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Crisis in the Time Stream

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Post Mon Jan 24, 2005 1:54 am
C. Syphrett User avatar
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This story is based in the 5 Earths Project continuity, and is built on what was written before by myself, Brad Cobb, and Martin Maenza. For those unfamiliar with the setting, it assumes that there were 5 earths left after the great Crisis on Infinite earths. Earth 4 is a combination of Charlton and MLJ/Red Circle characters.


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CRISIS IN THE TIME STREAM: Prelude

"Greetings, John Mann," said a chilly voice.



The Son of Vulcan turned his head slightly to examine his visitors. He recognized both instantly.



One was Prince James, a royal heir who had been murdered and fallen victim to a family curse. He had been freed when his castle was destroyed while being transported across the Atlantic.



The other was a watcher of humanity's struggle. He had not been known to interfere before the Crisis. Those who knew of him called him the Mysterious Traveller.



"Hello, Traveller, Prince James," said the Monitor of Earth Four. "What can I do for you?"



"The time stream is about to be disrupted," said the man in black. "Prince James would like your help in assembling his former comrades to combat the threat."





"Yes," agreed James. "I cannot seem to locate them as I did during the Crisis, but the Traveller said you would be able to help me."



"Most have retired," said the Son of Vulcan. "Still, I can send you to one who will help you find the others. I won't be able to help you further."



"Thank you," said Mr. Justice doubtfully, as he faded away in a cloud of mist.



"The Crusaders won't stop the threat," said the Traveller placidly. He turned and vanished into the dark shadows.



"I know," said the Son of Vulcan.



Ezekiel Adam's metallic skin gleamed like gold in the dawn sky as he flew over the city. A trail of light followed him as he descended towards the Museum of Natural History. An alarm had attracted his attention to the spot.



The heavy front doors had been smashed down. A guard lay just inside the doorway. Adam frowned as he recognized the nature of the wounds.



Adam touched the man's arm with a gold hand. "Heal", he said, and energy poured out of him and into the guard. The man's wounds began to knit themselves together at a blinding pace.



Adam glided away to search for anyone else in the building.



The flier heard a noise as he crossed the central court on the ground floor. He paused to listen. It came to him again. He glided up the core of the building that linked all the wings to the central court. A third repetition of the noise led him towards the Temporal Research wing of the museum. He tried to figure out what was going on as he flew closer to the source of the sound.



Ezekiel Adam knew a Time Portal had been set up in that part of the building for research purposes. An unauthorized time trip would explain the break-in.



Adam paused at the archway to the time portal lab. He stood in the shadows, sizing up his opponents. He knew several. Whatever they planned had to be stopped.



"Shield," Adam said. A bubble of energy surrounded him.



"Everyone freeze!" he shouted, as he charged into the room.



"Ahhhh, right on time," said Ivan Kriss. "Pardon us, but we were just leaving."



A silver energy beam leaped from Thunderbolt's eyes and slammed into Adam's forcefield. The hero careened into a wall from the blast.



"Goodbye, Captain," said Kriss, stepping across the time portal's threshold with a huge grin. His transparent form vanished into a pinprick.



"You heard the man," said Thunderbolt."Let's go."



The group stepped across the threshold one by one as Adam dug himself out of the wall.



"Bolt," Adam said as he pointed a fist at the blaster. A golden ball of flame shot across the room and shattered against an invisible shield. "What?" said Adam, eyes wide.



Thunderbolt smashed Adam out of the room with his counterattack. "Let's go, Jane," Thunderbolt said. He leaped into the time stream.



A woman's face appeared for an all too brief second. Then a shimmer marked her passage out of her present.



Adam stepped into the room. He couldn't risk the portal being destroyed, so had taken a dive. Now he would have to follow Kriss's group and protect whomever, or whatever, they were after.





He examined the portal controls. He stepped into the time stream.



Time to save the world.



Gil Layton examined the Four Corners Bank and Trust from across the street. It was ripe for the plucking. He threw his smoked roll-up on the ground. Time to get the boys together.



The Cheyenne Kid rode into town on his pony, covered in dust. He had been on the road for a long time and was eager to stop and rest up a spell. Maybe even take a bath.



Yang walked into Four Corners from the other end of town, noticing everything equally. He had some money, but knew from hard experience that Whites would not deal with him as an equal. Still he might be able to find a place to work for a little while. He would otherwise walk to the next town.



Rupert Burland sat at a table in the back of the Eagle Wing Saloon. He had been tracking Gil Layton's gang for a long time. Soon Layton would meet the Black Hood for the first and last time.



Ivan Kriss appeared first. Then the rest of his group one by one until Jane Birde appeared and disappeared. He was glad that he had ordered them to use nondescript clothing. Their colorful costumes, especially the Black Witch's, would have attracted too much attention if they had to approach a population center.



"It's this way, Kriss," said the Black Witch, pointing. "It doesn't seem far from here."



"Let's get on with it, then," said the transparent man, floating away in the direction indicated.



Jane gathered Thunderbolt up in her telekinetic embrace and followed more slowly.



"Come winds to carry us to the object of our lust," said the Black Witch. A current of air picked her, Elias Gore, and Day Cordell up like a magic carpet and swept them into the air.





Manuel Guzman let his teammates get a good headstart before shrinking down and following them under his own power.



Ezekiel Adam appeared an hour later. The noon time sun turned his golden skin into a huge reflector. Adam looked around, surprised to be alone on the empty plains.



He concentrated until he could sense an energy trail. He took off after it in a starburst of light. He had to stop whatever Kriss had planned.



Mr. Justice appeared in a gathering of mists. He found himself surrounded by giant pines. A stream of water burbled off to the left. Mountain peaks and valleys filled the horizon. Prince James wondered where he had been sent.



As he cleared the treetops, Mr. Justice spotted a wooden cabin standing in a clearing ahead. He flew over and landed on the porch. He knocked on the door, curious as to who he would meet.



A powerful looking redhead answered the door. He smiled when he saw who was standing on the porch.



"Hello, Charles," Joe Higgins said.



"Hello, Joe," said Mr. Justice. "Can I come in? I need to talk to you."



"Sure," said Higgins, stepping out the way.



"Thanks," said Prince James.



Another step ahead.





Seth Adam watched the recording again. His frown grew deeper the more he watched. He had called a few friends after the first viewing.



"How did Duncan get involved with Ivan Kriss?" asked Pat Cannon, shaking his head. "I can't believe this."



"Believe it, Bucko," said Harlequin, rubbing his gloved hands together. "Your kid just ran off into the past with psycho number one." He put a hand to a pointed chin. "Number two, anyway."



