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Bob Harras & Terry Kavanaugh (plotters), Bob Harras (scripter), Angel Medina (guest penciler), Scott Koblish (guest inker), John Kalisz (colorist), Bill Oakley & NJQ (letterers), Matt Idelson (assistant editor), Ralph Macchio (editor), Mark Grunewald (editor-in-chief)
In an abandoned complex in Canada, Hercules, the Black Widow, Crystal and Quicksilver cling to a ledge, for their lives as the Red Skull confronts them. He demands something from them, but the Avengers are unsure what that is. The Black Widow makes a ledge above the Red Skull collapse on him, enabling the Avengers to climb to safety, only they find their foe has vanished. Crystal is able to start a small fire to keep them warm, but the energy emanating from the complex is interfering with her power. Hercules starts to climb up the edifice to get a first aid kit for the Black Widow’s injured companion, Ivan. But on his way up, he encounters Captain America, who claims that he has been held here by the Skull for days. However, It is merely the Red Skull in disguise, and he takes Hercules out with ease. The Black Widow talks to her friend, Ivan, who suggests that the Avengers just leave and do not worry about him. The Avengers refuse, before the Red Skull returns. He takes the unsuspecting Crystal and Quicksilver out, before a lengthy battle against the Black Widow follows. Somewhere in the Caribbean, an agent lowers himself into a high-tech facility, and after tinkering with some equipment, a large explosion follows. In the village nearby, a woman reports to someone via a communicator what has transpired. The Red Skull tries to berate her by telling her that she is the weakest Avenger, but she is relentless in her attacks nonetheless. Before he takes her down, she releases a widow’s bite against him, short-circuiting his armor’s weapons. The Red Skull then receives a message, and teleports away, with the Black Widow unable to stop him. After gathering the other Avengers, the Black Widow and Ivan leave, and hours later, arrive at Avengers Mansion. Soon after, Captain America returns, wearing a new armor and announcing that he has to come clean to them, as this may be his last mission.
Informed of a mysterious and devastating energy flare in the Canadian Northwest by her former partner, Ivan Bezukhov, the Black Widow led the mighty Avengers - the mutant Quicksilver, his wife, the elemental Crystal and the godling Hercules - on a mission to discover the origin of the catastrophe. Now, deep in the heart of an abandoned and devastated complex, the Avengers have discovered, to their horror, they are not the only ones investigating the flare. For here in the dark, the Red Skull was waiting for them! ‘Something very valuable was stolen from me, Avengers. Before you die in this cold and lonely place, I command you to tell me where it is!’ the Red Skull orders, his eyes popping, his mouth wide.
Hercules clings to the edge of the platform where the Red Skull stands. The Black Widow a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff hangs on to Hercules, while extending a hand down to hold onto Crystal, who in turn grips the hand of her husband, Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff.‘You do not answer. Like this foolish old Bolshevik, you seek to thwart me! Like him, you will find that impossible’ the Red Skull declares, as Ivan Bezukhov lies motionless at the Red Skull’s feet, just several feet from the Black Widow’s hands. ‘Ivan! You’ve hurt Ivan!’ the Black Widow exclaims, warning the Red Skull that for that, the Widow will make him pay. She then fires one of her “widow’s stings” at the Red Skull, who ducks, unharmed. ‘A pretty little toy - but in the end - ineffectual?’ the Red Skull starts to say, before the blast strikes the ceiling overhead, and brings it down on him, trapping him under the rubble.
‘A well aimed blow, fair Natasha! The villain is undone - as - apparently - am I!’ Hercules announces as he struggles to pull himself onto the platform. He leans over, struggling to regain his breath, he tells his teammates that carrying them all up the shaft was more than he could bear. ‘Truly the Prince of Power has come to a bad end’ he adds, while Crystal helps Quicksilver up, telling him that they have made it, that everything is all right. ‘No, Crystal - not while the Red Skull lives!’ Quicksilver exclaims, speeding over to where the rubble fell on the Red Skull, only to find him gone. As the Black Widow tends to Ivan, Quicksilver shines his torch into the rubble, and declares that it is as if he was never here.
