#25 - Love In Hell
"The Resurrection Gambit"
“Justice is served.”
Paige Guthrie felt her heart sink She didn't know the young woman who served as one of Captain America's apprentices during a time when he was sure he was about to die. But seeing the former Free Spirit, now a cyborg mockery of what she once was, put a gun in her mouth froze her. It was too soon after experiencing the deaths of her friends, of Jesse....
Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Mockingbird move forward, her staves in her hand. But then a reddish-white blur whizzed past her ear, mussing her cornsilk blonde hair. A tremendous SPANG! rent the air as Cap's sheild hit Scourge's gunhand, effectively deflecting the bullet. The muzzle flash distracted her, prompting her to instinctively raise her arms in defense. The roar of the gun, accompanied by sparks that flew off of the metallic portion of Scourge's face added to the confusion. Paige moved forward just as she saw the woman's legs go out from under her. She was just in time to catch her before she hit the ground hard.
"Is she alright?" Cap asked as he came up behind her.
"I don't know," Paige told him. Off to one side, she heard Mockingbird calling the nearest hospital. "I think you might have saved her life."
"I saved her body," the Sentinel of Liberty countered. "We're all going to have to work to save her life."
As a child, Greer Nelson had been raised to believe in Heaven. Her parents had never been the most devout of Christians, but they'd dutifully gone to church on Sunday, dressing little Julia up in her finest clothes and showing her off like a little princess. For awhile, Greer had enjoyed the attention, but as she'd grown older, the sermons had seemed to grow longer and less of something that she could relate to. She kept all her doubts about religion to herself, though, knowing that despite the fact her parents regularly attended church, religion was not something to be discussed over dinner.
Greer had simply never been able to believe in Hell.
It was impossible for her to conceive that a God so loving as the one she was supposed to believe in would allow such a place of torment to exist. As she grew up and learned more about the world, first as the Cat and later as the heroine Tigra, she had acknowledged that there was real evil in the world. She accepted that it lived in the hearts and souls of humans, and did not always die with their mortal bodies. When she had been chosen to receive the gifts that allowed her to become the Avenger known as Tigra, she had vowed to do all she could do to fight evil and defend the defenseless, to act as the Bible had said good people should act. Her catlike instincts had made it very easy to put aside thoughts of her own safety as she played gamed of life and death with the likes of Graviton and Ultron. Her faith had drifted into the background of her life, however, serving as something that she'd taken to heart years before but rarely thought of on a day-to-day basis. Those old beliefs, rooted in childhood, came back stronger than ever now, however. Tigra was now literally in what must be Hell, and she prayed desperately to whatever God might be listening that she would be strong enough to survive it.
The wall that she was pinned to imprisoned her. She had tried in vain to burn through the shackles holding her and her fellow Avengers, but the bonds appeared to be mystical. Whenever she tried to break them, she was consumed by pain that made it impossible for her to even breathe. They appeared to be in a prison of some sort. Hercules and Wonder Man were shackled beside her, along with a man and a woman she did not recognise. The resurrected Lethal Legion had defeated the Avengers in a surprise attack. Tigra herself had been subdued by Mad-Dog, but it Simon that she was most worried about. Wonder Man was delirious after being impaled by the Grim Reaper's scythe. Ionic energy was seeping from him. Tigra doubted that he would survive much longer if he did not receive some sort of medical help. Hercules, at least, was beginning to stir. He looked none the worse for having been bludgeoned by the Axe of Violence.
Seeing that Tigra was conscious, the male prisoner that she did not recognize spoke to her. “You - You're the Avengers, aren't you?”
“Yes,” Tigra replied. “Who are you? Do you know where we are?” She fought to keep her voice level, but it was hard. Inside her, the child she'd made with Hank was at great risk. Had Mad Dog struck her in the midsection? She couldn't quite recall... if she lost this child, would Hank ever forgive her for having forced her way into the mission? I'm an idiot, she thought to herself.
The strange man's words gave Tigra a focus on something other than her own fears. “My name is Ilya Zarkov, but my stage name is Illusion. We - We've been here for days! They're killing Glamour! They're killing my wife!”
“Try to stay calm,” Tigra tried to assure him. “The other Avengers will come looking for us soon, don't worry. Is that your wife?”
She gestured towards the bleeding woman who was hanging on the wall beside them. She was unconscious, doubtlessly from the many injuries that had obviously been inflicted on her. She looked as though she had been tortured for days. Her body was covered in cuts, bruises and dried blood. Blood dropped slowly but continuously from her lips to the floor. Tigra did not understand how the woman could possibly still be alive.
“I begged them - I begged them to stop,” her husband told Tigra, “Or to take me instead! But they wouldn't touch me! They just kept torturing her - and they forced me to watch!”
“Where am I?” Hercules asked, regaining consciousness. He tried to stretch his tight muscles, but was instantly aware of the shackles binding him. His otherworldly strength was perfectly matched by the magic of the bonds.
