Better the Devil You Know…14 min read

Slight drizzle of rain coming down. Chill in the air and a scent of rot and industry settling in the Gotham night, courtesy of strong winds from Bloodhaven.

The Dark Knight adjusted his mask’s infrared sensors. This would be the fourth time the office he was casing would be hit, and this time he was ready to catch the so-called “invisible” thieves.

There was the sound of a match on stone.

Batman’s mouth twitched ever so slightly downward. “I already know you’re there, John.”

John Constantine—exorcist, demonologist and self-proclaimed “petty dabbler” in the dark arts—took a moment to draw a deep drag off a silk cut. “I’d imagine so, mate. It’s been the dog’s bottom getting up here.” John smirked, took another drag. “Fancy the whole neighborhood heard me.”

“You have a point?”

John joined Batman on the ledge, gave a thousand-yard stare out into the night. “End of the world mate. End of the world.” He tapped out the ashes over the edge and he turned, leaning back on the ledge, to face the Bat. “Figured you and your pajama-clad buddies…” The cigarette was used for emphasis. “–might want a go at stopping it.”

There was a man who could bend steel in his bare hands, who could endure the heart of a star and who could see into infinity.

“And you believe him.”

Batman gave the most imperceptible of nods, confident that the man would see it. Then he spoke it aloud so the others would know. “The story checks and we don’t have much time. Hours at most. Likely less.”

“I don’t get it.” Wally West, better known as the Flash, fastest man alive and still often behind his peers in comprehension. “This is just cause this guy wants to see his wife and daughter.”

“Who are dead.” Batman added. “Auto accident.”

“Yeah, but isn’t that, like, ghosts? We’ve handled ghosts before.”

“Not like this.” The voice belonged to a goddess, shaped from mortal clay and trained to be a protector of all mankind. Diana of Themyscara. Wonder Woman. “He’s opening a portal to Hel.”

“Okay. Hell. Sure. Demons and stuff. Why are his wife and daughter in Hell?”

“Not Hell.” Batman corrected. “Hel. Norse place of the dead.”

“He’s a Viking?”

There was a light easing of tension and amusement ran across the group. This is what Wally did. Turned the darkest of situations into something they could cope with. Batman tried to resist the urge to correct him and failed. “The family were followers of Asatru, a religion based in ancient Norse beliefs. In their faith, Hel is where everyone ends up except heroes.”

“To slumber in the icy halls until the end of eternity. Until Ragnarok.” Wonder Woman added. “And this man, this professor—Daniel Haptsönir—has opened the way from there to here, hoping to get his wife and daughter back.”

Batman nodded. “And if that ends up in the apocalypse, he doesn’t care.”

There was a silvery touch that preceded telepathic contact by the Martian Manhunter. “Naglfar is coming. The vessel that transports the dead back to the living. One of the harbingers of Ragnarok. It will use the portal to enter this world.”

“So ghosts.”

“More than that.” Batman corrected. “Constantine’s assessment is that we’re not facing common fighters here. The first wave will be all of the things that gods like Thor killed. Giants. Monsters. Dragons. The jotun.”

The Manhunter nodded “Technically the name means ‘devourer’. They weren’t giants. They were chaos. Shapeshifters. Some as small as a flea, others as big as mountains. They’d change but their appetites were enormous and unstoppable.”

“And that would be how many of the yo-tons coming through this gate/portal thingy?”

“Conservatively? Over a million.”

That left Flash speechless.

“All converging on Denver.” Wonder Woman tapped a finger on her lasso. “Where the good professor lives.”

“And should they take the high point…” The room vibrated with the subharmonics of Aquaman’s voice. “They will call the ‘World Serpent’ from its home in the sea.”

Flash looked surprised. “So this was a thing you knew? You knew this? And, like, you’re okay with this?”

“The sea is vast and hides many secrets.”

“Yeah. Okay. Got it.” Flash rubbed his temples, frustrated. “And then after that giant wolves and fire giants and everybody dies. Okay. I remember that from 8th grade Lit.”

Batman inclined his head. “That’s the short of it.”

“So what’s the plan?” Green Lantern, with the clipped tone of a military man.

Superman responded. “The Watchtower will enter into position to use orbital measures in about 4 hours. All reserve members have been alerted to an Omega-level threat but it’s going to take them time to assemble and get there. And until they do, it’s up to five of us hold the line.”

Green Lantern frowned. “Five of us?”

“Constantine has a line on a sorcerer who may be able to break the summoning. Wonder Woman, he’ll need you for transport. And, for that.” Batman pointed to her lariat. “The target’s not known for being reliable.”

Wonder Woman’s brows furrowed. “Probably Felix Faust. We’ve… had dealings.”

Batman turned to Green Lantern. “One of the components of the summoning is that the night becomes ‘starless’. Constantine thinks if you can alter one of the stars, then that the spell won’t be able to finish. Can you make a gravity lens?”

