By Tara Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted February 2000
Summary: Lois must enlist the help of more strangers, not to mention Metropolis's newest superhero, when Superman becomes the victim of an evil spell. Will these dark forces prove more than our favorite couple can handle, or will their new allies be able to help them save the day?
Story Content Warning: This story deals with the occult. If this is offensive to you, I recommend against reading this story. If not, then by all means, read on! :)
By Tara Smith <email@example.com> (please note there are two underlines in the author's email address)
"What are you doin'? Let me go!" the man shouted as a robed and hooded figure bent over him and removed his blindfold. He blinked in the dim light, obviously confused and scared.
The man was tied, spread-eagled, to a flat slab of granite. Nine torches were arranged in a circle around the slab, and before them stood nine robed and hooded people. The light from the torches illuminated only a small area, and he could not see anything outside the circle.
The one who had removed his blindfold reached into his robe and pulled out a long curved dagger with a black hilt. On it was inscribed a rune with a gleaming onyx circle surrounding it. The figure used the dagger to carefully cut the mans shirt down the front and push it to the side.
"Hey! What're ya doin'? Lemme go!"
One of the others stepped forward and pulled something out of their robe and began drawing symbols on the mans chest. The others began chanting softly as the one with the knife raised the knife high in the air.
The one observer outside the light turned away, sickened, as the protests from the man abruptly stopped. The chanting behind him increased and a reddish light suddenly flared, illuminating the entire room for a minute before dying, and leaving the room lit only by the torches once more.
The observer stumbled out through the door of the warehouse into the cool night air.
"Are you all right, Tank?" One of the Black Circle's other followers was standing out there, smoking. "You look a little pale."
"I'm fine, Jenny," he answered her. "I think I'm coming down with a cold. I'm going home."
She nodded understandingly as he turned and walked up the street to his car.
As he started his car and prepared to drive away, he glanced at his rear-view mirror in time to see Jenny throw her barely smoked cigarette into a puddle and go inside.
He floored the accelerator as one of the Inner Circle stepped out and stared after his car. There was no way he could go back there, now.
"Just a little more to the right," Maggie suggested helpfully.
Jimmy released the bureau abruptly. Maggie giggled at his expression. "You know, I could have done that myself!"
Jimmy leaned back against the bureau wiping sweat from his face. "Yeah, but if anyone saw you, they'd know something was funny."
"Or they'd think it was made out of particle board," Maggie laughed.
"Yeah, well …"
Maggie looked around her room as Jimmy groped for a good comeback.
Despite the fact that when she'd arrived in Metropolis she'd had only the things she could carry in a backpack, she wasn't completely without possessions. When she'd decided to come to Metropolis, she'd put her things in storage along with her parents' things. She hadn't known at the time when—or if—she'd be retrieving them, but she couldn't bear to sell them. They were things her parents had bought for her before their deaths two years ago and were her now only link to them.
Now, she had taken some of her possessions out of storage and moved them, with Superman's help, across the country from California to New Troy. Jimmy had insisted on helping her move some of it up to the apartment after Superman was called away to deal with a bridge collapsing.
"So what's Lucy like, anyway?" she suddenly asked Jimmy. "I'm going to be sharing an apartment with someone I've only met once! You know her, right?"
Jimmy looked suddenly uncomfortable. "Well, yeah I know her. She's Lois' sister, after all."
Maggie raised an eyebrow at him. "What's wrong? Is she a psycho or something?"
"No! No, nothing like that!" Jimmy was quick to reassure her. "It's just, well, um …"
"Did you used to date her or something?" Jimmy looked even more uncomfortable at that, and Maggie grinned. "You did, didn't you! What, did you think I was going to be jealous or something? Don't worry. I'm not the jealous type."
"It was just one date!" Jimmy objected. "I wasn't her type or something."
"That's ok. You're my type." She cocked her head to one side in a listening pose. "Lois just pulled up. I think she's got Lucy with her."
"Hey, guys!" Lucy yelled, apparently from the living room. "Lois wants you to go with her. She said something about another sacrifice!"
Both straightened up at that.
"Not another one!" Maggie said in a low, appalled voice.
They ran out of the room together.
"Find anything new, Sara?"
Maggie didn't look up from her examination of the crime scene at Clark Kent's greeting. "Not yet, Mr. Kent. I'm still hoping, though."
It was the same layout as the previous two times—an alley with a dead body dumped in it. As before, it was obvious the man had been dead long before being deposited here. The strange symbols on the chest, which nobody could identify, were the same, as well. Now that the body had been removed, Maggie was carefully inspecting the crime scene.
"Do you need any help?" Clark asked her in a low voice. "I could contact Superman …"
"That's ok, Mr. Kent. I think I can handle this one without the S-man's help." She gave him a slightly resentful look. He and Superman, both, had been against her helping the police with this case. Both of them had told her that this was too dangerous and that, since she could be hurt and Superman couldn't, that she should let him handle it. Of course, they had protested it when she put on the black outfit and started helping out as Sara, as well. "Besides, he's probably busy right now, anyway."
The Inspector in charge of the murders came up beside the two. She was covering for Henderson during his vacation.
"Hello, Inspector …" Clark's voice trailed off.
"Kathy Parent. I'm the officer in charge of this investigation. Who are you? No press was to be allowed in!"
"Inspector," Maggie interrupted smoothly. "Clark Kent is with the Daily Planet. He and his partner Lois Lane have been helping me and Superman in this investigation."
Parent snorted. "You two haven't been much help as it is."
Maggie bristled at the detective's tone. "Your cops haven't been able to find anything, either! Why don't you get them away from their donuts and maybe they can do their job, instead of leaving it to me and Superman!"
Clark grabbed Maggie's arm. "We'll be right back, Detective."
He pulled Maggie away from Parent. "You need to calm down, Sara!" he told quietly. "Getting rude with the charming inspector there isn't going to help anything."
Maggie glanced over his shoulder at Parent. She was walking back over to her car, apparently ignoring them. "I know, Clark. I'm sorry. She just so irritating! I swear, it's like she's deliberately going out of her way to annoy me!"
"Is everything all right? I see the evil witch of the west decided to return to her lair again," Lois said, coming up behind Maggie.
"No problems here," Clark told her. "Did they find anything new?"
Lois had been down at the coroner's getting the autopsy report. "No. Just like the other two."
Maggie made a disgusted noise as she turned back to scrutinize the scene once more. A gleam of black caught her eye and she focussed in on it. It was a small ring. It sported a black circle and a rune, also black.
"What's that?" she muttered. Lois and Clark moved over beside her.
"Have you found something?" Lois asked.
"A ring. It could be evidence." Maggie turned her head. "Inspector Parent! I've found something!"
The Inspector hurried back over to Maggie. She gave Lois and Clark a suspicious look. "Well? What have you found?"
Maggie pointed. "A ring. Right there. I recognize one of the runes on it …"
Parent interrupted her. "We'll take it from here, Sara. Why don't you run along and rescue a cat from a tree or something."
"What?" Maggie couldn't believe her ears. She'd just found something that could be major evidence, and the Inspector was just brushing her off!
"Run along, now." Parent motioned for one of her men to come over.
Maggie gaped at her, stunned. Behind her, Lois and Clark exchanged a glance. Maggie turned to the two.
"Can you believe her?" she asked them. "Sometimes I wonder why I'm still working with her!"
"It's too bad Henderson's on vacation," Lois said. She shrugged, "Still, I guess he deserves time off with his wife."
"Hmmph. Where's that FBI agent. Maybe she'll listen." Maggie scanned the crowd of police, looking for the only one in a business outfit. "That's odd. She's not here. I wonder why."
Special Agent Joy Sowell had shown up just after the second murder. She was investigating a string of strange occurrences that seemed to be following a religious group known as the Black Circle. Joy hadn't wanted to share much information with Lois and Clark, but what she had shared was just plain weird. People appearing from nowhere, then vanishing. Agents investigating them appearing halfway across town with no memory of how they got there. Other things she wouldn't tell them because it was just too unbelievable.
"Maybe the Inspector 'forgot' to inform Agent Sowell about this latest murder," Maggie grumbled. "Lois, do you have your cell phone on you?"
Tank Wilson peeked through the windows of his grungy apartment. Nothing. Apparently they had decided he wasn't worth chasing after while they had bigger plans on the table. Still, he'd better hurry. They could send someone anytime.
He pulled out his key and unlocked the door, opened it quickly and slipped inside, closing it firmly behind him and locking it.
"Well, that was theatrical," a familiar voice said from behind him.
Tank spun to find Cindy standing at the entrance to the hallway.
"How did you get in here?" he asked her suspiciously. Cindy was a new member of the Black Circle. He had met her just a week ago at the regular meeting. She hadn't struck him as a particularly intelligent woman, though. Certainly not smart enough to break into his apartment like this.
She shrugged casually. "The door was open."
"No, it wasn't. Who sent you?"
"Nobody sent me. I needed to know if it was true."
"Jenny claims you're leaving the Circle."
"Jenny claims a lot of things. She once told me she used to work at STAR Labs and that Dr. Klein's labrat spoke to her."
"Well, this time I think she's right." Cindy leaned casually against the wall, putting both hands in her jacket pockets. "Why else would you be sneaking into your own apartment?"
"Maybe I've got an irritating neighbor." He started to edge closer to his kitchen. He had a gun hidden in the breadbox. If he could get to that …
"Are you leaving the Circle?" she leaned forward, face intent. "I need to know."
Tank dove for the kitchen.
She was on him in an instant, tackling him. He twisted around under her and they rolled across the kitchen floor, coming up against the wall with a thump. He scrabbled frantically for the knife in his pocket, but she caught his hand and squeezed, unerringly hitting the nerve, and the knife fell from his hand. She knocked it away and punched him, knocking his head back into the floor. As he shook his head, dazed, she twisted his arm, flipping him over onto his face and putting him into an arm lock. He twisted and yelped as she held his arms tight.
"Hold still, damn it!" she hissed into his ear. "I'm not here for the Circle! I'm a FBI agent, you idiot! I can help you!"
"Hi, this is Lois Lane with the Daily Planet," Lois said into the phone. "I'd like to speak Joy Sowell … she is? Hmm, well could you take a … you can't? Well, do you know when she'll be back? No?… What? Are you sure? … Mm hmm. Thank you." She closed her phone with an odd expression on her face. "Agent Sowell has vanished."
Lois had known Joy Sowell since grade school. They'd been next door neighbors and had, at one point, been nearly inseparable. They had kept in contact through letters after Joy's parents moved to New York. When Joy had come to Metropolis for this investigation, she had immediately contacted Lois and they had been sharing information about the murders. The FBI team working under her knew this, now, and was under orders to share their information with Lois Lane.
"Vanished?" Clark asked. "As in disappeared?"
"As in, she went into her hotel room and never came out. The door and all the windows were locked from the inside and her purse and car keys were there as well. Her car is even still parked in the lot."
