“Eris?” said Liberty Belle. “You’re the goddess of strife and disharmony! You don’t work for peace — you go out of your way to break the peace! You thrive on conflict!”
“You dare challenge me?” said Eris. “Girl, I will strip you of your very flesh and leave your corpse to rot!”
“Wait!” said Son of Vulcan. “I suggest we allow our children to handle my misguided former partners!”
The Pantheon raced into action as the Sentinels of Justice met their charge.
Tomorrow Woman lifted herself skyward with a mental push and then began to grapple with Saule. “This fight is wrong!” she said. “You are being used by Eris!”
Saule tossed back her long blonde locks and said, “We know, and yet we have no choice but to obey. She holds our wills and much more in her hand!”
As flames flickered around her body, Tomorrow Woman tried to ignore the heat and strike back at Saule. Well, there goes my mascara! she thought as the heat caused her makeup to smear. Twisting around, she fought to anchor her body as the stronger woman pressed against her.
Suddenly, an idea came to her, and she turned her head to glance downward at the waters below. With a flexing of mental might, she caused a wave of water to erupt into the air and sweep over Saule’s glowing form. As the soggy goddess emerged from the wave, Tomorrow Woman sent a second one in her path. I can’t put out her flames! thought the stylish heroine. The waves turn to steam as soon as they get close to her body, but at least this tactic delays her own attacks!
The Shape had wrapped his own body around the sea god Yamm and found that his efforts were paying off. If I keep him away from the water and absorb all moisture from his skin, then perhaps he will weaken! thought the Shape. Yamm struggled within the pliable prison, but each time he punched a hole in the Shape, the hero closed it over and held him tight again.
Felina had launched herself at Leshy, only to find herself a captive, as he grew to giant size and closed his hand around her.
“You would make a fine pet!” he said with a bellowing laugh.
Fifi struggled to squeeze free, but even her enhanced strength couldn’t break his grip. Great! she thought. I always wanted to end up as someone’s personal stuffed animal!
Liberty Belle, having slipped away from the others, dived into the sea. Kicking off her high heels, she swam underwater with speed and purpose. As a champion swimmer, the blonde easily reached her goal on the other side of the beach. After emerging from the waters, she stealthily climbed rocky slopes to approach the temple from the rear. I want a closer look inside that temple, she thought. Call it a hunch, female intuition, or just plain old curiosity.
Booster Gold had fired an energy beam directly at Stribog, but the wind god merely rose on a current and aimed his own tightly focused hurricane force at the corporate crusader. “Hot air? That’s all you’ve got to offer!” taunted Booster as he fought to keep his position. He swung at the man in white, but frowned as his punch was stopped inches from the man’s mocking face.
“I carry an unseen force-field of solid air,” said Stribog. “Perhaps you would be wise to emulate me!”
Booster began to choke as the air was literally drawn out of his lungs. He raised his own force-field and gasped for air. Now that’s fighting dirty! he thought as he fought to regain his composure.
Meanwhile, Captain Atom was facing an unlikely foe in the petite and dainty form of Aigiarm. “Miss, I don’t want to hurt you,” he said. “I know you’re a puppet and not a true enemy!”
She smiled winningly, then swung at his head, but he blocked her punch. “If I am but a puppet, it will still pleasure me greatly to batter you into submission!” she said.
Captain Atom grabbed her and pinned her arms to her sides, but she dived forward and flipped him over her shoulder. Using his flight power to stop his fall, he then rammed into her, but she gripped him by the neck and held tightly. This is not going to be easy! he thought. She’s a little tigress!
As Son of Vulcan watched the battle, a look of concern crossed his face. “My love, is this truly the only way?” he asked.
Kissing him passionately, Eris replied, “It is! Never doubt your bride!”
The Countess had attacked Leshy as a snarling wolf, but he had kicked her across the beach with one huge foot.
Tomorrow Woman stopped her flight and gently lowered her to the ground, even as Saule connected with a solid fireball that sent both girls crashing into the sea.
Suddenly, Yamm exploded out of the Shape’s body, leaving the poor artificial hero scattered across the shore.
Eris laughed with pleasure and said, “See? Our unwilling pawns are winning!”
Son of Vulcan frowned and said, “And yet, is victory not tainted by the method of enslaving helpless people? None of the Pantheon is in control of his or her mind. We took them from normal lives and turned them into action-heroes. I begin to doubt the wisdom of such a ploy!”
Meanwhile, within the temple, Liberty Belle had found two very odd inhabitants. The first was a young boy with a worried expression on his face. The other was a frail man with a limp. “John Mann? How can you be here?” she cried as she recognized the alter ego of the Son of Vulcan.
The former correspondent said, “Belle? I’ve been here for months! And now this poor lad has joined me in this prison!”
“I am Perun of Soyuz,” said the boy. “My friends and I were captured and brought here, but while they were encased in stone, I was forced to come here. They claim I am one of them, but it is a lie! I am loyal only to Soyuz!”
