Joker's laugh persisting for several seconds before it too reverts to static.

I grab my phone to make some calls and gather the rest of my equipment. Whatever this is, whomever they are, this is an all-hands-on-deck situation. If the attacks are too widespread, the League will be spread thin. The Team will have to assist.

And I am going to assist them. The Ultra-Humanite is too strong a chance for information on the Brain to pass up.

Chapter 47: 5.4 - Desperation

Chapter Text

"I want the record to be known that I think this is a monumentally bad idea."

Kaldur listens to Wally's objection and notes it mentally. There were several factors for and against his opinion, but at the end of the day, one point outweighs the rest.

"Yeah, yeah, we hear you, KF, but you really want to be going up against Wotan and Black Adam without our magic heavy hitter? The first guy tried to blot out the sun a few months ago!"

In moments of stress, Kaldur can be certain that he and Dick were on the same page. They may not always agree, but in times like this, it's clear that Robin is destined for great things.

"We have Zatanna and Aqualad!" Kid Flash gestures wildly toward both of them in the back of the Bio-Ship.

"Hey, I don't have that kind of mystic power to throw around, and especially not on short notice. Give me a leyline or something else to tap, and maybe I can-"

"Last I checked, Argent doesn't either," Kid Flash argues.

Kaldur cleared his throat. "We do not have the luxury of a choice. Our only choice is to win, and we must rely on every avenue we can to ensure it. If we lose here, the UN loses face to the Injustice League, a group that is under no obligation to follow through with their promise to stop the attacks if they are paid. More people will die."

"Yeah, but-"

"The decision is final."

The rest of the short jaunt to Gotham City is a simmering quiet. No one seems ready to break the silence, apart from discussions of potential mission parameters. Kid Flash himself stews, but he says nothing. A clear sign of desperation was felt among the group, and Kaldur felt the Team as a whole was ready, if anxious. He turned to Zatanna, who looked far more nervous than most and for good reason.

"Stay in a supporting role. Defense, not offense. If you see a moment of advantage, take it but not without mentally signaling what you are about to do to me or one of the others. I trust your judgment, Zatanna, but this is do or die."

The young girl gives a slow nod, face tight in nerves. "Should I just stay on the ship?"

Kaldur glances down to the duffle-bag of desperation beneath his chair. "I don't believe we can afford you the luxury. Your varied magic might be the edge we need to counter Wota-"

"But I can't-"

"You can," he insists. "Magic is as much about belief as it is about preparation. I might be trained in a specific brand of sorcery that is different than your own, but one of the fundamentals taught in Atlantis is that your mind is a powerful tool to shape works of magic. If you believe you can thwart the works of a wizard like Wotan, then you stand a better chance at success."

The girl says nothing, leaving the ride silent until they finally arrive at their first destination, only a few blocks away from the site of Gotham's super plant attack. Captain Marvel, Zatara, and Batman were already on the scene, and Aqualad has to hope they - and the rest of the League - fares well in mitigating the dangers of the moment.

The gray-skinned sorcerer enters the Bio-Ship for his pick-up without a moment of hesitation and sits at the offered seat, face tight with nerves and sweat pouring from his brow. Robin claps a hand on his shoulder, and he offers a small smile of acknowledgement.

A mental connection bleeds into being, and the man's voice mingles in Kaldur's mind. "Thank you for this. I promise that I will not let the past cloud my decisions during the mission. I will accept any ruling that the League decides after this."

Kaldur feels a pang of guilt over leading this man to any more stress than he must endure. "Acknowledged."

With offered power, Wyll launches himself toward the hectic chaos of the suspension bridge. A sweet voice in his mind longs for law, for order, for structure, even if her warlock must kill to achieve it. He supposes killing some massively dangerous plants would do, would carve the name of the Blade of Frontiers further into the collective conscious of the world.

A group of Houston police on one end of the bridge fire their sidearms into the monstrous vines that threaten to collapse the entire structure. Each successful hit brings a thick, odorous gas into the air around it, threatening to cloy at the mind's of any victims exposed. He's already heard their insane bouts of laughter from this distance.

He flicks his silvered rapier into the direction of the closest vine, a tendril of plant matter that threatens the vitality of a metal rope holding the bridge together. An eldritch blast of greenish black light erupts from the point of his blade, carving a nice chunk of the material away and leaving more of that thick vapor behind. A second bolt of magic goes wide, dissipating into particles of fiendish Pact magic long before it can strike the clouds above.

"Coming through," Wyll shouts toward the officers as he bypasses the barricade with an acrobatic motion. "Making a difference, one fight at a time!"

Some seem convinced to aim their guns toward him, while others are focused still on the greenish mass. "You can't be over there!" one of them shouts, but the woman gives up her complaints when he pierces straight through to the other side of one bulb of plant matter threatening to crush an SUV with people cowering inside. He flips backwards away from the gas and then conjures two more eldritch blasts at different sections of the massive towering plant structure.

"Support that guy!" another officer yells, and he grins charismatically.

A voice from the sending stone implanted in his eye socket urges him to take advantage of the moment.

"The name's Wyll, but you can call me the Blade of Frontiers!"

"How powerful is Atomic Skull?" I ask for clarification, knowing he was a Superman villain with powers over nuclear radiation. "Are we going to end up with cancer before the week is up?"

"It's a possibility," Robin offers darkly, but reaches into his utility belt to offer a pill to everyone. "These won't completely mitigate the chances, but if you take a direct hit, you're more likely end up burned alive than radiation poisoning."

I take the pill without further preamble, noticing that even Superboy takes one. The shield spell and the shield brooch I have should take the brunt of that kind of attack, but they have nothing on Kryptonian invulnerability. Even a clone without the full suite of Superman's powers should be capable of withstanding that kind of blast.

"Count Vertigo's a relative unknown in the criminal scene," Artemis explains, taking her pill while looking over the file on display within the Bio-Ship's sensors. "Suspected drug-running royal from Vlatava, a tiny country in Europe with an amount of alliances that would probably spark World War Three if someone shot the wrong guy or gal."

I scoff, the history teacher in me offended at the possibility. "It would take several massive, colossal idiots to start World War Three. Every country's leader in the area would have to intentionally fail at diplomacy and go straight to war. I'd suspect a telepath did it before I'd suspect they intentionally make that decision."

Kid Flash laughs sardonically. "It's a good thing there are no telepaths."

I bite my tongue. It's clear that he doesn't want me here, or at least is uncomfortable at the idea, but he's not saying anything to me about it. Instead, he's immaturely dancing around the issue at hand. I'm going to have to do my damndest to back him up in the fight to come, because I'm going to change his mind.

"What about Wotan?"

Aqualad looks between Zatanna and I. "You two are our best counter. If he tries anything fancy, you shut it down. We will draw his ire, you blast him with everything that you have. Don't forget that our mission is not to beat them - it is to disable the control center for the plants."

I feel panic rising in my chest. In D&D terms, Wotan and Black Adam are by far the highest challenge rating characters I had yet faced in a conflict, with Ivy at a close third. Wotan could easily be a tier four caster, or perhaps even an epic one; Wotan was the kind of spellcaster that the Absolute would love to cavort. Black Adam could regularly battle against the likes of Superman and physically match him. If this were a tabletop battle, the Team would lose from numbers alone, and I'd never stand a chance against those two heavy hitters.

These were real people. People have weaknesses. An element of surprise, a group attack, an overwhelming onslaught of tricks. The Joker, Ultra-Humanite, and Count Vertigo were not as threatening to the likes of our group. We would have to focus our efforts on disrupting the Injustice League's big guns while also keeping the Joker's knives at bay.

Not a single damned thing about that was easy.

Lae'zel hates flying in this contraption, with its whirring blades and loud interior. The noise of a red dragon's wings were vastly preferable, though she must admit that she had only ever partaken when others of higher rank among the githyanki needed to bring another along for a mission. She supposes that when she joins her queen's side among the endless expanse of the Astral Sea, she'll finally be able to claim a dragon and a silver sword of her own.

