John Raymond crouched on the ground, rubbing two of the fingers from his right hand together. He wore the green and yellow of the Web, a costumed identity that had become known far and wide in the underworld community -- for when the Web was on the prowl, it was seemingly inevitable that criminals would find themselves ensnared in his machinations. The Web stared at the fine powder that was now smudged onto his gloves. "I'm afraid you were right, Detective. These remains are human."
Detective Florillo sighed. He wished he had a cigar, but his wife had finally convinced him to swear them off. So far, he'd managed to keep his word, but nights like this... He stared up at the full moon, hearing the soft lapping of the waves on the docks. "This is the third one this month, Web. When are you going to catch this guy?"
The Web stood up, seeing the lines of worry in Florillo's face. The two men had known each other professionally for several years now and John Raymond was observant enough to know that Florillo, a heavyset man with thick, bushy eyebrows, was under a lot of pressure to catch this killer. "Well, the M.O. definitely matches that of the Eraser. I'd recognize his signature disintegrations anywhere... but the Eraser is still locked up safe and sound. I checked this morning."
"You think it's a copycat?"
"Possible," the Web admitted. "I interrogated the Eraser but he swears that his powers were internalized years ago and he's destroyed all the weapons that he used to have."
Florillo nodded. "Okay. I guess we'll scrape up this guy's remains and send them to the crime lab. Maybe they can do some sort of DNA test and identify 'em."
The Web rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Part of him wanted to wrap this up as quickly as possible and head home, where a good bit of grading awaited him. As a criminology professor (a relatively new career for him), he found it sometimes difficult to juggle his career with his activities as a hero. Not to mention his wife, who had finally given up trying to persuade and conjole him into retiring as a hero.
Despite all of that, the Web chose to stay at the scene a bit longer. A murderer was loose and his own personal problems paled next to that. "Detective... Let me contact a friend of mine in the Crusaders. I think I know someone who might be able to--"
The Web blinked in surprise as a soft, seductive female voice interrupted him. Both he and Florillo, as well as the numerous CSI agents about them, turned to see the raven-tressed heroine known as the Darkling appear amidst a swirling of her cloak. "Darkling... How did you know I was going to call you?" John asked with a smile.
"I sometimes get... impressions. I sensed you needed me." She moved up next to her friend, ignoring the appraising stares of the men about her. She was used to her beauty attracting attention, though she'd enjoyed it more than usual since her return from Limbo*.
(*See the Author's Notes at the end of the story for more on this.)
The Web motioned towards the dusty remains. "Do you think you can get an impression from that?"
Darkling suppressed a shudder. "I think so... I'm picking up fear... hate... loathing... Something dark and evil was here, it was... inhuman...."
The Web tried to hide a frown. He much preferred human criminals, with human motivations. "So it wasn't the Eraser or anyone associated with him?"
"No!" Darkling staggered back, her features twisted in fear and horror. "No... it was something else... It was... Ah!"
The Web caught her as she swooned, feeling her shake in his arms. "Darkling! What was it? What did you see?"
Darkling looked up at him with wide eyes. "I saw something large, with wings. It was like it staring back at me. John... this won't be the last victim. Something's out there, feeding...."
THE MIGHTY CRUSADERS
"Vault of Darkness, Part One"
Blane Whitney awoke from a fevered dream in which a winged demon flew low over a blackened landscape. The dream was not a new one, for it had plagued the hero known as the Wizard nightly for the last month. Blinking into the darkness of his room, the Wizard heard the soft whirring of his robotic companion, R.O.Y., as the robot came forward. "Are you awake, sir?" it asked, dutifully.
Blane smiled. "Yes. I am."
"The dream again, sir?"
The Wizard turned on the lights, seeing the gleaming robot that resembled a silver, mobile trash can. "Yes... that same as before. What can it mean?"
"I do not know, sir, but your supersensory perception has warned you of danger in the past... Perhaps this is a warning that some new foe is moving against you?"
"Hmm." The Wizard pulled on a robe, staring at himself in the bedroom mirror. He still looked as fit as he had back in the 1940s, when he'd trained himself to be "the man with the Super Brain," capable of incredible leaps of logic and invention, as well as his later powers of superstrength and agility. During the war, he'd been aided by "Roy the Superboy," his youthful partner... but now, Roy was long gone and only a robot named in his honor remained. "R.O.Y., patch me through to the Crusaders' HQ."
The Wizard had just finished dressing when R.O.Y. announced that the connection was complete. Blane moved over towards a large monitor mounted on the wall of his study. The mansion in which Blane lived was filled to the brim with technological wonders and momentos of his adventures, but the most impressive room of all was the study, which was lined with books accumulated from all over the world.
Blane had read them all.
Onscreen, John Dickering -- aka the Comet -- smiled at his old friend. "Blanee! It's been ages! How are you?"
"Not well, I'm afraid. I've been plagued as of late by dreams... nightmares, really. I think they might be a warning of some kind. I felt the Crusaders should be alerted."
The Comet nodded, his earlier joviality replaced by a cool efficiency. He and the Wizard were among the most experienced of the Crusaders and he knew that Blane would never make a call like this unless he felt it was warranted. "Give me some details."
The Wizard was about to explain when the image on the screen shifted, transforming into the image of Mr. Justice, the spectral hero whose powers dwarfed many in the Crusaders. A hero from beyond the grave, the Mr. Justice was amongst the most enigmatic of all adventurers. The usually stoic figure was screaming now, his face contorted in pain. "Mr. Justice....?"
"Vault of Darkness -- It is open! Horrors unleashed!" Mr. Justice visibly calmed himself, his lips drawn into a tight line. Fighting to keep his voice calm, Prince James -- for that was Mr. Justice's true identity -- said the words that would linger in the Wizard's soul for some time to come. "Iola... she walks the world once more. She serves the Prince of Darkness again! Beware!"
The image faded into a swirl of stars, revealing a concerned Comet. "Blane! Answer me! Are you there?"
The Wizard paused before answering. Mr. Justice was a spectral avenger, one not given to hyperbole. If he was that worried... "John. Do you remember a woman named Iola?"
The Comet nodded. "You bet I do. The only Iola I knew was Madam Satan."
"Yes... Madam Satan, servant to the Prince of Darkness himself. Do you recall the stories we heard during the 1940s, of Mr. Justice and his war against the Devil himself?"
"Well, my friend... I fear that the horrors of the past have been thrust upon us once more. May I suggest that we convene a meeting of the Crusaders, first thing in the morning?"
"Sure thing. You want me to limit the meeting to the big guns, or you want an all-call?"
"Call everyone who can possibly help us, John. Everyone."
Crusaders HQ was, from the outside, a typical building in New York City. There was nothing to give away its importance, not until one actually stepped inside and found themselves in a state-of-the-art facility that linked 21st century technology with Altroxian alien machinery, on loan from the Comet.