Clark fidgeted with his glasses. "Maybe I should go take a 'peek' at her room." He started to turn towards the storage rooms. Lois grabbed his arm.
"Clark, you promised not to interfere."
"I know I agreed to stay out of the murder investigations, but this probably isn't involved with …"
"That's not how she'll see it. Trust me."
Clark sat on the edge of her desk. "I don't like having her work on this case. She's so young and …"
"I know," Lois agreed. "She's handling it really well, though."
"Too well, almost."
"Not really. You weren't there when she saw that first body. She threw up in the dumpster. She's not nearly as tough as she acts. She's just figured out how to hide her feelings." Lois smiled up at Clark. "Kind of like a certain reporter I know."
Clark smiled back at her.
"Hi, guys," Maggie came up behind Clark and dropped a manila folder in front of Lois. "Here's that research you wanted on that rune. It was actually two, side by side. They're from Elder Futhark, just like I thought."
"Elder Futhark. It's an ancient Germanic runic system. They used it for writing, casting spells, everything. The first one's called perthro. It means, uh, hidden things and occult abilities. The other's called sowilo. It means victory or success. It's all in there." She flipped through another sheaf of papers she was holding. "The black ring surrounding it is the symbol of this group that's shown up in town recently. You know, the one the one Agent Sowell was investigating?"
Clark shot Lois a meaningful look.
"I checked some other stuff, too. It seems our Inspector Parent is an exchange officer from the Gotham City PD. She was dating a doctor at Gotham General and was well-liked. Then she started investigating a series of disappearances. She dumped her boyfriend and became a recluse. She came over here right after a certain Dark Knight broke up an emergent cult. Coincidence?" Maggie shook her head. "Care to guess who this cult was?"
"The Black Circle!" Lois and Clark said in unison.
Maggie grinned. "Did you guys practice that?"
"Maggie," Lois said warningly.
"Ok, ok, that's pretty much it. Now I've gotta get the rest of this stuff over to Jimmy. He's writing that sidebar thingy on cults," she grinned at them as she walked away. "Isn't it cool?"
Lois and Clark exchanged a tolerant look, then turned to the papers.
"I think we need some more info on this Black Circle cult," Lois said, reaching for her Rolodex. She flipped through it, then grabbed her phone.
Clark cocked his head to one side as his superhearing cut in.
Lois noticed. "What is it?"
"Traffic accident. This won't take long." He hurried from the room, hand already going to his tie.
Lois dialed Bobby Bigmouth's number quickly. "Hi, Bobby? Lois. I need some information on the Black Circle… you do? Great. I'll meet you in twenty minutes."
Tank stared at the abandoned warehouse the Circle was using as a base of operations glumly. What was he doing? How could he even consider coming back here? Sure, that Cindy gal had said it would be safe … but how much could he really trust her?
Ok, Tank, he thought. Get a grip. They could have gotten you at your apartment, but they didn't. Get in there and do what you're supposed to.
He opened his car door slowly and got out, carefully avoiding the water puddle. The temperature had not gone up much from that morning, so he clutched his jacket a little closer as he strode nervously over to the door to the warehouse. He paused there and glanced around nervously for passers. Nobody was there, so he flipped open a small box beside the door and punched in his security code. The security box beeped and the door unlocked.
Apparently, the Circle was having a meeting he hadn't been told about because most of the members were gathered in the main worship area. Cindy was already there, over by the coffee machine, chatting with Jenny. Jenny spotted him as he entered and broke off her conversation with Cindy to wind her way through the crowd.
"Hi, Tank. Are you feeling better?"
"Um, yeah. I took some medicine and I'm feeling fine, now." He eyed her warily, then glanced around the room. "What's going on?"
"I'm not sure. The Elders called a meeting just after you left. They should be out soon." She looked around at the altar and grinned. "There they are now! C'mon, let's get up front!"
Tank allowed Jenny to grab his hand and lead him through the crowd to stand just before the altar. The Elders had lined up behind their leader in a semi-circle like they always did before conducting a group ritual. They were dressed, as always, in black, deeply hooded robes with runes sewn into the sleeves. The leader, or Reverend Stapleton Love, as he preferred to be called, raised his hands for silence.
"We have heard from the Great One! He has given us a terrible message! The evil alien, Kal-El, is trying to stop us from achieving the glory we deserve! He means to kill us all and put an end to our way of life! We can not allow this to happen! We will not allow this to happen!"
"What must we do?" someone behind Tank yelled fervently.
"We must cast a holy spell on the evil one! We must control him and force him to leave us alone!"
"But he's too powerful! We can't control him!"
"We must! This is why we have called everyone together! You, our loyal followers, will stay here and raise the power we need, while I and two of the Inner Circle will find the evil one!"
The Reverend and two of the Elders stepped out of their customary positions and went swiftly back to their private rooms. Elder Exrxes stepped forward and began giving instructions for the ritual they would be using to raise power for Reverend Love. Tank used the confusion to escape from Jenny and go over to Cindy.
"What are we going to do?" he asked her in a low voice.
Cindy looked annoyed, and answered at the same volume. "We're going to go along with it, for now! This probably won't do anything. Besides, Superman can take care of himself. We can't attract attention or we won't be able to find out anything! Now get back over to Jenny! You don't want to make her suspicious."
Tank gave her a dubious look, then wound his way back over to his position beside Jenny. She, apparently, hadn't even noticed he'd been gone, for her eyes were closed and she was mouthing the words of the chant. He took his position beside her and waited for more instructions from the Elder.
Superman deposited the injured woman on the waiting gurney. As he did so, he heard another yell for help.
He had been busy rescuing people since earlier that day, when he had helped clean up a traffic accident. He had expected this, of course, but had hoped that people would be more careful after the heavy rain the night before. Most people seemed to drive much worse than usual after it rained, though, and today was proving to be no exception. Maggie was busy today, too, or at least so he had heard.
He launched himself into the air in the direction of the cry. It took him only a few seconds to get to the alley. As he landed, he looked around for the source of the yell. A young woman was standing in the middle of the alley, yelling. She broke off mid-yell as she saw him landing.
"What's the problem, miss?"
She smiled in a way that made his skin crawl. "There is no problem, now, Superman."
A sound behind him made him turn. Two men dressed in deeply cowled robes had stepped out from behind a pile of crates. The two men and the woman spread out around him so that he was centered between them and began chanting in Latin.
Immediately, he felt invisible bonds begin to settle around him. He twisted and tried to take off, but the bonds wouldn't let him. When he was totally encased in the invisible bonds, the tone of the chanting changed and something touched his mind. It felt as though something was trying hard to wiggle its way into his mind. He clenched his teeth and fought with everything he could.
The chanting intensified, and the feeling of something wiggling around his mind did, as well. Sudden pain shot through his head and he groaned involuntarily. The pain increased until it blotted out everything else. Then he knew no more.
Stapleton nudged the unconscious superhero with one foot. The man didn't even twitch.
"The spell worked!" Eric crowed.
"Shut up, you idiot!" Marge snapped. She was watching the superhero, as well. "What now, master?"
"Now we place the controlling spell on him."
"But … but we've got him in our power! Why don't we just destroy him now!"
Stapleton favored the man with a withering stare. "We don't have enough power, yet, to injure him! We stick to the plan!"
"Yes, sir," Eric muttered.
"Let's cast the control spell, quickly. Before someone shows up," Marge suggested nervously.
"Right." Stapleton motioned for the other two to get into position, then placed a talisman inscribed with a single rune on Superman's forehead. He began chanting, holding his hands over the collapsed superhero. The other two hurriedly joined him.
Superman twitched and groaned a couple of times while they were casting the spell, then was silent. Stapleton removed the talisman from Superman's forehead and held it in the air.
"The mechanism of our control!" he proclaimed triumphantly. "Now our plans will have no opposition!"
Bobby Bigmouth chewed rapturously. "This is great, Lois! Where'd ya say you got this from?"
"Bobby! The Black Circle?" Lois prompted him.
"Oh, yeah, right. That's a really creepy bunch. Ya know, the whole robes and chanting thing. They're supposed to be able to cast spells and stuff." He gave her a meaningful look. "I think they're a few slices short of a pie, you know?"
Lois tugged the pie box a little farther away from Bobby. "Are they connected with those murders?"
"Maybe." He looked uneasy. "They're pretty secretive, though. Their members won't talk about their meetings to anybody."
"Meetings?" "Yeah. This old abandoned warehouse in Suicide Slum." He fished around in a pocket and produced a scrap of paper. "Here ya go."
She accepted the paper. "What about the missing FBI agent?"
"Don't know nothin' about her. Last I heard she was workin' with the cops."
Lois sighed and let Bobby take the pie. "If you hear anything more …"
Bobby nodded, taking a huge bite of pie. "Yeah, yeah. I'll letcha know."
Cindy shut the lights of the car off and turned to Tank. "I'm going in to investigate. I want you to stay here and stay out of sight! Understand?"
"You got it, lady," Tank agreed fervently. If the Inner Circle saw him hanging around the warehouse at this time of night without being called there, they'd know something was up.
Cindy pulled her gun out of her shoulder holster and checked the cartridge before replacing it and half sealing her jacket against the cold evening air. She got out of the car and moved swiftly and silently away into the darkness.
As Tank watched her go, worry crept into his thoughts. How many cars actually parked along this street at this time of day? Just by sitting here, he could be drawing attention to himself—and jeopardizing Cindy. Maybe if he hid in the alley, he'd be less obvious.
With that thought, he sealed up his own jacket and slipped out of the car, moving as quickly as he could into the alley beside the warehouse.
The alley was strewn with garbage, as was common in this section of town. He tripped over an empty bottle and grabbed for something to stabilize himself with. As he straightened up, he caught sight of a grimy window that was lit from within. Some crates were loosely piled beneath it, providing a handy staircase.
He looked around nervously. He'd never even thought of doing something like this before! He'd seen it done in movies all the time, but had never thought he'd actually be doing it. He went over to the crates and carefully tested them for stability. They seemed stable enough to support his weight, so he climbed carefully up the crates until he reached the window.
The window, itself, was extremely grimy and looked as though it hadn't ever been cleaned. Actually, considering what part of town this was, that was extremely likely. That made the windows almost impossible to see through, though, so he rubbed his coat sleeve against the window until he'd cleared some of the grime away and could see inside and peered through.
This was evidently a private meeting room for the Inner Circle, for he didn't recognize the layout. All nine Inner Circle members were gathered in the room around a nine-pointed star that appeared to have been burned into the concrete floor. Nine torches burned around the circle, set at equal distances apart, one for each Elder. Inside the star was a chair with a strange woman on it. She was bound to the chair and gagged and was glaring at her captors venomously.
One Elder, who Tank recognized belatedly as Reverend Stapleton, motioned for the others to take their positions before their torches. They did so, and began chanting. Tank could barely hear them from his position, but what he could hear sounded like Latin. The strange woman threw her head back and twisted her hands behind the chair, obviously attempting to free herself in panic. Above her head, a cloud of mist was forming. As it took shape, it slowly lowered toward the terrified woman, then sank into her. She stilled ominously.
