FANTASTIC FORCE #2

Jennifer Walters, Susan Storm-Richards, Jim Hammond, Emma Frost, Longshot, and Rocket Raccoon appeared in Castle Doom once again. Rather than a grim cell, this time they were seated in a grand dining room, with Doom himself at the head of the table.

“I have decoded and analyzed the information regarding the lost Darkhold pages,” said Doom.

“You’re welcome, by the way,” said Emma.

Ignoring her, Doom continued. “I have tracked a component crucial to this prophecy’s fulfillment to a set of catacombs in Sokovia. You will be deployed immediately. Time is of the essence, as the Darkholders will no doubt locate this artifact in due time, and will send agents to—“

“Hold up,” said Jen. “I think we’re owed a few answers, after being drafted into your private war and going along with your plans for one mission already.”

“Ask what you will,” said Doom. “I will not guarantee answers.”

“First off, what exactly does this prophecy say will happen?” asked Jen. “We need to know what we’re dealing with.”

Doom sighed. “The Darkholders believe that an individual referred to as the Prince, whom they believe to be ‘pure of heart,’ will be sacrificed atop Mount Wundagore and will serve as the vessel for Chthon’s return. This sacrifice allegedly requires a specific mystical dagger, which is what I am sending you to retrieve. Was that entirely necessary?”

“Yes,” said Jen. “Now, next question. Why did you choose the six of us? This is the most random super-team I’ve ever been a part of.”

“My selections were tactical, as are all my decisions,” said Doom. “Susan is a field leader I can trust.”

“‘Trust’ is an odd word, coming from you to me,” said Sue, scowling.

“Trust is a form of predictability,” said Doom. “We have crossed paths often enough that I understand your personality and tendencies well enough to believe you will carry out my missions reliably. That is all. Do not interpret any of this as a gesture of affection.”

“You’ve got yourself a deal,” said Susan with venom.

“She-Hulk and the android provide muscle and firepower, which are tools I hesitate to use but never fail to keep in reserve,” said Doom. “Ms. Frost is a skilled telepath, which makes her a far more precise and subtle tool for covert operations. The rodent—“

“Excuse me?” said Rocket.

The rodent,” said Doom, glaring at Rocket, “is a useful field technician, a role I would fill myself had I not information to gather on our enemies and a country to rule. As for Longshot, probability manipulation abilities are a phenomenon I have not yet been able to fully decipher. This leads me to believe that our enemies are equally unable to account for it. I therefore intend to study his ability and attempt to find a way to use it to our advantage, on a larger scale than throwing knives like a circus performer.”

“So… am I going to Sokovia with the others?” asked Longshot.

“You are not,” said Doom. “You will accompany me to a laboratory, where I will perform tests to determine the precise nature of your ability. We have wasted enough time on prattle already. The rest of you, leave my sight.” Doom waved his hand and the five non-Longshot heroes vanished from the room.

***

Sue, Jen, Jim, Emma, and Rocket found themselves in a dark cavern. Jim flamed on his hand for light, and revealed a narrow tunnel with runes written on the walls.

“Emma, scan for minds,” said Sue. “Jen, stay in back and watch our 6. Let’s keep a slow pace and stay on our toes.”

“Nobody here but us chickens,” said Emma. “Within about 1000 feet, I mean.”

“Good,” said Sue. The group crept along.

“Jennifer, dearie,” said Emma, “you’re so very strong.” She put a hand on She-Hulk’s green bicep.

“Are… are you coming on to me?” asked Jen.

“Of course not!” said Emma. “I was merely going to ask if you could carry me a ways. I did not wear the right heels for this.”

“Are there right heels at all for spelunking?” said Jim.

“You clearly know nothing of adventure fashion, old man,” replied Emma, “a subject on which I, quite frankly, wrote the book. Still, I can see you turning out rather nice in a better costume. Perhaps a Van Dyne?”

“Is this really the time?” asked Sue.

“Apologies, darling,” said Emma. “Now, Jennifer—“

“Absolutely not,” replied Jen flatly.

“Understood,” said Emma, with fear in her voice.

***

“So what kind of tests are we running?” asked Longshot as he and Doom walked to the laboratory.

“You will see,” said Doom. “Though you will likely not understand.”

“Then can you explain it to me?” asked Longshot.

“Why would I waste an iota of energy on such a fool’s errand?” asked Doom.

“Because having teammates who understand what’s going on can help the mission?” replied Longshot.

“We are not ‘teammates,’” said Doom. “I am employing you for a limited time because you have qualities useful to this mission. That is all.”

“Sounds like a teammate to me,” said Longshot.

“Can one consider a master chess player to be teammates with his pawns?” said Doom, growing audibly angry. They reached the lab.

***

“This is going a bit too well,” said Sue. “Emma, do another scan.”