“They were being figurative,” said Mann. “Your power apparently comes from some superhuman source like their own. Son, I don’t think you are a mutant like the others on your team. I think you may be the child of a god. I mean, you may have been fathered by a superhuman type that was believed to be divine in the past, much as the Olympians I’ve met are truly just superhumans who call themselves divine!”
“That would explain why my power hurt them, but the others could not make them even feel pain!” said Perun. “Still, the only home I’ve ever known was the government lab that imprisoned me. Anyone or anything could be my father!”
“The Pantheon are just transformed humans, too,” said Belle. “Vulcan and Eris gave them power and enslaved them. I can call him Vulcan, can’t I? You aren’t the same person anymore, are you?”
“No,” explained Johnny Mann. “I was trying to live only as Son of Vulcan after the Crisis, but I just had so much responsibility! After seeing worlds die in the Crisis, I became the overseer of the world, or the monitor of this Earth. Perhaps it was all too much for me. Shortly after accepting my responsibilities in that role, I was already yearning to become more active as an action-hero on Earth, rather than merely observe.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: The Calm Before the Storm.]
“Yes, I recall from my reading of old Sentinels cases that you were soon more active as a hero than as this world’s monitor,” said Liberty Belle. “You worked with the team directly a few times not long after the Crisis, even though you were supposed to act more as a watcher on the wall. The Mars Council case comes to mind, as does that encounter with those giant monsters a few months later. You were still the world’s monitor by the time I joined the team a few months later, and as I recall you were kept pretty busy both monitoring the world and working as a action-hero.” (*)
“My time as Son of Vulcan had been all too brief back in the 1960s, and I was only able to call upon the power a handful of times since then,” explained Mann. “So when I was given the power back during the Crisis, only to have to hold it back to be the overseer, I began to feel resentful. When I finally met Stardust the Super-Wizard that first Christmas after the Crisis, I eagerly took up his suggestion that I give up being the overseer of the world and become an action-hero again. (*) It took a few more months, but eventually I was able to give up the role of monitor to the Super-Wizard, and I did so gladly. After that, I started taking a more active role as an action-hero than ever before, and my life as a civilian began seeming more and more like a dream.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Paragons: Deus Ex Astra, Book 2, Chapter 5: Overseer of the World.]
“But as I spent more time only as Son of Vulcan, I began to lose touch with my humanity,” continued Mann. “I fell prey to other influences, like Eris. As you know, I was given my power by the Olympians to use for good. I had only a rather limited number of abilities at first, but in time I was able to channel almost any power any Olympian had ever manifested. (*) I guess the link to their raw power overcame my mind — and my judgment. I listened to the darker divinities like Eris, and over the time that I tapped into their kind of power, like that of Medusa, I lost more of my reason.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: Duplicity, Chapter 4: Kindred Spirits.]
“That must’ve been around the time when you stopped responding to Sentinel alerts,” said Belle, “even when we could’ve really used your help and expertise.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: Invaded by Magic, Chapter 2: Felina and the Countess.]
“I had already begun to grow arrogant by that time,” continued Mann. “I began to think of myself very highly, as if I was a demigod — or even a god. What use could I have with any mortal, whether action-hero or not? The godlike powers I could call upon made all others pale in comparison. But such a situation could not sustain itself. Finally, I suddenly lost all power and found myself here as plain Johnny Mann. Vulcan is no longer tied to me!”
“You mean Vulcan is just raw power in humanoid form?” asked Belle. “He still talks as if he thought he was you.”
Mann nodded and said, “He is me in some ways, but for the most part he’s a separate being now!”
“John, you have to reclaim the power,” said Liberty Belle. “Surely you can tame the madness!”
Johnny Mann nodded wearily and said, “I know. I just sort of… gave up.”
Taking his hand, she said, “We’re here to help you. We are your friends.”
Mann grinned slightly and said, “Thank you.”
Moments later, the trio rushed out of the temple, only to see the Pantheon triumphing over the Sentinels of Justice.
“Vulcan!” shouted Johnny Mann. “I command you to stop! You are nothing but power misused and out of touch with humanity!”
Son of Vulcan whirled to face the gaunt man. “You are but a mockery of me! I am real. You are just a fraud!” he cried, then raised his sword and stalked forward.
Liberty Belle leaped into acrobatic action. Flipping through the air three times, she landed between Vulcan and Mann. “I won’t let you hurt him!” she vowed.
“I’ll turn her into a flea!” cackled Eris.
“Woman, leave this to me!” shouted Son of Vulcan. Shoving Liberty Belle down flat, he raised his sword again.
Booster Gold flew forward, only to be brought down again by Stribog. “Stop him!” he yelled.
Darting forward, Perun sent electrical energy surging into Eris.
The other Sentinels tried to get past their foes, but only Amon the Invincible succeeded. Appearing before Son of Vulcan, Amon touched both Johnny Mann and his alter ego. “Be as you first were!” he cried. Energy flashed between them, and Amon and Mann cried out in pain.
Son of Vulcan lowered his sword and looked perplexed. “Eris, what have you done to me?” he gasped.
She touched him and said, “I have made you better than you were before!”
