In every community there is inevitably a seemingly deserted old building that, through natural ruin and whispered rumor, slowly becomes the local haunted house. In a rural area in Upstate New York, the Hawthorne House had gained a reputation as one such house of secrets. The once-stately, Gothic-style manor was now a rotting, decayed relic nearly buried by the jungle-like foliage that threatened to engulf it. However, some civic-minded locals thought it might qualify as a historical landmark, and the ensuing battle amongst community boards and various interested parties had left the building in a state of perpetual municipal limbo.
The sultry young woman who stood outside its rusty spiked gate and looked up at the looming manor house didn’t know any of these facts. She didn’t care, either. She merely ran one white-gloved hand across the fence and placed her high-heeled, thigh-high white boots on the lower rails as she swung on the metal and then vaulted effortlessly over the fence.
She crossed the wide yard with the grace of an athlete, or perhaps more accurately, with the feline agility of a born predator.
Artemis Crock idly pushed one thick lock of her heavy platinum blonde hair away from her eyes as she accessed the scene. I don’t think they’ve added a bit of security to this dump since the last time I was here, she thought with a wry grin. Then again, I never did take those two for the cautionary types. With their powers, they sure don’t need guards and electrical wiring to deal with trespassers!
She was a pretty girl with a keen mind that was often underestimated because of her somewhat brassy demeanor and her all too evident physical prowess. Still, Artemis was not the type to ponder such things. She was the daughter of her unusual parents in manner as well as in birth. Action was her primary goal, and she embraced all things active and thrilling, with little regard for what others thought about her.
Artemis noticed a loose board as she approached the steps, and started to sidestep it when a tremor shook the ground beneath her boots, and she leaped upward to grasp the porch’s upper awning as the ground split open, and snaking vines erupted upward.
She perched on the narrow structure and grinned. “Not fast enough by half!” she said in a mocking tone.
Her smile faded as she heard something from within, and she rolled away seconds before a barrage of tiny projectiles exploded around her.
Thorns! Poisoned, no doubt. I can smell the toxin! Mother once used something similar, she thought as she dived through an open window and spun away to confront two very strange figures.
The duo had the shared good looks of siblings, possibly even twins, and the brother and sister shared something even more unusual. They wore brief, leafy green costumes and had green hair and eyes.
The brother stepped forward protectively even as his lithe sister’s green-painted lips pulled back in a smirk. She clearly accepted his protection, but she felt she had no need of it.
“What do you want here?” demanded the man.
“Easy, Sumac. She’s no threat to us!” replied the woman.
“That’s right, Oleander! I’m a friend, or at least an ally. Remember?” said Artemis as she nonetheless slipped one hand down to her hips, where an assortment of weapons hung from a low belt.
Oleander and Sumac exchanged glances as the defiant Oleander placed both hands on her hips and said, “Yeah, we remember you. And that’s why we didn’t let Baby have her way with you.”
Artemis frowned and said, “Baby? I know there are no animals here. I would have noticed them. Of course, with a pair of horticultural horrors like you, any pet would be of the green and growing variety!”
Sumac nodded proudly and said, “So what? You know all about us, but we know you, too. You’re the oldest child of the Sportsmaster and the Huntress — Mr. and Mrs. Menace, as the tabloids called them back when they were fighting punks like Wildcat and Black Bird.”
“Black Canary, dear!” corrected Oleander.
She stepped closer and said, “So, ‘Miss Menace,’ what brings you here to our little arbor of anarchy?”
“I’ll make it brief, since I’m sure this Baby of yours is ready to swallow me like some Venus flytrap from Mars, if you’ll excuse the expression,” said Artemis. “I need your help!”
Sumac narrowed his eyes and said, “OK, we’ve called off our killer plant. Start talking!”
Artemis recalled her last encounter with Sumac and Oleander. It had been the result of a business arrangement. While her infamous parents were notorious for crimes ranging from robbery to kidnapping, the platinum-blonde plunderer was equally well-known in underworld circles for mercenary work. Thus she had accepted a commission from a rather bizarre client several months ago.
She had been summoned to a large old house near Gotham City. She now remarked to herself that it had not been that different from the Hawthorne House lair she currently found herself in.
