Elsewhere, the Countess was making some decidedly non-vampiric noises as she gingerly lifted one high-heeled red boot out of the murky sewage. “Eeek!” she whined. “Doesn’t anyone ever clean these tunnels?”
“I guess it’s the maid’s century off,” said Booster Gold.
The Blue Beetle grinned and said, “Cheer up, Countess. After all, this is your big moment. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”
Darkharp smiled and said, “Indeed, milady. Using your unique control over vermin to have them guide us to this secret passage was a stroke of genius.”
“I may be able to control rats, but they still give me the shivers,” said the Countess.
Dragontamer roared with laughter. “You delight me, Countess! Little did I ever expect to meet a beautiful creature like you. Imagine one so lovely in communion with rats.”
“I agree with Beetle,” said the Peacemaker. “Getting the rats that live in these dungeons to lead us inside was a wonderful break.”
The Countess hesitated, and then her ruby red lips parted in a smile. “Thank you. I didn’t know I could order the foul things around until some impulse just came to me. I think my body is adjusting to the change at last.”
Cassi laughed loudly. “You are an amusing bunch. I’ve not smiled as much since I slit open Gertwik the Grim.”
“I hope your friends Rebel and Miss Sinclaire are having good luck as well,” Peacemaker said. “Leading your allies in a mock assault on the perimeter is risky. Still, if it draws out the enemy, then all the better for us.”
Suddenly, as the group emerged out of the muck into an upwardly sloping tunnel, they spotted several pairs of red eyes. Darkharp cursed and reached for his sword, when Booster stepped in front of him and dragged the Countess forward.
“Play the part,” whispered Booster. “You are the Countess Von Bludd, and we’re your slaves.”
The Countess nodded and gulped slightly before assuming a seductive pose. “Clear the way, dahlinks,” she said with an accent, using all she knew about the character she played on late-night television. “Your mistress needs passage through to the upper levels. I haff much to do thees night.”
Sheesh, thought the Blue Beetle. She lays it on thick. Her accent changes, too, from minute to minute.
The creatures grunted but moved aside and allowed the heroes to hurry by. Apparently, the denizens of the dungeons responded to something in the woman’s nocturnal or funereal appearance and regal manner.
As they climbed out of a narrow grate and found themselves within the main level of the castle’s dungeon, the Countess hurled herself into Booster’s arms and squealed with delight. “Did you see that?” she said. “I should win an Emmy!”
Booster hugged her and said, “Nice going, doll. I knew you had it in you.”
Blue Beetle slapped his friend on the back. “Good work, Booster. Those showbiz instincts of yours had to pay off eventually. You really saved the day.”
Booster smiled. “Yeah, I did at that.”
They spotted five burly guards and had begun to confer over the situation when Cassi charged forward and brought two of them crashing to the floor with artful sweeps of her sword. Dragontamer choked a third guard with one massive hand and dropped him down as his more agile partner Darkharp deftly used the end of a sword to knock out the fourth man. The Peacemaker connected with a stunning punch that spelled defeat for the final guard.
The Beetle shrugged. “So much for being subtle.”
Cassi winked at him and said, “Wouldst thou deprive a girl of her fun?”
They hurried to the cell door, and Darkharp said, “This is the one. I was told the special prisoner was in cell three.” He picked a lock, and they shoved open the door.
“Eve, honey?” said the Blue Beetle. “We’ve come to rescue you.” The only response was a frightened whimper from a forlorn figure curled up on the floor. He knelt by her side and gently raised her into his arms. “Great Scott! This isn’t Eve — it’s a little girl! She can’t be more than five or six,” he said as anger filled his voice.
“It is a child,” said Booster. “Why would they go to such trouble to imprison one little girl?”
“The Succubus gave special orders to secure the prisoner,” said Darkharp. “If she isn’t your Eve, she must still be of vital importance.”
The little girl’s eyes brightened as she recognized the blue-and-gold-clad member of the Sentinels of Justice. “Are you Booster? I love your cartoon,” she said, wiping away a tear.
Booster Gold grinned broadly and took her into his arms. “I sure am!” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m going to get you home. What’s your name, honey?”
“It’s Amy,” she said. “Amy Winston.”
The Peacemaker frowned. I’m glad we’ve freed that poor child, he thought, but where’s Nightshade?
Hours later, after the Sentinels of Justice had reunited and aided King Lareden in securing his new kingdom from a few remaining goblins, the Peacemaker repeated his earlier question. “Where’s Nightshade?”
The Blue Beetle said, “I think we both know the only way to get that mystery solved is to see this through to the end by following our only remaining lead.”
