"Sawyer! What is the meaning of this?! Take your hands off me, you menial bureaucrat. What are the charges? You have no idea who you're meddling with . . . " The large-boned, bearded man with the predator eyes started to resist, but seeing Superman standing a few feet from them caused his better judgment to prevail.
"Oh, we have a pretty good idea what we're doing, Thompson, and we know who and what you are. As for charges, try kidnaping for starters."
"Kidnaping? What are you talking about?"
Maggie allowed just a hint of a smile. "Haven't read the papers today? Lane's article sums up most of it. Kidnaping children and others for purposes of mutation into monsters . . . I suppose you'll pretend you don't remember Inkling, for instance?"
The look of the predator changed to that of a cornered animal. "What? He . . . Those were legitimate experiments. Volunteers! All volunteers."
The smile turned stone cold. "Children? Right. Save your defense for the court, Thompson," she said as SCU officers led him away.
"If I go down, so does Lex Luthor. Lexcorp authorized everything. Everything!"
"He's right about that, Maggie, " Superman offered as they watched the SCU van doors close on their catch. "The problem lies in proving it. A lot of this was done during the time of the ‘cloned' Lex Luthor, which the courts have recognized, and a lot more during the time the Contessa was in charge. And she's nowhere to be found. Luthor himself looks clean."
"I'll tell you, Superman, the only thing that would give me more pleasure than arresting Thompson would be arresting that smug, bald bastard. Any chance he hasn't covered himself quite so well on some of the other projects?"
"Well, the programs involving Rock and Stryke and Pierce all were sanctioned by the DEO. They were secret government projects, so I doubt we'll get far there. And he appears to have legitimate signed waivers from those subjects."
Maggie's grimace said it all: "He's good. He's really good. I swear he'll be president someday. Well, I'm not going to let it ruin my day, especially since we have Thompson pretty solidly."
"That's a good day's work, Maggie. Enjoy it."
"Catch you later, Blue."
He didn't see any sign of Lois or Jimmy, but Perry was moving across the room toward him with that in-charge demeanor that always looked as if he should still have a cigar in his mouth. "Kent," he began, "I think you should know that I've sent your wife to Nicaragua to cover this volcano story."
"Volcano story? What volcano?" This was out of the blue.
"Some mountain down there," Perry continued. "Apparently it was not even known to be a volcano, and now it's erupting repeatedly, each eruption worse than the last. It's a serious threat to the surrounding area. Lois has Olsen with her. I expect some great pictures." And he was off to another desk to offer a constructive criticism to another reporter.
I'd better stay tuned, Clark thought. Competent as they are, this is a dangerous situation.
"Lois, this is a great idea," Jimmy was saying. "I didn't even know you could fly one of these things. If I can get shots of the newly-formed crater itself . . . "
"Yeah, we'll get as close as the heat allows," Lois called over the roar of the blades. "What I really need to find out, though, is how this suddenly became an active volcano without any warning signs at all."
"Watch out!" Jimmy gripped the rim of the door as the helicopter lurched sideways and the blades slowed to a stop. A sudden blast from the volcano had thrown a large chunk of volcanic rock into their main prop, completely severing one blade, and disabling the rotor. The helicopter was out of control and beginning a rapid descent.
"Hang on, Jim," Lois shouted through clenched teeth, her whole body braced for the impact she couldn't possibly survive. Jimmy's camera dangled below them from the strap around his neck as they plummeted. Then . . .
"Lois!" he yelled. " That tree! We'll just miss it. If we can jump and grab the branches . . . "
Lois couldn't even see it from her angle of sight, but knew instinctively it was their only chance. "Got it. Go for it." And she followed the angle of Jimmy's leap with her own. Mercifully, she saw tree branches before her, and grabbed for them. But every grip was tentative and only slowed her fall until the next one which slowed her again. She landed at the base of the tree with considerable force, but the branches had saved her. She heard the crash and rolled to where she could see the helicopter in a shambles against a cliff face. "This story better sell a lot of papers," she thought. "That's going to cost the Planet plenty."
