Following Mark Merlin’s lead, the Blue Beetle piloted his amazing flying vehicle called the Bug across the country, carrying within it Lady Quark, the Peacemaker, Liberty Belle, Booster Gold, Felina, and the Countess.
“She is directly below us,” said Mark. “Apparently, the house contains one of the things she’s been seeking.”
“Mark,” began Liberty Belle, “I have the impression that you still have some type of power. Is this true?”
“I have an awareness of magic,” explained Mark. “I can sense it. And I still have the cat pendant. But other than that, I think I’m just ordinary Mark Merlin again. Even if I never return to my own Earth, I have to admit — I like it.”
Booster Gold nudged the Peacemaker and said, “Will you look at that? Both Belle and Fifi seem to be hanging on Merlin’s every word. With a superstar like myself around, how can that be? You don’t think the guy has some love spell, do you?”
“Just plain old charisma,” said the Peacemaker. “And I like the guy. He’s had a rough life. You’ve got to admire someone who rolls with the punches like that.”
Booster nodded. “I guess I do, at that.”
As the Bug descended, they spotted a female figure rushing from the house. “It’s her,” said Mark. “I can sense as much.”
“That’s Eve?” asked the Peacemaker. “She sure has changed, even since I fought her.”
Nightshade stopped as the heroes confronted her, placing both hands on her hips as she waited. A palpable chill seemed to surround her, and her face was as pale as that of the Countess. She now wore purple-hued glasses that concealed her eyes, and her hair was thicker and much longer. She no longer wore her dark pleated minidress and boots. Now she wore a one-piece purple leotard with black trim and boots.
The Blue Beetle said through the Bug‘s loudspeaker, “Nightshade, we’re here to help you. Don’t run from us!”
Nightshade said nothing but waited impassively as the others left the Bug and drew closer. She stared at each of them, contempt etched on her face. “Why would I run from you?”
Without any warning, the action-heroine’s posture suddenly changed as all defiance seemed to seep out of her body. “I-I need you,” she pleaded. “I need all of you. I thought I could fix it, but I can’t do it alone.”
“You have a funny way of asking for help,” said the Peacemaker said. “You almost killed me!”
“I’m sorry,” said Nightshade. “You must believe me. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“We deserve answers,” demanded Lady Quark. “We are your battle comrades.”
“We’re your friends, kiddo,” said Booster. “Tell us why you took those jewels. And, for that matter, why’d you lose the retro minidress look? I really liked it.”
“This new costume seemed more fitting,” said Nightshade, a grim tone in her voice. “I’ve changed in several ways. It all started when I used my power to become a semi-solid shadow while fighting a mugger. For a moment I was in shadow form, and then when I returned to normal, something didn’t return with me. Call it spirit, heart, will, or the soul, but something vital stayed behind in that shadowy limbo. I began losing control, becoming a harsh woman, and I felt out of touch with humanity. Even my body has become freezing to the touch, and I’m emitting waves of coldness. I’ve become pale, and all color has drained from my skin. My eyes can’t stand the light, which is why I’m wearing these glasses. That’s also why I covered my body with this new costume. Bare skin was too painful for me.”
Liberty Belle asked her, “Could you return to that shadow realm and regain your lost essence, for lack of a better term?”
“I hoped to do so, but I didn’t lose all my sense of duty,” explained Nightshade. “You see, when I returned to normal and felt I had lost something of myself, I also felt something else come with me from the Nightshade world. Magical power began pouring into this dimension, and I realized I had to stop it, to block it before others were hurt. I then found a way to do it. Mystical jewels — twelve in all — can buffer this realm from the leaking magic. I read about them when I was studying my late mother’s diaries. She once ruled the Land of the Nightshades as its queen.”
“It was the leaking magic that followed you here that changed several people,” said Blue Beetle.
The Countess hissed and bared her fangs, her ruby lips parting as she cried, “You did this to me! I’ll make you sorry you were ever born!” She leaped onto Nightshade, and the two women began wrestling furiously on the ground until Liberty Belle and Felina separated them.
“It wasn’t my choice!” pleaded Nightshade. “I’m trying to stop any more tragedies from happening. If I gather all the gems from the book, then I can effectively plug the leak of dimensional energies. Then I’ll be able to return to my mother’s world and try to recover my lost spirit.”
“Don’t believe her — why, she practically radiates pure evil,” cried the Countess.
“I know!” said Nightshade. “And she’s right. My mother once ruled the Land of the Nightshades, but she was deposed by an evil being called the Incubus, and my brother was lost to it as well. Finding the resources to rescue him was my motivation for originally becoming an action-heroine, and I made an ill-fated attempt to do so alone last year, just after the Crisis. (*) That was when I learned that the Incubus had been deposed sometime since then by his female counterpart, the Succubus. I think it was the Succubus who is responsible for everything that’s happened to me recently. It is her evil that is using my body to wildly contaminate this dimension with magic.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: The Calm Before the Storm, Chapter 2: Nightshade.]
