Deep in the rainforest of Brazil, a young woman, engulfed in flames and skin pulsing a fiery orange glow, psionically tears apart the ground below her and watches the lava flow forth across the surface. Once, her name was Amara Aquilla. She was a citizen of Nova Roma, a civilization whose residents thought they were descendants of the ancient Roman Empire. They, and she, were wrong – the entire thing was a lie crafted by the powerful and immortal mutant Selene. Instead, this young woman has learned, her name is Allison Crestmere, and she was once the daughter of Great Britain’s ambassador to Brazil.
For weeks, she and her fellow Nova Roman citizens have tried to adjust to these revelations and the changes that have been wrought upon their lives as a result. She, of course, has also had something else to adjust to: the fact she is a mutant, specifically one with the ability to psionically control the movement of tectonic plates and thus call forth flows of lava from beneath the Earth’s crust. Such abilities lent her the codename Magma when she served, for a short time, as a New Mutant and then a Hellion. Of course, her memories of those days are now foggy at best, but they still make her a prime choice on this day to become a very dangerous present…
Watching Magma from the shadowy cover of nearby undergrowth is a pair of blonde siblings, the assassins known as Fenris. The male states that this is the girl, and she’s simply adorable. A little lava would do to warm his toes under the blankets any day, eh? he muses to his sister. Scowling, the sister requests that for once he consider the priorities of their mission over the dictates of his hormones. She then suggests they take their target, which results in Magma immediately finding herself surrounded by a horde of two-bit lackeys with oversized wraparound sunglasses as soon as the words, “Fenris Attack Unit -- Engaged!” are spoken into their headsets.
Announcing that the target has been acquired, the lead thug orders the dampening coils to be put into place. Each lackey’s weapon fires a steel coil toward Magma, ensnaring her from multiple angles as she cries out to ask what is happening, who they are, and why they are doing this. Stepping out from their hiding place, Fenris observes the ambush as the sister speaks to their victim. Noting that Magma is such a curious one, she muses that perhaps such curiosity should be quenched, and explains that they are Andrea and Andreas Strucker of the organization known as Fenris. Andreas adds that Magma is now, quite obviously, their prisoner, courtesy of these mutagenic energy-dampening coils.
Finishing up the answer session, Andrea adds that the why is simple: a bounty has been placed on Magma’s head, and to collect the reward is to gain power, and to gain power… well, does she even need to provide an explanation for that one? The men are then told to activate the coils, and with a sharp electric crackle, Magma’s fiery powers are snuffed out, as she collapses in a crumpled heap to the forest floor.
Andreas notes to his sister that Magma didn’t scream out. Andrea comments that this is impressive; perhaps their assigned targets are made of sterner stuff than they expected. Andreas replies that he sincerely hopes not, as that would make their petition for official membership in the Upstarts competition all the harder to attain. Yes, brother, agrees Andrea, but it also makes their acquisition of the secondary target lurking in the area even more important. Sighing, Andreas says he knows… he just hates trudging through this godforsaken jungle to find the fool.
As if on cue, with a chorus of clicks and locks, Fenris’ hired lackeys suddenly turn their guns upon the pair. While Andrea, in shock, asks if the men have lost their minds, Andreas merely mumbles that the little fool seems to have found them first. As the two leap clear of the bursts of energy emitting from the lackey’s weapons, Andrea asks if that’s it, are the mercenaries being mind-controlled into assaulting them? Andreas only comments that it is a desperate suicidal endeavor if “he” thinks this will save him.
Crouching behind the cloud of clearing smoke a few feet away from the controlled thugs, Andrea announces that they don’t have the time, and she doesn’t have the patience, to be delayed this way. Andreas asks if they should hold hands, dear sister, and show their hiding little puppeteer exactly what it is he is dealing with? One touch then, brother, replies Andrea, to activate their mutant powers. Their hands come into contact, and an electric buzz begins along with a glowing light, which rapidly explodes into a blinding, area-wide burst of energy that sends the lackeys flying in every direction. And show, she finishes, their little hirelings what it means to be on the receiving end of a bioelectric assault from Fenris!
Shouting past the smoldering bodies toward the expanse of the rainforest, Andrea states that this upsets her quite a bit, boy! Does he hear her? She had no desire to incinerate the very beasts of burden who were going to bring him to her! Such a waste, forced to shoot their own mules, as it were. Placing his hand on her shoulder, Andreas tells his sister to chin up: a few of the men survived. With the proper coaxing, he’s certain they could be easily convinced to pick up the pursuit of their manipulative little mutant quarry.
