by Starsky Hutch 76 and CSyphrett
The Soldiers of Victory surveyed the scene before them. Obviously, there had been a skirmish before their arrival. Far from being angry or upset, the Nebula-Man looked as if he was delighted to see them.
Dragonmage was down in the corner; there was no way to tell if he had been killed by the flash-quick demon fighter. “Danny!” the Vigilante cried out. “Yuh no good scallywag! If you’ve hurt him, I’ll fill yuh full o’ lead!”
“I’m not dead yet, uncle,” Dragonmage said calmly. Danny Leong launched himself from his shoulders in a seemingly impossible ninety-degree angle. As he came back down, he spun in a circle, connecting both feet with the heads of both demon warriors, sending them flying.
“If that don’t beat all,” the Vigilante said, both proud and impressed.
Wing How, clothed in the Crimson Avenger’s costume and mist, leaped across the room. His foot struck the one of the demon warrior’s heads as it rose and advanced for another attack. The Chinese hero’s blow rippled through the construct, warping it with the amplified impact of his blow. The gaudy mask shattered, clothes dropping to the ground as it gave up the ghost.
“Glad you people could make the party,” Billie Gunn said, tugging on the chains of the manacle the Nebula-Man had formed around her ankle. “Someone want to help me out here?”
“Certainly, my lady,” the Shining Knight said, swooping by on Winged Victory. With a swing of his sword and the clanging of severed iron, she was freed.
“Interesting costume choice,” Knightfire said, looking Billie up and down. “I thought you hated all things cowboy.”
“I do, and it wasn’t a choice!” Billie said bitterly. “I’m not a drugstore cowboy like my great-gran’pa… or a cowgirl. I hate looking like this, and I wish I were in something else!” With that, her clothing changed itself, and she suddenly found herself in military-issue cargo pants, combat boots, sports bra, and her NYPD baseball cap turned backward on her head in its usual fashion. The six-shooters became .45s. “Now this is more like it,” she said in surprise.
“How did you do that?!” Knightfire exclaimed.
Red Arrow, who’d witnessed the transformation, offered his explanation. “It must be the same as my quiver always having enough arrows. If the want is strong enough, this place makes it a reality!”
“The want was strong, all right,” Billie said.
“No, no, no!” the Nebula-Man exclaimed, voicing further irritation at their failure to play his games correctly. “You’re supposed to be the sidekick!”
“I’m nobody’s sidekick,” Billie Gunn said, raising her .45s and firing in his direction.
Bullets weren’t capable of hurting the Nebula-Man, but he didn’t particularly enjoy their sting. “Not this time, woman,” he said, waving his hand to create an invisible shield to block the round of fire. “My turn,” he said, turning his palms in her direction. Twin blasts issued from his hands that sent her diving for cover behind the column. “Mustn’t forget your friends, though. Here, these should keep you busy.” Two more bursts issued from his hands. These bursts of energy formed two seedy-looking hoodlums who looked as if they’d stepped out of a crime drama.
“You’re dead, fuzz!” one of the hoodlums said as they pulled out their pistols and began firing in her direction.
The air bubbled around the Nebula-Man. More constructs emerged, leaping at the Soldiers of Victory with abandon. The heroes veered from the sudden attacks.
Winged Victory carried the Shining Knight upward as the evil Mordred flew at him on the back of his own winged mount, sword slicing the air in a corona of sparks. A giant mechanical wheel that looked like something from a sci-fi movie rolled over Americommando, grinding him into the floor with a crunch of armor against marble. The Patriot found himself dodging eye beams from Baron Blitzkrieg, a patriot of the Third Reich.
The Vigilante found himself dodging slugs from a scar-faced man in Confederate gray as he looked for his ward. He saw Billie Gunn taking cover from guys who looked like thug extras from his old McCaliber series. Beside them was a red cloud like one of Lee Travis’. A swarm of pinstriped 1930s gangsters were unloading Tommy-guns in the cloud. There was no sign of Dragonmage anywhere. He’d suddenly disappeared after his first impressive display against the demon-masked warrior. Time to put an end to this fight fast, he decided as Red Arrow and Robin Hood fired arrow after arrow at each other. He took aim and fired his pistols, trading his gunfighter for Roy Harper’s archer with a snapping of arrow and bow.
