Chapter 1: Prologue
He has always dreamed.
He is told it is unusual. His descriptions are met with confusion. No others in the tribe understand what a dream is. He sleeps and has visual and auditory hallucinations. Hallucinations are the sign of the mad. Madness; Insanity; a mind unruled by reason or reality. His memory tells him the name, but does not offer him the memory of learning.
There are dreams of battle, which is not entirely surprising. It is what they know, here in the Ghostland.
He sees men and women. The men fight and die and at first, the women dance, skirts like unfurled petals, but eventually they, too follow their brothers into blood and death. It is an onward progression of gore and fire born of a haze of bullets.
Today it is his life chosen to be erased.
It is not a noble death. A man stands over him; he, himself is prone on a hard concrete floor. The man wears a white coat and in his hand is a pistol. His features are a blur, but the tears in his eyes are clear. He is wounded and the red and his tears mix on the hard ground, swirling together and diluting neither.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I can’t let them do it.”
He raises the pistol and he fires.
Pain in his chest; it spreads into his fingers and his toes, icy and paralyzing. He sees white and wakes.
His number two is watching him, standing by his bed and staring down at him, drawing no doubt by his thrashing.
“Your heart rate has increased. You are sweating. Are you ill?”
Rogers closes his eyes and breathes deeply.
“No,” he replies.
“If you are unwell you should not participate in the mission,” Barnes answers. “The Dvergar do not rank much higher than we do, but Stark is a strong leader and their numbers are greater. Your own leadership is invaluable, but risking you frivolously is foolish.”
“Yes. But I am not ill.”
He stands and he pushes past him, out into the gray concrete of the base. There are preparations to consider and the battle will be fought on ground familiar to both tribes. It will make it difficult to use the land against them, but there are a few places that are suitable to lay an ambush. The dream fades into irrelevance where it belongs.
Barnes falls into step beside him. Together they make their way to the debriefing room; Barnes has said his piece, he will go no further. Rogers will not place his tribe in danger for illogical pride or stubbornness. All is well.
Nothing could have prepared them for this.
There are monsters on the battlefield. It is an orgy of gluttony, they tear into each other with abandon, greedy in their hunger. There is the taste of blood in his mouth, but there is no sound to accompany the bloody feast, instead there is a soundtrack running over everything, voices raised in alien cadence; meaning murky with need.
“Loki, what good will this do? What have you even done? These people, what vengeance is this, to turn them into worse than dogs. Please, brother, end this madness. You must see there is nothing of goodness here.”
“We are not your brother. We are greater than the sum of our parts. Stand down, God of Thunder or face our wrath.”
“Listen to me, I beg you brother, this does not have to be like this!”
“You are blind.”
“Damn you, listen to me.”
“...Rend your enemies and devour their flesh, God of Thunder. There is no other way to survive; you reap during Ragnarok itself. Your hunger will not be sated by anything less.”
The last he hears before the world is engulfed in blank blackness is an anguished roar of refusal, howled into the raining sky.
Chapter 2: Svartalfaheimr
Consciousness does return easily to him. It weighs heavy like thick wool. He is lost, drifting in an ocean of nothingness.
The only thing that ties him to his waking body is an ache. It coils in his gut, permeating the thick miasma, sharp and instant. It is something more than hunger, more than need. It is mindless and he recoils from its presence, sinking deeper.
But it cannot be denied, and in the end, It is this ache that helps him open his eyes.
At first the light from overhead is too bright, searing into him and setting his head pounding. He slams his eyes shut again, teeth gritting, but slowly his vision acclimates and he blinks up at the unfamiliar ceiling resolving itself before his blurred vision. He sits up, eyes wide. There was a sheet covering him and now to slides off his naked chest to puddle in his lap; he’s still wearing pants, thankfully, but the motion reveals something else.
There’s a tattoo covering his arm, one he is fairly certain was not there before he slept. It is a five pointed star, its branches warped and the entire form twists upon itself, a swirl like a galaxy turning around a single, shining point.
A sound from without tears his gaze from contemplation of the strange new mark. He looks up.
He was correct; this is not his base. Apparently he has been captured, for it is Stark, leader of the Dvergar, pacing from one end of the room of the other making the strange racket. His hands fly across the table, fiddling with scraps of metal and other useless things that look salvaged from the Ghostland.
