#1 - "It was a calm evening when…"
The ball of solid light travels at top speed toward the battle-ready forms of Justice and Firestar, the youngest Avengers' recruits. Angelica Jones looks apprehensively at her boyfriend as he exerts his powerful telekinesis to deflect the incoming projectile. This is the first battle Vance is in after he was injured* and she cannot suppress her concern. That's probably why she fails to follow up on her partner's move as he expected.
(* as seen in AVENGERS, vol. 3, # 16-17, Alex)
Their opponent is skilled and ready to take advantage of any slip on their part. Justice glances to Firestar as if silently asking why the hesitation. He's fast to shield them from a shower of rays of coherent light and that's all Angelica needs to exit her mental loop on Vance's health and take flight, surrounded by her microwave aura, carefully performing the maneuver she and Vance previously talked.
Justice does his part as he keeps distracting the light-projecting opponent, deflecting every attack and shoving around pieces of debris with his teke, to make it easier for Angie to do her trick. Because they know that only stealth will win the day: if they can manage to break the attacker's concentration by heating the air around him and de-hydrating his system.
Drops of sweat appear on Firestar's forehead as she manipulates her microwave in a delicate way, instead of the usual destructive outburst. She knows this is a desperate gamble: if their foe was to guess their strategy he could safely seal himself in a cocoon of energy cutting her power out, like he did in the previous clash.
Justice and Firestar don't speak, they're as silent as the energy wielder, now suddenly feeling the uneasiness of the increasing temperature in his vicinity. As soon as he notices that discomfort, Vance strikes with a massive tk bolt, taking the light-bearer by surprise and smashing him on the far side wall. An energy shield cushions the attack, but soon Firestar unleashes her fury, putting their opponent on the ropes.
That's when Justice levitates and manages to reach the switch ending the training session.
“Done! We did it, Ange!” he speaks excited.
“You were right, Vance! The subtle way was the only one that gave us a chance” Firestar answers landing in the center of the Avengers' Training Center.
“At least for this time” replies their 'foe', standing up with a smile on his face. “I have to admit I didn't think of that trick.” Quasar uses his Quantum Bands to dissipate the excess heat Firestar conjured.
“We had to find another way!” Justice explains “In all the previous exercises your Quantum Bands were always able to negate Angie's powers and your light constructs were enough to overcome any resistance I could build ...”
“... so you decided to distract me, even for a second and use that chance to score! Well done!” Quasar notices how Vance reminds him of the way he used to act when he first joined the Avengers.
“That was a smart move, Justice” Cap's voice, coming from the control booth, speaks from the loudspeakers. “And Firestar, your control on your microwaves was very finely tuned. Now I want you to report to Dr. Kincaid, Vance, to see if this exercise has not compromised your recovery”.
“Come on, Vance. It won't be that bad!” Firestar smiles as Vance's face shifts from the proud joy of being complimented by Captain America to the worried look of being prodded and tested by the Avengers' resident physician.
As the two young mutants exit the room, Steve Rogers leaps out of the control booth, executing a perfect arc in the air and landing softly at Quasar's side.
“They're very good, Cap.” Quasar says “And I can relate a lot to how Justice feels. It's not so long ago I was the rookie around here”.
“They've both proved they're a good addition to the team, and Justice is feeling more comfortable with each passing day.” Cap replies “And thanks for helping us with this training session. They've hardly fought at your side in the past and this was a chance to test them against an opponent they're not used to.”
“It's been a pleasure. I've been missing all of this. It can get quite lonely out there” Quasar's eyes for a moment are lost as if he was contemplating the depth of outer space.
“You know you're always welcome here ... are you thinking of rejoining full-time ...?” Cap asks.
“No ... not yet. Just a couple of days to relax and catch up with what's going on on the Blue Planet” Wendell Vaughn answers.
The house is silent and dark. The woman sips her carefully blended tea as a candle lights the room. Her faithful cat purring in her lap. She's just enjoying the small pieces of reality that are so carelessly dismissed by normal people and that are so special for a person whose life is too far out of the 'normal' range.
Even in her old age her senses are so keen that she feels the disturbance in the air long before it really happens. Her hands perform strange gestures around her body to cast a magical protection and her mind is ready to unleash the full potential of a school of witchery that is one of the most respected in the world.
The little familiar, previously resembling a normal black cat, has increased his size of a tenfold and towers in the room, ready to defend its mistress. But even these two hardened veterans of the mystic world are unprepared to the sheer violence and horror charging at them, once the dimensional aperture is open.
It is a desperate battle, one that would fuel more than a writer's imagination for a great epic, as ancient spells and supernatural sinews clash with flaming horrors, swarming all over the place.
