X men and the avengers l.., p.1
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       X-Men and the Avengers: Lost and Found, p.1

           Greg Cox
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X-Men and the Avengers: Lost and Found

  Chapter One

  Waiting impatiently at a busy uptown intersection, Wanda Maximoff was tempted to throw a hex at the traffic lights. One little burst of probability-altering mutant power would change don’t walk to walk easily enough, but that probably wasn’t appropriate behavior for a card-carrying member of the Avengers. She could just see the headlines on the front page of the Daily Bugle: SCARLET WITCH CAUGHT JAYWALKING. MAYOR DENOUNCES NEW MUTANT MENACE TO PEDESTRIAN SAFETY.

  Not that she was in uniform, of course. As near as she could tell, none of the assorted New Yorkers and tourists milling about at the crosswalk recognized her as a practicing super heroine; intent upon their own errands and itineraries, they paid little attention to the tall, auburnhaired woman standing in their midst.

  Fine with me, she thought. For today’s outing, which promised little in the way of super-powered conflict, she had foregone her distinctive “working clothes” in favor of strictly civilian attire. A stylish trenchcoat, belted at the waist, protected her from the chilly breeze blowing off Central Park while a pair of sensible brown boots insulated her feet from the sidewalk, the toe of one boot now tapping restlessly against the pavement. Reddish-brown curls tumbled past her shoulders. Large silver loops hung beneath her ears, matching the bracelets that jangled around her wrists. The hastily thrown together ensemble was more than suitable to her purposes, although, to be honest, her scalp always felt somewhat naked without the

  high-pointed headdress she usually wore into battle.

  No melees today, Wanda reminded herself. As far as she was concerned, she was taking a personal day. Heinous super-villains and would-be world conquerors would just have to wait their turn; even an Avenger deserved a day off now and then.

  The traffic signals changed of their own volition, and she crossed Central Park West, then headed north on Columbus Avenue. Although well into June, the day was overcast and surprisingly cool. Glancing up at the gray skies overhead, Wanda wondered fleetingly if she should have grabbed an umbrella before leaving the mansion. No matter, she decided, even as the first sprinkles of rain began to fall. She would be indoors soon enough.

  The Manhattan Museum of Folk Art was located on the Upper West Side, across the park and a few blocks north from Avengers Mansion, her home for many years. Wanda paused for a moment outside the museum’s un-imposing concrete facade, inspecting the banners on display in the ground-floor windows that flanked its main entrance. As advertised in the Arts section of the New York Times, the building was proudly hosting an exhibition titled “Beyond Gepetto: A Century of Eastern European Puppetry.”

  Just what I came for, she thought.

  The pelting raindrops and her own curiosity drove her past a pair of glass doors and into the lobby of the small museum, whose spare white walls and utilitarian design were presumably intended not to call attention away from the homespun art on display. Apparently, neither puppets in particular nor folk art in general were big draws these days; there were few other visitors in attendance. In fact, it looked like she had practically the entire museum to herself.

  Just as well, Wanda reflected. I don’t mind a little privacy.

  After making a modest donation at the front desk, she followed a series of helpful signs, past displays of colorful quilts and whimsically-designed weather vanes, until she came to the exhibit that had lured her here.

  Hand-carved wooden marionettes, painted in once-vibrant colors that had faded with the passage of decades, adorned the walls of a dead-end gallery near the back of the museum, where the curators no doubt hoped their presence would draw visitors past the institution’s other exhibits. The marionettes’ jointed legs dangled freely while whittled hands and arms pointed out informative blocks of text affixed to the walls between the puppets. Wanda declined to read the descriptive copy for now, preferring to focus first on the craftsmanship and imagination embodied by the puppets themselves.

  As she admired their intricate detail and expressive, if exaggerated, features, she noted that the various artists had largely taken their subjects from the history and folklore of Russia and Eastern Europe: Baba Yaga, the Firebird, Peter and the Wolf, Rasputin, and so on. There was even a miniature puppet version of Dr. Doom, which would surely get its maker a stiff prison sentence if displayed anywhere within the borders of Latveria.