Liberty Belle nodded in approval. “The magical jewels taken from the Succubus by the oily man and his ally must be at the heart of the mystery,” said the all-American girl. “Clearly, people were willing to risk everything to secure them. The unknown master of the pair of thieves may have Eve as well, since she isn’t here.”
Booster Gold still held Amy Winston on his lap, and as she rested against his chest, he looked over her head at the others. “Amy isn’t just a lost child. She clearly comes from Earth, since she knew me from my cartoon. I mean, I’m famous, but I’m not exactly a superstar in other dimensions… yet. My agent’s good, but not that good.”
“And Succubus clearly placed a special value on her,” said the Beetle. “But why?”
“She clearly wasn’t taken by mistake for Eve,” said the Peacemaker. “The Succubus knew Eve almost intimately, although I’d bet that Eve probably looked a lot like this girl when she was a kid. They both have that wholesome blonde beauty look.”
Felina was curled up in a ball on a rug, idly batting at a ball of yawn. “Maybe it wasn’t a mistake,” she said with a purr in her voice. “I mean, maybe the girl is valuable to Succubus for some secret reason.”
Belle bit her lower lip in thought and then said, “As a bargaining chip? Perhaps she wasn’t of value at all to the Succubus, but instead to the unknown man whose servants took the gems.”
The Blue Beetle grinned broadly and said, “Belle, you’ve got brains and beauty, too. If I wasn’t a deliriously happily married man, I’d kiss you. I think you’ve hit the nail on the proverbial head. The Succubus was probably keeping Amy here either for the unknown villain or to use her against him. Knowing how scheming that seductress was, I’d say the latter is the best answer we have at the moment, given that we’re still missing most of the facts of the matter.”
“I can follow the trail of the stolen gems,” said Mark Merlin. “I can already tell you that their path leads out of this realm and into another dimension alien to Earth.”
“How do we get there?” asked Booster. “You said you no longer had your earlier greater powers since you regained your own body.”
Mark nodded grimly. “I don’t. The fact is, I don’t know how we can get there, but I won’t rest until I find Eve. She was too good to me when I was a cat.”
King Lareden frowned. “Forgive me, but did you say you were a cat? I thought Fifi was the only cat-person.”
Felina rolled over on her stomach and said, “Actually, I was a supermodel before I was a kitty.”
Lareden shook his head and said, “I want to find my sister. I’d thought her dead for years. What can I do to help you? The resources of my entire realm are yours for the taking.”
Mark paced back and forth, then stopped in his tracks. “I’ve got it. I’ve been picking up a sensation that I wrongly thought was coming from a certain source. That blinded me to the true origin of the magic I sensed. I think this true source can get us to the gems, and hopefully to Eve herself.”
The others listened eagerly as Mark Merlin explained his theory.
Eve Eden’s brief fight as the action-heroine Nightshade with mugger Vinnie Galvoni had been a routine matter. She had beaten countless minor thugs of his kind and barely even gave their defeats a thought. She truly didn’t even need her powers to win over their kind. Her well-trained body was a weapon in and of itself. Thus, when she briefly became semi-solid during the fight, little did she expect to trigger her own abduction by the waiting and lurking Succubus.
The inhuman villainess had snatched Nightshade into the shadowy limbo between realms and had shoved her into the waiting arms of her goblins, or so she had thought. In truth, in that bizarre split-second within the timeless void between dimensions, Eve had somehow switched places with another traveler. The little girl named Amy Winston had ended up in the clutches of the waiting goblins, and Eve had found herself stepping literally into shadow and out again in an entirely different world.
She gasped as she took in the sights around her. She was no longer in the alley, the darkness was gone, and the normal rubbish of the street was nowhere to be seen. She blinked as blinding sunshine bathed over her face and a gentle breeze passed over her. Nightshade turned around and realized that not only was she no longer in the alley, but she wasn’t even on Earth.
“This isn’t the Land of the Nightshades, either,” she said to herself. “I can feel that in my bones.”
Eve knew she couldn’t use her power to become a semi-solid shadow in such brilliant daylight, but she had plenty of the ebony bombs in her hip purse. She lifted one out and plunged the immediate area into darkness. Her body changed into the semi-solid shadow state, but the transformation itself added nothing to her knowledge.
“OK, my powers work here, but I’m still in this place. I can’t shift myself into the Land of the Nightshades, and using my power isn’t putting me back home, either.”
She lifted one leg and snapped on a rocket-powered skate, then slipped the second one into place. As she raced down the road before her, she noted that her scientific items worked in this new land, as did her supernatural ones.
