"The Serpent Sheds Its Skin"

Published: June 1975, 25 cents

The Defenders: Hulk, Valkyrie, Doctor Strange, Nighthawk

Guest Appearances: Yellowjacket, Daredevil, Power Man, Son of Satan

Nemesis/Villain Appearances: The Sons of the Serpent, The Elf (cameo)

Within the woman called Clea, there is tumult...the roar of psychic waves against the walls of her skull as she brings her power to bear. Without, there is a silence. Not a sound is heard as the Crystal of Agamotta sunders the dark shadows of the sanctum sanctorum of Dr. Strange. Clea's mentor. Not a sound as Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan and Luke Cage, Power Man appear inside (actually themselves and NOT their images) the dimension spanning sphere. From inside, the pair are in flight pulled by the three hell spawned steeds commanded by Daimon Hellstrom as Luke is heard to ask Daimon where he is taking them. The Son of Satan explains that he cannot be certain but he suspects that their new course is being steered by Clea (moments earlier, they were enroute to save the Valkyrie from being burned at the stake). Hellstrom suspects that Clea has made contact with the mind of her mystic tutor. He further surmises that the two mystics have joined forces and are drawing them to the location where Strange is held captive by the Sons of the Serpent. Cage reminds Daimon about Val and explains that he is concerned that the Hulk and Daredevil may not be able to handle the Serpents alone. Daimon replies, enigmatically, that they will have to do their best. 

Meanwhile, in the Serpents' layer, Dr. Strange's chest amulet begins to glow. Suddenly, Daimon and Cage's journey comes to an end as they re-enter the physical plane, through the Eye of Agamotto which clasps Dr. Strange's cape. Nighthawk's mouth hangs agape in disbelief as he watches a team of three horses, a chariot and two men, awash in hell flame, exit from the amulet. Cage leaps from the chariot and rushes to Nighthawk who remains imprisoned in the snake bonds. Power Man explains to Nighthawk that he isn't dreaming and after curt introductions, Power Man smashes the metal bindings thereby freeing Nighthawk. The Son of Satan, meantime explains to the semi-conscious Dr. Strange that he is to remain motionless. Pointing his trident at the Master of the Mystic Arts, Daimon's fork issues soul fire which is set at the precise intensity to melt the bonds, leaving Strange unscathed. Strange is too weak to do anything, save murmur a few words of appreciation as the young hellspawn helps him down from the metal stake. Daimon explains to Strange that it is Clea he should thank as she established the mystic link with his amulet and brought them here. At that moment, racing into the prison chamber from the adjacent hallway, is Yellowjacket. He sees the fiery chariot and is momentarily baffled as to what happened and how his friends were freed. Stunned, YJ looks, listens and nods as Nighthawk hastily makes introductions and explains how they were rescued. YJ is amazed and comments that the Defenders have as many members as the Avengers, maybe more. The Son of Satan tells Yellowjacket that discussion on that topic can wait as currently, a more pressing matter is at hand; the rescue of the Valkyrie from her planned execution by the vile Sons of the Serpent.

Yellowjacket relates that first, they must get out of this prison. However, he remarks that the structure itself is at the bottom of the sea. Dr. Strange indicates that he is still too weak to teleport them back to the surface, for the moment at any event. Daimon reminds the team that the Sons of the Serpent were here and so there must be some avenue of exit. He sets off in search of it, followed by the Defenders. Daimon Hellstrom leads the Defenders into a room and lays his hands on the wall, searching. YJ remarks that he already attempted to sound out a tunnel through the wall but was unsuccessful as it would require special equipment. The Son of Satan explains that he is using special equipment, albeit his own sort. Suddenly, Hellstrom turns back to the group explaining that he has discovered a secret tunnel to the surface beyond the wall he faces. Now all that remains is to burst through. Using his trident, Hellstrom melts a section of wall. The five adventurers then begin their trek towards  freedom led by the nether-metal trident which emits an orange-red glow.