Assembled there today, in the main meeting room, was the near-complete membership of the Mighty Crusaders. The names were a litany of heroism and legendary deeds: the original Shield, the powerful Comet, the intelligent and mysterious Web, the animal defender known as the Jaguar, the strongman named Steel Sterling, the swashbuckling Blackjack, the moody and dangerous Black Hood, the lovely and seductive Darkling, the flame-breathing Inferno, the patriotic Captain Flag, the black-garbed Fox, the brave Firefly, the plucky and heroic Bob Phantom, the flame-visioned Fireball, the super-intelligent Wizard, the world-famous Fly and the beautiful Flygirl stood about, some swapping stories of their recent adventures, others musing over what menace could have brought them all together.
Tom Troy put an arm around his longtime love, Kim Brand. As the Fly and Flygirl, they had been steady members of the Crusaders for years, though their upcoming nuptials had led them away from the team as of late. "Kind of takes your breath away to see everybody all in one room, huh?"
"Sure does... And it reminds me, we never sent out a wedding invitation to Bob Phantom!"
The Fly pursed his lips. "Oh, boy. Hope he didn't get offended."
"I wouldn't worry about it," Kip Burland offered. The Black Hood turned to face them, having eavesdropped on their conversation. "The guy's a second-rater. Ever since the Shield offered membership to every Tom, Dick and Harry, the Crusaders have been overrun with people like him."
Flygirl shook a finger in the Hood's face. "What it, buster! There are folks here who would say the same thing about you!"
"Hey! Let's keep it cordial, okay?" The Fly stepped between them. "Why is it that we Crusaders can never be in the same room with one another without things turning into a spat?"
The Fly was thankful that Joe Higgins, the Shield, chose this moment to call the meeting to order. He was flanked on either side by Darkling and the Wizard. "If I could have everyone's attention, please?" The Shield, the first -- and, some would say, the greatest of the heroes -- waited for the conversations to dwindle before continuing. He spoke in a way that commanded attention, his every move filling his comrades with purpose and direction. "We've called everyone together because of a threat to our entire world. The Web and Darkling have uncovered clues pointing to a demon on the loose in New York. Three are known dead at the moment, killed by this thing as it feeds. The Wizard has seen the demon in his dreams, indicating that its a major threat to all of us. And, worst of all, Mr. Justice is missing."
Inferno piped up, bits of flame licking forth from his lips as he spoke. "How do you know? It's not like Mr. Justice has an apartment somewhere! He disappears for years at a time!"
The Shield nodded. "True enough. But the Wizard spoke with him just last night -- and Mr. Justice seemed to be in pain of some kind. He warned us that Madam Satan was loose once more and that something called the Vault of Darkness was now open."
"The Vault...? Anyone have any clue what that is?" Flygirl asked.
Darkling answered "The Web and I tracked down a reference to the Vault of Darkness in an ancient text written during the 12th Century. A sorceror named Malthus trapped a large number of demons inside the Vault, locking them away for what he hoped would be eternity. The demons were many and varied, but the worst of them was a tall, winged creature called Kathari. We suspect he's the one who's loose in NYC and who appeared in the Wizard's dreams."
"So what do we plan to do about it?" Blackjack asked, flashing his most winning smile at Darkling. He noted her reaction, which seemed to show some mutual interest.
"Well," Darkling replied, "For most of you, this means that you should be on the lookout. If this mystical gate has really been opened, then demons and other supernatural menaces are spreading, even as we speak. As of late, we've been using a fluid membership -- whoever answers the call, handles the problem. But I've recommended to the Shield that we return to a stable lineup, though one making frequent use of our extensive reserves."
The Shield agreed, saying "This lineup of full-time members will embark on an investigation into this Kathari's actions... and will attempt to locate both Madam Satan and Mr. Justice."
"So who's on the team?"
The Shield glanced at the Black Hood, who had asked the question that was on everyone's minds. "That's what we're about to resolve. I'm in."
"Big surprise," mumbled the Hood.
"So am I," added Darkling.
"At least for the duration of this adventure, I would like to offer my services," said the Wizard. "I feel as if I've been chosen for this, because of my visions."
The Shield nodded. "Who else has the time to commit to this endeavor? No one will think less of you if you have other concerns."
In short order, the Web, Blackjack and the Comet stepped forward. Of the others, it was quite obvious that the Fly and his partner felt the most disappointment in not being able to join at this time.
"It's decided, then. Those of who are onboard as full-time members, please stay behind. As for the others, feel free to leave as you wish -- but don't be strangers." The Shield smiled at these brave men and women, many of whom were as close to him as family. It's funny, he mused. I have a son, grandchildren... but these are still the people I couldn't live without.
Once a Crusader... Always a Crusader.
Iola stared at the two men before her, one of whom struggled valiantly against unseen bonds, the other standing peacefully, his eyes glazed by Madam Satan's uncanny ability to ensnare the minds of mortal men. She moved towards them, her tight-fitting clothes accentuating her curves. "Stop tiring yourself, my Prince. You cannot free yourself. My master's powers are growing daily, as the denizens of the Vault spread their horrors on the mortal world."
Mr. Justice calmed himself, staring at her with the eyes of the dead. "You will suffer for this," he said, his voice chilling in its power and fury.
"So you keep saying. You were a fool to pursue the demons of the Vault on your own... not even your powers are enough to single-handedly hold them at bay." Madam Satan ran a hand along the strong shoulders of the other male, who wore his red-white-and-blue costume proudly. "But this is my greatest accomplishment. Who knows how long he lay beneath the earth, in suspended animation? It was I who found him and reawakened him... It is I who will now send him out to destroy his former friends!"
Mr. Justice stared mutely at the man beside him, knowing his mind was clouded by Iola's powers. "He will free himself eventually, Iola... and then you will realize your mistake."
Iola sneered at him. "He strikes tonight -- at those friends who left him for dead!"
"They did not know he still lived!" Mr. Justice pointed out.
"No matter -- In his mind, he sees them as the enemy now! And he will destroy them." Iola laughed aloud. "For Lancelot Strong lives again!"
The demon-lord known as Kathari paced back and forth in the abandoned subway tunnel that he now called home. His great wings were folded against his back and his long, snake-like tongue flicked back and forth in the air, tasting the strange scents that were approaching, ever closer. Something was coming, something dark and evil. He squinted into the darkness, his blood-red eyes gleaming. "Announce yourself -- Or suffer."
The woman who stepped into view wore a long black evening gown, slit on the right leg to reveal a generous expanse of tanned, smooth flesh. Behind her, the hero once known as the Shield moved usnteadily. Lancelot Strong had been his name, before a battle had left him at the mercy of the woman known as Madam Satan.
Madam Satan smiled, her dark lipstick accentuating the curve of her mouth. "Kathari. You're even bigger than I'd heard."
The demon grunted, turning away from her to stare at her companion. "He wears the colors of that creature called the Shield... I have seen his image many times as of late."
