WHAT HAS COME BEFORE : They are the world's greatest heroes, united together in the common belief that they should use their incredible abilities to make the world a safer place. After a string of victories against the likes of Indigo and Kalathar, the Crusaders were betrayed by individuals within the government that funded them and they were stranded for eight long years on an alien world. Six months ago, they returned to find a world gone mad : their teammate, the Comet, was now a criminal and the government had enacted
a Superhuman Registration Act that required all heroes to register their secret identity with national authorities. The world needs the Crusaders more than ever....
JANUARY 2, 2000. WASHINGTON, D.C.
Michael Barnes had to admit it -- he was impressed. He was kneeling behind several large crates, watching as the man he'd once replaced -- Joe Higgins, aka the Shield -- moved into position. Down below them, a group of superhumans known collectively as the Riot Squad were arguing over some subject or another. Their attention was divided, obviously, but the skill used by Joe Higgins in moving closer to them was undeniable. Joe wore the mannexalar weave armor like he was born to it, the sometimes bulky suit not betraying his movements in the least. The two men, both of whom had worn the name and uniform of the Shield in the past, had tracked the villains to their lair. Since the Crusaders' return from the void*, Joe and Michael had acted as a team of sorts, each learning much from the other. From Michael's perspective, however, he'd learned far more from Joe than vice versa. Joe was the consummate hero, a man born to lead. Michael, on the other hand, had much more self-doubt and was still recovering from injuries he'd incurred as the Shield years before. The armor held him together, however, and made him strong again. (*In Crucible # 6.) Joe glanced up at Michael when he was in position and nodded, his gaze seeming to say We've got them dead to rights, partner. Make your move. Michael stood up, hoping his voice sounded imposing enough as he boomed out "Put your hands up and no one gets hurt! You're all under arrest for violating the Superhuman Registration Act, Section 32-B!" Michael's modified Shield uniform included a cloak, one that rippled dramatically as he stood. The leader of the Riot Squad was the Eraser, a slightly overweight man with a dangerous disintegration power. He wore a dark green bodysuit, with a yellow oval on his chest. He glanced at his companions, the avian killer known as the Buzzard and the insane killer called Sting. "The Shield! You idiots! I told ya not to let yourselves get tailed!" The Buzzard sneered, "It was most likely you who betrayed us, Eraser! I've had my doubts about you as leader ever since--" Michael blinked, hardly believing his eyes. Were these guys really wasting valuable time arguing amongst themselves while he confronted them? Idiots. You can give a guy a fancy costume and superpowers, but you sure can't raise his IQ, apparently. Sting lunged at Michael, his hands outstretched into bony claws. He was a slender man, with bone-white skin and an acid touch. Michael activated his force field just in time to avoid the danger. "Silence! There can be only resolution to this -- we must kill the Shield! And it shall be Sting who accomplishes that deed!" Michael winced, amazed that any human being could actually speak that way. Then again, he worked day-in and day-out with one.... Joe Higgins, known the world over as the Shield, made his move. While the villains were all converging on the American Shield, he jumped into the fray. "Criminals, beware! You face not just one Shield, but two!" Michael grinned beneath his facemask. Joe was something else -- a living comic book come to life, though with a few foibles. He evaded another blow from Sting before firing an electrical bolt at the villain. The shot rang true, sending Sting to the ground. "Get better dialogue before you try to move into the big leagues, friend." The Shield, meanwhile, had picked up a crate and hurled it towards the flying Buzzard. The crate shattered on impact and left only one villain conscious -- the Eraser. The Shield pointed a finger at the Eraser. "You know the law, Eraser. All superhumans within the continental United States are required to register with the Commission. That's just the tip of the iceberg, too -- you're wanted in five states for crimes ranging from simple theft to deadly assault. I'd recommend you surrender without prejudice. Any resistance will only make your case look that much worse." The Eraser looked from one Shield to another before laughing. "Haw! That's real funny, patriot. You guys just don't know who you're dealin' with -- I was going to invite my Eliminator buddies to join up with my new group, but I guess they're just going to miss out." Michael bent down to handcuff Sting, keeping an eye on Joe's interaction with the Eraser. The Eraser was a relative newcomer to the ranks of supervillains, but he had garnered a reputation for being