All eyes were on Zatanna. She was on her knees, the Helmet of Fate solidly on her head, her hands clasped over her scalp, either trying to keep the Helmet on or rip it off. It was impossible to tell.
Lightning sparked around her. It was eerily quiet, save for the crackle of the burning grass nearby and the low hum of electricity. No one was sure what was supposed to happen, or what they should do. Klarion in particular seemed conflicted as to whether or not he should try to blast the Helmet off.
"Tala...?" he asked, uncharacteristically unsure of himself.
The silence was broken when Teekl fell out of the sky and slammed into the ground, Superboy crashing right next to him. He wasn't sure where that blast had come from, but it was definitely red sunlight or some technological facsimile. His head was spinning, though whether it was from the blast, the fall or the shields he couldn't be sure. He got up on one elbow, and looked up, trying to see what had shot him down.
Part of the grass-coated dome forming the base had shifted and retracted, like a giant garage door. From this hole emerged a massive hunk of metal, slowly unfolding like an expanding ladder. Atop the enormous supports (legs?) stood a huge body(?) shaped like a giant stylized skull, reaching almost 200 feet high. Various guns, lasers and missile launchers were attached to the thing's body, all pointing downwards.
Superboy had a feeling that he knew where the red sunlight blast had come from.
"Uh, guys?" asked Rocket over the radio. "Is that a giant robot?"
"That would appear to be the case" replied Red Tornado.
A loud, synthesized, slightly accented laughter filled the night.
"Hello little Justice League" said the Brain via a loudspeaker. "Would you like to play?"
Red Arrow was the only one who spoke.
"You have GOT to be kidding me."
"Brain?" asked Kuttler over the radio. He knew he shouldn't call a member of the Light in the middle of a battle that they very well might lose, but he had to know. "Where did you get a giant robot?"
"I built it, Monsieur Kuttler" replied the Brain, apparently too excited at being able to actually use the thing to care about Kuttler's breach of professional protocol.
"I had a spare weekend. I was bored."
That explains a lot thought Kuttler. "Carry on."
"Oh, I will, Monsieur. Nothing can defeat the genius of... THE BRAIN!"
Maniacal, synthesized, French-accented laughter filled the room. Kuttler sighed, put down the radio and resumed backing up all the files and preparing the self-destruct. At this point, NOTHING about these mad-scientist types should surprise him.
Vandal Savage rolled his shoulders and began to toy with the long blade strapped to his wrist.
"Ah, violence" he said, a wicked grin on his face. "The one constant in my fifty thousand years of existence. If we these were better circumstances, I would enjoy ripping you to pieces. However, you have pushed me too far, and for that, you must die as quickly as possible."
"If you think we're going down without a fight," Artemis growled "you've got another thing coming."
Kid Flash and Robin tensed into
combat stances and nodded in agreement. An objective assessment put them in
serious trouble, two utterly exhausted and gadgetless boys and Artemis still
recovering from possibly hours of mental intrusion trapped between an
unkillable and fully rested man with 50,000 years worth of hand-to-hand combat experience
and a trained... whatever-Tigress-was with an assault rifle.
This was why Robin never put stock in objective assessments.
"Yes, I suspected as much" said Savage. "The two sidekicks have proven already that they will never surrender. Admirable, if futile."
"And me?" Artemis asked.
"You still have an opportunity" said Savage. "You possess skills and training that would be useful to us."
Kid Flash was flabbergasted. "So you fake her turning evil twice and now you're trying to get her to actually-"
"Quiet!" Artemis interrupted before turning to face Savage. "Why would you want me when you've already got your fancy copy over here?" She gestured at Tigress.
"I am not a copy" Tigress growled, her finger staying close to the trigger.
"'Course you're not" said Robin. "After all, you've got your own family that you referenced, yet still consider Cheshire to be a sister. Combine that with our giant fancy space-time manipulation device"—he waved his hands around at the giant set of metal rings filling the pit—"and what do we get?"
All the pieces clicked in KF's head. "Of course! Multiversal theory! She's from another dimension! Another universe, like ours, but different!" He looked at Artemis. "Obviously she's from some super-weird mirror world where all the good guys are evil and the bad guys are good."
Savage smirked. "So close, and yet so far. Yes, you are correct. Tigress is... visiting from an alternate version of Earth, thanks to our Quantum Entanglement Device. You should be honored. This is the first such device in history, a marvel of human science and engineering."