"Quiet, 'Quin," said the Black Bug, pointing with one mechanical hand. "Isn't that Day Cordell?"



"Yes, it is," said a voice from the doorway. "Kriss has assembled a first rate task force."



Adam looked over his shoulder. The voice belonged to Who. Odorless smoke drifted from the question mark that was his only facial feature.



"C'mon, spill," said Harlequin, behind his wooden leer. "You found something."



"Kriss secured a recent find before they left this time period."



"What was it?" asked Adam.



"A U-shaped sculpture they were calling the Marconi Find," said Who.



"Are you sure?" asked Cannon.



"Yes," said the blue garbed investigator.



"Now you know something," said Harlequin. "Share with the rest of the class."





"Kriss is trying to assemble something that is spoken of in the histories as the Dragon's Breath," said Cannon. "It's something only Duncan could have told him."



"Dragon's Breath?" said the Black Bug. "Sounds ominous."



"I hope I'm wrong," said the former Thunderbolt. "It supposedly had the power to destroy mountains."



"You are talking on the order of a nuclear explosion," said Adam.



"A massive nuclear explosion," said the Bug.



"I know," said Thunderbolt.



A step to the side.



She floated in the darkness, as empty as the void around her. Once she had a purpose. Once she had known and done things. Now she was a husk, cut off from her friends and home.



Then he appeared.



He walked to where she floated, hands in the pockets of his black coat. His face seemed particularly grim as he weighed his next move. Finally he wrapped her cloak around her and sent her back to Earth under her own power.



He knew he had begun to manipulate events and didn't like it. Still it was necessary. The Crusaders had to live again, and part of that was to help Darkling live again.



And no one could know the Mysterious Traveller had taken a hand in things.





A step back.



Gil Layton looked at the men that stood surrounding him. Some of these fellows had ridden with the James boys and Quantrill during the war. He knew they would do what had to be done.



"We're goin' to ride into Four Corners from both ends of town. We'll set fire to the town and shoot it up while we're doin' it. Then I, Giordano, Blacky, and Cort will secure the bank. Then we get out o' town. Any questions?" said Layton.



"What about the law?" asked Willis.



"The sheriff's a fat old man," said Layton. "His deputy's a kid. They get in the way, we kill 'em. It's that simple. Anything else?"



The men were silent.



"Then let's ride," said Layton, mounting his horse and leading the way into town.



The Cheyenne Kid stepped into the Eagle Wing Saloon, wiping trail dust from his clothes with a gloved hand. He looked around, eyes narrowed in the perpetual squint of a long rider. He smiled widely at the sight of an old comrade, Rupert Burland. He got a bottle and glass from the bartender before settling in the other chair at Burland's table.



"How's it going, Rupe?" Cheyenne asked as he poured a small dollop of whiskey in the glass.



"Passable," said Burland. "What brings you to town?"



"The question is what brings you," replied the Kid, smiling slightly. "You're not known for pleasure rides in the country."





"I'm waiting for someone," said Burland. "As soon as I talk to him, I'll be moving on."



"Does he know you're waiting for him?" asked the scout. Silence answered him. "That's what I thought."



Yang had searched Four Corners diligently before stopping in front of the doors of the Eagle Wing. It was the only place he had not tried to find work. Maybe the manager would need a cleaner, or bartender. If he could not get a job there, he would try the next town.



Yang walked into the crowded saloon, and headed for directly for the bar. He stood patiently as the bartenders ignored him. He frowned slightly at the snub.



"Hey buddy," said a voice from the back of the room. A gloved hand waved in the air. "You can sit with us if you want."



Yang walked over to the table, face placid. He felt he should know this man in the yellow hat. It would come to him eventually.



Ivan Kriss wondered briefly what his ancestor would think of him. That Kriss had been the first of the old Russian Empire's heroes -- Redstar. The transparent man knew he wasn't a hero like Igor Kriss, even if he still dueled with his ancestor's enemies, the Captain Atoms.



Ivan frowned at the thought of the Atoms. Each generation had progressively grown more powerful, requiring more of the special alloy they used to chain the energy reaction inside their bodies.



The Kriss family didn't have that problem. Each generation, the energy became more internalized. Each successive Kriss became more out of touch with their environment until Ivan, the latest Kriss, was born.



That would end when Ivan held the Dragon's Breath. He would be more powerful than his ancestor could ever hope of dreaming.





"Let's go get our prize," Ivan said, smiling.



"We'd better hurry," said Cordell, pointing to two groups of riders converging on the town. Some of the men held torches, making their intent clear to the future outlaws.



"Wonderful," said Gore, the only one of the group smiling.



A step ahead.



Joe Higgins regarded his old comrade over a cup of coffee. He leaned against the counter that separated his kitchen from the living room. Normally a man that smiled a lot, he was not smiling now.



"Assembling a new team?" Higgins said. "You're asking much, especially since we've already lost Lancelot, and Darkling. Not to mention no one has seen the Comet since Crisis."



"I know," said Mr. Justice, "but it has to be done. The Son of Vulcan sent me here because you were the one man who could help me."



"I still have some contacts in the D.o.J.," said Higgins. "Maybe they can get a line on the others."



"Thanks, Joe," the ghostly crusader said.



"Don't thank me yet," said the original Shield grimly.



A step back.





The plan went like clockwork at first. Gil Layton was quietly amazed. Willis and five men rode around to the other end of Four Corners. Layton led his own party at his end of the town. Lighted torches were thrown inside the buildings as the men fired bullets to keep the inhabitants off the street. The outlaw leader and his designated helpers broke away from their party to rob the bank.



That was when Layton started having problems.



The first problem was that armed cowboys were in the bank and decided to keep Layton out. Giordano took one in the eye before he could dismount.



The second problem was that the two saloons in town were full of armed cowboys and wandering riders. They did not take too kindly to being shot at and were returning fire. Worse, Willis had stopped his charge to make sure the local law had taken some slugs in the face.



Layton gritted his teeth. He had to turn this situation around before he lost it all.



"This is just like a wild west show back home," said Elias Gore. "I wish I had some popcorn."



"What do you want to do, Kriss?" asked Day Cordell. The mercenary had assembled a rifle from components hidden in secret pockets sewn in his clothes. He sighted in casually on the leader of the outlaws.



"We let them fight it out," Ivan Kriss said. "Then we take the prize from whoever has it."



"It's your call," said Cordell, letting the barrel of the weapon point to the ground.



"I think we will move to be ahead of those peasants if they should succeed," said Kriss. "We don't want to give them too much of a head start."



The Black Witch nodded, summoning the energy to carry the whole group as would be required of her. She would put them down in a stand of trees Cordell had pointed out as a good ambush site.