"Yes, the Crusaders are very popular, aren't they? This lovely speciman of manhood," she purred, touching Lancelot's arm, "used to bear the name of the Shield himself, but he's a different Shield than the one you're speaking of. This one now belongs to me."
Kathari stepped towards her, his bulk making her look small in comparison. Lancelot Strong bristled, sensing that his mistress was now in danger. "Who are you, woman? And how did you find my lair?"
"My given name is Iola," she replied, not appearing frightened by his stature in the least. "But since entering into servitude to the Devil, I am known as Madam Satan."
"Are you Lucifer's bride?"
Iola laughed, a harsh sound that echoed in the air. "Close enough, my newfound friend. Close enough."
Kathari's tongue flickered out. He was growing hungry again and the woman smelled delicious. "Why are you here?"
"To offer myself to you as a partner. Separately, the Crusaders will track each of us down and defeat us -- I guarantee it. But together, with Lancelot Strong... We cannot be beaten!"
Kathari looked into her eyes, feeling the truth in her words. These Crusaders could pose a problem... best to deal with them and then he could turn on this tasty morsel before him. "I am listening....."
Joe Higgins, aka the Shield, gritted his teeth as the energy beam struck his chest. It burned horribly, but his protective suit, mixed with his own internalized powers, allowed him to push forward. The twisted, gnarled figure ahead of him was something that Darkling called a "mind witch," one of the escaped demons from the Vault of Darkness.
Alongside him, the other members of the newly revamped Crusaders -- Darkling, the Comet, Blackjack, the Web and the Wizard -- were also fighting other demons. The Crusaders had arrived here in the Atlanta Zoo after reports of a demonic attack had reached them.
Darkling spun with the grace of a cat, wrapping one gray-fleshed demon up in her cloak and teleporting him away to parts unknown. She was growing tired of this, having dispatched over a dozen already, but she felt invigorated to be alongside her teammates again, after so long in the void where the Brain Emperor had once dispatched her.
The Comet fired his disintegration eye beams at the demons, glad to be able to cut loose with his full powers again. The air stank of burned demons, but the Comet pressed on nonetheless.
The Web and Blackjack fought back to back, delivering punches and kicks at any demon who was unlucky enough to come within reach.
The man with the Super-Brain, the Wizard, tossed demons towards Darkling, who teleported them away each time.
By the time the Shield reached his foe, the largest and most powerful of these demons, and dispatched him with a mighty blow, the entire team was panting from exertion. Joe stood over the demon, sweat dripping from his body. "Well done, team. I just wonder how many more of these things are out there?"
The Comet dropped to the ground beside the Shield. In their civilian identities of John Dickering and Joe Higgins, the two men had been rommates for awhile, but now their main interactions came in the course of their Crusaders duties. Even so, they remained close friends. John zapped the demon at the Shield's feet, reducing him to ash. "At least they're easily defeated -- not that I call two hours' work easy, but the biggest problem we had was the sheer volume of them."
"Kathari will be different," Darkling pointed out. "If we can find him and defeat him, many of the lesser demons will vanish. He's a Lord -- that means that minor demons in his hierarchy are tied to him spiritually."
"Kinda like how when you destroy the lead vampire, the ones he made are destroyed, too?" Blackjack asked.
Darkling nodded, feeling a pleasant flush reach her cheeks. She didn't know Blackjack very well, as he wasn't an active Crusader when she'd last served with the team, but she recognized his open admiration of her and found it pleasing. "Something very much like that."
The Web and the Shield assured the authorities that the area was now secure, while the Wizard joined the others in their discussion of Kathari. "We need to locate the demon-lord more than ever -- these past few days have been filled with these supernatural occurences. So far, only a very few innocents have been hurt but eventually...."
"You're right," Darkling agreed. "I've been giving it some thought, too -- maybe we're wrong to focus on finding Kathari. Your vision of Mr. Justice certainly implied that his disappearance is related to the Vault's opening. Maybe if we find Mr. Justice, we'll find Kathari."
"Yeah, but how do we do that?"
The Web stepped up then, answering Blackjack's question. "Ralph* told me that he and Steel Sterling had a way of contacting Mr. Justice, back in the days when they were called the Terrific Three**. We could always use that."
(*Ralph Hardy, aka the Jaguar. **Steel Sterling, the Jaguar and Mr. Justice were part of this short-lived team back during the Mighty Comics days.)
The Wizard looked thoughtful. "What was it?"
"A signal device that the Jaguar based on the same communicators that we used to use. They use a random pulse signal that can be traced anywhere in the world."
Blackjack shook his head. "What makes you think a spook like Mr. Justice would still be carrying that thing? The Terrific Three broke up years ago, long before any of 'em even joined the Crusaders!"
"Ralph said that Mr. Justice still had it on him when we battled the Brain Emperor over in Riverdale."
The Shield patted the Web on the back. "Then that's it, then. We'll go back to HQ and try to triangulate his position -- and then we'll go all out to liberate him."
"We should leave someone on duty back at the base, though -- in case there's another demon outbreak," the Comet pointed out.
"I'll stay behind," offered the Web. "Whatever's gotten ahold of Mr. Justice has got to be pretty powerful -- you'll need everybody with powers to go with you. So it's logical that either Blackjack or myself stay behind."
"Good man," the Shield said. Turning to the others, he continued "Let's get this taken care of. The sooner we've freed Mr. Justice, the sooner this whole mess can be taken care of."
Two hours later, John Raymond was alone in the Crusaders' headquarters. His theory had been correct and the others were now en route to Washington, D.C., where Mr. Justice's signal device indicated he was. With any luck, John would be hearing good news soon.
He walked through the empty corridors, lost in thought. His wife was at home alone and John felt increasingly guilty for being away from her. Though he hadn't mentioned it yet to the other Crusaders, he was soon to be a father and that might unfortunately curtail his adventures. Guess we're all finally growing up... Tom and Kim are getting married, I'm going to be a dad and Joe's still dating that FBI boss of his. It's about time, though. When the Crusaders were formed, we ran around like idiots, fighting crime -- and each other -- without a care in the world. Was it ever really so simple?
John stopped as he heard someone moving in the foyer ahead of him. The team's security system refused entrance to anyone either not in the member database or accompanied by a member, so he felt no great concern, only curiosity. Surely it wasn't the rest of the active team, or else the Shield would have radioed in first. A reserve, then?
The Web stepped into the foyer, expecting to see Inferno, Bob Phantom or possibly even the Black Hood. Instead, he saw someone that he had never expected to see again...
There, standing in the open doorway of the Crusaders HQ was Lancelot Strong. He stared at the Web with a blank expression and his voice was monotone as he said "Madam Satan was right. This is their headquarters and I am still in their databanks*."
(*Lancelot Strong "died" before the team moved into its current digs in the final issues of their 1980s series.)