ruthless. He hoped that Joe wouldn't let his guard down around him. The Shield moved forward. "What are you talking about? What new group?" The Eraser raised a hand to ward the hero away. His disintegration touch crackled with energy. "Wouldn't you like to know, flag-boy? Let's just say I've got some powerful new friends." The Eraser raised a hand to the yellow oval on his uniform. "Emperor? I could use a little help here." The flash of energy that enveloped the Eraser was so abrupt that neither Shield could make a move to stop it. In a heartbeat, the Eraser was gone. Michael slammed a fist into his other palm. "What the hell? How could he have done that? There was nothing in the reports about his having teleportation capability!" Joe rubbed his chin. "I don't think he normally does. He mentioned an 'emperor.' That must be someone associated with this new group the Eraser belongs to." Michael nodded. "Hmm. Well, if the Riot Squad were any indication of the sort of guys the Eraser hangs out with, I don't think we have anything to worry about." Joe Higgins remained silent for a moment more, lost in thought. Though he couldn't put his finger on any one thing, something about this whole affair left a very bad taste in his mouth. "This might be good excuse to call in the other Crusaders, Michael. I know they wanted to explore their individual lives for awhile, but it's been six months -- and the criminal element is starting to unite under someone's leadership." "You sure you're not blowing this out of proportion? The Eraser is strictly second-rate. It's not like we're talking about Kalathar or Inferno here." Joe grunted. "Maybe you're right. But I'm not going to take any chances. It's time to bring the group back together."
EVERGREEN, WASHINGTON. THE COMET DOME.
The city-wide sphere still encased the smoking wasteland that was once Evergreen, Washington. Destroyed in a fit of madness by its one-time protector, the Comet, Evergreen had been reduced to a nuclear-irradiated No Man's Land. Only the sphere kept its horrifying effects from spreading into the world's atmosphere. It also kept out would-be looters, pillagers of the dead, who would want to find treasure amidst the holocaust.
The man who stood outside the dome ignored the miles of warning signs that surrounded Evergreen. He had no fear of radiation -- it was the least of his concerns, in fact. Wrapping himself in a bundle of energy, he strode forth.
The dome seemed to open up for him, as if welcoming him home. His features were obscured by a mask, but the costume spoke volumes about his identity. He wore the colors and uniform of the Comet himself.
Security cameras silently recorded his progress into the dome. Somewhere, in an hour or so when the tapes were reviewed, an alarm would be sounded. Had the Comet cheated death yet again? And if he had, what peril was the world now in?
Maria frowned as she stared at the business text before her. It was extremely frustrating, to find herself eight years behind in her studies -- her father's business had been forced into the incompetent hands of her brothers during her absence and it was going to be a long, hard road to return it to stability. The young woman ran a hand through her long hair and wished that her college courses could be handled as easily as some of the Jaguar's opponents. When she was transformed into the primal creature known as Jaguar, Maria felt capable of anything -- but in her natural form, things were much more taxing.
Jason Troy watched his new bride with a wistful smile on his face. He was seated on the couch next to her, in a home bought mainly through Maria's funds. She'd had a difficult time convincing everyone that she was alive and well, but that had been nothing compared to what Jason had gone through. His mother had remarried and now had two new stepchildren. Jason felt like an odd man out.
A man. The very thought still appealed to him. He'd played at being a man for so long as the Fly, it was hard to realize that after eight years on an alien world*, he was a grown-up now. Grown-up and married, to one of the sweetest, most beautiful women alive. Life was pretty darn good.
(*For the full story on this untold adventure, only hinted at in the past, see our first Annual -- coming soon!)
The all-too familiar sound of the Crusaders signal device seemed somehow out of place in the Troy home. In the six months since their return, Jason and Maria had barely transformed into their heroic personas even once. Jason stood up as soon as the alarm sounded, however, his instincts immediately reacting. "Whoa. Where did we stash those communicators?"
Maria sighed, closing her book. "Upstairs, in the shoebox under the bed."
Jason didn't even bother running upstairs. He touched the fly-ring he still wore on his finger and was immediately transformed into the winged Fly. With a buzz, he zoomed upstairs and retrieved the signal device. "Fly here. What's up?"
The Shield's confident voice came through loud and clear. "Hello, Jason. The Crusaders need you and Maria -- can you make it?"