But, while hope blazes anew for the ex-captives, their allies' situation grows ever more desperate on the night-darkened New York streets above. The Valkyrie hangs unconscious and bound to an inverted cross with a pile of inflamed rubble at her head with the Daredevil about to join her. The Hulk, meantime, blinded and uncomprehending is lashing out out aimlessly in unreasoning fear and frustration. The cause of it all: The Sons of the Serpent. Their credo: "As the first serpent drove Adam and Eve from Eden, so shall we drive from this land the unfit, the foreign-born and the inferior!" As the Sons attempt to affix Daredevil to the cross, he regains his consciousness and deftly, flips out of the grasp of two of the members. Quickly, using his radar sense, he scans the area. He sees the Hulk running wild smashing any foolhardy Serpents who attempt to get within arm's length. He notes that the hundreds of Sons of the Serpent have managed to maintain the crowd in check. Then in horror, he sees the leader of the Serpents about to put the torch directly to Valkyrie. But, even before the sightless superhero can act, a figure darts out of the crowd screaming "NO!!" Just an ordinary man named Jack Norriss, who happens to be the warrior-woman's husband! He grabs the leader from behind in a choke-hold causing the villain to drop the torch. His actions touch a nerve in the citizens massed along the sidewalk. For what they see is not a husband drive to protect his wife, but simply a man like themselves, with no special powers, who is willing to defy the serpents brutality. And, if he can do it...Suddenly, the mass of gathered people realize that, although they may have racial differences, the Serpents method of judgment is wrong. They advance on the Sons of the Serpent. The leader pleas with them, explaining that the Serpents are on the side of the Common Man. But, the Serpent-Leader plea is lost in the uproar. The tide of history has crested upon a reef of humanity and the people, it would seem, have caused it to ebb.

The Hulk meanwhile, continues to pound ceaselessly at the ground and air, awaiting the return of his sight. Nearby, the Serpent leader frees himself from the grasp of Jack Norriss and then cries out to his group's members that they must return to their home base. As the green garbed Serpents run away, the leader calls back to the crowd that they'll learn in time, "when the Puerto Ricans steal their jobs and the Blacks steal their daughters", that they were here to "save the White race". Daredevil finds it incredible that they actually believe that. He then checks on Norriss to make sure he is alright. He says he is fine but is worried about Barbara (aka Valkyrie). Suddenly, the Hulk stops his pounding and exclaims that he can see! Together DD and Jack put out the fire, break Valkyrie's bonds and gently lower her to the ground. Jack then picks her up in his arms and carries her unconscious form over to where the Hulk stands. Together, the trio decide it is best to head back to Dr. Strange's sanctum where they can join the other Defenders.

However, DD is unaware that the other Defenders are currently working their way along a passageway in an attempt to escape the Serpent's lair. Finally, they come across a ladder leading up to a hatch. Cage climbs the ladder and opens the portal, he is shocked by what he finds. One by one the Defenders emerge from the hatch into an office...plush, but otherwise indistinguishable from ten thousand others like it in Manhattan. Indeed, the setting is so ordinary that several moments pass before the truth dawns upon Nighthawk...he stands dumbfounded....he has been here before. He rushes to the desk and his tongue halts in mid sentence and he utters not another word as is gaze falls upon a certain letterhead: Richmond Enterprises, J.C. Pennysworth, financial consultant. He collapses into the desk chair as he begins to understand that it has been HIS money which has been funding the Sons of the Serpent. Luke Cage is puzzled until Nighthawk explains to him that he is Kyle Richmond. Nighthawk simply cannot believe it but when Yellowjacket opens a closet and finds his disrupter, Val's sword and Nighthawk's wings there is no more denying the truth. Dr. Strange moves to console Nighthawk but Kyle is on no mood for pep talks. He says there is no time to sit and brood, they must find Val. Suddenly, Kyle looses it. He smashes the desk with his fists, shrugs off Strange's attempts at calm and grabs the jet wings off YJ. He explains he is going to rescue Val fast because he is going to need the time to punch in Pennysworth's face! The team departs to find Val, but Hellstrom returns to the hatch so that he can retrieve his chariot.

While the Defenders head off to look for Val, they will soon discover that she is already rescued. Meanwhile, the story steps aside to a mobile home park in the woodlands of California. In particular, the home of young Tom Pritchett and his wife Linda. Tom sits on the couch strumming a guitar and singing to his wife a shaky rendition of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads". Suddenly, their quite evening is interrupted by a knock at the door. Tom scratches his head wondering who it could be at this late hour. He goes to the door and is shocked when he looks down to see an Elf at the Elf with a gun. Before Tom can do anything, the Elf fires the gun...