As soon as the mist had completely vanished into the woman, Stapleton lifted a sword Tank had not noticed from the floor beside him and knelt beside the star. Starting from the floor, he moved the sword in an arch just tall enough for him to move through. Something glittered in the air before him, then vanished in the arch he had just shaped. He stepped through and went directly to the woman, who was starting to show signs of wakefulness again. He quickly removed the gag and stepped back outside the star.
The woman straightened up on the chair and looked around the room. She grinned in a way that made Tanks skin crawl, and began to speak. Whatever she was saying, it sounded like no language he had ever heard.
Something shifted under Tanks feet and he clutched at the window, hoping desperately that no one would hear it. The woman's gaze whipped around to the window and Tank caught sight of her glowing red eyes just before the piled crates gave way beneath him.
He landed hard in the wet garbage, but pushed himself to his feet and ran from the alley and back out to the car. He crouched beside the car, trembling, then pulled the door open and slipped in, crouching low in the seat. A sound by the opposite door made him grab desperately for the lock before he recognized Cindy.
She opened the door and got in, giving him a disgusted look. "I told you to stay here!"
"They have a woman in there! I don't know what they're doing to her, but …"
Cindy's expression changed immediately. "Which room are they in? I didn't see anyone in there."
They're in the private meeting room. They … they summoned something … something terrible!" Tank shuddered.
"They? They who?"
"The Inner Circle!"
Cindy muttered something under her breath and grabbed for her radio. "This is Special Agent Cindy Reed. I need backup at 1264 Tulip St." She replaced the transmitter and leveled a finger at Tank. "Stay here! I mean it! I might need you to get out of here quickly!"
He nodded shakily. "Yes ma'am."
Cindy grabbed a mag-light from the floor and pulled her gun from its holster before jumping from the car.
Cindy moved quickly back to the warehouse that she had just left. She opened the door, ignoring the non-functional security system, and shone the flashlight in, crossing her wrists to aim within at the same time. No one was there, so she went swiftly down the corridor to the main meeting room, carefully checking the doors that exited off the main corridor as she did so. Naturally no one was there, but she stayed cautious. These people were unpredictable, she knew that from her association with them for the last few months. They could do anything.
She went quickly, but cautiously, across the large room to the door the Inner Circle always used to make their dramatic entrances. She pushed it open and stepped out of the way, then when nothing happened, stepped in front of the door, warily aiming her gun down the hall before her.
This was a section none but the Inner Circle had been admitted to. She moved swiftly down the corridor, testing the few doors she passed as she did so. All here were locked, though, so she reached the end of the corridor quickly.
A flickering light shone from under this door, telling her plainly that this was the door she was looking for. This door, too, opened inward, so she stepped back a pace and kicked it squarely in the middle. The rusty hinges gave instantly, and the door fell inwards.
Three not very surprised appearing Inner Circle members turned to face her as she peeked around the corner. The room was as Tank had said it would be, down to the woman tied to the chair in the center of the room. When she was sure no one was lying in wait for her, she stepped into the room. "Federal agent! Get down on your faces!"
Stapleton Love chuckled softly. "Now why would we want to do something as foolish as that? Especially when we have your partner!" He grabbed the woman's hair and jerked her head up to reveal the features of her partner, Joy Sowell.
Cindy swore softly. "Get away from her now! I will shoot you!"
He chuckled softly. "We will meet again, Special Agent Cindy Reed!" He reached into a pouch dangling from the belt of his robe and threw a handful of glittering dust into the air. It spread out across the three Elders and flashed. When Cindy could see again, they were gone.
Maggie stepped through the warehouse door and slumped back against the wall beside it. The day had been a tiring one, starting when she had heard about a major accident that Superman was needed at but hadn't appeared. Maggie had dropped what she was doing, which was just some minor traffic clean-up, and gone to help with the freeway. There had been some serious injuries in that mess, but she couldn't take the risk of moving them and injuring them, and the ambulances couldn't get through. She'd had to first clear the way for the ambulances, then clear away the wrecked cars to allow traffic to pass. The people she'd blocked while cleaning up the mess hadn't been very grateful … or even pleasant! She'd bet that Superman didn't get that kind of language thrown at him!
Then, after that, she'd overheard Special Agent Reed's call for backup and had hurried to go there as soon as she could. She'd arrived at the warehouse to find a woman identifying herself as Special Agent Reed and Joy Sowell. Joy had been unconscious and the Special Agent had demanded that Maggie take Joy to the hospital. After x-raying her to determine that no she could be moved—that she was merely unconscious—Maggie had taken the FBI agent to Metropolis General to be examined. Then, of course, she'd returned to the warehouse and had thoroughly scanned the building and surrounding alley. Fortunately, the Black Circle hadn't had much warning and hadn't managed to clear out much. The place creeped her out, though, even before she'd realized what it had been used for. There was just something wrong in the building that she couldn't quite place her finger on.
Maggie straightened up and opened her eyes. Lois Lane was standing beside her parked Jeep, just a short distance from Maggie. Maggie pushed hair that had managed to work its way out of its pony tail out of her face and tucked it behind her ear.
"Hello, Ms. Lane," Maggie greeted her
"How are you doing, Sara? I've been listening to the reports all day."
Maggie smiled tiredly. "I'm just a little tired. Don't worry, it's nothing a jelly donut and a double mocha wouldn't fix." She shivered slightly. "Getting out of here would help, too! This place is giving me the creeps!"
"I can understand that!" Lois agreed, then abruptly changed the subject. "Have you seen Superman today? Recently, I mean?"
"No, I haven't." Maggie shook her head. "I haven't even heard him flitting around at all since the early afternoon. I thought he was busy somewhere …" her voice trailed off as Lois shook her head.
"There's been no sighting of him since earlier today. I was hoping …"
"Well, there's probably no reason to worry. He's invulnerable, after all," Maggie said with a touch of irritation. "I could have used his help earlier, though."
"Where is he, then?"
"Well, you could always try yelling for help," Maggie suggested, only half joking. Then she cocked her head in a listening pose. "Wait a minute! There he is!"
Lois turned to see Superman setting down lightly not far from them. He glanced around, then started to go over to where Inspector Parent was discussing something with the forensics team.
"Excuse me, Ms. Lane," Maggie said and jogged over to Superman. Lois was quick to follow.
"Superman, I need to talk to you," Maggie said, irritation faintly coloring her voice. Superman barely glanced at her.
"Maybe later," he said casually.
Maggie grabbed his arm before he could go far. "Where were you earlier?" she demanded. "A girl almost died in a traffic accident because you didn't show up to fly her to the hospital!"
An odd expression flickered over his face, then it resumed its previous look of indifference. "So?"
"So! What do you mean 'so'! Where were you? They needed your help! I needed your help!"
"Listen, little girl, I've got work to do. Why don't you run along to bed now." He shook her hand off of his arm and strode away.
Maggie grabbed his arm again. "You promised me you'd stay out of this unless I asked for help!"
"Well, you haven't made much headway on this, have you! Go home and play and leave the serious work for the adults." He removed her hand from his arm again and continued on his way.
Maggie stared after him, shocked. He'd never acted like that toward her before! In fact, she'd never heard of him acting like that to anyone! She turned to Lois, only to see that the other woman looked just as stunned as she, Maggie, felt.
"What was that all about?"
"I don't know," Lois said slowly. "The only time I've seen him react anything like that was when he was exposed to red kryptonite!"
"Well, he's not going to get away with that! I'm not going to let him get away with brushing me off like that!" Suddenly, she remembered something Joy Sowell had told her near the beginning of the investigation. "Wait a minute … do you remember what Agent Sowell said about some of the people who were investigating the Circle? How they started acting strangely after encountering some members of the cult?"
"Yes, but …" Lois looked doubtful. "How could Superman be affected by those people? He's not human! Human drugs don't affect him!"
"What if it's not drugs?" Maggie asked slowly. "What if it's something else?"
"Like what? Magic?" She saw Maggie's expression and shook her head. "That's not possible! Magic isn't real."
Maggie looked Superman, who was now deeply in conversation with Inspector Parent, over carefully. "I don't know about that. Didn't you tell me something about someone raising a ghost in your house once? And that guy, what's name? Baron something-or-other? The one who was causing Clark to hallucinate his worst fear? I'd call that magic."
"I'd call it trickery. They couldn't do anything like this!"
"Do you have any other explanations for this … this personality change?"
"I don't know. I think you're tired and imagining things. Let me talk to him. I can find out what's wrong." Lois glanced around. "You've done pretty much all you can do tonight, right?"
"That's right. But …"
"I'll talk to him. You go home and get some sleep. If you can't think clearly you won't be able to crack this."
"I can't let him get away with this! He's sticking his nose into my investigation! He swore he wouldn't and he just broke his promise!"
"Sara!" Lois grabbed the girl's arm as Maggie started to stalk off to yell at Superman. "I'm sure he's got a good explanation for this."
"Well, I'd love to hear it!" Maggie suddenly noticed that her voice was starting to rise and caught herself. She took a deep breath, and when she spoke again it was in a very controlled manner. "You're right, Lois. I am too tired to concentrate right now. Tell Superman that I'd like him to scan to see if I missed anything." She sighed, then shot Lois a reproving look. "You know it's irritating to be around someone who's right all the time?"
Lois smiled slightly. "It's not always that bad. Go home."
"Ok, I'm going." Maggie took one last look around the area, then took off at a run towards her apartment.
It didn't take her long to get there. She paused in the alley beside the apartment to do a quick spin-change back into her civilian clothes before going up to her apartment door. As she started to put the key in the lock, the door swung open. She froze for a second. Lucy wasn't here, right now. She was staying at her boyfriend's tonight. Besides Lucy never left the door unlocked. Maggie put her keys away before cautiously pushing the door open further.
"Welcome home, Miss Carmichael."
Maggie peered into the darkened living room. She could just make out a shadowy figure standing beside the curtained window.
"Who are you? What are you doing in my apartment?"
"Who I am doesn't matter, Miss Carmichael. You need help with the Black Circle. I'm here to give it."
Eric crouched at the edge of the rooftop, peering down at what had been the Black Circle's headquarters.
"Now what'll we do?" he moaned. "Without our altar …"
"We don't need the altar, stupid! It was just a prop! We can make another one." She dropped the cigarette butt and twisted it out with one heel. She had been chain-smoking since they'd been forced to flee their hideout a few hours ago. She turned to their leader, Stapleton Love, who had been silent while they watched the police. "Right, master?"
"What? Right," he nodded sharply. "The altar is not necessary." He paused in consideration for a moment. "The time is only a few days away. If we are to have the necessary power we must hurry."
Marge lit another cigarette. "Tell us what to do, Master."