Barely listening, Andrea turns back to the dense foliage to scream that they are coming, Manuel de la Rocha! Does he hear her, she asks, loudly finishing with his codename, Empath? She yells to the man to run while he can, boy! They will capture him! And his head on a pike will serve notice that the Upstarts have been given new assignments for the killing! The Younghunt is on, and Fenris plans to win this game!
The Hellfire Club, Manhattan chapter. Under a moonlit sky, it stands as a testament to the stately elegance and the avaricious decadence that only this society’s wealthy elite have been able to combine into one. Tonight, the Club’s annual gala ball has played host to the venerable members of the upper-crust establishment, as well as to the new generations of movers and shakers among their class. The self-proclaimed valedictorian of this class is Shinobi Shaw, son of the late Hellfire Club member Sebastian Shaw…
Shinobi is speaking to a youthful, chestnut-haired man, both are dressed in the suit and bowtie expected for an upper-class mingling. Shinobi asks Vance what he thinks… pretty impressive or what? The young man replies that he has to tell Shinobi, this a lot more, he doesn’t know, rich than he’s used to! Shinobi replies that he always delights in seeing the middle class move up. Remember though, he adds, he wants Vance to mingle and get a feeling for the mood of the guests to see if anyone has anything to say about the feelers he put out regarding the reestablishment of the elite Inner Circle of the Club. Then, seeing Archangel and Psylocke in the distance, Shinobi excuses himself from Vance, saying he has two very special guests to attend to…
Stuffing his face with hors d’oeuvres from a serving-girl’s tray, Vance mumbles a goodbye to Shinobi, as he is simultaneously approached by a shadowy figure from behind, who notes that there’s quite a lot of interesting things to choose from, aren’t there, Mr. Astrovik? Turning to greet the man, Vance ponders how you can pick just one, Mr. Taylor? By whichever is the most filling, supposes Mr. Taylor.
Moving into more hushed tones, Vance announces that he’s got a good one: things regarding Shinobi Shaw appear to be just as the other man, Dwayne, suspected. Shaw is definitely part of some kind of billionaire-boys-club that gets their jollies by hunting down mutants. It is, continues Vance, some kind of sick treasure hunt with mutants as the prize; he just hasn’t had a chance to find out who else is playing the game yet. Dwayne replies that getting Vance to infiltrate them through Shaw was a dangerous move, but it’s paying off. The question, he continues, is why they do this. The usual reasons, replies Vance: boredom, greed, ego, power. At this point, he doesn’t know if why they’re doing it is as important as who they’re going to go after next. And that is…? asks Dwayne. From what little info he’s been able to piece together, continues Vance, the next targets are any of the surviving members of the old New Mutants and Hellions teams!
Cumberland County, Kentucky. The Guthrie family farm has stood on this land, in one form or another, for over two hundred years. It is a quiet countryside, belying the hard life the people who worked this land have always endured, but the sense of tranquility and the crisp Appalachian mountain air are enough to make two of the young members of the outlaw mutant group called X-Force, Siryn and Warpath, reconsider the choices they’ve made in life.
Standing in a field of tall grass, staring out into the distance from the foot of the grave of Thomas Zebulon Guthrie, Cannonball’s father, Siryn announces to Warpath that it seems that of late, all they end up doing is staring at the gravesites of the loved ones they’ve lost. Warpath’s family in Camp Verde, her mother in Ireland just a week ago, and now Cannonball’s father here in Kentucky… she wonders if this is all they share in common, if this is all that binds them together: the fact they’ve suffered so much pain and tragedy.
Warpath replies that he doesn’t know; ever since his brother, John, shortly after joining the X-Men, was killed, he’s tried not to look back. He’s just kept moving forward. Siryn replies that Warpath lies to himself; he wears a costume patterned after his late brother’s and he lives on the ruins of his murdered tribe and he just says what he does to try to make her feel better. Mollified, Warpath weakly mumbles that, well, yeah… did it work? A bit, replies Siryn. As much as it could, considering everything she’s been through the last month: the drinking, seeing her uncle Black Tom the way he truly was… and it would appear that all that was just a drop in the bucket compared to everything they’re about ready to deal with now. Shifting topics, she wonders aloud if Rictor and Shatterstar have been able to find out what happened to Cannonball and Boomer…?