Billie Gunn ducked behind a column as glowing bullets ripped the air around her. Guys from Little Caesar blasted into the cloud around Wing How. She couldn’t tell if he had been hit or not with that red smoke covering everything. She spotted the Vigilante throwing the archer challenging Red Arrow for a loss with a shattered bow. Red Arrow instantly turned and fired an arrow with a boxing glove on the end of it at the gunfighter in gray before he could react to the new threat.
She decided to imitate her older compatriots and trade with Wing. She burst from her column, delivering round after round of gunfire at the fake gangsters as she dived behind another column in the row. The classic thugs collapsed, Tommy-guns firing wildly in the air.
The red cloud enveloped the energy-constructed gangsters. Loud cracks and groans flowed out of the mist as fast as the flying bodies. They shattered against the stone floor like breaking glass. The fog cleared for a second to reveal the smiling Wing, confident in his role as the new Crimson Avenger.
Danny Leong had been trained to be like a shadow, to move as swift as any predator, and to strike at any exposed weakness. His training had enabled him to focus his chi and release it as natural energy. Such training had come at a price — a steep price. But because of the training, Dragonmage could set his mind to a task and accomplish it faster than any other. His mentors said he was a credit to them.
The Nebula-Man was too enthralled by the battle before him to notice the approaching Dragonmage. Watching as Patriot blasted to pieces the miniature war wheel bearing down on Americommando, he never saw Danny draw on his chi as he prepared to use it.
Dragonmage yelled fiercely like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, the cry rolling like thunder across the battlefield. Green energy sliced into the Nebula-Man, punching through his back and out of his chest, and green light shone from the silhouettes that served as his eyes and mouth as he shattered into separate pieces, ripped apart by the move known as dragon dancing in the air.
The surviving nebula constructs paused at the development, like puppets now bereft of strings. The pause was long enough for the remaining constructs to be wiped out by the Soldiers of Victory.
“Is it over?” Patriot asked as he dropped to a landing. “It can’t be that easy.”
Dragonmage struggled to take a breath, feeling the air stir around him. He knew that the Nebula-Man was not beaten, just delayed by his sudden action. All the local matter was bending grotesquely to the center of the room. Brick and mortar melted and flowed. Tapestries slid across the floor. All seemed to ooze in one direction as a large, menacing shape began to form.
“I think he is mad,” Danny said, his face devoid of statement.
The roof of the castle opened, the hole growing larger and larger until it shrank away to nothing. The mass in the center of the throne room grew by leaps and bounds as well. As it grew, the large form began to take shape.
“We’ve got trouble,” Knightfire said.
“Yeah,” Billie agreed. “Big trouble.”
As the mass transformed, it began to look like a giant replica of the Nebula-Man Dragonmage had destroyed only seconds earlier. Its cracked veneer was alive with a crimson glow that spiderwebbed across its stony surface.
“You continue to try my patience,” he thundered once his mouth was formed. “I create villains, you fight them. Is that concept so difficult for you people to comprehend?”
“We’re not here to play your games,” Patriot said. “We’re here to bring home our friend!”
“He’s not going anywhere!” the Nebula-Man said. “And neither are you!” With that, he brought his hand down, as if swatting a bug.
At the last second, Patriot dived out of the way. “I don’t think he’s playing games anymore!” Patriot exclaimed.
“We’re nine Davids to one Goliath,” Americommando said, looking back at the giant Nebula-Man as he flew out of the way of a fiery bast. “Even still, I don’t like the odds.”
“Yeah,” Red Arrow said. “And it’s not like we have a sling to take him down with.”
“Well, we’ve got your bow and arrow,” Patriot quipped. “That’s almost as good.”