"Get your acolytes and go gather more subjects. Marge, take the south quadrant. Eric, take the east. I will take the north. Make sure they are good ones and meet me at the alternate meeting area at midnight tomorrow night." He cast a disgusted look at his two underlings. "Be careful. They will be looking for us, now. If you are caught …"
The two paled in fear before hurrying out of their master's sight.
Stapleton strode over to the edge of the rooftop to stare down at a certain figure in red and blue. "Success will be ours!"
"Maggie! Are you in? Open the door!" Lois pounded on the door to Maggie's apartment.
The day was appropriately gloomy, with menacingly dark clouds overhead, and a prediction of heavy rains. This suited Lois' mood well.
"Maggie! Open up!" She peered in through the windows, trying to get a glimpse of the interior of the apartment through the blinds.
Finally, the door opened to show an extremely sleepy looking Maggie. She was dressed in a bathrobe and had a steaming mug in one hand. "Lois?"
Lois pushed her way past and into the apartment. "Close the door, Maggie. We've got a problem."
Maggie did so, then followed Lois into the kitchen. "What's wrong?"
Lois turned and strode nervously around the small room. "Did I say problem? I meant a minor problem. Actually, more like a minor confusion. A really, really small one."
Maggie looked confused. "Lois? What's the matter?"
Lois turned to face Maggie. "Clark's missing."
"What?" Maggie put her mug on the table.
"He didn't come home last night and nobody's seen him since early yesterday afternoon."
Maggie nodded slowly. "You want me to take a look around for him?"
"Yes. There's just one little thing you should know, first." Lois took a deep breath. "Clark is…"
"I know, Lois," Maggie interrupted. She drew a "S" across her chest with one finger.
"When did you …how did you .. ?"
"Come on, Lois. Did you really think a pair of glasses and some hair gel would fool me for long?" She smiled briefly. "Give me a minute to change and I'll go look."
Lois nodded and leaned back against the counter, relieved. She'd talk to Maggie about Clark's secret later.
Maggie ran out of the room, then blurred back into the kitchen wearing her black skin-tight outfit. She brushed some lint off of the small S-shield she wore on her left shoulder and grinned tightly at Lois. "I'll meet you at the Planet in two hours if I don't find anything."
Lois nodded and ran for the door. Behind her, she heard the familiar whoosh as Maggie went out the window.
"Ms. Lane," a strange woman said as she came up to Lois' desk. She was dressed professionally in a way that said 'official' to Lois. She was also holding out an FBI badge. "I'm Special Agent Cindy Reed. I'm Agent Sowell's partner. May I speak with you for a minute?"
Lois paused in the act of sitting down. She reflexively hid the Double Crunch Fudge Bar she had been unwrapping in her purse. She had just gotten back from sending Maggie out to search for Clark.
She had intended to tell Maggie that Clark was Superman to make her search a little easier, just as she and Clark had agreed to do if the need arose, but had been surprised by the revelation that Maggie already knew. She'd have to ask the girl how she'd figured out Clark's secret later, when they had time for a long talk.
She had come directly back to the Planet after meeting with Maggie, hoping that Clark would have come back to the Planet, or, if nothing else, she could call her sources and find out if Superman had been sighted anywhere since the night before. Instead, she was going to have to talk to this FBI agent. She quelled her resentment at the interruption and nodded perfunctorily.
"Of course." Lois waved Agent Reed to a chair.
Lois looked around the busy newsroom and nodded.
"This way." She led the agent to one of the conference rooms. Once they were in, she closed the door firmly and pulled the blinds, ensuring their privacy.
Agent Reed motioned Lois to a chair and sat on the edge of the conference table. "Ms. Lane, have you seen Superman recently?"
"As in the past five minutes? No."
"Superman may be in grave danger, Ms. Lane. Have you seen him since last night?"
Lois shook her head. "No, I haven't. But he's Superman. How could he possibly be in danger?"
"From the Black Circle." At Lois' look of disbelief, she elaborated. "The Black Circle has done some … hard to believe things in the past. You might even term what they do magic."
"I refuse to believe magic could be real. It's fantasy!"
"Ms. Lane, magic, or at least what we call magic, is very real. I can prove it to you."
"Please, do." Lois folded her arms and leaned back in her chair.
Agent Reed stood and removed her jacket, revealing a short sleeve blouse underneath, as well as a shoulder holster. She also removed her wristwatch and placed it and her jacket on the table.
"What are you doing?" Lois asked.
"I'm proving magic is real." Agent Reed turned to face Lois. She shifted her stance slightly, so that she was standing completely straight and held her hands before her, palms out, and closed her eyes. For a minute nothing happened, then something shadowy began to form between them. Lois stared in stunned silence as a figure began to take shape. After another minute, Lois began to make out details in the form. Then it came completely into focus.
Agent Reed opened her eyes and lowered her hands. Abruptly the image vanished. "An illusion of you, to be precise. Something like a hologram, only with me as the projector. Now do you believe me?"
Lois nodded. "But if that's all they can do …"
"It's not. That's all I can do without any preparation. I specialize in banishings and lower planar entity containment. They can do much, much more. That's why Superman is in danger. They were going to cast a spell on him of some kind. I wasn't able to find out much before I was forced to blow my cover to rescue my partner last night." She picked up her watch and jacket and put them back on. "Now, I ask you again, have you seen Superman recently?"
"When I saw Superman last night, he was acting … strangely."
"Well, he was extremely rude to Sara, and he acted like he didn't know me at all when I went to talk to him."
"That's right, you and your husband are friends of Superman. Can we get in contact with Sara?"
"She's out searching for Superman right now. She told me she was planning on calling in if she found anything."
"Ms. Lane, she could be in danger right now. Is there any way you can contact her?"
Someone rapped on the conference room door then opened it. Jimmy Olsen poked his head through the opening. "Lois, call for you on line 3."
"Thanks, Jimmy." Lois picked up the phone and punched a button. "Lois Lane."
"Hi, Lois. It's me."
"Sara? What have you found?"
Agent Reed moved closer to the phone.
"I didn't find Superman, but I did find something unusual. Joy Sowell has left the hospital."
"What? When was this?"
"I'm not sure. I spotted her talking to this guy with the Black Circles symbol tattooed onto his wrist." She paused for a moment, then said, "I've gotta go. She's on the move. Remind me to get a cell phone after this, ok?"
"What's going on?" Agent Reed asked.
Lois spoke quietly to the FBI agent. "Agent Sowell has left the hospital. She was seen talking to a man with a tattoo of …"
"The symbol of the Black Circle on his wrist." Agent Reed paled. "We've got more problems than I thought." She chewed her lip for a moment. "Can Sara grab Joy and bring her to us?"
Lois spoke into the phone again. "Sara?"
"I heard. I think I can. Where should I bring her?"
"My brownstone. We'll meet you there."
"Sure. See you there."
"Be careful, Sara. These people are dangerous."
"You got it, Lois." There was a click as Maggie hung up.
"Let's go," Lois told the agent. The left the conference room and headed for the elevators.
Tank carefully sipped hot coffee from his Styrofoam cup as he stepped off the elevator and surveyed the hallway. All was as quiet as he had expected it to be at this early hour. One of the police officers standing guard outside room 34 glanced at him. The nurse exiting a room two doors down walked past him without a blink. Of course, that was nothing more than he expected. He was, after all, dressed as a nurse. They'd probably just assumed he was coming on duty.
He nodded amiably at the police officers as he strolled past, feeling completely at ease. He was, after all, back in his element, and doing the things he did best—tricking and spying on people.
The woman at the nurses' station looked up as he approached. Her nametag identified her as Nurse Beckman. "Hi. You're the new nurse?"
Tank nodded. "I'm Tom Wilcox." He glanced down the hall at the police officers. "When did they get here? They weren't here yesterday afternoon when I left."
"Didn't you hear the news?" the woman lowered her voice. "They found the FBI agent last night and brought her here. They're protecting her from whoever kidnapped her!"
"Really? Wow! I should listen to the news more often."
Nurse Beckman glanced down the hallway at the police officers. "You should be glad you weren't here last night! It was crazy! You know that new superhero? Sara? She's the one who …"
A crash down the hall interrupted her. Tank turned to see Joy Sowell, fully dressed in her own clothing, kicking one of the police officers in the stomach. The other officer was already down, apparently unconscious. Shards of pottery around him made it obvious what she'd done to him. As Tank watched, Joy kicked the officer she was fighting in the knee, then hit him in the throat. He went down, clutching his throat. She grabbed the officer's gun, then turned and ran for the stairs.
Nurse Beckman was staring in astonishment. Tank grabbed the phone and shoved into in the stunned nurse's hand. "Call for help!"
She blinked at him in confusion for a moment before she reached for the phone base and began pushing numbers.
Tank was already moving, running after Joy Sowell. Where could she possibly be going? More importantly, why? Was it because of that summoning circle he had witnessed the night before? None of that would matter, of course, if he couldn't keep up with her.
He reached the stairway door just minutes after Joy. He threw the door open and looked around frantically for a moment before he spotted her on the stairs below him. She glanced up at the sound of the door opening and he quickly stepped back and out of her sight. When her footsteps resumed, he followed as quickly as he dared.
Agent Sowell exited the stairs at the ground floor. He followed suit. Fortunately for him, it was still early enough that there weren't many people around besides hospital personnel. He followed just a short distance behind Joy as she went down a short hallway and out an emergency exit. The alarm that sounded didn't seem to register on her in her determined effort to go … somewhere.
Sowell stepped out into the parking lot in front of a slow-moving car and flashed what Tank presumed was her FBI Identification at the driver, then went around to the driver's door. "Federal emergency! I need your car!"
Tank raced for his own car as Sowell practically dragged the driver out of the car. He pulled his keys from his pocket and thumbed the auto-unlocker on his keychain, finally glad that he'd sprung for the thing a few months ago. He jumped into his car just in time to see Joy, in her stolen vehicle, roaring across the hospital parking lot towards the nearest street outlet.
He followed her out of the hospital parking lot and onto the city streets. For the first couple of blocks he had to fight to remain inconspicuous, but after that it was a battle to stay with her. She didn't seem to have noticed him, though. It was just that the traffic level had picked up.
After an hour, the traffic thinned suddenly, allowing Tank to notice that they were moving steadily toward Suicide Slum. Tank racked his brain for clues as to why they would be going there. He remembered vaguely someone mentioning a secondary meeting place … that was it! That was what she had to be aiming for! He also knew, now, that the summoning circle of the previous night had definitely been used to take control of the good Special Agent Sowell.
The area they were driving through was very typical of the slum. Dilapidated, grungy buildings rose up on both sides of the cracked pavement. Garbage strewn alleys separated the buildings. The cracked sidewalks were sparsely populated by the occasional bum.
Up until now, Tank had managed to avoid coming to this section of town. Now that he'd seen it for himself, though, he realized that the rumors hardly did it credit.
