”The Ranchero of Miracle Mesa” - The Magnificent Seven
“You think I'm brave because I carry a gun? Well, your fathers are much braver, because they carry responsibility — for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a-a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground.”
Texas --- The Desert; Now
They were sat squat upon a low ridge, overlooking a valley gouged into the belly of Mother Earth herself. It was like the life of the desert had crawled into it and died. Where there should’ve been cacti or yucca, talons of black rock stabbed at the sky. Any desert grass had been reduced to dried up scrubs, life sucked out of them by the blight that seemed to permeate the land. Wasn’t a trace of mountain lions or any local critters for miles. No, it was just the Soldiers and their enemy.
The winter cold nipped at the back of Vigilante’s neck, hairs pricking up in response. Reality itself seemed to bulge around the place. Space and time shifted like sands in the wind. But all he could focus on was his eyes pressed into a pair of binoculars, watching the shifting form of the object before him.
The Miracle Mesa hung in the sky like a malevolent god, waiting to pass its furious vengeance on the populace. The air was swollen with its energies, throbbing like a beating heart, crushing in on Vig’s muscles and pressing back on the whites of his eyeballs. It was an effort to even stand before it. Waves of its power washed through the air and wormed into Vig’s form, forcing its way between his atoms and molesting his organs. But they had to press on, or no one else would.
Warpath, Texas; Two Weeks Ago
“They call themselves The Sheeda
.” Agent Meskin tapped the manilla dossier on the wooden picnic table. “This is everything our recon boys have on them. Teams that made it back
Vig’s eyes flashed over the assembled documents. They looked almost like fairytale creatures, green and with big ol’ ears. The folder had all kindsa images practically fallin’ out of it. Laser guns. Advanced lookin’ armor. Photos of big ol’ bugs all saddled up.
Vigilante swallowed and exchanged a glance with Stripsey, sitting beside him, across from Meskin. Stripsey wiped the condensation from his beer. Frankenstein stood over the three of them. He heaved out a sigh.
“Then it is as I feared. The Sheeda have risen again.” Frankenstein’s bulging necrotic arms were crossed over his chest.
“Yeah. This lines up with everything you told us in your report. No eyes on ‘King Melmoth’, as you called him, but they seem to be reporting to a higher commander.” Meskin said. As he spoke, Stripsey pawed the folder over his way, running his finger around the lip of his beer.
“I would think not. I killed him myself.” Frankenstein rumbled. “His blood still stains my sword.””You said yerself, Sheeda are tough sumbitches to kill. Maybe you didn’t get him as good as you thought. Wouldn’t be the first time we only figured someone was dead.”
“No. If Melmoth survived, he could only be immortal.” Frankenstein cut back.”Either way, we got some kinda Sheeda King to handle.”
Vig contended. He adjusted in his seat, wood creaking beneath him. ”N’ he’s likely gonna be one big bandito.”
“Calm down, yahoos. Whether or not Melmoth bought the farm, everything the G-Man has on ‘em says invasion, t’ me.” Stripsey cut in. He pointed out a map spread out on in the folder before him. “Lotsa small patrol parties originating around one area.That screams ‘staging ground’.”
“Our people reached the same conclusion.” Meskin pointed to the valley dominating the center of the map. “We triangulated their position to here.””That’s only a coupla miles out from Warpath.”
Vig observed. Silence washed over the table. Meskin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Frankenstein rested his hand on his scabbard, tinkering with the handle of his sword.
“Then it’s war.” Stripsey stood. “And it’s up to us to end it before it starts.”
“How do you plan on stopping them? They aren’t demons, as far as Frankenstein recognizes or our scans show. We can’t just carpet bomb them with Holy Water like the demon camps.” Meskin asked. “We could
try typical SHIELD Xenos Response protocol, but with The Surfer, that hasn’t been working swimmingly
“I have set the other three Soldiers on a promising solution.” Frankenstein said.
Vig nodded. ”But we’re gonna need all of SHIELD’s help that we can git if it goes south, and then some.”