  Not a bad likeness, Wanda judged, eyeing the forbidding metallic face beneath the doll-sized green hood, although she knew from personal experience that the real Victor Von Doom was infinitely more intimidating.

  Inevitably, the sight of the puppets, so like the ones her adoptive father had made in the dimly-remembered days of her childhood, raised poignant memories in Wanda: memories of Django Maximoff, the kindly gypsy toymaker who had raised her and her brother Pietro after their mother’s death during childbirth. Those had been among the happiest days of her far too turbulent life, until that fearful night an angry mob attacked the gypsy camp, separating her and Pietro from the only family they had ever known.

  Torches in the night. Gaudily-painted wooden wagons going up in flames. The crackle of burning pitch. Thick smoke filling her lungs, choking her. Furious shouting and screams of terror. The darkness of the forest as they fled in panic, only to fall at last into the freezing river which swept them away.. . .

  Wanda shuddered involuntarily. For years, she had repressed her recollections of those days, as her past slid into a morass of confusion and contradictions, but in recent years, as she uncovered more and more about the events that had shaped her youth, the memories had returned as well, sometimes springing forth from her unconscious mind with surprising force and clarity. Gazing now upon the handcrafted figure of the Wolf, its painted tongue hanging comically out of one side of its toothy jaws, it seemed to her that she could practically smell the smoke of the campfire, hear the horses whinny and the tambourines jangling, as she sat upon her now-dead papa’s knee.

  Her mind in the past, her body in the present, she reached out to touch the Wolf upon the wall. Was it just her imagination, or was the Wolf looking back at her, a feral gleam in its hungry, hand-painted eyes? Her fingertips hovered just out of reach of the hinged wooden jaws.

  “Excuse me,” a voice piped up behind Wanda, yanking her consciousness back to the here and now. She glanced back over her shoulder to discover a young woman, roughly college age or younger, standing behind her. “I’m sorry to bother you,” the woman said hesitantly, “but... you are the Scarlet Witch, aren’t you?” “That’s right,” Wanda admitted. Engrossed in her memories, she had not even heard the other woman approach. Turning around to face the newcomer, she observed two more young people, about the same age, looking on from a few yards away while whispering furtively to each other.

  Not quite as brave as their friend, Wanda guessed. Apparently, the museum was better attended than she had first thought. Art students, Wanda surmised, or maybe just broke college kids looking for a cheap diversion on a lazy Saturday morning.

  “Wow,” the boldest of the students exclaimed. She wore a faded Lila Cheney tee-shirt and a pair of kneeless black jeans. Tiny silver rings pierced the skin above one eye. “Would you mind?” she began, holding out a sketch pad and a felt-tipped pen. “I mean, could I have your autograph?”

  “Why, certainly,” Wanda said graciously, accepting the proffered pen and pad. Despite years spent in America, her voice still held a trace of a Balkan accent. “To whom shall I address it?”

  “Janine,” the fan answered, wide-eyed. Wanda greeted the interruption with good humor; she realized that, as an Avenger, she was definitely a public figure. Sometimes she wondered if, at the onset of her colorful career, she should have assumed a mask and secret identity lik
e Tony Stark and Steve Rogers and some of her other colleagues. No, she decided once again—her life had been complicated enough without adding the difficulties of a dual identity to the mix.

  TO JANINE, she wrote. WITH BEST WISHES, THE SCARLET WITCH. She had learned long ago that autograph seekers preferred the somewhat exotic alias to her legal signature.

  All part of good public relations, she mused. Captain America would surely approve. She handed back the pad and writing implement even as, out of the comer of her eye, she thought she spotted a shadow moving on the adjacent wall.

  What’s that? she wondered, but when she looked to the side all she saw were the Rasputin and Baba Yaga puppets hanging as lifelessly as they had before. But wait—hadn’t the scaly chicken legs dangling beneath the witch’s mobile hut been positioned slightly differently the last time she had looked at them? Wanda tried to remember. ...

  “Thanks!” Janine enthused, eagerly reclaiming her prize and shooting a triumphant grin at her two lurking cohorts. Her jubilant eyes devoured the inscription. “This is so great! I’ve been a fan of yours for, like, forever. Even before you were one of the good guys.”