Jason Troy didn't even hesitate. Once upon a time, in what seemed like another lifetime, he'd dreamed of being a hero. That dream had never wavered. "We'll be there, Shield. You can count on us!"
JANUARY 4, 2000. WASHINGTON, D.C.
"Um, Shield? I'm not sure I like the idea of us working with the goverment again... it went sour last time, remember?" The Fly stood in the center of the new Crusader Complex, staring around at a marvelous display of technology.
Beside him, his wife nodded. She towered over her husband in her Jaguar form, looking like an Amazon warrior come to life. "I agree. The Superhuman Registration Act should be overturned and any government that would sponsor such a thing is immoral."
The two Shields glanced at one another. It was Michael who answered first. "Well -- keep in mind that the registration act came about after the Comet killed a lot of people. You guys weren't here when it happened -- I was. It was a horrific crime and it scared the non-powered people of the world."
Joe chimed in, "Michael's right. The government isn't perfect -- I know that better than any of you -- but it's up to us to make sure that people can trust superheroes again. I think the best way to do that is to make the Crusaders a stable organization again and accept some form of government sponsorship. Michael and myself have managed to swing a deal where we can use this headquarters and the two you don't have to register if you don't want. They're willing to put faith in you because of your records as heroes."
The Fly scratched his head. "Well...I guess I'm willing to play along and see how it goes. I've kinda missed you guys. But where's Josh?"
"He's elected to remain in retirement. His time as Fireball took a lot of him, I think. I won't begrudge anyone for wanting to get out of the hero business."
Michael stepped over to the round meeting table in the center of the room. "So it's just the four of us, for now. I've drawn up a list of possible applicants, however -- the Hangman, Mr. Justice and Bob Phantom, to name a few."
Jaguar took a seat, a slight frown still on her face. Unlike the others, she wasn't as willing to forgive the government excesses of the past. "I assumed there was a specific problem that needed addressing, Shield. What was the emergency?"
The Shield placed a hand on the table, everyone's attention riveted on him. Without any discussion, everyone just assumed he was in charge. "Michael and I have discovered clues pointing to some sort of villainous group in the formative stages. One of its members is the Eraser -- we think it might be prudent to nip this in the bud before it becomes a real danger."
The small group of beings who stood at attention were a potent group, indeed. The Eraser felt almost out of place amongst them. He glanced over at the men and women beside him and felt a grin spread over his face. He'd always wanted a shot at the big time and this group was his ticket to the top.
"I think it's time we began our plans in earnest." The shadowy figure who sat on a throne-like chair before them commanded instant respect. His voice was deep and rumbled like a slow-building earthquake. "The Shield is already aware of our existence thanks to the Eraser's slip of the tongue and we can't afford our enemies the luxery of preparing for us." The figure leaned forward, his oversized head revealing the pink and gray mass of exposed brain tissue. A protective dome covered his head. "The time has come for the Brain Emperor and his Malevolent Legion to rule!"
JANUARY 8, 2000 - ATLANTA, GEORGIA
"Your crimes against humanity must be punished..." The Hangman's voice was cold as ice, dripping with implied threat. He wore a full mask that covered all trace of his features, not even revealing his eyes. The Hangman's sight came from another source -- the unearthly raven that perched on his shoulder. Arthur Velt, the CEO of the Velt Corporation, backed away, knocking over his desk chair. The horrifying figure of the Hangman floated above him, standing on a small cloud. The broken shards of Velt's window lay in the background, evidence of the mystery man's swift entrance. "Who...who are you?! What do you want? Money?" The Hangman shook his head solemnly. "Money is the root of all evil, Arthur Velt. It has perverted your sense of right and wrong. Did you not think that dumping your corporate wastes onto the Reservations would be discovered eventually? It has -- and by someone with the power to make sure you never hurt anyone or anything again. The Hangman is here to pass judgment upon you!" Velt screamed as the Hangman reached into the small leather pouch he wore at his waist. The Hangman withdrew a scattering of brownish-red dust and threw it full onto Velt. The dust immediately began his