“The Lethal Legion captured us, Herc. This is Illusion,” Tigra said. “He and his wife have been prisoners for days. They're the owners of the Magic Club that were kidnapped.”
The Olympian nodded, taking in Wonder Man and Glamour's condition. They were both in a bad way and needed to get help urgently, but he knew that he had to stay focused if they had any hope of escape. “Do you know why they kidnapped you?”
“They won't tell me! They just keep hurting her - over and over!”
Hercules and Tigra exchanged worried glances. Illusions' experiences in recent days had obviously left him deeply traumatized. “Have they said anything? Given you any indication of their motives?” Tigra asked.
Illusion shook his head. “They just said that it's so I will know my place. I think they want some thing from me - but they won't tell me what it is!”
“Have you abilities they could want - something that they could have use for?” Tigra enquired.
“We both have magical gifts, but not on the level of the Lethal Legion! I can control the molecules of any inanimate object for up to two minutes, but they revert back to their natural state after that, and they've somehow robbed me of my gift! I've been trying to use it, but I can't!”
“You'll be able to use them soon enough - when we want you to!” The Grim Reaper told him, as he entered their prison accompanied by the Axe of Violence and Coldsteel. His physical appearance startled Tigra and Hercules. He looked the same as when he first confronted the Avengers years ago, but he was covered in ionic energy - energy his scythe must have stolen from his brother, Wonder Man.
“What do you want, Williams?” Tigra growled at him. “What have you done with Simon?”
“You're such a pretty cat,” the Reaper told her, stroking her fur despite her resistance. “We could have some fun together.”
“I'd rather die first!” Tigra spat at him.
“That could be arranged. It agrees with us. Just like it will agree with my brother, when we bring him back to join us as well. Death isn't the end of a story - it's just an obstacle.”
“Indeed,” a hideously scarred demon wearing red robes agreed, teleporting into the room in the middle of a black cloud. “And that is why the Reaper agreed to my offer of partnership, Avengers. ”
“Who is this miscreant?” Hercules asked.
“I know who he is,” Tigra snarled. “You might have been turned inside out when you absorbed Wanda's children* but I know your scent any where! You're Pandemonium!”
(* In the Classic Avengers West Coast #52)
Master Pandemonium bowed in front of the female Avengers. “At your service. It seems almost… appropriate that the two of you are the Avengers at our disposal, given our previous encounters. But do not be lonely. The other Avengers will doubtlessly be here soon, and then you can all play your part in returning my love to life, and give my ally a new lease on existence... in the body of Simon Williams.”
"He's not going to be much use to you the way his brother left him," Greer observed.
"Who? That fake Simon William?," the Grim Reaper asked. Gesturing with his scythe, he said sharply, "That bastard hanging on the wall is not my brother...."
Spider-Woman stared death in the face, and it terrified her.
Julia Carpenter's life had changed completely when she originally joined the Avengers West Coast. Free from the Commission and external manipulation, it was the first time that she was able to use her abilities the way that she thought was right. For the first time in years, she had felt in control of her life. The only blight on her happiness was the separation from her daughter, Rachel, who her ex-husband had sole custody of. That had changed when the Manipulator had murdered Larry, and Spider-Woman had been reunited permanently with her daughter. Despite their shared grief over his death, regardless of his sins while he was alive, mother and daughter had built a life in the grounds of the Avengers Compound. During this time, Julia had relied on the staff of the Compound to look after Rachel when she was called away to serve as Spider-Woman. She had put her complete trust in Carlos, who was the head of the Compound staff. While investigating a threat from Ultron, her trust was proved well founded when Carlos had died trying to protect Rachel from an attack by Ultron. She had mourned his death as if he was one of her family, as by saving her daughter at the cost of his own life he had granted Julia a gift that she would never be able to repay.
But now he was back. Hank Pym, Chrome and Spider-Woman had found his animated corpse spying on them in the very Compound where he had died so gallantly. He was rambling incoherently about exactly what he was going to do them, but she could not accept that there was nothing left of the man to whom she owed so much. She was staring down at him from the ceiling of the main laboratory used by Hank and Chrome, her eyes fixated on the shambling form of Carlos. "Is that really you? You're dead!"
Carlos looked up at her, his sunken eyes seeming to hold no trace of the man she'd once known. "Death is not the end of pain! There's so much more! So much!"
Chrome barely stifled a scream as the undead creature stumbled towards her, striking her with surprising force. The metallic coating over her skin saved her from true harm, but it was apparent that this Carlos was supernaturally enhanced.
Hank Pym was on the move even before Carlos had attacked. He grew in size, wrapping his arms around the corpse. The smell was hideous and small flecks of skin broke off on Hank's clothing, but he held the struggling figure tightly, grimacing from the strain. "Julia! Help me wrap him up!"