As it is now, when the pathetic human orders her to jump, she is grateful for the chance to leave the infernal flying machine behind. They offered her a parachute, but she needs none as she laces her body with psionic energy and leaps, steel greatsword already in hand by the time she lands. A flare of telekinetic force from her landing disrupts the waters of the nearby canal streets.

A human woman runs for her life with her baby in tow, shouting in an unfamiliar language. Lae'zel does not need to know that the mother pleads for their safety and that her own alien appearance terrified them further than even the massive plant creature behind her. Streets crack from the pressure of its onslaught, and bits of damage from

She places the contraption they said would filter her air over her face, only slightly hampering her visibility. She relies on what psionic power she possesses as a gith to guide her as she begins hacking away at the monstrous plant creature. This thing possessed an intelligence that you may not find even in the outer plane of Arborea, and she could just sense its many factored demise with each slice of her impressive sword.

"Aim for the central bulb."

The order from the human general over her ear piece is an unwelcome one, and she ponders how long she will allow Eiling to continue to dangle this supposed cure for the illithid tadpole burrowed within her brain. If not for the impressive medical technology of this world, she would have successfully cut her way through each and every man on the compound. Instead, she wonders if perhaps more than the methods of her people could cure her of the horrible parasite, and she is amenable to listening to their proposed solutions.

So long as they do not plan to cut her open.

"Do not lecture me how to fight, human. I was bred for battle."

Eiling does not hesitate. "Not a lecture, soldier. Merely a sharing of intelligence. Surely you people understand the importance of military intel."

"Your comment is as useful to me as the crying of a babe." Lae'zel telekinetically shoved a family of three out of the way of a wrapping vine from the insane beast of a plant. "My civilization under Lich-Queen Vlaakith's leadership has persisted for epochs longer than the one founded by this silly Uncle Sam."

Lae'zel leaped out of the way of an attacking tendril, glad for the mask she wore upon her face to keep her from facing the toxic gas that drives someone to impossible laughter and then death. This Joker developed a nonmagical chemical weapon that would put many githyanki alchemists to shame.

"More strangely, why does your country intercede in the affairs of another country?" she asks curiously, knowing these United States are a continent away from Venice, Italy, from what she'd gathered of the status of the world. "You did not deploy my skills within the bounds of your shores."

Eiling does not initially respond, giving Lae'zel time to cut away three more of the smaller vines and tumble her way through a mass of them to attack the center of its mass, half of it dangling within canal water.

"The world is more connected than you might imagine, soldier, and the people of Italy will be grateful that we intervened." The sound of the ear piece's connection does not cut as Eiling continues, "If they learn that we did, of course."

"You conduct a secretive raid within this country's borders but you do not plunder it for what it's worth? Instead, you assist them in matters that they themselves could destroy?"

Eiling chuckles within the communication connection. "Soldier, if we truly wanted something that Italy had, they'd offer it to us after this."

Lae'zel does not know what to think of that. "Your country's fearsome hegemony is impressive, even for a primitive world such as this."

M'gann's cry of pain is the first sign that we'd gotten far too close. Something was happening, and I stared at the horizon through the Bio-Ship's viewing panels. It takes a moment, but I spot them among the Louisiana Bayou at nearly the same moment that Superboy does.

"Vertigo!"

"She's trying to shield us, but it's not-" M'gann clutches at her head.

The digital readouts reveal that our cloaking field goes down, and every warning from the Bio-Ship's sentient intelligence shouts for us to brace for impact. I grip the seat tighter and prep mage hands to cushion my fall, four spectral tendrils of argent light wrapping tightly around each limb to hold me steadier.

Something hits the ship a single, mighty time before it can recover from Vertigo's strange technology attack, and we crash into the bayou below in a spiral and like a set of skipping stones across swamp water. Each roll of the ship's tumbling landing stresses the limits of the cantrip, even with the improvements from consuming Psimon's brain, and I can feel bruises already forming when we finally come to a damn stop.

"We're in for it now," I say psychically, a bond pre-established once we neared the state line of Louisiana. A telepathic command to the ship forces everyone out of their chairs at once, and M'gann shares a feeling of gratitude with my psychically while she tries to recover.

Something grips the ship and attempts to pull it further under the surface of the water – special delivery from Poison Ivy. The Bio-Ship can survive underwater easily, but not if Ivy crushes it first.

A hole appears in the ship's frame, revealing the sky for a split-second, until the face of Black Adam blots it out and sneers down at us. Superboy leaps upward with a yell and delivers a solid haymaker to the brute's face, sending the magical powerhouse of muscle and living lightning flying into the forest nearby.

I release the mage hand tentacles and assist the others in getting out while I can, the ship still lurching while vines attempt to drown us. Water pours into the hole that Black Adam made, and Good gods am I glad that I made this part of my standard equipment. I reach up to wrap a piece of fabric around my face, feeling the enchantment I placed on it activate and allow me to breathe in water as well as Aqualad can.

"We need to move, like, yesterday," Zatanna argues into the link, her face frantic while she swims rather poorly.

M'gann recovers while treading water, Conner desperately trying to get her to move. "Right, right. Hello, Megan!" Below us, a hatch opens, and we dive at Aqualad's signal into the murky swamp water to come up into the bayou proper.

I urge Zatanna to follow Aqualad with a look and a private message, knowing that I promised her father that I would keep her safe. The younger girl agrees, and a moment later, we surface at the edge of the treeline nearby, using the advantage of cover to hide from our enemies for a moment.

A precious moment that cannot last.

"Sorry about the ship," I say, disappointed that I never really got to study it. I knew a lot about the inner-workings of the thing from a previous mind-meld, but without going to Mars myself to witness a birthing ritual, I doubted that I'd get to see one of my own.

"She'll recover," M'gann declares, "as long as they leave her alone to rest."

"What are we doing? What are we doing? What are we doing?" Zatanna asks frantically.

"Calm yourself," Aqualad stresses. "We are here for a purpo-"

A sudden onslaught of pain rips through everyone else at once, dropping each and every one of my teammates to my knees. I can feel it - it hurts my ears, but… it doesn't do anything meaningful to me. I can feel psychic defenses working overtime to keep my mind safe from whatever this technology is, and I remain standing to see Count Vertigo stalking toward the group.

"Unexpected to see one of the peasants unharmed," the royal supervillain taunts. "No matter."

Magic crackles from my fingers, and I let a ray of frost rip through the space between me and that strange piece of headgear. Vertigo does not attempt to dodge, because Captain Marvel's arch-nemesis moves with the speed of Mercury to tank the spell. It coats his uniform, spreading in thick chunks, but he looks otherwise unharmed, of course.

Vertigo cancels the technology attack when Black Adam moves in its path, leaving others in my group to make their moves. Superboy angles to engage the tank, but Black Adam rises to the challenge and wallops Superboy into the mud. Artemis and Robin both angle to escape to the shadows, while Aqualad releases a wave of water at Vertigo.

"Robin, Miss Martian, disappear!" our leader commands psychically. "Fulfill the mission objectives. We will keep them busy."

I don't argue that it would be easier for me to go invisible and handle it myself, because I probably am the only counter to Wotan. An additional part of the reason that I don't argue that is that I throw myself between Zatanna and twin vines that emerge from the bayou's thickened, nearly dead trees. Her father's enchanted shield brooch activates, twisting into a metallic disc that disrupts their attack.

"Oh god, thank you, thank you."

"Hide! Support, remember!"

The girl nods and mutters something under her breath. She fades into gaseous smoke and dissipates into the nearby treeline. In her wake is a copy of her that, if I wasn't looking for it, I'd almost believe is real. It crouches behind a nearby bush, attempting to hide from any of the villains that may reach her. A moment later, and a single mote of light from her protection spells burrows its way harmlessly into my chest.