There was also no way he could go unnoticed for long, here. Not driving an intact car like he was, anyway. Fortunately for him, though, Agent Sowell had slowed her car and seemed to be searching for something. Abruptly, Sowell pulled her stolen vehicle to a halt at a corner and got out. Tank pulled his car into a nearby alley and parked it. He jumped out and locked the car up, hoping that his car would still be intact when he got back to it.
He was starting to head for the corner to peek at Agent Sowell, when a black clad figure landed next to him.
"What the …" He looked at the superhero, then up at the sky. "I thought you couldn't fly!"
Sara frowned at him. "I can't. I jumped off the roof. What are you doing here?"
"I'm watching Agent Sowell, remember? She took off from the hospital 'bout an hour ago."
"I heard the hospital alarm." She said, still frowning. She sighed. "I haven't been able to keep up with everything, so I tried to ignore it."
Tank had met the girl the night before, at the warehouse, after she'd returned from taking Agent Sowell to the hospital. Agent Reed had introduced them. Sara had been dubious at the time about letting a civilian work with them on this, but, after the FBI Agent had told her of Tank's connections with the Circle and his defection from them, she'd been willing to work with him. He'd stayed with her while she scanned the warehouse, at Cindy's request, and had gotten to know her fairly well—well enough to get her to trust him on the case, anyway.
"I think she's meeting someone here. Probably someone from the Inner Circle," Tank told the girl.
She nodded. "I followed that Inner Circle guy here. She's probably meeting him." She looked around. "We're going to need a better spot to spy on them from." She gestured to him. "Come here."
He went over to her, puzzled. "Where're we going?"
She put one arm around his waist. "Hang on."
He did so, and she jumped. They landed on the roof of the 3-story building with a soft thud. She grinned at his look of astonishment, then headed over to the edge of the building nearest to Joy Sowell and peered over. Tank joined her after a moment.
Joy had indeed met with a man. Tank couldn't tell who it was from above, like this, due to the hat the man was wearing.. They were standing close to the building and conversing in low voices. Tank and Sara backed away from the edge and Sara stared down at the rooftop intently, evidently using her special vision to watch the two.
"What are they saying?" Tank asked in a low voice.
Sara hushed him impatiently, expression intent. "They're talking about some kind of big meeting tonight. Something about the time?" She shook her head. "Alignment? Of what?"
Tank nodded and spoke in a quite tone. "They've been planning something big for a while, now. It has to be timed just right, though, so that the moon is in alignment with … something. I'm not sure what. Apparently it's pretty rare, though. And they have to be in the right place."
Sara nodded, still listening intently. Tank grinned at her. It was strange, he thought, just a few months before he'd been a petty criminal working for the Black Circle. Now, he was helping one of the biggest enemies of the Circle against his former associates. She was such a pleasant person to work with, too. Sure, she had some rough edges, but so did he. She was beautiful, though, and what a figure! He wondered idly if she had a boyfriend. Probably did, he thought. A pretty girl like her wouldn't have any trouble getting a boyfriend if she wanted one.
She muttered something under her breath. "Tank, do you have a phone?"
He pulled out the cell phone Cindy had given him the night before when he'd volunteered to keep an eye on Joy. "Here."
She accepted the phone and quickly dialed a number. "Hi. I need to talk to Lois."
There was a pause, then, "Hi, Lois. It's me… I didn't find Superman, but I did find something unusual. Joy Sowell has left the hospital … I'm not sure. I spotted her talking to this guy with the Black Circles symbol tattooed onto his wrist." She paused for a moment and looked at the rooftop then said, "I've gotta go. She's on the move. Remind me to get a cell phone after this, ok?" She paused again. "I heard. I think I can. Where should I bring her? … Sure. See you there. .. You got it, Lois."
She snapped the phone shut and handed it back to Tank. "Tank, I'm going to grab Agent Sowell. Can you follow that Inner Circle guy for me? It's really, really important that we find out more about their plans."
"Sure. Just as long as you get me down from here first." Tank agreed amiably. Right he'd do just about anything for this girl.
Sara smiled, looking relieved. "Thanks." She pulled a scrap of paper and a pen from one of her boots and scribbled something on it. She handed the paper to him. "If you find something, call this number. It's Lois' cell phone number. I'll probably be with her. If I'm not, she'll know how to contact me."
Tank took the slip of paper and tucked it into his pocket. He wondered idly what else the girl stored in her boots.
They hurried back to the alley they had met in, and Sara put her arm around his waist again. They jumped off the roof, landing softly beside his car, which was, surprisingly, still intact. Sara released him and they hurried over to the sidewalk. The two they had been spying on were walking in opposite directions, now. Joy Sowell got into her stolen car and drove away. The Black Circle member turned a corner and disappeared from sight.
"Good luck, Tank," Sara said to him before racing off after the car.
Tank spared his car one last look, sure he wouldn't see his car in one piece again after this, before he slipped around the corner after the Inner Circle member.
Maggie watched Special Agent Joy Sowell as the woman prowled around the room. Maggie was leaning casually against the back of an easy chair.
After parting with Tank in Suicide Slum, Maggie had followed Agent Sowell down two blocks to make sure nobody was following the FBI agent before grabbing her. Maggie hadn't wanted word of Agent Sowell's capture to reach the Black Circle until it was too late for them to do anything about it. Naturally Joy had struggled, but the woman hadn't had a chance of getting away from Maggie. Maggie had brought Agent Sowell directly to Lois and Clark's home on Hyperion Avenue. They were now awaiting the arrival of Lois Lane and Special Agent Cindy Reed.
Maggie turned away from Agent Sowell at a suspicious sound from the street, then spun and bolted across the room, blocking the Agent, who had taken Maggie's distraction as a chance to make a break for freedom, from the window.
Maggie gripped the woman's arms against her body carefully but firmly. "Agent Sowell, would you please stop doing that? I'm a lot faster than you are. There's no way you'll make it out before I catch you."
Joy glared at Maggie but didn't say anything as Maggie turned her around and guided her over to the sofa and pushed her down on it. "Stay here, now. Your partner and Ms. Lane should be here soon."
Joy growled something inarticulate. Maggie took that as assent and assumed a position from which she could see both Joy and the street outside.
Five minutes later, Lois' silver Jeep pulled up in front of the brownstone. Lois and Agent Reed got out. Agent Reed had a bag of some sort slung over one shoulder.
"Stay!" she told Joy as she abandoned her spot by the chair and went over to open the door for the two women.
"What took you so long?" she greeted them half humorously.
Cindy let the bag slide down to her hand and held it up. "Supplies. If what I suspect is true, I'm going to need them."
"Sara, have you seen Superman today?" Lois asked Maggie. Her face was slightly pale and drawn with worry.
Maggie shook her head. "No, I haven't seen him since last night. Tank followed that Black Circle member Agent Sowell met with. If he sees Superman, he'll call."
Cindy hurried past Maggie and over to her partner. "Hi, Joy, how are you feeling?"
Joy glared at her partner. "Not as well as I will when that alien is in jail where it belongs for kidnapping me like this!"
Cindy fixed her with a stern look. "You know what procedure is for a team member who has been in solitary contact with unknown and possibly extra-planar entities. When you skipped out of the hospital before I had the chance to check you out for outside influences, I had to follow regulations and retrieve you in any way possible. Including recruiting a civilian with unusual abilities."
Maggie suppressed a grin. That was definitely an understatement of what she could do!
Cindy reached into the bag she had allowed to slide to the floor and pulled out a small silk package. She opened this and pulled out a small red crystal set in what appeared to be silver. She held it over Joy's head and chanted something softly and swiftly. The crystal began to glow and Joy winced, then hit Cindy's hand, knocking the item to the floor. Joy shoved Cindy backwards and bolted for the nearest window. Maggie had her blocked before she could go three paces and was gripping the Agent's wrists carefully but firmly.
"What was that?" Lois asked Cindy as the other woman picked herself up off the floor.
"Joy is being controlled. Just like I suspected." Cindy grabbed her bag off the floor.
"Um, Agent Reed," Maggie spoke up suddenly. "Why is she glowing?"
Cindy threw a startled look at her. "You can see it?"
Maggie nodded slowly.
"What are you two talking about?" Lois asked. "What glow?"
"We've found that some of the more powerful psychics can see … unwanted visitors, like the one Joy's got, there. They always describe it as a glow about the person. Something like the corona around the sun when it eclipses, I'm told." Cindy was looking at Maggie very intently. "Sara, I'm going to need your help with exorcising the entity from Joy."
"I'll help any way I can."
"Thanks." She looked around the room. "This room will be perfect for the exorcism. Sara, you hang onto Joy. Lois, let's move some furniture."
"Exorcism?" Lois sounded incredulous. "I thought only Priests could perform exorcisms."
"Or Priestesses," Cindy answered absently. She was studying the room. "We're going to need to move all of this out of the way." She started moving the recliner Maggie had been leaning against toward the wall.
"Priestess?" Lois sounded incredulous. "What are you talking about?"
Cindy stopped moving the chair and turned towards Lois. "Have you heard of a section of the FBI called Paranormal Investigations? It's been in operation since Superman appeared and showed us that some paranormal phenomena were real. I was recruited by Agent Sowell to be part of the team because they needed someone who already understood the mythology behind magic. I'm not technically an FBI agent. I didn't go through their training school or anything. Before I was recruited for this I was a parapsychologist."
"I thought parapsychologists were …"
"Crackpots?" Cindy went over to the couch and started moving it. "I figured you did. Most people do. I have a Doctorate in parapsychology and a bachelors in psychology."
"So, the exorcism? How can you do that?"
"Well, my mother was a High Priestess of the Silver Tree Coven. That's a Celtic witchcraft coven, by the way. Anyway, she made sure I knew how to get rid of unwanted visitors like the one Joy's picked up before I left for college." She paused in moving the couch to give Lois a pointed look. "You know, helping out a little probably wouldn't kill you."
"Right." Lois moved to the other side of the couch.
Tank ducked into a doorway as his quarry glanced backwards yet again. So far he had managed to follow without being seen, but it was getting harder. He only hoped the man reached his destination soon.
As he thought that, the man ducked into a doorway. Tank hurried up to it and reached it in time to see the door finish closing. He glanced quickly around, then ran for the alley that opened to one side of the building. The front door probably wouldn't be the safest way to enter the building, especially if the Inner Circle was there, but maybe in the alley …
As he had hoped, there was another door to the building in the alleyway. Hopefully this one wouldn't be quite so well used. He gingerly tried the knob. Locked! Well, he was prepared for this. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small tool. He inserted it into the lock and and manuvered it around for a couple of minutes before a small 'click' announced his success. He pushed the door open wide enough for him to slip through and looked around.
He was standing in a secluded area of the warehouse. There were crates stacked haphazardly in front of him, shielding him from view. The unmarked dust on the floor showed that no one had been over there recently. They might not even know about this door. He hoped they didn't, anyway.
Voices nearby caught his attention. He went carefully toward the crates, trying hard not to make any noise. From what he'd heard, Superman might be under their control and he didn't want to do anything to draw the superhero's attention should he be there. He crept carefully through the crates towards the voices. As he got nearer, he recognized some of the voices as members of the Inner Circle.