Spider-Woman jumped into action, impressed beyond words at the way Hank kept his cool in the face of almost any threat. I wonder if I'll ever be a leader like that, Julia couldn't help but think. Given all the things Hank had overcome, it gave her something to aspire to. "Drop him," she said. Hank did so, just as Spider-Woman's psi-webs wrapped Carlos up. She landed in front of her old friend, still marveling over what she was seeing.
"I'd keep a good distance from him," Hank warned, rubbing his arms to remove the coating of corpse dust that covered him. "He's strong."
Julia nodded, but her eyes never left the man who'd died protecting her child. "If this is really you... then you don't want to do this. I know you don't."
Carlos snapped at the air, his teeth clinking together. "Kill you... have to kill you...."
"Because you've caught me. You know. You know...."
Chrome and Hank exchanged looks, but said nothing. Despite everything, it looked like Julia was actually getting through to this creature.
Julia was so close to Carlos now that his every word carried the awful stench of his breath to her nostrils. She put a hand over her face to ward it off, but with little success. "Who did this to you? What were you doing here? Tell me, Carlos, and I swear I'll help you."
There was a sudden twist of emotions that played across the rotting flesh of Carlos and for a moment, his struggles increased to the point where Julia was afraid he was going to break himself apart. But then he ceased all movements, letting his head hang low.
"I am here, Miss Julia. But I will not be able to speak so for long... Master Pandemonium is behind these troubles. He has bound me to his will!" Carlos' voice quavered as he spoke and the smell of death grew ever stronger. The Avengers in the room couldn't help but lean closer, for both Spider-Woman and Hank were well aware of Pandemonium's history with the team and Chrome had seen his name in the team's databanks. "He has a fragment of a book... the Book of Resurrection. He used it to revive me and others... a man named Druid has allied with him in hopes of..." Carlos threw his head back, a blackish-blue fluid seeping from his lips. He shivered before speaking again. "The resurrections are only temporary because the book is incomplete... the Apple is needed to make them complete." Bits of Carlos began to break away, falling into sand and bone. "In a section of Hell... you will find them! I am so sorry, Miss Julia! So... sorry...."
Hank put his arms around Julia as she found herself overcome with emotion. The form of Carlos continued to break apart until there was nothing left of him, save for an odor of the grave.
"What now?" Chrome wondered aloud.
Hank's jaw set firmly. "Now we go find somebody who can take us into Hell. And then we kick Pandemonium's behind from here to the underworld!"
Steve Rogers had lived through many wars, both of the physical and the spiritual. But the pain that wracked him now was unlike any that he had felt before. Losing a partner was one thing, but seeing one fall through guilt and anger was something relatively new to him. The woman who had fought at his side as Free Spirit now lay in a hospital bed, near death, having failed in an attempt to put a bullet into her own brain.
"Um, Cap...?" Paige Guthrie asked, standing behind the Sentinel of Liberty as he stood in the center of the waiting room. A crowd was gathered in the hall, peering in at the colorfully clad figure with the shield strapped to his back. "Mockingbird says she needs to talk to us. Well, to you."
Captain America glanced over at the young girl, wincing a bit inside. She was so young and had already suffered so much. The death of her boyfriend still weighed heavily upon her... but she had refused to surrender to her despair. When faced with such bravery, how could Captain America do any less? "I'm sorry, Paige. I was just... thinking. I wish I had been there for Cathy when she needed me."
"You would have been... if she'd let you." Husk shrugged, looking far too weary for her age. "Everybody has regrets."
Captain America reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "You're going to make a fine Avenger," he said, enjoying the way Paige's eyes went wide at the unexpected compliment. "Now where's Mockingbird?"
"Why are you insisting Simon isn't Simon?" Tigra asked. "You accepted him. When we thought him dead, you struggled to bring him back--"
"And that Simon is my brother. I love him dearly," The Grim Reaper said calmly, rationally...until he gestured with his scythe. Then his voice became overwhelmed with hate and disgust. "But this one...this one isn't my Simon! He's...he's different. And once we get the Book of Ressurection, I'll bring him back--and we'll kill this imposter together. Then Pandemonium can use the shell to conquer Hollywood for all I care."
"Actually," the spectral form of Doctor Druid pointed out, "The good demon lord has promised the body to me. I have plans for it."
"It is actually quite....poetic," the horrible twisted form that now housed Pandemonium told his prisoners. His mangled gash of a mouth pulled back into a rictus of amusement. "Erik wiill revive his brother. And you, Tigra, who once agreed to kill me, will witness the rebirth of She That I Love..."
"Someone kisses you with that face?" Tigra spat out. She strained against the bonds of her prison, which had an unpleasantly organic feel to them. To her left, Simon moaned. Even though she knew it was impossible, he looked paler, drawn, as if...
As if he was bleeding to death, she thought silently.
Master Pandeomium brought a hand that was a twisted mass of bone and sinew to his scarred face. "I suppose I am unpleasant to the eye, Ms. Nelson. But Lore didn't care about something as shallow as looks--and now, provided our friend can be persuaded to give up what we need--"
"I do not have this thing," Illusion gasped.
