"Artemis Crock," a raven-haired young man in his early teens read off, watching the images flash by on the screen before him. Turning to his teammates, Robin's grave and concerned facial features showed through his black domino mask. "Our partner, our ally, our friend. She was kidnapped two weeks ago today." The cave was chilled over, as it always was. Smells of blood intertwined with musty, stilled water subtly burned the teenagers' noses. "As of last night..."
"Hell’s Night," Superboy angrily whispered, his arms crossed over his chest.
"Her captor was identified..." Dick continued, watching the black smoke cascade until the image of a tall, slim, lightly muscled bald man wearing nothing but a spiked choker and a sadistic smile fused with evil, hazy, intoxicated eyes and lips slit down the center. Several long-running scars streamed down the right side of his face while red tally marks coming out to five on his left breast, three on his left shoulder blade, and six on his forehead were carved through the superficial layer of his flesh. "As Victor Zsasz. A known psychopath and wanted murderer. He's responsible for the deaths and disappearance of over thirty innocent citizens and small-time criminals. He avoids big-name targets, but seems to have no clear preference among his homicides."
"Oh, god," Megan whispered, her heart pounding into the back of her throat. Fear, guilt, and panic beginning to wrap their tentacles within her brain. Artemis was her best friend; she should have done more. Now, her blood might be on the Martian's hands. That didn't matter, though; all that mattered was Artemis.
"Rob, do you have any full-body shots of this guy?" Wally asked, stepping forward. His voice was heavy with concern and misplaced sexual anguish.
"Exactly what I was thinking," Robin answered, entering a command into his wrist control. A three-dimensional model of Zsasz formed before the team. Entering in another command, Grayson watched the holographic figure rotate until his back was in sight. There, much to the horror of every member of Young Justice, were dozens of sets of tally marks and scars; some deep gashes, some finely-executed slits.
"What the hell," Conner exclaimed, shock and disgust lacing his voice.
"Zatanna, we need a pure view of the scars," Robin ordered. "If my hunch is right, he didn't give himself those just to pass time."
"It's just a hologram, though," the black-haired young woman replied. "I can't make any promises." Silence filled the cave as the spellcaster closed her eyes, and stilled her breath. "NOITACIFITROMEMOTLAEVER!" White light bathed in darkness flowed and thrashed around the image of the monstrosity of a man, and brought every scar forward.
"Hang on," Kid Flash said, tapping to what shred of the Speed Force's radiation he possessed. "Okay, according to Miss Magic's spell, this guy has a total of sixty-five scars. Sixty-five bodies... Any idea when this image of him was made?"
"Gordon's men picked it up about a week after Artemis disappeared," Miss Martian answered. "...Which means she's still alive, right?"
"There's a chance," Robin answered. "But we've gotta come up with something now. We don't know how long he's gonna keep her."
"And how are we supposed to track him down?" Superboy retorted. "If this guy's killed over sixty people and never got arrested, even with the League chasing after him, what chance do we have?"
"Artemis and I have a bond," M'gann added, walking forward. "But not even that's been enough."
Clenching his fists, Robin felt his body start to burn with anxiety. Miss Martian felt her head start to ache. Clenching her forehead, the young woman shut her eyes. "M'gann," Dick whispered, clenching his left arm with his right. "No, that was just a stupid idea...We can't do it."
"Am I missing something?" Superboy declared, stepping forward.
"If it comes down to it, the world needs Artemis alot more than it needs him," Miss Martian insisted. "I'm not gonna let her die, Dick."
"Whoa," Kid Flash stepped in. "You're not talking about doing that...scary, mind-raping thing, are you?"
"It's not like that," the green girl defended herself. "I might be a Martian, but I only share the same genus as my uncle J'onn. By nature, my species are energy vampires. If I can't access Artemis, I can feed off Zsasz's major emotions. If he's as bad as you say, he should stand right out."
"Rob, we have to try," Zatanna comforted her friend, putting her gentle hand on his shoulder.
Setting his moral safeguards aside, Robin slowed his breath, and made the call. "M'gann; you and Kid Flash use the Zeta tubes and patrol Gotham. That's the last place Zsasz was spotted. SB, take Wolf through the forest near the cave. Batman taught me about the traits of murderers. Before her communicator died, Artemis was near the area; if Zsasz abducted her there, odds are he left something behind from the struggle. Zatanna and I will stay here and gather information to form an Oracle Cloud. Keep your communicators on and synced at all times." Every member accepting their role, Young Justice separated.