Gale finds the whole thing fascinating. The wizard considers its blend of technology, biology, and the arcane a stroke of utter genius. Whomever could design such a craft would be a powerful mage indeed, and he strolls casually onto the airport's runway to witness its majesty firsthand.

Invisibly, he moves closer to the ongoing battle. Airport security pushes the potential victims away from the airport's destroyed concourse and toward hastily decided evacuation sites. He could tell from the sounds of their panicked shouting that they did not actually know where would be safe, as the vines were expanding and any time they were injured, they burst into a cloud of gas that rendered its victims into catatonic laughter. A truly terrible creation, the whole thing, but one that he could not help but find incredibly useful.

You see - Gale has a problem. A problem only enchanted items could alleviate. He did not wish to die in a horrible explosion that could rend an entire city asunder. No - he wished to feed the raw magic coursing within his soul, ever-hungry for more of the Weave. If he does not feed the cancerous mass soon, it will explode.

In a way, he has had to deal with two ticking clocks in his life recently. Something holds back the illithid tadpole from twisting him into a mindflayer, removing all personality and rendering him the only one of its kind within this crystal sphere. He must additionally feed the Netherese magic in his soul, or he'll die and take everyone nearby with it. He does have a complex contingency in place for if he does manage to kick the bucket prematurely, but that relies entirely on having someone competent enough and capable enough to resurrect him. That contingency is irrelevant if he falls to ceremorphosis - he'd rather die permanently in a fiery explosion than doom this lovely universe to suffer the fate of a horrific creature.

Magic works differently here - how could this place not be lovely? Mystra's reach does not extend the Weave to this world, and thus many of the rules he has become accustomed are more mutable. Gale was once on the path to becoming an archmage of Waterdeep, acknowledged by the Blackstaff and contemporaries to the Mad Mage of Undermountain. He knew how to cast spells and implement arcane rituals that would embark on the seventh and eighth spheres of magic. But he lost it all, on a romantic whim. He has been so limited for so long, despite once reaching the cusp of the ninth sphere of magic.

Now? In this place where Mystra does not touch? If he had the knowledge, he could use it, albeit in a different way and with potentially heavy risks.

As Gale witnessed the rampaging plant monster, suffused with magic, he activated a spell. It had been years since he'd been able to accomplish it: a spell within the seventh sphere of magic, named for one of the greatest wizards among all the known crystal spheres. Mordenkainen's Sword emerged out of the aether, a floating pane of force in the shape of an white sword, as wide as he was tall, and nearly two stories long.

The magic backlash struck him immediately, and he fought through the feeling, tooth and nail. Exhaustion. Nausea. Bile. Sweat. Blood. He ignored it all, knowing that he must, and focused all of his attention on the magical blade he had summoned. With a mental command and a twist of his staff, Mordenkainen's weapon slashed through the plant like a hot knife through butter. Every few seconds, he shifted the angle of attack and the path of the sword, reducing the now writhing plant monstrosity to pieces.

When he was certain it had been diced thoroughly, he abruptly ended the spell as he felt his head begin to swim in pain, vision doubling, senses haywire. With careful applications of mage hand, he lifted chunks of enchanted plant matter and placed it within the bag of holding at his side.

Later, he promised himself. He would test to see if this plant creature would be a worthy sacrifice to the magic lodged in his chest, burrowing into his soul. If it was, he had enough to prolong the inevitable for months, if not years.

Chapter 48: 5.5 - Duel

Chapter Text

As Robin and Miss Martian vanish to complete their piece of the mission, it is all I can do to keep track of the chaos of an all-out brawl with Black Adam.

A fist to the face from the titanic figure leaves Aqualad scrambling to hold his breath, Atlantean durability the only reason he still has a jaw. Artemis blasts him with containment foam, but electricity rockets through the material with a flex of magic, rendering it unable to solidify. Kid Flash darts forward to smash the brute in the face with a thick fallen tree branch, but I don't even see what happens as the redhead tumbles end over end to the ground. Superboy remains down for the count, thankfully still breathing, and I shift magic into a pure orb of chaos in a last-ditch effort to make something of these precious few seconds.

Prismatic light flickers from red to orange to yellow and finally settles on green, a poisonous cloud enveloping the supervillain. The man grunts in apparent pain as the chaos orb splatters against him, toxic fumes left behind as magical poison damage accumulates. "You dare?!" he challenges, face tight with a glare most foul. Count Vertigo emerges from the brushline, covered in the muck from Aqualad's wave. Somewhere behind me, Artemis shifts to make a move, aiming her weapon toward the diplomat.

C'mon, c'mon, c'mon! There's gotta be a solution.

"Yeah, big guy. I d-do," I challenge with only a hint of anxiety in my voice. "Dictators get trounced eventually."

Black Adam surges forward in anger, and it was all I could do to use sorcery points to toughen my body to intercept the first impact. His forearm collides with my hastily-raised guard, infused with psionic power to toughen the flesh. I feel nearly every ounce of that strength, and mucus splatters against the man's sleeve. The second incoming fist, mere half-second after the first, smashes instead into the conjured shield brooch, a metallic disc nearly denting from the blow despite its magical reinforcement.

Kid Flash does something I miss to divert his attention, and I take a cool moment to misty step away from his potential grasp, vanishing into a void of argent light and reappearing with a slurp of psionic power mere feet away. Artemis looses her arrow, the end of it glowing with orange light, but Vertigo side-steps a predictable angle of attack and retaliates against the group with his psionic scream headband. Everyone goes down to their knees again, and I hear him taunt through the pain from the noise. "Stay down, children."

A mind sliver cantrip misses against him, an argent tentacle trying to rip itself free from the man's mind to induce psychic damage. Panic rises in my throat, adrenaline pumping through my veins – I can't tell if Zatanna was caught in Vertigo's second blast or not, but I don't have time to contemplate the question as Black Adam shoulder-checks me, driving me to the ground.

Immense pain roars throughout my side. Consciousness is intermittent, and I snap my fingers in time to summon Unit in a flash of eldritch light. "Get them!"

"Unit shall take them!"

The crystaline insectoid creature flies at the face of Vertigo, but Black Adam snaps out an open palm and bats the familiar from the sky. It crashes to the ground in thousands of shattered pieces of psi-crystal, and I lose that familiar telepathic connection.

A quick kick to the side from Captain Marvel's greatest foe cements it, and my awareness dims to nothing.

Shadowheart settles onto a couch in the corner of the tavern, a pair of admittedly handsome dolts on either side of her. She has no desire to sleep with them or entertain them any further, but she strings them along anyway, if only because the attention is nice but the trickery is better.

"What's your favorite drink? I think she deserves her favorite drink!"

She glances toward the busy bar, while many are glued to the screens displaying the carnage happening across nearly every major city across the world. "I don't suppose they have any Baldurian wine?"

It is a pipe dream, and she knows it – asking them for wine from another plane of existence, a different material plane altogether, is just to keep these fools busy. When both of them shoot up to ask for it, tyring to put the moves on her, she merely smiles, smirking as their eyes train on her low-cut top.

This world's people are far too easy to exploit. They clearly do not prune their assassin vines, the population as a whole has nearly no magical talent, and that means they have no healers to get this horrid tadpole out of her head. Polytheistic belief systems are an absolute minority in what seems like the majority of the world, and there do not seem to be any worshippers of Shar, the Nightsinger.

Perhaps the Dark Goddess has followers here, but they are in forbidden, secretive cults. Sharran priests and devotees are known for hiding in plain sight throughout Toril, and her own sect resides within the shadows of Baldur's Gate, a city that is not dissimilar to this Gotham.

The city has an undercurrent of darkness, so if she were to find any within this world, she expects to find them here. The population remains largely afraid to travel at night, where Shadowheart finds herself far more comfortable, and muggings look to be more common even in broad daylight. She has not been here for long, but she already suspects there is a strongly organized criminal element. How extensive it is is unclear, but the city even spawns adventurers who try to intervene.