" …Centennial Park. It'll be perfect for the ceremony tonight." That was Eric, one of Stapleton's chief lieutenants. He sounded smug. "It's got this nice clear area we can set up in."
"Good. Marge?" That voice was one anyone who had ever been in the Circle would recognize immediately—Stapleton Love.
"I've found a nice little marble slab to use for the altar. It's bigger than the one we lost from the main meeting site." Marge practically purred that.
"Good. We're going to need a large one this time due to our … hmm, difficulties with the subject." Stapleton laughed shortly. There was a chorus of laughter from the others. "Ok, we need to be ready for tonight. I want all of you to go around to your 'flocks' and have them at the park by eleven."
"What is keeping those snacks?" Marge demanded irately. "I don't want to have to summon the flock on an empty stomach!"
Tank squeezed around another crate, keeping low. Who was this subject they were talking about? If he got closer, maybe he could find out.
"Hey! What're you doing back here?"
Tank spun to see a young man dressed as an acolyte standing behind him. He was carrying a tray of sandwiches and glasses. These were obviously the snacks Marge was waiting for.
"I'm uh …" Tank groped for an acceptable response. "I'm looking for my talisman. Have you seen it?" He advanced towards the younger man. "It's about so long and red." He motioned with his hands, lifting both hands in a measuring gesture, then lunged forward, punching him solidly. The acolyte staggered backwards, tray of food falling to one side with a loud clatter. Tank turned and ran, dodging crates and fumbled for his cell phone.
The commotion behind him told him that people were coming to investigate. He threw open the door to the alley and ran as fast as he could, terrified at the thought of what they might do to him if they caught him now.
He pulled out the slip of paper Sara had given him earlier with the phone number on it and punched it into his phone. He ducked around just as the phone began to ring.
Someone picked up. "Lois Lane."
"This is Tank," he told her.
"Tank Wilson? How did you get this number!"
He came to a gasping halt and ducked into a door alcove, peeking back around the corner the way he'd come. "This is important! They're meeting tonight at Centennial Park at eleven!"
"Who is? The Black Circle?"
"No, the mayor's tea party!" Tank said sarcastically. The first of his pursuers came around the corner and he took off running again. "Of course the Circle!"
He rounded a corner and ran directly into a Black Circle member. The phone went flying and crashed into a building as they went down in a heap on the ground. They writhed around on the ground for a minute, Tank trying to get away, the Black Circle member trying to restrain him. Running feet announced the arrival of several other members and within minutes Tank had lost the fight to sheer numbers.
He shook his head, dazed from getting his head knocked against the ground, and looked up in time to see Marge come around the corner. She grinned sadistically when she saw him.
"Why, Tank Wilson, how nice to see you again!" she crooned.
Tank flinched away from her as she jerked his face up to force him to look at her. She dug her nails into his face. "And what perfect timing, too! I was wondering how we would make up for the power we'll be using tonight in the ceremony! You'll be perfect as a post-summoning sacrifice!"
At her gesture, the two holding Tank dragged him around the corner and back towards the warehouse. Marge followed, laughing.
Cindy carefully laid out a circle with the salt she had brought with her. Lois, who was seated inside the circle, was watching her intently.
The living room had been cleared of all furniture to make room for the spell casting Cindy needed to do. In addition to the circle Lois was seated in, there was a larger circle that enclosed both Lois' circle and the incomplete inner circle that Sara and Joy were standing in.
Cindy apparently noticed her look, for, without looking up, she said, "Don't worry, Lois. I've got this neat little gadget that sucks the salt right up. There won't be a problem with clean-up."
Lois shook her head. "That's not the problem. Why do we need the circle at all? What's it for?"
"Your own protection. Exorcisms are a messy business. I could mess up and the critter could get loose and go for the nearest unprotected human—you." She finished laying the circle and looked Lois intently in the eyes. "Whatever happens, you must stay within the circle! Do you understand? I might not be able to protect you if you don't. I'm not that strong."
Lois nodded. "I'll stay here. I may dangle myself over deaths jaws, but I never do it deliberately."
Cindy gave her a tense smile before turning and stepping inside the pentagram she had already drawn and almost completed in the center of the large room. She turned and finished it off with the last of the salt and put the container back in the bag she wore around her waist.
In addition to the bag she wore strapped around her waist, she was wearing a tight black outfit, obviously designed for ease of movement that had a number of symbols sewn into the collar and wrists. When Lois had asked, Cindy had called them her work clothes.
Sara was already standing in the center of the pentagram with Joy. Joy wasn't actually struggling any more, but none of them wanted to take any chances of any disruptions. Sara had her hands resting lightly on the older woman's shoulders as a warning against Joy attempting to escape.
Cindy stepped up to the two and nodded at Sara. Sara adjusted her grip on Joy's shoulders as Cindy began to speak.
"I declare the circle closed. Let it stand as a wall between us in our endeavors and the rest of the world, protecting all without from harm."
Lois gasped as the room outside the circle seemed to vanish, to be replaced by a glowing iridescent dome. Sara seemed startled too, but was quickly distracted from the dome by her suddenly squirming captive. Apparently the thing controlling the FBI Agent didn't like what was happening.
Cindy continued in a singsong tone. She raised both hands up, palms towards the struggling Joy. She was wearing bracelets Lois had not noticed before, which gleamed in the iridescent light from the dome.
"Wolf and Horse, old signs of strength, Come to us now in our need, Bind this one with gossamer thread, So now our words she must heed."
The air within the dome seemed to darken for a moment, then two shadows coalesced on either side of Joy. Joy abruptly stopped struggling in Sara's hold.
Cindy nodded at Sara, who released Joy and clasped hands with Cindy.
"Courage I need and the power of steel, Energy, willpower, the defense to feel. Strong in magic, blessed by light, Lend your strength to me this night."
Lois winced and shielded her eyes as Sara lit up with a bright white light, which flowed through her arms into Cindy through their clasped hands. When light lessened a bit, she looked back. White light was still flowing from Sara to Cindy, and Sara had her eyes tightly closed. Lois grimaced. From what Cindy had told them while she was setting up the room, that light was the solar energy that Sara had stored during the day and used to power her super abilities. She knew from past experience with her husband that if too much was removed, Sara wouldn't be able to use her super powers and with no way to re-fuel, she would be vulnerable to injury.
Cindy went quickly forward to the next phase of the spell. She, too, knew that Sara's power wasn't limitless.
"Creature of darkness, child of night,
Leave this woman, come into the light."
The energy seemed to split and focussed on Joy. It lifted Joy up in the air, outlining her in pure white light. Joy screamed and something dark and shadowy was pulled out of her. She dropped to the floor, limp and apparently unconscious. The shadowy form twisted and danced above Sara and Cindy's heads. It flared red wherever it touched the light and roared.
Lois covered her ears and hunched down in her circle. This was completely outside anything she had ever faced alone before.
Abruptly, Sara went to one knee, and Lois could see that her face was drawn and pale. The creature the two were holding at bay seemed to sense her weakness, for it launched a series of tendrils of darkness at her. Sara was knocked backwards onto the ground. Her mouth opened, but over the noise Lois couldn't hear anything from her.
The creature took advantage of the break in the link between the two women and surged through a break in the light barrier that was confining it. It surged around the dome aimlessly for a moment, then, apparently sensing Lois as an unprotected human, moved quickly towards her. It came to a hard stop just in front of Lois, where the circle's protection started. It roared in rage as it began searching for a way into her.
Dimly, through the red flares caused by the creature coming in contact with the invisible shield protecting her, Lois saw Sara trying to push herself to her feet.
"Gabriel! Now!" She faintly heard Sara shout over the ruckus.
A door opened right in front of Sara and a figure that appeared to be wearing a trench coat and a broad rimmed hat stepped out. With a throwing gesture he sent a fresh burst of energy to Cindy who caught it and sent it at the creature.
"In the name of the Goddess, I command you! Return to that place from whence you came!"
The energy swirled around the creature, forcing it tighter and tighter in on itself. In moments, it was gone entirely.
The sudden silence was deafening. Behind the newcomer, Sara collapsed with a thud.
"Sara!" Lois tried to step forward, but was blocked by the same wall that had protected her just a few minutes before. The strange man in the trench coat and broad-rimmed hat turned towards the fallen girl. Cindy held out her hands, closed her eyes, and muttered something and Lois felt the invisible barrier vanish from before her. The dome vanished as well and the light returned to normal. Lois went quickly over to the girl, who was beginning to stir.
Sara pushed herself up to hands and knees, shaking her head as if dazed. Her hair had come out of its tight ponytail and was hiding her face. She looked up at Lois. "Is everyone all right? Did we beat it?"
Lois nodded. "Are you all right?"
Sara looked confused. "Of course I'm all right. Just a little dazed." She accepted the hand Lois extended to help her up. Sara looked past Lois and through the window behind her.
"Duck!" she shouted. She shoved Lois behind her just as Superman crashed through the window, sending glass shards everywhere.
"What do you want, Superman?" Sara asked him as he advanced towards her. She gasped in surprise as he grabbed her at super speed and took off out the window.
Superman placed an indignant and scared Maggie in the dimly lit room and closed the door, blocking her only hope of escape. In her current weakened condition, she didn't think she'd be much of a threat to an ordinary human, much less a Kryptonian at full strength.
"Good work, Superman." A voice familiar to Maggie spoke from the shadows. "Now don't you think you should tie her up so she won't be able to get away and threaten anyone else?"
Superman picked up a length of metal pipe from a nearby table and used it to fasten Maggie's wrists behind her back.
"Why don't you take a look around the city for any crime taking place, Superman?" the man in the shadows continued in a helpful, friendly tone.
Superman nodded and sped out of the room. A sonic boom announced his departure. As the door closed behind him, the man stepped out of the shadows. Maggie found herself glaring at Stapleton Love, the leader of the Black Circle.
"What did you do to him?" Maggie demanded. "He would never obey you unless you did something! What was it?"
Stapleton chuckled as he approached her. Maggie flinched as he grasped her arm and pulled her forcibly over to a chair that was in shadows. "You are involved in things you could not possibly understand, little superhero."
"Try me. I might just surprise you."
Stapleton took a step backwards and leaned down to place a short length of rope on the ground between them. He muttered something Maggie couldn't quite hear and suddenly a dome that looked like a solid soap bubble appeared around her and the chair. Maggie ignored it. Escape hadn't seemed to be an option, anyway—at least not while Stapleton had Superman at his beck and call.
"You may be right. You've surprised us several times already." The man surveyed her solemnly. Then he smiled slightly. "So tell me, what do you think we've done to him?"
She considered for a moment, twisting her wrists in their metal bonds as she did so. Hopefully her strength would return soon so she wouldn't be quite so defenseless. "It's not a demon, like was controlling Agent Sowell. Maybe a spell or something?"