Artemis had entered the eerie house to find that the interior had been converted into a huge greenhouse. Plants lined every wall, and she could barely make her way deeper into the interior because of the almost oppressive presence of the vines, potted plants, shrubs, and green growing things.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are! I’m wearing my Miracle-Grow perfume!” she joked.
“Very droll, but I fear humor is but one of many human experiences that I now know only from memory. I simply don’t feel much of anything anymore.”
Artemis whirled as a vaguely female figure emerged from within what appeared to be a humanoid-sized pod. The woman no longer had hair, nails, or skin. She seemed to be a living plant in the shape of a human. Flower petals took the place of hair, and her movements seemed more like a tree swaying in a breeze than the normal motions of a human.
“I am Nightshade, or am I Poison Ivy?” whispered the eerie creature. “I can no longer recall such details from my past life!”
Artemis nodded and said, “Sure. You’re infamous. You fought Batman, Red Robin, the Huntress! (*) You and I met briefly when my mother assembled a gang of female crooks.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See All-Star Squadron: Times Past, 1944: Crisis at the Cotillion and Law’s Legionnaires: The Deadlier of the Species.]
Then Artemis wiped one hand across her eyes as tears welled up in them. “You’re like some kind of mobile pollen factory!” she gasped.
Nightshade drew back and said, “I am sorry. I no longer can control the wonders my altered body produces.”
Artemis stepped backward and said, “You’ve changed greatly since we last met. You look… uh… lush?” She smiled ruefully as she grasped for the right word.
Nightshade showed no emotion as she resumed her story. “I was… am Pamela Isley. I was a student of the man known as Ramulus. He was the first Nightshade, and he made me what I was. I was able to control plant life, and I used those powers for personal gain. I also used an almost inhuman amount of personal charisma to battle Batman and others on an even playing field. I didn’t age. I thought Ramulus had blessed me. That changed months ago, when I started to change into what I am now. I am losing my humanity. The chemicals that altered my body chemistry long ago are robbing me of all humanity.”
“I’m no scientist,” said Artemis. “Are you hiring me to kill Ramulus? I think you’re too late. He died fighting the Sandman, or that’s what I heard in a bar. (*) I think it was Bludgeon who told me, or maybe Eviless. I forget.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Sandman: Season of Mists.]
Nightshade shook her fronds and said, “No! He is not my target. I want you to capture his children. They are called Sumac and Oleander. They were jailed, but escaped not long ago. (*) I can sense them. We are akin in many ways.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice Society of America: The Anarchy Society of the World.]
Artemis nodded and said, “I can do that, for the right price, but wouldn’t it be easier for me to just kill them?”
Nightshade trembled and said, “No! I need them alive! I want their blood — their equally tainted blood — to use as a means of my own restoration. I can draw upon their body chemistries to regain my lost humanity. They have power, but they are still clearly human!”
Artemis nodded and then shrugged. “Creep city, but I’m your girl, if you meet my price!” she said.
After receiving a partial payment and an address, Artemis had made her way to Hawthorne House for the first time. She had approached the old house with a confidence born of a certain awareness of her own abilities. Artemis Crock was no shrinking violet.
Before she could reach the broken pavement that led to the front porch, the girl heard a grinding noise.
She flipped acrobatically through the air and landed in a catlike crouch as a mechanical tumbleweed nearly bowled her over. Metal plants? Weird. I know Nightshade said these punks had power over real plants! she mused.
Whirling around, she fired a crossbow bolt with precision and speed. The shaft had an explosive head, and it destroyed the tumbleweed even as another artificial menace sprang into view.
Metallic vines erupted on all sides, and Artemis only managed to avoid them because they were somewhat rusty, and their coils made a noise as they lurched at her. She spun, twisted, ducked, and flipped until she had cleared the “minefield” of vines.
This is getting old really fast! she thought as she fired crossbow bolts and shattered the strange creations.
She rolled beneath a whirling metal blade and rose up to crash through the nearest porch window. A swinging scythe? I guess they weren’t creative enough to maintain their plant motif.
Before she could do more than adjust to her new environment, Artemis found herself gasping for air as a spore erupted into her face.
I can’t breathe! she thought as she writhed across the floor and fought to clear her lungs. A man stepped closer and kicked her side as a female watched from the other side.
Artemis lashed out with both legs and brought the startled woman crashing to the ground. As her eyes streamed with tears, she gripped the woman by her leaf-green hair and slammed her face to the ground.