Some idiot vampire feasts on the blood of his enemies while dressed in a tacky bat costume. Worse still, he forced a child to transition into his spawn and follow in his footsteps to stop thieves, rapings, and killings. She could respect the work he was doing, but none of it would ultimately matter in the end when Shar completes her holiest of ambitions.

A different Gotham adventurer entirely interested her far more, however. A while ago, she stumbled across a video from one of these "supervillain attacks" that happened in this city. It confused her greatly at the time, but she remains convinced today that she knew one of the wizards who fought against those demons, the one with celestial blood. It took her days to figure it out, but she remembers now.

Shadowheart saw him on the Nautiloid. The aasimar allied himself with a githyanki woman and an intellect devourer, a motley crew if she had ever seen one. They did nothing to help her escape her pod, not that she expected that they would try. She has complex reasons to avoid the gith, and anyone – celestial or no - who would willingly accept aid from an aberrant brain-devourer is someone she does not trust.

And yet, he survived the trip to Avernus, and the two of them were shunted to the same plane of existence. She hopes the gith did not make it, for that would make her overall goal that much more complicated. She was somewhat grateful to the gith – had her people not attacked the Nautiloid with their dragons, she would likely already be a mindflayer. But despite that gratitude, the gith would simply make getting her infernal puzzle box to the Sharran cult in Baldur's Gate that much more difficult.

When the two men in the bar return, Shadowheart resolves to find this aasimar. He may not be trustworthy, but he holds arcane magic. Perhaps he can get her home.

Until then, she plans to lay low. The vampire and a couple other adventurers were fighting a massive overgrown plant a district over from where she currently sat, and she has no interest in getting involved. The camera footage on the news is enough to sate her curiosity, and the aasimar wizard has not yet been seen at the battle site.

One of the men returns, and she glances up at him. With an application of the thaumaturgy cantrip, she increased the commanding tone of her voice. "Brian, was it?"

The man gulps. "Billy, actually."

"Whatever." She trails a finger up the man's arm. "How do you feel about the night?"

The man laughs. "Oh! My night is great, now!" He leans in closer to try to capture her lips, but she pushes him away forcefully.

"No, no, not tonight. I mean, night in general."

He frowns, a tattoo of a fish visible beneath his shirt collar. "Oh, well, I guess I'm more of a day person."

She sighs. "I bet you feel that way because you've never truly embraced what night has to offer. Would you… like me to show you?"

Miss Martian floats invisibly behind their designated stealth specialist, able to determine where he is only partially with her own eyes, and mostly from the telepathic link between them. He blends into the darkness of the bayou's thick forests and grimy underbrush almost as well as her Martian camouflage. It is impressive, and she cannot wait for another stealth lesson from the Batman.

Those thoughts would have to wait, however, as the active connection between herself and most of the Team suddenly fails. The badgering of Zatanna's thoughts remains present within the existing link, and she urges Robin to halt long enough for her to confirm.

"Zatanna! What's going on?" She clarifies for Robin that the others were unconscious or worse.

Robin hisses.

"They – they got 'em! They totally took every one of us out, and there were only two of them!"

Miss Martian locks eyes with Robin, and he turns his attention further into the bayou, in the opposite direction of their friends. "Combine Black Adam's skill-set with Count Vertigo's tech and the fact that we were all in one place? That's not a surprise."

"Are they still alive?" Miss Martian asks, not sure how she feels about Robin's assessment.

"I think so – they're breathing, anyway."

Robin frowns. "Anything you can do to help without blowing your cover?"

Zatanna's nervousness fills their psychic link for several seconds. "Yeah – yeah. What are you going to do?"

"Finish the mission."

Miss Martian's eyes follow Robin's retreating form as he nears the edge of the tree line. A large clearing rests just beyond, filled with swamp water and mosquitoes. A massive building rests at the heart of the place, its roof made of glass and not some other material. Robin's surface thoughts confirm what she guessed: some kind of greenhouse, and probably the source of the Injustice League's threat.

They were essentially on their own until Zatanna could back them up or help the others. Their one goal: enter that building, take down the plants' control scheme, and end the global attack so that they could get back-up from the League. She questions why the villains were sparing her teammates, because they were completely at their mercy.

She senses the vines move before they do, telltale thoughts commanding the forest around them to attack. "Ivy!" she shouts in warning, telekinetically bursting a vine apart before it can wrap itself around her. Robin tries to move out of the way, but his ankle is caught in the onslaught.

"Little ones, why do you seek to hurt my babies?"

The owner of the voice is a sauntering woman, her pale skin impacted by the pigment of chlorophyll surging through her veins. What flesh is uncovered by clothing is instead covered by thin vines and roots, as though her own body was as much a part of the environment as the swamp. Her hands rise into the air and twist more plants into attack mode.

Robin slashes through the vine holding him in place, though his eyes never leave the form of Ultra-Humanite, a white-furred gorilla carrying a strange rifle in hand. He approaches Poison Ivy from behind, his imposing form preparing to fire the weapon, and she lashes out psychically.

"No!"

Telekinetic force and telepathic force combine together to force the gorilla to toss the gun into the murky water nearby. He looks at his empty palm in confusion, his other hand clutching at the side of his strangely-large head.

"Separate!" Robin shouts into the psychic link.

Miss Martian goes into active camouflage mode once more as Robin darts away through the mud, cape fluttering behind him in the wind.

"Guys, little help?"

"Not now, Z!" Robin declares as he fully leaps to the side in an acrobatic flip, dodging incoming roots that erupt from the earth and attempt to enrapture him.

Miss Martian loses track of the boy's next move as the white ape leaps at her. She flies to the side to dodge in the last second, and the villain's subsequent impact against a tree knocks several of its branches to the ground in a loud crunch. She hurls detritus and sludge at him with active telekinesis, but the effort forces her to break camouflage.

"After the fiasco in India," the gorilla villain begins, "I thought none of you would be a thorn in our sides again. I'm surprised you managed to crawl out of your hole so quickly."

Miss Martian hesitates. "You were involved with the Brain?"

"Think, girl. How likely would it be that there would be another super gorilla you'd face weeks later?"

With renewed fury, she presses her telekinetic force onto him, the environment swirling as her concentration enhances into focus. "You hurt my friend!"

Her power forces Ultra-Humanite back, and he raises an arm to protect his face, while a second arm reaches for his belt. "There are lots of hurt friends in the world, girl. It's nothing personal."

He drops something from his belt to the soggy ground, and it suddenly explodes with bright light. M'gann's sensitive eyes flare with pain from the flashbang, and she clutches at her head, disoriented.

Us filters through the spaces beneath the city called Gotham, through the spaces between buildings in its delightful alleyways, through the tunnels hidden behind walls. Us shifts in swarming tandem through the cramped islands, through the wretched swamp, through the gunk-filled rivers, through the polluted harbor.

Us moves with eldritch, hive intelligence to seek knowledge, to understand this new world, to provide that knowledge to the master. Us listens to conversations, collects newspapers, watches television, and steals letters from mailboxes. Us dominates those who get too close and demands information in exchange for their survival. Us has learned many great things about the infrastructure of the city above, the culture of its population, and its political relationships with the outside world. Us has little use of that information, but the master wishes to know it.

Us focuses its attention on a single warehouse, already thoroughly swarming with Us. The rat-like bodies of the hive are found in every nook and cranny, and Us lies in wait when a pair of individuals enter the building, carrying those metallic weapons and flashlights in their hand. One of them is thin and dressed in a navy blue uniform, while the other is heavier and dressed in a gray suit. Us understands their purpose as police for the humans of this city, but Us does not know why they are here.

"Do a sweep. We got enough reports out of this place I wouldn't be shocked if there's another of those damn vine bulbs here."

"Bullock, if that's true, shouldn't we be calling in back-up?"

"It's an exaggeration, Tony. I'm sure it's something run-of-the-mill."