In the heat of the battle, the old woman finally manages to catch a flash of the malicious will behind this attack and her soul freezes. For it is not her the intended target for this onslaught. She's just a peripheral addendum ... No! The real victim is a creature she loves as her own daughter ...
Sighing, she exerts her full magical power to dispel the attacking horde ... hoping she can gain enough advantage to flee and warn her beloved Wanda ...
The Avengers' Monitor Room
The Vision has spent a lot of his time as an Avenger in this room, especially late in the night, when the others slept and his internal circuitry kept him active and vigil ... especially since he and Wanda stopped being husband and wife. His partially returned emotional link to the world sends to his mainframe a note of discomfort that could be easily classified as jealousy, as the memory of Wanda brings also the knowledge that she's apparently in love with Simon Williams, Wonder Man.
He carefully isolates the sensation and analyzes its repercussion, as the main focus of his attention returns to the console. In doing so he suddenly perceives a strange tingling: an unspecified electromagnetic signal, interfacing perfectly with his own artificial consciousness. It's just a moment, but the Vision registers the fact and wonders why the symbolic image associated to the experience in his thoughts is that of a desperate voice calling for help.
Running a complete diagnostic of the comm-system he ascertains that there has been no interference and no call received in any range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The curiosity of the situation stimulates his rational mind as he evaluates what could have possibly caused the strange phenomenon.
He barely notices Peggy Carter, entering the room to resume her duty as Avengers' Communication Officer.
“Thank you, I needed the break.” Peggy says.
“It's been my pleasure!” is the Vision's monotonous answer as he silently phases through the floor, as Peggy dismisses his moody attitude as normal.
Somewhere, though, someone is really calling for help ... until she can be heard ...*
(* curious? well, you will have to wait a few more issues for this to be solved, hehehe! Alex)
The Kitchen. Otherwise known as Jarvis's Realm.
“I'm very upset you won't stay for the night, Miss Van Dyne. I had some of your favorite dishes ready for dinner” the impeccably dressed butler of countless teams of Avengers is busy working a deliciously perfumed sauce.
“Poor old Jarvis, do not even try to make me feel guilty!” the woman sometimes called the Wondrous Wasp smiles at her old friend's banter. “I've been talking about this trip to Acapulco the past week enough times for you to remember not to schedule your best dinner of the year in the same night”.
“But it would have been so nice to have someone who could actually appreciate the menu I had chosen ...” the discomforted butler replies.
“Jarv, Jarv ... what are you insinuating? That the Avengers are Earth's Mightiest Heroes but their palatal tastes are those of an average teen in a fast food?” Janet mocks him.
“I'd never dare to cast such a harsh judgement, Miss Van Dyne!” Jarvis looks offended, but then he adds, grinning “Of course Master Thor would rather devour a bull, Master Steve could do with hamburger and chips, same for Master Vance and Miss Angelica. The Vision would hardly eat a thing and Miss Wanda and Master Simon ... are so ... distracted these days ...”
The Wasp cannot stop a heartfelt laughter at the evident slip in etiquette of the faithful Jarvis, contemplating a dinner in which his efforts will be wasted on untrained mouths. “At least Mr. Stark is here, I hope. He can certainly appreciate your cuisine!”
“I'm sad to contradict your words, Madam, but Mr. Stark is having dinner elsewhere tonight ... umpf! With Miss Romanoff! He could have invited her here! They would have loved it!” Jarvis replies, while carefully choosing the wine to be served with each course.
“It seems there is a lot of romance in the air of the Mansion, Jarvis. The two young lovebirds, Vance and Angelica, are so ... tender. Simon and Wanda, on the contrary, seem unusually hot. They've hardly left the room today! And then there are Tony and Natasha who seems to meet quite often and ...” Janet's voice is trailing off.
“And there is this trip to Acapulco with Master Henry. Am I allowed to guess about it?” Jarvis concludes in a very serious tone that makes his insinuation even more ... funny.
“No, you can't!” the Wasp replies “This is just to relax after the terrible Ultron mess. And it's just that!”
“Sure, so that's why I caught you putting that transparent negligee in your bag!” a little voice, amplified through powerful loudspeakers is heard a moment before Hank Pym grows from ant size to his normal height.
“Henry Pym! You've grown such terrible habits since we divorced! Spying on me as I prepare my luggage and overhearing my conversation with Jarvis!! I should really stay here for dinner and let you get to Apaculpo all by yourself!” she says, feigning anger.
“But you won't...” replies the blond scientist, taking her in his arms and carrying her out of the kitchen.
