Despero gazed across the land, and what he saw was good. His enemies were lying crumpled at his feet. Now all that remained was to recreate the Flame of Pytar and gain the strength of those who had humiliated him so often. He would then use those powers to enslave Earth and establish Kalanor as the ruling planet of the cosmos, with Despero as the Universe’s lord and master.
The next thing Adam Strange knew, he was flying through the air at an impossible speed. Within moments, the champion of Rann landed on his posterior a great distance away in a grove of trees that appeared to be well-hidden from the site of the JLA’s defeat. It took a moment for Adam to regain his composure, but as he began to stand up, a shadow crossed over his form. Adam looked to his left and gaped.
“Flying in there wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done, Adam. Despero had already decimated virtually the entire League. A solo effort isn’t going to change that.”
Adam looked incredulously at the man speaking to him. “And what did you do? Just stand here and watch the whole thing, Batman?”
The Batman stepped forward out of the shadows cast by the storm passing overhead. “Hardly. I arrived only moments before you did, only I had enough sense to stay low and assess the situation. Thanks to J’onn, I had enough time to coordinate the arrival of the other Leaguers before Despero saw them.”
“Other Leaguers?” Adam asked. Looking at the gorgeous redhead behind him, he asked, “Who is she?”
The woman stepped out from behind Batman. “My name is Looker, darling, but call me Lia. I’m with Batman’s other group, the Outsiders. But I’m not the one he was referring to. I’m just keeping our presence masked from Despero.”
“I believe, Adam, that Batman was referring to us.”
Looker, Batman, and Adam turned to the voice coming from the sky. “Superman!” Adam exclaimed, suddenly feeling better about their chances. The Man of Steel, carrying Aquaman, quickly dropped through the storm and landed amongst the group.
Aquaman looked skyward. “Nasty storm.”
“You delivered the message?” Batman addressed Superman.
“They’ll be here in moments,” the Man of Tomorrow replied. “Fire is going to have them land in Macon, and then Guy will bring them the rest of the way.”
Batman looked over his group. “Looker, you’ll stay here and coordinate our efforts. Adam, you and I will attempt to get the Leaguers away from Despero, while Aquaman and Superman lead the Conglomerate against him. It’s up to the six of us to make sure this is as far as Despero gets.”
Twenty minutes earlier:
General Glory was pacing in the back of the Conglomerate Flyer, itching to fight, yet knowing that the mental blocks that Maxwell Lord had placed in his head would prevent him from going full out. Animal Man and the Beetle were at the controls. In the passenger seats Sargon the Sorcerer sat silently as a feeling of dread to come washed over him, and Guy Gardner and Ice just sat and stared at each other, while on the other side of the aisle, Firestorm was trying hard not to stare at Fire.
“Ronald, really. Ms. daCosta is a very attractive woman, but no more so than Firehawk or any of your other women.”
“Geez, Professor, you make it sound like I have them crawling all over me. Half the time Lorraine’s mad at me.”
“Hmm, I wonder why…”
Bea daCosta’s eyes went wide as she heard a voice in her head that wasn’t J’onn’s.
“Fire, your team doesn’t realize what it’s walking into here. Have them set down at these coordinates. We’ll meet up with you there.”
Moments later, Fire headed up to Buddy Baker and Ted Kord and handed them a piece of paper. “Boys, you need to set down here. There’s more going on than meets the eye.”
Buddy and Fire exchanged knowing glances, but the Beetle began to look at Fire with suspicion. “And why should we do that?”
Animal Man looked over at the Beetle with a look that said not to argue with him. “Just do it, Ted. I’d trust Beatriz with my life.”
“Max doesn’t know anything about this, does he? We’re doing this behind his back! You’re all a bunch of f–”
Fire grabbed Beetle by the neck, and she began breathing hot green flame toward his face. “Maxwell Lord is a low-down, dirty pendejo, amigo. And unless you want Despero to tear you limb from limb, you’re going to land where I say, comprende?”
Sweat began running down Ted Kord’s forehead as he nodded in understanding.
“Miss Wootenhoffer, where are my heroes at?” called Maxwell Lord.
The young secretary looked up from her desk, brushing her brown hair out of her glasses. “I’m not sure, Mr. Lord,” replied Eva Wootenhoffer. “They left about twenty minutes ago.”
Max felt his face turn red as his blood pressure increased rapidly.
Aquaman looked on as the Conglomerate arrived just as Batman had said they would. It had been a tough decision for him when he received the JLA signal. It hadn’t been so long ago that he left the League to return to Atlantis with his long-missing wife, Mera. One year ago, during her absence, the King of the Seven Seas had effectively disbanded the JLA after the Martian invasion and formed a new JLA made up of full-time members. At first it was only himself, Zatanna, the Elongated Man, and the Martian Manhunter, but they were soon joined by four new heroes — Vibe, Vixen, Gypsy, and Steel. (*) With the proper training, Aquaman felt that they could have achieved the status of the original Leaguers, but now they would never know.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The End of the Justice League,” Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984).]
When Mera returned, Aquaman quickly went home to Atlantis with her, leaving the fledgling League in the hands of the Martian Manhunter. (*) How could he abandon this group — his group — so easily? In retrospect, he realized that he had only formed the new League to fill the void in his life left by Mera. With her back, he no longer needed them. How very selfish he had been. Still, he checked in on his group from time to time, pleased that they were doing so well. And then the Crisis on Infinite Earths came, and a lot of heroes — a lot of good people — died during that nightmare, including Vibe, Vixen, and Gypsy.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Storm Cloud,” Justice League of America #243 (October, 1985).]
They were the same young heroes that he had recruited and then abandoned. Perhaps if he had stayed with the League, things would have turned out differently. After all, he was the person who put together this substandard group and then walked away. He had virtually condemned them to death.