Crystal tells Natasha that since the day she joined the Avengers, she has never doubted her leadership. ‘We came to this place at your request. No questions asked. But in light of our little encounter, I think we have the right to know - just what in Randak’s name is going on?’ The Black Widow replies ‘I would tell you if I could’, adding that the Red Skull’s presence here merely confirms that they have to find out what caused this destruction, and who built this complex in the first place. Natasha then excuses herself from her teammates, telling them that she has to make sure Ivan is all right. But Hercules reminds Natasha that it is not like her to keep secrets from her fellow Avengers, and adds that he has heard tell of this Red Skull from Captain America.
‘He is evil incarnate - and I tell you, my friends, he is out there in the shadows, in the cold, watching us and we do not even know why’ Hercules continues raising his arms into the air, annoyed. Quicksilver tells Hercules to take it easy, adding that they are all aware of the situation. Quicksilver then asks Natasha to forgive Hercules, reminding her that Taylor’s death and his father’s curse are still too fresh, the wounds have not had time to heal. Crystal remarks that Hercules is right that it is cold down here, and points out that Ivan needs warmth, quickly. She casts her elemental abilities towards some debris, but is only able to summon a few flickering flames, explaining that the ambient energy that brought down their Quinjet is interfering with her elemental powers. Hercules starts to climb up the wall of the deep hole that the Avengers fell down, stating that there is a medical kit on the Quinjet, and that if Ivan cannot be moved, they will need the kit down here. Quicksilver tells Hercules that it is a long climb, and bids him care. ‘And you as well, Avengers. And you as well’ Hercules replies.
Somewhere in the Caribbean, ‘Central - I’ve entered the security zone’ a man in strange armor reports via communication-link as he lowers himself on a rope into a high-tech facility. He adds that stealth-fields are operating at maximum levels, and has not been detected. He reports that he is proceeding down to the retrieval area, and a Kempler scan indicates a powerful pulse wave of the first magnitude, adding that if the containment fields hold, they will have the specimen they need, but if they don’t, they will have a repeat of the Canadian situation. ‘And we can kiss it all good-bye’.
Back in Canada, Hercules continues his climb, when, at last, he starts to see sunlight. He is amazed that he survived this fall, and wonders if perhaps his father did not remove all of his power. Suddenly, ‘Hercules?’ a voice calls out. Hercules turns, and sees on a ledge, Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America. ‘Thank God you’ve come! The Skull’s held me here for days!’ Cap calls out, withered and weak, leaning against the wall. Hercules carefully climbs onto the narrow ledge, ‘Captain America!’ he calls out, telling him that the Avengers have been so worried about him, and rightly so, it appears. Hercules puts a hand on Cap’s shoulder, and tells him that they have seen the Skull themselves, deep in the heart of this ruined edifice. He tells his friend to lean on him.
‘We’ve got to stop him, Hercules! What he plans is - horrible!’ Cap calls out, wide-eyed, before motioning further along the ledge, he reveals that the Red Skull’s base of operations is just beyond the rocky spur. ‘Indeed? Then let us investigate’ Hercules replies, leading the way along the ledge, Hercules reminds Cap that he has told him much of this Red Skull over the years. ‘Such evil as his cannot be allowed to continue’ he announces. ‘Hercules - wait for - me’ Cap calls out as Hercules suddenly strikes an energy field, which causes Hercules to cry out, and sends him slamming to the ground. ‘Fool’ Cap mutters as he stands over Hercules’s motionless body. ‘Doesn’t even know the difference between his old friend…and a holographic projection!’ the Red Skull scowls as he ends the hologram, returning to his default form, adding that Hercules was the strongest of them. ‘It is to laugh’.
Back down in the facility, ‘Did anyone hear that?’ Crystal asks. ‘It sounded like a cry of pain - but so distant - so faint’ she adds as she stands near the fire. The Black Widow continues to hold onto Ivan’s body, and points out that Crystal’s Inhuman hearing is more acute than theirs, but suggests what she heard could have been a trick o the wind in the ruins. ‘Although I doubt it’ Natasha admits. Quicksilver agrees, and states that the Red Skull is out there somewhere, one of the most formidable foes Cap ever faced - and they are isolated, with his power and Crystal’s weakened due to the energy that permeates this place. Quicksilver continues, pointing out that the Skull thinks they have taken something very valuable from him and they have no idea what he is talking about. ‘All in all, not the best position to find oneself’.