“We’re still alone,” said Emma. “Wait, actually—AH!” Emma swooned, and Jennifer caught her.

“Is this bimbo gonna get taken out every mission?” asked Rocket.

“Actually,” said Emma, getting back on her feet, “I believe I’m quite alright. And it seems we have some rather unpleasant company, so I would likely be more useful—“ Emma changed into her diamond form. “—looking like this.”

N’Garai approached from ahead. Jim flamed on, and everyone prepared for a fight, but the demons suddenly fled.

“That’s not a good sign,” said Jim.

“Or is it, hear me out,” said Rocket, “a really really good sign?”

“They’re likely running from something that’s not us,” said Sue.

“Exactly!” said Rocket. “Bigger thing to kill, ergo, more fun for us.”

“Speak of the actual devil,” said Jen, as the sound of hooves on stone began to echo. Jim brightened his flame, and a chariot pulled by black skeletal horses was revealed. The driver held a black whip, which he flicked at Jen. Jen cried out in pain as a black energy began to visibly spread through her veins. Sue put up a force field, temporarily blocking the whip.

“Open a hole in that field and I’ll fry him,” said Jim.

“I support this plan,” said Rocket.

“Wait,” said Emma. “I can try to communicate with him. Maybe he’s on our side.”

“We don’t have much time,” said Sue. “Jen’s in terrible condition.”

“Telepathy doesn’t tend to take long,” said Emma. She reached out with her mind, and found the same dark energy that overwhelmed her before. Emma pressed forward, however, and sent out a message.

Someone seeks to use the dagger stored in these catacombs for a dark ritual, Emma thought. We are retrieving it to protect it.

The response was horribly loud. YOU ARE INTRUDERS, thought the chariot driver. DIE.

Very well, thought Emma. She found the muscle control centers of the driver’s demonic brain, and seized an opportunity to open his hand for a split second, causing him to drop the whip. Sue extended an additional force field to catch the whip, then rolled it onto the heroes’ side of the barrier. Rocket grabbed the whip in his mouth and ran forward on all fours. The rest followed. The driver got off his chariot and began to beat on the force field with his fists.

***

“Attempt to use your powers on this pair of dice,” said Doom to Longshot, after hooking the hero up to all sorts of monitoring devices. “Roll a twelve.”

Longshot’s left eye lit up and he rolled. “Twelve.”

“Again.”

Longshot rolled again. “Twelve.”

“Once more.”

“Twelve.”

“This cannot be right,” said Doom, looking at a computer screen. “Nothing is giving me a reading. One of these instruments must be damaged.”

“Or you might not be measuring the right things,” suggested Longshot with a shrug.

“And tell me,” said Doom, leaning over Longshot, “what would you suggest I measure instead?”

“You’re the scientist,” said Longshot. “Form a hypothesis, and test it.”

“I will thank you to not attempt to educate the inventor of time travel on the basics of the scientific method,” said Doom.

“Mojo, the guy who created me, could time travel,” said Longshot. “He didn’t even need a machine. He just cast spells.”

“I cannot figure how you intend to use that as a demeaning statement,” said Doom, seeing as I myself am—you were created by a spellcaster?”

“Yeah, did you not know that?” asked Longshot.

“Forgive me for not concerning myself with the minutiae of your creation,” said Doom.

“Aren’t the minutiae of my creation relevant to my powers?” said Longshot innocently.

“Well—I mean—that is—you are correct,” said Doom with a sigh. “In this case, I had insufficient knowledge of the subject to move forward with my study.”

“With our study,” corrected Longshot.

“Do not test me,” said Doom. “Moving on. If your origins are indeed mystical, it stands to reason that mystical detection methods would be more useful toward understanding your abilities.” Doom produced a scroll, and began to read in a strange language.

***

Sue, Jen, Jim, and Emma ran forward, following Rocket down the catacombs. The five managed to get a head start before the demonic driver punched through Sue’s force field and climbed back in his chariot.

“He’s gaining!” yelled Sue.

“He has horses; of course he’s gaining,” groaned Rocket. “Fire guy, throw something at him.”

Jim blasted the driver with flames. The driver was not hindered.

Groaning through her pain, Jennifer said, “I think I see the dagger.” Sure enough, there was a small blade lying on a pedestal in the chamber ahead.

“Be careful,” said Sue. “We don’t know what else this place could summon if we go in there.”

“Allow me,” said Jim. He turned off his flames in one arm, grabbed the whip from Rocket’s mouth, and snared the dagger with it, pulling it back to the heroes.

“Nicely done, Indy,” said Jen, the pain growing worse.

Before Emma could contact Doom to summon them back, the walls began to glow red. The catacombs then disintegrated, and the group found themselves in a new and strange landscape.

“Crap,” said Sue. “I think we’re in Limbo.”