  Ouch, Wanda thought. Even though her beaming fan clearly meant well, the longtime heroine could have done without that reminder of her dubious days as one of the charter members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. So much had happened to her since those distant nights around the gypsy campfire. Many hardwon victories to be proud of, true, but also too much tragedy and heartache.

  Perhaps I was never intended to be happy, she thought ruefully, but to defend the happiness of ordinary people like this girl.

  Then, without warning, the excitement in Janine’s eyes turned to shock and fear. Her face went pale and her mouth fell open, while behind the young woman her two friends looked frightened as well. One of them screamed and dropped an armful of textbooks, his panicky shout echoing through the hushed atmosphere of the museum.

  A severe overreaction to my notorious past, Wanda wondered momentarily, or something else altogether? She spun around just in time to see the puppets leaping impossibly from the wall, using their tiny legs to propel themselves straight at Wanda, attacking her. Closest to her, the wooden Wolf lunged for her throat.

  Her reflexes trained by years of hand-to-hand combat against everything from Norse gods to the Lunatic Legion, she batted the fanged marionette away with the back of her hand, sending it skittering across the tile floor several yards away. But she could not stop its companion puppet, carved in the cherubic image of Peter the child huntsman, from landing heavily upon her shoulder and grabbing onto her reddish-brown tresses. The Peter puppet yanked her hair across her face, obscuring her vision while he tugged on its roots.

  “Run!” Wanda shouted to Janine and other students. Suddenly, the museum was no place for civilians. She clutched at Peter, who was now straddling her neck piggyback-style, choking Wanda with her own hair, until she managed to pry him off her shoulders at the cost of two miniature handfuls of hair. Discarding the auburn curls, he snagged one of her silver earrings, ripping it from the tender lobe.

  “Aiee!” the Scarlet Witch cried out. The pain distracted her, made it hard to call up her powers, but she hurled the marionette away with all the force she could muster, hoping the wooden simulacrum would shatter upon the hard, gray tiles.

  No such luck. The oaken boy bounced twice upon the tiles, then sprung back onto his feet, joining Rasputin and Baba Yaga as they rushed across the floor at her. Unlike the playthings she recalled, these marionettes required neither strings nor visible puppeteer to give them animation. The gnarled head of the Russian witch protruded from the thatch roof of her doll-sized hut as it hurried forward atop oversized hen’s legs, taking the lead from Rasputin and Peter. Malevolent cackling escaped, absurdly, from Baba Yaga’s wooden lips. Painted yellow eyes leered above a jagged nose crowned by a bulging wart. The hut took a flying leap, the claws of the chicken’s feet extended at Wanda’s face.

  You’re giving us witches a bad name, she thought, ducking out of the way. Her hands came up to form a protective hex, but all at once the Firebird was flapping its gilded wings in her face, pecking at her eyes. At the same time, wooden jaws closed around her ankle, pointed teeth digging through her leather boot. The Wolf, she realized, trying to shake her leg free even as she snapped her face from side to side, striving to keep her eyes away from the Firebird’s angry beak.

  Who could be responsible for this? she wondered, her eyes tightly shut, grabbing unsuccessfully at the sound of the flapping wings. The Puppet Master? The Brothers Grimm? There was no time to even try to decipher the mystery. Between the Wolf gnawing on her leg and the Firebird jabbing at her face, she couldn’t begin to think straight, let alone play detective.

  The witch’s hut rejoined the fray, clawing at Wanda’s back, and she was grateful that she had chosen to wear the heavy coat instead of her somewhat skimpier gypsy garb. Despite her own peril, she feared for her comrades as well.

  The others might be in danger, too, she realized. An attack on one Avenger often meant an assault on the entire team. I need to alert Captain America and the rest. There was a communication device in one of her coat pockets, but how could she get at it when she had to defend herself from these homicidal Pinocchios?

  Her face turned downward, eyes squeezed shut, she forced herself to ignore the fangs and the claws and the beak and the flapping wings, putting aside the sharp, jabbing pains so that she could concentrate on a hex. Her fingers instinctively formed the right configuration, the gestures focusing her unique mutant ability to manipulate the laws of probability.

