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Mark Waid, Al Ewing & Jim Zub (writers), Paco Medina (penciler), Juan Vlasco (inker), Jesus Aburtov (colorist), Virtual Calligraphy's Cory Petit (letterer), Mark Brooks (cover artist), Dale Keown & Jason Keith (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
Thor uses her power to speed up the Quinjet she, Rogue and Hercules are in, attempting to get to the Avengers Auxiliary HQ quicker, where Wonder Man has arrived and attempts to talk peacefully with the Hulk, trying to reach out to Bruce Banner inside the Hulk, but the Hulk isn't having it, and continues to fight Wonder Man. Cannonball, Lightning, Toni and Aikku, using the remains of the Enigma armor, are all that is left of the Avengers to stop Proxima Midnight and Black Swan who are also attempting to get to the pyramoid – luckily, Rogue, Thor and Hercules return in time to turn the tide. Voyager watches from the vault within the Auxiliary HQ and learns about teamwork, while Wonder Man continues to resist fighting the Hulk, all the while trying to reason with him, as the Hulk attempts to break Wonder Man. Hercules joins in, and attacks the Hulk. Rogue tells Wonder Man that they will take it from here, but Wonder Man is annoyed, he was getting somewhere with the Hulk. The Hulk knocks back Thor, Rogue and Hercules with relative ease, until Rogue is able to siphon off some of his gamma energy, Bruce appears and warns the Avengers that the Hulk can't die. Wonder Man tries to talk to the Hulk, about how he can never die, while the Challenger communicates with the Hulk, who breaks into the vault and knocks Voyager aside with ease, before he grabs the pyramoid – and breaks it into pieces. The Challenger is shocked and horrified at being double crossed – and at losing this battle. The Hulk reverts to Bruce, who asks the Avengers to forgive him, while Rogue demands an explanation from Voyager, who reveals how her father used her as a pawn. The Challenger is furious to learn about Voyager being the Grandmaster's daughter, and accuses him of cheating, before obliterating the Grandmaster with a surge of energy.
'Rogue, I don't know if the Quinjet can handle this!' Jane Foster a.k.a. Thor calls out from on top of the Quinjet where she raises Mjolnir and creates a powerful wind vortex around the Quinjet, propelling it forward. Inside the Quinjet, Rogue tells Thor to keep the vortex going – and she doesn't care if Thor butns the plane out, as long as they got to the Avengers Auxiliary HQ quicker. 'Aye! Take us to the battleground with great haste, my friend!' Hercules calls out from where he sits next to Rogue. Hercules boasts that he hungers for combat.
But at the Avengers Auxiliary HQ, Simon Williams a.k.a. Wonder Man thinks to himself that some people like to fight – only he is not one of them. Simon thinks to himself that he has been an Avenger, an enemy of the Avengers, and has been dead – but now he is alive again, and is trying to live that life according to one simple truth – that violence is not the answer.
'Listen to me, Bruce. I'm not -' Wonder Man begins as he holds his hands up to the Immortal Hulk – who slams a powerful fist into Wonder Man, drawing blood. '- I'm not letting you into that vault!' Simon declares, rubbing his face, thinking that it is no secret he has had issues with the Avengers' methods – that for all their power, all their righteousness, in the face of evil – they always seem to resort to one thing – their fists. But Simon refuses to believe that the best they can do is punch the world into submission.
The Hulk towers over Simon, who is still on the floor. 'Okay?' Simon calls out. 'Now, you can keep hitting me if you want to, Bruce, but...you can't hurt me. And I won't hurt you' Simon tells the Hulk, who responds by slamming his fist into Simon again, forcing his head against a nearby wall. 'The Hulk is a prime example' Simon thinks to himself. He tells the Hulk that he won't, and asks him what is the point. Simon knows that all hitting the Hulk ever did was feed his anger, but that talking to him – talking to the good man inside him, Bruce Banner, that might just work. 'Come on, Bruce. It's me. Simon. We're friends' Simon calls out. The Hulk remains silent, before uttering 'Friends'.
'Thank heaven you're in there' Simon remarks, before telling Bruce to breathe in, and visualize a calm meadow – but the Hulk declares that they are not friends, and slams his hand into Simon's chest, knocking him back to the floor. 'You're a Hollywood snob drowning in ego. Preaching nonviolence when it's easy – when violence can't ever reach you. Well, I can reach you, Williams. And I can hurt you' Hulk snarls. 'I can smash you' the Hulk begins, while Simon thinks to himself 'His voice. God. His voice. Ice and granite and raw. Bloody hate. This isn't Bruce. This is the other guy'. Hulk's hand covers Simon's head, 'Hulk...?' Simon utters, while the Hulk smirks and asks 'What's wrong, Simon? I thought you wanted to talk...'.