The Web's shock turned to horror as the monstrosity that was Kathari moved inside, towering over Lancelot Strong. He moved quickly, not even questioning how or why Lancelot Strong had returned, or why he was with the demon lord that the Crusaders had been seeking. Instead, he backhanded Lancelot, ignoring the cracking of his own knuckles as they struck the Shield's hardened skin.
As his former teammate staggered away, the Web began running towards the team's armory. Perhaps there he could find some Altroxian weapon to turn the tide....
He felt Kathari's clawed hands dig into his shoulders, as the demon-lord pulled the Web back towards them. The hero fought valiantly, momentarily freeing himself, in fact, before the Shield's energy blasts brought him down.
Kathari bent over the Web's prone form. He hungered to feed.
Before he could begin the feeding process, however, the Shield pulled him back. "What are doing, mortal??" Kathari bellowed.
Lancelot Strong blinked and, for just a second, he seemed to be himself. "We will capture this base and immobilize any Crusaders who are present... but we will not kill."
Kathari started to turn his attentions on this impertinent human, but he held back. No point in destroying Madam Satan's toy... yet.
Leaving the bloodied Web behind, Kathari and the Shield moved deeper into the building.
The Crusaders disembarked from their private aircraft, examining the area around them with caution. Darkling sensed pain, suffering and something impossibly evil in the air. She glanced at Joe Higgins, the original Shield, and whispered "This is it."
The Shield glanced around himself, noting that they had landed in a field outside Washington, D.C. proper. An abandoned church lay just ahead, most of its windows broken. Joe let out a sigh. "I can't stand this sort of thing. The occult disturbs me." He smiled gently at Darkling. "No offense."
"None taken, Joe. It disturbs me, too. That's why I fight things like this."
"I'll check ahead, guys. Be back in a sec." The Comet raced forward, not hearing the Shield's protests.
"You'd think after all these years that John wouldn't be so impulsive," the Shield murmured. He led the others forward cautiously.
Meanwhile, the Comet streaked into the church through a shattered window. He saw only overturned pews and bits of broken glass at first, his every sense on the alert in case someone launch an attack. What he finally noticed was far scarier than a physical assault, however.
Slowly appearing in the center of the church floor was the ghostly form of Mr. Justice. He was wrapped in some sort of spectral bonds that constricted his movement and his face bore the signs of some mighty internal conflict. At the hero's side was a woman of unearthly beauty -- Madam Satan!
The Comet cursed under his breath, knowing that he had to strike quickly. He moved to fire his eyebeams at Madam Satan but found himself unable to strike her. She was so wonderful, so mesmerizing.....
"Comet! Be true to yourself!"
Mr. Justice's words were unable to reach the Comet's mind, which was now enveloped in a fog of mysticism. Madam Satan purred "Another pretty boy to add to my collection... I wonder how they managed to find us, my Prince."
Darkling suddenly appeared at Madam Satan's side, striking the woman with all of her might. Iola, who not suspected anyone would teleport right next to her, went sprawling to the ground. Darkling pinned Madam Satan to the ground, holding her as best she could. "Give it up! Your powers won't work on me!"
Madam Satan stopped fighting, her laughter ringing out as the other Crusaders entered the old church. "My powers...? You don't need to fear my powers... Fear his!"
The Comet let out a gasp of surprise as a man stepped out of the shadows. He wore all black, an upside-down crucifix around his neck. A small beard framed his mouth, which was twisted into a sneer. Tiny horns gave him the look of a modern-day satyr. "Who the hell--?"
"Truer words were never spoken, John Dickering." The man's voice was silky-smooth and his sneer seemed to deepen with every word. "Who else but I could ensnare a being such as Mr. Justice? Who else but I, who have battled him many a time? Who else but I could open the Vault and spread chaos out amongst the world of men?"
Blackjack felt his chest tighten. "Oh, boy. Did I ever pick the wrong week to join back up with the Crusaders...."
The Shield clenched a fist. "Satan!"
Joe Higgins, aka the Shield, stared with grim determination at the unnatural sight before him. Satan himself, unseen in physical form on Earth since his powerful battles with Mr. Justice in the 1940s, was standing beside Madam Satan and a mystically-bound Mr. Justice, his swarthy features parted in a sneer. It was moments like these that made Joe Higgins doubt his own sanity, but he knew this was real -- very, very real. This was the sort of thing that his heroic identity had been designed for... to "shield" the world from evils beyond understanding. He stepped forward, towards the Prince of Darkness himself. He spoke with clarity and with purpose, knowing that his teammates would draw strength from his actions. "You're going to let Mr. Justice go free... and then you're going to return to the stygian underworld with your demons and with Madam Satan."
The Devil laughed heartily, putting an arm possessively around Madam Satan's waist. "Oh, really? And what makes you think that I, who have faced the armies of heaven itself, would respond to the threats of a time-lost relic of a past age?"
The Shield cracked his knuckles loudly. "Because I know that when you're on Earth, you're much more vulnerable than usual. Mr. Justice used to clean your clock over and over again in the 1940s and I'm betting that a roomful of Crusaders can do the same!" He cast one glance at the other heroes in the room -- Darkling, the Comet, Blackjack and the Wizard -- and yelled "Let's knock this crumb back to Hell, Crusaders!"
With a roar of approval, the heroes did just that.
The Comet, as usual, led the assault. He blasted Satan with his Dissolvo-Vision, striking the Dark Prince in the torso and sending him flying away from Madam Satan. The Devil roared in anger as Blackjack sprang into the air and came down with a powerful kick. Satan caught the hero's ankle in midair, however, and tossed him away like a child's toy.
The Wizard and the Shield attacked in unison, bombarding the Devil with a series of powerful punches.
During all of this, Darkling moved towards Mr. Justice, only to find her path blocked by Madam Satan. The two dark-tressed woman regarded each other evenly before dropping into fighting crouches. Madam Satan twisted her fingers into claws, her blood-red nails gleaming. "I'm so glad you've returned to the Crusaders, Darkling... You seem like such an opposite number of me -- both of us beautiful, but only one of us is bold enough to use her beauty to control men. Both of us occultists, but only one of us strong enough to bind herself to dark powers. Both of us surrounded by powerful men, but only one of us--"
Darkling lunged forward, striking Madam Satan in the stomach. She lashed out with punch after punch, finally wrapping the undead villain in her magical Darkling cloak. She teleported Madam Satan far, far away -- to the void of Limbo. "...is smart enough to keep her mouth shut and fight," she said, finishing her opponent's sentence.
Darkling stepped up next to Mr. Justice, worry lining her face. "What can I do to free you?"
With effort, the ghostly hero replied "Your cloak is mystical in nature. Its magic may be able to cancel out the spell that binds me... Touch it to the energy that glows around me."