Chapter Two: Devils in Disguise
Standing atop a grotesque gargoyle roaring at the world below its horrid wings, a black figure cloaked in its own ragged shadows embraced the cold, soulless winds of midnight. The black drapes blew all around the creature as its piercing red eyes glared down at Gotham City. Its nostrils flaring with the smell of fresh, hot blood, the beast bore its razored fangs and saliva-streamed mouth, letting out a deep snarl. The hunger was so strong; the senses too powerful. Even with the willpower forged over his entire life, the monster could not resist. Spawning its bloody wings out from its back, the Batman roared with savage pain and self-hatred, and descended upon the night. The only light shined from the eerie image of the full moon. The gunshots fired in the alley on a starless night, and the murderer fell to his knees, licking their innocent blood off the filthy, damp ground. Horrified, a little boy; the son of those lying cold and dead among the rats and insects of the night, fell to his knees, too afraid to move. Then, the monstrosity looked up from his roost, savagely licked the blood off his lips, and lunged at the child. However, death would not grace the spawn of Thomas and Martha Wayne. His pupils shrinking with the loss of humanity and the dawning of an unholy hunger, Bruce placed his fingers on the monster's face: his pointer and middle finger on the eyes and his thumb, ring finger, and pinkie wrapped around the jaw. Feeling his grip tighten; his delicate little hands stretching and crackling as they turned into claws. Moaning in agony, the once-man, Joe Chill felt the black nails puncture his eyes until even the sockets were impaled, and blood poured out the hollow gaps where sight once gleamed. The moans turning into screams, Chill heard his jaw crack and shatter, feeling the bones and tendons tear apart within his weakening flesh. Bruce watched the man suffer, clenched his eyes into a wretched, inhuman scowl, revealed his fangs, and opened his massive jaw to consume the horrid beast before him. Mother...Father...forgive me.
"What happened to him?" Zatanna asked her former lover. "You told me he didn't kill."
"He used to be able to fight it," Dick answered, not looking away from the monitor. "But he just kept getting older and older; the hunger was too much for him. He snaps back after he's had enough...but he never forgives himself for what he's done."
"You've been with him for years, though," the raven-haired young woman replied. "How do you know he won't lose control or turn on you?"
"...Because, on the day my parents died...I looked into his eyes. All the way from the center of the tent into the seats," the boy forced himself to answer. "I saw something. I don't know what, exactly...but, there was something in his eyes. Like he knew me...it was the most human I've ever seen him. He took me in...called me his son. Tried harder when he knew I was watching. When the temptations got stronger, though, he had to make me a promise; if he ever lost that humanity he found in himself by looking at me...one of us had to die. He drained his body of its venom...said he could never force that living hell of an eternity on me. And he gave me something. Something only him and I know about. The only thing that can stop him."
"My god," Zatanna whispered, putting her hand on Dick's. "I can't imagine what that must be like. When I lost my father to Nabu, I...I thought I understood how you felt. I thought losing my family made me like you, but...I could never live with what you have to." His mask covering the pain in his eyes, the young man swallowed the agonizing lump in his throat, and continued his search.
"Thank you," Dick said, unable to face his friend. "And I'm sorry about your dad...we're still looking for a way to free him and Nabu. But right now...we have to save Artemis."
Nodding subtly, Zatanna turned her eyes to her spell.
All those years ago, the pod crashed into the grasslands of the United States, dragging through the earth. In the heart of the night, a middle-aged man walked towards the smoking pit, and slid down next to the strange, large, plant-like seed. Staring, as if hypnotized, the man reached into a small crack in the green exterior of the pod, and forced it open, revealing several streams of thick green slime connecting the two halves. Suddenly, several suction cups resembling mouths grew out of the dark, dank interior of the alien organism, and struck themselves into the man's body. His screams did not survive the event, and only a hollow shell and a shriveled husk of flesh were found the next morning. Rising from his smoking pit, a tall humanoid with green, reptilian flesh, long, thin appendages, and glowing red eyes forced itself to take in oxygen. Adapting its bones and organs to match those of the human whose DNA he absorbed, the alien being heard his body crackle as it took on a tan hue on its epidermal layer of flesh. Finally, the creature's body became identical to that of the man his sensors consumed. Staggering forward, the Martian made his way towards those his senses begged for; The Justice League.
