Amid the flames that were engulfing the room shared by Jefferson Pierce and Rex Mason, two cloaked figures known only as Prince and Duke bent to check on their victims.
“Interesting. Now that he has lost consciousness, the scattered bits of Metamorpho seem to be flowing together,” noted the man addressed as Duke. “The ash is sifting across the floor. I suppose when it reaches a critical mass, it will reconstitute his body.” He pulled a large plastic bag from a pocket and started sweeping the ash into it. I wonder what happens if he’s in a closed container?”
“You and your curiosity, Duke. It’ll get you killed one of these days!” The younger man bent over the limp form of Black Lightning, whose impact with the wall had knocked him out. “If his nibs didn’t insist on bringing them back alive, I’d simply slit his throat here and now — urk!“
“Suppose you tell me a little about this master of yours, then, kiddo?” Black Lightning’s hand had shot up and wrapped itself around the neck of the Prince. Standing up, the hero lifted his opponent from the ground. His other hand glowed with a crackling electrical aura, and he punched hard into the younger man’s midsection.
“Aaarrrggghhh!” cried the younger man, falling to the ground. As he lay squirming, the hero turned toward the Duke. “How about you? You wanna boogie?”
Dropping the plastic bag with the remains of Rex Mason, the Duke started toward the hole they had blasted in the wall. “Not tonight. Some other time, perhaps.”
Black Lightning started after him, not seeing his hands moving under the cloak that hung from his shoulders. Without warning, the Duke stopped, spun on his feet, and revealed a long, slender pole under the cloak. He whirled it like an oversized baton. Unable to stop and change his course, Black Lightning was caught in the path of the electrified staff, which struck his arm. Its charge reacted with his body’s own electrical charge, causing a explosion of sparks.
“Mehnke!” exclaimed the Duke. “I’ve never seen that before!” As Black Lightning collapsed to the floor, he dashed over to pick up the Prince and made his exit back the way they had come.
In the hotel suite’s other bedroom, two men stood over a snowdrift — a snowdrift that had a hand protruding from the bottom. “About time you got here, Earl!” said one of them, a rough-looking man in black and dark red.
“I believe you already said that, my friend.” A portly, white-haired man, this Earl was dressed in outlandish Elizabethan garb. “Not my fault that the Monarch arranged for them to be on the fifth floor. It takes time for me to summon my power when I’m so far off the ground.”
“That’s what you get for relying on so-called super-powers. Give me an old-fashioned fistfight any day!”
“Would you settle for a sword-and-fist fight?” came a reply from the door. Sillouhetted against the light from the outer rooms, a short figure stood with a long, gently curved, flat-bladed sword in her hands. “I’ve already downed one of your friends tonight. I’m ready to add two more to the tally.” Without another word, Katana leaped to the attack.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” said the burly brawler. “A little thing like you? I’ll go easy on you, I promise,” he said with a wolfish grin on his face.
“Don’t be a fool, Ravager!” said the Earl, raising a hand. A jet of flame spewed forth, aimed at Katana’s head. She spied it and raised her sword horizontally in front of her. The thin stream of flame struck the blade and deflected off it into the face of the Ravager. He fell back, screaming. “Good God, what have I done?”
“I’d say you just added assault with a deadly weapon to breaking and entering,” replied a grim Katana as she advanced on him. Almost idly, she caught a blanket with the toe of her boot and flipped it over the Ravager to smother the still-burning napalm.
“No, I’ll not fight you like this!” said the Earl, ducking under the blade as it swung at him. He snatched up the Ravager and pounded past Katana toward the door.
“Halo! Windfall! He’s coming out!” cried Katana as she turned to pursue him. It was no good, however, as they were in the other suite on the other side of the elevator lobby that joined the two suites. Before either of them could respond, the Earl was descending the staircase. “What about the one I fought? Is she still secure?”
A still-groggy Halo responded, “I’ve got her in a stasis aura. She’s not going anywhere!” She yawned. “What did she hit us with, anyway?”
“Some kind of sleep gas. Not too strong. I was able to revive you quickly enough.”
“Who were they, anyway?” added Windfall, wearing a strange mixture of pajamas and her costume.