Satan was in the midst of choking the life from the Shield while the Wizard and Comet fought to free their teammate. Blackjack lay unconscious at the Dark Lord's feet. The Devil sensed something happening, however, letting the Shield out of his grasp long enough to check on Mr. Justice. He watched in open-mouthed horror as Darkling tossed her cloak around Mr. Justice. The mystic shields glowed brighter and brighter, finally flashing with a mind-boggling burst.
Satan screamed out "No!" as the figure of Mr. Justice rose into the air, his eyes full of dark vengeance.
The Shield tapped the Prince of Darkness on the shoulder. He delivered a roundhouse punch when Satan turned to face him, sending him flying towards Mr. Justice. "Headed your way, Justice!"
Mr. Justice offered a brief hint of a smile as he opened his arms wide. "Return to the underworld, lord of Hell! Your day on Earth is over!"
Satan hissed like a cornered cat, throwing his arms over his head protectively. For a moment, his true form -- that of a red-skinned demon -- appeared. And then he was gone, transported to the nether-realms by the awe-inspiring power of Mr. Justice.
The Comet landed next to Blackjack, who was just beginning to stir. "You okay, pal?"
Rubbing his head, the swashbuckling hero nodded. "Yeah, think so. Did we really just beat the Devil?"
"A shade of him, only a shade." Mr. Justice floated above them all, his voice sounding eerie and distant. "What I battled in the 1940s and what I just dispatched are the merest extensions of his true being. The Devil is rarely so easily compared to a mere supervillain, yet that is the form he sometimes takes on Earth. It is direct and it is obvious, but it pleases him. I think he likes the give and take of conflict with ultraheroes such as yourselves. Perhaps he even allows his own defeat. It matters not. He is gone for now."
Darkling looked around at her friends, seeing numerous cuts and bruises. "We'd best head back to headquarters. I'm sure John would like to know that the main threat is gone -- now, we only need to find Kathari."
The Wizard stroked his chin in a sagely fashion. "Why don't you teleport ahead and let him know? My prescient vision seemed to be warning me of some threat to the Web...."
"Man, I hope Ugly-Man isn't free again. Or the Flipper," Blackjack murmured, acknowledging two of the Web's more obscure adversaries. Of all the Crusaders, perhaps none had as varied a rogues' gallery as did the criminologist hero.
Darkling wrapped her cloak tightly about herself. "Good idea, Wizard. Meet you guys back at the HQ!"
Darkling arrived to find the team's headquarters in a shambles. The walls were ripped apart and alarms blared from all sides. The team's security system was fully activated, as well -- the battle robots moving through the headquarters in a random fashion, their programming confused by whatever was going on here.
Darkling started to teleport back to the other Crusaders when a hand clutched her wrist. She whirled about to strike her attacker, hiding the Web on the side of the head and knocking him to his knees. "John?!" she whispered.
The Web staggered back to his feet, his face a mass of blood and bruises. "Hush. They probably won't hear us over the alarms, but we have to be careful." He pulled her into the shadows, away from the battle robots who were entering the hall. "The 'bots are confused -- they'll attack anything they see."
Darkling whispered "What happened here, John?"
"Lancelot Strong and Kathari happened."
"Lance--? But he's dead!"
"Obviously not. He's here, with Kathari. But he's mind-controlled or something. They've raided the armory and downloaded many of our files on the other Crusaders -- they're in the main computer lab now."
Darkling nodded. She started to suggest once again that she go back and retrieve a couple of the more powerful Crusaders, but she could tell that the Web would not like that idea. John, despite being a very level-headed hero, could sometimes be just as hardheaded as his frequent rival, the Black Hood. "What's your plan?"
"I wasn't sure until you arrived. Now I've got an idea. Teleport into the computer lab and grab Lancelot -- take him someplace nearby where you can try to reach him. I'll hold off Kathari until you come back with Lance."
Darkling had strong misgivings about that plan, but elected not to voice them. She trusted John Raymond -- and each of the other Crusaders -- enough to know that he would never ask her to do more than he thought her capable of. "I'm on my way."
Lancelot Strong felt increasingly confused. Though he did not know it, the woman who had held him spellbound was now on another plane of existence, weakening her hold on him. He stared at Kathari, who was ripping seat after after from the meeting room table.
The woman who appeared in a blink of an eye was oddly familiar to him. He whispered "Darkling...?" as she wrapped her cloak about him and teleported him away.
Kathari turned, his demonic senses tingling. "Shield... Where are you?"
"He's gone -- and when he comes back, I think you'll be very sorry that you used him like this. He won't appreciate it." The Web stepped into view, looking resolute.
Kathari chuckled. "Again you stand before me... and now with no one to prevent me from feeding on your soul. Foolish."
The Web sprang into the air, landing behind Kathari and kicking the demon lord hard in the back. He followed it with a series of punches, dodging back nimbly as Kathari tried to strike back. This time, the Web was not taken by surprise and he did not have the added shock of seeing Lancelot Strong to confuse him.
This time, the Web was in his element. He was quieter than most of his teammates in battle, preferring to watch and study his opponent's movements, finding their weaknesses.
While the Web battled an opponent of much greater power, Darkling and the hero sometimes known as the Shield, arrived on the rooftop of the team's headquarters. Darkling moved away warily. "Lancelot...."
The Shield started to emit an energy blast, but hesitated. "I-- I know you."
Smiling, the exotic heroine moved forward. "Yes! You do. We're both Crusaders... But you've been missing for years. What happened to you?"
Lancelot looked pained as memories flooded his mind. "A monster... in the desert. A... samurai? I sacrificed myself, was buried underground*. My... powers... kept me alive. In suspended animation. My mutated physiology wouldn't let me die!"
(*A somewhat fractured version of Lancelot Strong, the Shield # 1-3, published in the 1980s by Red Circle)
Darkling could sense his confusion. Risking her own life, she reached out to take his hand. He started to draw away but something suddenly broke inside of him and he fell against her, crushing her to his chest. "Lance... It's okay," she said soothingly. "You're back with your friends."
He held her a moment more before pulling away. The doubt and fear was beginning to pass, replaced by a look of steely determination in his eyes. "John. I hurt him. He's still in danger, isn't he? We have to go back and help him."
Darkling's only reply was to wrap the Shield in her cloak and teleport back into the main lab. Her insides were knotted up, fear of what might have happened to the Web eating away her.
To her surprise, however, she saw the Web standing with one foot on the chest of an unconscious Kathari. "John... How did you?!"
The Web looked up at them, with a somewhat glazed expression. "He kept saying it'd been hours since he'd fed. I think it weakened him enough for me to actually dent that hide of his." He moved towards them warily. "Shield?"
Lancelot smiled, that boyish grin that had become so familiar to the Crusaders breaking across his face. "I'm back, John. I'm back."
Darkling pushed past the Web, watching as Kathari faded into nothingness. "The Vault has closed again."
The Web joined her. "So it's over..."
"For now," answered Darkling. "But as long evil exists in any form, Satan will still be a threat."
