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Mark Waid, Al Ewing & Jim Zub (writers), Kim Jacinto (artist), David Curiel (colorist), Virtual Calligraphy's Cory Petit (letterer), Mark Brooks (cover artist), Nick Bradshaw & Jim Campbell; Ramon Perez (variant cover artists), Carlos Lao (graphic designer), Alanna Smith (assistant editor), Tom Breevort (editor), CB Cebulski (editor-in-chief), Joe Quesada (chief creative officer), Dan Buckley (president), Alan Fine (executive producer)Avengers created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
The Grandmaster and the Challenger are surprised by a strange development in their game, as the Human Torch touches one of their mysterious pyramoids and vanishes, arriving at their cosmic games room, where he is imprisoned alongside the Black Dwarf. The Lethal Legion and the Black Order members depart from Peru following this development. Lightning is upset that he was unable to reach the Human Torch before he touched the pyramoid. Falcon tries to talk to Lightning, but he departs to head back to Rome to inform Rogue. At a hospital in Midtown Manhattan, the Beast and Nadia van Dyne discover that thre abnormalities in the readings they obtained of Jarvis' condition may be due to all the toxins or weird radiations that the Avengers may have brought back to the Mansion over the years and dub his condition “Avengers Fever”. In Rome, Rogue, Thor and Hercules are assisting civilians with Lightning returns and advises Rogue on the bad news about the Torch. Back in the cosmic games room, the Grandmaster explains why he chose Earth as the landscape for this game, pointing out several important cosmic events that have occurred on Earth. The Challenger explains his choice in name – because he used to be called the Grandmaster, until the current Grandmaster defeated him and stole his title. He remembers their seemingly endless life together, they were brothers, until the Challenger was exiled to a non-realm, and how one day, the realm died and he returned. The select their next pyramoids for the battle, and when it is pointed out that th Challenger is a player down since the Black Dwarf was removed from the game, the Challenger boasts that he has a player full of rage in reserve – and in New Mexico, green energy glows within a cave.
The Grandmaster's cosmic gamesroom, where the mysterious figure lurking in the shadows looks at the Grandmaster and decides that he is preening, pompous and weak. He knows that the story is older than time – in any game, even the game of games, there is always one who surpasses all other players – one who is the greatest of all time, but all time is a long time, and eventually, he who holds the title grows old and soft and flabby – and weak. 'And then a Challenger arises' the mysterious being tells himself as he steps into the light, energy crackling around his hands and from his eyes. He decides that it is hard to believe they were ever friends. Suddenly, the Grandmaster reports that they may have to consult the rule book, as there has been a development.
Indeed, in Peru, Johnny Storm the Human Torch has touched the strange pyramid object, and screams – before he vanishes. 'Johnny – no...' Miguel Santos a.k.a. Lightning utters. 'Well fought' Captain Glory of the Lethal Legion calls out, saluting Sam Wilson the Falcon, who looks at him, confused. Frene the Other, also from the Legion, remarks that this is an unexpected outcome. 'It seems the point is yours, human'. “Point”? Simon Williams a.k.a. Wonder Man asks, puzzled. 'What are you talking about?' he calls out.
Corvus Glaive of the Black Order tells his beloved Proxima Midnight that this round is finished, and suggests they regroup and ensure they do not lose another. Proxima responds by telling Corvus that the Black Order could destroy these fools while they ponder their fleeing mortality. 'No. Look how pitiful they are. They're not even warriors' Corvus tells Proxima as an energy surrounds them their temmate, Ebony Maw. As Frene pulls Drall into the air, the warrior declares that thiis failur is a scar she will wear in shame, while Captain Glory tells the Avengers that they won't underestimate them in the next round.
Emily Gurrero a.k.a. Synapse exclaims 'Johnny... that thing up there killed him. We have to follow them. Take them out. For Johnny' but Falcon tells her that they can't – they need to make sure the people here are safe – that's what the Avengers do. He instructs Wonder Man to get the last of the lava flow contained while the rest of them search for injured. 'I'm on it' Wonder Man replies. Red Hulk a.k.a. General Robert L Maverick goes over to Lightning, 'It's okay. You didn't know that was gonna -' he begins, but Lightning tells him 'Don't' and announces that the Black Order sacrificed one of theirs in Rome in the exact same way, he came here to warn everyone. 'But I...I wasn't fast enough' Miguel laments. Falcon flies over to them and tells Red Hulk that Wonder Man is going to need help with the lava. Red Hulk understands, and tells Falcon that Lightning is blaming himself. 'I know it hurts, but -' Falcon begins, to which Lightning asks if Johnny and Rogue were close, and reports that he needs to head back to Rome and let Rogue know. Falcon tells Lightning that he doesn't have to take it on himself, but Miguel switches to his lightning form and takes off, 'I wasn't asking permission...' he calls back.