In another part of the Auxiliary HQ, a battle rages between several Avengers and two of the Black Order – Proxima Midnight and Black Swan. 'Your tenacious spirit amuses me!' Proxima Midnight calls out as Sam Guthrie a.k.a. Cannonball blasts past her, joking that he will be sure to put “tenacious spirit” on his resume. Dr Toni Ho and Aikku Jokinen, otherwise known as Iron Patriot and Enigma, respctively, are near Black Swan, who has surrounded herself with a force field and snarls 'We'll carve it on your gravestones – if the Black Order leaves enough to bury!' Toni and Aikku continue to use the energies from the destroyed Enigma armor against Black Swan's force field, and Toni reports that they are wearing Black Swan down, but they might only have one more shot before these jury-rigged blasters die on them. 'Then we make it count!' Aikku calls out, before turning to Miguel Santos a.k.a. Lightning, who tells her that he is on it, and as he releases some electrical energy into the blasters, he adds that he hopes the extra charge is enough.
Toni tells Aikku that it will have to be, and asks her if she is ready. 'One last time, say it loud, my love – U.S. Avengers -' Aikku shouts, while Black Swan narrows her eyes, 'You should have -' she begins, as Aikku shouts 'UNITE!' and she and Toni fire a blast from the Enigma armor, super-charged with energy from Lightning, which strikes Black Swan's force field and tear it apart. Black Swan screams as she falls backwards. Proxima Midnight calls out to her teammate while knocking Cannonball over. 'Enough of this!' Proxima mutters as she rushes over to Lightning, Aikku and Toni, who don't see her coming up behind them. 'Got another in you?' Lightning asks Toni, who holds Enigma's helmet and replies 'Not with this. It's dead. 'Pod...my friend...my sister... if you can hear me. Where are you...we need a miracle' Aikku utters.
'Your luck has come to an end!' Proxima shouts, but before she can attack the three Avengers with her staff, Mjolnir is thrown towards her, and slams her backwards. 'Luck ain't got nothing to do with it, lady!' Rogue declares as she, Thor and Hercules stand over her. 'It's called “teamwork”!' Rogue adds, and Proxima suddenly looks concerned.
Within the vault, Voyager watches the battle on a portal she has created. “Teamwork” she remarks, telling herself that she was so focused on being one of the Avengers, one of them, acting the part, playing the role. 'Why am I only seeing it now?' she wonders – realizing that no single one of them is ever the winner, that's not what they fight for, it's not a game. 'What do they fight for, father? Just to win?' Voyager wonders as she looks at the pyramoid that hovers near her in the vault.
Outside the vault, the Hulk goes silent again, but Simon notes that when he did speak, he was articulate – brutally articulate, even. 'The Hulk at his most intelligent... God help us all' Simon thinks to himself, as the Hulk tries to break Wonder Man's body, Simon calls out to Bruce, telling him that he knows he is inside the Hulk. 'You know this is pointless – even if you tear my head off – and myabe you can – I'll just come back' Simon declares, adding that his body is ionic energy, he can't die like a normal person. 'Hah' the Hulk laughs. 'There's an irony' Hulk adds. Simon spits up some blood as the Hulk reveals that Banner was right, sitting there crying in his head. 'I'll always come back, too. I'll always survive. That's why the Challenger woke me up' the Hulk reveals. 'The Challenger?' Simon asks, trying to tell Bruce that whoever the “Challenger” is, he is using him. 'No. I'm using him. When the game ends, Earth ends with it' the Hulk reveals.
Hulk leans into Simon and points out that there will be no more puny humans, just him – alone – finally. Simon realizes that this is like talking to a nightmare, and tells himself that if Banner is in there, he is buried so deep that he can't be reached. Simon tells himself to stop talking to Banner, and wonders what the Hulk want. 'Hulk – listen to me -' Simon begins, but a voice calls out 'Ho there!' and the Hulk turns to see Hercules stride towards him, 'Stand down, Banner! The Lion of Olympus will stop you!' Hercules declares as he slams his fist into the Hulk, knocking him back from Simon. 'Herc, wait!' Simon calls out, but before Hercules can strike Hulk again, Thor drops down and slams Mjolnir into the Hulk, lightning crackling with the impact of the hammer against the Hulk.
Rogue goes over to Wonder Man and congratulates him on great work, stopping the Hulk inhis tracks until the cavalry came. 'Now we'll take care of it' Rogue adds, but Simon tries to tell her no – as he can reach the Hulk, but she doesn't listen to him. Thor continues to pour the might of Mjolnir against the Hulk, while Voyager continues to watch inside the vault, 'Look at them, father. Their strength is awe-inspiring. Every blow, a thunderclap' she remarks, while realizing that with even all that power, the creature does not yield, as Hulk knocks Thor and Hercules away. Rogue removes a glove, and calls out 'Time to power down, big guy...' as she grabs the Hulk by his neck, and Rogue begins to growl as she attempts to absorb his power. 'His mind...' Rogue gasps, her eyes glowing green. Suddenly, the Hulk appears to be gone, and Bruce Banner can be seen in his place. 'Don't do this...run away...he can't be stopped... he can't die' Bruce tells Rogue, before she falls backwards, gamma energy flickering around her.