The Witch wondered briefly if the raiders would even make it that far. She hoped not. The sorceress could do without a pitched battle after Adam's sudden appearance at the museum.



A step ahead.



The world was at war as Joe Higgins walked the halls of the F.B.I. headquarters. He had just appeared as the Shield, and was quickly earning a reputation for being a spy catcher.



Higgins paused in the outer office of the Director's office.



The male secretary looked at Higgins coldly, before pressing the intercom button on a box on his desk.



"Mr. Higgins is here, sir," said the secretary.



"Send him in," said the Director.



"Hello, sir," Higgins said as he stepped into the inner office.



"Shut the door, Higgins," said J. Edgar Hoover, the Director. "I have a job for you."



A step back.



Gil Layton decided he had one chance to turn this around. He would have to carry out his part of the plan immediately.



Layton jumped down from his horse, drawing one of his other pistols. He ran up to the bank entrance, bullets tugging at his clothes like angry fingers. He cleared the glass out of the bank's windows with lead. Then he was inside the building with one leap. He emptied his revolvers into the bank's defenders as fast as he could pull the firearms's triggers.



Six men dead in fifteen seconds.



"That guy is pretty quick," Day Cordell remarked in a too casual way.



"You think?" said Elias Gore.



"Not as quick as me, or maybe you," said the mercenary. "But quick enough to do the job."



"Have to agree with you there, brother," Gore said. He smiled at Cordell's annoyed expression.



"Too bad his followers are not of the same caliber," Ivan Kriss noted.



"Do we have to watch this?" Duncan Cannon asked. "We could end this and be on our way."



"Thank you for your input," said Kriss, "but I am not interested in destroying my timeline by interfering in this event."



Thunderbolt fumed silently, knowing the group would stop him on Kriss's say so. He wondered why he had become involved in this in the first place. It seemed like a petty attempt at rebellion now.



The Cheyenne Kid gestured at Yang to join him and Rupert Burland at their table. Yang wondered why he would do that, because the other whites watched him as he walked across the room.



"Take a load off," said the man in the yellow hat. "I'm the Cheyenne Kid, and this owlhoot is Rupert Burland."



Yang nodded at the man in black as he sat down. Of course, he recognized this Cheyenne now. He was in dozens of dime novels as the protector of the plains.



"Cheyenne was wondering what brought you to town," Burland said, with a smile. His eyes remained flat and humorless.



Yang opened his mouth to reply when bullets began flying into the Eagle Wing saloon. He stepped out of the way as the Kid and Burland dumped the table over as a shield. Yang ducked behind the makeshift barricade as the other patrons dived to the floor to the sound of breaking glass and splintering wood.



"Looks like the gentleman I was waiting for is here," Burland said as he pulled a cloth from his belt and over his head. His dark eyes glared from holes cut in the black hood he wore.



"You still wear that thing?" Cheyenne said as he pulled an old dragoon from his belt.



"I think we should go out the back," Burland said. He buttoned his black jacket closed.



"You comin', stranger?" Cheyenne asked Yang.



"Yes," said the wanderer.



"You first, Rupe," said the Kid. "We'll be right behind you."



Burland pulled twin Colts from their holsters. He walked towards a door marked "private," firing through the destroyed window with both hands. He shoved the door open, and vanished into the office.



"Go," said Cheyenne, standing and firing to give Yang a distraction. The wanderer threw himself across the room and through the door.



Cheyenne ducked behind the table and reloaded. He ran for the door, emptying his pistol as he went. He bounded into the office as bullets answered his fire.



"Blow the safe, Blacky," ordered Gil Layton, taking in the trouble his men were in from the inhabitants of the saloons.



He had lost at least two more besides Giordano. He would have to silence the saloons once and for all.



Blacky took some dynamite out of his saddle bag and took it into the bank. He placed the explosive in front of the safe. He lit the fuse, and quickly ran outside.



"Got any more of that stuff?" Layton asked casually.



"Yep," said Blacky. "Maybe twelve sticks."



The bomb exploded in the bank, lifting the safe off the floor and slamming it down. The door hung askew as singed money drifted through the air.



"Get that money into bags," said Layton, as he pulled some more dynamite from Blacky's saddlebag. He tied three or four sticks together and lit the long fuse. He walked over and tossed the bomb into the Eagle Wing. A thunderclap blasted the front of the building apart. Layton smiled at the severed body parts he saw.



Layton fashioned another bomb and threw it into the other saloon. Those men tried to rush out into the street. They were cut down by the raiders as soon as they cleared the door.



A step ahead.



"We lost a foreign agent this morning," said J. Edgar Hoover to his special agent. "He was last using the alias Rudolf Reinhardt. He took a briefcase of documents from a courier in California. We traced him to Hawaii, and believe he's on his way to hand over the documents to the Japanese Command in the Pacific."



"Japanese Command, sir?" asked Higgins.





"The man's a mercenary," Hoover said. "Works for anyone who can pay him."



"So you want me to get the material back?" asked Higgins.



"Right," said Hoover. "Military Intelligence is going to lend you their top man as a guide and back-up. A Captain Jagger. Your plane will be leaving in a couple of hours. Here's the file. Read it and shred it."



"Yes, sir," said Higgins, taking the manilla envelope. "Anything else, sir?"



"Remember to take your suit."



"Never leave home without it, sir," said Higgins, as he turned and left the office.



A step back.



"A very good move," said Ivan Kriss. "Get ready to transport us, Witch."



"I am ready," said the sorceress quietly.



"The fight's not over yet," said Day Cordell.



"What are you talking about?" Kriss said.



Elias Gore silently pointed.



Three stood in the alley next to the destroyed Eagle Wing saloon. Two looked quite ordinary. The third wore a featureless black hood and a black suit.





"A Black Hood?" Kriss asked himself.



The cowboy and the Black Hood opened fire on Gil Layton's men. They were deadly accurate with their fire as bandits fell before them. The bald Oriental with them began to hurl debris from the destroyed building like javelins. The pointed wood sank into flesh with the tremendous force that he used.



"Those three have to be stopped," said Kriss and Layton together.



Cordell quickly pulled his rifle to his shoulder and fired three times. The three newcomers fell to the ground, and lay still.



Layton gathered up his loot and the surviving members of his gang and rode off.



"Now, Witch," ordered Kriss.



"Take us to the designated point to rend a man from joint to joint," said the Black Witch.



Kriss's group vanished in a flare of light.



"Why the sudden rush?" asked Duncan Cannon. "I thought you didn't want to interfere."