As Wally dashed through the city, searching for any possible hideout or drop-off point that could lead the team to Zsasz, Megan scanned the emotional spectrum of the town as she flew above the skyline in camouflage mode. Megan, can you hear me? Kid Flash asked his friend via telepathic link.
Loud and clear, Wally, the young Martian female answered, not taking her eyes off the city. Find anything?
Not even a hint, the red-headed boy replied. I'm sorry to dump this on you at a time like this, but...I'm really tore up about all this.
We all are, KF, Megan gently added. I'm sensing something stronger in you, though. I know it's not right to read your mind, but I can't help but feel...
It's okay, M&M, Wally interrupted, his tone calm and almost relieved. The truth is, I've had feelings for Artemis for a long time. I just never had the guts to tell her...or anyone. I've gotta find her. Forcing his entire body to move faster, Kid Flash felt the world move under his feet, his goggles blocking his eyes from the insects and shards of unknown substances tearing through the air.
We're all trying, Miss Martian answered. We'll find her, Wally. I swear.
For a brief instant, the young Martian remembered her arrival on earth. The night was cold, void of stars or even the blessing of the moon, and silent. A teenage girl with long, soft red hair and an innocent smile on her pure face walked along the street as the pod crashed. The next day, a trail of blood led the authorities to a naked young woman curled into a fetal position in a dank alley. Her long red hair failed to hide her fear; there was too much. Too many emotions, too many thoughts. But soon, she met another like her. He took her in, reminded her she had a family, and taught her how to accept her surroundings. Now, that scared little girl, showing her true green skin, flied higher than she ever dreamed.
"Any sign of either of them, Wolf?" Superboy asked, trying to scan the area with his tactile telekinesis. The large white canine raised its head from the ground, then returned to its search. Turning away from his friend, the black-haired clone felt the fluids flowing through his veins. "It's coming on again," he declared, clenching his fist. "Getting stronger...I'm turning into something, boy. I don't know what. But once it comes out...I don't know." Wolf looked up from the grass, whimpered out of empathy for its companion, and charged to his side. Watching his own human hand gently stroke the genetically altered creature's fur down to its nose, Conner felt a sense of dread. "I've heard stories about him...the man I'm a clone of...he looks like a human, but he has powers...Superman. When his ship crashed into the planet, all those years ago, something escaped. Some of the locals say some kind of giant insect latched itself onto a woman's face...somehow impregnated her. Then,...he was born. Because of his birth mother's human DNA, he looks just like one. His alien side, though...that's where all the power comes from. All the horror...all the shame. When they took a sample of his blood, they grew me in a test tube. They thought I was an exact carbon copy of him...but they were wrong." Wolf's ears shot up, its pupils shrinking. "My skin, my...human shell...it's dying. I'm not gonna be able to stay like this much longer. I don't know what I really am...but there's no way in hell they're going to accept me." Letting out a stronger whimper, the white wolf nuzzled its head into Conner's side, feeling his pains and fears.
Everyone! Robin's voice cried out from within the team's psychic link. We need you back at the cave...now!
Chapter Three: Horrors
"Why the hell are you doing this?" Artemis screamed, struggling to free herself from the ropes binding her hands behind her back. Her lips painted dark, bloody red, her eye lashes heavily accented and pointed outward, her eye lids glimmering with pink mascara, and her long blond hair tightly curled, the young woman felt her bloated stomach writhe under her skin-tight uniform. Leaning down, a thin, scarred man clenched the archer's cheeks, feeling her soft flesh between his fingers, and turning her head back and forth. Tightening her eyes into a disgusted glare, Artemis spat in the man's intoxicated face. "You sick bastard!"
Rising into a menacing stance, Victor smiled at his little doll. "Time for a feeding," he declared, his voice laced deep with pleasure and force. Feeling her stress-torn heart start its agonizing pounding once more, the young woman struggled to silence her breath. "Don't bother escaping...it will only bring you more pain, my little angel." The room was cold, damp, and stinging with the stench of death. It seemed less empty, though, when the beast had departed. And don't forget...your friends can't hear you anymore. Her anger and hatred giving way to an overpowering feeling of hopelessness, the blond teenager lowered her head, letting the shadows hide her.