"In Gotham?"

The pair slightly split up, and Us realizes too late it made a mistake.

"Harvey!" the thin cop shouts. "We got a bunch of blood and what might- ugh – what are human remains."

The bulkier human rushes to the corner where Us had left one of its victims: a human who stumbled too close and refused to leave when threatened. Us had to rend it limb from limb with psychic force, to teach it a lesson. Us did not want to kill, but these humans give no choice.

They begin shouting into their radios for assistance, and Us telekinetically reaches out to levitate a discarded black coat, covered in dried blood, into the air. Hundreds of voices from each of Us cries out telepathically, "Leave Us alone or we shall remove you."

The cops, spooked, search out the focus of the voices and spot the hovering cloak. It dangles in their air, almost like a tall human is wearing it, and they call out warnings to surrender to an arrest or they'll shoot. Us has no need to listen to them, and the cloak hovers forward inhumanly.

Shots fire into the cloak helplessly.

The thin cop stumbles backward and lands on a pile of Us, crushing some in the collective. Us cares little for the loss of three, for it has hundreds more in this building alone.

Bullock helps the other cop up to his feet, barks something into his radio, and fires another shot toward the cloak that continued its steady, inhuman movement. When it gets close enough that they can see it clearly in the darkness, Bullock angrily curses. "Pulley-wires! We got a tricky perp. Body found, shots fired at-"

The cloak snaps quickly to envelop around his head as tightly as Us can muster telekinetically. A few seconds later, Bullock collapses, and the other man runs.

I stir awake, feeling pain throbbing at my side. At first, I cannot tell what's going on, and the first thing I see is Zatanna's face, alit with orange light. I stumble to the side for a moment, confused, as her hands reach out to touch mine. Wind bites at our faces, and it's clear that we're high up and surrounded by a barred cage of magical light. The rest of the Team, barring Miss Martian and Robin, are either unconscious or barely fighting to stay awake, recovering from wounds.

The red-armored sorcerer, Wotan, holds us within a construct cage of his making, while Black Adam carries the cage toward a destination of their choosing. Aqualad stirs near me, while Kid Flash, Artemis, and Superboy remain slumped or worse.

"Why didn't they kill us?" I ask Aqualad, but the teen has no answers. Zatanna sports a gash on her face, and I realize that I'd failed and allowed her injury. I was fortunate that it wasn't worse, but a team that contains the Joker as a member had not killed us yet?

"Can you disable the cage?" Aqualad asks me. "I may be able to force it open, with enough time, but if there's a better option, speak it now."

"I shouldn't have to disable it, if I can teleport out and break his concentration. The minute I do-"

"It is pointless to scheme, fools," Wotan declares, cape billowing behind him while he maintains his spell, orange light shooting from his palm. "You will fail this day!"

"Can he hear us?" Zatanna asks in horror.

I shake my head. "Not unless I want him to – I'm fairly certain, anyway." The tadpole is uniquely qualified to maintain a near perfect psychic defense, after countless generations of psionic memory was implanted in its head before it was ever born. If Wotan has any psychic ability, he'd have to somehow brute force past that.

"The moment you teleport out, try to disrupt his concentration. If the spell drops, Zatanna, help me contain Black Adam and ensure the others land safely."

I nod.

"Oh, I see determination. You think you can counter my spell?!"

"Not really," I admit, "but I have one of the only ways out of a forcecage."

I concentrate on psionic power to empower the spell with a sorcery point and then cast misty step for the second time today, aiming for a point outside as far away from myself, Wotan, and Black Adam as possible. With a flicker of light and a sound like viscous liquid falling into a pool of water, I reappear in freefall.

Wings manifest in white-silver light, catching me before I can fall more than a few feet. Count Vertigo rides atop the cage and shouts down first a warning, but I am already moving through another series of somatic and verbal components before Wotan or Black Adam can adjust.

I quicken the spell with metamagic sorcery points, sharply reducing the casting time to allow it to finish nearly instantly. Hunger of Hadar erupts around Wotan, a globule of darkness filled with eldritch light and tendrils in the shape of aberrant horrors. Aqualad begins pulling at the bars of the cage while charging his skin icon tattoos with electricity, and Artemis and Kid Flash stir to consciousness. Zatanna says something backwards that I cannot hear, and Black Adam is suddenly enraptured in ropes.

I charge twin rays of frost and the beams of argent cold light arc through the air to strike at the space where Wotan must be within the magic void cloud. Given the speed we were traveling, they'd escape the area of effect quickly, but the point is to be as overwhelming as possible.

For a split second, the cage destabilizes, and I hear Wotan curse as I fly in a circling arc below everyone else to provide support, flying dozens of yards above the tree line of the bayou below. He tries to re-establish it, but that moment was all that Kaldur needed to finish tearing it apart. The Team begins to fall, the shock fully waking Superboy, and Zatanna shouts, "Ekil a rehtaef!"

Their descent slows to the speed of a feather, but it's clear exhaustion fills her face.

Wotan recovers from the momentary spell and escapes from my biggest area of effect spell with an easy flight out. Count Vertigo continues to fall, but Black Adam rips himself free from the rope bindings and catches the diplomat in the last possible second.

"You think yourself above me?" Wotan challenges, throwing his hands together, and firing pure, concentrated flame blasts toward me - and only me.

The shield brooch expands to life with a thought to block the fire, and the searing heat induces me to sweat even without direct exposure. The onslaught continues, so strongly that I fear the magical fire may actually melt an enchanted object, and I dart to the side as quickly as I can, wings unfurled to carry me away from the targeted area.

The flames follow in a line behind me, but I can fly just barely faster than them – at least until he can shift his focus. I throw up a hand and generate another beam of cold, but it dissipates against his own magical defenses before it can even reach him. Another follows after the first, peppering him with cantrips, but each follow in the same pattern.

"Try this, then!"

At his command, the air itself comes to life, forming into a vaguely humanoid figure that attempts to solidify into a pressurized mass. I deflect an impact with the shield brooch, but its body is immaterial and able to shift past that defense to impact hard against my stomach.

I tumble in the air, rolling end over end, and a quick arms of Hadar spell deters the conjured elemental from pursuing me for a few seconds. The argent tendrils of eldritch flesh that emerge out of the aether around me bat the concentrated air away, giving me enough time to push away faster with my wings and send a chaos bolt directly into its open maw.

The prismatic sphere explodes into fire, a fire that spreads throughout the concentrated air, and dissipates it. Huffing with breath, I can't afford to take a breather.

"Help!" I shout into the bond, knowing that I cannot play defensively forever. Charged lightning colored in gold strikes at the space I once occupied, so narrowly missing that I'm certain my nostril hairs are burning. Where it strikes below, a fire erupts on the top of the treeline.

"Can you hold him steady?" Artemis demands, and I am determined to try as four mage hands appear as spectral tentacled limbs. They float in the air around me, and I hold two of them back as I ready to maneuver them into place.

I allow my own telepathic link to drop with M'gann and form a new one with Wotan, burrowing into his mind to form a telepathic connection. His surprise that I managed to successfully do so is palpable. "For such a supposedly powerful mage, I'm honestly surprised you bother playing with me. I'd be dead if you wanted it."

"I don't need to kill you to prove myself superior." A whirlwind of magic swirls around his hands as he throws them above his head, and surging strikes of magic lightning begin cascading down toward the ensuing battle far below us. "You can't fight me and protect your friends!"

Chapter 49: 5.6 - Ascend

Chapter Text

Kid Flash is mildly ecstatic.

Finally – finally – they get to fight like the big guys. All the work they did for their mentors led to this, and he finds it hard to believe that he's here, now, fighting a group of seven heavy-hitters to stop a global crisis. The Joker, Poison Ivy, Ultra-Humanite, Wotan, Black Adam, Atomic Skull, and even Count Vertigo! They were true masters of villainy, each capable of throwing down with a Leaguer or two. They could have gone for something more devastating than giant mutant plants, but he figures it has to be dangerous enough that they couldn't spare anyone.