Texas --- The Desert; Now
Vigilante felt at the throat of the world. The valley before him swirled in his vision, a mess of Sheeda soldiers stalking amongst a network of tents and hermetically sealed domes, astride giant ticks and spiders. He had to force himself to look at them and not lose himself in the churning of the Miracle Mesa. It was like an abstract expressionist had designed a city. It’s buildings swirled and mixed into one another like paints on a palette. Architecture of all different times and styles clashed and then blended together, all twirling off into some vanishing point beyond the clouds.
Vigilante broke his gaze and focused on his team around him. Frankenstein was crouched low on the bluff beside him. His sword was clenched in one hand, and he already taking aim with a steampunk-lookin’ pistol in the other. The Star Spangled Kid and Stripsey exchanged hurried whispers with one another, making frantic hand motions and pantomiming some kinda’ karate moves at each other. For all the years he’d worked with ‘em, he still couldn’t understand it -- but theirs was a bond forged in real fire. And it was just about time to go. Hopefully the other two’d be ready when their time came.
Vigilante focused on his breathing. In, out. In out. His hands dropped to his pistols. He felt the intricacies of each handle through the leather of his gloves. Fine grain. He’d collected the wood himself. In, out. They came out of their holsters. He could smell the fresh grease in the air. In, out. Slowly, he drew to his feet. In, out. Standing over the valley, looking into the mouth of the universe itself. In, out. He took aim.”Sheeda!”
The cowboy’s voice boomed across the valley, blasting through the skittering legs of the Sheeda bugs and noise of their alien chatter. ”I would have words.”
“Interlop-!” A bullet as big around as Vig’s thumb turned the first Sheeda to paste before the aliens could respond. The camp exploded below them, Sheeda dragging on the reins of their mounts and driving them at their new attackers. The hum of laser weapons being energized knifed through the air, like a bug zapper digging into Vig’s ears.
“It’s not as cool when you say it.” The Star Spangled Kid leaped past him, flinging himself into the air and down upon the hordes of Sheeda below. Frankenstein was already reloading his pistol and charging down the cliff, his sword at the ready.
“That’s our cue, Greg. Time to knock some heads together.” Vigilante could scarcely hear Stripsey over the combined pulses of laser fire steadily shredding their position, and the screams of the Sheeda eviscerated by Frankenstein’s blade. Already around the canyon various SHIELD teams had begun unloading on the Sheeda with their mounted gun turrets. It’d give The Soldiers more time to get close and personal.”Loud n’ clear, Pat. Try not to git licked.”
Another laser thundered into their position, blasting away the last of the slab of granite that made up their cover. Vigilante took off down the canyon, vaulting over cracks in the stone and ducking and rolling between rock formations. Frankenstein had already carved out a path for them. He and The Kid fought in tight formation, Frankenstein cutting swathes through the aliens with wide swings of his sword and The Kid keeping them from drawing too close with precise punches and kicks.
Vigilante could practically feel Stripsey’s breath on his neck as he ran. Vigilante was supposed to punish them with his pistols at medium range, while Stripsey discouraged them from getting within sniffing distance. His pistols cracked in his hands and Sheeda gunmen exploded from across the canyon. He could hear the fleshy smacks of Pat’s fists against Sheeda armor, only to hear a sickening crunch as he heaved them over his shoulder into another horde of them.
The whole arena seemed an endless maze of gunsmoke and laser trails burnt into the air, all twisting off into the sky for the insatiable pull of the Miracle Mesa. They’d have been plum blind from the sulfur-smelling laser discharge by now without the thing. Sheeda would burst from the fog into the waiting arms of Stripsey, throwing them to the ground only for Vig to finish them with a shot. They’d long lost sight of Frankenstein and The Kid in the carnage, now. But the cries of the Sheeda grew steadily quieter; they had to be doing some
“Left!” Stripsey’s voice broke Vig’s concentration and he dove to the right. A spider the size of a sedan charged across the ground, ripping up chunks of sandstone and kicking a plume of dust dozens of feet into the air.
“Ssssss…” Venom dribbled from the maw of the spider, and eight black eyes the size of pool balls stared back at Vig through the sand. The spider had lost its rider, the dark metal saddle on its back sat empty. The spider lowered its head and sealed its armored mandibles. Vigilante brought his guns to bear and started unloading on the beast. His rounds plinked harmlessly off of it’s chitin hide.