The Defenders, having discovered the unoccupied cross which previously held Val, have returned to Dr. Strange's sanctum...all except one. Nighthawk is flying at top speed to the home of his financial advisor, Pennysworth. He smashes through the front window and grabs him by the shirt collar. Nighthawk then demands to know why he did it. Pennysworth is bewildered, he does not know what the costumed stranger is talking about, or who he is. Nighthawk then removes his mask and screams into Pennysworth's face that he was nearly killed by the Sons of the Serpent and again, demands to know why he did it, especially to "his own people". Pennysworth, who is black, is stunned to discover that Nighthawk is his boss. Kyle Richmond is still seething when Pennysworth begins his explanation,

Pennysworth, clutching his bruised throat, relates that he has been trying to escape "his own people" for most of his life. He asks Kyle if he thinks him despicable because he feels no kinship for someone because they share the same skin colour. He ask Kyle if every "white man" is his brother. Kyle says of course not but he does not go and murder people because of their colour either. Pennysworth say maybe not, but "you do hold stock in companies which gouge the public of millions each year" or which pollute the air and water. And, since he never objected to these investments despite never knowing where the money was going...Pennysworth thought that Kyle would not object to plunging a nation into civil war. Kyle is stunned and baffled. Pennysworth explains that it would have helped increase Kyle's own fortune. Kyle refuses to believe that THAT was the reason Pennysworth supported the Sons of the Serpent. Kyle struggles to hold his anger in check and with teeth clenched, he explains to Pennysworth that he is going to help Kyle and the Defenders stop what was he has started.

Back in Greenwich Village, the Defenders (except for Nighthawk) are gathered. All accounts are exchanged in full at last, while the Hulk ponders where "bird-nose" is. On the couch, Jack Norriss attempts to comfort his wife, whose memory of their marriage has been stolen from her. Strange talks to the group explaining that from what Daredevil has said, the Serpents failed to enlist the People in the crusade. Cages wonders aloud if that will be the last of them. Suddenly, the Hulk's question is answered as Nighthawk enters the room pushing Pennysworth in front of him. Cage becomes furious when he sees that the man responsible for the Serpent's racial attacks is black. He grabs Pennysworth from a protesting Nighthawk and smashes him with a powerful right handed blow. Cage calls Pennysworth an "Oreo" (oddly, this is a racial slur which denotes a person black on the outside and white on the inside) and is about to pound him again when Valkyrie steps in, restraining him, possibly from a fatal blow. Nighthawk commands Cage to stop and relates that Pennysworth has already given them the location of the Serpents' main base. The Defenders must attack them now, he explains before they are able to strike again, killing Pennysworth would not serve any purpose. Cage grudgingly agrees. 

Moments later the Defenders are in flight, and they are all surprised to discover that the Serpents' base is in the building they first attacked. The Defenders smash through the roof and, like lifting a stone to discover an ant colony, the building is crawling with the green garbed men. The leader, shocked by the intrusion, exclaims that their base must not fall! Yet, fall it does...and quickly...before the combined might of the dynamic Defenders! (NOTE: there is a great two page spread here depicting a spectacular panoramic battle: Dr. Strange takes out three with a mystic blast of energy, Cage pounds one will throttling another, the Hulk hurls one into a nearby computer while taking a blast in the back of the neck and flipping two more with his free hand, Valkyrie uses her blade to make short work of another, a flying Nighthawk takes out two with one punch, Daredevil knocks out two more with a swinging kick, Yellowjacket uses his stun gun to blast an advancing Serpent and the Son of Satan uses his trident to blast two remaining Serpents). There is irony here as well: For not only do the heroes include the man who financed this entire operation but they also count among their number a man called Daimon Hellstrom, the one true Son of the Serpent that drove Adam and Eve from Eden (NOTE: technically, was it not God who expelled them?).

The battle ends with the Defenders victorious. No Serpent remains standing. While the Hulk, Daimon and Cage look over the fallen men, Valkyrie moves to comfort a despondent Nighthawk who stands off, with his back to the Defenders, lost in thought. Kyle blames himself for his lack of responsibility in watching where his money was being spent. He blames himself for the Sons of the Serpent. Suddenly, he takes to the air and leaves the Defenders through the hole they made when they entered. Val calls after him and Yellowjacket prepares to follow but Strange restrains them explaining that Kyle needs time to himself, time to think. He will return when he is ready. YJ, concedes the point as the team turns to watch Nighthawk fly off. Cage is miffed that such a rich man can have problems but it is Strange who explains that material wealth may liberate a man from some concerns but never all, not if that man also possesses a quality called conscience.

NEXT: The Guardians of the Galaxy in one of the most bizarre Defenders epics ever in Giant-Size Defenders #5 which also serves as a prelude to the millennia-spanning tale to follow in Defenders #26 " Savage Time"!

Front Cover: The Defenders Issue 25

Cover Defenders 25