It is incredibly annoying that it has not gone well so far. Their big moment, ruined! The Team are split into different groups – something that could be an advantage if they played their cards right – but they need to hit the objective hard. In order to take down the center of command, they need to forge an opening, and so far, they've had some damn difficulty.

Argent and the others managed to get them out of that weird cage, and immediately upon crashing into the murky swamp water, Kid Flash set to run and intercept Count Vertigo before he could take them down again. He thinks into the psychic link, hoping someone is listening, "Distract Vertigo before he can-"

The man's psionic weapon attacks his senses, disorients him, and Wally's world collapses into utter madness. Scents become colors, pleasure becomes pain, sight becomes sound. Distantly, he sees – no hears - the muscled shape of Black Adam moving into position. Wally collapses to the ground mid-run, and he prepares for the end.

The kick to the face from the hulking man – Captain Marvel's nemesis - never impacts against the redhead.

Instead, it hits a copy of Kid Flash's head, which disappears into a cloud of smoke upon impact.

Three more of them mimic Wally's movements, looking every bit the badass of his dreams. They strike a pose as he fights through the corrosion of his psyche to stand, and the stealth suit, he has to admit with a bit of frustration, does nothing for his ass. Bright yellow gets all the babes.

With a grin, the redhead shifts positions in a burst of speed, disorienting the enemy from knowing exactly which of the clones was real. Somewhere nearby, unseen, Zatanna or perhaps Argent provides support, and Wally smirks. He wasn't sure which of them had the mojo to do that, but he wasn't complaining. It saved his skin this time.

"Widen the area of attack!" Black Adam shouts, but Kid Flash is already on the move, fighting through jelly-legs to run. If he doesn't recover more quickly – come on, Wall-man, you can do it! – he'll reveal himself as real because his illusory clones aren't acting that way.

Vertigo shouts, "I know, you imbecile! Find the mage!"

"Trouble in paradise?" Kid Flash taunts in unison, parroted voices coming from four different angles around Vertigo. Finally, he's starting to feel normal again. "Which of you is the sugar daddy? The one who's thousands of years old or the one who's a decade away from geriatric?"

"I am thirty-five years old!"

He chuckles. "That band make you gray early? I can recommend you some botox in Central City."

Vertigo rages, and the psionic attack begins again. In the wrong direction, hitting a decoy instead. The decoy pretends to collapse – or maybe it does really collapse? Wally doesn't know at all how the smoke and mirrors works.

Black Adam does not move to intercept him but rather to find Zatanna, and Kid Flash cannot worry about that. It's probably Zatanna because he can't feel Argent touching his head, but again he cannot worry about that.

With a rush of speed, his fist impacts hard against the Count's back, and the man goes tumbling several feet away and into the muck. Kid Flash doesn't finish there, wheeling around and continuing the same sprint until he yanks the weapon off the man's head, leaving behind a bead of blood from its now severed connection with him.

"Try that trick now, asshole."

For good measure, Kid Flash snaps the device in half.

Vertigo grunts in rage, and Wally beams with pride.

Short-lived pride, because this is far from over.

A veritable storm of magic surges throughout the sky. Clouds rumble in a tumultuous, cascading thunder. Each clash of air cracks the night, and energy surges toward the bayou below. At the epicenter of the thunderstorm floats the ancient wizard, red armor flickering to purple with each peel of power.

A conjured shield holds strong around me like a dome of argent force, gray light that undulates like the tentacled monstrosity I may become. The sizzling magical plasma strikes true, forcing me backward through the air as my celestial wings struggle to hold me aloft under its onslaught. I snap my hand outward, pour additional borrowed power into the spell, and twinned ice beams leave crystals in their wake.

Wotan laughs as lightning splits the rays of frost in two, diverting from their target as they fizzle uselessly into the air on either side of them.

Below, Conner tanks a lighting blast to the back to protect Artemis, who fights to find a piece of solid ground so that she does not catch the sizzling electricity through the swampy water around both of them. She manages to find purchase, angles her bow, and shoots something straight at the entering figure of Atomic Skull. It impacts hard against his chest, exploding into smoke that covers the entire area and obscures my sight of the pair of them and the rest of the Team.

"You cannot best me, boy!"

I do not need to best him.

I do not need to best him.

I only need to divert his attention long enough for others to finish the mission. With Atomic Skull down below, that leaves the Joker, Ivy, and Ultra-Humanite between Robin and Miss Martian. I hear the familiar sound of Kaldur's hydromantic tattoos surging to life, faintly visible amid the clearing smoke, and the storm continues to rage around me.

A warbling chaos bolt races toward the wizard, and I fly immediately up and far to the right to conjure another one. The wizard easily dispels one of them with a crack of his fingers, while the other he merely dodges with a flurry of a magical cloak. More lightning surges around us, and … God…

I am running on empty, and I am nowhere near capable of dueling a wizard of this magnitude alone. My friends are too busy fighting to stay alive against opponents far stronger than any one of us. Wotan is the biggest threat, and if I do not hold him at bay, he'll join with Black Adam or Poison Ivy and they'll be unstoppable as a trio.

What options do I have?

The Absolute is always with me. I merely need to contact him, to ask for assistance, and if he's able to grant it, then… maybe, just maybe…

How much could the entity even do from its own plane? I am not a cleric to ask for divine intervention, nor a warlock capable of producing a patron's favor. What arcane power I have is a result of the mutations from the tadpole, a reflection of its psionic power made manifest. A magical fluke, not someone with knowledge of the arcane like a wizard or a bard. I am already using the touch of the divine power I have in me as an aasimar to fly, something I can do for a few minutes at best.

Wind begins to accelerate in intensity at Wotan's command, battering against my wings. The smoke cover billows away and reveals the status of the Team, many of them hiding behind a thin wall of water. Lightning crackles from above indiscriminately, threatening to harm the Team and the Injustice League alike. Aqualad's shield was impressive, but the minute that Black Adam finishes freeing Atomic Skull from Artemis' containment foam, the Injustice League will turn the tide.

Kid Flash whips Artemis and Zatanna out of the way of a bolt of lightning and behind the tree line. Aqualad lets the shield fall in favor of tanking the power of the storm, his tattoos burning to life with such intensity as he attempts to withstand it. The smell of ozone and burning flesh of overwhelming, and Superboy tries to intercept with a giant leap at Wotan.

For a second, I dare to hope-

Black Adam grips the Kryptonian's ankle mid-flight, spins him around his body three times, and then hurls him as hard as he could. Superboy's impact crater devastates a half-dozen trees. Before I can even see if he is okay, three cascading bolts of lightning hit the area where he landed, and his screams of agony threaten to awaken the forest.

f*ck.

f*ck….

f*ck!

No, the Absolute – he has to help.

To ensure that I get the message through, I pour on arcane power to activate the spell sending. A telepathic connection builds within the tadpole, within my mind, and surges beyond the planar boundaries holding this Material Plane from the rest of the D&D multiverse. There is a chance of failure to reach across the planes, but I have to hope this is enough to gain the Absolute's more direct attention.

"Big, bad wizard named Wotan. Easily archmage-level or better. Need something to even the playing field. Desperate. Friends in danger. Help! I'll do anything!"

A long, psionic pause.

"Consume. Become. Embrace. Learn. Grow. Ascend. Take this, and become the Chosen you were meant to be."

Prismatic, pure arcane power crackles above my hand, which moves of its own accord to reach into something. A pocket of reality, one that I feel is far, far bigger than simply my hand. I touch the Weave, taste its presence, feel its vibrational force. The purest expression of the Art, a combination of psionic, arcane, and divine, molded into unfathomable power.

When something physically touches my palm, I enclose my grip around it and pull my hand from the pocket portal, which closes like a hungry mouth. In my grip is a tadpole, pure white and enveloped with energy from the Astral Plane. A second power – shaded magic from Netheril, I realize – corrodes the air around it.

