His thick cape fluttering behind him as he walked, the Sorceror Supreme went to a bookcase and randomly extracted an ancient tome. Sometimes he thought the waiting would be worse than the battle itself. He blew the dust off its leath-bound cover and prepared to open the untitled book when a voice drew his attention away.
"Stephen Strange, I have need of you." it said. A robed figure moved in the darkness.
Quickly, the mage lit the candles nearby with spell and looked at his intruder, "Gaea?" he said with surprise, "What brings you here?"
"You, Stephen Strange, and what will surely be the greatest crisis of our time." she replied, stopping to look the black-haired man in the eye.
"Thanos..." he said in a low voice.
"Yes, him." she punctuated the word with disdain, "I am aware that your ally, known as Adam Warlock, has devised a plan to stop this 'Mad Titan.'"
"Yes, he has. Warlock has defeated Thanos in the past. Perhaps he can lead us to victory once again." Strange did not seem to believe what he was saying.
"Let us hope that Warlock is successful. But if he is not, other measures will be taken to stop Thanos." her voice was stern.
"Warlock mentioned such a thing, but he did not tell any of us exactly what these 'other measures' entailed."
"As we speak, every cosmic entity in this reality and all the pocket dimensions attached to it are gathering at Eternity's behest. If Warlock's strategy fails, they will confront Thanos directly and forcibly remove this 'Infinity Equation' from his being."
"Shouldn't you be with your fellows?" Strange asked.
She shook her head, "No, I have another purpose, as do the Vishanti and all the other mystic beings. If your ally's plan goes awry, Eternity will not wait for Thanos to leave earth or regain his senses. The cosmic entities will attack immediately."
"By Hoggoth! That will lay waste to this planet! Surely he can be talked out of such a harsh strategy..."
Once again, Gaea shook her head, "No, I have already spoken with him. He will not deviate. To one who is all the universe, a single planet's life or death means nothing. But I will not sit by and allow earth to be destroyed. Such a horrible action cannot be considered."
"How do you plan to save this planet, then?"
"As I said, all the mystic beings have convened. When, and if, the time comes, they will channel their awesome powers through your Eye of Agamotto and erect a force power over my World-Child. Hopefully that action will save this planet. If not, we can do nothing else. Naturally, someone must be present to monitor the Eye of Agamotto during the channeling of power..."
"And that someone is to be me." Strange finished.
"Yes, Stephen. You are the the most qualified individual to watch over the Eye during the battle."
The mage took a deep breath, "I thank you for your confidence, Gaea, but I am assuredly going to be in the battle against Thanos of Titan. My talents are needed in that instance as well."
"I understand, Stephen, but despite this, the mystic beings still wish you to monitor the Eye. Do you accept this responsibility?"
He considered this for a moment, then finally said, with a nod, "Yes, I accept, Mother Earth."
She inclined her head with a smile, "Thank you, Stephen. I only hope that the task assigned to you never occurs." Gaea turned with a flutter of her green robes and said to Strange, as she began to fade from view, "Goodbye, Sorceror Supreme..."
The mage looking at the space she had once occupied for several moments, lost in thought. A high-pitched beeping sound abruptly jarred him from his reverie. He turned and headed for the study's exit. "The worst part is the waiting." Now he was going to test this assumption. For once, he hoped it was right.
"Well, we're down to the last one." Iron Man said as he walked over to stand next to the Vision, a datapad held in his armored hand.
From his seated position, the android responded, without looking up from the data terminal, "Who has been chosen?"
He paused a minute, then said in a lower voice, "Damien Hellstorm."
"That could present a problem."
"That's certainly true. Guess it's time to let the 'three ringleaders' know..."
"Indeed. I have already contacted them. Adam Warlock, Mister Fantastic, and Captain America are on their way."
"Good...I really hope this works..."
"As do I. The future of the human race will rest on our confrontation with Thanos. If we fail, we all could either be dead or his mindless slaves."
"I prefer the former, myself. I've gone up against the Titan more times then I care to remember and I don't even want to think about what he'll do to us if lose this one..."
"We won't." Captain America's stern voice cut in as he strode into the large, brightly lit room. Richards was close behind with Adam Warlock's gliding form taking up the rear.
