The Sentinels of Justice and their allies were battling for their lives in the Land of the Nightshades. Liberty Belle had vanished beneath a crowd of goblins, and the Countess was tiring as well. Felina was astonishingly capable, but she was being overwhelmed by the sheer weight of her enemies. Mark Merlin was fighting surprisingly well for a man who had nothing but courage and skill to rely on. Blue Beetle and Booster Gold were losing ground as well. Booster was smashing out at the goblins, but he was relying purely on his own strength. His augmented costume was indeed useless.
Lady Quark swooped down and scattered the goblins, but her fiery energy had begun weakening as well. “I can fight this army, but I can’t battle them while my allies fall,” she cried.
Felina bounded over to scoop Belle up and toss her over one shoulder. “She’s out cold,” remarked the model-turned-heroine.
The Peacemaker shouted, “Look out!”
At that moment, a wagon full of newcomers came clattering down the hill into view. Arrows from it struck the horde of goblins, driving them back.
“If this was a film,” said Booster, “I’d say the cavalry is here.”
“Do not falter — we will help you!” yelled a handsome young man who drove the wagon. He had long blond hair and the look of a born leader.
Behind him stood two women, each beautiful in a different way. The woman on his left had long blonde hair and a delicate, heart-shaped face. She wore a brown tunic and hosiery, and her blue eyes flashed as she fired arrow after arrow into the goblins, never once missing. Her companion had shorter red hair with jagged bangs and a look of amusement, as she was clearly enjoying herself. She was dressed in black leather and laughed as she used her own crossbow against the goblins.
A hulking man on a powerful horse charged by the wagon, using a heavy, large broadsword to great effect. He had the look of a Viking, although such beings surely didn’t exist in this odd, unearthly realm.
“Dragontamer, I reckon I can drop that shaggy goblin yonder before you can,” said a blond man in a gray Confederate Army uniform.
“I shall take that wager, Rebel,” bellowed Dragontamer.
They charged at the biggest goblin, but the creature gasped and fell flat before either warrior could reach him.
A handsome man clad all in blue and black grinned boyishly, catching the glaive he had thrown as it spun through the air and returned to his hand. “Sorry, gentlemen, but I couldn’t resist,” he said with a short and exaggerated bow from his saddle.
“Very funny, Darkharp,” said Rebel. “Just leave it to a master thief to steal our victim from us.”
A piercing cry split the air as a lovely brown-haired woman rode over a goblin with her own white horse and spat on his body with a look of disgust etched upon her face. She wore a high-bodiced lace blouse and a voluminous lilac skirt that had been cut on each side.
“Miss Sinclaire does make a fetching figure,” said Rebel.
“I agree with that sentiment, sir,” said Darkharp.
The goblins had fled, but not before the newcomers had slaughtered dozens of them. The female archers had taken an amazing number of them from long distance.
The blond man who drove the wagon stopped the vehicle and confronted the heroes. “The goblins won’t be gone for long,” he said to the Sentinels. “I suggest we retreat. You can join us at our base and recover from your injuries. You do not want to be out here after dark.”
The Blue Beetle grinned. “Thanks. We’d be glad to accept your hospitality.”
Later, the Sentinels of Justice and their allies found themselves within a warm and comfortable house cleverly built beneath a small hill.
“Whoa, this place is cool,” said Fifi. “From the exterior it looks like a barren hillside.”
Darkharp smiled and said, “That’s the idea, my dear.”
“Exactly like the Shire,” the Blue Beetle muttered to himself. He turned to the men and women who had rescued the group and said, “I’d like to thank you all for your help. Are you rebels of some sort?”
The blond man from the wagon said, “In a manner of speaking, although truth to tell, we are freedom fighters. We want to liberate the Nightshade realm from the tyranny of the Succubus. My name is Lareden.”
After the action-heroes introduced themselves, Lareden introduced his allies. “All of us were drawn together out of common need or because we shared the same goal.” He introduced the towering, bearded Viking and said, “Dragontamer came here from his tribe in the north to seek help for the plight of his people. But all he found was brutality and bloodshed.”