And, in Midtown Manhattan, at Lenox Hill Hospital, Nadia van Dyne a.k.a. the Wasp stands at the side of the bed where Edwin Jarvis lays in critical condition, while Dr Henry McCoy a.k.a. Beast clings to a bar that hangs from the ceiling and taps one of the many monitors in the room.'It's going to be okay' Nadia repeats over and over, until the Beast drops down to her side and tells her that for Jarvis' sake, as awful as this sounds, they need to deal with the science of his situation right now, not the sentiment. The Beast shows Nadia the bioscans he was referring to earlier and remarks that there are abnormalities he can't explain. Nadia sniffs and announces that she thinks she can. Nadia leans down to Jarvis and remarks that he has been with the Avengers almost since they started, and he has always been there to make sure they were cared for – close contact, to make sure they were nourished and bandaged up, to be their support systems at all times.
'That's why he means so much to us' the Beast points out, before Nadia tell him to think about all the Avengers have been exposed to over the years – the toxins, the weird radiation. The Beast hangs his head and realizes that some of that must have clung, got carried back to the mansion, even in imperceptible doses, Jarvis could not have helped being unwittingly exposed to it here and there. 'Perhaps that's what we're detecting. Destructive elements that have accumulated and combined over time' the Beast supposes, and dubs it “Avengers Fever”. Crying, Nadia hugs the Beast and asks him what happens to Jarvis if Avengers Fever doesn't break?
In Rome, Hercules clears some rubble, while Rogue tends to a rescued civilians: 'Thank you, Miss X-Man!' the man calls out to her. Rogue tells him that he is welcome. 'It's what we do' she adds. Dr Jane Foster a.k.a. Thor goes over to Rogue and asks her if she is well. 'Well enough, considering we got whupped' Rogue replies. 'Indeed. Quicksilver and Cannonball both brought low by our foes' Thor agrees. 'Sam didn't listen to me and Pietro didn't listen to anoybody...so they got shellacked' Rogue declares. 'This “game” the Black Order spoke of...' Thor begins, to which Rogue points out that the whole planet is in jeopardy and they don't even know why. She announces that what she does know is that they need to stop playing defense against these creeps. Thor agrees: 'These villains must be stopped. Let us gather our allies and -' she begins, but Rogue cuts her off: 'And what, Thor? Have another board meeting? Put it to a vote? Roberto, Falcon and me are trying ta lead a team and save the world... but it ain't working!' Rogue exclaims.
'This is why Ah don't fit in with the rest of you Avengers! Ah'm not a politician or a tactician. Ah don't know how ta be a good soldier. I go with my gut and my gut says we need to kick these galactic -' Rogue begins, staring at Thor, who hangs her head, when suddenly, the two woman are knocked back by Lightning, who blasts down between them. 'Rogue...it's my fault...I tried, but...he grabbed it before I could...' Miguel utters, horrified. 'Who?' Rogue calls out. 'The Torch...' Miguel reveals, and Rogue goes wide-eyed. 'He's gone' Miguel adds.
At that moment, the Human Torch is seen trapped inside a glowing pink gem that is suspended over the Grandmaster's cosmic game room. Next to him in a purple gem is the Black Dwarf from the Black Order. 'It's almost funny' the Challenger remarks. They stand on the large platform that seemingly floats in space, and the Challenger points out that the Grandmaster had an opportunity to even the score, and instead, one of the obstacles took the pyramoid. 'You say you're the Grandmaster – but the game board itself is a better player than you are...'. The Grandmaster tells the Challenger, calling him “Old friend” that had he wanted an easy game, he would have picked an easy terrain, but instead he chose the one planet that has stymied the Elders of the Universe more often than they care to say – Earth. 'The Avengers world' the Grandmaster exclaims, an illustion of the planet Earth hovering between his hands.
The Grandmaster points out that this is the world that tamed the Phoenix, that bested mad Thanos and altered mighty Galactus' very nature. Images of the Avengers appear as the Grandmaster declares that this is the ultimate conquest, for the ultimate stakes, so it requires the ultimate playing field. 'And, well, you all yourself the Challenger now. Don't tell me you're afraid of the challenge the Grandmaster smirks. The Challenger doesn't like this, grits his teeth and walks over to the Grandmaster: 'Yes “Old friend”. I am the Challenger now' he exclaims. 'Ah. My apologies. I see I may have crossed a -' the Grandmaster stammers, holding up his hands, but the Challenger ignores him: 'I am the Challenger... BECAUSE YOU STOLE MY NAME!' he booms, grabbing the Grandmaster by his throat and holding him off the ground. 'YOU!' the Challenger roars in anger.