“Henry Pym! Put me down now! I won't have the Avengers see me carried out like a silly wife ... Stop!! Do not dare!! Hahahah! You know I'm ticklish there! Stop, please ... Hahahah!” the voice of the quarreling lovers trail off as Jarvis smiles again.
Then he hears the phone ringing ...
“Sorry to disturb the preparation of the big dinner, but the Beast wants to speak to you!” the young voice of Donna Maria Puentes, the Avengers' Receptionist says.
“I will talk gladly to Dr. Mc Coy, Donna Maria” the butler answers, with a hint of disapproval on the manners of the young receptionist.
“Hey, ol' Jarv! What's happening at the Mansion? I've called Simon at least three times today and they weren't able to patch him through! Tell me, is he ... busy?” the Beast's words' true meaning is unmistakable.
“Dr. Mc Coy! I'm amazed that you would guess I'd make such a breach in my duties as to gossip about Master Simon's and Miss Wanda's engagement ...” then he stops, knowing that that was just what the Beast wanted to hear.
“Gotcha! Well, Jarv, lighten up! I was sure that was the case ... I'll talk to Simon when he tires up ... eventually! Give my regards to the gang! Bye!” the laughter following the Beast's last words doesn't escape the butler's ear as he finds himself whistling contented while preparing the meal ... until he realizes the horror of his action! Whistling! How plebeian!
The evening proceeds quietly at the Avengers Mansion as they wait for Jarvis to call for dinner. In the Avengers' living room, the mighty Thor is refreshing his memories of a particular sector of the Galaxy with Quasar, while Captain America is discussing with Michael O'Brien a few more security protocols to implement in the mansion. Anthony Stark, their esteemed benefactor and, unknown to many, himself a member of the team as the invincible Iron Man, has just finished a quick videoconference with Reed Richards and the Starcore station in orbit around the Earth. And Justice and Firestar have finally joined them.
“I have that answer you were looking for, Cap!” 'Mr. Stark' stands up “Talia Kruma will rejoin the Avengers Crew as our resident physicist. Her contract with the Government has just ended”.
“Thanks a lot, Tony ...” Cap stops for a moment, remembering that not all the people present are aware of Iron Man's secret identity, due to that mental manipulation that created a heated moment between them a few months ago.* “Do you think Iron Man will join us for dinner? I need to discuss a few aspects of the new security system ...”
(* in the IRON MAN / CAPTAIN AMERICA Annual '98, Alex)
“Oh I'm sorry! He didn't want to miss Jarvis's surprise for the night. But, regretfully, he will have to, since I'm busy elsewhere and he's my bodyguard ...” Tony smiles.
“Thou art too full of commitments, mortal” Thor comments, knowingly.
“It's not work I'm discussing ...” Tony replies, grinning “But a romantic dinner with a charming retired Russian spy and former leader of this esteemed assemblage of heroes.”
“I'd love to have one tenth of your luck with women, Mr. Stark” Quasar comments.
“Luck? In the matters of the heart it's charm that wins the day. I'll advice Iron Man to meet with you in the morning, Captain” and with those words Anthony Stark leaves the room, followed by Thor's smile.
“Verily it is a pleasure to see him this happy, my friend” the Thunder God comments.
“Indeed ... now I'd like to know why my mind is still tingling as if there is something amiss ...” Cap replies, distracted. To which, the Norse God is perplexed, knowing that Cap's instincts are to be trusted.
“So stop looking so desolate, Vance. Jarvis told me he's cooked something really special ...” Firestar says.
“I'd like to see how happy you would be of eating if you had to be submitted to all those ... probes!” Vance replies, sitting down on the couch and suddenly jumping to his feet, having forgotten a sensible spot in his ... lower back, thanks to the aforementioned probing. “This is too embarrassing!” he adds.
“Think of it, Vance ... maybe a teke cushion could help” Angelica fights not to laugh in her lover's face.
“I'm waiting for the results of the tests, son” Cap approaches them, while at his back the Vision suddenly phases out of the floor.
“Has anyone seen Wanda?” he asks.
“Not yet, Vision. I think she and Simon are in her room and ...” Vance stops as soon as Firestar glances an unmistakable 'shut up' look at him.
“Thanks, Justice. I was just ... curious!” is the synthezoid's answer.
“Curious? There is definitely something amiss in the air ...” Cap mumbles to himself, turning again to Vance and Angel.
“May I have a word with you, Quasar?”
“Of course, Vision! What's up?” Wendell answers.
“I have registered a very localized fluctuation of the e-m field, earlier this afternoon. None of our sensors corroborated my data. I was wondering if your Quantum Bands could be of help”
“I think I could try ... do you have a sample or can I access that information somehow, to focus my search?” Quasar asks, activating the jewels on his wrists.
