It's the fifth anniversary of Vanguard, and most of the team is on the Treasure Island base, either celebrating in the massive party General GERARD has arranged, or pointedly ignoring it.
Suddenly, in the middle of the dance floor, a portal opens and a figure dressed as a matador falls through. The portal closes before anyone can act, but everyone can hear the evil laughter coming from it.
The ejectee is recognized by HURACON and other South American members as MATADOR, the leader of the South American hero group called the COMPADRES that people like CONQUISTADORE, HURACON, and PELOTA were all members of before joining Vanguard.
Probing by SPHINX and then WHITE LOTUS reveals that there seems to be no mind left, and White Lotus cannot find a soul, either. Immediate investigation reveals that Matador and the other members of the Compadres were working on a case involving the theft of Aztec artifacts from a museum in Panama. Since it involves his country, BOXER is chosen to lead a team that also includes NIKE, WEREWOLF, FREEDOM FORCE, SWIFTSURE, BOOMER, and ZEEBREIS. They leave in the Flying Wing to find out what they can.
In Nicaragua, they find that none of the Compadres is available. They disappeared about two days after the theft when Matador showed up in a teleportational flash of his cape, told his followers to come with him, and disappeared with all of them.
The objects taken were pieces of a larger items that no one has been able to identify. They were part of a large collection found in the private collection of someone who gifted the Mexican National Museum with his collection in his will. Other pieces of the collection are on exhibition in Nicaragua...No, check that, those items have just been stolen, too.
Determining that the rest of the collection is still in Mexico City, the team goes there. Boomer takes a trip into the Dreamtime and finds that five of the objects impinge into the dream time, mostly in shapes that do not seem to relate to their actual shape. There is no indication that the items are part of one object (though no evidence that they are not, either).
Zeebreis takes two of the items (after a major argument with the museum curator) 20 fathoms out into the Gulf of Mexico and puts them in a safe place. Plaster casts of these items and the three real items are left in the basement next to the vault, with the team on watch.
The second night of their vigil, a wall-crawling intruder alerts Werewolf's senses. The interloper realizes his cover has been blown and races out of the basement toward the front door, with Werewolf and Swiftsure in hot pursuit. Swiftsure knocks him from the ceiling where he is crawling just as a band of Aztecs with shields and weapons pour through the front door. Werewolf and Swiftsure have their hands (and mouth) full, and Werewolf is knocked out momentarily in the course of the struggle.
In the meantime, another portal opens up next to the vault and two men come out. They attempt to grab the three remaining artifacts, but Boomer grabs one with a boomerang, Freedom Force tunnels another one away, and Boxer grabs the third. The two intruders, and most of the upstairs force, are caught. About this time, Boxer recognizes them as members of the Compadres, obviously mind controlled. The wall crawler is called Arana (the Spider), the two others are Arc Light and El Escorpion.
However, another portal opens up (probably meant to provide a retreat for the intruders) and the impulsive Nike charges through it, with Zeebreis and Freedom Force right behind. They find themselves in an immense cavern with two figures at the other end, a woman in white (later identified as the Compadre called Espirita) and a man in an Aztec priest's headdress. The Aztec is manipulating a large sphere on a base; the base looks like the missing artifacts could be part of it.
As the three heroes charge them, the woman uses mental attacks on them and the man puts up a wall of force. Freedom Force easily smashes through the wall but knocks himself out on the hard cavern wall beyond it. The woman attempts to influence Nike, who rips the strange Aztec looking headband from her head (it was quite different from the rest of her costume, which looked more like a nun's). The woman falls, but the Aztec priest, who has momentarily discommoded Zeebreis, looks at Nike, touches his sphere and says, "Put it on, it would look good on you."
The Greek heroine has barely a chance to resist. She puts on the headband. "Come with me," says the man, as he takes her hand and creates another portal. They step through before Zeebreis or Freedom Force can do anything to stop them.
Freedom Force eventually tunnels straight up and comes up in Mexico City. The two remaining portal explorers contact their comrades. Checking on the artifacts under water, they find that they are gone. The remaining Compadre, a brick called Steel Boa, is known to have life support. Now the team must try to come up with a next move to stop the Aztec and rescue Nike.
The COMPADRES are freed of their headbands after BOOMER consults the dreamtime and realizes that each body has two presences. The Compadres are all right. Unfortunately, all they know is that MATADOR told them that they were going to Guatemala, then when they appeared they were overwhelmed with psychic force and remembered nothing until they were awakened by having the headbands removed.
BOXER realizes that something is about to happen to the headbands, so he hands them off to SWIFTSURE. Swiftsure speeds towards one of the museum's decorative fountains, but the headbands blow up before they reach their destination, badly hurting Swiftsure, blowing a hole in the plaza, and breaking the wall of the fountain. A lot of collateral damage is going on Vanguard's bill.