"Captain Atom is approaching," said Ivan Kriss. "I don't want to face him without some constraint on his powers, or the Dragon's Breath."



"Here come our ducks," Day Cordell said. He brought his rifle to his shoulder, ready to fire.



"Take them, Guzman," ordered Kriss.



The silent Manuel Guzman launched himself into the air, shrinking down to a speck as he flew.



Gil Layton had done a hasty head count as he, and his gang, rode out of town. He had lost ten men on this raid. That was more than he had lost the whole previous year. And that blasted Black Hood was back on his trail. The outlaw cursed to himself.



Men began to fall from their horses behind Layton with shouts. Layton looked over his shoulder, convinced a posse had assembled and was picking his men off as they rode. When he turned to face front again, a booted foot sent him down to the ground with a grunt of pain. A grim face appeared, right before the lights went out.



Thunderbolt looked around. His and Gore's appearance on the scene had scattered the outlaws to make them easy pickings for the rest of the team.



He grabbed the bag of loot and dumped it on the ground. He picked up the gold fragment he needed and tossed it to the waiting Kriss.



"Time to move on," said the transparent man.



A step ahead.



John Raymond stared at the brunette on the bed as he picked up the phone.



"Raymond," he said. "Hello, Joe." A pause. "I would like to help you, but an old friend is in town and I have to see about her first. I'm taking her to the hospital as soon as I hang up." Another pause. "Right. Bring him along if you think he can help. Mercy General."



Raymond hung up the phone. Sirens came closer to his townhouse.



"Where did you come from, Darkling?" he asked his comatose visitor.



Kip Burland wore his uncle's black and yellow costume. He lit up a cigar as he prepared to leave the apartment to go on patrol. The phone rang. He yanked up the receiver impatiently.



"Yeah?" he said in answer. "Hi, Joey."



"Mercy General? I'll be right there."



Burland donned ordinary clothing over his costume. He went down the fire escape and dropped onto his motorcycle. He roared away into the night.



Thomas Troy picked up the portable phone as it buzzed the first time.



"Troy," he said quietly. He smiled when he heard the voice on the other end. "Hello, Joe." A pause. "Kim's out shopping for a nursery. It's going to be a boy. We're thinking about naming him Jason Lancelot." Another pause. "I guess I could help you out. Let me leave Kim a note." Another pause. "Mercy General? I'll be there as quickly as I can."



Troy hung up the phone. It must be important for Joe Higgins to call for help. Thomas looked at the ring he had worn for so many years. He had promised to be a hero, and he would keep his word.



Troy wrote a short message for his beautiful wife.



"I wish... I wish... I wish I were the Fly," Troy chanted. A cloud surrounded him. When it cleared, a figure in green and gold stood in Thomas Troy's place.



The Fly took to the air once more.



A step back.



Joe Higgins caught an Army Air Force plane heading to the West Coast. He disembarked in San Francisco, and waited for four hours for another plane to Pearl Harbor. Then he waited another few hours until he could catch a plane to join a fleet in the middle of the Pacific. He waited on board a carrier before getting a ride about to the Marine base where he was meeting his contact.



Several people he had talked to spoke highly of Captain Jagger and his ability to get results in the field.



That made Joe feel better the mare's nest he was stepping into.



The Cheyenne Kid picked himself off the ground. He unstrapped the knife and sheathe he wore on his back. A hole had been burned through the leather holster. The blade of the Bowie had melted under some considerable heat.



Yang walked over. He was examining a hole burned through his arm. He hid his pain behind an inscrutable mask.



Rupert Burland coughed where he laid his face down in the dirt. He rolled over, pulling up the hood he wore from his face. He coughed again, before he sat up. He gained his feet, despite a sudden bout of weakness.



"What happened?" asked Cheyenne, letting the useless knife fall to the ground.



"We were struck by red lightning," said Yang. "I saw it out of the corner of my eye when it impacted your knife."



"Whatever it was allowed Layton to escape," said Burland. He began reloading his pistols with a strange jerkiness. He coughed again.



"I have to get after him before the trail grows cold," said the Black Hood, seizing a dead man's horse and pulling himself into the saddle. He swatted the horse into a gallop without waiting for his companions.



"It is dangerous to pursue this man," said Yang, "if we don't know how we were incapacitated."



"I know," said the Kid, dumping the spent shells from his heavy dragoon for six fresh bullets. "Layton didn't do it, whatever it was."





"So we will face this menace again," said Yang.



"You can stay here if you want," said Cheyenne. He whistled, and a pinto trotted to him.



"No, I am going," said Yang. He mounted a horse that had once belonged to an outlaw. "This man, Layton, must be brought to justice."



"Let's go," said the protector of the plains, as he urged his horse after a dwindling Rupert Burland.



Yang followed silently.



Ezekiel Adam flew high above a fire that had once been a town. Men lay in the street. Horses had scattered slightly. Three men rode away from the carnage at a gallop.



Adam felt he should not interfere, but decided he had to. There might be people trapped in the blaze that only his special abilities could help.



Adam hovered high above the fire. He knew the smoke hid him from the crowd gathering below. He began to fly in a tight circle above the fires. He flew lower and lower with each turn until his slipstream was drawing the flames and smoke after him. In seconds, his windshear had pulled the bonfire into the air after him and dispersed it.



Adam decided to let the town bury its dead, and look for survivors. He had already interfered too much.



He flew off after the three men.



A step ahead.





John Sterling picked up the phone just as it began to rang. He still had the touch, he thought, smiling.



"Sterling Investigations," the giant said. "Hey, Joe. You need some help? I'll be glad to lend you a hand. My rate is three-hundred a day, plus expenses. Just kidding, Joe. Where do you want to meet? Mercy General? I'll be there."



Sterling hung up the phone gently. Joe Higgins back in action. Who would have thought it? Sterling changed into his familiar red costume and metal belt for the meeting.



Let's see what the problem is, Sterling thought, as he headed for the front door of his townhouse.



A step back.



Gil Layton picked himself off the ground. His face hurt from where the stranger had struck him. He felt as if something was broken in his cheek.



No time for that now. Layton had to get away. The Black Hood was on his trail again and that maniac wouldn't stop for anyone or anything short of death.



Layton kicked his five henchman as he gathered his money in the bag. Four stirred. The fifth had a handprint for a face. Layton grimaced at the sight.



He re-mounted his horse, looking back at Four Corners. Odd, the fires were out. Worse, the Black Hood was coming up the road after him. So it was going to be a showdown after all.



Layton pulled his pistols and charged the grim figure before him.



The two began firing at each other as they galloped together. Both men were deadly marksmen, and each bullet struck flesh when it hit.