Elsewhere but nearby, in the woods surrounding the Guthrie farmland, Rictor and Shatterstar stand over a still-smoldering crater. Shatterstar notes that these charred ruts in the land definitely indicate some kind of energy dispersal. A-duh, replies Rictor, but it’s not like Cannonball’s blast effect or Boomer’s plasma discharge, right? Piping up from the background, Josh Guthrie asks if the two X-Force members have any clue what happened to his brother yet. Rictor replies that he’s afraid not… the scanner he’s using is trying to figure out what kind of plasma was used to take them out: if they know what caused the explosion, then maybe they can next take a guess as to who.
Shatterstar, referring to the young man as “Joshua Guthrie” and inspecting the blasted ground, adds that everything they have uncovered so far, at least, is consistent with what his younger sibling stated as having occurred. Josh mutters an incredulous really? and then adds that he’s surprised. Curious, Rictor asks how come, why would she lie about something like this? Josh clarifies that it isn’t so much lie as fantasize; the girl’s head ain’t in the here and now half the time. She doesn’t want to know what’s what in the real world… he guesses she’s just like he was a couple years ago, guitar in hand, thinking he’d be the next Elvis, before life became a trip down to the coal mines every day, breathing in the same black garbage that ended up taking his daddy’s life.
Confused, Shatterstar turns to Josh and asks him to pardon his ignorance, since he is trying quite hard to learn the ways of this world, but in light of Josh’s current unhappiness with his life, what is so wrong with his sister for dreaming of a better one, even if – especially if – she may never attain it?
Inside the Guthrie residence’s kitchen, Cable asks Cannonball’s younger sister, Paige, what happened next. Paige explains that it was amazing, Mr. Cable… the sky just sorta… exploded! Domino, nonplused, replies that Paige couldn’t be a bit more specific, could she? Paige replies that she’s sorry, Miss Domino. Domino mutters that it’s Mrs., but let’s not get into that right now. Paige’s mother tells her that she knows it’s a bit exciting for her to admit that she’s… special … just like Sam, but this isn’t a game, and these good folk want to help them.
Paige replies that she knows, it’s just… she had dreamed about how exciting it would be, you know, to be like Sam… but to see the kind of life he lives up-close-like, well it’s absolutely incredible! At this, Paige begins to remember back to earlier in the day, as she watched Cannonball and Boomer play in a swimming pond and Cannonball dive into the water accelerated by his blast field. She recounts that it started so normal, too. That’s the most amazing thing: Sam and Boomer were swimming in the pond. It took him days to convince her it was safe to go in there. Boomer’s kind of odd that way, pretending she’s a big city girl or something, thinking she’d get bit by a tadpole, Paige’s sure!
So, continues Paige, she was watching them, spying on them, she guesses you could say, waiting to see if they’d start necking again like they’d been doing practically every day since they got there – Paige’s mother interrupts to tell her to stop talking like that. Apologizing, Paige continues: anyway, that’s when it appeared: some kinda energy bolt, Mr. Cable, like lightning; it cut across the sky – fazzam! – right towards them, almost like it was searching them out! The air started rumbling, that was Sam kicking in his blast field, stretching it out so it protected Boomer too, but it wasn’t enough. Paige explains she thought Sam could do anything, his letters said he’d been in space and to Asgard and all, but he went down like one of old man Angers’ cows when he slaughters them – wham! – down and out!
And just as she was going to see if they were okay… that’s when she saw her. A woman, a girl actually, no older than Sam, and the air around her was steaming, and she was holding both Sam and Boomer up, and Paige couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive… and then the woman started laughing, long and loud. She said something about how disappointed she was that ‘Getting these points was sooo easy’ – in those exact words – then some sort of energy haze surrounded them and they all disappeared.