work, drying up Velt's skin and causing him to quickly harden into a stone statue. The Hangman surveyed his work and nodded. He turned towards Velt's security camera and moved closer until he filled the viewscreen. "Let this be a warning to one and all. If the Velt Corporation continues its acts of genocide against the earth and its peoples, more will fall before the Hangman's noose!" Turning so quickly that his cape swirled, the Hangman's cloud of smoke carried him out the window. "A little bit harsh, don't you think?" The sound of buzzing brought the Hangman to attention even before the voice that accompanied it. He stared into the face of the Fly, who hovered in the air before him, arms crossed. The Hangman's raven narrowed its eyes in response to the Hangman's mood. "Ah, one of the mighty Crusaders. The world assumed that you were dead*." (*The Crusaders disappeared for almost eight years, during the time between Crucible # 1 and # 6.) "Well, the reports of our demise were greatly exaggerated." "So I see. What business does the famous Fly have with the Hangman?" "A couple of things : One - You still haven't complied with the Superhuman Registration Act. I'm pretty much okay with that, to be honest. I haven't complied either - but I have Presidential permission and you don't. Two - the Crusaders have reformed but we've only got four active members. You're considered a potential addition, though I think you're a bit too extreme for my tastes." "I punish evil as I see fit. Years ago, I encountered the Comet and he thought much the same as you do. In the end, he went mad while I continue the good fight. Perhaps his pollyanna viewpoints were overly stressed when he began to see that I am right? Justice must be meted out in extremity, lest criminals grow comfortable." The Fly snorted. "You're a criminal yourself. Not only for violating the registration act, but for murdering that man back there. Your methods are way more violent than we ever believed! I'm taking you in...." The Hangman was suddenly enveloped by smoke. As he faded away into thin air, his words struck the Fly like a dagger. "Know this, Fly - the Hangman goes and comes as he pleases. Should I decide that the Crusaders are impeding my mission, they too will fall!" The Fly's buzzing increased as he reached out to grab empty air. "Gone! Dang it!" Jason Troy, aka the Fly, let out a long sigh. That certainly hadn't gone well -- instead of finding a new Crusader, he'd made a very dangerous enemy. I hope the others do better than I did....
CENTURY CITY, OREGON
"...and we think you have the stuff to be one heck of a Crusader." The
American Shield, known to his friends in the Crusaders as Michael Barnes, stood inside the apartment of Josh Sterling. The Crusader was in full costume, which had garnered a good bit of attention as he'd made it through the apartment complex. Now, though, the two men were safely locked away from prying eyes. Josh, known to Sterling to almost everyone, ran a hand through his short hair. He was a handsome guy, with the sort of good-natured ruggedness that so many women found appealing. "I don't know about this, Shield. I mean, being a bodyguard* is one thing but a superhero?" (*Josh Sterling appeared in Crucible # 5 & 6 and served as Mr. Jordan's bodyguard, alongside the American Shield) "You'll do fine, Sterling -- if you want to join. You've got guts and you know to handle yourself in a brawl. Besides, Jordan cleared you for intelligence-level affairs so you'll have no trouble getting government approval. Sterling grunted. "Maybe, maybe not. I don't have any powers, remember?" The American Shield shook his head. "Don't give me that. I've kept tabs on you since you left the Crucible with the rest of us -- you were exposed to some major energy back there. You aren't the same as before, are you?" Sterling cracked a wry smile. "I knew that somebody in the government would be spying on me, but I never guessed it would be you. Yeah -- I am different. I'm stronger, a lot stronger, than I used to be. And things don't hurt me the way they should. I went to give blood not too long ago and they couldn't even pierce my skin! It was like I was made of steel or something...." Michael reached out and put a hand on Sterling's shoulder. "Join us. Help us and we'll make sure you learn your limits. Right now, you're not sure what you can even do. You might have powers you never dreamed of." Sterling looked into the American Shield's eyes for a long moment. "What about my family?" "What about them? I have a wife and kids, but I don't let that stop me from doing my duty. Your country needs you." Sterling considered a few seconds more before sighing. "Okay. I'm in. I just hope I won't regret this...."
EVERGREEN, WASHINGTON. THE COMET DOME.