She looked up into the tree and saw Jimmy safely on a branch very near the top. And as she got to her feet she saw a broad river of lava flowing straight at her. "Jimmy!" she shouted. "Get down. Fast!" And she began to run for the only shelter she could see, a natural rock formation, a shallow cave.
Jimmy saw her, heard her, and saw the lava. He knew that when it hit the tree, what that heat would do, and he began to climb down as rapidly as he could, but the lava flow was faster. He was still very near the top when the tree caught on fire.
"Oh, man, I'm toast."
"Not literally. Not this time." Jimmy recognized that wonderful voice even before he even realized he'd been scooped at the last possible second away from the flames, and was being carried by powerful arms to a safe spot away from the destruction.
"Superman! How did you know . . . "
"Pure luck, Jim. Quick, where's Lois?"
"Gee, I don't know. We both jumped for the tree, but I think she fell . . . "
Superman quickly scanned the area where the tree was burning with telescopic and x-ray vision, super-hearing tuned to the timbre of Lois' voice. There she was! In a rock shelter that had become an oven. With lightning speed he was at her side, lifting her carefully out of the suffocating heat, and flying her to the spot where he'd left Jimmy. She choked and gasped somewhat for breath, but then began to breathe more easily.
"Is everyone okay?" Superman plainly meant Lois.
"I think so," she answered him. Then, "Superman, the village!"
Lava was threatening to engulf the dwellings below them, and the people there were scattering in a vain attempt to save themselves. But in a matter of seconds Superman had begun acting like a flying plow, dredging out trenches to divert the lava flow away from the village. It seemed at first a quick solution, but it was also necessary to cool the lava with superbreath to keep it from melting through the ridges of the trench sides. Each time it looked as though the man of steel had contained the flow, there was another eruption and he had to begin the process again.
Finally there was a long pause when it appeared that the eruptions may actually have ceased. "Is it over?" Jimmy asked as Superman rejoined him and Lois.
"I don't know," Superman replied. "These are pretty rapid eruptions. This is unheard of."
"You're right," Lois added. "The eruptions are not only repeated, they are getting bigger. Like the volcano's practicing and getting better."
"I need a better look at this." Superman left them and flew to the top of the mountain. Lois noticed that Jimmy was following his flight by looking through his camera's telescopic lens.
"Can you see anything, Jimmy?"
"Yeah, I can see great. He's into the flames. He's . . . wait. There's someone else up there."
"What? Let me see that . . . " but the rest of her thought was interrupted by an explosive blast that knocked Superman back down the slope near to them. "What was that?" she cried.
"I wish I knew. I'm going back." And he did, but only to get blasted down again.
Lois ran to him as he pulled himself to his feet. "Superman, don't go back." Then she saw Jimmy right behind her.
"Wait a minute, Superman," he said. "Both times that guy up there held something up like a shield. It's on a chain around his neck."
Superman showed interest in that. "Let me just . . . " he peered up at the crest with telescopic vision. "Yes! I know what that is!" And he leaped into the air for another foray against this strange menace. I need to take him by surprise. If that's what it looks like, I'd better not risk another blast, he thought as he bored into the earth, tunneling into the cone of the volcano.
Then, in a fiery eruption, Superman emerged from the center of the volcanic blast and seized the startled figure in chainmail who was standing on the rim of the crater. Then with one sudden motion he removed the chain from the man's neck, lifted the man and the chain and the disk it held into the air and flew them to the spot where Lois and Jimmy waited. He and his startled passenger set down lightly.
"I thought I recognized it . . . " Superman began.
"The Medallion of the Damned!" Jimmy would have known it anywhere.
"Yes. It was going to be my means of revenge on the world," snarled the mysterious man. "With its power I could have been invincible."
Lois spoke up. "You look familiar. Aren't you . . . ?"
"The Keeper of the Flame?" And then the man in armor transformed before their eyes to a short, weathered old man in khakis. "The Shaman? I am those things, but I will no longer be the world's victim."
"Victim? What are you talking about?"
The little man glared at her. "Why should I tell you? You are all unjust, all my enemies."
"Listen, Keeper," Jimmy chimed in, "If you think Superman is unjust, you just haven't been around long."
"I have ‘been around' longer than all of you. And call me by my right name: Umbaca."