Layton took a .44 slug in the head and fell from his steed. One hand clenched the dirt, then relaxed forever.



The Hood's horse slowed to a trot, then stopped. Rupert Burland tried to lift the hood from his face. Instead he fell from his horse, never to rise again.



A step ahead.



Joe Higgins walked to the base commander's office. Sweat poured from his brow in the tropical heat. Everyone looked busy, and a little worried as he passed.



He knew the local scuttlebutt said the Allies were making a series of pushes along this group of islands to strike into the Phillippines.



A lot of men were going to die doing this, Higgins knew.



Joe stepped into a pre-fabricated building in the middle of the base. A briefing seemed to be going on in a large room beyond the foyer where Higgins stood. The lieutenant in the anteroom looked at Joe warily.



"Sorry, Mac," the Marine said. "Press isn't allowed in here."



"It's okay," Joe said with a smile. "I'm cleared. I'm supposed to see the base commander."



Higgins saw the officers at the briefing were watching the exchange with various expressions on their faces. Only a tall man in the back was smiling.



"Higgins?" asked the tall man.



"That's right," Higgins said.





"You're just the man I wanted to see," said the base commander. "Come in here."



"We have been discussing your problem," said the commander. "Your man landed at the only enemy installation on our target. Unfortunately, the place has enough manpower and supplies to hold off our forces long enough for your man to escape with whatever he has."



"Is this the place?" Joe asked, looking at the pictures on the cork briefing board. "What's this in the background?"



"It's a cliff that overlooks the base," said one of the officers. "It's got a battalion of Japanese with artillery holding the top of it."



"I can get past that to get on base," said Higgins, "but getting back out with my fugitive will be a problem."



"What do you need?" the commander asked.



A step ahead.



Doctor Steve Dickering watched them gather in the solarium in his hospital. He couldn't believe it. He knew them from studying his father's casefiles and scrapbooks. He had even met Steel Sterling once when he was a kid.



Now they waited for news about their companion, Darkling. He didn't know what to tell them. For all intents and purposes, she was a vegetable.



Then two more men walked into the room as he headed down the corridor to tell them the bad news.



He paused to give them some privacy before he went in.





Mr. Justice smiled when he saw his colleagues had gathered to help him in this mission. His gaze fell on Kip Burland and he sensed something was wrong with the hero. The only thing that seemd out of place was the cigar he chewed on.



The ghostly Crusader took a closer look. Another shared Burland's body with him. How could that be? Mr. Justice asked himself. Somehow it tied in with the legacy of the Black Hood.



"Is there something wrong with my face?" Burland asked half jokingly, half serious.



"Yes," said Mister Justice, turning to mist. He enveloped the Black Hood and entered his mind.



Burland froze in place, his eyes rolling up in his head.



"What's going on, Joe?" Troy asked, lowering Burland into a chair.



"I don't know," the original Shield admitted. "I don't think Charles would act without a reason."



"Maybe it has something to do with his uncle's death," Raymond said.



"How?" asked Troy.



"He started acting strangely when his uncle died," said Raymond said. "Remember we put it down to grief."



"Maybe there was more to it than we thought," Higgins said, catching on.



"Right," said Raymond.



"Whatever happened to him, it still must be in place," Raymond said. Darkling and Kip, how could we not do something for either one of them.





Mister Justice glared at the figure in front of him. He recognized it immediately as a Haunt. How did Kip become infested with it? he asked himself.



"Depart from this man," the ghostly crusader ordered.



"Oh, no," said the spectre. "I have been building up my strength, slow but sure. I'm not going to give up my second chance because you're telling me no."



"Depart willingly or I will banish you to the inferno," the royal heir said.



"If I go, I'll take this Burland with me," said the possessor, "just like I did his ancestors. Dragged them down one by one until they got themselves killed."



"We'll see about that," said Mister Justice. "You'll rue this day."



The two ghosts crashed together in silent fury. Each sought a hold while trying to avoid the other's grip. Finally Burland's oppressor threw Mr. Justice to the foggy ground.



"Time to go to your reward," the haunt said, pulling an old pistol from its holster.



"Time for judgement," Mister Justice said, holding forth a glowing hand. Spectres in black hoods began appearing on the battlefield. The ghost moaned when he saw their leader.



He fired his shooting iron to no avail.



The Black Hoods dragged him away to his long awaited punishment.



"You haven't seen the last of Gil Layton," he screamed in denial.



"Yes, I have," said the Crusader.



Mist poured from Kip Burland's body as Mister Justice returned to the real world.



A step back.



The Cheyenne Kid and Yang gathered of their fallen comrade after securing the surviving outlaws. A letter fell out of Rupert Burland's coat as they draped him over his horse.



"To whom it may concern,

Please return my belongings to my brother in New York. Say nothing about the hood, for he does not know of my vocation.



Rupert Burland."



An address was written on the bottom of the letter. The Kid folded the letter up and slid it inside his wallet.



"I'll take care of this for Rupe," he said with a frown.



"What about the other two bodies?" asked Yang.



"Let the buzzards have them," said the Kid. "We'll be lucky if the ones we have aren't lynched by sundown."



Yang nodded.



Neither man noticed the flash of light and energy that said Ezekiel Adam had moved on in pursuit of his foes.



A step forward.



Ivan Kriss looked around him with something like dismay when the time-jump ended.



"When are we?" he asked Duncan Cannon, Thunderbolt.



"1945," said Cannon. "The South Pacific should be where we are."



"Meter says the piece is that way," said Day Cordell, pointing with his rifle.



"Lead, Gore," Kriss ordered. "Scout ahead for us, Jane. We need to know what's around us."



The small group set off through the jungle.



Joe Higgins waited for his guide patiently. His plan let him take the first crack at the enemy before there was a pitched battle and loss of life.



There was no choice for him. He had to go in and do the job. It didn't matter how good the armor was if a sniper got lucky.



Joe put aside his doubts. Luck ran both ways and he was more than capable of making his as he went.



"Joe Higgins?" said a blond man in a uniform, stepping into the barracks. A Japanese teenager stood behind him. "I'm Captain Rip Jagger, and this is my ward, Tiger."



A step ahead.



Doctor Steven Dickering had watched everything that had happened since Mister Justice and his companion had arrived. He had been taken by surprise by the turn of events as anyone but pushed on the door as if he just arrived.





"What's the prognosis, Steve?" Sterling asked when he saw his comrade's son.



"Still the same," Dickering admitted. "Vegetative with no indication of cause."



"I would like to see her," Prince James said.



"Of course," said Dickering. "She won't be able to respond to you. Probably won't know you're there."