Kid Flash, Robin, Zatanna, and Miss Martian struggled to contain their anxiety as they awaited Superboy and Wolf's return. Suddenly, the Zeta tubes illuminated, and formed the missing party. "Sorry for the wait," Conner greeted the group, walking over to his seat at the table. "There was some sort of delay with the Zeta Rays. Maybe some solar flares or something."
"It's worse," Zatanna replied, her voice grave. "While we were scanning the area, I got a message from my father...hell's freezing over." All eyes turned to the raven-haired young woman. "The Lords of Order are at war with a swarm of demons. They showed up out of nowhere, but they're trying to break through to our world."
"But since they couldn't gain access by their own blood, they decided to let someone do the job for them," Miss Martian continued. "And that person was Zsasz. When Wally and I were patrolling the town, I picked up a massive dark emotional spectrum. There's no way it's human, and I don't think that and the invasion are a coincidence."
"Does that mean we have a lead on where this guy is?" Superboy asked, leaning forward.
"Not directly," Robin answered. "What we do know is that Zsasz is using demonic powers to achieve his goals. Our best guess is some sort of sacrifice attempt. That's the only thing that makes any sense."
"In other words," Kid Flash cut in. "His victims were really tributes?"
"It's extremely possible," Dick answered.
"But how do you search for something like that?" Superboy asked, turning to M'gann.
"Normally, I'd be able to get a signal from the victim's emotions," the Martian girl began. "But he's blocking them. Probably with his new powers. Waves of distortion are spouting off from dozens of different locations." As a feeling of hopelessness entered the room, everyone fell silent. Retreating into the back of his mind, Wally found himself praying for his friend.
Shattering the silence, a shrill cry tore through the air. Her eyes shut as tight as physically possible, Miss Martian levitated into the air, clenching her throbbing forehead. Jolting forward, Conner felt his ears start to bleed. The other members of the team fell to their knees, desperately forcing their palms against their ears. "M'gann!" Robin cried out. "Shut it out!" Her breaths growing sharp and heavy, the green young woman brought herself back to the ground, falling to her knees and hiding her eyes behind her hand. Running to her side, Conner helped his lover back up.
"What was that?" Wally asked.
Her pupils returning to their normal size, Zatanna approached Miss Martian, sharing in her pain. "I just felt..." Megan stammered, her voice trembling. "Something...something was trying to make contact with me. It was so strong...But it needed me. It wanted me to help it."
"I felt the same thing," Zatanna replied. "Something was crying out...but then I heard my father. He needs me."
"But you said the Lords of Order..." Robin began.
"Are falling," Zatanna interrupted. "They're growing desperate...I'm the only one who can help them. I can give you a blessing, but I can't stop this thing. I'm sorry."
"Just..." Dick stepped forward. "Promise us you'll come back...okay?"
"I promise, Dick," the raven-haired girl answered, easing her friend's fears. Closing her eyes, Zatanna uttered an incantation in Latin, then vanished from the cave.
"M'gann," Conner whispered. "What was it that was calling you?"
"All I know is it's not like them," the Martian answered. "It's pure. And it might be the only chance we get."
"What if it's a trap?" Wally asked, growing uneasy.
"We don't have a choice anymore," Robin replied, his voice growing firm. "If there's an invasion, we've only got one shot before Zsasz kills her. M'gann, can you set a course towards whatever it was that contacted you?"
"Yeah," Miss Martian answered. "It wanted me to find it. I'll give the directions to the Bio-Ship. We've gotta take off now."
"Board the ship," Robin ordered. "Give me one second." The black-haired boy charged towards his room. Zatanna, I don't know if you can still hear me, but I love you...nothing's gonna change that...not even this.
Running onto the ship and leaping into his seat, Robin fastened his seat-belt and turned to the rest of the team. Superboy glanced at the young man, then focused on Miss Martian. What'd he have to get?
I have no idea, Megan answered. Dick's got one of the strongest mental barriers I've ever seen. Whatever it is, though, it's gotta be essential now. Conner nodded, and tried to ease his mind. All the while, Wally remained silent. He was bleeding.