A wide-eyed Ivan utters that the boy is right, and tells the Avengers to get out of here, and not to worry about him, to just go. Crystal replies that they would sooner die than give up on a friend, before announcing that she is worried, certain that was a scream she heard. ‘And Hercules has been gone so long’ she adds. ‘Indeed he has, Avenger’ the Red Skull remarks as he suddenly emerges from the shadows of the darkened cavern. ‘The Skull! Crystal, watch out!’ Quicksilver calls out. But, too late, as the Red Skull mutters’ How perceptive of you’ and slams his fist into Crystal’s face, knocking the elemental backwards, while Quicksilver calls out for her. ‘You son of a -!’ Pietro exclaims as he speeds towards the Red Skull, who raises a hand and blocks his punch. ‘You dare speak to me in such a tone?’ the Red Skull grins. ‘Your speed? How -?’ Quicksilver starts to ask, as the Red Skull grabs Quicksilver by his neck.
‘All thinks are possible for the master race, Avenger’ the Red Skull boasts, as he holds Quicksilver up over the pit below them. ‘To think I am forced to touch your degenerate flesh, gypsy! The Reich should have destroyed all your disgusting race when it had the chance!’ the Red Skull cruelly exclaims, while Quicksilver struggles under his grasp. The Red Skull adds that there is some satisfaction in the fact that the son of Magneto dies at his hand. ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself, Skull!’ the Black Widow exclaims as she leaps towards the Red Skull and declares that no Avenger is dying today. ‘Who? Ah yes. The Russian’ the Red Skull mutters as he grabs the Black Widow before she strikes him, and tosses her over the edge of the platform.
‘What sort of man are you, gypsy - that needs a woman to come to his rescue?’ the Red Skull asks Quicksilver, adding ‘Perhaps you are not a true man, after all, eh, mutant?’ the Red Skull asks, suggesting that Quicksilver think of that while he crushes his windpipe, and imagines his father’s tears at the passing of his ineffectual son.
Suddenly though, the Red Skull is knocked to the ground, and releases Quicksilver from his grasp as the Black Widow swings back towards him, ‘I told you, Skull - you’re not killing anyone today!’ she exclaims. The Red Skull gets to his feet, ‘Ah - the Black Widow. You are a persistent woman - but more - I see in your eyes you are a knowledgeable one as well’ the Red Skull grins, and tells the Black Widow that she knows the secret of this complex and what happened here. ‘You know what the fools attempted here - with forces they could not begin to comprehend. ‘Tell me, Widow, where have they taken it? Where?’ the Red Skull demands.
Once more in the Caribbean, the man in the armor stands before some sort of console and removes some equipment, reporting that he is placing the receptacle on the siphon point, and if calculations are correct, the power drain should only last for twenty-give milliseconds. He continues, stating that with their science council concentrating on their Resurrection Project, that short a drain should not register on their daily security alarms. But, suddenly, there is a beeping noise. ‘Oh, God’ the man in the armor utters, before reporting to central that the power flux is not performing as per their projections, that it is flooding the container and cannot hold. ‘Repeat - it cannot holllddd’ he exclaims, as energy suddenly pours through the chamber, and rips upwards, exploding into the air.
Where, in the village below, all the islanders can do is look up and wonder. All save one, a woman with long dark hair hurries down past some buildings, and presses a button on her bracelet. ‘Emergency! Initiate a kempler scan of these co-ordinates. It has happened again. Tell the master quickly - the thieves are on Boca Caliente!’ she says into the bracelet.
Back in Canada, ‘Tell me what I need to know, Madame Romanova’ the Red Skull calls out, telling her not to let pride blind her, and points out that she is the weakest of the Avengers and certainly no match for him. ‘Really, Skull? I suppose I should be frightened’ the Black Widow frowns as she removes her jacket. Ivan calls out to her, telling that she doesn’t know what the Red Skull is like. ‘Yes I do, Ivan’ Natasha replies, adding that history has told her he I sa sick little man from a twisted, sick era. ‘But you know what, Skull? Your time ended fifty years ago. No one’s afraid of you anymore!’ the Black Widow declares, before the Red Skull fires a blast of red energy at her, boasting that this is an era of fools. ‘For the Skull is fear!’ he exclaims. Natasha leaps into the air, and sticks briefly to the wall, before dropping her jacket ‘you missed, Skull!’ she tells him as the jacket lands on the Skull’s face, and she drops down onto him, ‘Getting old, perhaps?’ the Black Widow jokes as she slams into his head, forcing him to the ground.