“Aye, he speaks the truth,” agreed Dragontamer. “After a bit of time as a soldier of fortune, I met up with Darkharp.”
The handsome thief in blue and black said, “It was the first time Dame Fortune ever smiled upon him. He and I have seen more than our share of battle since that day.”
“We freed them from the dungeons of the Succubus,” continued Lareden, “where a failed get-rich-quick scheme had landed them.”
“Lareden, you talk as if you came from our world,” said Liberty Belle.
“I did,” he said, nodding. “I was trapped here as a boy. If some kindly souls hadn’t rescued me, I would have never reached my present age. Because of that act of charity, I’ve always vowed to use my resources to free anyone else who falls into the clutches of that icy temptress.” He paused for a moment, then said, “As you may have noticed, two others in my group also originally lived in the world beyond. Rebel was a Confederate soldier in the 1860s before an explosion somehow brought him from the battlefields to this realm.”
Rebel bowed in a courtly manner and said, “Most of you speak like Yankees, but you don’t need to fear me none. I hung up my sword as far as the War of Northern Aggression goes. I never did cotton to slavery, if you’ll excuse the pun. By the way, I reckon time don’t ‘xactly jibe twixt here and yon. I been here around eight years, but then Miss Sinclaire found her high and mighty self here from her London of the year 1888. To her way of thinkin’, it should be 1889 right about now.”
The pale and delicate beauty named Miss Sinclaire said, “I was at my wit’s end. I had lost my family and faced ruination on the streets before a gentleman led me here. I found myself wildly excited by the freedom in this place, since I had been stifled by the social code of my proper sphere.”
Lareden grinned. “Miss Sinclaire rather loves being what might be termed a warrior maiden in this realm.”
The blonde archer in the brown hosiery and tunic smiled winningly and said, “Don’t tease her so.”
“Melisaunde, here, is all heart when she isn’t slaying goblins with the very eye of Robin Hood himself,” said Lareden.
“My family was slaughtered by ogres,” explained Melisaunde. “I learned to live for revenge until Lareden gave me something more to hope for — a new love.”
Lareden kissed the blonde girl and said, “We rescued each other, you might say. Battle and violence had become all we knew.”
The redhead with the jagged bangs and the black leather costume snickered. “As if there’s anything wrong with living for warfare. Not that those thrills are all a lass needs, mind ye.”
“Don’t mind Cassi,” said Melisaunde. “She vexes even the most patient of folks.” At that, Cassi winked playfully.
“There are dozens of us,” said Lareden. “We hide in places like this, and we try to stop the Succubus from tormenting the helpless. In fact, if you hadn’t appeared when you did, we would have been busy planning another such rescue mission.”
Darkharp spoke. “I learned that she had a new prisoner, a lone female for whom extra precautions were taken. We planned to raid the dungeon and get her out, but the witch returned before we could act.”
“How’d you know she had left this realm for our own?” asked Liberty Belle.
“I can sense her presence,” said Lareden. “You see, the Succubus is my kin. She is my aunt.”
“Lareden?” said the Peacemaker, a thought suddenly dawning on him. “Larry Eden? You’re Nightshade’s brother! Your sister, Eve Eden, is the reason we’re here. She was captured by the Succubus when that witch tried to steal certain mystical gems from our world.”
“Eve?” said Lareden, looking completely astonished. “My very sister is the captive? I was lost here as a child, but I’d given up hope that either she or my mother had survived. Tell me about her.”
“She’s beautiful, smart, and caring,” said the Blue Beetle, “and she’s never given up on the hope that she could one day find you.”
Lareden turned away from them for a moment, covering his face with one hand. When he faced the others again, it was with flashing eyes and a look of determination. “Eve will be freed. The mission will go forward, even though Succubus has returned.”
“That’s askin’ for trouble,” said Rebel.
Cassi grinned and said, “And your point is?”