“I don’t know, but we’d better check on the others. Wendy, you check Jeff and Rex’s room. I’ll take care of Brion.”
Dawn had broken over a snowbound city by the time the fire department and police department were finished with the Outsiders. The flames were extinguished, broken windows and shattered walls were covered with plywood, and the police had gotten enough answers to satisfy them, at least for the time being. There was one piece of information that the police department did not receive, however.
Once they were alone, all but two of the team members descended a staircase to the floor below their suites. There, in one of the rooms that had been reserved for them by Martin Carpenter, sat Halo. Bound and gagged in a chair in the middle of the room was the woman whom Katana had battled.
Black Lightning nodded and watched as Metamorpho and Halo took up positions by the window, while Geo-Force and Katana took their places on either side of the door. There was a knock. Geo-Force opened the door, and Windfall stepped in with a covered tray. She brought it over and placed on a dresser next to Black Lightning and the stranger, then took up a position behind the chair.
“OK, Windfall, the gag first,” said the team leader. She complied, untying the gag.
“What is this? Don’t tell me America’s vaunted super-heroes have taken to using torture on their captives.” Her voice dripped with irony at the notion.
“We may have bent the law a little keeping you down here, but don’t worry, we haven’t stooped to the level of your old comrades in the KGB, Miss Fetteroff,” replied Black Lightning. He smiled at the look on her face as he gave her name.
“How do you know my name?” she asked, knowing that she carried nothing with her name or other personal information.
“We have our sources,” was all the Outsiders’ leader would say. There was no need to let anyone else know about that gift from the Batman, the computer with the fingerprint scanner that found her listed among a database of possible terrorists. He glanced down at her hands. Windfall, seeing the movement, reached down and cut the ropes holding Katrina’s hands with a small blade she produced from somewhere within her costume.
“What manner of joke is this? You’re letting me go?”
“No. I just thought it would make it easier for what’s coming next.”
“Why what are you plann — oh!” She stopped in mid-sentence as Windfall removed the napkin from the tray, revealing a steaming bowl of soup, a few sandwiches, a carafe of coffee, and two cans of Moxie Cola.
“I’m sorry we weren’t able to get anything to you earlier, but the police were kind of taking all our attention. It was all we could do to keep rotating Halo and Windfall in and out of here to keep an eye on you.” Black Lightning waved a hand at the tray. “Now, how about you eat, and we’ll talk. Or, we can’t wait until you’re done, if you prefer.”
Katrina reached for a sandwich. “We can talk now. No sense having all of you watching like vultures, no?” She took a bite, then continued. “Now, I suppose you will want to know why I was here?”
“I think we kind of figured that one out. You and your friends were supposed to capture us and takes us back to this ‘Monarch’ that you mentioned,” said Katana from her position by the door. “What we want to know is, who is he, and why does he want us?”
“We just know him as the Monarch, or the King. He fancies himself the ruler of the city.” Katrina laughed. “Preposterous, of course, but he pays well. He located the others and myself through an underground newspaper, and dubbed us each with a title for his royal court.”
“Royal court?” asked Geo-Force.
“Oh, yes. He gave me the title, the Baroness of Burglary,” she said with a dramatic sweep of her arm. “As long as he pays in cash or jewels, he can call me whatever he likes.” She returned to her meal.
“What about the others?” asked Black Lightning.
“Let’s see, there’s the Earl of the Elements. He’s from South Africa, and he has some kind of control over earth and water. Added napalm and turbofans to his costume so he could claim control over the four elements. The Duke of Destruction, he’s an Italian demolition expert. Oh, and the Prince and Princess. Brother-sister team; she’s into pleasure, he’s into pain.”
“What about this Ravager person?” asked Geo-Force. “How does he fit into the royalty scheme?”
“That pig! The Royal Ravager. What a lie that is. He’s a brawler — hired muscle for the Monarch. Fancies himself a real macho type, as you Americans might say.” As she finished, Black Lightning nodded toward Katana. She slipped out the door.
“Where were you supposed to take us?” asked Metamorpho.
“Back home. We’re set up in a place in midtown. Very nice. I hear that it has some real connection to royalty, somehow.”
Geo-Force looked at Black Lightning. “Markov House.”
“Yes, that’s it. I take it you are familiar with it?”