“I have run a simulation on our main computer system. I think you can access it with the Bands.” The Vision answers.
“Doing that ... very strange ... a first scan has not caught any resonance. But the peripheral e-m band shows a feeble trace. With some luck the Bands should be able to pinpoint the source ...” Quasar speaks, as his eyes are closed to help his concentration.
But before the Vision can say another word an old and rasping voice fills the room as a chilling wind suddenly blows.
“Wanda needs ... YOU!”
Everyone turn and Justice and Firestar are even startled at the sight. In one dark corner of the room a slim figure has just materialized out of nowhere, the smell of magic in the air and her frail form on the brink of collapse.
“Miss Harkness! Justice, catch her, she's falling!” Cap is the first to react as usual, leaping at Agatha's side as a teke cushion stops her in mid air. “What's the matter? Is Wanda in danger?”
“She ... needs ... YOU” are the only words, escaping the old woman's lips, directed evidently to the Vision. Then she faints, as the cold wind blows harder into the halls of the Avengers Mansion.
“O'Brien! Get her to the med-lab! Kincaid is still there! Firestar, Quasar! Reconnoiter the Mansion, and check with Peggy the whole security system! Tell her to get ready for a priority call on all Avengers' communicards. Vision, get to Wanda's room! Thor, you lead there! Justice, cover me!” Captain America's expertise takes immediately over. The Avengers move as the oiled machine he has trained.
A terrible electronic wail resonates inside the Mansion as the Avengers immediately recognize Vision's voice and understand that things are NOT good.
As Thor charges into Wanda's door, Cap notices the frozen body of the Vision halfway through the wall ... lifeless. Terrible sounds and hisses can be heard from inside and Justice can feel the hair at the back of his neck raising.
“By the beard of my Father!” Thor is surprised as the door resists his unearthly strength, repelling him “What manner of witchery is at work here?”
“Justice, check on the Vision! Thor, try with your enchanted hammer! It looks like a magic barrier! Quasar, Firestar, get here. Peggy, send a priority call to every available member, reserve or whatever!” the last few words are shouted into the Mansion inter-com.
“It is magic indeed! And of the worst kind!” Thor says as he channels Mjolnir's energies onto the door “Not even my mischievous brother's trickery smells so awful! This is like Surtur's sulfuric flame!”
“The Vision seems ... shut down! He's solidified partially inside the wall ... but I guess the magic barrier has hurt him!” Justice reports.
“Quasar, try a wide range scan of the barrier!” Cap orders “All the others, be ready! Someone able to bypass all our defenses and take down the Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man must be handled carefully!”
“The Bands are not picking up anything! Even Epoch* is confused. Wait! She's just told me this is related with Wanda's Nexus Being status! But she can't gather any more info”. Quasar explains.
(* Epoch is Eon's daughter, a powerful entity still learning her full potential. while residing in a personal pocket dimension, she can communicate with Qusar via his Quantum Bands, Alex)
“Quasar, ask Epoch if she can try again! Nexus Being! According to what Jan and Hank reported of the Destiny Wars* that could mean either Immortus or Kang or the Time-Keepers could be involved! Thor, any more luck?” Cap asks, as his eyes remains for a moment fixed on the immobile and helpless form of the Vision.
(* marvelously chronicled in the AVENGERS FOREVER maxi-series, Alex)
“Whilst it doth hurt my warrior's pride, there is nothing I can do to break yon barrier ...” the Odinson's rage is clearly hardly in check.
“Cap, some reservists are converging on the Mansion” Peggy's voice is heard through the Intercom “Iron Man is flying here with Ms. Romanoff!”
“Miss Harkness is still unconscious ... she bears marks and burns all over her body ... as if she'd been assaulted by a horde of flaming rabid dogs! But in her delirium she's repeatedly spoken the word 'treachery'!” Dr. Keith Kincaid reports from the med-lab.
“No security breach signaled! The Witch's room looks clean on the mainframe!” Michael O'Brien's voice sounds shocked.
“This has gone too far!” Cap calmly states “This is magic ... it could be Immortus ... or even worse, considering Wanda has ties with Mephisto and Chthon as well ... we need an expert and we need it now! Peggy, call Doctor Strange! Tell him to come as soon as he can!”
Next: What's happened to the Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man? Is the Vision ok? Who attacked Agatha Harkness? I can tell you that this is just the tip of what's in store for the Avengers. Delicate aspects of the universe are at stake and maybe only Earth's Sorcerer Supreme can help ... or not? Be here next issue as the enigmatic foe is revealed ... and I assure you, it ain't pretty!!!