"It's a good thing the world has the Crusaders, then." Lancelot Strong looked around the smoking interior of the team's base. "Of course, right now our base isn't in the best of shape."
"Forget that. The important thing is we won -- and we've regained a good friend," the Web said. "Welcome home."
Special Back-Up Feature: "The Return of Turan!"
Tom Troy sat at the desk in his study, his eyes aching. He'd been poring over these legal briefs all night, having cancelled plans to take Kim out to dinner. So much to do before he could take time off for the wedding....
He'd hated turning down a chance to be an active member of the Crusaders again, but he had so much else on his mind these days that he knew he wouldn't be an effective part of the team. Not until after the wedding, anyway. He knew that, deep down, Kim was itching to be more active as Flygirl again -- even if she would never admit it. Hope she gets that part in the next Space Trek film... Her career has been cooling off lately.
The voice that broke into his reverie sent chills down his spine, just as it had every time he'd heard it since he was a young boy, on the night he'd become the Fly. Tom rose, staring at the odd figure who materialized before him. "Turan!"
As Emissary of the Fly-People, Turan had served as Tom's guide over the years, though he had appeared very infrequently as time went on. "We are under attack, Thomas Troy. The Fly-People are not well!"
"What's happening? Do you need Kim and I to help?"
"It is too late for that, Thomas. The evil that has crept over our people has now turned its many eyes towards your world, the world of our own birth. I have to come to warn you... and to give you even graver news."
Tom felt his heart growing cold. He'd never seen Turan so distraught... "Tell me!"
Beside Turan's feet, a body shimmered into view. It was the Fly -- the body that replaced Tom's own whenever he transformed into his superheroic self.
And the Fly was obviously badly wounded, a bloodstain having spread wetly across his chest!
Tom staggered back, horror making him gasp. "No... How is that possible, Turan? Is that me?"
"It is the Fly," Turan said, sadly. "The champion of the Fly-People. He whom you became when you used the magic Fly-Ring."
"You make it sound so... past-tense."
"It is, Thomas Troy. For the Fly is dead."
"Tom, will you please calm down?" Kim Brand, fiancée and partner of the Fly, stood in her apartment, arms crossed in front of her. "Have you even tried using your Fly-Ring?"
Thomas Troy, attorney at law, ran a hand through his tousled blond hair. "No! Didn't you hear a word that I just said? Turan popped up in my study last night -- telling me that the Fly-People were in grave danger and that the Fly was dead! He dropped off the Fly's corpse to prove his point! The Fly's lying on my couch right now, soaking it through with blood...."
"But... how is that possible? You are the Fly...."
"Sort of." Tom's face took on a thoughtful expression. "For years, we've known that the Fly was actually a separate form from my own -- that's why it never ages or changes in aappearance. The Fly and I are connected, with my consciousness going back and forth between my own body and the Fly's, depending upon which form is here on Earth. Now the Fly's physical form is dead, though... Using my Fly-Ring might move my consciousness inside a corpse. That can't be good!"
Kim moved over to take her lover's hands in her own. "And Turan just disappeared after that?"
"Yes! He said that it was dangerous for him to appear before me... he left the Fly's body behind and vanished."
Kim nodded, seeing the confusion and anger in Tom's eyes. "I still have my Ring, though. I'll try to visit the Fly-People's dimension and--"
"No!" Tom pulled away from her. "Whatever's happening there is too dangerous for you to face alone!"
Kim tried to hold back her pride, which was more than a little insulted by Tom's overprotectiveness. "Fine. So what do you suggest?"
"Well, it's not the first time that Turan's been in danger, we know that. At one point, he even appeared to have died*! So, we have to have faith that he can handle himself right now -- Otherwise, he would have called upon one or both of us to help defend the Fly-People. The fact that he didn't makes me think that he wants us to stay here... where we're away from whatever danger is affecting them."
(*Waaaay back in Mighty Crusaders # 3, 1965!)
Kim raised her own magic ring and stared at it. "I want to test it. If my Flygirl body has been harmed, too...."
"It might be dangerous, Kim -- Whatever affected the Fly's body did it in the dimension where our bodies go when we're heroes. You'd be putting your mortal form there while you're in your Flygirl persona."
"I still have to know." Closing her eyes, she felt the change come over her. Within seconds, she was taller, stronger and even more beautiful. "It worked," she said, staring down at the familiar green-and-gold costume.
Tom sighed in relief. "Good. You can fly me back to my place. Let's pick up the Fly's body and take him to the Crusaders' HQ. Maybe someone there can help."
Kim kissed him softly on the lips. "Don't worry, honey. We'll get through this."
Tom didn't answer as he wrapped his arms around his lover's neck and felt her lift them both into the air. As an orphan, he'd loved the power and grace of the Fly... Later, as a grown man, he'd come to see the Fly as the culmination of all his hopes and dreams. What would he do if it were taken from him forever?
"So... Do you have any name besides Darkling?"
The raven-tressed beauty sitting across from Jack Jones smiled softly. As members of the Mighty Crusaders, Darkling and Blackjack had experienced a mutual attraction -- one that had culminated in this date at a local restaurant.
Jack had surprised her by showing up in a nice suit -- it was the first time she'd seen him outside of costume and he'd cut a rather pleasing figure. Darkling ran a hand through her hair before speaking. "I don't normally give it out. Names have power... Any magician knows that. So I usually give people a name that won't bind me. Darkling works as well as any."
Jack leaned forward, his eyes twinkling. "What if I promise not to bind you, unless you ask me to?"
Darkling's eyes opened wide. She laughed and Jack joined in. "You are a dangerous one, aren't you? We'll see about my real name, okay? I don't give it out on first dates."
"Fair enough." Jack glanced away, shaking his head. "Man. It feels great to be with the Crusaders, but I hope we don't visit Hell again anytime soon. That was a bit too much for me. I'm more a street-level crimefighter."
Darkling tilted her head to the side, looking intrigued. "Why do you fight crime?"
Jack looked into her eyes, wondering if she was really as interested as she sounded. He hoped so. His luck with romance hadn't been very good over the last few years. "Well, my grandfather was the original Blackjack*, taking his name from the game he loved to play. When he was dying a few years back, he told me that -- as his namesake -- I had the opportunity to carry on in his place. I wasn't too keen on it at first, but I warmed to it after I was nearly killed by some crooked mobsters in Vegas. It was there that I learned that sometimes it was just as important to be lucky as good. Blackjack." He watched her reaction, wondering if she thought him silly for picking up the name of his grandfather. Surprisingly, she looked impressed.
(*The original Blackjack, also named Jack Jones, made his debut in Zip Comics # 20, November 1941.)
"That's very sweet. I like how the current Crusaders are so involved with the legacies of the past. The original Shield, the Wizard and the Comet were actually there during the first age of heroes, but the rest of us owe so much to them. They were the inspiration for so many costumed heroes who came later."