"We will see about that," Mister Justice said as he indicated for the doctor to lead the way.



"Can you do something for her?" Raymond asked quietly.



"We will see," the ghostly crusader said.



Doctor Dickering stepped to one side to let Mr. Justice examine Darkling. She had suffered some kind of mental blow and been lost for some time, according to Raymond. There was no telling what kind of effect that had on her.



Mr. Justice leaned over Darkling, then vanished again. Dickering silently wished him luck.



Prince James looked around the mental landscape. It seemed curiously empty of the background things he was used to seeing. A structure started rising out of the ground ahead.



It seemed to be a castle, complete with a moat. The drawbridge was up to block his way. Bars and shutters covered the windows.



A serpent arose from the moat. Fire streamed from its cavernous maw at the intruder. Mr. Justice threw a hand up forming a shield. He was blown back across the misty ground, digging a trench with his body.





Mr. Justice rolled to one side as the serpent blasted again with its fiery breath. The trench filled with flame as the ghostly crusader leaped to his feet.



The serpent drew back to fire again. The hero flew forward, growing to a giant's size. He pulled the creature from the moat as the monster tried to bite his hands. He slammed it into the ground with a thunderous roar.



Mr. Justice squeezed the monster's neck with both hands as the pair struggled for dominance. Finally the serpent sighed away in a cloud of rusty dust.



"What else is in store for me?" he asked himself as he approached the raised drawbridge.



A step back.



Joe Higgins wiped the sweat from his chin as he followed Captain Jagger and his ward. The Shield armor was hot in the jungle. At least he had plenty of water, so he wouldn't dehydrate.



The trio stealthily penetrated the Japanese lines. Everything was going to plan. All the heroes had to do now was climb the mountain slope without being noticed.



Piece of cake, Higgins thought. Now, the diversion is a whole other kettle of fish.



At the top of the mountain, the infiltrators silenced a machine gun nest as they got ready to descend the side towards the base below.



They would see how well the plan would go then.



Jane Bird led her fellow time travelers through the jungle with care. They had stumbled over some Japanese troops in the night. No one else would.





Jane knew Duncan disapproved now of Kriss's involvement. She wished she could think of a way to spirit Cannon from this expedition. Duncan's emotions would cause him to do something disastrous. She didn't think she could lose more of him than she had already without her real body.



The grouped tracked on.



Ezekiel Adam appeared in rush of air and a flash of light. He ascended into the air, trying to figure where he had landed this time.



Ezekiel Adam floated above the treeline in a glowing trail. He was unprepared for the reception he received from the Japanese forces as he was hanging in the air.



Anti-aircraft batteries began to shower the supposed aircraft with flack. Adam began to duck and dodge the incoming firepower.



Joe Higgins, Rip Jagger, and Tiger watched the show in stunned silence. Then they began their descent down the mountain as quickly as possible.



Talk about a distraction, Higgins thought as he led the way, smoke rolling from his gloves.



"Blast it," said Kriss. "Adam is already here."



"Two minutes from target," Cordell said in unconcern.



"Cordell, Gore, Thunderbolt," said Kriss in controlled fury. "Go ahead and get the piece. We'll hold him off until you report back."



The three disappeared into the jungle.



"Start off, Witch," said Kriss. "We have to buy the time and be rid of this pest if we can."



"Metal to metal attract, rip his spine from his back, rip him with your skin, pierce him with ten thousand pins," intoned the Black Witch. Phantom energy roiled from her hands as she chanted.



A step forward.



Mr. Justice walked around the moat, looking for an entrance. Everything was closed up tight. Even the arrow slits were shuttered against intruders.



The ghostly crusader floated over the moat. He glided over the wall to land in the main courtyard of the castle.



Guards rushed from their posts to attack this invader. He must not arouse the mistress. Their swords flashed in the dull air.



Mr. Justice raised a hand to create a shield. The guards battered at it, while the guardian sent his mind looking through the structure for Darkling's mind. When he thought he had found it, he expanded the shield into a blast of light. The guards were thrown to the ground in a stunned heap.



Mr. Justice walked over to the main section of the building and blasted the door apart. He began to climb the stairs to the tower where he had sensed Darkling hiding in darkness.



The ghostly Crusader paused at the last barrier to his quest.



A step back.



Ezekiel Adam knew he was in trouble. Every piece of metal in the air seemed to be flying at him.



"Shield," he said, creating a bubble of energy. The flak and anti-aircraft shells slammed against the bubble forcing Adam from the sky.



"Good work, Witch," said Kriss, smiling. "Let us claim our prize."



The three hurried after their comrades.



Joe Higgins, Rip Jagger, and Tiger dropped into the enemy base unseen. They took positions within reach of the ammo dump.



"See your man?" Jagger asked.



"Not yet," Higgins said. "He's probably waiting by the airstrip. I'm going to go look around while you guys ready the real distraction."



"Right," said Jagger. "Come on, Tiger. We have our work cut out for us."



The two vanished in the darkness.



A step forward.



Mr. Justice looked at the mighty door blocking his path. This was the final defense against his intrusion.



The spectre pressed against the door, summoning his will and energy to the task. The wood of the door bent inward before snapping piece by piece under his hands. He could feel Darkling's mind trying to stop him.



He wouldn't allow that. He would go forward.



Justice burst through the door with one last effort. He stumbled with the sudden release. A set of steps were rose in the blackness before the ghostly Crusader.





He began ascending the steps to the chamber at the top of the tower.



Mr. Justice paused at the top of the stairs. His goal was at hand. Darkling's spirit was there in the dark. He walked to where she floated silently.



Darkling's mind was scarred and covered with wounds. She had been harmed badly by her encounter with the Brain Emperor.



She was salvageable, and he had promised Raymond. He would have done it anyway had he known what had happened.



Mr. Justice raised his hands at either end of her body. Energy flowed from his hands as he turned his will to the grindstone of healing. The scars on the heroine's body erased themselves. The wounds closed and smoothed over as if they never happened.



Darkling's eyes snapped open. She smiled slightly at the ghostly crusader.



"Thank you," she said mentally.



A step back.



Day Cordell led the way through the perimeter of the Japanese base. His rifle cracked rods of light at any soldier he saw with his cybernetic system.



Gore branched off to the left as silent as a the predator he was. His hands glowed with the killing light as he sliced men like a scythe through wheat. Cordell could hear the men screaming and Gore's laughter over the roar of his weapon.



Duncan Cannon branched off to the right. He summoned his will and silver lightning erupted from his eyes. The energy lances smashed the defenses of the Japanese in a swath of destruction.



