by Libbylawrence and Doc Quantum
In Stockholm, Thor rubbed his pendant and became Alvar Sundin again. At that moment, his wife Britta entered the room, smiling and crying tears of joy at the sight of her daughter and her husband both back to normal once more.
She took their baby daughter from his arms and hugged little Annika.
“I think all will be well for our little family,” said Alvar, resolving to wait for a better time to tell his wife about his adventure with the Paragons. “This is the greatest Christmas gift of all.”
The Grey Ghost took the next flight east out of Paris. The Christmas holidays were coming up, and he’d already made plans. But he hated leaving unfinished business behind.
His interview with Jack Bicci had confirmed in his mind what he had already begun to suspect during his investigation at Wunderkind International. The story of the stolen microchips and its connection to terrorism had been just that — a story. He didn’t know what kind of game Cade was playing, but Lowell Cade was about to find out that the Grey Ghost was no man’s patsy. He’d had enough of the CIA to last a lifetime.
In Wales, Jock o’ Kent and the Black Lion shook hands. “It was good workin’ with ye,” said Jock o’ Kent. “Even if ye are a filthy Scot.”
“Better than being an English,” said the Black Lion, grinning beneath his mask at the Welshman.
“Aye, that much is true!” said Jock. “Let’s do this again soon, and not just with the Paragons, either. We could make this a monthly team-up of Britain’s finest!”
“Best not press our luck,” replied the Black Lion.
The Dart sat atop St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, peering over the city that he protected. He smiled as he thought about how much had changed over the last few months, and how that visit from the Super-Wizard had transformed him from a broken man into an action-hero.
No, he couldn’t erase the crimes that his father had committed as the master criminal Barbarik, but each good act he performed as Il Dardo could make this city just a little bit safer for people like his mother, God rest her soul.
Dr. Lorenzo Puzzini’s war on crime was a lonely one, but it didn’t have to be, now that he had a team of his own in the Paragons. And perhaps, one day, he might have a crime-fighting partner of his own, like his Uncle Caius did as the original Dart.
Of course, if that did happen, Lorenzo vowed that his partner would be a beautiful, athletic, grown-up woman rather than a teenage boy. Kid sidekicks were much too 1940s.
Jack Sinistro Bicci and Wesley Ajax sat silently as Dona Ajax stood before them, wearing a modified version of the old Wonder Boy costume her father had once worn. She had explained everything to them.
“You’ve gained super-strength like your father,” said Jack. “I can only guess that you picked up those gifts when the World Tree you spoke of decided to make you a heroine. Fascinating. What shall we call you?”
Dona shrugged. “Well, for now let’s just say I’m a Wundergirl.”
Her father shook his head in concern. “I’m not sure about this, Dona,” said Wesley, looking down at his useless left leg. “What if you get hurt?”
Dona sighed. Now that she was eager to keep up her new role, she realized it was going to take a lot of effort to get her father to agree to it. She thought she saw Jack offer her a small smile, as if he was willing to support her efforts. She wasn’t about to become his sidekick or anything, but she was sure she could learn a few things from him, if her dad was unwilling to help.
Besides, the resources of a billionaire technologist could really come in handy in establishing a new team of action-heroes. She smiled back as she realized he might even provide them with their own headquarters in time. The Paragons would live on.
Elsewhere, Lucille Michaud embraced her grandfather as they stood by a small grave marker. Jean-Paul Michaud was a kindly old man with an easy smile who had cried tears of joy when he learned his granddaughter still lived.
“This is where your parents were buried,” the old man told her. “They died in an accident shortly after you were born. All we can do is honor their memory. I am still so happy to have you again, my dear child.”
Lucille wept softly in her grandfather’s arms, but as she mourned the parents she had never known and her beloved Gérard, she couldn’t help but feel happy that she had found a new family with both her grandfather and with the Paragons.
In a suburb of Vienna, Panthera had been looking at herself in the mirror in her room when the Ottingers called up to ask her to join them in the living room. Changing back into her normal form, the teenage Madeleine Fehr hurried downstairs. There she saw a handsome blonde man in his early twenties standing close to Ruth Ottinger.
“Madeleine, this is my boyfriend, Rex King,” said Ruth. “Like you, he’s also from Africa. Or is that Asia? I can never remember where Baronkhan is located. Rex is an honest-to-goodness prince.”
“Ah, the mysterious Mr. King,” Madeleine said with a smile as she looked at the man. He was outwardly pleasant, but he had an air of sadness about them that she could sense just beneath the surface.
Rex extended one hand to Madeleine and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Madeleine.”
The teenager’s eyes widened as she recalled the words that the Super-Wizard had told her when he granted her the power to become Panthera:
“I have arranged events so that you will be in a position to be mentored by a heroic man who will help you become a heroine, just as your grandfather Ted Grant helped your grandmother Marga to become the Panther Woman. This man was himself mentored by one of this world’s greatest heroes and has long trained for his own heroic career. He is the companion of someone in this household. You will know him when you see him. And you shall meet him soon.”
“My pleasure, sir,” she said softly as she realized she had just met the man who would act as her mentor, and perhaps even help her find a place with her fellow heroes in the Paragons.