“What’s wrong with you,” he asks, a bit reflexively. Stark freezes. A muscle in his jaw jumps as he grits his teeth.
“There’s something wrong with all of us,” he replies eventually, cold. He goes back to fiddling, twice as fast as he began. It’s dizzying to watch him. He continues, in that same toneless voice. “You’ve been asleep for three days, so you don’t know yet, but there’s been a... development.”
It shouldn’t seem odd. It’s how everyone in the Ghostland speaks, so it takes Rogers a moment to fit it up against the juxtaposition of his movements and come up with his answer.
“Really, what’s wrong with you,” he repeats. “How much coffee have you had today?”
“Coffee,” Stark mutters, then abruptly he grabs up a piece of what, as far as Rogers can tell, used to be the grip and trigger mechanism of an AR-15, reassembled and twisted into an alien shape. He flings it hard across the room where it shatters against the far wall and rains onto the floor with a racket. Rogers doesn’t flinch, but watches him warily; he hadn’t been aiming for him. “You’re not listening,” Stark snaps, turning to look at Rogers for the first time. “There is something wrong with all of us. It happened on that battlefield, and it has broken every one of my people to a man. So I will ask you this one time; what happened out there and what did you do?”
Rogers frowns, hand raising absently to cover the strange lines of ink spiraling across his skinny bicep.
“I--” he starts.
“Don’t lie to me,” Stark adds. Rogers purses his lips.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he replies. “I don’t lie.” There’s conviction in his voice and for a moment, his own vehemence surprises him. He frowns harder. “I don’t know what happened out there. If what you said is true, then I’ve slept through whatever it was. How could I possibly know any more than you? I’m not even sure what you’re referring to.”
It’s true, too. Besides the strange dream he had when he first fell unconscious Rogers’ memory is blank spot, glaringly obvious. He left the base and then... nothing.
Stark studies him for a long moment, eyes rapidly tracking back and forth as he seems to consider this. Finally he leans back on his heels with a huff of breath.
“I was afraid of that,” he says finally. Then, he turns on his heel and leaves.
“Wait,” Rogers says, throwing the sheet off of himself and levering himself to his feet. “Where are you going?”
Stark doesn’t answer and Rogers tries to hurry after him, but before he can cross the threshold into the hallway, there’s a barrel of a gun engulfing his vision, freezing him in place.
“Stark, Stark, get back here!”
“I would advise you to stand down, Captain.”
Rogers scowls at the guard, but he remains unfazed. Stark does not come back and once he backs away, Rogers is left to himself, to the square room and that ache in his gut that feels like something more than hunger. Eventually, though he feels no need for it, he goes back to sleep.
It begins with the taste of iron still flooding his mouth. Eventually it shifts, settling into a scent as his eyes open and the world comes back into focus.
He stands in a room, the source of the scent as everything here is built from metal. A high-vaulted ceiling towers over him and catwalks string together floating walkways that hang suspended over a boiling red chasm. From out of this chasm crawls a great demon with fiery skin and an unsmiling visage. It advances upon him and Rogers rears back and thrusts into his heart a great, shining star. It swells and bursts with the strength of his blow, stumbling and slipping on the iron ledge, breaking and falling in a million pieces back into the bright abyss. The pieces strike and the building shudders and Rogers is falling and falling and then--
His eyes snap open to the sound of footsteps striking concrete, sharp and purposeful. He sits up just as, finally, Stark returns.
Stark’s eyes are hollow, ringed in bruised shadow. He looks far older than he did mere hours ago. He stops when he gets into the room, a cloud passing over his features as his brow furrows, taking in Rogers and the room.
“You didn’t even look at what I was building? No, nevermind, of course you didn’t. It would hardly be sporting.” There’s something dry in the cold now, shades haunting glaciers. Rogers shakes his head briefly to clear it of images.
“What happened to you? You look terrible.”
“Nothing happened to me,” he replies. “But you’ll be happy to know that, as far as I’m aware, the Mathr are no longer the smallest tribe. That dubious honor now goes to us.”
“But that’s not what I came here to talk to you about, apparently we have some new orders from on high--”
“Wait, Stark, hold on,” Rogers tries to interrupt.