Paige explains she started to run towards the pond, concentrating real hard on changing into something useful: she was going to show the woman what a Guthrie was really made of! But all she got out of that cockiness and anger was a bird. A stupid sparrow! Looking out the window as she finishes her story, Paige asks what good a sparrow can do against a hawk? Paige’s mother hugs her and explains that her gift is going to take time to understand, and time to learn how to use it right, just like it took Samuel. But, protests Paige, she knows she can do great things if she just starts to learn how…
Cable and Domino, having heard enough, exit through the front door. Standing on the front porch of the Guthrie residence, looking out at the sunset dipping into the distant mountains and the rest of X-Force gathered near their transport ship, Domino asks Cable what he thinks. Cable mutters that he thinks he would have loved to have grown up there. Raising his voice, he thinks he’s starting to wonder why he’s let them keep their base in the middle of the “flonqing” desert, when there’s so much more these kids could have! And getting back to the point? asks a typically unmoved Domino. As far as Boomer and Sam are concerned? replies Cable. He has absolutely no clue, he continues; their scanning systems haven’t been able to locate their mutagenic signatures, which means one of three things: they’re being purposefully cloaked, they’re off-planet… or they’re dead!
A twisting psionic mindscape. Amid the swirls of green and yellow float the minds of all those so far defeated in the so-called Younghunt. What Cable doesn’t realize is that the truth regarding the whereabouts of the mutants captured in this game is far worse than any of the situations he has imagined: Boomer, Cannonball, and Magma float in a freefall state through a psi-scape consisting of the errant thoughtwaves of every single sentient being on the planet. All of these minds are simultaneously scanned by a telepathic presence the likes of which, outside that of Charles Xavier, the world has never seen; all minds, swirling in a whirlpool of thoughts and emotions; all minds, funneled towards the filtering presence of the omnipath who serves as arbiter of the game played by the Upstarts, the man known to them as…
Gamesmaster! shouts Graydon Creed, his astral form among those floating in this bizarre mindscape. Demanding to know why he has brought them there – “them” being the others who are also present, namely Siena Blaze (the mysterious woman from Paige’s flashback), Shinobi Shaw, and Trevor Fitzroy. Creed is answered by Siena, who asks him why does he think they’re here? The “big brain” obviously has something to say, right? Ignoring Blaze, the Gamesmaster’s enormous, glowing, psionic-energy visage speaks in a disembodied and listless voice: he has called them all here to make certain that they fully understand the new parameters of the game they all play.
Addressing them one by one, he explains that they are the self-selected few who currently make up the assassination association known as the Upstarts. However, he adds, he must point out that due to their own lack of initiative or accomplishment, they have not been very successful in their purported objective.
Interrupting, Shinobi tells the Gamesmaster to malign these others losers as much as he wants, but remember that Shinobi killed his own father! And so, replies the unimpressed Gamesmaster, the points awarded for Sebastian Shaw still remain on Shinobi’s tally sheet… but what has he accomplished since then? Nothing! Continuing with his original line of thought, the Gamesmaster explains that for this new hunt he has arranged, they will all first be required to capture their prizes and only after they have all been brought to the Upstarts’ pre-arranged location will the captives be “disposed of” and the points awarded. This change of venue, he hopes, will ensure a successful finale to this particular round of competition.
Fitzroy immediately objects, stating that this is ridiculous and that the Gamesmaster is insinuating himself into these proceedings more than he ever has before… and further, there is no artistry to this charade! They are all expected to run about like foxes after simpering rabbits! Silence, replies the Gamesmaster to Fitzroy, proceeding to tell him to consider this: Siena has already captured two of the so-called “rabbits,” and the Strucker siblings, whom Fitzroy illogically spurned from official membership, but who he has allowed to participate in this round as an added incentive to the others, themselves stand rather close to taking the lead in this competition. He suggests, finally, that the clever foxes start chasing their quarry with a little more rabid intensity…
The Brazilian rainforest. Manual de la Rocha knows it is just ahead, just a little bit further and he will be able to get help – there! – the resettlement camp outside Nova Roma, erected by the Brazilian government to help reintegrate the recovering citizens into modern society. He calls out, but they cannot hear him yet. He could manipulate their minds, force them to rush out to his defense, but after the sins he has committed in the past, he is trying his desperate hardest to use his powers in a morally proper way. He will imminently come to regret this choice… as a burst of bioelectric energy sends him careening to the ground in a smoldering heap, signaling the arrival of Fenris.
The workers at the camp rush to his aid, led by Nina DaCosta, who cries out to ask whether he is alright. Barely able to speak, Empath murmurs to her to get the people out of there… they’re coming. Confused, DaCosta tries to get Empath to explain who is coming, but her question is shortly answered for her, as Fenris releases another bioelectric burst, destroying the camp and rendering unconscious most any who it fails to kill completely. One of Fenris’ lackeys informs them that they have the perimeter covered. Excellent, replies Andrea, telling them to take de la Rocha so that they can finally get out of the stifling jungle.