"Aaaand you used to it to get a hold of an evil Artemis so that you could pretend that she was the mole" said Robin. "That's a great use of your never-before-created spacetime manipulation machine."
Savage chuckled. "Do you honestly believe that Tigress is the only subject we've brought over? Besides, this is only the beginning. The device has been functional for a few mere days."
"Parasite" Robin said, more pieces fitting into the puzzle. "His black hole device..."
"Yes, yes. In order to wrench open the portal between worlds, we required adequate distortion in the fabric of spacetime. Mr. Jensen was kind enough to... alter the Large Boson Collider, causing it to stretch spacetime enough that we could pry open and hold steady a stable gap. He was never going to complete the formation of the black hole. Your intervention was, all in all, irrelevant, and in fact, nearly caused the complete destruction of the Earth. Congratulations."
Robin grunted at the false compliment, but he kept his mouth shut. As he'd hoped, Savage had distracted himself from his own 'kill them immediately' mindset, and seemed to be in a bean-spilling mood, so Robin felt no need to interrupt and tick him off further. Now, if he could just figure out how to neutralize Tigress's gun, then they might have a chance...
"However," Savage continued, apparently unaware that he was falling into supervillain cliché number one—hell, he probably invented it—"the world in question is nothing so improbable or unoriginal as a 'mirror world.' It is extraordinarily similar to ours, with only minutely detectable differences in history."
"You mean...?" Artemis started but stopped, unsure of what she was really asking, or even if she wanted to know.
"That's right" said Tigress. "Remember when you broke your leg when you were six? Happened to me too. Ms. Watson in fourth grade? Had her as well. I grew up in the same crummy apartment, same old Jade, same Dad being, well, himself. I'm you, genius. Same DNA, same fingerprints, same iris patterns, same favorite flavor of ice cream (mint chocolate chip). Only difference is that you run around dressed like Green Arrow with a bunch of sidekicks being Batman's little minions and I earn a living my family approves of."
"Hold on now" interrupted Robin. He had a good idea now what Savage was going for, and he needed to nip it in the bud. "Obvious differences in morality aside, as I recall, Tigy's mother is dead."
"Yeah" spat Tigress. "And guess why? The Batman, hero of Gotham City."
"No way" responded Robin, almost on instinct. "You've been lying to us the entire night. Why should we believe you now?"
"Y-you can't mean..." Artemis stammered, suddenly pale. Robin wasn't sure what she was talking about, but he did not like where this was going. Neither did Kid Flash.
"You see," said Savage, clearly relishing the confusion on the boy's faces. "In both worlds, Artemis's mother was a mercenary and assassin known as the Huntress. Her final crime was interrupted by Batman. In a confrontation between them, Huntress fell from a rooftop. In one world she broke her spine, paralyzing herself from the waist down. And in the other world..." he gestured to Tigress. "That is all."
"That's why you hate superheroes?" Robin asked.
"Not just that" said Tigress. "Have you ever stopped and thought about what the Justice League actually is? It's an unaccountable club of super-powered freaks who fly around imposing their vision of the world on others. They're tyrants. You're just too blind to see it." She leveled her gun at Robin. "But no more. The League on this world is doomed, and the one on my world is next."
We'll see about that thought Robin. "What do you mean the League is 'doomed,' exactly?"
"I believe that we have wasted far too much time in simple discussion" said Savage. "It is irrelevant to you, anyways. My point is, Artemis, I do not wish to kill you. You have skills that would be useful to us. Your sister, Cheshire, also wishes for you to be spared. Your father... to be honest, does not especially care one way or the other, but would demand considerable monetary compensation in the event of your death at my hands."
Yeah, that sounds like Dad Artemis thought.
"As such, I am giving you a significant opportunity. Join us and you will help bring humanity into a brighter future. Refuse and you will die a meaningless death where you stand. It is not a difficult decision."
"No," said Artemis. "It's really not."
She bowed her head and stepped forwards.
"Artemis? What are you doing?" Kid Flash shouted, reaching for her. Robin grabbed his arm and held him back, eyeing Tigress's gun, which was still trained on them.
"It's hopeless, Kid" Artemis said, reaching Savage's side. "The two of you could maybe take Tigress, but Savage is just too good to beat in a straight fight. We haven't been this screwed since the Reds wiped us all out back at the Cave."