“--Come straight from the temple itself--”
“Would you shut up,” Rogers roars, as the ache rises in him to settle behind his eyes and pulse there, bathing his vision in red. There’s been a slow build of in his voice, that manic energy leaking past the barriers of the mere physical and with each rising note it’s sent Rogers’ head to pounding that much greater, and now it’s broken, a damn of anger setting up behind his teeth, inhabiting his finger tips, every inch of him is vibrating with wild, irrational rage.
“--You haven’t eaten anything at all since you came here,” Stark finishes, unfazed. “Right. Hold that thought for a moment. Don’t want you going nuts in here, I remember what you were like.”
He turns and speaks to the guards.
“Hey, you, bring me the stuff. You know, in the cooler with the black marks? In the storage room?”
The guards shift uncomfortably, obviously bewildered.
“You know, with the-- nevermind, just... tell Rhodey what I asked for. He’ll know.” For a moment the guards remain still. Stark snorts. “Go, it’s fine. I can handle him.” Reluctantly they salute and turn away.
Rogers is still breathing heavily, chest heaving and teeth grit.
“Don’t be so sure of that,” he snarls. “You should know better than to underestimate my size by this point, Stark.”
Stark sits down across from Rogers’ bed, backwards on the bench before his workshop.
“I don’t think there’s anything to underestimate,” he mutters in reply, cryptic with meaning. The red flairs and for a long moment they consider each other, Stark calm and Rogers’ hot and angry.
“I’d appreciate if in the future you’d fetch these things yourself,” a voice startles it into submission. It belongs to a new arrival, a man who’s holding a wrapped package, loose at his side; Stark’s second, Rhodes.
“Rhodey, there you are. What took you so long? It was only just down the hall.”
A faint frown crosses Rhodes’ face.
“Yes,” he agrees. “And you sent the guards out of sight instead of walking there yourself.”
“They’re back now,” he says, and sure enough there they are, stepping into the room behind him, straight backed and stoic once more. He holds out his hand with an expectant air and eventually Rhodes sighs and places the package into his grip.
“Here you are,” Stark says to Rogers. “Our most precious provisions, given to an enemy leader. Tastes all the sweeter for coming from our livelihood. Eat up.”
The scent coming from the package is enticing. Rogers wants to refuse him, to keep his dignity, but the hunger twists inside him, undeniable and unrefusable.
Still, he takes it gingerly, with grace, fighting it down with precise movements and civilized manners as he glares at Stark. He looks down. The meat doesn’t look poisoned; it is some kind steak cooked rare and seasoned, but it’s not as if poison leaves physical marks. He brings it to his mouth, slowly, chews and swallows with difficulty, not for fear, but for fighting the urge to devour it whole as the flavor of it bursts on his tongue and overwhelms his senses. It’s cold, but it’s the best thing he’s ever tasted.
Stark watches him eat, something elusive shadowing his expression. Rogers swallows the last bite before the answer comes to him, offered up from his empty memory like a carcass from a black lake; it is amusement.
“Why--” he starts, nearly chokes himself on that final morsel, then tries again. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Stark blinks. He opens his mouth, closes it, then shrugs, the movement becoming familiar with its repetition. The look fades back into smoothness.
“Better?” Is his response, in lieu of a reply.
Yes, it is. The red has faded, sunk back into its place, sated and pleased, no longer roiling at the surface. Rogers finds in its wake that he is shaking. He folds his hands tight in his lap, but there is no doubt that as sharply as he’s watching him, Stark has already seen.
“I’d like you to answer my questions,” Rogers says, and it is a request in phrasing only, but Stark just flashes his teeth once and stands again.
“Believe me, I’d love to indulge you, but as I was saying before you went rage machine on me, we’ve been summoned.”
“Yes, exactly, what do you mean summoned?”
“The temple at Yggdrasil has issued a request to all tribes that their respective leaders meet for a new debriefing, there’s been a change in the mission objective.” It is Rhodes who answers, calm and unflappable to contrast his leader’s new, manic energy.
“What,” Rogers snaps. He seems to be saying that a lot lately.
“We’re going to have to find out,” Stark replies. “As your captor, I’ll escort you to the temple and once we hear these new orders, we’ll go from there. Come along, Sleeping Beauty, up you go.”