"You obviously feel wronged, Umbaca." It was Superman talking this time. "But all we can see is the destruction you've caused. In what way are you a victim? If there is more we ought to know about you, this is your chance to tell it. Maybe we can help."
"There is little chance of that. You have no idea of my story."
"Then fill us in," said Lois. "Let's start with this volcano. How did it become one without anybody knowing?"
"I did that. I was learning to use the power of the Medallion of the Damned to alter natural forces and begin destroying mankind the way they destroyed me."
"How did you get the Medallion?"
"I was there, Superman, remember? When you and your other self expended all your energy to save the world? It should have killed you, but it didn't. Don't you remember what the Medallion was for?"
"I do," Jimmy piped up. "The possessor would survive the end of the world and the establishment of the new one."
"That's right. And Superman survived what otherwise would have killed him, just because he was in possession of the Medallion. But after millennia as Keeper of the Flame of earth's life, I was able to locate the Medallion when you dropped it. I knew it could grant power to one like me, an immortal with knowledge of the ages. I thought at first it would enable me to contact and reunite with my people, but failing that I decided to use it for revenge."
"Your people?" Lois asked.
"Yes, my people, my only hope, a race that existed here before mankind, the Circle."
"Superman, what is it? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I've . . . heard of them. A long time ago. A strange group, sort of like . . . mole men. Look, you'd better fill in some blanks. How are you related to the Circle, and what does that have to do with your actions today?"
Umbaca looked at Superman suspiciously. "How do you know of the Circle?"
After a pause Superman said, "They enlisted my aid, once. They thought I was someone else, some chosen one who could lead them to a better life."
"Yes! Yes, the chosen one . . . "
"Let's hear your story," Superman commanded. It was the superhero tone that was hard to defy. Umbaca took a deep breath and began.
"Before there were humans there was the Circle, humanoid in many respects, and possessing great psychic powers. For ages we were the lords of all the earth. When the human race began on this planet, the Circle were at first consulted for our knowledge, then distrusted, then feared and hated. As humans became more powerful they subjugated us who were the former masters of the world. Persecution grew worse until finally, in fear for our lives, we relied more and more on our psychic powers to survive. We had to go into hiding and have lived that way throughout mankind's reign. I was a rebel. I fell in love with a human woman, and she with me. It had to be a secret romance, for either one of us would be disowned by our own people, and not accepted by the other. But then we had a child, a beautiful little girl.
"Because we could not get help from either of our peoples, and there were complications, my sweet love died in childbirth. Now my daughter was all I had in the world, and it was all I could do to raise and care for her by myself. Her mother's parents were seeking their missing daughter, and in desperation I turned to them for help. It was such a mistake. They saw me as the abductor and killer of their daughter, and one of a despised race. I barely escaped them with my life. As time passed, however, they came to realize that my daughter was their last link of remembrance with their daughter and came to take her from me. They brought their tribal leaders who took me prisoner and tried me for crimes against the human race. Crimes against the human race! For marrying one of them! If my own people had been represented there it would have been no better, because by consorting with a human I had sinned against them, too. They had already cursed me that I was no longer able to communicate with them in any way. My calls would not be heard, they said. The human elders decided that I must atone for my crime against the world by being sentenced to guarding the flame of earth's very existence. By being faithful to the task my immortality was assured, and so was that of my descendants. Only an ancient Circle ceremony had the power to end life for any of us. But that was the last I saw of my beautiful little girl.
"When the Millennium Giants appeared, I knew I had a chance to be released from my servitude. When the predicted twins appeared, my hope grew greater. And when I sensed both earth energy and alien energy in those twins, I knew that if I were careful, if the earth were spared, I could secure my release at last. I watched for the moment when the Medallion of the Damned fell from your hand, and grabbed it. I knew then that my freedom was assured and I could seek my people.
"But I've been unsuccessful, Superman, and I am in despair. And my present hatred of the race that did this to me is boundless. It . . . it . . . Oh, my daughter. My daughter . . . " Umbaca collapsed in tears.