Watching all this transpire from the canopy above is a familiar figure with bow and psionic arrows in hand. Within moments, both of the Fenris twins and all their thugs have been struck down by a hail of psi-arrows accompanied by their characteristic high-pitch screech. Confused, DaCosta asks what that was and who. From the branches above, the red-clad figure muses that her attack was much more effective than conjuring up frightening dream images, wasn’t it? Psionic manifestations used as neurosynaptic paralyzing agents, she adds, speaking of the arrows; continuing, she bids a good day to Mrs. DaCosta, apologizing for what happened to her son. But, she muses further, she guesses in a way he was lucky, huh? Now, Bobby doesn’t have to worry about getting hunted down by these murderers… but then again… Moonstar does!
The Guthrie farm. Inspecting and preparing a massive firearm, Cable explains to Mrs. Guthrie that he respects what she’s asking of him, he just doesn’t know if he can do it. Mrs. Guthrie explains that Paige is just a child, Mr., uhm, Cable, and he doesn’t know her like she does. Cable replies that Paige is as old as Sam was when he first left home, ma’am, and she’s old enough to make these kinds of decisions on her own. Crossing her arms, the Guthrie matriarch tersely replies that she’s already seen her eldest boy “drafted” into this horrible “war” that the mutants and humans are fighting. She watched her husband die from black lung disease. She’s tired of seeing her loved ones leave her and she just doesn’t want to lose Paige too!
Cable replies that he knows what it’s like to lose your loved ones, to lose them forever… but if the girl decides she wants to leave, then she knows as well as he does that in the long run there’s nothing he or she can do to stop Paige. Tears welling in her eyes, Paige’s mother can only whisper that she knows. Just like she also knows her daughter well enough to know that if she does let her go, Paige’s the kind to try and win this “war” all on her own! Truth to tell, replies Cable, the cause could use a few more like that if they…
Suddenly, Domino urgently interrupts into Cable’s headset that he needs to get over to the IPAC, now! Can’t it wait just a minute? asks Cable, which is met only be Domino insisting that they need him fast! Sensing the urgency of the situation, Cable notes that he’s on his way. Rushing around the side of the house to where the IPAC is landed, Cable begins to loudly ask what’s going… on… when the answer presents itself before the sentence can finish. Standing in a garish suit of futuristic body armor is Trevor Fitzroy, prepped for battle.
Announcing, appropriately enough, that his name is Trevor Fitzroy, he states that he would just as soon handle this situation without having to kill them all! Elaborating, he explains that the mutants of this day and age seem to have a nasty habit of fracturing facial features that he’s rather partial to, so he’s only here for two things: the Indian and the Mexican. Let him have them, and he shall be quite content to be on his way as quickly tied with Siena for the lead in the Younghunt as he was lagging behind but a moment ago. What say you, old chap, he asks Cable, to such a sporting proposition? Unsurprisingly, the only response Fitzroy earns is the sound of X-Force’s weapons being drawn and Cable’s rhetorical What do you think?
The Gamesmaster. He sits in a complicated-looking chair inside a metallic chamber, but this is not his body, it is just a state of mind. He is not where he appears to be, yet he is everywhere. He searches, seeing his playing pieces strewn about the field, wondering which one will be the first to move without the aid of the strings the he so tactfully pulls. Who will be the first to act of their own volition? Ah, an image begins to form in the psionic swirls… and it as he suspected. The ambitious one acts: Shinobi.
Shinobi Shaw’s penthouse suite. Shaw explains that he knows how Vance feels about her, but the targets have been presented, and of all the Upstarts, Shinobi has the best chance of acquiring her, and Justice has the best chance of doing it without causing her – or her or his friends – undue harm. Vance stands, in full uniform as Justice, arms crossed and silent. Sipping a glass of champagne, Shinobi explains that Vance’s choice is pretty simple: either he brings her to him, or her lets one of the other Upstarts have a crack at her, and who knows what will happen to his girlfriend then?
Justice pauses for a moment, staring at the photograph in his hand, and then lets it drop to the floor. He leaves through the window without a word, flying off into the night. He knows that he’s about to make one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make in what has already been a very hard life. He is going to have to fight against his teammates, the New Warriors, and he is going to have to fight against the woman he loves: Angelica Jones, the former Hellion known as Firestar!