“Stop!” screamed the man as he moved closer.
Artemis noticed the pair were twins and were dressed in costumes that gave them the appearance of wood nymphs out of myth. She wiped her face against the woman’s long green hair and inhaled deeply as the spores faded away. “I figured if you couldn’t concentrate, your freaky spores would dissipate,” she said.
The man jumped at her, only to receive a swift punch in the nose. He drew back as something that resembled sap appeared below his nose. “You witch!” he grunted.
Artemis rolled nimbly backward and held her crossbow to his fallen twin’s neck. “Surrender or I’ll make her wilt!” she cried.
Sumac, for that was his name, raised both hands and said, “Don’t hurt her!”
Artemis smiled coolly and said, “I won’t, if you do as I say. You two clearly have super-powers. Tell me, why the metal plants?”
“This old dump belonged to our old man,” said Sumac. “He used it and the metal plant traps before he gained his own super-powers. They’re nearly scrap, anyway.”
Artemis smiled wickedly and said, “They are, now that I’m done with them! You two don’t have to end up like your broken toys, though. When your sister wakes up, we’ve got some traveling to do.”
Thus, later Artemis marched the bound siblings into the house of Nightshade, where the twins seemed to exult in the abundance of plant life around them.
Oleander pursed her lips and whistled in appreciation. “This is like some kind of botanical Disney World!” she whispered.
Sumac said nothing as he tensed his muscles against the bonds that held him.
Artemis said, “Nightshade, come out! I have your specimens!”
Nightshade rose up slowly out of the verdant greenery around the odd trio and said, “Excellent! The children shall pay for their father’s sins!”
Oleander and Sumac stared at the monstrous-looking creature and kept their thoughts to themselves.
Artemis posed defiantly and said, “Swell. They’ll rue the day, et cetera, et cetera… Now what about my money?”
Nightshade shuddered and said, “Your payment shall be of a more final nature!” She seemed to sing in a strange tone that reminded Artemis of wind through a tree.
As plants loomed up around them, Artemis cursed and then deftly ripped the bonds away from the captive twins. “OK, as we planned it back at your place, take over the plants!” she cried.
Sumac grinned as he and his sister darted forward and exerted their united willpower to control the attacking mutated plants.
Oleander laughed almost girlishly as she felt their more vigorous natures overwhelm Nightshade’s own mental control. “What a rush!” she said.
Nightshade cried out in a loud but emotionless manner. “You betrayed me!” she cried.
“Yeah, see, I may be a super-villainess, but I can’t sell out two weird but human types to a refuge from the Little Shop of Horrors!” said Artemis. She whipped out her crossbow and aimed at the trembling Nightshade. “This may sting — a whole lot!” she said with a smirk.
As her bolt struck Nightshade, the altered woman shuddered and began to stiffen as a white substance coated her wilting body. “Freon should sap her strength — pun intended!” she announced.
“Thank you,” said Oleander. “I know you said you helped us turn the tables on her because she was so inhuman and all, but we all partner up with some freaks in this line of work. It’s inevitable. Why’d you help us pretend to be captured so we could get in and take over her pets? We sure don’t have money.”
“You’re young,” said Artemis. “You”ll make more valuable allies than that withered old weed. Anyway, you owe me! Maybe I’ll collect someday!”
She had departed and left the twins to do with Nightshade as they pleased.
Now, in the present, she faced the twins and said, “You owe me. I helped you take down Nightshade. Now I need to assemble a team of my own for a job. The job is dangerous, but it could give us all a lot of money and power! Are you two in?”
Oleander spoke for her brother. “Yeah. We’ll sign up. Sounds like kicks, and it’ll clear our debt!” she said.
Artemis smiled and relaxed. “So, what about this Baby of yours?” she asked.
Sumac grinned and said, “She’s all around you!” He gestured, and the dirt floor parted to reveal rows of strange plants that were shaped like a woman. “We call her Baby. You knew her as Nightshade. After we thawed her out, we decided to do a bit of cultivation on her. She was a terrible woman, but she makes a terrific crop — mindless, obedient, and easy to replant.”
Oleander winked and said, “She’s the perfect plant!”
Artemis nodded and thought, These kids are totally crazy. Too bad they are exactly the kind of help I’ll need if I’m to get what I really want!