Robin released KF's arm and backed up a little, rubbing his shoulders. "I understand. It's cowardly, but I see your point."
"You see her point?" Kid Flash exploded. "She's betraying us! Again! Well, for the first time, but still! This is why Red Arrow never trusted her!"
"Please don't hate me, guys" Artemis said. "What else can I do?"
Kid Flash growled but said nothing. Robin was likewise silent.
"Nothing else is necessary" said Savage. "You have made the right choice. Tigress, shoot them."
"Au revoir!" shouted the Brain over his loudspeaker, firing a variety of weapons at the League, only for his shots to be intercepted by a bright green barrier.
"No quite" grunted John Stewart, pouring his focus into shield that deflected volley after volley of fire from the robot.
"Ah, Green Lantern" Brain said to himself, increasing the power to his lasers, making the barrier harder and harder to maintain. "Klarion, if you would?"
A fireball formed in the Lord of Chaos's hand, only to be extinguished as the Flash flattened him yet again.
The Brain sighed. "Monsieur Mallah, then?"
Down on the ground, the gorilla grunted in affirmation, hefted an RPG, took half a second to aim and fired.
Green Lantern saw the missile coming out of the corner of his eye, but all of his concentration was focused on shielding the rest of the League from the Brain's barrage. The missile exploded, filling the air with smoke.
The smoke drifted away revealing a stern-looking man in blue, hovering in the air between Lantern and Mallah, his arms crossed, red cape fluttering behind him.
"Now, now" said Superman, slicing the gorilla's launcher in half with a blast of heat vision. "That wasn't very nice."
Mallah grunted, tossing the ruined RPG aside and throwing a flash grenade at Superman. The Kryptonian shielded his eyes, giving the gorilla time to grab his minigun and leap down towards easier targets.
Superman looked down at the League forces below. "Don't worry!" he shouted, gesturing towards the robot. "We got this."
Batman nodded, and Green Arrow gave him a little thumbs up. Superman turned and flew towards the mech.
"Ah, Superman" said the Brain to himself. "You underestimate me." With a push of a button (and not even that, since all of the robot's systems were connected to the Brain's own portable casing), all of the red solar lasers targeted the Man of Steel and fired.
"Oh no, you don't!" shouted Captain Marvel, shielding Superman from the blasts. Superman gave him a curt nod and deployed what years of experience had determined was the most effective method of neutralizing giant robots:
He flew straight into the thing and out the other side.
Down below, Superboy got to his feet. He was still a bit disoriented, but the shield was still pumping him full of strength and rage. Looking up at the source of the explosion, his eyes narrowed at the sight of Superman.
With a roar, Superboy leaped towards Superman, only to be batted aside by a sharp-clawed paw. Teekl had recovered from its hard landing, and leaped at the clone, ready for its first taste of Kryptonian flesh.
Suddenly, a golden rope tightened around its neck, pulling the feline backwards with a yelp.
"Not today, cat" said Wonder Woman, yanking on her lasso. Teekl hissed and shook its head, trying to slip the noose off. Hawkwoman appeared and smacked it in the face with her mace.
"Are you okay, Superboy?" M'gann asked, materializing next to him.
Superboy blinked, dazed. What was I doing just now? he wondered. His hand instinctively went to his forearm, which had been slashed by the cat's enchanted claws. Blood seeped out of the wound, an unusual (and not especially pleasant) experience for a Kryptonian. The strike had gone straight through the shield on his arm, ripping it to shreds. He could already feel his strength, his additional powers and his rage fading away.
"So much for our trump card" he said, looking at the broken shield on his arm. M'gann seemed more worried about the blood. "Don't worry" Superboy lied. "It just stings a bit."
Teekl grabbed Wonder Woman's makeshift leash in its teeth and pulled, sending the Amazon flying into Hawkwoman. The cat snarled at Superboy and M'gann, who responded by telekinetically hurling dirt at it. This did very little to dissuade an attack, and the two teens leaped in opposite directions as Teekl pounced at them.
Superboy recovered with a roll, ignoring the searing pain in his arm. Teekl had turned to chase him, but M'gann had grabbed it with her telekinesis. She could only hold it for a second, but it gave Superboy a chance to give it a good kick to the chin. Teekl stumbled back, but recovered, only to have its back legs knocked out from under it by a water hammer wielding Aqualad.