Lantern nodded. “Sure. It’s possible.”

“He’s suggesting you put a lens between the Earth and Betelgeuse. Because it’s one of the ten brightest, it should do the trick.”

Lantern shrugged. “I would have chosen Rigel, but he’s the magician.”

Superman nodded. “We know what we have to do. Let’s do it.”

The sound was unimaginable.

These were no silent dead. They were the devourers of old, furious and un-mourned and their howl shook the foundations of the Mile-High City. They came from everywhere. Their goal was the steps of the state capitol. And their appetite for blood and flesh was unchecked by their many eons in the dark.

Against them, blurs of blue and red, and red and yellow; pushing them back, removing civilians from harm. A green dragon from Mars, taking down hordes. A wave stolen and re-purposed from the municipal supply serving as a temporary wall against the invaders.

It was a battle they knew they were going to lose.

“This is Batman. I’ve secured the professor.”

“Tell me…” The Flash paused as he brought down a dozen jotun trying to siege a hospital. “—tell me he has something to reverse this.”

“The professor is no help.” Jonn’s dragon form threw a bunch of undead monsters a hundred yards. “He’s convinced he’s still going to meet his family.”

“I’m analyzing the artifact he used now.”

“Batman.” Jonn’s telepathic voice was suddenly crisp. “He believes there is no way to reverse this.”

“Confirmed.” Batman’s response sounded like it was through clenched teeth.

Superman’s gaze swept the scene. “So Constantine was lying.”

“Looks like it.”

Flash cut in “They’re breaking through.”

The fastest beings on Earth, still too slow to respond.

The blue and gold bolt, like lightning, struck the ground with a welcome sound.

Wonder Woman.

She held the line.

Her breathing was labored with effort but she still managed a smile. “The reserves will be here in five minutes.”

“Where’s John?” Batman’s tone verged on an order.

“With the sorcerer. Why?”

Superman frowned “Because he was lying.”

Wonder Woman looked puzzled. “He claimed he could fix this.”

Batman bit back a sigh. “He’s a con man.”

Wonder Woman touched her lariat. “He was touching this when he said it.”

A new sound suddenly cut through the air. A piping, like flutes, discordant, then a terrible thrumming. The dead stopped and started looking for the source of the new threat.

Aquaman was frozen with horror.

“No…”

Slashes appeared in the air. Wherever there was a devourer, a rent tore through reality nearby and tendrils lashed out, grabbing with abandon.

The League pulled back, kept people safe.

Except for Aquaman.

He was fighting the tendrils with every power at his command.

“Aquaman!” Superman shouted across the mad fury. “Arthur!”

At Superman’s command, Aquaman left the fight and retreated back to Wonder Woman. Forgetting propriety, he grabbed her. “What have you done?”

Diana pulled her arm away from him. “What’s going on?”

Aquaman fought for composure. “The sorcerer! What did he look like?”

Diana grimaced. “He was one of your people. He wore ceremonial robes, fish and tentacles on them. Why?”

Aquaman snarled “Constantine, what the hell did you do?!” He gripped his trident hard enough to turn his knuckles white. “This person, this priest. He follows Icthultu. He follows the Old Ones. He means to end the world.”

Wonder Woman nodded, understanding. “I’ll take you to him.”

There was the audible sound of a rib snapping. Constantine winced,struggled to get up from where he was thrown. A reef, jutting just about the angry waves of the Pacific. “Million souls, ‘friend’. Fresh from Hel, sacrifices for your master. That was the deal. Now send him back.”

The priest of Icthultu started laughing.

“That’s quite a maniacal cackle you’ve got there.” Constantine spit out. “Makes me feel just a little sorry for you.” Constantine pulled out a small lead-glass bottle and shattered it. A bottle imp emerged and sprung towards the priest, exponentially growing as it went. “Your funeral.”

With a gesture, the priest unleashed energies that shredded the imp’s flesh, leaving a pile of bone and viscera to drop at his feet. “Please, conjurer. You have no magics that can get anywhere near stopping me.”

John laughed, then winced again as his rib pulled. “Oh, you bloody berk! I wasn’t trying to stop you. I was just trying to buy some time.”

The two landed with the force of gods’ thunder. The Wonder Woman. The Aquaman. And their anger was a physical thing.

For a moment, the priest hesitated and then struck out, with the same energy that had just devastated a demon from the lower hells. But this was a goddess and the Lord of Atlantis he was up against now. He barely got a shield up before they struck, lasso and trident together.

“You… cannot.” The priest’s words made hesitant by the effort. “The stars are aligned and my Master will be free!”

“About that…” Constantine smirked, wiping a touch of blood from his lips. “Hey, princess. Tell the Lantern to sod off.”

Wonder Woman tapped her communicator. “Green Lantern. John Constantine says to ‘sod off’.” She then returned her attention to battle.