"I assume the twenty heroes have been decided upon, judging by your message..." Warlock said as he came to a smooth stop. Richards and the patriot stood behind him in a flanking stance so that the three formed a human triangle.
"We sure have, Warlock. Vis, you wanna name 'em off?"
"As you wish. In the category of energy manipulators, we have chosen: the Silver Surfer, Firelord, Black Bolt the Inhuman, Quasar, and Magneto the Master of Magnetism."
"Magneto?" Captain America questioned, his brow furrowing slightly.
"He was more than willing to defend earth from the Celestials. His usual feelings toward humanity in general have no bearing in this conflict." Adam Warlock said, the matter obviously closed.
The Vision nodded once and then continued, "Physically powerful: Gladiator of the Shi'ar, the Incredible Hulk, Hercules, the Mighty Thor, and Drax the Destroyer."
"And Gladiator has already arrived?" Warlock asked the assembly in general.
"Yes." the android said before beginning the next list, "For mental manipulators we have decided upon: Professor Xavier, Jean Grey, Nathan Grey, Moondragon, and Cable." He paused, waiting for objections. There were none, "Finally, spiritual manipulators: Dr. Strange, Agatha Harkness, Ghost Rider, Damien Hellstorm, and you, Adam Warlock."
The golden man nodded his head slowly, seemingly pleased with the arrangement and choices, "Begin contacting and bringing these individuals here immediately. They must be thoroughly briefed long before they confront Thanos."
"As you wish, Adam Warlock." the Vision said simply, turning back to the control panel.
"Iron Man," Richards addressed the armored being, "it's time I got to work on the Quantum Dissipater. Your help would be greatly appreciated."
"Will do, Reed. Let's go." he started for the door, Mister Fantastic following closely behind. Captain America stayed behind.
"Have we recieved any other news from the Shi'ar yet?" the patriot asked the android.
The Vision's hands flew across the control panel, "Yes, we recieved a message from Majestrix Lilandra several minutes ago. It informs us that not only the Shi'ar, but the Badoon, Skrulls, Ovoids, and Rigellians will be engaging Thanos as well. They are massing a combined force of one-hundred fifty-thousand warships to halt the Titan's advance."
"Amazing..." Captain America said with astonishment, "That should be more than enough to stop him."
"It will not be." Warlock broke in, his voice icy and certain, "But it will buy us the time we need to prepare. In the end, that is all that matters."
Appearing to ignore Warlock's cold statement, Captain America said to the Vision, "When do they plan to engage Thanos?"
"Approximately twenty-three hours from now, or so it says from the message."
"And how much time do we have until Thanos arrives here?"
Captain America took a deep breath, "They're cutting it too close..."
"It takes time to raise a fleet of such magnitude, Captain." the Vision said, "I am sure that is the reason why they are 'cutting it too close.'"
"Yes, you're probably right...I should go and get some rest...Take my own advice for once." he said, nearly talking to himself. The patriot turned and walked out of the large room, leaving Adam Warlock and the android alone with the hum of numerous machines in the background.
"Contact Doctor Strange first." Warlock finally said, "He gathered our last 'army' quite quickly, during the Infinity Gauntlet affair."
"My reasoning as well." The Vision tapped several buttons and Stephen Strange's face appeared on the screen, "Doctor Strange, you have been chosen as one of the heroes who will confront Thanos of Titan. Please teleport here quickly, so that we might begin retrieval of the other heroes."
"As I knew my purpose would be. I will see you"-Strange disappeared from the screen in a golden flash of light-"now." he finished, reappearing next to the android. He turned to look at Adam Warlock, "A pleasure to see you again, Adam. I wish it were under better circumstances, though."
"Agreed. Perhaps we should go to a larger room to continue our endeavour?" he asked the Vision.
"Please," Strange said, his voice suddenly a bit weak. Warlock noticed how haggard the mage's features were then. He looked nearly twice his normal age, "give me some time to rest. I haven't been able to rest since I became aware of this 'situation.' None of my spells have worked either..."
"I understand, Stephen." Warlock said, looking the former surgeon in the eye.