Superman, Lois and Jimmy were silent for a moment. Then Superman said, "Thousands of years as Keeper of the Flame. Although we can't allow you to harm innocent people, we can sympathize with what you've been through. We'd like to help reunite you with your people if we can."
Stifling his sobs, Umbaca was able to say, "No one can. No one. I have been unable to find them. That curse was literal. It prevents me from communicating with them. And if I can't find them, immortal and with the power of the Medallion, how could I expect mortals to do so?"
Superman began carefully: "When I encountered the Circle years ago all they wanted was to be free from the earth. They were sure that the predicted return of one of their own was all that could accomplish this. I tried to help, and they disappeared. But I know the prophecies said that it would be . . . someone else."
Umbaca nodded. "There has always been the belief that one with great power who was taken from them would return and save them."
"Hey, Superman, maybe Umbaca is the promised one." They all turned to Jimmy.
"I don't think so, Jim. Even if the legend is true . . . "
"But I could be," Umbaca interrupted excitedly. "With the Medallion, I could be. I must find them. They'll have to take me back. I may be their hero."
There was an awkward pause as Superman thought, I don't want to dash his hopes, but that's not what Kismet said. She said that the one they were seeking was the Contessa. She said that the Contessa was immortal, part human and part . . . The realization stopped him mid-thought. Could it be that she is actually . . . Superman didn't want to say anything until he was more certain, but if the Contessa del Portenza was Umbaca's daughter, a reunion might be the kindest thing they could do for him.
"Umbaca," he began, choosing his words carefully, "Whether you are the one or not, we'd like to help you find your . . . people if we can. Will you let us try?"
Umbaca's look answered that one.
"You of course will have to abandon your plans for revenge. You are very fortunate that no lives were lost today. I'll keep the Medallion safe. Lois, can we keep a lid on the story of the Medallion? The last thing we need is for Black Crucible to be after it again."
Lois only hesitated a second or two. "It's a great story even without the Medallion," she said. "Sure."
"Jimmy, Umbaca will need a place to live until we locate the Circle. Can he stay with you for a while?"
Jimmy flashed that optimistic smile and held out his hand. "You are welcome to my humble digs, Um."
Umbaca looked gratefully at each of them. "You give me hope," he said. "Thank you. Do you think you can find them?"
"I don't know," Superman answered honestly. "But I have a plan I want to try."
"Superman," Lex Luthor began when Superman appeared in his corporate office, "you have no concept of the word ‘appointment.' What triviality are you here to annoy me with today? "
"Spare me the condescending attitude, Luthor. I'm here regarding your wife. Where is she?"
"Ah." Luthor turned to fix himself a drink. "I wish I knew. What do you want with her?"
"That's really not your concern."
Luthor set down his glass, turned and raised his eyebrows. "My wife? The mother of my child? Not my concern? Really, Superman, and you accuse me of arrogance."
Superman hesitated. "I . . . may have found something regarding her lineage."
"Her lineage!" Now there was some genuine interest.
"I'm not at all sure about it, and that's why I need to talk with her. Are you sure you don't know where she is?"
"Yes, quite sure. I already told you once." Luthor had returned to his diffident attitude. "Are you implying I'd lie to you? But I am interested in learning more of her background, so if I hear anything of her, I'll tell you. Meanwhile . . . Goodbye."
"Bill, Maggie, everyone: I'm enlisting the aid of the Metropolis police to find the Contessa del Portenza, Mrs. Luthor. She's missing, and she may play a key role in a case I'm trying to solve. If you are able to find any clues to her whereabouts, I'd be grateful to hear of them."
Lori Lemaris was clearly thoughtful about this message. "You say it was the Medallion of the Damned that gave this Keeper of the Flame his power?"
"Well, this is just a thought, but . . . There's something I never told you about."
"After your wedding, one day I had gone over to your old Clinton Street apartment, and the Contessa came to see me."
"Really? At my old place? Why?"
"That's what's so odd. She mostly wanted to assure me that everything was okay, that she knew I'd be found innocent of the allegations against me. You know, the stolen artifacts thing. But I felt strongly that this was not her real reason for showing up that day. I mean, of what importance was I to her? She was looking for something from me. My attempts to read her mind failed, as if there were another person with mental powers in the room, blocking me. But there wasn't. Only her dog. I did get the impression, though, that she was looking for something, and now that you mention the Medallion . . . Clark, I think she's heard of it, wants its power, and is looking for it. I think she was checking to see if I had it. After all, I had found other rare artifacts. It would be logical for her to think I might have it."