His smile broadened into a rather ominous smile. "You see? This is exactly why our Lord has chosen you! You have abilities far beyond those of humans. Even untrained, you have sensed something the FBI's witch missed entirely." He began to move slowly around Maggie's enclosure, scrutinizing her as closely as he could in the dim lighting. "We placed a spell on Superman that has convinced him that I am all that is good and that everything I say is true. We blocked his long-term memory entirely. He knows only what I tell him."
"And you're telling him lies!"
He chuckled softly as he moved back into her line of vision. "Of course, my dear! I have my very own obedient superhero! Why would I tell him the truth?"
Maggie suddenly remembered what Stapleton had told Superman before sending him off. "Wait a minute! If you have his memory completely blocked, why do you have to lie to him? Why not just command him to do what you want?" She fixed the man with a penetrating look. "You don't have complete control over him! You wouldn't have to tell him I was evil otherwise!"
The man scowled at her exultant expression. "You are entirely too smart for your own good! If we didn't need you for the ceremony …"
Maggie paled. That was the ceremony she'd overheard Stapleton and Joy discussing earlier that day—the one she knew almost nothing about. If it was anything like the other ceremonies the Circle had been conducting, though, she definitely didn't want to play a part in it.
The man saw her expression and chuckled softly. "Don't worry, my dear, you won't feel any pain. Dahak will make sure of that."
Maggie swallowed hard. She had to get away! Help was probably on its way, if they could only find out where she was being held. That might be a problem, since she didn't know where she was either. Lois Lane was a great investigative reporter, though, and if anyone could find her, Lois could. If only Lois could find her in time. "Dahak? Who's that?"
"Dahak is the great one! He is the bringer of darkness and the true ruler of this world!" Stapleton grinned triumphantly. "This time, His Nemesis, Hercules, is not around to stop Him! He shall rule the world for all of eternity!"
"When is the ceremony?" Maggie asked in a slightly unsteady voice.
"The ceremony begins at eleven. That gives you three hours to make your peace." Stapleton laughed softly. "I wouldn't waste it, if I were you."
Lois stared after her husband, stunned. It was true, then. He was being controlled by someone. Her husband would never do something like that of his own volition.
Something shrilled, making them all jump. Lois unclipped her cell phone from her pocket, where she'd put it before the exorcism.
"Lois Lane," she said.
"This is Tank."
"Tank Wilson? How did you get this number!"
"This is important! They're meeting tonight at Centennial Park at eleven!" the man gasped.
"Who is? The Black Circle?"
"No, the mayor's tea party!" Tank said sarcastically. "Of course the Circle!"
"What do they need Sara for? Tank?" Over the phone, Lois heard a yelp, then nothing. The phone went dead. Lois turned the phone off slowly and turned to find Cindy and the stranger staring at her.
"That was Tank Wilson. The Black Circle is meeting tonight in Centennial Park."
"That's probably where we'll find Sara," a weak voice said. Everyone turned to see Joy Sowell pushing herself up from the floor, face very pale.
"Joy!" Cindy hurried over to her partner. "How are you feeling?"
"A little weak. I could use some food," she said hopefully.
Cindy smiled. "You can eat after I check you out. I have to make sure all traces of that demon are gone."
Joy sighed. "Ok, let's get this over with."
Cindy retrieved the red crystal she had used earlier on Joy from her bag, which had been placed just outside the protective circle. She held it over Joy's head and chanted something softly. Nothing happened and Cindy sighed, obviously relieved. "It's completely gone. Not a trace of the thing."
Lois sighed softly in relief, as well. She didn't want to go through something like that ever again. As she thought of the ceremony, though, she remembered something. "Where did that man go?"
"What?" Cindy looked around the room. "I don't know. He was just here a minute ago."
"Who was he, anyways?"
Cindy shook her head. "I have no idea. I've never seen him before. Didn't Sara yell something before he appeared?"
"Yeah, she did. It sounded like a name to me. Let's worry about that later—he did help, after all." Lois turned to Joy. "Do you have any idea of where the Circle would have Sara?"
Joy shook her head slowly. A little color had returned to her face, but she still looked exhausted. "I'm not sure."
"She could be at the secondary meeting site." Cindy volunteered. "I heard it mentioned a few times, but the Inner Circle were the only ones who knew where it was."
"We've got to find it before eleven tonight. It might be our only chance to save Sara," Joy told them. "I'm not exactly sure what they're going to do to her, but I know it won't be pleasant."
Lois nodded sharply. "Let's get down to the Planet. If there's anything we can find in the," she glanced at her wristwatch, "three hours we have left, we can find it from there." She hurried over to the door, pausing only to scoop up her purse and coat. "Let's go."
Joy shoved the keyboard away in disgust. "We're not getting anywhere with this!"
They were in the newsroom at the Daily Planet. Lois was seated at her desk and the two FBI Agents had appropriated computers for their own use. They had been using all the resources available to them to search for the Black Circle's secondary meeting site. The search had, thus far, been less than successful.
Cindy looked up from her computer at Joy's outburst. She had been checking the property records for Suicide Slum in the hopes that the cult had been running true to form in their choice of locale. It was too bad Sara hadn't thought to tell them where she'd been when she spotted the Circle member. "We have to keep searching, Joy. It'll be easier to rescue Sara from their meeting site than in the ceremony. We'll have more of a chance of surviving it, too."
Lois, too, had looked up from her work. "It's already 10:23. We're running out of time. We might not have any choice of where we confront the Circle."
Cindy sighed. "You may be right. I was hoping we wouldn't have to. I guess it's time to call in some back-up." She reached for her cell phone and activated it, speed dialing a number as she did so. She held it to her ear and looked puzzled. She cancelled the call and dialed in a number, then another. "That's strange. The signal doesn't seem to be getting through."
Lois looked puzzled. "That's odd. Try the other phone."
Cindy reached for the desk phone, then flinched when she placed it to her ear. "Ouch!"
"What's wrong?" Lois, too, picked up her phone, but held it at a safe distance from her ear when she listened to it. "That's odd. I've never heard static like that before."
Cindy listened to it again for a moment. "That's not regular static. Joy, check the Internet connection for me?"
Joy pulled her keyboard back and pushed buttons. "That's odd, it's not responding."
"What?" Lois, too, turned to her computer. "That's not possible!"
Cindy was staring at the phone receiver, still. "They've started early."
"What makes you say that?"
"The phone disruptions. This static is too rhythmic for it to be anything but a something caused by the Circle." She slammed the phone down in its cradle and jumped to her feet. "Their ceremony must have already started! We have to go now!"
The other two women exchanged a horrified look, then jumped up and followed Cindy in a race for the stairs.
Lois, Cindy and Joy slipped quietly through the trees. The night had gotten darker in the past few minutes due to a cloud cover that had mysteriously moved in. They were headed for commons—it was the only place in the park that had enough clear ground to have a gathering of any kind. Normally it was used for rallies or public gatherings of some sort.
"Shh!" Cindy, who was in the lead with her gun at the ready, motioned for the other two to stop.
"What is it?" Lois breathed.
"Cultists," Cindy replied at the same volume. "Let's wait until they go past."
The three crouched down in the sparse underbrush as two robe-clad cultists went past. The cultists were moving noisily and without regard for secrecy. Cindy and Lois exchanged a look in the dimness.
A few short minutes and a small scuffle later, Cindy and Joy were wearing two bona fida cultist robes. The two cultists they left cuffed behind a tree. Now appropriately clad, Joy and Cindy made no effort at silence, striding apparently uncaringly along the path with Lois just behind them.
They heard the noises of the Circle long before they saw them. They paused at the edge of the trees to scan the clearing.
The area had been cleared of the trashcans and picnic tables that usually occupied the area and had been replaced with a good-sized group of robe-clad people. They had set up torches like the ones found at the warehouse the Circle had used for their sacrifices. From what little the three women could see, the cultists appeared to have also laid out a large replica of the design that had been burned into the floor of the warehouse in the ground in the center of the area.
"Ok, Lois, we need you to keep trying to get through to our team or the police. If we get into trouble, get out of here," Cindy told the reporter.
"Wait a minute!" Lois objected. "I've dealt with people like this before!"
"We can't let you go in there with us!" Joy said. "You're a civilian and we wouldn't be able to protect you. Besides, we only have two robes."
"I won't run if you get into trouble. Superman and Sara are my friends!" Lois eyed the two. "There's no way you can force me to leave."
Joy sighed. "She's right. Besides, you don't know Lois Lane like I do, Cindy."
"I'll try to stay out of sight," Lois offered. "We don't really have time for this. Go do your job. I can take care of myself."
Joy and Cindy exchanged a worried look before they stepped out from behind the tree and headed for the cultists. Lois watched the two FBI Agents as they made their way across the open expanse of land to the cultists. As soon as they had vanished into the crowd of people, Lois began to carefully work her way through the trees and around the clearing.
She had gone perhaps half of the way to her goal—the opposite side of the circle they had set up—when a commotion was raised by the cultists.
"FBI!" she heard someone shout. "Get them!"
She peered through the trees and managed to catch a glimpse of one of the agents being overpowered by the mob. It was up to Lois to save them now.
She resumed her painstaking progress around the clearing. The few glimpses she got of Joy and Cindy were enough to tell her that the two were still alive. The cultists were tying them up and placing them near the center of the circle under the watchful eyes of several cult members.
As she neared her goal a familiar whoosh made her stop and look in time to see Superman coming in for a landing. He had two passengers; both of them bound and gagged. One was Tank Wilson, the other … Lois closed her eyes in relief. Sara seemed to be in good condition, still, despite having been captured several hours ago. Tank was slung carelessly over one shoulder, but Superman seemed to be carrying Sara a little more carefully.
Suddenly the group seemed to be taking their places. Sara was placed in the center of the circle with the two FBI Agents with Superman guarding her. Tank was put outside the circle with one guard.
Lois eyed Tank thoughtfully. Despite her protestations earlier about being able to take care of herself, this looked like a situation she would need help with. Usually that wouldn't be a problem, but this time her husband was one of the ones in trouble. Despite her personal dislike for the man, Tank had proved to be rather helpful to Sara and Agent Reed so far. Perhaps if she rescued him, he'd be able to help her now.
"Assume your places! The time is at hand!" A tall man dressed in the pure black robe of the Inner Circle spoke loudly from the very center of the circle. Lois couldn't see him well due to the hood he wore, but she would bet anything it was Stapleton Love, the leader of the Black Circle. Standing beside and behind him were eight other figures also dressed in the pure black robed hood. They were standing in a ring around Sara and Superman, who was still holding Sara immobile. Joy and Cindy had been moved to another section of the circle.
Stapleton turned and faced Superman and Sara. The other Inner Circle members followed suit. As they did so, they raised their hands to head level.
"I call upon the Light of Dahak! Illuminate your chosen host with your presence!" Stapleton proclaimed in a stentorian voice. From nowhere, a brilliant white light began to shine on the Inner Circle and the two superheroes. The expressions on the faces of the Circle members she could see could only be described as rapt awe.