"You got that right," Jack agreed. He reached out and tentatively touched Darkling's hand. When she didn't pull away, he gave a gentle squeeze. "So what's your story? Or is that classified, too?"
Darkling hesitated before answering and Jack noticed that she seemed to be staring at something over his left shoulder. Twisting, he saw a man standing just outside the restaurant window, looking in. He wore a long black trenchcoat and fedora, pulled low. Despite the fact it was nighttime, he wore dark sunglasses and gloves. The man's skin was as white as snow and his features were sunken, revealing the outline of his skull.
Darkling rose, jerking her hand away from Jack. In that instant, the figure whirled about, walking away quickly. To Jack's surprise, Darkling followed, rushing out of the restaurant. He followed, nearly bumping into a waiter on his way out.
He found her standing on the sidewalk, looking both ways and frowning. "Darkling? What's going on?"
The mystic beauty wrapped her arms about herself, shivering as if a chill had suddenly run down her spine. "That man... I thought I recognized him."
"Who was it?"
She turned to face him and Jack was surprised to see evident fear in her eyes. "No one I want to talk about. Can you please take me home? I'm not feeling well."
"Sure...." Jack put an arm around her shoulders, his mind racing. Obviously, this man's appearance upset her a great deal -- and he didn't like that at all. Maybe if Black Jack can track this guy down for her, she'll be plenty impressed, he mused.
Lancelot Strong sat before the team's communications monitor, his eyes closed and a pensive expression on his face. His recent resurrection had left him with numerous problems -- not the least of which was re-establishing his identity and his contacts. Friends, family, the military... all of them had written him off for dead.
"Lance? You okay?"
Lancelot glanced up to see Joe Higgins -- his predecessor as the Shield -- watching him with concern. Joe was dressed in civilian clothes, having just returned from a visit to his son. "I'm fine, Joe. Just feeling a bit stressed. Some of my old friends have moved away and the government's not ready to give me back my old clearances without further proof that I'm not a clone or a shape-changing alien."
Joe chuckled. "Quite a world we live in, eh?"
"Definitely." Lancelot stood up, sighing. "Hope you don't mind having another Shield around. I'm sure you'd gotten used to having the name to yourself again."
"Well... I was little touchy about it right after I was freed from the Eraser's trap*, but I don't mind you using the identity now. You and my son both used the codename of the Shield to honor my legacy." Joe shifted, uncomfortable. "I'm touched."
(*The original Shield spent decades in suspended animation, trapped by the evil Eraser.)
Lance hid his amusement. Joe came from another era -- one in which men most definitely did not have heart-to-heart chats with one another. It's like bonding with John Wayne, Lance thought. "I'm glad. Growing up, I saw you as one of my major idols."
Joe flushed with embarassment but was saved from answering by the soft, feminine voice of the team's new computer system. "Fly-Girl and Tom Troy have arrived."
Joe made a puzzled expression. "Interesting choice of words. I wonder why Tom's not in his Fly persona?"
The door to the communications area opened, as if on cue. Tom stood there, holding the bloodied, lifeless form of his alter ego in his arms. Fly-Girl was behind him, looking pale but beautiful.
Both Shields moved forward. "Tom! What the heck--?"
Tom moved past them, depositing the Fly gently on the meeting room table. "I need the Crusaders' help. Something terrible's happened."
Joe rubbed his chin, nodding. "From the looks of things, that might be the understatement of the year...."
Blane Whitney -- aka the Wizard -- and John Raymond, Jr. -- aka the Web -- stared into the empty prison cell, each lost in thought. It was the Web who made the first move, stepping into the cell and crouching to examine a few scraps of cloth on the floor. "This is bad."
"Find something?" The Wizard, the man with the super-brain, moved up behind the Web. Of all the Crusaders, they were two of the brightest, and thus they had a similiar approach to matters of deduction.
"This cloth is part of the power-inhibiting head band that the Brain Emperor was outfitted with. Somehow he managed to get through it, which is harder than it sounds. That thing was Altroxian in design and was strong enough that not even the Shield could break it."
"Hmm. Makes you wonder how the residents of the Brain Emperor's homeworld have made out without him around. I'd imagine they're in a new golden age without their resident dictator about."
The Web nodded. "What was that place called?"
"Well, we'd better alert the others. With the Brain Emperor on the loose -- again -- the whole world's in danger." The Web paused as his communicator chimed. He heard the Wizard's sound a second later, as well. Tapping the small device, he asked "Yes?"
The Shield's voice rang out, strong and sure. "We need you back at headquarters, both of you. There's a situation."
"We've got one here, as well. The Brain Emperor's escaped. The warden contacted us this morning and we're at the prison now."
"Hmm. I think you'll have to shelve your investigation for a few minutes, at least. This involves the Fly."
Blane answered for both of them. "If it's an emergency, we'll be there right away. I hope the Fly is unharmed?"
After a pause, the Shield said the words that froze the blood in the veins of both the Web and the Wizard. "Afraid not. In fact... his career as a Crusader might be over."
Tom Troy tried to keep himself from pacing, but it was difficult. He felt like he was waiting for a jury to come back from deliberation. He tried taking his mind off what was going on in the other room, but it was difficult... Very, very difficult.
The Wizard strode forth from the team's medical wing, a pensive look on his face. "I've finished my examination, Tom."
Blane seemed hesitant about answering but finally gestured for Tom to follow him. The two entered the room where the Fly's heroic form lay motionless beneath a sheet. The other Crusaders were gathered about, though Darkling seemed somewhat distracted.
Tom swallowed hard, making a fist. "Well... I guess this means my days as the Fly are over, eh? I hope that you guys will at least take a look into what's happened in the Fly People's dimension since it might pose a threat to Kim."
The Wizard finally spoke up, saying "Calm down, Tom. Nobody's writing you off just yet. This Fly body isn't even remotely human -- it's more insectile than anything else. And I'm pretty sure that it's healing itself."
Darkling reached forward and pulled the sheet back. The Fly form was nude from the waist up but its injuries definitely appeared to be diminishing. "We always knew you had some sort of healing power, Tom -- and the fact that this body is beginning to recover makes us think that it's not dead at all -- but in some sort of recuperative coma-state."
Tom fought the surge of hope that threatened to overwhelm him. "But Turan said the Fly was dead...."
"Maybe he meant something else," the original Shield replied. "And it wouldn't be the first time he'd been misleading."
"See? I told you that you were overreacting, Tom." Fly-Girl whispered.
Blackjack moved forward. "So, what's the plan now, folks?"
The original Shield spoke firmly, letting them all know that his mind was made up. "We visit this other realm and see what threat has Turan so riled up. I'll lead the team -- along with Darkling, who'll teleport us there and back, the Comet, Fly-Girl and Tom."
"Why not just let me take us there via my Fly-Ring?" Kim asked.
"It's possible that whatever's there might sense it," the Shield responded. "We'll have Darkling teleport us over and the two of you," he said, gesturing towards Kim and Tom, "will be our guides."
