The Champions Project: The Black Knight #4
Splash page: In the wreckage of an apartment building, a scrawny blond-haired man dressed in surgical scrubs points at the reader. Though is face is mostly covered by his surgical mask, we can tell he's angry and more than a little crazy. Floating in the air around him are a half-dozen large firearms, all pointed at the reader too. The captions tell us that we're looking at Doctor Danger and the Invisible Gunmen.
Voice balloons appear in thin air near the guns. "Let's get him!" "Bloodbath, baby!" "Locked and loaded!" "Aaaahhm the human weeeeedgie!"
And one big voice balloon comes from the Doctor himself. "THE BLACK KNIGHT MUST DIE!"
On the next page, we see James Gates, the Black Knight, on the ground, trapped in the debris from the fight. His thought balloons fill us in. "Crazy...shooting up Baldwin Park...why can't I hit the gunmen..." He is not armed with the Ebony Blade. Instead he has his photonic shield and a lightsaber of sorts. "Computer systems in the armor gone all wonky..."
The guns open fire. The Black Knight raises his shield and saves himself, though the shield shorts out afterwards. Doctor Danger raises his arms in a strange pose and howls.
Gates then recognizes the patterns in the wonky sensor readings. The "doctor" is at the center of a strong, highly-focused magnetic field. "Oh hell yes," James thinks. He pushes a button on his arm.
The guns fall out of the air. Doctor Danger looks around, terrified.
The Black Knight gets up. "There are no invisible gunmen. Just magnetic fields and ventriloquism." Without ceremony, he belts the villain. Doctor Danger drops. The Black Knight shakes his head. "Weak."
As he crawls out of the wreckage of the apartment building, the Black Knight sees the Ebony Blade, half-withdrawn from its scabbard. He leaves it.
Later that day, Dr. James Gates commiserates with Jivraj Mehta in Jivraj's apartment over bad coffee. Gates is pointing at the screen of his laptop computer. "Look at the news. 'Black Knight Stops Gunman.' 'Black Knight Fights Loony.' Since I'm a black man, I have to be called 'the Black Knight,' don't I. Gotta make sure to work 'black' somewhere in there." Gates is wearing several necklaces and bracelets, all of weird design.
Mehta bites into a scone. "Isn't that what you call yourself?"
"Yeah, but I didn't tell anyone at the scene. They just dubbed me that. Couldn't be 'the White Knight' or the 'Shining Knight," oh no. Black Knight."
Jivraj thinks. "Why are you running around like a superhero anyway? Can't help your chances for tenure."
"It's either punch out super-lunatics or kick the hell out of the faculty." Gates gets up and goes to Jivraj's refrigerator. "Which would be--"
He opens the refrigerator door and the Ebony Blade falls out of it.
"Damn," he mutters.
We then move to a montage of the sword appearing in weird places in Gates's life. In the trunk of his car, in his bed, everywhere.
The montage ends with James alone in his apartment, the Ebony Blade on his table. His eyes are fixed upon it, deep concentration evident upon his face. Unlike before, when Gates's apartment was bare of ornamentation, the walls are now covered in pictures and crude geometric murals that mimic the patterns on his bracelets and pendants. Throughout the room are mystic trinkets from cultures around the world: African, Asian, Native American.
"You can't get away from it, Jim," comes a voice from behind.
Gates doesn't turn around. "Dane, why are you here?"
"I broke the curse twice. It always comes back."
Gates stands and faces the ghost of his cousin. "Merlin sent you."
"I understand you better than he does."
"Tell him to find someone else." Gates turns back to his table. The ghost of Dane Whitman disappears.
We then see Gates in his full armor, driving a rusty Toyota Tercel. His thought balloons clue us in: he can feel in his mind that Merlin will give him one last chance. To prevent other people from getting hurt, James has decided to give his answer at the Salton Sea. It's the largest lake in California, the product of an accident in 1905. Fed entirely by farm runoffs, the lake is saltier than the ocean, of unstable size, and unable to support life.*
The sun sets. On the shore of the dead lake, the Black Knight is ready, the Ebony Blade in his hand.
Merlin appears, his lime-green leisure suit glowing in the moonlight. "Come, my knight."
James Gates raises the sword to an on-guard position. "No."
Merlin's rage distorts the world itself. The lake bursts into flame. Ground buckles and ripples. And the ghosts of every single Black Knight in history materialize. Their armors and looks vary. All of them carry copies of the Ebony Blade.
"KILL HIM!" cries the sorcerer.
The Black Knight does his best to protect himself from the army of spectral Black Knights as the world buckles around him. Surfing the crest of a wave of rock, he slices at a pair of sixteenth century Black Knights. The blade passes through them. The only part of the ghosts that feels solid are the sword blades.
A few of their swords do find their mark, slicing open Gates's powered armor and cutting into the man himself. Yet he does not die. The protection of the Ebony Blade keeps him alive.
Merlin growls at him, "Over a thousand years and not one man has proven fit to be the Black Knight! Each one a waste!" Merlin then beckons down lightning. Struck, Gates falls. He rises, still alive.
The sorcerer's rant continues. "Whitman was too willful! Garrington too foolish! And you! You ungrateful child!" The flaming water of the Salton Sea takes on the shape of a humanoid creature, three hundred feet tall. The flaming water creature lashes at Gates. "I have made you a man! The song of battle echoes in your once-cowardly heart! And still you would deny me!"
The battle pauses for a moment. Gates is surrounded by the ghosts of previous Black Knights. For the first time we can see the faces of a few Black Knights. James sees Dane Whitman in the forefront of the ghosts. Whitman locks eyes with Gates and whispers, "Through me..."
A light bulb goes off in Gates's head.
He charges at the Black Knights, swinging his sword and letting out a battle cry. He passes through the ghosts. His sword swings accomplish nothing. But neither do theirs. They can cut him, they can inflict great pain upon him, but since he holds the Ebony Sword, he cannot die.
The Black Knight tears through the last of the ghosts and comes face-to-face with Leisure Suit Merlin. He raises his sword up high...
Merlin raises his hand to catch and shatter the blade...
And in a big splash page, James Gates, Ph.D., kicks the old man square in the nuts.
Merlin topples over. The ghosts of the Black Knights gasp in unison.
Gates towers over the fallen and injured old man. "Maybe I'm stuck with the sword and the curse. But I'm not stuck with you. I'm done."
He then faces the shocked ghosts. He cries out "It's OVER! THE BLACK KNIGHT IS DEAD!"
A chorus of ghostly cheering rises from the shores of the Salton Sea.
We then jump to a calm suburban morning. Darrell is reading the LA Times with his wife, Janice. "Got a call from Jimmy yesterday," Darrell says.
"How's he doing?" she asks.
We see the front page of the paper. It's Gates in a slightly modified version of his battle armor, using the Ebony Blade against the Bi-Beast in the middle of the LA Freeway. The headline reads "New Hero 'The Swordsman' Saves Commuters."
"He says he's doin' great."
To be concluded in The Champions #1, in a few months!
Come back next week for the next issue in the Champions Project, The Reject #1: The Demon in Cell Thirteen!
NOTE: The index to "The Champions Project" can be found here.
*Okay, okay, in the real world, the Salton Sea isn't dead yet, though its salinity is rising rapidly. In the MU, I'm declaring it to have already become a giant freakin' dead zone. Maybe that's where HYDRA dumped its munitions waste or Tony Stark's ill-fated waffle empire had to dispose of its petroleum-based faux-maple syrup.