“Well, Evie, you’re not in Kansas anymore,” she quipped.
She admired the scenic beauty of her new environment, but she also marveled at how swiftly the open road of the countryside turned into a wild, jungle-like atmosphere without any apparent instant of transition. Shifting landscapes, she thought. The heat was starting to become uncomfortable, but she continued on her way with a wary eye ready to spot any peril.
It was not her keen vision that alerted her to danger, but the sound of a clanking noise drawing closer.
Eve raced toward an oak tree, and with one acrobatic flip she positioned herself on a limb amidst the thick foliage above. She had placed the skates back in her bag, and now she perched with amazing balance in her high-heeled boots on the tree limb.
She gasped as the clanking became louder, and a large tiger with brilliant stripes and a fierce expression emerged from the foliage below. A metal tiger? That’s clearly more machine than animal, she mused. I even smell machine oil.
The robotic tiger clanked along and stopped beneath the tree in which Nightshade perched. There, it lifted one clawed paw and smashed at the tree with enough force to dislodge the action-heroine. She fell forward but turned in midair and managed to land on its back, then clawed madly, managing to get a tenuous grip on a ridged metal plate. The tiger roared with an artificial growl and tried to reach the woman on its back with its savage claws. Eve twisted and turned, avoiding the lethal claws as she scrambled for a better grip.
Nightshade whipped out a small file and pried open the metal plate on the machine’s back. Using both hands, she wildly ripped wires out of it and panted for breath as the machine slowly ground to a halt. “Thank goodness,” she said. “That metal nightmare almost ripped me in half.” Indeed, her costume was torn in multiple places, but she was unhurt except for a bruise or two.
Examining the inert machine, she said, “This is the last thing I expected to run into in a place like this. I figured this was some type of pre-technological society, but this robot or automaton disproves that theory.”
Nightshade turned as several inhuman beings charged at her out of the foliage. She had allowed herself to become preoccupied with the tiger. Thus she failed to react in time, unable to reach an ebony bomb to create the darkness that would allow her to defy the sunlight and slip into her shadow state. The massive gray creatures were nearly on top of her before she could do more than whirl around to face them.
She dodged their grasping hands for several moments before a cold fist closed around her leg and lifted her struggling body into the air. Although she punched the creature in its flat snout, causing it to roar in pain, it did not release her. As she dangled upside-down in its grasp, Nightshade was vulnerable to a second monster’s blow to her head. She passed out and knew no more.
When she came to her senses, she found herself face down on a dirt floor. Pushing herself to her knees, she glanced left and right to see where she was.
It was the inside of a crude hut, and the gray beings that had kidnapped her were standing in a circle around what was very clearly a cooking pot. It was big enough to hold several humans, and Nightshade had little doubt that she was on the menu.
Trolls? she wondered. I think those things are trolls out of a fairy tale.
They sniffed in unison and turned to look at her. “She’s moving,” grunted one of the trolls. They closed in on her, and she acted swiftly to escape.
The darkness of the hut enabled Eve to use her powers. As a shadowy wraith, she danced directly between the massive monsters and dived out their window. As they started to chase her, she dropped into the darkness of the night and watched them race by. Thank goodness they didn’t smell me, she thought with relief. It must have been my scent that drew them to me in the jungle. They obviously eat people.
Returning to normal, she tried to find a reasonable direction in which to go. “I don’t know this place,” she muttered to herself. “I could wind up trussed up like a human turkey or a roasted pig with an apple in my mouth if I go the wrong way. Well, I sure don’t want to run into the Joy Boys again, so I’ll head in the opposite direction from them.”
She ran into the jungle but gasped in shock as she smashed directly into another huge being. This one, however, was different from the trolls. He was slightly smaller, and his face lacked any snout. He was more humanoid in appearance, and his skin was weathered, thick, and pale gray.
Nightshade had drawn back her fist to strike but now lowered it as the creature bowed to the ground before her and spoke in a voice that was oddly elegant.
“Princess,” he said, “I have searched long for you. My mistress knew you had returned to us, but she didn’t know where. Please come with me. She is eager to explain all to you. It was her good magic that drew you back to us from the world beyond.”
She placed one hand on her hip and looked at him in wonder. Something in his manner made her trust him. “Frankenstein’s monster with Olivier’s voice,” she said softly. “OK, big fella, take me to your leader,” she said, and he picked her up and placed her on his shoulders.
“We must hurry,” he said. “The Night Wolves are out, and their master is using them to hunt for the innocent.” He began racing through the jungle with impressive speed and power as Eve clung to his neck.
Eve Eden, what have you gotten yourself into this time? she thought to herself.