“Funny guy,” Red Arrow said. “We’ve got Son of Kong coming down on us, and this guy’s cracking jokes. Who does he think he is? Robin?”
“Even Dick doesn’t do that anymore,” Americommando said. “But Syl has a point.”
“Huh?” Red Arrow said, trying to figure out if he should be offended.
“Last time we faced him, we took him out with a nebula-rod loosely based on the concept of Starman’s gravity rod, but it’s not like we could reach him at that size, even if we had one.”
“Yeah, so?” he said, looking up at the giant who continued to blast away as Patriot, Americommando, and Knightfire generated shields.
“Remember that trick Billie pulled a second ago? Maybe a nebula-rod wouldn’t work, but if we whipped up a nebula-arrow, it just might!”
On the other side of the room, Greg Sanders held his adopted son up with an arm around the younger man as the throne room and castle beyond seemed to merge with the Nebula-Man. He was slightly amazed that Danny Leong seemed to be dispassionately analyzing their enemy through the fatigue he was showing. Danny had said once that he had given something away in his training to be one of the best fighters on Earth. He had never said what, but the Vigilante thought it was the ability to feel like other people felt.
“We need a weapon that will hurt him,” Dragonmage said, breathing energy back into his body and growing steadily stronger. “We need the nebula-rod.”
“First, we need to get you out of here,” said Greg, carrying his ward away from the growing battle. “The fellers are already working on a copy of the Rod with this reality-control thingy.”
“You’ll…” said Danny, voice no longer trembling, “…you’ll need a distraction while you and the others do what you can.”
Dragonmage shook off the support of his mentor, tightening his hands into fists. He moved forward, wondering if he would survive this to go in the annals of the Masters. “Stop, Nebula-Man,” Danny said in a clear voice, cutting across the energy fields being flung in the vanishing great hall. “I have a wager for you. If you can beat me, we’ll stay and be your toys. If I can beat you, you let us leave to go back to Earth.”
“Are you crazy?” came a chorus from around the room, followed by a, “What the #%#@?” Vigilante’s heart leaped up into his throat at the thought that his adopted son might be sacrificing himself for them.
The Nebula-Man smiled, energy flaring from his eyes. Finally, someone knew how to play the game. “One on one with you?” said the stony giant, his smile stretching to a grin, fire broiling along his hands. “Done and done, flea.”
Dragonmage waited calmly for whatever would happen next. Whatever it was, he would be ready. All his senses were alive to whatever attack may come.
The Nebula-Man started with a wall to keep the other Soldiers of Victory out of the immediate way as he readied to destroy this green-clad irritant. Then he would bring him back to have more fun with him. That would show these upstarts he was the supreme power. He glared at the Dragonmage. This one would be the first to feel his wrath. Then he would turn his attention to those others. He would destroy them, then remake them, over and over. The games would continue for all time, with all kinds of opponents drawn from history and fantasy alike. It would be nothing short of spectacular.
He brought his fist down against the ground, splitting it open in a wave of blue energy and flying stone. The fissure hungrily reached for the fighter behind a tidal wave of stone. The wave crashed down as the cracking floor hit the half-destroyed wall and blew it out in the courtyard beyond.
“That’s that,” the Nebula-Man said, turning his head to face the Soldiers of Victory. “Get ready to play for the rest of your lives.”
“You have not won yet,” said a voice that was at once pleasant and cold. “You have not even begun to fight.” The Dragonmage stood next to the fissure in the floor, arms crossed. Except for the rents in his costume, he seemed untouched by recent events.
“How is he doing that?” Red Arrow gasped.
“Tis sorcery?” said the Shining Knight, staring at his friend’s adoptive son as if seeing him for the first time.
“Who cares?” Patriot said. “He’s providing the distraction we need. Everyone just concentrate. Think of the nebula-rod.”
“But with an arrow’s head and feathers,” Red Arrow added.
The Soldiers of Victory gathered in a circle, closed their eyes, and concentrated. The space in the center between them began to glow. After a few seconds, the shape of an arrow slowly began to form.