Joe Higgins jogged through battle area. Every soldier he came across suffered a fist in the face and a darkness. He realized that he was going to collide with the small group of invaders long before they saw his star-spangled form.



Higgins paused in his advance. Three superhumans ripping into the base defenses would have ordinarily made things simpler. An enemy of my enemy is my friend.



Joe doubted it this time. The trio was after something specific. He looked in the direction the group was fighting toward. A two story wooden building stood there.



Joe readied himself. Then he leaped through the air feet first. His drop kick smashed the one with the rifle off his feet. The Shield somersaulted to land on his feet.



Silver lightning reached for Higgins. He stepped out of the way, swinging at the first man's face as he did so.



The mercenary blocked the blow with an arm that turned into a throw. Higgins landed on his back and bounced to his feet as a growling fury pounced on him with glowing hands.



Higgins grabbed his attacker by the wrists. He twisted and slammed the berserker into the ground. He followed up with an elbow drop as the lightning thrower tried to fire through his armor with him in it.



The weapons guy had retrieved his rifle. He starting blasting at the Shield, who rolled away from his victim.



A silver lightning bolt scooped Higgins up and hurled him into the jungle. He landed with a crash against a tree.



"Can you carry Gore?" asked Cordell, as he reloaded his armament.



"Yes," said Thunderbolt. He slung his comrade across his shoulders easily.



"Let's go," said the mercenary. He led the way towards the command building, firing at any threat he saw. Equipment and men were destroyed by the plasma packets he used. He kicked the door of the building open so that he could shoot into the room without hesitation if he had to.



Rip Jagger placed the explosive charges around the inside perimeter of the armory. Tiger stood guard at the door. Both had changed from their uniforms to bright costumes.



"The Shield just got blasted by the eyeball guy," Tiger said, quietly. "Looks like they are headed for the command building."



"We'll go out the back," said Judomaster. "We'll circle around to the rear of the building and go in through a window. Something tells me those guys are after the same thing the Shield was."



"Right behind you," said Tiger, a white blur in the darkness.



The two left the armory through a window in the rear of the building. They skulked around as the garrison reorganized to deal with these intruders as best that could be done. Dead men and ruined equipment were scattered across the base as far as Jagger could tell.



"The Shield's back," said Tiger, pointing.



"Let's see if we can do something about our unwelcome visitors," said Jagger as he led the way to the back of the headquarters.



Judomaster and Tiger picked a window and slipped inside the wooden building.



Ivan Kriss led the way to the besieged base. He was not pleased to see the carnage when he reached the area. Still Cordell would get the piece for him. He knew that as surely as the sun would rise tomorrow.



Of course, he didn't plan to be in this benighted time zone when it did.



Kriss spotted a figure from the history texts. The Shield was here also. Worse, he seemed to be heading in the direction of Cordell's link. Can't have that, can we? he thought.



"Clear the Shield out of the way, Jane," he ordered the invisible mind. "Witch, get your transport spell ready."



Higgins felt the presence behind him as he jogged after the invaders. He started to turn as something crashed into him. He flew into a wall, trying to turn to face this new opponent.



The Shield picked himself up. He saw a woman's face. He moved to one side in a lunge. A crater erupted from the wood as something smashed into it with deadly force.



Higgins readied himself to move again. He hoped Jagger was having an easier time of this.



A step forward.



Mr. Justice appeared in the hospital room. He hid the weakness he felt from his colleagues. It would pass.



Raymond and Dickering were both at her side for different reasons. Prince James saw Sterling smile before he led the rest of the team out of the room.



He regarded the pair with the intrusion of faint memories of true love. He put the feeling aside. The Crusaders had a job to do. There would be time to think of things gone by later. The spectre trailed behind his comrades with a harsh shake of his head.



The group took refuge in the solarium to listen to their host.



"I assembled this gathering because it has come to my attention that soon people from the future would be here searching for an artifact. They must not achieve their ends," said Mr. Justice. "With your help, I hope to accomplish that deed."





"Do you know what these guys can do?" asked Burland.



"No," said the ghost.



"What can you tell us?" asked Higgins.



"My informant told me that there would be six in the group. They are going after a piece of an ancient weapon recently unearthed by the Museum of Natural History in China, and brought here for further study. If the weapon is assembled this group will become a threat to the whole timeline," said Mr. Justice.



"The museum has the piece now?" asked Thomas Troy.



"Yes," said Joe Higgins. "I was able to confirm that with my contacts this morning on the way here."



"It seems a simple substitution would be in order," said Troy.



"I have been told it has a signature," said Prince James.



"So the bad guys can track it wherever we take it," said Burland.



"Yes," said Mr. Justice.



"I have a plan," said Sterling with a grin. "Why didn't I work with you guys sooner?"



"You got a plan?" said Burland. "This I got to hear."



Sterling laid his plan out for his fellow heroes. No noticed that Dr. Dickering heard the plan also. He nodded in agreement with the Crusaders.



Maybe it was time for the Hangman to get back into the game, he told himself as he walked away quietly.



A step back.



Sounds of combat drew Judomaster and Tiger to a stairwell at the end of the building. Jagger stalked up the stairs.



A man leaned against the top of the stairwell. He must have acute hearing because he turned to face the Judomaster with a snarl on his lips. His hands ignited as he threw himself at Jagger.



The fighting master grabbed an arm above the wrist, turned, and threw the berserker down the stairs. The enemy tried to get up to attack again, but youthful hands slammed his head into the wall. Everything went black for Gore as he slumped over.



Jagger paused at the top of the stairs. The berserker's friends had his quarry and his bodyguard pinned down at the other end of the hall. Still the green clad bodyguard had forced the two invaders to open offices for cover.



Ezekiel Adam picked himself off the ground. He took a deep breath as he summoned his power again. He took to the air in a high arch. He used close to his top speed to avoid any eager gunners. He had had enough flak for the day.



He flew over the base. Kriss was right below with two of his group in combat with the Shield.



Adam flew by throwing a string of power bolts at the small group. The Black Witch was thrown into the air by one. Kriss moved out the way of each bolt thrown at him with the micro-teleportation that was his way of running. A stray bolt slid along Jane Bird's mental shield as the invisible woman momentarily became visible and solid from the strain of deflection.



Joe Higgins leaped forward and grabbed a piece of debris from the ground and threw it through Kriss's moving form. The leader of the time bandits froze in pain from the blow as the two feet long pole sailed through his body.



Adam reversed his flight path to make a second pass. As he flew above the battlefield, he began firing at his fellow travelers. A silver bolt of lightning took him unawares and flung him from the sky. He smashed branches off trees before he cratered into the ground.