“Saunders. Release me. You are in great danger.
” He felt The Spirit now, pressing against his mind. It’d been quiet when they entered The Mesa -- apparently “big-ass spider” was more of a threat than an army of laser-toting aliens.”Believe me, I know.”
Vig frowned and pressed forward, probing the spider for chinks in its hide as he fired. The monster lowered its head and readied a charge.”Oh, butter my butt n’ call me a--”
The spider launched forward, springing through the air on eight spindly legs. Vig dropped to his back and fired up as the spider’s titanic body blocked the brilliant lights of the Miracle Mesa above. It came down like a ton of bricks, pressing against Vig’s lungs and gnashing at his face. He pushed against it with one hand, struggling to bring his gun to bear.
” The Spirit demanded.”Nnng…”
Vigilante brought his legs against the spider’s underbelly, trying to force it off of him. Venom splatter from it’s jaws onto his face. His skin burned. He could feel the presence of The Spirit deep in his belly, waiting to explode outwards…
Warpath, Texas; Three Weeks Ago
“You all call Infernus Plagus Crassi
‘Fatboys’?” Doctor Richard Occult sat beside Vig on Billy Gunn’s roof, watching the daily patrol of SHIELD agents skewer Fatboy demons from their perches on the perimeter walls. The lot of ‘em had been more n’ freaked out at the Fatboys at first, but Warpath had a way of getting folks acquainted with strange
.”Well, didn’t really have the literature on hand, or nothin’.”
The Doc gave a hearty chuckle. “Guerilla Demonology will never cease to amaze me.””I aim to please.”
Vigilante fished in the cooler beside them for another beer, handing it to Occult. He smiled and nodded his head. The Doctor was a man of tougher stuff than Vig had imagined. Instead of some city slickin’ magical schoolboy, he found himself in the company of a real scholar
. Feller knew his shit back to front about demons. N’ he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, neither. Over the past couple weeks Vig had learned more than a few surprising things about demon biology, up close n’ personal.”So. Not to press ya, but I don’t suppose you’ve given any more thought to my proposition?”
Vig didn’t look at The Doc as he asked, staring out at the Agents. They were just about finished by now, pulling back their long steel spikes and jamming them into huge vats of holy water, then disinfectant.
Doc smiled, but let out a big sigh through his nose. “Well, cowboy, that’s a complicated answer.” He stuck his beer under his arm and twisted off the cap. “I’d like to stay long term, believe me. But the world needs a Doctor Occult out there, somewhere. It’s the way it’s been since my great-great-grandad. But then, there are others. The Thirteens. The Bloodstones. At the same time, there’s an incredible
wealth of research to be gained here. Between the magic of the Mesa and all these demons? It’s one helluva proposal. And that goes even without the Spirit situation--”
Vig cut him off. ”The situation? Far as I’m concerned he’s been mighty useful to us.”
“It, Greg.” The Doc reminded him.”Oh, it, schmidt.”
Vig blew past it. ”Weren’t for that thing, Aqueduct would’ve killed us all.”
Aqueduct was the latest of the assassins, by Vig’s reckoning. Feller didn’t talk much, came in like a specter in the night. Turned himself into water and had drowned a half of the SHIELD boys. Only thing that stopped him was when he tried to kill Vigilante, The Spirit had intervened.
“Look, I’m not saying it doesn’t
have utility. You’ve known this since that fight. ‘Fatboy’ numbers alone tripled overnight
as soon as it reared its head.” The Doctor set his beer down as Vig turned to face him.”I reckon we’re handling the demons just fine.”
Vig said. He grabbed a can out of the cooler and popped the tab.
“For now, yes. Before Frankenstein came to get me, I had half a mind to come here myself. Whenever I was trying to scan for any
sign of magical activity in the US, Warpath lit up like a Christmas Tree. At first I thought it was The Mesa acting up, but, well?” Doc rubbed the back of his neck.”What else am I supposed to do? We’re fighting things a feller can’t fight with just his irons. And, since New York, I...”
Vig put his hands out, open palmed.