“Look, I’m simply loaded,” said Booster Gold. “Let me buy the gems you need, or at least rent them. There’s no need to pull a David Cassidy and the Sundance Kid routine.”
“You’re right,” said Blue Beetle, “but you need to work on your history. It was Butch Cassidy who was the outlaw.”
Booster shrugged. “I thought that was Shaun.”
“You would help me?” asked Nightshade. “Even after I gave in to the darkness and almost killed Peacemaker? How can I repay you?”
“Forget it,” said the Peacemaker. “I know I needed a lesson in humility, something Gold could also use, by the sound of it.” He smiled briefly at Booster, who looked away and began whistling sheepishly.
In little more than an hour, the Sentinels of Justice had combined their resources to assemble almost all of the desired jewels on their satellite headquarters, Project X.
Inspecting one of them, Mark Merlin said, “This emerald contains magic. They all do. Nightshade herself is full of energy of a mystical nature, and I know she never was before. But I can’t tell if she is telling us the entire truth. Still, I’m so new to being myself again that I may be wrong.”
“I say trust your instincts,” said Felina. “Maybe it’s the kitty in me, but I think you should believe what you feel.”
At that moment, Nightshade entered the room and looked down at the eight gems. “Excellent,” she said. “I can sense that the other gems aren’t in this realm. Of the twelve in question, I suppose it’s reasonable to assume some would have been lost over the eons.”
Mark extended his arm, holding out his palm with the emerald in view. “Here you go, Eve.”
Nightshade took the gem and placed it with the others, but as her hand touched Mark’s, his eyes narrowed with a look of concern. “I’ll place them in my belt pouch,” she said. “While they’re together, they’ll block out the influx of magical energy. Now I can return home and reclaim what is mine.”
Liberty Belle wore a look of concern. “Home?” she questioned. “I’ve never heard you speak of the other dimension as home. I mean, you’ve only truly visited it once or twice for any length of time.”
“You are speaking the truth,” said Nightshade, a look of dawning horror on her face. “It must be the Succubus. She is speaking through me. I must hurry!”
“Hold it, honey,” said the Peacemaker. “We’re going with you. You can open a portal big enough for us all.”
“Of course,” she replied. “I merely hate to have you risk so much.”
Mark Merlin said, “I’m not a member of your team, but I wish to join you also.”
“Of course you may,” said Liberty Belle. “We might very well need your experience.”
The room darkened after a moment, and by the time light returned to the satellite, they were gone.
The Sentinels of Justice and their guests suddenly found themselves in the Land of the Nightshades, where their senses tried to grasp a world of strange vegetation and palpable magic.
Mark Merlin gasped as he fought for breath. He shook his head and slowly came to terms with what he was feeling. “This place is entirely saturated with magic — it almost overwhelmed me. My ability to sense magic could be a liability here, because I have to fight to maintain my sense of self.”
“It’s beautiful, but sinister, too,” said Liberty Belle. “I feel like the very air carries a heavy menace about it.”
“It smells funny, too,” said Felina. “It’s like decay.”
“I don’t like this place at all,” declared the Countess.
“Oh, man,” said Booster Gold, looking worried. “This is bad.”
Blue Beetle turned to his friend and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“My armor is completely dead,” Booster explained. “Nothing works!”
The Peacemaker agreed. “My gun won’t work, either. I think this place has robbed us of our technology.”
“It would,” said Mark. “Science has no place here at all.”
“Lady Quark, what about your powers?” asked Blue Beetle. “Do they work here?”
The white-haired woman nodded regally. “Of course. My powers are part of my very heritage. It is my royal bloodline that instilled power within my body.”
“Amazing,” said the Beetle. “I always thought your gifts were scientific in nature.”
The Peacemaker said, “Nightshade, this is your dimension. Can you tell us what we need to do to help you regain your lost essence?”
Nightshade had been oddly silent since their arrival. The others were startled when she suddenly began to laugh harshly and wore a wicked smile. “You dolts!” she screamed. “You can only help me by dying! I am not Nightshade and never have been. I am the ruler of this realm. I am now and forever the Succubus.”
She shuddered, and her hair and skin seemed to melt away, along with her costume, to reveal an inhuman being whose body was starkly white from head to toe. Her body had broad and ragged stripes of ebony that only made her chalky-white skin more vibrant in contrast.
“I knew it,” said Mark Merlin. “I could sense it when I touched your hand.”
“You could not stop me,” said the Succubus. “I had no need to hide my true essence from you. I am this realm. That is my power and my curse. I could not leave here under normal circumstances, so when I sought to expand my domain, I had to seek an ally. He, in turn, urged me to temporarily take both Nightshade’s form and her place. Through switching places with one of the royal blood of this realm, I could enter your world. I needed to do so to acquire the mystical jewels of power with which I may rule more dimensions than this one.”