In the meantime, ZEEBREIS attempts to find the two artifacts left on the bed of the Gulf of Mexico and finds them gone. One of her dolphin friends tells her that a portal opened up, there was a momentary water disturbance, and a large bulky two-legs walked out of the portal, picked up the box, and re-entered the portal, which closed again.
The group decides it needs a teleportation expert. FOX is somewhere else, and TESSERACT just left on one of her quests to find Nazi war criminals. A call is put out for her and another appeal is made to the retired PHOTOS to rejoin as a "consultant." In the meantime, there is nothing for it but to utilize EFREET. One of Vanguard's experimental Chance-Vought F5U-1 "Pancake"'s is used to courier the lamp down to Mexico City.
Once the lamp arrives, the team heads for Guatemala City. They look around for any idea of where the Compadres could have been, but find too many possible places. Boomer heads back for the Dreamtime, and this time finds himself confronted by the "original" CONQUISTADORE. He says that he is the ghost of a conquistadore that chased the last true priest of the Aztecs all the way to Guatemala and finally killed him after a long battle in which the conquistadores holy relics aided them against Aztec magic. He tells Boomer where the encounter took place, says that the reported description of the man in the headdress doesn't look at all like the man he killed, and says Boomer should enter the valley at dawn and "look for the horns of El Diablo."
The team flies to the valley with Boomer and WEREWOLF enjoying (Boomer enjoying it more than Werewolf) the hospitality of Efreet's little pocket dimension, along with the artifacts; while Boxer holds the lamp and rides with FREEDOM FORCE. Swiftsure and Zeebreis fly alongside.
In the valley at dawn, they see the shadows of two other peaks make a picture of a devil with horns on a cliff face. At the bottom of the cliff face is a cave mouth. It is surrounded by a cleared space a hundred meters in radius. Deciding that there is no point in holding back, the team, with everyone out of the lamp, charges in.
There is no opposition until they reach an open chamber with side doors all around. Part of the team takes one side, part takes the other, and the others go down the middle, with Zeebreis on the ceiling. Suddenly, Aztecs pour out of every opening. The fight consists of the Vanguard members getting hurt as they knock down Aztecs and fight their way to the doors at the other end of the chamber. Before they can reach the doors, they fly open, and four super-powered Aztecs charge out. Boxer thinks they may represent the classic sub-chiefs of the Aztec pantheon. In many ways, they are as easy or easier to defeat than the Aztec rank and file. The battle is still in doubt, taking place mostly around the entrance to the next room as TESSERACT, following their trail after the emergency summons, appears at the entrance to the room.
Fortunately, as a mistress of teleportation, Tesseract has no trouble joining her comrades. They break through into the next chamber, to find their quarry at the far end, flanked by NIKE and the last missing Compadre, STEEL BOA.
Werewolf tries an end run around Nike but the Greek heroine catches her and they start slugging it out. Most of the rest of the team is initially busy with the remaining two of the sub-gods and warriors. Someone helps Werewolf with Nike and removes the headband from her head. Steel Boa turns into a steel snake and gives Swiftsure a hard time until the British speedster manages to snatch the headband from his head. Tesseract and Freedom Force make a good team as she disorients opponents with her dimension-twisting projections, then America's Champion knocks them away. Efreet gets concentrated on and knocked out, but not after getting in some licks of his own. Zeebreis keeps the head Aztec busy while Boomer helps out who he can and concentrates on the warriors..
Finally, the Aztec priest hides behind his force wall again, but this time Freedom Force knocks it down without knocking himself out. The fight is soon over.
As the priest's unconscious body lies at their feet, the Vanguard members see it turn to an old man, then into dust. Whatever had kept him alive had departed.
The rest of the Aztecs are taken into custody and turned over to the Mexican authorities, since the objects being stolen were originally Mexican. Vanguard takes the objects themselves for further study by White Lotus. The United Nations objects to paying the bill for the confiscation, but does so under Gerard's persuasion.
At a new archaeological site in Scotland, an early Viking site said to rival the Suten Hoo site for completeness, the lead archaeologist has been bloodily slain. A Vanguard team of BOXER, BOOMER, DEVADASI, FREEDOM FORCE, HURACON, HUSSAR, RED STAR II, SWIFTSURE, and TIGER is scrambled and sent to Scotland. At the site, witnesses describe a huge, humanoid form seen dimly in the night who entered the archaeologist's tent, ripped off his head and drank his blood.
After much casting around and dealing with local authorities, and some digressions into speculations whether the vampire associated with Hellspawn had taken up head-ripping, the team discovers that the killing creature apparently emerged from a nearby loch and went back into it. Many team members are reminded of the legends of Grendel (though Grendel's depradations actually took place in what is now Denmark).
Probing by the few team members who can operate underwater indicates an area on the bottom of the loch that might be a gateway to another dimension. They obtain a diving bell and descend into the depths. When Freedom Force shoves them through the gate, they find themselves in a fully-atmosphered bucolic countryside with a menacing castle in the distance. Then they see a horde of winged creatures coming towards them...