But, the Red Skull pushes himself up, ‘Idiot of a woman! In this body I am younger than you!’ he reveals, swatting the Black Widow away from himself. The Black Widow gathers herself by bounding against the side of the edifice and calls out ‘Yes, I know - a cloned body of Captain America’ as she leaps back towards the Red Skull and tells him that unfortunately for him, he has neither Captain America’s skills nor his talents. She pulls on the Red Skull’s yellow costume, and flips him over her self, smashing him to the ground as she adds that in other words, the body does not make the man. ‘ENOUGH!’ the Red Skull booms as he reaches up and punches the Black Widow in the face. He gets to his feet and grabs the Black Widow, holding her up in the air, ‘No one talks to me like this! No one!’ he shouts. ‘Have I hurt your feelings, Skull?’ the Black Widow replies as she whacks his shoulder with her hand. ‘Woman, the Skull has no feelings’ comes the response, as the Red Skull throws her against the edifice, where she hits it hard, and slumps to the ground.
The Red Skull walks towards Natasha and asks her if she does not yet understand. He calls her a “fool of a woman” and boasts that she cannot beat him. He picks her up by her hair and agrees that perhaps he does not have the athletic skills of his age-old enemy, but that the weapons built into his uniform more than compensate for that supposed deficiency. ‘Wouldn’t you agree?’ he asks, but suddenly, ‘Not really’ the Black Widow replies as she raises her wrist, and releases her “widow’s bite”, which blasts the Red Skull back from her. They both try to regain their footing, as the Black Widow tells the Red Skull that weapons systems can be short-circuited. ‘Indeed. But a pyrrhic victory at best, Madame’ the Red Skull replies, adding that his armor insulated him from the feedback, whereas she was not so fortunate. He walks over to her, and raises his foot over her head, ‘You have refused to tell me what you know, Black Widow - thus, you are no use to me -’ he begins, before suddenly, receives a transmission.
The Red Skull moves away from the Black Widow, ‘Tell me quickly - have you found them?’ he asks into his communicator, while the Black Widow starts to get to her feet, ‘That’s it, Skull - keep talking - and learn that men turn their back on the Widow at their own peril!’ she thinks to herself, while the Red Skull tells the person he is speaking to that the energy readings are proof. The Black Widow slowly walks towards the Red Skull, deciding that a widow’s sting at the base of the neck, and he is a dead man. ‘It is them. Initiate teleportation - now’ the Red Skull orders, before vanishing. ‘NO!’ the Black Widow gasps. ‘Blast it - NO!’ she shouts.
The Black Widow collapses to the ground, ‘He got away! I almost had him and he got away!’ she exclaims, clutching her head. Ivan rushes over to her, ‘You’re alive!’ he calls out, adding that not many people can say that after going one on one against the Red Skull. But Natasha tells Ivan that it doesn’t matter, as she should have been better and done better. ‘I shouldn’t have failed’ she utters. Ivan suggests that they check on her friends, and shee how they feel after she just saved their lives.
Hours later, a Quinjet arrives back over Avengers Mansion, and lands on the rooftop. The alien Deathcry, Honorary Avenger, meets the Avengers, and the Black Widow hands Ivan over to her, telling the young alien to be careful with him, as he was injured badly. Deathcry tells the Black Widow not to worry, assuring her that she will get him to the infirmary in once piece. ‘After all, I’m not a baby’ she points out, before asking the Black Widow if they had fun on this mission. Quicksilver, Hercules and Crystal follow the Black Widow out of the Quinjet as the Black Widow replies ‘That would probably be the last word I’d use to describe the last twenty-four hours, DC’.
The Black Widow then tells everyone that she wants them ready for a debriefing in thirty minutes. Suddenly, a voice calls out ‘I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait, Natasha’ and the five Avengers all go wide-eyed in shock. ‘Who - What’s happened to you?’ the Black Widow asks, smiling. Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America appears before the Avengers, wearing a new armored costumed, and replies ‘A lot’, before admitting to the Avengers that he has not been completely honest with them, before declaring that on the eve of his last mission, it might be time he came clean….
Black Widow, Captain America, Crystal, Hercules, Quicksilver (all Avengers)Deathcry (Honorary Avenger)
Unidentified man in armorWomanVillagers
Taylor Madison died and Hercules was de-powered by his father’s curse in Avengers (1st series) #384.
“Taking AIM” continues in Captain America (1st series) #440, before part two takes place in Avengers (1st series) #387.