“So you lied about being Eve and needed to reclaim the jewels in order to block the rush of magic,” said Liberty Belle. “It was your body that gave off that magic.”
“Exactly,” said the Succubus. “Why should I be concerned about the changes my beautiful essence brought to your mundane world? All I needed was time to acquire the gems. I could only stay in your world while Eve Eden was away from it.”
“What have you done with the real Eve?” demanded Blue Beetle.
“When she used her paltry power to fight a common criminal, I abducted her. I wrapped her in shadow and took her place. You’ll never see her again.”
“Don’t bet on it, sister,” said Booster Gold, charging at her. The Succubus nimbly dodged a swing of his fist and let him crash to the ground.
“Man of the future, you cannot win in my realm,” she said. “Your costume is nothing but empty metal devoid of power. Here, all power is mine!”
“Not while we have this,” said Liberty Belle, darting forward. She flipped through the air to snatch at the belt pouch that held the mystical gems. Her hand brushed the bag, but she fell to the ground hard when Mark Merlin bumped into her hip.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just wanted to help, but I’m a bit dizzy here.”
“You’ll never take my jewels,” said the Succubus. “They will give me more power until I cannot be contained by one realm alone.”
Felina snarled. “Look — we’re not alone here!” She pointed to where dark gray humanoids began pouring out of the forest to surround them.
“My goblins will feast upon you mortals this day,” cried the Succubus as she walked off laughing, leaving the heroes to face their cackling foes.
“I always loved Tolkien,” said the Blue Beetle, “but this is a bit much.”
“Guys, I can’t fight!” said Booster. “I’m useless!”
“Stay behind me,” said Belle. “The rest of us still have our skills.”
Booster Gold winced but said nothing. He understood that she meant nothing by her comment, but it still rang true. He had been a skilled moopsball athlete in college, but he wasn’t a trained fighter, and he relied too much on his technology. If he survived this case, he vowed to change that.
“Creatures like that fear light,” said the Beetle. “My BB-gun is useless here. Can you shed some light on the subject, Lady Q?”
Lady Quark bit her tongue as she tried to ignore Beetle’s familiar manner of address. “I shall drive back the legions of the night,” she vowed, flying into the air as her body began to crackle with energy. The goblins hesitated, drawing back as she sent energy exploding into their midst. “They are craven jackals,” she said, “not worthy of my attention.”
Felina pounced on one of them, feeling a rush of excitement as she used her new body to its full potential for the first time. She hurled goblins aside and kicked, punched, clawed, and danced through their forces. “C’mon, boys — I like to play rough,” she quipped. The cat-woman, whose real name was Maddy Lopez, smiled broadly as she realized something that was both frightening and yet liberating. I don’t want to go back to being plain old Maddy again, she thought.
“Fifi!” called Liberty Belle as she rolled beneath the goblins and bowled several over. “Save some for me!” As the goblins clutched at her costume, she spun around and cleared a path with a spinning high kick.
The Countess had waited and done nothing for the first few moments, and then as if by some instinct she changed into a wolf and began tearing into the monsters. She had acted by instinct, for once not fighting her new power. For the moment, she truly was Countess Von Bludd.
The Peacemaker’s guns would not work in the Land of the Nightshades, but the older man was in amazing shape for his age, still able to fight on with his fists and a knife he had pulled from his belt. Can a land rotted by evil magic ever know peace? he thought.
The Blue Beetle ducked and punched and wrestled his way over the goblins with the manic energy he was known for. “You boys need a makeover,” he joked. “I’d suggest total plastic surgery, or maybe just a swift burial at sea.” He rolled across the back of one startled goblin as Liberty Belle followed suit. “Nice!” he said. “You could be the female me — Lady Bug.”
Belle elbowed the goblin in the nose and said, “Hmmm… No. I like these colors too much.”
The Beetle dodged a roaring troll and then dropped down to trip the massive creature with a dashing lunge that sent the monster reeling.
Booster Gold watched it all, thinking, Ted’s amazing. He’s a real genius, but he fights like nobody else. It’s not professional, but it works. He uses agility more than any of the others. Belle’s a master of every fighting art known. The same can be said for Nightshade, who’s practically a living weapon. The Question is as resourceful as they come. And what am I? A handsome guy in a fancy costume?
The hero from the future had begun feeling sorry for himself, but beneath the shallow exterior he was a hero. Thus, when he saw the Blue Beetle slip and fall, he leaped into the battle but received a sharp blow to the head and fell to the ground. “The costume is just a suit now,” he gasped. “Can’t use any of my gear.”
Next to him, the Beetle struggled to get up, but the odds were growing against them all.