"Let us end this" the Atlantean said. Superboy, Wonder Woman, Hawkwoman and Miss Martian nodded and charged, striking Teekl from all directions. The cat shrieked, unable to effectively fight five fast-moving opponents.
Nearby, Klarion sent Captain Marvel hurtling to the ground with a well-placed fireball. The Flash appeared again, ready for another strike, but Klarion was prepared this time and the speedster's blow struck an invisible force field which replied with an equal amount of kinetic energy, knocking Flash away.
Klarion snickered, but then stumbled. He'd been taking a serious beating in this fight, he'd used a ton of magic and Teekl had been under constant attack. Continuing for much longer could prove... difficult, even for him.
"Tala?" he whispered, a hint of, well, no, it couldn't be fear, after all, he was never afraid of anything, ever, creeping into his voice as he prepared a spell to get Teekl's attackers off his back. "Now would be a good time to get Nabu out of your head and help."
As if she had somehow heard him, Zatanna Zatara (or whoever was in control at the moment) suddenly stood up and ripped the Helmet of Fate off of her head, tossing it aside. Its glow faded, leaving only the reflection of the dim light around it.
"Tala?" Klarion asked. A batarang had appeared in Batman's hand, and both Red and Green Arrow had notched arrows, all pointed at her. They'd been betting that the Helmet's order magic would counteract Tala's chaos and return Zatanna's body to her, but they had no idea who was in control now.
Zatanna/Tala/Whoever-It-Was smiled wickedly, like she was really going to enjoy what came next. Her eyes glowed red.
"Hey guys" she said. "Miss me?"
"Tigress, shoot them."
Tigress complied, firing a shot at Robin. He was the biggest threat, and she only had six bullets left. Plus she really, really wanted to pay him back for humiliating her like he did.
Robin, however, had other plans. His hands, still on his shoulders, unclasped his cape and swung it while ducking. Tigress's bullet struck the folds of the cape, deflecting off of the kevlar fabric which obscured her view of the Boy Wonder. Tigress fired bullet number five, but Robin's foot had already connected with the rifle, knocking it upwards and out of her hands. The bullet slammed into the ceiling.
Four shots left.
Savage lunged forwards, ready to skewer Kid Flash, but Artemis's foot hooked around his ankle, tripping him. As Savage fell, the archer slammed her knee into his abdomen and struck her elbow to his neck.
"What the-?" KF shouted.
"When are you going to learn to trust me?" Artemis asked. Savage was stunned and on the ground but still conscious, so Artemis delivered a kick to his face. A large gloved hand caught her ankle.
"Well played" growled Savage. "Foolish, but well played." He grinned and pulled Artemis closer, stabbing at her with his wrist blade.
"No!" KF shouted, kicking at Savage. His foot connected with the side of the blade, deflecting the strike and tearing the strapping holding the blade onto Savage's wrist.
"Insolent" muttered Savage, throwing Artemis into the speedster and sending them both to the ground.
Nearby, Tigress and Robin exchanged yet another round of blows. The fake Artemis threw a loose left hook that Robin easily caught, only to realize it was a diversion as Tigress's right leg struck the side of his head. Robin bowled over, disoriented, and Tigress landed another kick on his chest, knocking him down.
Robin's vision spun, and he briefly wondered why Tigress was not pressing the advantage. Then he realized that she was: she was going for the gun.
Robin jumped back to his feet and stumbled. These repeated beatings, the various shacklings, the three mind battles with Psimon and just sheer fatigue were really cutting down on his effectiveness.
Tigress grabbed the rifle off of the ground and turned to face Robin. Too late—he was right behind her.
Robin grabbed the gun by the barrel and pulled, bringing his nose within inches of Tigress's. She fired the gun once, but Robin had the muzzle angled away from everyone.
Three bullets left.
Tigress tried again, but Robin's hand caught the bolt and pushed, ejecting the bullet from the chamber and onto the ground. A jab to Tigress's wrist removed her hand from the trigger and Robin released the bolt and struck the quick-release, sending the magazine falling to the ground.
Using the rifle as a club, Robin struck Tigress in the head, knocking her down. Tossing the gun away, Robin scooped up the fallen magazine and ran towards his teammates.