“You are a huge irritant,” growled the Nebula-Man, stretching out a hand. “Why won’t you die?” The Dragonmage waited silently, giving no sign that he considered himself in any danger.
“This is my dimension. I make the rules. And I say you will die now!” commanded the Nebula-Man, unleashing a beam of energy that ripped up everything in front of it. The protective wall he formed in front of the Soldiers of Victory cracked from the output. When the smoke cleared, he scanned the impact area for pieces of the fighter to turn back into his plaything. He frowned when he couldn’t find a trace.
“Damn, you suck,” said Billie Gunn, laughing in amusement.
The rattled Nebula-Man turned on her wrathfully. “Perhaps I should turn my attentions to someone without any ninja tricks, then, woman!”
“Why should I care?” Billie said defiantly. “You’ll just bring me back, like you did Wing.”
“There are nine of you,” the Nebula-Man said. “I can spare one that’s becoming overly annoying.” He raised his hand as if about to bring it down to bear on her.
“You missed me,” said the implacably cold voice of Danny Leong, causing the giant to turn in frustration and pause when he couldn’t see the speaker.
This was all the distraction Red Arrow needed. He grabbed the nebula-arrow from the space in which it floated, lined up his aim, and sent the arrow soaring. As the arrow flew toward its target, it grew in stature as it approached the Nebula-Man. By the time it shattered the Nebula-Man’s shield, it was the appropriate size and scale. The nebula-arrow struck him dead-center in the chest, sending bolts of energy flying in all directions.
The Nebula-Man’s face was a grimace of horror and pain. Lightning crackled from the wound as he grabbed it with both hands.
“No… nooo… NOOO-OOO-OOO!”
He exploded again, this time with a blinding force that enveloped the castle and beyond. The Soldiers of Victory turned their heads away, lest they go blind from the light. As the waves of energy washed over them, they were knocked flat and rendered unconscious by its force.
The nine Soldiers of Victory awoke, finding themselves sprawled across the pavement at Stellar Studios, smoke rising from their clothing.
“We made it,” Sylvester Pemberton said, rising to his feet.
“Yeah,” said Roy Harper. “We should be thankful we appeared here and not miles up in the air.”
“The way I feel, I’m not sure we didn’t,” said Pat Dugan. “Must be my age creeping up on me.”
“Thou aren’t old, friend Pat,” said Sir Justin. “I am old. And today, I feel every year.”
“Aw, there’s no need to compete, you two,” laughed Brandy Arthur. “You’re both old.”
“And thou art young and insolent,” Sir Justin said, playfully pulling her hood down over her face.
“We’re home!” Billie Gunn said, standing up. “I thought we were toast.”
“Aw, shucks, girl, you’ll get used ta it,” said Greg Sanders. “After a while, I’ll reckon you’ll be used ta purt’near anything.”
“This means you’re not gonna try to leave me behind anymore?” said Billie.
“I’ve seen ya shoot, and I’ve seen how ya handle yerself in a scuffle,” said the Vigilante. “I’d have ta be plum loco.”
“Put her there, pard,” Billie said, doing an imitation of his drawl.
“Tarnation, girl,” the Vigilante said. “Family don’t shake hands. Family hugs!” He grabbed the startled Billie up in a bear hug, lifting her off her feet.
“So what do we call this team when it gets together now?” Americommando said. “There’s more than seven of us.”
“So when has that ever been a problem before?” said Red Arrow, grinning.
“Now that I’m back, don’t think I’m going back to being an unofficial member,” said Wing How. “The new Crimson Avenger’s gonna want full membership.”
“Me, too,” said Knightfire.
“Why are numbers important?” Dragonmage. “The Soldiers of Victory still has a nice ring to it.”
“And there’s always the other name the papers used ta like to call us,” the Vigilante said. “I always kinda took a shine to it.” Everyone else nodded in agreement.
“Law’s Legionnaires it is, then,” said the Patriot. And a legend was reborn.