Wotan, busy trying to eliminate my Kryptonian ally, underestimates me, his attention drawn to the fighting below. Maybe we only need a lucky shot, maybe we only need to wait, maybe we only need to-

Aqualad collapses as a last-second water-y shield explodes into vaporous mist. Atomic Skull looms as he prepares another charge of radioactive power.

Artemis darts away from the white-furred gorilla, who looks to be undisturbed by the gale-force wind that threatens to dart.

Kid Flash tries to smack Black Adam away, to no avail, and his arm crunches under the forceful grip of the ancient dictator.

….

Zatanna barely manages to twist vines in front of her to divert the forceful falling of hail from above. The sound of her whispered spell alerts Atomic Skull, who tilts his head in her direction and takes aim…!

The promise I made to Zatara runs through my mind.

I allow the words to echo in my thoughts as the new tadpole envelops me and enhances my potential.

Robin makes a choice and slips into the command center, a commandeered research facility in the heart of a Louisiana bayou. He supposes this place was as good as place in nature as any to launch a plant-based attack, and there is probably some truth to what Argent speculated back on the Bio-Ship that this place had a mystic significance. Whatever that is, it doesn't matter because he's already in position to do something about the giant, towering central plant.

Its trunk, branches, and roots dominate the interior of the facility, and there is nearly no surface that is not directly enveloped in it. Totally the M.O. of Isley, and the only reason he is remotely comfortable walking in here alone is because she's fighting Miss Martian outside. Each thick vine, thorny leaf, and stitch of bark contains intricate runes and wiring – that confirms they're using sorcery and technology to control it!

Robin prepares a brace of explosive discs from his belt, and he prepared an additional brace in advance in case he does not have enough ordinance. The Team has several members who can destroy a plant like this, even as enhanced as it is, but it never hurts to be prepared. The mission, ultimately falls on him to see it through, and he only had one obstacle in his way.

A demented giggle.

"Ooh, I see you!"

Robin finds the owner of the voice quickly, and he relents to admit that it is because the man wants to be seen. You do not tangle with the Bat without learning how to sneak, how to counteract trickery.

"Come on out to play, bitty bird!" The Joker continues from his thorny perch, a series of screens projected all around him from a pair of gloves. With every twitch of his finger, the giant vines threatening major cities around the world move to his whim.

He activates his communication channel with a specific twitch of his fingers, buttons in his own gloves filling the rest. "Robin to Justice League. The Joker has control of the vines. I am engaging him now."

He does not wait for Bruce to interrupt, for Clark to tell him to stand down, for Diana to warn him about the Joker's potential. He is not stupid, and he knows what the mission entails.

The Joker tenses as Robin slips from his fallen hiding place, the folds of his cape falling in front of both arms to obscure his handling of the explosive discs.

"The Boy Wonder all alone! A grudge match of the century!" The Joker flicks his wrist, and a vine in Taipei shatters the side of a skyscraper. "Oops! I wasn't paying attention. Perhaps I should get back on schedule!"

Robin knows better than to let the Joker goad him. He primes the discs.

"No. Put away the gloves, release the vines, and submit yourself to prison."

"Oh-ho-ho! The git's gone glib!" The Joker pulls a knife from his sleeve, the motion twisting the mutant vine in Paris into a flowery-shape that then explodes with gas. "You really ought to consider stand-up, Robby. You'd certainly grow into it!" The vines in Tokyo, Ontario, Jump, and New York City begins to expand, threatening to destroy bridges, fill harbors, and decimate subways.

Robin pretends to look bothered, but it's a feint that he's certain doesn't work on the clown.

With a single flick of both wrists, a dozen explosive discs embed themselves in the central vine, another dozen in the walls of the facility around it. Support structures that barely hold the facility in place, since a giant skyscraper for a vine grows through the center of it. He grins as they begin their sequence and darts backward and into a cartwheel to avoid a knife through his hip.

Pure thought floods through my body, my brain no longer the seat of my being. Every vein, every tissue, every nerve, every bone – I can feel them in a way that was never present before, as though my organs are merely vessels for mental energy, blood a carrier for psionic power, skin a sleeve for the mind inside. Perhaps that is true, now – I have evolved into the next stage of ceremorphosis, willingly, and I am quite glibly surprised that I don't have more tentacles.

I can see the magic in the world around me, the way that the energies twist within the vines, within the bayou, within Wotan's clothing and his spellcraft. Power beyond my prior means bubbles to the surface of my being, from a psionic core that begs to feed, and I know just how to create enough chaos to change the tide of battle.

From within my hands erupts a single purple psicrystal, generated from nothing and everything at once. A flex of arcane power later, and the construct expands into a sphere of writhing crystaline tentacles that ooze with psionic slime. I command it with a thought, and the summoned aberration rolls through the air to join the fray against Wotan.

I press forward with intent, no longer needing wings to fly, and get as close as I dare. The wizard's attention turns to the aberrant spirit, his eyes widening with surprise. "What dark tidings?! You toy with-"

As the mass of jeweled tentacles approaches him, he clutches at his head, its psychic presence attempting to invade and harm the man's mind. "Ah! You-" The wizard attempts to send its lightning toward it, but I end my arc of flight in a hover, take aim with my mind, and thrust my hands forward.

An illithid mind blast expands outward in a cone, purple psionic power visibly shaking the air despite its mental origin. Everything in that area for several dozen feet – including bayou insects caught in the crossfire – feels the weight of the illithid empire's collective mental resonance all at once. It lasts but a second, yet against any normal, standard human could be quite deadly.

As it was, Wotan resists the effects and still pulls back, an eldritch blast of pure magic striking at the psicrystal summon and reducing it to smithereens. The morass of magic from his ongoing spell ceases, however, the undercurrents of his black magic fading into an immaterial background. Nature rights itself as the storm abates, wind, thunder, and lightning no longer harassing my allies.

I didn't need to beat him.

I only needed to stall him.

As Robin and Miss Martian succeeded in their part of the mission, I sense the magic within the vines resist death before vanishing. The large, towering mutant vine collapses into a pile of rot.

The Team – bolstered in their success – begin fighting back with gusto. Aqualad and Poison Ivy, Superboy and Black Adam, Artemis and Ultrahumanite, Kid Flash and Atomic Skull. Blows are traded back and forth, and Wotan is still not down for the count.

"You realize what this means, don't you?" I slip into his mind with ease, the conscious undercurrent of his thoughts revealed to me. "You have minutes, at best, before you go to prison."

Wotan blinks and then, after a second of hesitation, laughs. "Gloats the man who twisted himself into a monster. And for what? A battle you were going to win anyway."

Within Wotan's mind, I see myself through his eyes.

Elongated pronounced head. Black-as-night veins underneath an argent-hued pallor to the skin. Mucus glistening every bit of flesh, soaking through clothing. Fingers partially twisted into almost elongated claws. A tongue far-too-long, behind a face with sunken cheeks and dark ridges around the eyes.

Gone is the alien beauty of a partial angel.

Replaced with the grotesque monstrosity of someone halfway between mortal and an illithid.

Enraged, psychic power billows up to the surface of my active mind, and I unleash a full-force mind blast again, reality warbling with psychic intent.

Wotan must have sensed it coming, because he throws up his hand and flickers out of sight, reappearing on the opposite side of me. I see his plan before he finishes it, read from his thoughts, and unleash a mind whip. A tendril of psionic force, designed to try to incapacitate a foe, snaps into existence and cracks at his psychic defenses, which were rapidly becoming nothing to me. A second tendril joins the first just before it dissipates, and I realize with satisfaction that I can perform this attack all day, without fail, like a cantrip.

Wotan releases a gout of flame so intense I see its burning coming, but I swiftly drop from the sky a few dozen feet, plummeting out of range, before shooting back up toward him and unleashing rays of frost. Ice meets the last vestiges of his pyrokinesis and then manages to score perhaps the first direct hit, frost building atop his armor.