Racing for the castle, the team breaks into a great hall. On a throne is as huge creatue that certainly looks like a Grendel. He has several menacing servitors, including two large snake creatures with poison gas powers, a bevy of human-headed snakes and goblin-like warriors.
The Grendel-creature is not inclined to negotiate. An immense battle ensues. The Grendel-creature proves almost invulnerable, though the same cannot be said for his servitors.
Finally realizing that they cannot knock the creature out for any length of time, the team retreats. Freedom Force uses his great strength to cause a landslide over the gateway. Vanguard can only hope it will keep Grendel from rising again.
WHITE LOTUS is having significant dreams. He asks BOOMER to monitor his dreams and Boomer sees that they are consistently of a brass vessel with Chinese markings blowing up. The "thread" of the dream seems to come from China, in the region of White Lotus's old temple (now in ruins).
There is nothing they can do for the moment, but Boomer then notices that an exhibit of Chinese artifacts is taking place in San Francisco, and the bowl pictured is the same as the one in the dream. He gathers a team consisting of himself, BOXER, DEVADASI, EARTH SPIRIT, IRON CROSS, MOUSE, PRINCESS PHOENIX, SWIFTSURE and ZEEBREIS to go to a special viewing at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
As the heroes ascend the steps, they are met with a blast of light (no sound). They rush in. No one is hurt, but four small bronze artifacts, a dragon, a cart, a headless humanoid figurine, and an unidentified lump, are missing and the bowl pictured in the newspaper has been split in half. The interior is also amazingly finely polished. After investigating the vessel, Earth Spirit mends it for the curator.
Trying to contact White Lotus, Devadasi finds that he is unconscious. She and Zeebreis go back to find out what happened. He is unconscious in a magical circle and there is a book in the circle. The rest of the team, unable to find anything else at the museum, comes back and Boomer tries to find something out in the Dreamtime. He finds that White Lotus is present, but thoroughly unconscious. The book and the circle are present in the Dreamtime, too, so he tries to read the book. It is in Chinese, a language he cannot read, but the pages turn in reality, too, and Boxer, Earth Spirit, and Iron Cross can read Chinese, so they read the perhaps appropriate story.
The book, which consists of rebound scrolls, tells the history of the Temple of the Lotus. During the Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, the temple had experimented with elemental lotuses (in addition to the usual color-coded ones). One, the Bronze Lotus, had exhibited great powers, used a similar ceremony to that of the White Lotus to give himself further powers and tried to conquer the world (which at that time was just China, as far as he know). The traditional monks created a White Lotus to fight him and the Bronze Lotus was eventually imprisoned in a bronze vessel. Strangely, bronze is the weakness as well as the significator of the Bronze Lotus.
The bronze bowl he was imprisoned in is apparently the one broken at the museum. But why should he come forth now?
The team goes to San Francisco's Chinatown for dinner and to see if anything is happening, but even Boxer's extensive contacts provide no clues. Checking with the Chinese archaeologists that brought the bowl to the United States, the Vanguard team finds that one of its members is now missing. Scholar Ba Yuejiu is a short, bespectacled man of about 30 who helped discover the artifacts just before the Kuomintang was exiled to Taiwan, taking the artifacts with them.
The team tracks Yuejiu to his hotel room and Swiftsure breaks down the door. There is no sign of him, though he was obviously there earlier. The team comes back (with a bill from the hotel for the door) to find White Lotus conscious. However, he cannot add any more to the story than the team has already discovered for itself.
A meeting is called for the next morning (actually around noon, since the above has taken them into the wee hours of the morning) to deal with the situation.
For a week, nothing can be found. The artificers at Vanguard base busy themselves making a coffin-sized box of bronze, the only substance that can contain the Bronze Lotus.
Finally, a ready team of SWIFTSURE, BOXER, BOOMER, PRINCESS PHOENIX, MOUSE, ZEEBREIS, IRON CROSS, and JOTUN is alerted that the object of their quest may be in the Chinatown park in San Francisco. They arrive in time to see Ba Yuejiu finish an impassioned speech which the occultists in the group recognize as a magical incantation. All of the Chinese watching the speech, male and female, regardless of age and costume, turn into young male martial artists in what Boxer identifies as kung fu battle dress. They have all become very competent martial artists and they attack the Vanguard members.
As flying members of the team and Jotun try to ignore the transmogrified attackers, the Bronze Lotus unveils his greatest threat, two huge Bronze Dragons!
Jotun is felled as he attempts to capture Bronze Lotus in the coffin. The combination of many transformed attackers and the dragons makes things very hot for our heroes until FREEDOM FORCE appears on the scene, having been alerted and sent in by General Gerard. Two diving attacks and the Dragons are knocked out of the fight. It takes little more time for the rest of the team to wrap up Bronze Lotus and his unwilling followers.
Shutting the magician up in the bronze coffin does the trick; the mystic influence from the past is destroyed and the scholar Ba Yurnjiu is restored to his normal state of mind.