“You might say that,” replied Black Lightning.
Just then, Katana returned. In one hand, she had a sheaf of green-striped paper. In the other, she had the morning newspaper. “Lightning, we may have a problem,” she said as she gave him the newspaper.
“What the–?” exclaimed Black Lightning as he read the headline. He turned the paper around so the others could read it. There, in black letters two inches tall, they read:
OUTSIDERS DESTROY AIRPORT HOTEL!
“What the hell is this about?” asked Metamorpho, staring at the headline in the Cincinnati Time Tribune.
“I found this outside the door of one of the occupied rooms on this floor as I returned from the suite,” replied Katana. “I skimmed through the article, and it appears that the police aren’t believing our claim that we were attacked in our rooms.”
Black Lightning walked over to the window, moved the curtain to the side an inch, and looked out. “Damn, looks like they’re coming for us, too. Metamorpho, can you do a recon for us?”
“You got it, boss!” replied the element man, shifting his body into a near-invisible gaseous state. His disembodied voice came to them faintly after that. “If someone would be so good as to open the vent on that air conditioner?” Black Lightning slid a lever on the wall unit to one side. As he floated through, Rex Mason completed his transformation into helium gas and faded from sight.
“Oh, this is most delicious!” exclaimed Katrina Fetteroff. “The heroes become the hunted! His highness has often boasted that nobody in this city dared oppose him! It looks like he was correct!”
She was still laughing when Metamorpho returned. “Doesn’t look good, boys and girls. Looks like they’ve called in the National Guard, and I’m guessing that the local STAR Labs branch has loaned the SWAT teams some powered armor.”
“Damn it! I wish Looker was here! I know she had some legal issues to take care of regarding her family, but this is the kind of situation where she does her best work.” Black Lightning paused to consider their resources. “Halo, can you carry Katana and I with your tractor beam?”
The tall, blonde teen nodded. “Sure thing. Plus, I’ve got a trick I’ve been working on that may help.”
“Hey, yeah! You did it real good the other night!” added Windfall.
“Just don’t get us killed,” said Katana. She turned to Black Lightning. “I know what she’s talking about, and yes, it will prove most useful today.”
“All right, then. We know where our enemies are, and we need to bug out of here. Any questions?” Black Lightning looked around, seeing agreement on the faces of all of his teammates. “Let’s go, then!”
A moment later, assembled police officers and National Guardsmen looked up as they heard a roar above them. They saw a tall, well-muscled young man clad in green and yellow, and a small, blonde girl clad in pale blue and pink. He kept his hands extended downward, seeming to rise on invisible columns of energy that emanated from his palms. She was carried on a whirlwind that quickly obscured her from their site as the previous night’s snow was whipped up and around her.
A few of the more quick-witted officers fired their weapons, only to have the metallic bullets deflected by a wave of magnetic power.
Unseen by anybody were four others. One floated in the currents of Windfall’s cyclone, his body a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen. The other three flew surrounded by a glowing nimbus of other-dimensional energy, one that both carried them and refracted the lightwaves around them, rendering them invisible to anybody more than ten feet away. Halo grinned as this latest energy effect of hers allowed she and her teammates to escape.
Ten minutes later, the team touched down in the courtyard behind Markov House.
The first officer to locate Katrina Fetterhoff slipped into the room and locked the door behind him. She was taken aback by the purposeful stride with which he crossed the room, and she sensed something familiar about him. As he pulled a serrated knife from an ankle sheath under his trouser leg, realization sunk in.
“He sent you, didn’t he? It’s too late; they already know about him and his merry little court! Kill me if you like, but his reign is done, and I don’t think you’ll escape these Outsiders!”
“Shut your mouth if you want to live, woman! Yes, I know your King, but I’m not one of his people.” He quickly cut the ropes that held her to the chair. “Where were they going? They’re going after him, aren’t they?”
Rubbing her ankles and upper arms, Katrina answered. “They’re going after him at Markov House. I suppose you’re going after them?”
“Yes, I am. To help them. What about you?”
“If I was smart, I’d head for the nearest border crossing into Canada. But perhaps I’ve been on the wrong side of this, and now I can make up for it. Partners?”
The mysterious young man smiled. “Partners!”