“I know. Not the same. Bigger and badder threats. Like SHIELD has been saying. Darkseid
.””No. It hasn’t been the same since he and I -- It and I came together... I ain’t never been addicted to nothing in my life, Doctor. But this is somethin’ else entirely. It’s like you’re askin’ me to stifle a part of my soul.”
Vig said. He rubbed the calluses on his fingers.
There was a long silence between the men. The agents were all cleaned off by now, sitting around a plastic table and playing cards. They watched the sun start to fall below the horizon.
“You have an exemplary team around you, Greg. You’ll get through this. You’ll beat the demons. Solomano. Together
Texas --- The Desert; Now
“Hey, ugly, try someone your own size!” A Sheeda lasgun exploded into a billion tiny bits of metal and crystal filament as Stripsey emerged from the dust, shattering the gun over the Spider’s head. The thing chitinous armor cracked clean and it hissed, scuttling away from Vig.“Much obliged, pardner!”
Vig brought his guns up and squeezed the triggers, turning the spider’s brains to paste. Stripsey hauled him to his feet and the pair surveyed the situation around them. There were certainly a helluva lot more Sheeda around then before, streaming out of their tents and hastily built domes in the dozens. They’d already slagged a SHIELD gun encampment or two, and were threatin’ to bring more down by the minute.
“Looks like all our party guests have arrived. Might be time t’ call in our birthday surprise.” Stripsey snagged two gas masks hanging from his belt, passing one to Vig.”Whenever you’re ready.”
Vig snapped the mask into place, sealing it tight over his face. He could hardly see through the thing, but it’d have to do.
“Ready, set…” Stripsey snagged a fallen Sheeda armament off the ground, prying out the power cell with inquisitive fingers. “Mark!” He flung the cell into the air like a shotput. Vig sighted up…
A yellow glow expanded over the height of the valley, sweeping through the sky and blotting out the Mesa. ”Now!”
A brilliant white horse broke through the yellow glow of the cell. It unfurled titanic white wings from its back, like an angel from on high. It’s rider held aloft a silver sword and a blazing red lance.
“Have at thee, creatures!” The Shining Knight bellowed, astride Winged Victory. He swung his sword in a mighty arc, its sound slicing through the cacophony of battle. The Crimson Avenger held fast to him, his red trench coat billowed in the winds. He had a massive silver canister strapped to his back, almost as big around as another man. Lances of energy from the Sheeda gunners below missed as The Avenger reached backward and unscrewed the top of the canister. A nauseous green gas spilled out, sweeping all through the canyon as Winged Victory dove and turned through the air.”There’s our edge!”
Vig dropped his guns, already boiling hot from firing, and drew a fresh pair from his holsters. All around them Sheeda were already wobbling, some collapsing to the ground and breaking into mournful slumber.
“Form up!” A Sheeda voice hissed from somewhere beyond the dust cover. What few of the Sheeda hadn’t been conked out tried to regroup. Vig could see their shapes hurrying in the dust. Trying to get to a more advantageous position to hunker down.
“Time to press the advantage, huh? Right behind you, Greg.” Stripsey shot him a thumbs up.
They ran through the dust, swatting at the air to get it out of their eyes. They clattered and tripped over fallen Sheeda and discarded weapons. Stripsey scooped up a gun and held it like a bat. He set his jaw and lowered himself to the ground, setting into a full sprint.
“CHUNK!” The sound of sword knifing through bone and sinew cracked through the air like a gunshot. Frankenstein emerged from the clouds. Holding the severed head of a Sheeda-Tick-Beast in one hand. The Star Spangled Kid was right behind him. His stars and stripes suit was in tatters, stained further blue with Sheeda blood and red of his own.
The dust cleared while the ran. The Sheeda had stopped firing. There were a dozen of them now, save for the mounts that nudged sheepishly at their sleeping riders. They sat in a hastily arranged circle, drawn in the sands with blood and viscera of their comrades. They prayed to the sky. The Shining Knight and The Avenger had already spotted them from the sky, sweeping in for the kill.
“Neh-Buh-Loh! Neh-Buh-Loh!” The Sheeda chanted.”What in Sam HIll is Nuh-Bu--”
Vig’s world exploded into color as the Mesa pulsed and a golden bolt of light crashed into the Sheeda circle, sending out a pulsating wave of energy.