Flashback:It's hard to believe they were once friends – members of a very exclusive club – the last survivors of the first sentient races – inheritors of the power primordial, made deathless through that power, aeons ago in a universe still young – they were Elders. What's more, they were brothers. But all time is a long time, and time must be filled, and the two of them had chosen to focus their immortality on the same thing – the playing of games. 'Let's see... hierophant to the fool's shadow. That's hypercheck – and mate' the larger of the brothers remarked. He instructed the chess board to reset and suggested to his brother that they have another game. 'And this time, try to keep your mind on it, eh, En Dwi Gast?' He knows that En Dwi was his constant opponent, his brother of the board, his friend. The smaller of the two, the blue-skinned En Dwi Gast paused, before he asked 'You're calling yoursef “The Grandmaster” now?' to which the Grandmaster told him that it is the new fashion. 'We are what we do, after all' he replied, pointing out that Taneleer goes by “The Collector”, and Ord Zyonyz is “The Gardener”. He suggested to En Dwi that he could be “The Gamesman” or “The Competitor”. En Dwi narrowed his eyes and replies 'Yes... I suppose I could... the Grandmaster'.
The brothers continued with their games, but there could only be one Grandmaster, only one of them could be greatest of all – and things began to change between them. The stakes of their games grew higher, even higher, until one day, En Dwi asked the Grandmaster if he understood the stakes of this game they were playing – this last game, and declared that the winner would be the greatest gamer of all, but the loser would be barred instantly from this reality until it ends. The Grandmaster replied that he knew the stakes, before suggesting to En Dwi that they could stop this madness. 'Can we?' En Dwi asked as he moved a piece on the board. 'Heirophant to fool's shadow. That's hypercheck... and final mate!' he smirked, and suddenly, energy crackled around the Grandmaster, who looked shocked and exclaimed 'Please! I'm your oldest friend! We're brothers, En Dwi! Brothers!' En Dwi frowned and replied: 'My name, “brother”...is Grandmaster' before the original Grandmaster vanished.
He was removed from existence, exiled to the far shore, beyond all life and death – at the edge of a mystery, where there is no time, no space, where all you are is not – where each picosecond lasts forever and forever, without end, and there, he waited in the dark, in the cold, alone and friendless – he waited for everything to die – and one day, everything did – a light shone over the original Grandmaster, and he began his journey back.
Present:'It took a long time to get here... brother. From the night beyond night. A long time to challenge you to the rematch...' the Challenger declares as he continues to hold the Grandmaster up by his neck. 'Indeed. This is a new contest – but the stakes are the same as before. As are the penalties for cheating...' the Grandmaster utters. He adds that he thinks twisting his head off would count as cheating. He tells the Challenger that this rage serves no purpose. The Challenger growls, and looks away – before tossing the Grandmaster to the floor. 'All right, En Dwi Gast. The head stays on. But only because I'm winning' the Challenger declares. 'For now. It's time to focus our next moves. And this round, first pick yours...' the Grandmaster replies. The Challenger reports that he chooses air. A small yellow pyramid hovers beside the Challenger, and he declares that the electric air, the thunder without mercy, and he will leave the Grandmaster with the water that runs in hs blood. A small blue pyramid appears next to the Grandmaster who replies 'Not water, Challenger...ice'.
The Grandmaster gets to his feet and declares that the ice will bury the Challenger. Pointing out that the Black Dwarf is off the board and that means the Challenger is a player short, the Challenger then roars with laughter, before announcing that he was never a player short, that he kept one in reserve – a very special ace in the hole – one who understands the purpose of rage!
And, in New Mexico, in the ruins of the mount, within a dark hole, green energy glows, and a voice cries out 'Help me...'
Falcon, Hercules, Thor IV, Wasp III (all Avengers)Beast, Human Torch II, Rogue, Synapse II, Wonder Man (all Avengers Unity Division)Red Hulk II (US Avengers)LightningEdwin Jarvis
Black Dwarf, Corvus Glaive, Ebony Maw, Proxima Midnight (all Black Order)
Captain Glory, Drall, Frene the Other (all Lethal Legion)
In illustrative image:The Challenger, The Collector, The Contemplator, The Gardener, The Grandmaster, The Possessor (all Elders)
In flashback:Grandmaster / ChallengerEn Dwi Gast / Grandmaster
In projection:Phoenix ForceThanosGalactus
This issue is narrated by the Challenger.