"But first, there are things I must explain to you. Gaea and the mystic beings-"
"Later, Strange." the golden man cut him off, "You are no use to me or anyone else in this state. Sleep." The emerald jewel suddenly glowed brightly, reflected in the Sorceror Supreme's widening eyes. A pencil-thin beam struck Strange in the forehead and his immediately lolled backward, eyes dropping shut. He would have crumpled to the floor had Warlock not caught him with an outstretched arm.
"What have you done to him?" the Vision said, up and out of his chair.
"A mild Karmic Blast. He will definately get some rest this way. When he awakens, we may truly begin our task."
The android seemed somewhat hesitant, but eventually he nodded and began to follow Warlock out, Strange now suspended in a field of glowing green energy several inches off the floor.
Iron Man entered a huge circular room, brightly lit. Uncounted machines whose purposes he could not even guess at without close inspection ringed the chamber. At the center of the large workshop was a wide ovular table, strewn with bits of machinery and armor. But it was not the technology that made Iron Man gasp, it was the cloaked man standing in the midst of it.
"Doctor Doom?" he said with confusion, repulsor arrays beginning to glow. He turned quickly to look for an explanation from Richards.
"Victor Von Doom is one of the greatest scientific minds and armor-smiths on the planet, Iron Man." the scientist said, as if Doom were not out of place in the Avengers' headquarters, "And our time is short. His aid is absolutely necessary if we are to finish the Quantum Dissipater in time for Thanos' arrival."
"But..." Iron Man sputtered, "Why's he even agreed to help us?" He turned back to look at the emerald-caped despot.
As if speaking to a child Doom replied, each word spoken perfectly, "Because Thanos threatens the entire globe, and I have no interest in ruling a world of cinders one day. And Latveria also must be protected. I will not let my people fall into the Titan's hands."
Iron Man turned back to Richards. He nodded slowly, then started for the table.
"You of all people should understand my goals, Iron Man. You wouldn't want your company, your little nation and its population of employees to fall into the hands of some foreign barbarian, now would you, Stark?" There was a smile behind his silver mask as he leaned over and began toying with a piece of metal and circuitry.
"What did you say?" he blurted out instantly. Doom did not respond. He looked quickly to Reed and found the scientist already lost in his work. He had always considered the Latverian monarch a threat, but a distant one. Obviously he would have to re-evaluate that conclusion.
"Don't just stand there," Doom snapped suddenly, "make yourself useful. Even I, the greatest mind on this and any other planet, cannot accomplish miracles. It will take all three of us to keep this planet from Thanos' clutches."
Like a schoolboy chastised by a teacher, Stark quickly strode to the table and began work, examining the myriad pieces of metal and circuits littered there. But every now and again he shot Doom a hooded glance. He could've sworn that harsh metal mask was turned up in a knowing smile.
"Firelord!" Doctor Strange said through the mystic portal he had recently conjured. It looked out into deep space, and a fiery figure, "We have need of you! Join us!"
Pyreus Kril considered the sorceror's pleas and stepped through onto the metal floor. He gave Adam Warlock and the Vision quick looks, but his gaze halted on the Silver Surfer, standing off to the side, "I've been brought here because of Thanos and whatever mad bid for power he's embarked on, haven't I?"
Norrin nodded, "Yes. You felt the disturbance as well?"
"Indeed I did. What are we going to do about him this time?"
"In good time, Pyreus. First we must wait for the others to arrive."
"Others?" he said, just as Black Bolt, ruler of the Inhumans strode through the portal. He looked around stoicly and stepped off to the side, saying nothing. Firelord looked him over, "I see...This is gonna be bad, isn't it? Like the Infinity Gauntlet?"
"Maybe worse." the Surfer replied somberly, "Warlock and myself will explain once we have gathered all the other heroes. We will number twenty in all, once Strange has finished his task."