Rex King maintained his normal outward composure, though inwardly he was still troubled by the wild goose chase that Lowell Cade had sent him on. He was also completely done with the CIA and its dirty tricks, even if they had the resources to help him find Alicia’s killers. If the Phantom had taught him anything, it was how to be resourceful, whether in the jungle or in the city.
He was also ready to finally let go of his obsession with bringing Alicia’s killers to justice. Ruth Ottinger was a wonderful young woman, and he would lose her if he continued to be held in bondage to the pain in his past. Ruth knew a lot about Rex already, including the fact that he had been engaged to Princess Alicia of Shambad when she was murdered, and that he had been the orphaned heir to the throne of the small kingdom of Baronkhan, but he had kept his Grey Ghost identity a secret from her. He knew that he’d have to tell her eventually. For now, though, he refused to let the pull of the mask affect his Christmas holidays.
In Barcelona, Rafael Guerra sighed in relief as he sat in his room. He had accomplished his dream of becoming a hero, and he had even helped found an action-hero team of his own to rival the legendary Sentinels of Justice. Things couldn’t have gone better for him if he’d tried.
But something still bothered him. The source of his power remained a mystery, and for the past few days he’d had the nagging feeling that he needed to do something with his power. The chaos of the last few days had kept him too busy to worry about it, but now that things had become quiet again, he determined to follow his instincts.
The new Stardust exited his room through the window and soared into the night sky, heading west over the Atlantic Ocean. This was his first long flight, and he was surprised at how fast he could fly under his own power. He just kept on speeding up at will, with little resistance, as if there was no limits to his potential.
In mere moments, the lights of a major city on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States came into view in the early, pre-dawn morning. Letting the power within him draw him forward like a magnet, he soon found himself in a suburban neighborhood.
Stardust settled on the open windowsill of a house across the ocean from his own. In that room was a young blond man around eighteen or so, sleeping peacefully in bed. Rafael wondered what had compelled him to come here, but he knew it was something he had to do. Holding out his hands, he released the energy within him into the sleeping man, allowing it to flow into him like electricity.
When all the energy had been drained from him, Rafael watched and confirmed that the young man was still breathing and had slept through the whole thing. Whatever he had done, it hadn’t done any harm to the boy.
But had he given up his own power?
Stardust jumped off the windowsill and willed himself to stop a foot above ground; his body obeyed. A moment later, he rocketed back into the sky and soared east, back home to Barcelona, knowing that the energy that had granted him his powers had indeed left him, but it had already transformed his body over the long months he was in a coma. That particular energy was gone, but the energy his body had absorbed from the stars above would always remain. Stardust would continue as an action-hero, both in a solo career with Luisa’s help, and as a member of the Paragons.
On his private star, the Super-Wizard watched the Earthman with pride and pleasure. If he hadn’t been sure before, he now knew that he had made the right decision in granting Rafael Guerra both his powers and his name.
“He will defend Earth under the name of Stardust alongside the Paragons while I monitor the universe as the Super-Wizard,” he proclaimed.
Turning to another monitor, he watched as the young man named Bobby Caswell awoke in his suburban Boston home, never dreaming that the power of Thunderbunny had been given back to him as a kind of Christmas gift once more. But he would learn soon enough that, just as the Super-Wizard had discovered, sometimes death really wasn’t as final as it seemed.
The Son of Vulcan took one last look at the viewing cauldrons he’d used in his role as the Overseer of the World, then turned and walked through a portal to Earth. He wished the Super-Wizard well as the new monitor of Earth-Four, even if it was just for the Christmas holidays. They’d have to have a talk about sharing duties during the transition period, but he was already sure that he’d be able to give up this role completely within a few months’ time.
Johnny Mann was glad to have participated in ushering in a new generation of heroes. The Sentinels of Justice would welcome all the help they could get; he would make sure of it. For now, though, he was glad to have his freedom back once more. No longer would he have to remain as the Son of Vulcan twenty-four hours a day. He could resume his career as a journalist and continue beating up bad guys as the action-hero called the Son of Vulcan. It was glorious.
Of course, the last thing he’d seen in his cauldrons was that several of the briefly empowered humans, good and bad among them, had retained their gifts from the World Tree and would eventually learn that they could transform back into those powerful forms at will. The Paragons would undoubtedly face some of them in the future.
In his prison cell, Drako sighed and mentally berated himself for his performance. He’d tried to make his surrender under the threat of continued violence to his person believable, but he knew he’d taken it a bit too far when he began to blubber. That fellow calling himself the Black Lion had surely noticed his overacting, he could tell. Next time he found himself in such a situation, he would try to tone it down a bit. Of course, as the hidden hand that ruled the world, he had no real need to try such an experiment a second time.
He mentally counted down the seconds until he would leave this place. He had arranged for the Silver Ladies to bring him back home at a predetermined time after his arrest, and the last few seconds were elapsing right now.
Drako vanished from his cell as the transporter beam took him away. It took another seventeen minutes before his absence was discovered, not that it made a difference either way. The hidden hand was gone.