Shaking her hand away from his arm, he said, “You tainted me!” Flipping his sword around, he impaled himself.
“Nooo!” screamed John Mann.
“Forgive me!” cried Son of Vulcan.
But the words echoed on empty air as the Son of Vulcan disappeared.
Moments later, the stone statues returned to human form as the Soyuz team rejoiced in being restored. Perun ran to rejoin his friends.
The People’s Heroes started to charge at the Pantheon, but they were halted by Captain Atom. Zooming in front of them, he said, “We were all victims here. Look! The Pantheon are waking from Vulcan’s spell. You can’t attack them now!”
“They are Soviet citizens,” said Hammer. “They are not yours to detain!”
“And as for Soyuz, they will be arrested, now that we have them!” said Pravda.
Frowning, Amon the Invincible touched a concealed magical wand within one coat pocket and said, “Return to the Soviet Union!”
Hammer and the rest of the People’s Heroes flickered out of sight as the magic spirited them away.
Regaining her own feet, Eris hissed with rage. “You mortals have cost me everything!” she cried.
A booming voice rang out as a majestic figure appeared to loom over the isle. “Eris, your petty spite will not injury these mortals or my son again!” he cried.
As she cringed in fright, she was then snatched into the sky by the giant figure of an armored man with frail legs.
“Vulcan!” gasped John Mann as the form of his Roman patron captured the angry Eris.
“Vulcan?!” said Felina. “You mean that’s the real Roman blacksmith from myth?”
“Apparently!” said the Countess. “This just keeps getting stranger, and I’m a walking vampire!”
“My son, I have wronged you with neglect,” said the god Vulcan. “Forgive me. Will you accept your former role once more? I will make certain you cannot be tainted again!”
Gazing skyward, Johnny Mann said, “Yes! I want a second chance!”
Vulcan looked at the others and said, “So be it.”
Saule, Yamm, and the rest of the Pantheon were truly free, but they were having trouble coming to terms with all that had happened. They were silent and frightened and more than a bit confused.
“I know how confusing it can be to become a pawn of the gods,” said Mann. “Let me discuss these changes with them!”
Vulcan agreed and said, “So be it! They are much like you — mortals given power that threatened to overwhelm them! Perhaps they could use the gifts for good and not ill! I am fond of taking that which seems broken and twisted, and making it new and better!”
Johnny Mann nodded as he reached down and picked up a sword. Upon transforming into the golden-armored Son of Vulcan, he said, “I am myself again. I have the power of Vulcan, but the mind and heart of Johnny Mann! I will not fail you again! I won’t fail any of you again!”
Captain Atom clasped his hand and shook it firmly. “Welcome back, old friend!” he said.
“Your power is lessened,” said Vulcan, “but this level will enable you to do much good in the world and still oppose the forces of Mars, while keeping your sanity!” The Olympian god vanished as his chosen champion regained his own composure.
The Shape, having already reassembled himself, asked, “Vulcan, can you bring back Lady Quark?”
At the sound of her mother’s name, Princess Fern cried out and rushed forward. “Lady Quark?! Is that the name you said?” she began hesitantly. “My mother!”
Stepping forward, Tomorrow Woman embraced the girl and said, “Honey, it’s OK. We know you, and we are friends with your mother. She’s fine. She’s one of us. She’s going to be so happy to see you!”
Princess Fern began to weep as her friends came closer and tried to comfort her. “I never thought I’d ever see her again!” she explained. “I was fighting by her side during the Crisis when I was spirited away and ended up a captive in the Soviet Union! I thought she was dead!”
“Fern, this is wonderful!” said Firebird. “I’m so happy for you!”
“I can restore Lady Quark,” said Son of Vulcan. “When I was maddened, I sent her away, but that’s easily fixed.” A moment later he frowned and said, “I don’t understand. All I did was teleport her away. I don’t have my old level of power anymore, but I should still be able to bring her back.”
“Where did you send her?” asked Captain Atom.
“Cap, I just shunted her away,” said Son of Vulcan. “I don’t know where she ended up!”
“We’ve got to find her!” vowed Captain Atom. Turning to Fern, he said, “I promise you that I’ll find your mother! She means a lot to me!”
“We of Soyuz will help you!” said Perun.
“Do you kids want to join us?” asked Liberty Belle. “You could come live in America!”
“We thank you, but we have to decline,” said Firebird. “You see, the Soviet people need protection, and we like to think we can offer them an alternative to the People’s Heroes.”
Belle nodded and said, “You are all remarkable youngsters!”
They hugged Fern one by one, and then, at Amon’s command, the teens of Soyuz, along with their newest member Marik Titov, vanished.
“We must find my mother!” said Princess Fern. “Perhaps my father is alive, too!”
Captain Atom frowned, but said nothing. He didn’t want the girl to suffer, but he had grown close to her mother and had no desire to find the heroine’s presumed dead husband.
“Fern, I fear your father did die in the Crisis,” said Guardian.
Princess Fern nodded sadly and followed the Sentinels of Justice as Amon the Invincible’s magic transported them all back to Project X except for the Son of Vulcan, who had chosen to remain behind.