Rebel smiled back at the girl in black and said, “Not really got one. Just makin’ conversation.”
Lareden said to them, “I will not ask you all to join me in this.”
“Where would we be without you?” said Dragontamer. “I know I’d still be rotting away in a cell.”
Darkharp added, “We live with you, and we die by your side.”
“So be it,” said Lareden, “and thank you all.”
“What about us?” said the Countess. “We know this Succubus made me into a monster. Can we force her to restore me?”
“Countess, if we don’t defeat her, we’ll never know,” said the Peacemaker.
Fifi came over to the red-haired vampire and mussed her long flowing locks. “C’mon, legs, you know you live for the spotlight. This could be your big break.”
The Countess blew her hair out of her face and frowned for a moment before the other woman’s sheer enthusiasm made her smile despite herself.
“She claimed the gems would give her power beyond belief,” Lady Quark reminded them. “We must secure them before she can use them.”
“I almost had the pouch,” said Liberty Belle.
Mark Merlin shrugged sheepishly and said, “It was my fault for bumping into you. I’m sorry.”
Belle flashed a radiant smile and said, “I understand. Don’t worry. We’ll just have to get them this time.”
“We could divide up,” said Lareden. “Some of us can attack her for the gems, while others free my sister.”
“A sound plan, in my opinion,” the Peacemaker said.
Booster Gold said nothing. For once in his life, the attention-loving hero wanted to be forgotten. He was still troubled by his lack of effectiveness in this magical land.
Mark Merlin frowned as he led his group through the fortress of the Succubus. He could sense her presence and, more precisely, could detect the location of the mystical jewels she possessed. “She is with the gems,” he whispered. “That much is evident. I’d also wager that if she planned to use them in some magical ritual, she has yet to do so. That kind of spell would certainly be obvious to me.”
“Where is she?” demanded Lady Quark.
“Simmer down, Lady Q,” said Felina. “He’s doing the best he can. After all, getting us this far with help from the map Darkharp secured was pretty remarkable.”
Liberty Belle nodded and said, “Have we given our friends enough time to make their own move?”
“Yes,” said Lareden. “I can vouch for the speed of Darkharp and Cassi. As for Dragontamer, he moves surprisingly well for a big man.”
“And the Countess, Blue Beetle, and Peacemaker are equally swift,” said Belle. “Even with his costume slowing him down now, Booster Gold was a skilled athlete once, too. I don’t think they would delay your allies.”
“I think we need to strike now,” said Melisaunde, moving forward. She nimbly led the others through a passageway until they stood in the shadows above an audience chamber with a huge, ornate throne.
“There’s the Succubus!” cried Liberty Belle as she pointed at the weird female form on the throne within the audience chamber.
“The pouch of gems is in her hand,” said Mark. “She has spread them out for him to see.”
“And yet I don’t recognize the man with her,” Lareden said. “He is far too cocky in manner to be one of her lovers or pawns.”
The man in question was clad in an orange-brown outfit with a burnoose — a hooded cloak — over his shoulder. He had beady eyes and an oily complexion, and he stroked his elaborately styled beard as he swaggered toward the Succubus. He spoke in a sibilant manner, and his smile was broad, if insincere. “You have secured the gems as requested,” he said. “Excellent, my dear, excellent. Your reward will be certain when I present them to my esteemed benefactor.”
“He is your master, and I know it,” said the Succubus. “Do not flatter yourself by depicting yourself as any more than one of his many lackeys.”
The man scowled and stopped for a moment as a look of pure hatred filled his beady eyes. Then, as if remembering himself, he interlocked his long, narrow fingers and smiled blandly.
“My love,” said Melisaunde, “I could hit him between the eyes from here.”
“Wait,” said Lareden. “Listen.”
Liberty Belle frowned at the woman’s comment. She was not willing to take a life, even in this odd realm where all natural laws were at variance with logic. Felina squeezed the other woman’s shoulder as if to offer her silent support. Belle knew that, even in her dynamic new form, Maddy Lopez was not a killer, either.