The man who wore the costume of the Comet watched the approaching figures with what appeared to be benign interest. Even though many of them were recognizable as criminals of the first order, the Comet showed now fear. He moved forward, passing through the barrier that separated the remnants of Evergreen and the rest of the world. When he spoke, his voice rumbled with the power of a thousand suns. "WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU WANT?" The Brain Emperor approached slowly, almost cautiously. He'd brought his Malevolent Legion -- the Eraser, Maxx-14, Arachnus, the Black Witch and the beautiful woman known only as Dream Demon -- here to Evergreen for reasons unknown to all but himself. "I am the Brain Emperor and this is my Legion. I have a proposition for you that might intrigue you...." "HOW DID YOU EVEN KNOW I WAS HERE?" "My mental powers detected you from the moment you returned. Your power is great, indeed." While their leader parlayed with the Comet, the various members of the Legion looked about themselves in disbelief. "That's not the same Comet, I'm sure of it...." The Black Witch's voice was a soft whisper, lest she disturb the powerful beings before her. Arachnus, arch-foe of the Fly, scuttled forward on his mechanical spider-legs. "How can you be sure? He's not even human anymore! Not to mention that he's died and come back multiple times...." The Eraser interrupted with "I don't give a flying whoop if he's the original Comet or not as long as he helps us thrash the Shield!" "You are such an imbecile -- why the Emperor recruited you is beyond me." The Black Witch turned away from the fools that surrounded her, focusing her attention on the Brain Emperor's offer. "My mental powers know no bounds. I can contact anyone, anywhere. And you do have people you need to contact, don't you?" The Brain Emperor smiled knowingly. The Comet grunted. "AND WHAT DO YOU WISH IN RETURN?" "We want access to Evergreen -- I'll use it as my base of operations and plunder the secrets within. Alien contact with this place was quite common at one time and I believe that there may be...things... left behind that are of use to me." The Dream Queen let out a gasp. "You want us to go in there?! But it's radioactive!" The Brain Emperor laughed loudly. "Not anymore, my beautiful Queen. The Comet has already absorbed all traces of radiation from the area to replenish himself -- haven't you?" The Comet nodded slowly. "YOUR BARGAIN IS A GOOD ONE. EVERGREEN IS YOURS AND IN RETURN YOU'LL GIVE ME WHAT I NEED." The Brain Emperor nodded. "Yes. And our mutual aid society will seal the Crusaders' doom!"
JANUARY 10, 2000 - WASHINGTON, D.C. CRUSADERS COMPLEX
"Black Jack?" The Jaguar shook her head, wishing that she could be studying instead of attending this meeting. She was already falling behind... "He says he's in semi-retirement. He was beaten by an anti-hero mob after the Evergreen incident." The Shield, Joe Higgins, shook his head. "Too bad. I had hopes for that one after hearing the Fly's recommendation. OK, let's keep going. Hangman? Mr. Justice?" The Fly grunted, reaching out to squeeze the Jaguar's hand. "Well, Hangman was nuts. Really nuts. Mr. Justice... was kinda spooky. But no to both." The Shield nodded. "I see. Well, my attempt to recruit Captain Commando failed, as well. He's definitely in semi-retirement, though he promised to aid us in an emergency." The American Shield leaned forward. "I failed to reach the newest person on our list, Captain Flag. She's out there somewhere, but I couldn't find out where. Bob Phantom was also unreachable. I did have more success with the Fox. He's busy in the Rain Forest right now, but he wants to have a try-out when he comes back to the States."The Shield smiled for the first time today. "Great. So we look to be adding at least one new member, then." "Two, actually." The American Shield smiled at the puzzled looks on his teammates' faces. "I recruited someone who wasn't on our initial list. I've worked with him before and he's powerful enough to really help us. He's going by the code-name Steel Sterling. With your blessing, I think he'd make a fine Crusader."
She awoke in a strange place, lying on her back on the wet grass. Sitting up, she felt a terrible lightness of being, as if some crucial portion of her spirit were missing.
She rose to her feet, looking at the costume and cloak she wore. Where am I? The last thing I remember was... a man... he was threatening my friends, the Crusaders. But so much is confusing -- he did something to me. But what? Why can't I remember?
The woman looked up at the sky and felt, no, knew that this world was not her own. Memories slowly filtered back to her, but in confusing fragments only. Several names were clear, however -- the Crusaders, the Brain Emperor and... her own name. Darkling.
"I'll find a way back home, Brain Emperor. I promise -- and you'll pay for whatever you've done!"
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