Vig found himself of the ground, scarcely able to open his eyes. The Soldiers lay around him, even Winged Victory was grounded. It’s wing was bent at an awkward angle. The Shining Knight hung off of her, barely conscious himself.
Above them was a swirling black mass of what seemed to be the universe itself, given the form of a man. It held an immense black trident, stabbed into the ground. It crackled with black energy.
Warpath, Texas; Three Days Ago
“Just got off the sat-phone with Frank.” The Star Spangled Kid stepped out from Greg’s house. Sylvester looked mighty different without his costume. Greg supposed that sticking anyone into anything that garishly red, white, and blue would do something to hide the age in their eyes. Still, it was taking some getting used to, seeing anyone without their duds. Downstairs, it was all they had.”And?”
Greg leaned against the post beside the door.
“Christmas Day.””Like… Like in Die Hard?”
Greg cocked an eyebrow.
“Die what?” Sylvester asked. Greg smiled and shook his head.”Aw, nothin’ important.”
Vig shot a look around the town. Night had fallen some time ago. Most of the SHEILD spooks’d be asleep by now, except for the few still scouring the walls. A’course, those folks weren’t the most stellar listeners of the bunch. ”That’s only a few days after Meskin wants us to have our run at The Sheeda. Didja try to get him to push it back?”
Sylvester sighed. He wiped his hands on his jeans. “Yeah, I tried. According to him, Solomano’s figured that we’re gunning for him, by now. He’s trying to move all his equipment from his tower as fast and as discretely as he can. Apparently if we wait any longer, he and all of his goons will be in the wind.””Demons. Sheeda. The Mob. Next thing we know, we’ll have Stormtroopers trying to bum rush us.”
“Jesus, we still have Nazis to worry about?””Not… Not that kind of Storm… Yknow what, pardner? Nevermind. Point is, seems to me that we’ve got us a little too much on our plate.”
Vig turned up his hands.
“Well, it’s not like we ever had much of a choice, this business.” Sylvester laid a hand on Greg’s shoulder. “Look, I know it’s been a while but… You’re sure we can’t let Meskin in on this?”
Vig nodded. ”Castle’s a wanted criminal. He’s done right by me, wouldn’t sit right with me to turn ‘im in to gov’ment.”
“Of course, Greg. I wouldn’t ask you to do that. But, SHEILD is reasonable. At least when I knew them. If we give Frank a few days to get out of town, I’m sure they could send a deployment to help us out with Solomano.””They’ll get us all tied up. Bureaucracy n’ all that sorta thing. It’ll be months before whatever pencil pusher in their fancy Helicarrier decides it’s a-okay, and by then Solomano could be halfway across the world.”
“During the war, all the propaganda said it was Me and Cap vs. The World. It was Captain America and his faithful sidekick socking Hitler right in his jaw. Same thing when our obligations called us apart and Stripsey and I started our tour of the states. The two of us. But there was a team
. There was always a team behind us. And now? It’s seven of us against God knows how many guys, armed to the teeth
.””That’s how it’s always been. Seven Soldiers of Victory against every ugly sumbitch Hell saw fit to throw at us.”
“But this time we have a choice.” Sylvester reached into his back pocket and passed Greg the satellite phone. “Look. You know I’d follow you to Hell and back, and, heck, I have
. Whatever decision you make here, I’m right behind you. I just hope it’s the right one.”
Vig took the phone in his hands as Sylvester stepped off the porch.
“See you in the morning. Pat makes great eggs.” Sylvester waved, setting off into the town.
Vig nodded in goodbye, and turned the sat-phone over in his hands.
Texas --- The Desert; Now
Vig’s vision was swimming. His tongue felt like a bag of sand. He struggled to piece together the form of the thing before him: Neh-Buh-Loh. It was an easy ten, fifteen feet tall. It seemed to drift in and out of existence, its energies rippling and distorting the air around it. Its eyes were little black rocks, sweeping the battlefield, viewing each Soldier in turn. Vig saw something green and mottled moving in the corner of his vision. His lungs tried to escape his ribcage as he formed the words.”Frank!”