“I tire of skulking here,” said Lady Quark. “Let us end this now.”
“No!” whispered Mark Merlin. “We need to let this play out.” Lady Quark glared at him, but something in his manner convinced her to bide her time.
“I am not a fool,” said the Succubus. “Your master would see me enslaved before he would grant me what you’ve promised on his behalf. You will receive the gems when and only when his long-promised armies have conquered my own enemies. Hunt down the outlaws who fight me, and then I will talk again about your use of my gems.”
The oily man began to perspire as firelight gleamed on his oily features. “Of course, my dear. You had only to display the gems to your humble servant. I shall fulfill my part of the bargain.”
The Succubus smiled seductively and said, “You worm. I would crush you beneath my heel, were I not in need of your master’s powers.”
At that moment, a tapestry crashed to the floor with a thunderous impact, and the Succubus whirled to see a red-clad youth dash across the very rafters above them. Seconds later, the oily man deftly switched a pouch from within his cloak for the one now hanging by the side of the white-and-black-striped woman.
She turned again and said, “An assassin! The rebels are here!”
“I will seek help from my forces,” said the man in orange. “Never fear.” He vanished into the shadows.
The Succubus screamed to her men, “Get that rogue! He will regret intruding into my sanctum.”
“The man in red was not one of my men,” said Lareden. “He was working for the man in orange. He distracted her long enough for his master to steal the real gems.”
“This is getting — excuse the expression — hairy,” said Felina. “Are we caught between two power-hungry factions?”
“We’ll soon know,” said Belle. “Look.” She pointed to an approaching squad of guards. The goblins had discovered their hiding place and were about to attack.
Liberty Belle leaped forward and gave a high kick that flattened one goblin. She shoved him into another one of the creatures and punched at a third. Felina dived after her friend and lifted one of the struggling monsters over her head. She hurled it into the crowd before bounding forward to stun another with both feet. Lareden grabbed a curtain and swung down to charge at several goblins. He was slender, but he fought well and clearly had some of his sister’s legendary agility. The golden Melisaunde’s lethal shafts thudded home, dropping goblins in her path. The contrast between the delicate, innocent-looking blonde girl’s beauty and her almost clinical skill with a bow was striking. Lady Quark erupted in a glowing nimbus of crackling energy as her raw power sent rows of goblins scurrying for cover.
The Succubus hissed as she saw her foes and slipped artfully through the shadows to emerge in their midst. “You humans will die!” she cried. “Then your world will be mine as well!”
Mark Merlin stepped forward and said, “You’re bluffing. The magical gems have been stolen by your supposed ally.”
She became fiercely angry and ripped open her pouch to reveal nothing except colored rocks. “Curse him!” she screamed. “Curse him and his foul master!”
“It’s over,” said Mark. “We’re deposing you.” The Succubus rushed at him in a maddened frenzy, and he fell back beneath her inhuman strength. Careful, Merlin, he thought. Don’t get killed on your first day back to life. He had no true magic, but he did have the cat pendant.
On something more than impulse, he shoved the pendant at the snarling creature, and as it struck her white-and-black-striped skin, she cried out in pain. Moments later, she seemed to shrink in size and fade into the mystical pendant.
Mark smiled in relief. “She’s trapped,” he said. “I don’t know if it was her semi-shadowy nature or the magic of the pendant, or maybe even one final heroic act from the spirit of Prince Ra-Man, but I can sense she’s now out of this realm. Perhaps she’s floating in what limbo passes for the dimension of Ra on this Earth.”
With the loss of their evil queen, the goblins lost all will to fight. They fled from the castle and robbed the place of anything shiny or valuable they could carry.
Lareden shoved over the throne and shouted, “The Nightshade realm is free! The Succubus is no more!”
“You’re of royal blood,” said Melisaunde. “I’d say we can cheer for King Lareden now.”
The blond hero smiled as shouts of celebration rang out and Rebel led more of his forces inside from without. The Land of the Nightshades was free at last.