When J’onn decided to re-form the original League, naturally Aquaman was on the list. He remembered talking to J’onn that day, careful to hide his emotions, his guilt, and he politely declined, citing the need to rebuild Atlantis and New Venice after the Crisis. That had been a lie. While Atlantis had suffered some damage, most of it had been repaired swiftly. Even Tritonis, which had been almost completely destroyed by shadow demons during the Crisis, was arising again under a rapid civic rebuilding project and was already habitable once more despite missing a protective dome. (*) And although Ocean Master had caused an explosion that devastated downtown New Venice, Florida, shortly afterward, there had been no fatalities, and the structures were already being rebuilt without his help. (*) The truth was that, after abandoning the team for personal reasons, he felt he just couldn’t face the League again — until now.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Final Crisis,” Crisis on Infinite Earths #12 (March, 1986) and “Aquaman,” Aquaman v2 #1 (February, 1986).]
The Priority One signal was not sent out on a lark. It meant the most grave of dangers, so the aquatic avenger contacted Superman and met him at Metropolis Harbor. Aquaman had shirked his duty to the JLA once. He would not do so again.
The sky had grown black as pitch as Despero hung the last of the JLA on the giant pyre made of trees. The wind howled like a banshee, as though Mother Nature herself disapproved of what Despero was about to do. Using the magick now coursing through his system, Despero would create a version of the Flame of Pytar here, burning his enemies and stealing their very powers. All he had to do then was walk through it and gain power even greater than what he already possessed. Despero would become unstoppable.
His third eye opened, and he was about to light the flame, when his head was suddenly covered by a green energy sphere. “Smoky the Bear always says you should never light a fire in the forest, Mr. Despero, sir.”
As Guy Gardner spoke those words, Superman flew into Despero, knocking him away from the fallen JLAers. Despero’s eyes grew wide, and a smile formed on his lips.
“Finally, the Kryptonian…”
Impacting into the ground nearby, Superman was quickly joined by Aquaman and General Glory in pummeling Despero. From the sky, Fire and Ice, held aloft by Guy, were letting Despero have a full dose of their powers of extreme hot and cold, while Firestorm and the Beetle attacked in their own unique ways. Still somewhat weakened by his intense exposure to kryptonite during the cleanup in Metropolis, the Man of Steel was unable to overcome Despero’s murderous rage.
Taking advantage of this, Despero manuevered Superman into shattering the power ring-generated globe on his head. Once gone, Despero unleashed the power of his eye on his three attackers. Aquaman was unable to withstand its power, and he fell. Superman was momentarily stunned, and Lobo was blinded.
In a rage to match Despero, Lobo struck out, accidentally hitting the Man of Steel and sending him skyward, barely missing the Beetle, but landing squarely in the middle of Guy’s back, sending not two forms groundward, but four.
With the alien bounty hunter temporarily unable to see, Despero focused his attention on Firestorm and the Beetle. Firestorm was in a mad dash trying to avoid contact with the magic of Despero’s eye, while the Beetle snuck up behind Despero and attempted to drop an electronic device on him.
Despero’s arm suddenly shot out and grabbed the Beetle by his throat. He ripped the electronic bug from Ted Kord’s hand and flung it with expert aim at the nuclear man. On contact with the device — which was made to paralyze with a shock of electricity — Firestorm looked surprised until his eyes bugged out, and he fell to the ground.
Looking back at the Beetle, suspended in midair by his throat, Despero increased the pressure in his hand. “Time to die, insect.”
Ted Kord struggled futilely for a few moments that, to him, seemed like an eternity. Then his body went into spasms. And then he was completely still.
Meanwhile, the skies continued to swirl in a mad cacophony of light and sound. While the others were engaging Despero, Batman and his group were moving the fallen JLAers to safety off the pyre. Looker used her mental gifts to shield their minds from Despero, while Sargon the Sorcerer had conjured a spell to make sure that the JLA still appeared to be on the pyre. Adam Strange and Animal Man were tending to the injured heroes back in the Conglomerate Flyer.
From a safe vantage point, Batman observed the conflict, noting that it was not going well. Why was General Glory holding back? He knew the stakes. He seemed to have a personal vendetta against Despero. Of course — if what Bea suspected about Maxwell Lord were true, then he finally understood why.
Sargon appeared next to the detective. “It is going poorly, is it not?”
“Sargon, I need you to teleport General Glory over here. It may be our last hope. Looker, you’re going to have to break the mental blocks I suspect are in the General’s mind.”
“I’ll try, Batman. I’ve never–”
“Batman, if I teleport Glory out of there,” interrupted Sargon, “who will keep Despero occupied until we can accomplish our task?”
“I will,” said the Dark Knight, unfazed.
Despero looked out over the landscape. The wind had picked up, and the storm clouds were intensifying. Static electricity crackled in the air. There were no more gnats to distract him. This General Glory had disappeared, obviously so frightened that he could not face Despero anymore. Glancing over, he saw his pyre untouched, the JLA awaiting their consumption at his hands. With the power of the Kryptonian added to the others — Despero shuddered in ecstasy at the thought. He approached the fallen Man of Steel.
“Back away, Despero.”
Slowly he turned, to be greeted by the image of the Batman. Despero laughed. “You are too late, Batman. There is nothing you can do to stop me. You are powerless to do anything. Your much-vaunted mental prowess and physical skills are dwarfed by one such as me. You may, however, watch as I kill your friends.”
Batman took a step forward, then another. He met Despero’s gaze and said, “No. This stops here and now. One way or another, I’m taking you in.”
A mighty laugh rolled out from deep inside the Kalanoran villain. “You have amused me, Batman. You will have the honor of dying by my bare hands.”