"Lois, I know I originally asked you not to include the Medallion in the story. But there's been a new development. Put it back in, would you?"
"There was already a battle royal going on for the thing. Superman was in a violent confrontation with a whole gang of red-robed fanatics. Apparently they had come in search of the Medallion, but somehow Olsen was able to summon the big alien to his defense. I must admit it was stimulating to watch that magnificent man counter the various supernatural ploys that were being used against him. Using his powers of flight and speed he was able to deflect every missile, meet every attack. It really was a thrilling sight. But then the ruffians employed what must have been their secret weapon: on command of their leader (I believe he was called Lord Wolf) they were able to merge all their bodies into one huge supernormal form. It looked like one of those toys children have, those horrible little figures that combine into one aesthetic nightmare. This nightmare was called Panzer. I overheard Superman telling the Olsen lad that in their previous encounters with this Panzer creature some other force had always removed it from the scene. But now it was plainly staying to fight.
"Superman was clearly innovating. He was still adroit at avoiding Panzer's attacks, and he still used speed, heat vision and physical force to try to subdue the monstrosity. But nothing seemed to work until an odd-looking little man ran out of Olsen's building and held up what must have been the object of my quest: the Medallion of the Damned. The Contessa had told me it was valuable to her, but she hadn't said why. Now I could plainly see: the gaudy trinket emitted a glow which quickly encompassed Panzer and caused it to shatter like so much crystal. The individual members of the group, lying stunned in the Metropolis streets, were quickly gathered into a makeshift bundle. The big blue hero had grabbed a steel girder, which he bent with his bare hands, and gathered them just like a sheaf of wheat. One would think he'd been raised on a farm. ‘These people are being deported to Bhutran,' I heard him say. 'With any luck, the authorities there will have reason to keep them there for a long time.' He turned to Olsen and the little man, and they conferred for a moment. Then the man went back into the building, Olsen walked down the street with his hands in his pockets, and Superman flew off with the sheaf of villains toward the eastern horizon.
"I wasn't sure what to do next. I didn't want to be hurt by that Medallion, but I did want to secure it for the lovely Contessa. I left the scene for a while to ponder what to do. But later that evening I returned and confronted Olsen at his apartment. I demanded the Medallion. He said he didn't have it. I made a threat regarding Russian organized crime. I told him I was backed by the same people who ran Cauldron when he was in Metropolis, not to mention the Contessa del Portenza. At this point Olsen admitted that he had taken the Medallion to a safety-deposit box, but if I'd wait till tomorrow we could go together to get it. I guess I really was quite forceful. The rest was easy. I showed up the next morning, we went and got the Medallion, and Olsen handed it over with no fuss. I left him and went to the nearest post office to mail it to the Contessa. She will be so grateful for my courage and forcefulness. She will surely send for me to join her."
"No problemo, Superman. That's what friends are for. So she should be picking it up at a PO box somewhere, right?"
"Right." Superman turned to the old man at Jimmy's side. "Umbaca, are you ready to go?"
"I'm ready, Superman. Just think. I'll be meeting my daughter after thousands of years. Jimmy, thank you."
Jimmy graced them both with an ingenuous, freckle-faced grin. "Good luck, you two. Fill me in on the details when you get back, okay?" And he waved until the red-caped hero and the sun-browned old man clinging to him were just a speck on the horizon.
She turned. "Superman. It's been a long time. To what do I owe the honor?"
"I have someone here I'd like you to meet. I have reason to believe that this man is your father."
The Contessa‘s socially correct smile faded to a an icy stare. "My father? My father?! I'm sorry, but you have no idea how ridiculous that is. There are things you just don't know that would . . . "
"Like the fact that you are immortal?" Superman interrupted.
"What?" Now there was real concern in her voice.
"Immortal," the man of steel repeated. He indicated Umbaca. "And he, too, has lived thousands of years."