Vandal Savage was on his feet, slashing at Kid Flash and Artemis, who rolled away in opposite directions. Robin hurled the gun's magazine at Savage, striking him in the face, a single bullet clattering to the ground. Before Savage could recover, Robin had cleared the distance and kicked the caveman in the chest. Dodging the reflexive counterattack, Robin grabbed Savage's blade and ripped it off of his gauntlet.
That made Robin feel pretty good about himself, so that was, of course, the moment when Savage's fist slammed into Robin's chest, knocking him away.
Artemis was back on her feet and lashed out, landing several good hits, while Kid Flash dashed to the side and slammed into Savage's torso like a football player. Nevertheless, Savage ignored the blows and smacked Kid Flash, flattening him, before kicking Artemis away.
In one fluid motion, Savage scooped up his blade and stabbed down at Kid Flash. The speedster was able to shift to the side just enough that the blade went through his shoulder, not his heart.
"Gaaah!" he screamed, pinned to the ground. Robin appeared out of nowhere to attack with a flying kick, but Savage expertly evaded without moving his feet, grabbing the stunned Boy Wonder by the collar and slamming him into the ground. Before Robin could move, Savage's massive boot was on his chest, making it impossible to breath.
"Do you see what your deception has wrought, Artemis?" Savage asked. "Nothing but further pain and suffering. Such is the fate of all who oppose Vandal Savage."
"Or have to listen to him" Artemis muttered, attacking.
Her kick had great form, which made it a double shame when Savage caught it.
For a second or two, she struggled to remove her leg from his grip, to no avail. Once Savage had had the chance to smile (like either a crocodile or a shark, it was hard to tell), he flexed his hand ever so slightly and Artemis's ankle snapped, causing her to cry out in pain. Savage wasn't done, though. With a yank, he pulled Artemis in, delivering a hard jab to her solar plexus.
Robin grunted, barely able to breath. His hands reached out and found... yes! One of the bullets that he'd thrown at Savage, just rolling around on the floor. Wrapping his hand around it, Robin threw the bullet upwards as hard as he could, striking the immortal in the eye.
Savage growled and recoiled slightly, more on instinct than from actual energy, but it was just enough to loosen the pressure on Robin's chest. The teen grabbed the bottom of Savage's boot and pushed, knocking the caveman off balance and causing him to drop Artemis. As he fell, Savage ripped the blade in his hand out of Kid Flash's shoulder, spilling the speedster's blood on the floor.
Robin tried to press the attack, but Kid Flash's scream distracted him enough to allow Savage to recover, slashing at him like a maniac. Robin evaded, careful to lure Savage away from his friends.
Artemis was barely conscious, still trying to get her breathing under control. Through her blurred vision she saw the other her — "Tigress" — approach.
Kid Flash was trying to get up, but his shoulder injury was making it difficult. His right arm was basically useless, and his left arm was stuck trying to cut down on the bleeding. So he didn't notice Tigress until she was right in front of him. The girl looked exhausted and frustrated, and she held a knife in her hand.
"Bye" said Tigress, spinning her knife.
And then she stabbed downwards.
Zatanna was silent for a second, as if studying the red fireball of chaos magic hovering in her hand. And it WAS her hand now. No doubt about it.
"Hey, Klarion" she said. "Catch."
Klarion tried to block, but he was too exhausted. Zatanna flicked her hand in his direction, blasting him with chaos fire. Monsieur Mallah growled and unleashed a storm of bullets at her, but she blocked it with a floating golden ankh. With a snap of her fingers and a quiet "Telm," the gorilla's minigun dissolved.
Mallah threw down the useless gun and attempted to charge, only for a bolas to appear and wrap his arms to his side. Batman appeared and delivered a solid kick to the chest. Either Zatanna was in control now, or someone friendly to the League was instead. Either way, the tide was about to turn.
"Chaos and order magic in the same spellcaster?" asked Aquaman, leaping onto Mallah's back and wrapping his arms around the gorilla's neck. "I did not think it was possible."
"Magic always surprises" said Martian Manhunter, using his telekinesis to make the earth reach up and grab Mallah's feet. The gorilla roared and flexed his arms, breaking the bolas and grabbing Aquaman.
"At least she's on our side now, right?" said Green Arrow, shooting Mallah in the chest with a polyurethane foam arrow, immobilizing him.
Batman grunted in affirmation as he landed a hard kick to Mallah's face, knocking the ape out.
"It's time we end this" he said. "Let's mop up."