Tom nodded, letting one hand rest on the Fly's arm. "Thanks, guys. I appreciate this."
The Comet patted him on the shoulder. "We're a family. You know that. And we'll work through this, don't you worry."
"I hope you're right, old friend. I hope you're right...."
THE ULTIMATE CRUSADERS
This timeline is completely unofficial and is an attempt to make some sense out of the MLJ/Red Circle timeline. Whenever possible, I have avoided the use of actual dates, as this only further complicates matters. I do not attempt to list every MLJ hero here -- just the most frequently appearing heroes.
The Golden Age
The 1940s saw a plethora of heroes spring forth before the public eye. Joe Higgins became the Shield, the world's foremost superhero. His crusade as the Shield was aided by his sidekick, Dusty the Boy Detective. Other heroes came to the fore, including Steel Sterling, Inferno, Captain Flag, the Web, the Fox, Mr. Justice, the Wizard and the Black Hood (Matt Burland). Most of these heroes had some means of longevity, be it the Shield's suspended animation (which he was forcibly entered into during the 1950s by the evil Eraser), Steel Sterling's imperviousness to age or the Wizard's Super-Brain that controlled his metabolism and aging. The Golden Age officially ended when the Shield dropped out of sight, having been turned into a statue, where he would remain for many years. Most heroes went into retirement during the Fifties, though the Comet spent many of these years on the planet Altrox.
The Mighty Age of Heroes
This era began approximately 15-20 years ago with the arrival of a new breed of hero. Lancelot Strong became the second Shield, battling the enemies of America in whatever form they arose in. Young Tommy Troy became the champion of the Fly-People, using a magic ring to turn into the older Fly. Ralph Hardy gains the powers of the Jaguar, becoming master of the animal kingdom.
15 years ago, Bill Higgins (the son of the original Shield) became the third Shield. The Comet returned to Earth around this same time (using Altroxian technology to mimic his old powers) and various Golden Age heroes -- like Steel Sterling, the Web and the Black Hood -- came out of retirement. Some, like the Web, fought hard to re-establish their reputations and their skills. Others, like the Hangman, came out of retirement to fight the very heroes they were once allied with. The Hangman's villainous career lasted for much of the Mighty Age before he returned to the side of good.
Kim Brand became Fly-Girl, partnering with the now older Tom Troy, who had adopted the slightly revised identity of Fly-Man.
The Shield III, Fly-Man, Fly-Girl, the Comet and the Black Hood formed the Mighty Crusaders. This grouping of "ultra-heroes" becomes the pre-eminent band of adventurers on the planet, battling arch-villains like Eterno, the Brain Emperor and Inferno (no relation to the Golden Age hero).
The Jaguar, Mr. Justice and Steel Sterling formed the Terrific Three, a group that lasted only a few adventures.
The Mighty Age of Heroes came to an unofficial end when the Crusaders, sick of the endless in-fighting amongst themselves, fell into semi-retirement. Some heroes, like Fly-Man and Fly-Girl, abandoned adventuring altogether.
The Modern Era
This era began approximately five years ago, when the Comet and Shield III managed to revive the original Shield. Shield III elected to retire at this time, as his father returned to active adventuring. Paul Patton Jr. adopted the guise of the second Fox and John Raymond Jr. became the new Web. Finally, Kip Burland, nephew of Matt Burland, became the new Black Hood.
An evil plot hatched by Eterno and the Brain Emperor brought together a new grouping of Crusaders -- this time, the group was initially composed of the original Shield, Shield II (Lancelot Strong), Fly (having abandoned the Fly-Man name), Fly-Girl (coaxed back into heroing by the Fly), the Comet, the Jaguar, Web II, Black Hood II and a new heroine named Darkling.
Other heroes arrived on the scene during this time, as well. Thunderbunny, the Agents of Atlantis and She-Fox all made their debut in the wake of the Crusaders' reforming.
The Comet's original powers returned, meaning that he no longer needed the use of Altroxian equipment to fight crime.
The original Hangman died, but his heroic legacy was carried on by his son as Hangman II.
Malcolm Reed and the Fox joined the Crusaders, but the team was rocked by a series of tragedies as Matt Burland (Black Hood I) was killed by the Riot Squad, who were working in conjunction with the Brain Emperor. The Brain Emperor himself slew Malcolm Reed and left Darkling floating in the void of Limbo, her mind wiped clean. Lancelot Strong seemingly died on a mission of his own, disappearing while battling a monster called Blackstar.
At this point, the Crusaders chose to greatly expand their ranks, offering membership to any and all heroes who wished to accept it. This led to some mass groupings of heroes during their cross-dimensional trips to a town called Riverdale, where they battled the Brain Emperor's forces alongside a group of plucky teens led by Archie Andrews. New members shown in these adventurers included Inferno, Blackjack, Firefly, Bob Phantom and many more. It is unknown if any or all of those heroes are the originals who bore those names, or if they are descendants of some kind.
The Fanfiction Adventures (the following reflects events shown in my stories, which are unofficial)
The Crusaders travelled to an alternate Earth, where they met men and women who also called themselves Crusaders. They allied themselves with these otherworldly Crusaders, battling that world's Brain Emperor and an alien being called Kalathar. Darkling returned to action, having finally recovered from the Brain Emperor's horrific assault. (These events are chronicled in full detail in Crusaders: After the Crucible # 5-7, with the Darkling's return having occurred a few issues earlier, in # 2. The heroes of the other Earth are the !mpact versions of the Crusaders).
A few weeks after this, the Fly accepted an invitation to join the Crusaders of this other world, helping them until they could get their own roster back up to full strength. (This is depicted in Crusaders: After the Crucible # 9-11).
The Crusaders, who had gone with a fluid roster for the last couple of years, elected to come together with a full-time roster of active heroes, after a series of demonic influences appeared to ravage the planet. Shield I, the Wizard, the Comet, Blackjack, Darkling and the Web II elected to join full-time and the group managed to defeat the masterminds behind the demonic attacks -- the deadly trio of the Devil himself, Madam Satan and the demon-lord Kathari. (This is depicted in Ultimate Crusaders ).
MORE TO COME!
Welcome to a series that I've been waiting to write for quite some time. I've always loved the Crusaders and I've got a host of great ideas about what to do with them. For the past few years, I've been writing stories about the Impact Comics' version of the Crusaders and I've used the Red Circle heroes there from time to time. Darkling's resurrection occurred in that series, so you might want to check it out. Fans of the Impact fanfic I write are also aware that in issue nine of that series the Fly travels to the Impact Universe to help fill out the ranks of the "other" Crusaders. This story is set some time after the Fly has returned to his rightful universe.
I'll be drawing on a lot of MLJ/Red Circle history in these stories, so be prepared -- Madam Satan is only the beginning! I'm writing stories the way I like them -- with characterization, exciting plots, and
Unfinished fan fiction. Works in progress.
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