Immediately, the scythe of the Reaper was at the magician's throat, its uppermost edge cutting off the man's air. "That's where you're wrong, buddy boy. We know you have it. The Doctor confirmed it."
Hercules's head swiveled to fact the shade of Dr. Druid. "You were our ally, perfidious dog...and now you fall in with base villians. Unleash me and you will understand the mistake you have made."
The Axe of Violence stepped forward and smashed her weapon into Hercules' face. "Quiet while the Master speaks."
Druid just smiled enigmatically. "It will all come clear in time, Godling."
"Umm...forgive me for getting lost--silly me, I get all confused when taken prisoner," Greer interrupted, "But what are you going through all this trouble for?"
A grating bark came from Pandemonium's throat. "Forgive me, feline witch. What The Reaper, Druid and I seek is The Ressurection Book...and through it, the means to have power over life and death."
Cap's face was grim. "There's no question. Our friends need us now--and with the immediate danger of The Scourge gone, we need to act quickly."
"We're going to Hell? Hell Hell?"
Julia Carpenter hugged herself. "I've been there before, Paige. It isn't pretty."
"I have to concur," Cap added. "I spent far too long down there recently. It's not something I relish--but Master Pandemonium has trapped fellow Avengers down there."
"Forget about fellow Avengers,"Hank Pym said sharply, pounding the wall. "My wife is down there!"
"Them how are we going to get there--not to even up back from aforementioned there?"
It was then that a new voice entered into the mix--a voice that was calm and reasonable, yet managed to send a chill through the whole room.
"That may be where I come in," the voice was heard to say.
The eyes of the Avengers were drawn to a man in black leather pants and a duster. His head was down, his features obscured by a wide brimmed sou'wester hat with a beaded band. The duster was open, exposing the man's bare chest--and the inverted pentagram burned into his chest. Hank Pym stepped forward and asked harshly, "How did you get in here?"
"And who the Hell are you?" Chrome added.
The man raised his head. Eyes that were at turns cruel and mischevious burned with a crimson radiance. Long braided red hair fell to his shoulders. The man smiled, revealing a set of teeth that subtlely looked like fangs. "I got in through the crossroads Mr. Pym--my operative told me you might need passage through my realm, and I thought to offer it."
His eyes raked over the others to land on Chrome. The woman, in spite of her enhanced strength, shrank away slightly from the presence of the man before her. "As for who the Hell I am, little girl...you could say I am Hell...The Marduk Kurious...."
Hank squinted. "Daimon...Daimon Hellstrom?"
"Actually," the man said before taking off his hat. "I use Hellstorm these days. Now...shall we get to work?"
The man called Illusion screamed. He screamed loud. He screamed long.
The agony in his voice was so great, so deeply felt, that Hercules bellowed, "End This Torment, Foul Feind! Can you not see how you are torturing this man?"
The thing that was once Master Pandemonium walked up to the Prince of Power and grinned with his mouthful of broken teeth. "He is the one that can stop the torment, not me."
There was a thud at the feet of Illusion. Greer Nelson looked away briefly at the badly-severed arm of the magician's wife as it flopped around, nerves like an octopus's tentacles twisting in search of flesh that was too far out of its reach. "For God's sake, Pandemonium--"
The demon stepped to the right, where the magician slumped. To Greer, it looked as if the life went out of the man. "As I surmised, Ilya, your wife is incapable of restoring the pristine condition of her body when the removed parts are kept far enough away. Of course, we can test this hypothesis further."
"No more," Illusion gasped. "Can't you see you're killing her?"
"Then give us the book." Pandemonium had his now massively muscled arms on either side of the man. In his new, twisted form he towered over most any of his prisoners.
The Grim Reaper grunted. "Axe...take off the girl's head."
The Axe of Violence nodded and raised her weapon high.
"NO!!!! She'll never survive!"
"You know what we want, little mortal."
"You had best pray that the God of Strength does not release himself, foul beast...for I will use the gift of battle to humble you!" Hecrules roared.
"Oh, man," The Reaper said with a chuckle, "You're such a dork, Herc."
"You wife can certainly live without an arm," Master Pandemonium pointed out, casually kicking the severed limb off to one side. "Do you trust in the control she has over her entire body enough to allow us to see if she can live without a head?"
The magician sobbed. "I...I can't...I made a promise..."
The demon shrugged. "Very well...."
With a grin, the former Lizzie Borden went to work.
Simon Williams kept drifting in and out of coherence....for a few moments, he saw the horrible surroundings he was imprisoned with in crystal clarity--the heat, the dankness of the dungeon where every brick seemed to throb with some form of light, the blood.
So much blood.