He curses under his breath, makes a mental plan, and then unleashes a circle of destruction that would certainly eviscerate anything that touches it. Memories of previous victims flood his mind, turned to dust or ruin upon touching it.

Subconsciously, I must know something because I do not try to fight it.

I merely laugh as the disintegrating power washes over me, not even harming my clothing. A protective psionic barrier passively covers my skin, increases my durability and endurance, and I was completely immune to disintegration because of it. An ability that would probably only ever come up against someone like him, and not relevant against the usual affairs of the Team.

"You're outmatched, Wotan," I taunt – not truly believing that to be true. I have evened the playing field more than a bit, but he should still outclass me. "You cannot stop me."

Wotan looks ready to challenge that notion, but stops as he recognizes something just before I do.

The cavalry has arrived.

Zatanna finds it difficult to focus on anything as she tries to recover her energy, under the auspices of the entire roster of the Justice League. A bruised Black Canary quietly offers her a mint, and Zatanna takes it equally silently.

Her first official mission with the Team, and it was a success. She was able to carefully manage the difficulties of her newfound focus on heroics and managed to do a few good things. All in all, Zatanna is happy to have helped. Her first real mission was against the Injustice League! That has to count for something!

In the aftermath of the mission, the League has set up a temporary station to discuss next steps, work with federal and local law enforcement, and to act as triage for any unnecessarily difficult wounds or bruises after a big scuffle. This part of the area is for members of the Team only – those known to the public - cordoned off from the rest of the agents who need not know that they exist as an official unit.

"I won't be as good as Argent," she mutters as she settles in front of Kid Flash, the redhead sporting what might be a broken arm. "He could heal you."

"That t-thing?"

Zatanna hesitates as she tries to compute what the redhead just said, her mind practicing the words to speak to try to set his arm in place.

"You- you saw him! He's let that brain thing turn him!"

She saw Logan – they all had. The reactions were mixed. The boy left with the rest of the not public sidekicks, and she has no idea how she will handle what comes next for him. The thing he dreaded has come to pass, and she will do anything she can to help him. A new glamour charm, perhaps a transfiguration band, a – a ring of do not eat brains.

Black Canary leans against the entrance to the tent, eyeing Kid Flash gently. "I don't personally know what to think about all of this, Kid Flash, but I want you to know that we are monitoring the situation with Argent as closely as we can. Should things turn more south than they already are-"

"How can they be more south?" Robin asks, which might be the first thing he's said since the League arrived. "He gets injured on his last mission, and then during this one, the brain thing takes its toll or something."

"He looks like a cross between a human, a-a xenomorph and a zombie, Canary," Kid Flash urges. "You have to believe us when we say that things could not be worse."

Canary sighs. "All I can promise is that our best and brightest are on top of the situation."

Zatanna stops biting her lip. "If you boys are done berating my friend behind his back, I'm going to go see if I can help him."

She'll let Kid Flash sit with a broken arm for a few minutes longer.

I sit across the booth from Zatara and Martian Manhunter, the former in nondescript civvies and the latter in his human disguise as a middle-aged bald black man. They were the first members of the League who reached out to try to help me, and it is nice to know that the two of them are here, now, in the aftermath of this situation.

My own glamour charm makes the three of us look like we were just out for coffee, or perhaps for breakfast, and the others in the quaint diner have no clue what exactly the conversation would entail.

"I need one brain a month," I calmly state. "The physical needs of my diet can come from animal brains, which is something I can now provide for myself with a spell – normal nourishment needs. However, most of my body runs on psionic energy now, and I need to consume the brains of sapient creatures to refuel. I can last longer than a month without, but I'd slowly start to waste away until I become powerless and, ultimately, die."

Zatara and J'onn glance at each other, no doubt having a psychic conversation. I could peer into it easily, but I refrain, instead listening to the thoughts of the other patrons of the diner. A daughter excited for her ballet recital. An aunt reviewing mentally her nephew's college graduation video. A couple dreading to move in together.

Giovanni speaks first. "We cannot allow you to feed on-"

I shake my head abruptly. "I want to do things the right way, not the wrong way. I have given it some thought – ever since I got here and thought this would be an outcome, it's been all I can think about some days." I pause, slowly exhaling. "Every month, dozens of people die in prison, and a few are executed in the U.S. alone each year. If this is acceptable," I frown at the thought, but my mouth waters a slimy mucus in betrayal, "I propose that we harvest from as many of these criminals as we can this year, place the brains in proper preservation tanks, and create a food surplus that could sustain me for years. We tell no one."

Zatara considers this for a few seconds. "Logan, I thought that you did not have to partake."

"That was before Wotan forced my hand," I answer bitterly. "He was the reason we almost lost, I was the only real counter, but I needed to get stronger. I… embraced the change and turned the tide."

J'onn glances at my forehead, seeing past the illusion that others cannot. "Had you merely waited-"

"Superboy has no resistance to magic. Artemis has no resistance to gorilla," I turn to Zatara. "Your daughter was one lucky shot from Atomic Skull to dying of skin cancer a few decades if she's lucky, seconds from incineration if she's not. One. Shot, Giovanni."

"You should not have-"

"You're right," I say bitterly. "I should not have had to."

That leaves them momentarily stunned, and I sigh as a tiny bit of guilt forces itself into my chest.

"I'm glad the Injustice League are behind bars," I finally state. "If that's the last mission I am allowed to participate in, then fine. I'm glad to have to helped."

I almost stand to leave, but then realize that they likely would not let me leave, knowing what they know. That indecision holds me back.

"We are glad to have had your services, as harried as they have been," J'onn answers. "I speak for the entire Justice League when I say that we are truly sorry for any harm you have suffered."

I hold my breath.

"We simply cannot allow you to-"

"Trauma patients. Terminally ill patients. Those who want euthanasia," I offer. "Victims who will not live otherwise, with perfectly intact brains. I looked at the statistics for this too, and there are a ton of folks who donate their brains to research after death. I could set up a false front organization, offer my magic toward real research, and have willingly donated brains for consumption."

That idea sets their wheels turning.

"If that doesn't suit you," I answer, "the same set-up but we tell them what we're doing openly. Offer them a chance to say no. If they do, we don'-"

"It is not about the parameters, Logan," Zatara argues. "It is about the sanctity!"

I fight the urge to disrespectfully chuckle. "Giovanni, I could just dig up fresh graves – that would be disrespectful to the dead. You're Catholic, but it's not like your religious folks would have anything to say about illithid sustenance." I smile. "In fact, some Catholics view organ donation as an act of charity. If willingly donated, I go on to use my abilities to help other people to live. At the end of the day, more lives are saved, not less. There are perfectly ethical ways of handling this."

The two of them seem almost swayed.

J'onn perks up. "What does this say of the soul? Martians have a similar concept. Does your feeding have any bearing on the status of those who have died?"

I shrug. "I suspect not. When someone dies in my homeplane, their soul leaves the body to go to whatever afterlife they were destined. Illithids eat the brain for the psionic energy left behind after death, in addition to its physical nutrients. That psionic energy is, as far as I can tell, not the soul and has no real bearing on what happens to those that have died. There are spells priests can do on the bodies left behind, like to speak with them or to resurrect them, and the brain being eaten typically doesn't affect the outcome of those." Except in the case of lower-leveled resurrection spells that don't work if an organ is missing, but that, again, is not relevant.

J'onn seems satisfied with that answer, but Zatara is still hesitant.

"I will have to consult with some colleagues," he mutters, more to himself than to me.

I don't have to read his mind to know whom Giovanni might mean, but I dare not speak his name.

Instead, I lean in to nail the point home. "It was Zatanna."

Giovanni meets my eyes.

"I saw that she was going to die, so I… panicked. Made a choice. To keep my promise to you."

Argent - hmmaster - Young Justice (Cartoon) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

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