Seeing that everyone's attention was on the ceremony taking place, Lois took that as her moment to act. She grabbed up a branch from the ground beside her and ran forward, hitting Tank's guard over the head. She quickly untied him and ungagged him. "How do we stop this?"
At a signal from Stapleton, Superman removed Sara's bonds. He moved more slowly as he did this than he had earlier. As he finished removing the ropes, he staggered backwards a step and collapsed.
"We have to get to Stapleton! If we knock him out, it's all over! Superman and Sara will be released and the Inner Circle people won't know what hit 'em!" Tank had to shout over the noise the Circle was creating. The lesser members of the Circle had just begun chanting something incomprehensible to Lois.
"How do we do that? He's surrounded by cultists!"
The sourceless light that was shining down on Sara intensified with the chanting and focussed narrowly on her. She no longer seemed to be aware of anything around her as she swayed in time to the chanting. The white light slowly became infused with red until it had a core of pure red light shining directly on Sara's face. Beside Sara, Superman stirred.
"They're in trance! They won't be able to do anything!"
Lois grabbed her branch from where she had dropped it and went determinedly towards the Circle. Tank was just a few steps behind her. As they did so, Sara began to lift into the air. Her eyes were closed and her expression was one of sheer terror.
Behind Lois, Tank tripped and sprawled forward in the grass. Lois ignored him as she ran toward Stapleton, branch raised high. Just as she reached him, Sara opened her eyes. Lois stumbled and nearly fell at the sight—they were glowing red!
Bang! The sound of a gunshot from behind her made Lois throw herself flat to the ground. Stapleton jerked, then stumbled forward and went to one knee in the grass. Two more gunshots and the man fell face down in the grass. Everything seemed to pause for a moment.
The light enveloping Sara seemed to pulse. Tank grabbed Lois' arm.
"Run!" he yelled. He dragged her to her feet and shoved her along before him, not letting her stop at the edge of the circle. Behind them, the light enveloping Sara exploded outward. Lois and Tank fell face down in the grass as the shock wave hit them.
Lois huddled down where she had landed, covering her head with her arms as a second explosion sent debris over her. The ground rumbled and shook beneath them. A brilliant light lit up the park. As the debris subsided, Lois pushed herself to her feet and turned, uncertain of what she would see.
The circle the cultists had laid out was still there. Most of the cultists, however, were nowhere to be seen. A few crumpled figures lay scattered around, unmoving. The spot where Joy and Cindy had been was blocked from Lois' sight by the events in the center of the circle.
The nine members of the Inner Circle were pushing themselves to their feet. Stapleton was moving slowly and rather gingerly with one arm clutched tightly against his side as he stood to stare up at the thing coalescing above him. Above him, something enormous was taking shape. The light illuminating the park was emanating from it. As Lois watched, it formed into a roughly human shape. Its eyes were glowing red.
"Lord Dahak!" Stapleton yelled over the noises the creature was making. "What is your will?"
Dahak threw back his head and laughed.
"I have returned to this world!" Dahak rumbled in an ominous voice. "All of humanity shall kneel before me!"
Modest, isn't he? Lois thought. Where was her husband? He and Maggie had been in the center of the circle before the explosion. A slumped figure in black beneath the massive Dahak caught her eye. It was Sara! Lois couldn't tell what kind of shape she was in, though, and Superman was nowhere to be seen.
She leaned down and grabbed Tank by his arm. He'd been laying on the ground staring in stunned silence at the creature. "Tank! We have to find Superman!"
Tank brushed blood out of his face. Evidently, he hadn't gone down as fast as Lois had when the debris had started flying. He shook his head violently. "He's probably dead! He was right on top of that explosion!"
"Superman's alive! He has to be! And we're going to find him!"
Tank shook his head in disbelief. "Fine. Whatever you say. Where's Sara?"
Lois indicated the slumped figure beneath Dahak. "She might be hurt! If we don't get her out of there soon …"
Tank's face paled even more as he caught sight of the girl. "Let's split up! We'll have a better chance of finding him!"
Lois stared after the man for a moment as he ran off, searching for Superman, surprised. Maybe the man wasn't as self-centered as he'd appeared. Nah, of course he was self-centered. He was probably just worried about what would happen to him if this Dahak character succeeded.
"Ah, my chosen receptacle!" Dahak boomed, drawing Lois' attention back to the circle. He reached down and lifted Sara's limp body up before him. He shook her roughly. "This little thing?"
"Yes, my Lord Dahak! She has abilities that will be useful to you!"
A flash of red to one side of Dahak caught Lois' eye. It couldn't be! Lois went swiftly around the circle, hoping the cultists wouldn't notice her. Fortunately, the other eight members seemed to be as completely focussed on Dahak as their leader was.
It was Superman! He was pushing himself up on both arms, shaking his head as though dazed. He was at the edge of the circle where he'd apparently been thrown by the blast. Lois ran over to him and helped him stand up.
"Are you all right?" Lois asked him.
He nodded. "I think so. What's going on?"
Lois indicated Dahak, who had started giving commands to Stapleton and the other Inner Circle members. "That's the Black Circle's Lord. He's got Sara."
Tank rounded the circle at a staggering run, one arm around Cindy, who appeared as dazed as Superman had when Lois had found him. They came to a halt before Lois and Superman.
"Lois! Cindy says she knows how to stop Dahak!"
Cindy looked to have fared worse than Superman had. Her hair was tangled and blood was trickling down her face from a cut over her left eye. There was a smudge of dirt on one cheek. She nodded. "It's simple. We have to get Sara out of there. She's the focus of the whole ritual. If she's not in the circle, the whole thing'll collapse in on itself."
"How do we get her out of there?" Superman asked.
Cindy looked at him. "The three of us will try to distract Stapleton and Dahak. You have to fly in and grab Sara the first chance you get."
"That doesn't sound so hard."
"Dahak is very strong, even now. He has powers I know nothing about, except from legend. I don't know what to expect from him." She considered for a moment. "Oh, and when we do get her out of there—run! I'm not sure what will happen, but when you disrupt a spell the energy has to go somewhere. It can be explosive."
Lois nodded. "We understand. We'd better hurry, though. It looks like they're doing something."
They turned to look.
Dahak was holding Sara up in the air one-handed. Sara had awoken and was struggling against her captor. The Inner Circle members were holding their hands up in the air above their heads and were chanting something in a language that sounded like Latin. From what they could see of Stapleton's face, he was grimacing with pain as, despite his injuries he, too, held both of his arms up.
Lois nodded. "Let's do it!"
The three humans ran toward Stapleton. Lois stopped abruptly and picked up a rock and threw it expertly at the man. It bounced off of his injured shoulder. He yelped, staggering backwards out of formation. Dahak turned towards them. He roared something and moved one hand as though he was throwing something. Lois threw herself sideways as something flashed toward her. It missed her and ripped through the ground a few feet behind her, sending dirt and rocks flying.
Ahead of Lois, Cindy stopped and shouted something as well. A ring of fire exploded into existence around Stapleton. Dahak gestured with his free hand and the fire vanished. Tank, the nearest to Stapleton now, tackled the man, slamming him hard into the ground. He punched the blood-soaked patch on Stapleton's arm where he'd shot the man earlier. Stapleton writhed in pain.
Cindy bent over, then straightened, holding her now glowing hands together above her head. She threw the light at Dahak. It hit him squarely in the face. The demon roared with pain. He threw his free hand up in the air. Light seemed to coalesce into a sphere in his hand. He threw it at Cindy.
She threw a shield up in front of herself and the energy sphere shattered as it hit. Then she threw a dagger of light at Dahak. It slammed into his chest and he roared in pain again. As he did so, something red and blue streaked past him and Sara vanished.
Dahak roared with anger and turned, searching for the one who'd taken Sara from him. Lois, remembering what Cindy had said about explosive results, turned and ran as fast as she could. An odd noise behind her made her look over her shoulder as she ran.
The area around Dahak seemed to shimmer. It pulsed inward, then the shimmer and Dahak both vanished in a massive explosion. Something caught Lois around the middle and pushed her back towards Tank and Cindy, who were just behind her, before lifting them all away from the expanding fireball that had been Dahak and the Black Circle.
Lois sat on the back of the ambulance and let the paramedic clean and bandage the small cut she'd managed to pick up somewhere during the excitement.
The Metropolis PD and the FBI task force had arrived just minutes after the explosion, with the fire department just behind them. The fire department and Superman had managed to put out the fires in what was left of Centennial Park before it spread to anything else. Joy had been discovered near the center of the explosion, relatively untouched. Cindy had apparently placed a protective barrier around the woman before leaving her to help with Dahak. She was already on her way to the hospital for treatment for the concussion she had picked up during the first explosion.
Lois nodded at the man as he finished treating her. He nodded back and allowed her to get up and head over to where Superman and Sara were talking to some FBI personnel. Sara looked exhausted and was leaning against someone's car. As Lois walked up to them, a police officer handed Sara a steaming cup of what looked like coffee. With a start, Lois recognized the officer as Inspector Parent.
The woman appeared rather pale. She nodded at Lois and strode off.
"What's wrong with her?" Lois asked.
Sara shrugged. The FBI agent spoke up. "She collapsed right before the explosion. When she woke up, she didn't seem to remember anything of the past three months—from just before she started investigating the Circle."
Lois exchanged a significant look with her husband. "That's interesting."
Sara cast a glance over at the leveled park. "Very."
"Excuse me." The FBI agent squeezed past Lois and went over to one of the police officers.
Lois waited until he was out of earshot before speaking to Sara. "You look exhausted, Sara."
"I feel like I could sleep for a week," the girl admitted. She drained the rest of the coffee from her Styrofoam cup.
"I don't think you're needed here, anymore. Why don't you go home and get some sleep," Lois suggested.
"Can I get a lift?" Sara asked hopefully. "I don't think I can make it myself."
"I'd be glad to give you a lift," Tank volunteered, startling Lois. His face had been bandaged and cleaned up a little. He tossed a set of keys up in the air and caught them.
"Didn't you leave your car in Suicide Slum?" Sara asked him.
He nodded. "Yeah. Cindy went to the hospital with her partner. She left the keys to her car with me."
Sara patted his unbandaged cheek with one hand. "It's sweet of you to offer, but you can't drive to where I live."
Tank looked disappointed, but smiled. "Oh, well. You can't say I didn't try."
"Ladies?" Superman addressed both Lois and Sara. "Why don't I give both of you a ride home?"
"Good idea, Superman." Lois said. Superman put an arm around the two and carefully lifted off into the starry night. Behind them, Tank shoved the keys into his pocket and watched as they flew off before walking slowly over to his borrowed vehicle.
A short distance away, a man in a broad rimmed hat and trench coat watched as Superman and his two passengers vanished into the distance. As soon as they were out of sight, he turned and sauntered off into the shadows.