So Stephen Strange's work continued. The android read off each hero's name, and the mage quickly transported them to the Avengers' headquarters. Magneto was grim while the Hulk arrived in irritation, not wanting to be bothered. Professor Xavier and Jean Grey were more than prepared for the summons, each wearing psionic armor of Shi'ar design. The X-Man, Nathan Grey, was suspicious at first, but was persuaded to join them eventually. Cable carried a huge assortment of guns, knives, and a variety of other weapons. Agatha Harkness seemed angry that Strange had been called before her, but the mage seemed unaffected by her anger. Ghost Rider sensed the need for cosmic penance and was eager to join the cause. Damien Hellstorm said nothing as he came through, but his eyes and facial expression said he was more than aware of the situation at hand.
The work finished with Hellstorm's arrival, the contingent of heroes made their way from the empty storeroom and into a large living chamber, arrayed with numerous couches and chairs. Most of them remained standing, but Strange sat, a bit winded from his efforts of teleporting over such long distances. Nate Grey was edgy, "Well, you gonna explain what's goin' on, golden man?"
"Yes, I shall. But first, let us first bring in your comrades, those who will be fighting alongside you in the conflict to come." he gestured to the Vision, "Bring them in."
The android nodded once, then exited the room. Moments later he entered again, trailing behind him a number of individuals.
"I'm sure all of you are familiar with Quasar, Drax, Moondragon, Thor, and Gladiator. With them here, our little army is complete. It will be up to the twenty of us, including Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer, and myself, to deal with Thanos, when and if he reaches this planet."
"Who the Hell is Thanos?" Nate Grey interjected, nearly shouting, "He that purple guy I saw in a telepathic vision a little while ago?"
"Yes, and he seeks to either destroy or subjugate the cosmos. Neither alternative is acceptable. He will be stopped."
"Well, how exactly do we stop him, then?" the Hulk asked, irritation surfacing already.
"Each of you has been chosen because your abilities. All of you are the best at what you do, and that is why you have been brought here." Warlock paused, looking to Norrin Radd.
The Silver Surfer began then, starting where his comrade had left off, "Thanos' new source of power, as many of you know, is called the Infinity Equation. But, unlike the Infinity Gauntlet, it takes time to bond with its host. When he arrives here, we estimate he will be nearly omnipotent, but not quite. It is that small window of oppurtuinity that we plan to use."
Warlock picked it up again, "When the time comes, each of you will attack the Titan, assaulting him separately on spiritual, mental, physical, and energy levels. We hope that will be enough to dislodge the Equation from his being. If this occurs, he can then be dealt with in a more conventional manner."
"And if this 'Equation' doesn't get 'dislodged'?" Banner asked, huge arms folded across his massive chest.
"As a last resort, we will use the Quantum Dissipater that Reed Richards and Iron Man are constructing as we speak. It will be the final stroke used to separate the Equation from Thanos. But it will only be effective if all of us begin the process ourselves, in combat."
A murmur ran through the assembled heroes for several moments. It quieted down quickly when Magneto said, his voice overriding all others, "A simple plan, Adam Warlock, and one I'm sure all of us can easily carry out. When does Thanos arrive?"
"Approximately twenty-nine hours." the Vision reported immediately.
"We've got more than a day!" Banner shouted, "Why the Hell'd you bring us over here so soon?"
"The twenty of you will be working together in what may be the battle that will decide the fate of your planet and the very universe itself. It is wise that all you get to know each other well before combat. And we also cannot risk any of you dying at the hands of one of the myriad 'super-villains' roaming this planet."
"Quarters have been arranged for all of you. Merely ask the Mansion's computer system and it will tell you where you are scheduled to be staying." the Vision said crisply.
There were more muttering as the mass began to move toward the door. Warlock spoke a final time, "Rest now, but you will be awakened at 7 am."
"Why?" Nate Grey snapped.
"That is when a fleet of Shi'ar starships will engage Thanos. They will not defeat him, but the battle will give you all and indication of the Titan's power, and his tactics."
"How're we gonna watch this thing? Aren't they gonna be lightyears away?" Banner asked.
Warlock looked at Doctor Strange. The mage nodded slowly. Answer enough for the crowd. Slowly they filed out of the room. When only Warlock, the Surfer, and Strange remained, Norrin leaned over to whisper into the golden being's ear, "Do we stand any kind of a chance?"
Warlock turned and looked the Surfer directly in the eye, his face expressionless. He spoke loud enough for Strange to hear without straining, "No."
Continue to Chapter 17
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