But just as Simon's thoughts were solidified enough for him to think of a plan, he felt his consciousness slip out again. His vision smeared, his thoughts dissolved, and for what appeared to be ages he was trapped in a mental limbo. During that state, his world was a swirling, crackling sea of jet and crimson, ever shifting, ever changing. Even in this muzzy, foggy state he was vaguely aware of the energy escaping from the hole in his side. Thoughts of the times when he once again was re-acquainted with the cold darkness of death kept sliding into his mind during the rare moments of coherence.
In the times past--during the Kree-Shiar conflict, after his abandonment of the Masters of Evil--he had come to the conclusion that he'd rather not...die again. Every once in a while during those moments of crystal clarity, he found himself praying to God he didn't have to go there again.
He stirred, his head still lolling as if on a spring.
Simon Williams...I need you to listen to me.
For a brief second, his brain snapped into clarity again; the scraggly haired woman with the axe was doing....so much blood. Greer and Herc were screaming in rage of either side of him.
My...master the voice in his head said, barely disguising his anger at the phrase, is going to lead the Avengers here....but he needs you to act as the conduit. You are the only one who, due to your uniqie nature as a being outside this continuum, can help me. I can get them here, but only if you cooperate.
"W...w...who?" Simon mumbled, aware of how his lips felt like a thousand insect legs were climbing into his mouth.
We never met--you were here on the West Coast when I served with the East Coast branch. Simon...do I have you permission?
You have to trust me, Simon. We went to our deaths as Avengers--and once an Avenger--
"A...a...al...always....an....Av...Avenger," Simon muttered. For a moment his consciousness surfaced. Greer was looking at him oddly while Hercules was straining at his bonds. Eric--his now-undead brother--was holding a woman's head. The head was struggling to scream.
In that one brief moment of clarity, Simon Williams sneered and said three words.
"Let's do this."
"Alright!" Illusion screamed.
"Bring it forth!" Master Pandemonium roared.
"It....It will take time," the magician said. He looked broken, without hope or emotion.
"I wonder how long this girl'll stay mobile," The Reaper said with a bark of laughter. "You two had to have a sick-ass relationship, you cutting her up so people can talk about how 'realistic' your tricks are."
Master Pandemonium seemed to visibly shake in anger. "Bring. It. Forth."
"Why are you doing this?" Greer asked.
"The best reason of all," The Grim Reaper said. He was busy looking at the severed head of glamour, taunting it.
"The Ressurection Book gives those who weild it the power over life and death," the twisted, scarred demon explained patiently. "With it, I can revive my mistress, my lover back from the afterlife your mutant ally consigned her to for brief periods of time. Utilizing the Golden Apple of Idunn stabilizes the spell, making it permanent. Once I am done bringing my beloved back to existence, The Reaper shall revive his beloved brother....and after Erik extinguishes Mr. Williams' life, the good Doctor Druid shall step into his body, allowing him to walk the Earth....so everyone wins, save you, Ms. Nelson. After all this is done, I plan on feeding you to my beloved Lore to build up her strength. Quite clever, I'd think."
Hercules lurched toward the demon, restrained by the mystical bindings. "Come here and I shall beat your cleverness with my fists!"
"You are in my world, Prince of Power. Keep roaring and I may find out how well you bluster without a tongue," Master Pandamonium sneered before turning to Illusion, who hung slackly from his shackles. "Now, Ilya...time is running out. Bring forth the Book."
Illusion's eyes rolled up into his head. What appeared to be low moaning emanated from his lips; listening closely to him, Greer realized it was some form of chant. A chill ran through all the captured Avengers, as if they were being lashed by a whip of ice. Pandemonium and his partners found themselves stepping forward, their eyes fixed on the way the air seemed to twist and dimple. Even the remaining members of the Lethal Legion had their attention drawn away from their tasks to focus on the play of elemental forces rushing into the room.
And there it was. It was a simple black book, no larger than a trade paperback or a traveler's Bible. It would not look out of place in a library or a book store flush with the latest Stephen King or J.K. Rawlings.
Which might have been the point, Greer thought to herself.
Pandemonium reached out to grab the book and immediately dropped it. "It's...it's so cold."
Now it was the Grim Reaper's time to sneer. "Comon', partner. Time's a'wasting."
Greer watched Pandemonium reach out and grab The Book of Ressurection. The twisted demon hissed in pain upon touching the tome, but he kept his grip. Even though the creature sipped air through his rotten, mismatched teeth in pain, he managed to turn the pages. For some reason, Greer felt sick watching the way the deamonic Master Pandemonium's eyes lit up in an almost orgasmic joy.
"Coldsteel, gather the rest of the Legion," The creature said. "We are ready to begin."
Daimon Hellstorm approached the cowering form of Carlos as the other Avengers watched. "I've been monitoring these pretenders for some time. Since they seemed to be keeping watch on you and yours, I had one of my agents keep an eye on you."
"Did you think of maybe, I dunno, just calling us?" Chrome asked.
The redheaded man looked knelt down besides the zombified former servant. He caressed the trembling corpse's cheek. "Would you truly believe a Lord of Hell, woman?"