The Contessa‘s glare bespoke no nonsense. "What are you trying to say? And this had better be good."
Umbaca had been standing silently gazing at this woman, his child. "I . . . I'm sorry," he said at last, "But I am overcome with joy at seeing you."
The Contessa‘s look could have melted him. "Have a care, old man. I don't know what you hope to accomplish by this, but . . . "
"Contessa, please hear us out," Superman said.
"I don't think that will be at all necessary." She didn't even look at him.
"Daughter," Umbaca broke in. "Your first remembered parents. Their names were Erca and Eloth."
The Contessa was dumbfounded. "How could you know that?"
"Because your mother named you Erca after her mother. Those two were really your grandparents. Their daughter, your real mother, whom you never knew, was my wife. I am your father."
"Now, wait a minute. First of all, my name is Erica."
"And your grandmother, the one you knew as your mother, was Erca."
There was a long pause. " . . . And now what?" Erica del Portenza began pacing as she spoke. "What am I supposed to think? Am I supposed to be overcome with love for this man I've never met, never knew existed, after living by my own wits for over . . . "
"Erica . . . my daughter." Umbaca gave her an embrace which she did not return, and he backed off, sheepishly.
"No," Superman was speaking. "No, of course not. But there's more to this, and we think you should listen to the whole story. Umbaca came from a lost species who were shunned by humans. He was cursed for leaving his people to marry your mother. And your mother died at your birth. Although your grandparents raised you, your father was condemned to an immortal servitude, which, if he did not break it, would also guarantee your life. Your immortality was dependent on his sacrifice, Contessa. It was the coming of the Millennium Giants that released him after thousands of years as Keeper of the Flame."
The Contessa waited a long time before she began coldly, "So. My long lost father. How touching. As if this could ever mean anything to me. Do you realize who I am? What I have become? What I am able to do?"
"There's still more, Contessa. Several years ago my mind was invaded by a group who thought I was their promised one, a person with power who would return to them and lead them back to greatness. They were mistaken. But I have since learned that you are the one they were seeking. I believe they are your paternal ancestors."
"How could you possibly know this?"
"It's . . . complicated." How could he explain Kismet? "But believe me when I say you are the one. You can save these poor creatures who have lived such a miserable existence."
"And just how am I supposed to do this?"
"I don't know. And quite honestly, I don't even know how to find them again."
Erica glanced down at the package in her hand. "Then the question is moot, isn't it?"
"Well, I kind of thought . . . "
"‘Kind of' thinking isn't really your forte, Superman. This has all been very interesting, but I think our little conversation has gone as far as it is going to go. Good day to both of you."
"Erica . . . " It was Umbaca calling her as she turned to leave the building. She spun back to fix him with a gaze that would peel paint, and spoke through clenched teeth:
"Good. Day." And she left.
Superman turned to the crushed father. "We really couldn't expect that she would feel the way you do," he said. "I'm very sorry. I should never have brought you here for this. But she may yet come around if we give her some time." And then they heard her triumphant cry from just outside the building.
"At last! I have it at last! If the legends are true, then this will give me power rivaling that of the greatest wizards of all time."
"Superman!" Umbaca realized the danger at once. "We can't allow her the Medallion! Can you imagine what she will . . . "
But as Superman took a step toward the Contessa, there was a blast which knocked him against the wall.
"No! What have we done?" Umbaca cried.
"There's still a chance. I can come from behind, as I did with you . . . " but although superspeed should have won the day, the Contessa had already placed the Medallion of the Damned behind the stone of her staff, and instantly generated a spherical force field that Superman could not crack.
"You have no hope against magical power like this, Superman," she called from the center of the sphere. "I have searched so long for this."
"Nothing is forever, Contessa. You're too dangerous with that. I will find a way to get it from you."
"Highly unlikely, Superman. I have sought the Medallion of the Damned since I first heard of it centuries ago. Now I have it, and I promise you the world will not be the same place that it was. With this and my immortality I can . . . Aaaarrrrggghhh!" It was a piercing scream, and although she did not drop the Medallion, she did drop the staff and clutched at her head.
"What has happened?" Umbaca called.