Rogue's skin has turned green, and she tells herself to stay calm, as Thor tells Hercules that they must strike together. 'Of course -' Hercules agrees, while Wonder Man calls put 'Damn it – no -' and as Thor and Hercules leap onto the Hulk, Wonder Man helps Rogue up, and calls out to the Hulk, asking him to listen to him: 'Maybe you can't die – but you thought you could, remember? You were at peace! At rest – finally - until they woke you up!' Simon tries to remind the Hulk, who tries to shake Thor and Herc off of him and tells Simon to shut up. 'And now you know the truth – you can never have that again! Never again!' Wonder Man calls out, reminding the Hulk that they took it away from him – because they couldn't leave him alone. 'They wouldn't leave you alone!' Wonder Man shouts, causing the Hulk to push Thor and Hercules aside.
The Challenger uses this moment to call out to the Hulk, urging him to get to the vault, as he is almost there. 'Don't tell me you're going to be brought down by a group of puny humans...?' the Challenger asks as Hulk tears open the door the vault. 'Of course he won't' the Challenger remarks, before warning the Grandmaster that their game has reached its end, and despite his pathetic efforts, victory is at last within his grasp. 'Watch with me' the Challenger tells the Grandmaster.
Voyager tells the Hulk that she won't let him claim the final pyramoid, and raises her hand, creating an energy sphere, she announces that she has made her choice – she fights for the Avengers! But the Hulk knocks her aside with ease, and reaches for the pyramoid.
'Let me demonstrate how a victor truly savors success. That's it, Hulk. You've battled hard and battled well. Claim your prize!' the Challenger exclaims.
'My prize. Mine... to SMASH!' the Hulk roars as he takes the pyramoid and breaks it in two, shocking the Challenger, who screams.
The Challenger drops to his knees, 'What... why...' he utters, as the Grandmaster remarks that it is tragic, that the Challenger somehow managed to both overestimate and underestimate his final playing piece. 'The Hulk hurt you, the only way he could – by committing a foul. A negative point against you. Thus, his victory is mine. You have lost. You know the consequences. I will make your banishment as painless as possible...but there is only so much I can do' the Grandmaster smirks.
'Voyager! What happ -' Rogue calls out, while Wonder Man, Thor and Hercules look on, and the Hulk suddenly reverts to his human form of Bruce Banner, 'Fuh...forgive...me...' he asks the Avengers. Wonder Man goes over to Bruce and tells him that it is all right, that they are his friends, and they will get him through whatever comes next.
Rogue turns to Voyager and declares that she messed with their minds, and wants to know who she is and what her part is in all of this. 'TALK!' Rogue snaps 'I – I can explain -' Voyager begins, while her father the Grandmaster contacts her telepathically, telling her to be silent and come to him. Voyager quickly tells Rogue that she has been trying to help, now that she has seen what an Avenger is – really see – she doesn't want to fool them anymore. 'Now!' the Grandmaster orders. Voyager tells the Avengers that they already knew about the Elders, the cosmic game Earrth is caught in – but they didn't know she was one of the pieces. 'Daughter, no!' the Grandmaster exclaims, as Voyager reveals to the Avengers that the Grandmaster his her in their ranks, to mobilize them, turn them from obstacles into pawns, and while they distracted the Challenger, she was to bring the last pyramoid to him, so he could claim the point himself. 'NO!' the Grandmaster tells his daughter again. Hercules asks Voyager if the Grandmaster was her master as well, to which Voyager reveals that he wasn't her master – but her father!
Challenger sees this revelation on a viewing portal, and does not look happy about it. 'You CHARLATAN!' he roars, turning to the Grandmaster and calling him a deceptive fraud. 'All your talk of the sanctity of the rules! You...you stacked the deck before the players were even engaged!' he exclaims. The Gandmaster tells the Challenger that he is overreacting, as Voyager was simply another tool with which to move the pyramoids about, and there is nothing untoward in arranging for the Avengers to trust her. 'Trust? You do not dare use that word! There is no game now! It is broken, thanks to you! You bring dishonor to all the Elders!' the Challenger snarls. The Grandmaster frowns and admits that he took advantage of some gray areas in the rules, and apologizes for this, and tells the Challenger that if it is a clean victory he seeks, he can offer him an interesting rematch.
The Grandmaster issues his response immediately, by shouting 'NO!' and firing a blast towards the Grandmaster which appears to tear him apart....
Hercules, Thor IV (both Avengers)
Rogue, Wonder Man (both Avengers Unity Division)
Cannonball, Enigma, Iron Patriot II (all US Avengers)
Black Swan II, Proxima Midnight (both Black Order)
This issue is narrated by Wonder Man.
Wonder Man mentions he has been dead – he has indeed been deceased several times, first in Avengers (1st series) #1, before being resurrected in Avengers (1st series) #151. He died again some years later in the neo-classic Force Works #1, and partially returned to life in Avengers (3rd series) #2, and then fully in Avengers (3rd series) #11, thanks to the Scarlet Witch.