"I would have," Hank said, his voice subdued. "I remember you as a good man, Daimon...someone who denied his heritage."
A smile played on Daimon's lips. "Yes, our time with the Defenders, Mr. Pym. Things change. Do you want to save your wife and friends or not?"
For a moment, the gathered heroes were silent. Paige looked from one to the other, trying to find some sort of guidance.
It was Cap who broke the silence. "I know I have no jurisdiction when it comes to this branch--in fact, I helped do a great disservice to some of you by voting to disband it in the first place. But if there's any hope of saving Hank's wife and the others..."
Julia Carpenter pulled on the hood of her costume. Her mouth was a thin line as she stepped forward. "Once an Avenger..."
Hank stepped forward to stand besides Cap and Spider-Woman. "Thank you."
Chrome looked at Paige. "You coming?"
Paige paused, then nodded and joined her teammates behind Hellstorm.
Once they were all amassed behind him, Daimon bent close to Carlos' animated form. "You were not meant to be used in this way," he whispers. "You are not the property of my realm. Even though there will be pain, you will return to His domain, I promise. Are you ready?
Carlos nodded, and the Avengers saw what appeared to be...pride in the zombified creature's face. Hellstorm closed his eyes and cradled the grotesque, rotting figure as the air seemed to grow electric...
With the mysterious presence inhabiting Simon, the moments of clarity grew longer. He still pretended to be limp and insensate; there was no reason to tip his hand.
Coldsteel had returned with the other members of the Leathel Legion--the black-hooded Zykon and the fanged and feral Mad Dog. They joined The Axe of Violence and The Grim Reaper in forming a circle around the book. Dr. Druid stood apart, stock still, his experssion one of disinterest. To Simon's left, the magician Illusion seemed in shock, while Tigra strained at her bonds. To his right, Hercules did the same while the partially dismembered Glamour seemed to have re-attached her head...but the stillness of her body disturbed him. He got the sensation of the dungeon, at one time stifling hot, actually growing colder by the minute.
"Remember," Coldsteel warned in the halting, Russian-accented English he used to speak with when he was Stalin, "you will restore us as well."
"And as we are!" added The Axe of Violence. "I'm not going back to that dowdy body I had when I was alive."
"Quiet up!" The Reaper commanded. "Everybody's getting what they want. Just let the Master speak."
Master Pandemonium had The Book in one hand, the golden Apple of Idunn in the other. Gutteral words came from his misshapen lips, words that Simon got the impression were old even by Hercules' standards. The air began to dimple and shudder before the imprisoned Avengers, and a howling came forth from nowhere and everywhere.
My master has contacted me, his benefactor told him. It is time.
"I'm ready," he subvocalized. He found himself tensing in spite of himself.
Very well. Just protect my form once you are free. And brace youself...this part is going to hurt.
As the Avengers watched, Daimon Hellstorm snapped out of his trance. His eyes went wide as he plunged his arms elbow-deep into the zombified Carlos. Julia stepped forward, fist clenched, but Hank put an arm up to restrain her. As the newer Avengers watched, horrified, the self-professed Lord of Hell tore the living corpse apart.
But what seeped out to fill the room wasn't blood.
It was ionic energy.
The air around the gathered members of the deamonic conspiracy continued to waver and distend--but as Master Pandemonium continued his chanting, the nature of the distortion began to take shape. As a form not unlike a sensual, curvy female with cascades of reddish-brown hair began to take shape, Pandemonium gazed upwards in awe. "My Lore...my love..."
The claw holding the Book seemed to shake. The Grim Reaper quickly put his one good hand underneath it to keep it steady.
The form, still etheral, still blinking in and out, turned its head--all angles and planes--and smiled at Pandemonium. Her lips made to form her first words in her new existence when a noise rent the air.
The noise came from Simon Williams. It was a scream, but not of pain or even frustration. It was a scream of triumph.
And then Wonder Man seemed to split open, spilling forth a wave of ionic energy. Chaos reigned as all inside the dungeon chamber were briefly blinded and made deaf, their senses filled by angry red, cracking eneergy.
When the wave dissipated, Captain America stood at the front of the remaining West Coast Avengers.
Hank looked over at Greer. Concern and fear flickered over his face for just a second before a rifle with an odd, three chambered nozzle seemed to appear from out of nowhere. "Hi, honey," he said, his mock-homrous tone not fooling anyone. "Sorry I'm late."
"Gentlemen, ladies...." Cap said quietly as he pulled back his arm, shield in hand.
"No, Cap...allow me," Simon said. He could see Greer and Herc's attention suddenly drawn to him. Whatever his benefactor did to him to get the Avengers there, he had managed to fix his ionic form completely, including the gash the Reaper had given him. With one fluid motion, Simon snapped his shackles and stepped forward, hands curled into tight fists.
Even though he was in a chamber of Hell, about to face a group of monsters on their own home ground, Simon couldn't help but smile when he cried out, "Avengers Assemble!"