  Even after countless efforts and exercises to hone her special gifts, she still had trouble describing what it felt like when she used her birthright. It was like breathing, in a way—you didn’t think about it, you just did it. Wanda visualized the effect she desired, then let the power flow from somewhere deep inside her out to her fingertips, which tingled slightly as they released her mutant magic into the world.

  The power manifested first as a shimmering sphere of crimson light that spread outward to enclose both the Scarlet Witch and her attackers. Within that sphere, mathematical probabilities shifted so that the most unlikely of possibilities became not just likely but an absolute certainty.

  The Firebird’s crystalline eyes blinked in surprise as an extremely improbable fluctuation in the air currents stole the wind from beneath its wings, causing it to drop like a stone, fortuitously slamming into the wooden Wolf at the very moment that, behind Wanda, Baba Yaga’s ambulatory hut lost its balance and toppled forward. Her foot at last freed from the jaws of the Wolf, the Scarlet Witch deftly evaded the falling marionette so that it landed in a heap upon its fellow puppets.

  The odds that three such happy accidents would combine to rid Wanda of her attackers simultaneously were ridiculously small, of course, except within the radius of her hex sphere.

  That’s better, she thought. The rose-colored radiance dissipated as she took a deep breath to collect her thoughts before the murderous marionettes regrouped. At last, she had a moment to try to figure out what was happening and why?

  Who is behind this? She sensed no sorcerous energies at work, but some force had to have brought the seemingly harmless puppets to life. Telekinesis? Nanotechnology? Her mind grappled for a solution, even as she readied herself the puppets’ next attack. There were too many possibilities, too many enemies old and new.

  These might not even be marionettes at all, she surmised, but cleverly disguised android assassins.

  Floodlights mounted into the ceiling called attention to the empty stretches of wall that the puppets had occupied only moments before.

  Thank heavens I didn’t go to the Natural History Museum instead. She could just imagine the dinosaur fossils and stuffed mammoths coming to life in place of the puppets.

  Her fingers groped through her coat pockets in search of her Avengers I.D. card, which also doubled as a communications device, thanks to
the ingenuity of Tony Stark.

  If she hurried, she could still alert the team before the puppets came at her again. Manicured nails, painted in her trademark shade of red, tapped against the laminated surface of the card, and she had just started to draw it out of the pocket when she heard someone call out in alarm:

  “Help! Keep away from me!”

  The Scarlet Witch glanced back over her shoulder, where her cape usually was, and saw Janine cornered by puppet replicas of Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible. Blast, Wanda thought. The starstruck fan must have stayed behind to watch her heroine in action. Now, Rasputin and Ivan, brandishing miniature daggers, had backed the college student up against a glass display case on the opposite side of the gallery. Wanda wasn’t sure what frightened the poor girl more: the puppets’ hostile intent and weapons, or the fact that they were alive at all.

  Just to complicate matters, a security guard, whom Wanda had seen posted in the lobby earlier, came running around the corner, only to come to an abrupt halt at the bizarre sight that greeted him. Pistol in hand, he froze, uncertain what to do.

  Wanda sympathized with his confusion. He was surely hired to protect the exhibits from the patrons, not the other way around!

  “Stay back,” she warned him, flashing her I.D. “This is Avengers business. Let me handle it.”

  Not waiting to hear his response, she unleashed another hex at the puppets menacing Janine. The floodlights above the predatory marionettes suddenly exploded, showering Ivan and Rasputin with white-hot sparks that nevertheless missed Janine entirely.

  Am I good or am I good? the Scarlet Witch thought, smiling with satisfaction as the puppets retreated frantically from the rain of sparks, whiffs of smoke rising from their wooden heads and shoulders. But after all, they’re only puppets, she reminded herself. Maybe she didn’t need any other Avengers after all.

  “Get her out of here,” she instructed the security guard, who hurried to comply. This time, Janine seemed perfectly willing to flee the scene. Keeping one eye on the smoldering forms of Ivan and Rasputin, not to mention the tangle of fallen puppets at her feet, Wanda breathed a sigh of relief as both guard and fan exited from sight. She still had no idea what force had animated the marionettes and until she did, she didn’t want to have to worry about innocent bystanders.

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