Judomaster pointed at the energy thrower fro Tiger. He pointed at himself, and then the rifleman. Tiger nodded in understanding. The two separated and closed on the enemy.



The bodyguard held his fire when he saw the new arrivals.



Cordell paused to look around in suspicion. He saw the Judomaster coming his way.



"Look out," he called to his comrade as he swung his rifle up to shoot.



Jagger leaped forward, driving his foot into the man's stomach. Cordell lost the rifle as he stumbled backwards. The Judomaster brought an elbow around to batter Cordell's face.



Tiger charged the other man. He couldn't risk a lightning bolt. His blow was blocked by the man's forearm. The two exchanged moves. Tiger did not understand why the man seemed to reacting faster and faster as they fought.



Then he was flying through the window behind the blaster.



The Black Witch spoke a spell and felt better immediately. It was time to end this farce, she thought bitterly.



She spoke another quick spell. A hurricane picked the Shield up and battered him against the command building, before flinging him away like a petulant child.



Higgins was still after the deadly treatment.





Tiger crashed through a window above the scene. He twisted and grabbed the window sill before he could fall to the ground. He had to help Judomaster.



Something grabbed the young hero's leg by the ankle. He was wrenched away from his handhold and slammed into the building three or four times before being dropped the ten feet to the ground.



"Nicely done, ladies," said Kriss, moving shakily towards the headquarters. "Let's get our prize before these buffoons can interfere again."



Duncan Cannon grimaced slightly. He flung himself across the corridor, where Cordell was being smashed by the red-garbed Judomaster.



Rip Jagger knew he was in trouble as Tiger's target had bounded into the office with him and the rifleman. He had to escape and check on Tiger. The mission had gone into a handbasket in a major way.



Tiger was his adopted son. That was more important, even if the world hanged in the balance.



Cordell swung an overhead blow. Jagger sent him into a wall with a twist of the wrist. He blocked Thunderbolt while punching him in the solar plexus. Cannon stumbled back, losing the concentration needed to retain his charge.



Jagger leapt into the air and delivered a kick to Thunderbolt's face. Cannon's visor fell away as he stumbled into the doorframe. Jagger grabbed his head and jerked it into a knee. He let Cannon fall out of the way.



He saw a woman's face for a brief intense second. Then everything was blackness.



"The gunman down the hall," said Kriss. "Cannon can wait."



The silent Jane Bird snarled at him for a second in her fury. A swirling storm of objects danced in her trail as she advanced down the hall. The bodyguard grabbed his charge and leaped from a window.



A briefcase smashed against a desk. Jane picked up the piece of the puzzle and carried it back to Kriss.



"Let's move on to the next setting," said Kriss, as the ladies gathered their fallen comrades together. The group vanished.



Ezekiel Adam sensed the eruption of chronal energy. He realized he was too late again. He flew on the deserted battlefield. The Shield was picking himself up with a shaking of his head. Adam landed beside the fallen Tiger.



The boy had been beaten badly by someone. Adam stretched out a hand. "Heal," he commanded and his aura went to work rebuilding the hero.



"Blast," said the Shield from over his shoulder. "Those yahoos got away."



"Not all the way," Adam said, as his healing finished. "The boy will need some looking after, but at least things had gone his way. He could have been killed."



"Tell me about it," said Higgins. He picked up Tiger in his arms. "Time to call in the calvary."



"Good-bye," Adam said. He summoned his energy and burst through the time barrier in a flash of light.



"I wonder what just happened?" Higgins said as he went in search of a radio.



A step ahead.



Kriss's team appeared in a tenement's basement. He heard the Witch recite her healing spell again. He didn't care about that. Ultimate power was in his grasp finally.





The frailty of others would soon be beneath his notice. For now he needed them to carry out his plan.



"Are they ready to go?" he asked the Witch.



She looked at him. He didn't understand the expression on her lovely face.



"No, they are not," she finally said. "It will be at last a couple of hours before they are able to move."



"Can you hurry it up?" he asked, impatiently.



"No, I can't hurry it up," said the spell caster. Jane Bird's face glowered visibly.



"Right," said Kriss. "We can wait for a few hours."



Dr. Steve Dickering went home at the end of his shift in a good mood. Darkling was ready to leave the hospital when he stopped in to check on her. John Raymond was at her side, holding her hand. He had a look of delirious happiness.



It had been a long time since Dickering had even thought of being that happy. It was good to see others like that. It made him happy with his profession and life in general.



Dickering went to his closet and slid a hidden door out of the way. He pulled the black costume out of its hiding place.



Do you really want to do this? he asked himself. One time and one time only, he thought. This one crisis and then the Hangman will retire again.



Dickering checked the weapons he had made to suit his hooded identity. Everything was ready to be used. This was like a dream come true, to be able to help the heroes of his youth.



He wouldn't let them down.



Ivan Kriss paced the basement floor in his erratic way. His goal was in sight and his lackeys were holding him back. He took a deep breath. They had been useful so far, and he could wait.



If Atom appeared, they were on their own. Nothing was going to stop him from reaching his goal. He would be more powerful than the Atoms and his own ancestors. Nothing was going to get in the way of that. Nothing.



"What's the next move?" said Day Cordell, waking up finally. He hadn't had somebody work him over like that in a long time.



Duncan Cannon sat up in the same way. He rubbed the side of his face where he had been kicked. A transparent sheet settled around his shoulders.



"I'm okay, Janie," Duncan said. He put his visor back on.



Kriss smiled. He wouldn't have to wait for much longer. When the sun went down, they would make their move and go home.



Let the Atoms try to stop him then.



The Museum of Natural History closed on time. Inside the team of Crusaders had taken guard positions around the last piece of the puzzle.



Steve Dickering had dressed in the black and gold costume he had devised and stood watch from a nearby rooftop.



Ivan Kriss led his team through the streets. He was minutes away from true power.





Ezekiel Adam appeared over the East River. He floated for a moment as he aligned himself in the direction of the energy signal broadcasted by Kriss.



He took off. This was his last chance to stop Kriss before a disaster was unleashed. He had been lucky so far but it wouldn't last much longer.



The time stream was intact, and would stay that way if he could help it. Kriss would not win the day after all this. Adam poured on the speed as he flew into the historic skyline.



The Hangman watched the crowd walk by on the street below. As the sun went down, he spotted a group of five coming toward the building.



They were dressed in ragged clothes. One had blood on his coat. They walked up to the door of the closed building. One of them tried the door. When it was discovered to be locked, the woman made a gesture. The door swung open on its own. The group went inside.



Dickering took aim with a line thrower and descended to the street in a controlled plummet. He landed lightly. He paused to let the burglars head for t

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