"The shield is down," Superman responded. "Quick! The Medallion!" And they both leaped for it, each getting a grip so that all three of them were touching the golden medal. There were swirling, multicolored mists encircling them all, and they found themselves unable to release their hold on the Medallion, which shot out sparks like a downed power line. Moreover, all three of them could see the black-robed beings in the mist, as the Contessa shouted, "Get out! Get out of my head!"
"It's them!" Superman recognized them instantly. "It's the Circle!" Addressing them directly, he said, "I thought that you had left earth at our last encounter."
"To another plane," their leader began, "A place where we could not use our psychic powers on mortals, yes. But we never found that place the legends promised. It really does need to be one of our own, the immortal possessor of the power to get us there, to lead us there. This Contessa is one of us, and now, having called us with the power, she will lead us to our home."
Erica countered quickly: "I'm not traveling out of this world, especially now that I have the Medallion. I have other plans . . . "
"But I will." It was Umbaca. "I am also immortal and one of you. I am the Keeper of the Flame."
"Contessa Erca," the Circle spokesman went on, "You must save us. You called us with the powerful Medallion, and you must."
"But I have used it, too," Umbaca insisted. "Why didn't you come to me then? Didn't I call you?"
"We beg you, Contessa . . . " the Circle began to chant.
"Why aren't you listening to him?" Superman called through the sparks and the mists. "He also fits all the descriptions of the chosen one."
"Who?" the leader called over the chants. "Who are you talking about?"
"The Keeper of the Flame. Right here. Can't you see him?"
"The Keeper of the Flame! Our histories say that he was the rejected one. He consorted with our oppressors . . . "
"But he wants to come back to you. He wants to save you."
The Circle leader seemed confused. "But if he is immortal, one of us, and has possessed the Medallion, why did it not call to us when he had it?"
"Based on your inability to see or hear him now, I'd guess that it's because part of the curse was that his calls would not be heard. Now he wants to help you, and your own curse on him is preventing you from hearing his offer."
"You're saying that he could be the chosen one? But the Contessa is plainly in possession of the Medallion . . . "
"Change that. Put your confidence in the one who will help you. His hand is also on the Medallion, but until you let yourself see and hear him nothing will change."
"Superman, no!" the Contessa shouted. "The Medallion is mine!"
"It's the Medallion of the Damned," Superman called over the din of the chant. "Who could more accurately be called ‘the damned' over the centuries than the Keeper of the Flame?"
"So the one we have sought may not actually be the chosen one?" the leader called out. "Have we rejected the one we most desperately need?"
"Find out!" Superman challenged them. "Give him the power! Take him back!"
"No, Superman! Stop!" the Contessa called desperately.
"My people!" Umbaca cried.
"The chosen one!"
There was a sudden explosion which blasted both Superman and the Contessa del Portenza several yards back, and then there was complete silence, no chant, no sparks, no mist. And no sign of the Medallion or Umbaca, either.
They've made it, thought Superman. They've reached the world they wanted. As Pa would say, I can feel it in my bones. I doubt we'll see the Circle, the Medallion or Umbaca ever again.
Superman turned to help the Contessa to her feet, but she angrily waved him away. "You fool!" she snarled. "Do you even half realize what you have done? I have always answered the call of power. Always! I thought you or the Alpha Centurion might have been the power that called me to Metropolis. You weren't. I thought maybe the fabled Medallion of the Damned was there. It wasn't. Even the Lemaris girl was unable to find it. I still do not know what power called me there, but the Medallion was my lifelong quest, and you have lost it for me, Superman. You have created a dangerous enemy in me."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Contessa," Superman said with genuine regret. "I hope you reconsider this when your anger has had a chance to cool. I'd really rather consider you a friend. Can't you take some joy in knowing that your father and the Circle have finally found happiness? There's a lot of good in you, Contessa. You did, for instance, donate the fabric that saved my life."
She looked him right in the eye. "Right now, Superman, I wish I hadn't."
He was now flying into the city itself. "Another unsolved mystery. But if it wasn't the Medallion of the Damned then what could it have been?" He couldn't help wondering as he flew past the Newstime building, where Collin Thornton sat in his office, smiling.