The priest hissed. “He is leaving me.” The anger seemed to empower him, driving the justice leaguers back. “What have you done?!” His hand flashed, sigils in the air. “There! I understand now. I will crush you and then I will set the stars right again! I see!”

A wave of water rose overhead at the priest’s beckoning. Constantine seemed unfazed. “Not happening, mate. Because I know the one thing you’re scared of. “Sīc semper ēvellō mortem tyrannis. I call to you, Poseidon!”

A flash of green light and a blazing emerald Poseidon towered above the group. The priest shrieked and cowered, the wave collapsing. Poseidon scooped up Constantine and the others, protecting them in an conjured bubble.

The waters settled and the heroes were set down.

Constantine nodded. “Thanks, Lantern.”

The ‘Poseidon’ construct faded and Green Lantern looked down on Constantine. “I’m not done with you yet.”

The priest blinked, trying to recover from his panic.

The two fastest men in the world arrived.

Just in time.

“Explain.”

Superman was floating a full foot above John as Constantine wrapped an ACE bandage around himself. “It’s more intimidating when he does it.” He motioned to Batman.

Batman suppressed the barest hint of a smile. Out of all the League, he seemed the least angry. “Are you asking me to?”

John waved him off. “Nah. I’m happy with the Big Blue Boy Scout.” He turned his attention back to Superman. “Time, mate. It had all to do with time. By the time, I sussed out what Professor Dingleberry was doing, it was too late. And I couldn’t stop the crazy bastard. Not conventionally.”

The Batman inclined his head. “So you traded one apocalypse for another.”

“Yeah. One million rubes you couldn’t stop versus one mad summoner and a god that couldn’t fit all at once through its portal. I bought you time.” John sighed. “And that idiot. I’d been keeping my eye on him for an age now. Wondering when his ‘stars would be right’ and we’d all have to worry. But I figured out how to trigger it when he couldn’t. Thanks on that, by the way, mate.”

“You’re not welcome.” Green Lantern folded his arms. “And I’m not your ‘mate’.”

“Fair. But you’re the only one who could do. Supes here I couldn’t use because, well, magic and him don’t mix. Flash? Wouldn’t get it. Aquaman would get it too soon and my head would be decorating his trident. Bats would spend too much time trying to figure out what I was up to. Green Jeans, Mr. Martian Manhunter, well, let’s just say I don’t envy anyone walking through my head. That left the trusting one.”

“A trust, I might note, that you abused.” Wonder Woman’s stare was enough to make most men fold.

“Stretched, luv. Stretched. I never lied to you. Not technically. And you were there at the finish line, just like I hoped.”

“It was a hell of a risk.” Batman noted, quietly.

“Desperate time, Bats. Desperate measures.” The tone in John’s voice was almost apologetic.

“Then we’re done here.” Superman’s voice made it sound final.

A cracking sound suddenly came from the body behind them.

John sighed. “’Fraid of that. Not quite yet.”

The priest’s body split down the middle, urchin-like spines thrusting outward, parting the flesh and bone, pushing it aside. Something inside the now-cooling carcass screamed.

Aquaman was the first to react, trident thrust at the thing. It rebounded with such force, he was thrown back.

Superman started in.

“Magic!” shouted Constantine and Superman backed off.

Wonder Woman stepped forward. “I’ve got it.”

Her lariat spun forward and lassoed the thing in the corpse, pulling it writhing, maggot-like, from the body. Its form was hard to look at.

“Elder spawn.” Constantine seemed tired but unfazed. “Baby of the Elder Gods. Figured Icthultu might leave one as a parting present.”

Wonder Woman pulled hard on the lariat to keep the creature contained. “What do we do with it?”

Constantine hooked a thumb at Green Lantern. “His people used to store them in Sector 666.”

Green Lantern wasn’t amused. “How do you even know about that?”

Constantine waggled his fingers and then grimaced at the pull on his ribs. “Misdirection and stage magic, buddy.”

Green Lantern sighed and then formed a solid-light cage around the Spawn. “I’ve got it.”

They watched him take it into space.

“Ok…” It was Flash who broke the silence. “So, I say we get the British guy to the nearest hospital and go for tacos and… where’s the British guy?”

Constantine was nowhere to be seen.

Flash pursed his lips. “How did he do that?”

Batman waggled his fingers. “Stage magic and misdirection.”

Aquaman was the first to leave, to take care of the corpse. Wonder Woman went with him, to learn more of what she almost helped unleash.

Flash, next, to find tacos. Superman proposed that Bruce and he get Chinese. Batman agreed.

The Manhunter lingered for a moment, scanning the area, then finally headed back towards the Watchtower and well-earned Oreos.

In the shadows, there was the sound of a match striking and the cherry of a lit silk-cut gleamed in the darkness.

And also a very weary smile.

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