Erik Williams was, no doubt about it, an obsessive man. He had, after all, devoted almost all of his life to redeeming the reputation of a brother whose reputation didn't deserve redeeming. Afterwards, when he bargained with a demon to gain a strange form of unlife, he was obsessed with tormenting the Avengers.
But all things being said, Erik Williams had a modicum of practicality. And what he recognized as the full compliment of The West Coast Avengers rushed forward to engage The Leathel Legion was that the gig was up. As a cute blonde girl stripped off her skin to reveal a form of what he had to assume was cold iron and went about freeing Tigra and Hercules, The Reaper grabbed Master Pandemonium's arm. "This has gone wrong. Time to fight another day."
The twisted hulk of Master Pandemonium was still fixated on the image of Lore, the woman's thick wild mane of hair whipping about as she slowly gained solidity. She glanced down at the hulking demon and smiled cruelly. He pulled his arm away from Erik's. "You're here...you're finally here."
"Forget this," Erik Williams muttered and turned away--
Only to see the very angry face of his brother Simon and the she-cat Tigra staring back at him.
"The Master vill give us form again!" Zyklon cried out as he flew into the mass of Avengers.
"This form is solid enough for The Prince of Power!" Hercules called out as he punched the creature in the stomach.
Spider-Woman looked away from ensnaring The Axe of Violence's weapon in her psi-web. She twisted, pulling the massive axe out of the woman's hand and said, "I know that woman."
"What?" called out Cap. He threw Mad Dog over his shoulder before blocking a blow from Coldsteel with his shield.
"Wanda told me about her--she's called Lore." Julia ducked just as The Axe threw a punch. Grabbing hold of the former Lizzie Borden's arm, she drove the woman back into the stone wall. "She follows after The Scatter and devours entire worlds..."
"And that's Uggo's girlfriend?" Paige gasped incredulously, driving one diamond-hard knee into Coldsteel's sternum. Chrome had her arms around the former Stalin's neck, trying to pull him down. "Talk about taste."
"Th...the Book....," came a voice, musical in spite of the obvious pain it was in. Chrome looked over to see the woman called Glamour slowly coming to. Even with all the abuse and damage suffered by her body, the magician was still beautiful.
"She...will live," the battered woman whispered. Chrome held up one arm to block Coldsteel lashing out at her, the clang of metal on metal filling the dungeon. "As long...as...he completes the spell..."
"Cap!" Chrome called out.
"I heard," The sentinel of Liberty called back. He swung his shield back, smacking the leaping Mad Dog in the head and then let fly.
A reddish-white blur whizzed across the length of the dungeon. There was a tremendous meaty sound, and the Book went flying from Master Pandemonium's grasp. It turned end over end and slid into a corner.
The smiling face of Lore's grew feral. She screaming incoherently in rage. The entire dungeon was buffeted by winds gone wild with hurricaine force as the demoness was dissipated into the air.
"We need to keep that book out of his hands," Cap said over the winds.
"Why are you doing this?" Simon cried out as he wrestled with The Grim Reaper. "You said you accepted me!"
"I accepted Simon!" The Reaper shouted back. He sent an electric shock through the blade. forcing Wonder Man to step back. "You may have Simon's body...but you're not SIMON!"
"I am! I know I am!" Simon countered. He blocked another blow from his brother's weapon. "Don't make me hurt you."
The Reaper stood there. His breathing was ragged. "You're not! I felt the change months ago...your body may be the same--but your soul is different."
Simon's mouth opened, then closed. "We can fight all day," he eventually said, his voice quavering. "But my fellow Avengers are going to join me. You want to escape, you better do so now."
The Reaper slowly raised his scythe...then held it extended. Something seemed to change in his eyes. "I still don't accept you, you abomination."
"Just go," Simon insisted. "Just Go!"
The blow Erik Williams landed seemed glancing at best. The way Simon Williams fell seemed forced. But no one was close enough to notice....
Master Pandemonium wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. He felt once more like the dying, pathetic film executive feeling his life draining from him on that fateful day when Mephisto made a deal with him. But he knew there was only one thing he could do--he had to do.
The Book lay there in a corner. The scarred creature ran, stumbled and fell onto the cobblestoned floor. He scrabbled across the uneven ground, not caring how the stones were tearing at his unearthly flesh. The Book was in his grasp, and then he'd complete the spell and bring his Beloved back....
Until someone put his foot down on the Book. Master Pandemonium looked up to see the gaunt, pale form of Doctor Druid.
"Let me have the Book! We can still get what we want!" the demon pleaded.
"I have what I want," Anthony Druid told him grimly He looked beyond the creature and asked, "This infernal land, then..."
"Is yours, Anthony, along with a commesurate increase in your abilities," Daimon Hellstorm promised. Pain shot through Master Pandemonium's head as the nails of the Lord of Hell dug into his unearthly flesh. "You could have a nice little hideaway here while you continue working off your debt."