Frankenstein’s coiled muscles launched him towards Neh-Buh-Loh, sword low at his side, ready to gut the thing like a fish.
A black clawed hand snatched him out of the air and catapulted him across the valley, crashing through a pile of Sheeda bodies.
Neh-Buh-Loh raised a hand and Vig felt a tingle across his body. Something was grabbing at him, dragging him up into the sky. He squirmed, forcing his eyes open. Tendrils of black squeezed at him, he could feel his ribs groaning under the strain.
Neh-Buh-Loh held him aloft, lances of darkness arcing out from his fingers. His trident crackled. The Spirit inside Vigilante smoldered, only to be stifled by something else, suffocating it, forcing it back to the edge of his mind.
“YOU REEK OF MEPHISTO
.” When Neh-Buh-Loh’s mouth opened it revealed an orange, swirling vortex, seeming to suck in the fluid of Vig’s eyeballs.”He ain’t… As ugly as… You…”
Vig tried to move his hands to his last set of holsters. He could scarcely waggle his finger. He felt his guns crush in their holsters.
“I HAVE FELT EACH OF YOU MORTALS BEFORE. YOU HAVE EACH PASSED THROUGH QWEWQ.” There was a release and Vigilante felt his arm crushed against the sand. He screamed.
TOUCHES EACH OF YOU. HE IS SWORN TO NOT INTERVENE.” Neh-Buh-Loh raised his trident, holding it to the Miracle Mesa above. His body seemed to suck in all of its light, drawing into him and making him all the greater.
“I WILL LEAVE YOU ALIVE. THIS ONCE. YOU WILL TELL MEPHISTO THAT HE IS NOT TO TAMPER IN THE AFFAIRS OF THE SHEEDA.” His trident left his hand, seeming to almost teleport from his grip, sucked into the mass of the mesa.
“What are you… Creature?” Blooded dribbled from Shining Knight’s lip. His helmet was long gone, his golden locks askew.
“I?” Neh-Buh-Loh rose into the sky. “YOUR PEOPLE HAVE KNOWN ME FOR CENTURIES AS ‘NEBULA MAN’. I AM A GOD.”
Warpath, Texas; Six Hours Later
Vigilante’s everything hurt. He’d been tagged a few more times by the Sheeda more times than he thought. They all had. The SHIELD boys had some special sorta gel -bandage thingamabob that they were applying to the wounds. Supposed to let it sit for a few days n’ it’d be good as new. Apparently.
The six of them were sat around Vig’s living room, nursing their wounds. The agents and the medics had long since cleared out. Their boys had gotten dinged up a lot worse than The Soldiers. The only reason the medics stayed as long as they did was trying to figure out how to fix Frankenstein -- weren’t so simple patching something up that’s already dead.
They each looked over their own wounds. Shining Knight’s finger traced each stitch on his chest. Stripsey poked at his bruises and looked surprised every time he felt the sting. Frankenstein sat in the corner, observing the grain of the wood with intense focus.
“I’m sure everyone else is thinking it. So I guess I’ll say it.” The Crimson Avenger’s hat was at his side, and his arm in a sling. His mask was flung off somewhere in the room, probably lost in the cushions of the couch. “We can’t take down Solomano. Half of us are barely strong enough to walk.””Never took you for a quitter, Lee. Don’t start on me now.”
Vig winched in pain as he shifted in his seat. The Spirit’s presence sulked in the background of his thought.
“He’s got a point, pal.” Stripsey grit his teeth as he dabbed at the blue gel coating his side. “We figured that the Solomano job’d be eaiser than The Sheeda but now, we’re twelve kinds of screwed up.”
“And if we lick our wounds, then?” The low rumble of Frankenstein’s voice demanded attention. “We wait for the Sheeda to overrun us? Fight back, only to be slaughtered by ‘Nebula Man’? We cannot hope to face him without Solomano’s resources in our hands.””Or without Jonah Hex kickin’.”
The house creaked in the desert winds. Vig swallowed.”You’re lookin’ spry, Stripsey. Git the sat-phone. Castle deserves to know we got tagged. N’ that all it means is that we’re going after that sumbitch even harder.”