Pandemonium felt himself being lifted up. He struggled, and was driven into the nearest wall so hard chips of stone embedded themselves into his skin. "And as for you," Daimon added, "I so hate little demons who think they're bigger than they are."
"I promise," Druid said, a slight, enigmatic smile appearing on his weathered face, "I will put him through...Hell."
"He should know," Hellstorm whispered in Pandemonium's ear. "You should see what I put him through when he was alive.
When the Book disappeared from Pandemonium's hand, the members of The Lethal Legion panicked. Zyklon shifted his trajectory toward the book itself.
"Get the book!" Coldsteel commanded. His arms flailed about widely in an attempt to scatter the double team of Chrome and Husk.
"We're dead meat without it!" added Mad Dog. He leapt forward, only to be caught in Spider-Woman's psi-web.
Hank Pym had already donned a gas mask to protect against Zyklon's deadly poisons. Reaching into another pouch on his overalls produced a small capsule that he threw at the masked German. There was a discharge of energy, and the Legionaire shrank down. "Get it!"
Tigra was watching the Grim Reaper retreat when she heard her husband call out. With the speed inherent in the form given her by the Cat People, she closed distance quickly. Druid kicked the Book away, and she snatched it up, holding it aloft for all to see. "Got it!"
"Good!" Hank responded, smiling at his wife.
Already, the Lethal Legiion were beginning to dissipate. The Axe of Violence roared, "Not again!"
"You promised us life!" Colsteel railed at Master Pandemonium, who struggled to escape Hellstorm's grasp.
"You failed us!" Mad dog growled.
Druid smirked. "Pledge fealty to me," he told the four remaining Legionaires, "and Pandemonium is yours to torture."
Hellstorm smirked. "You're learning, Druid." He dropped the demon. "Just know your place."
"I do," Druid replied. "Because it is my hope that my stewardship will be...temporary."
Daimon walked away from the former Avenger. He waved his left hand, and the forms of the Lethal Legion stabilized. "I endorse the deal. Pandemonium is all yours, ladies."
As the four Legionaires stepped forward to claim Master Pandemonium, Hellstorm looked at the current team. "I think it's time to return you home, yes? I wouldn't want your...delicate constitutions to be offended."
They were leaving just as the first scream escaped Master Pandemonium's lips.
Even though they were down in Master Pandemonium's realm abrief time, the fresh air smell that greeted Paige was welcome. The Avengers had arrived on the front lawn of the Compoud, and the feel of the grass under her feet was heavenly. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She was vaguely aware of Chrome coming up behind her.
"You okay?" the displaced hero asked.
Paige smiled and savored the feel of the California sunshine on her skin. "Yeah. You know, now that I've seen Hell...it makes believing in Heaven all that easier...and knowing there's a Heaven means I'll see Jessie again."
Chrome hugged her tightly, but Paige's thoughts were of the promise of the new day.
Daimon looked from Captain America to Hank Pym and his wife. "I think I can assure you that that second rate producer will no longer be a bother."
Hank had his arm around his wife. Greer's arm was over his stomach. He briefly nuzzled her neck and said, "There's still some good in you, Daimon."
Daimon Hellstrom's eyes sparkled. "You can keep thinking that."
"Thank you all the same," Hank said.
Cap put a hand on Hank's shoulder and said to Greer, "May I borrow your husband for a moment?"
Greer smiled unsteadily. "Go ahead."
Cap guided Hank off to one side Near the front gate, Spider-Woman was talking to Hercules. "Thank you, Hank, for helping me save Cathy."
"I was glad to help," Hank replied. "We're always glad to help. It's not like we're the Dodgers and the Angels here."
Cap chuckled. "It would have been the Dodgers and The Giants in my day."
Once again, Hank was struck by how...ancient Cap was. Yes, his body was no older than his own, but the mind of Steve Rogers had spanned over three quarters of a century's worth of experience. "We should stay closer than we are, these two Avengers branches."
Cap nodded. He looked up at the blue California sky and said, "Hank, you have a team here to be proud of."
Hank Pym felt pride swell in his chest. He had been with this iteration of the West Coast Avengers from the beginning. Yes, the idea was originally to use it as a training academy, but it had developed into so much more. "Thanks. Coming from you--"
That was when Greer screamed.
The pain was excrutiating, like a thousand knives suddenly finding themselves in her stomach. Greer sank to her knees, both arms cradling her midriff. In the few seconds between pulses of agony, she once again wondered if Mad dog had hit her stomach...had hit her baby.
She was aware of the other Avengers running to her. She felt Hank's hands on her. She looked up through tears that blurred her vision and gasped, "Hank...something's wrong with the baby!"
Before her husband's eyes, the flesh of her stomach began to writhe...
Next: What is happening to Hank and Greer's baby? Why did Simon let his brother go? Who will gain revenge for Free Spirit's mutilation at the hands of Superia? What direction will the West Coast Avengers go? You'll find out..."Twenty Eight Hours Later!"