Rogers sighs and stands, Rhodes shadowing him as they leave his confinement.
It isn’t until they’re halfway down the hallway that he remembers he doesn’t (shouldn’t) know who Sleeping Beauty is, but Stark is already talking again, going on about the mechanical wonders his fortress has employed, and he lets his question subside.
“Now I can’t let you see how this works, that would be terrible form, obviously, not very savvy of me, so we’re just going to take the easy way out.”
He raps upon the great gates, the main entryway into Svartalfaheimr. There is a rhythm to it; apparently he is as paranoid of those leaving his base as he is of infiltration.
“Don’t bother memorizing it; we change it twice a day. Or is it twice an hour? I can never be sure.”
The doors swing open, ponderous on their mammoth hinges, spreading open into the sky and the gray, raining world that is the Ghostland.
Chapter 3: Temple at Yggdrasil
The other leaders have all gathered, two missing, which is unsurprising. It’s been some time since there’s been communications between Jottunheimr and Banner’s Helheimr is situated farthest from the temple.
Already arrived, besides Rogers and Stark, are the three others: there is Thor, a presence on his own that fills the room, making him greater than he already is. He is the leader of the God Hand, the most powerful of the nine and he carries it in his presence. There is expectation in the cant of his posture, mouth a hard line.
Next is Romanov. She is the most irritating thorn in the side of Rogers’ Mathr. Against the God Hand or the Corpses she is less successful, but she has torn Rogers’ guerilla tactics to shreds. She always seems to know where they will attack and how best to stop them, turning his plans against him. They have not bothered to skirmish for quite some time. She has bigger fish to fry; she eyes Barton from her place, assessing.
Barton, the leader of Alfr, is placed on Romanov’s right. He makes a small figure, second only Rogers himself, but he holds himself like a warrior, hand curled around the shadow of his absent weapon, his favored bow. It’s taken out more than a few of the Mathr before now. The Mathr do not often make casualties on the Alfr and those that do seem more like an offering from the paranoid leader, given up in strategic ritual, tasting the earth beneath his floating fortress. Per contra, he does not often participate in raids. He is impregnable in his fortress, but he makes little headway in the war for his refusal to skirmish, untouchable on high.
Banner is the last to arrive. He comes through his entryway, striding up the catwalk, unhurried. As he takes his place on the podium, he makes his characteristic gesture, touching a finger to his forehead, to the point between his eyes. He speaks, addressing the other leaders with no fear in his countenance. Still, there is something in him that rings off.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says, voice subdued but carrying across the chasms separating them. He looks up at the silent terminals, their buds curled and still. “We can begin now.”
From his podium, Stark makes a rude noise.
“By our powers combined,” he mutters. Banner stares at him from across the distance.
“We’re not Captain Planet, Tony,” he says, quietly. Stark jerks, startled, staring back and for a moment, a strange silence descends. It is broken by the communicators unfurling from their places, set to swaying as bright lights shine in etched afterimage from their new-formed fingers.
“Welcome to the Dissemination Machine. There are no pertinent issues to be addressed at this time. If you have any queries, please state them in an orderly fashion.”
“We were summoned here by the temple itself. What other reason could it be but for a change in our objectives?” Clint is the one who speaks up, empty hand flexing at his side in impatience.
“There are no changes in your objectives. The temple at Yggdrasil has issued no new summons.”
“What the hell do you mean no new summons? Then why the hell are we here?”
“Because I asked you here,” a new voice answers him, unexpected and strange. With its coming, the terminal shakes, shudders, lighting racing up and down its sides, a riot of angry color and noise. The unfurled buds of the terminal shake in seizure, bodies twisting in unnatural, stuttered horror, as lightning arcs through them. “There is, in fact, a new addendum added to your objectives.”
It is impossible to tell whether the voice is male or female, distorted as it is. There is something ancient ringing in its timber, but other than that Rogers gleans little, only that its presence in unprecedented.
“You have no doubt noticed your new-found powers; your strength is a gift from on high. We of the Society have judged it prudent that you make use of this fortuitous technology.
“You have each been gifted with a fiend. You have been granted total control over this new form, but it must be fed. Failure will not be tolerated.”
This stranger’s speech has gotten the attention of the leaders. Natasha and Clint both sport similar expressions of focus. Banner is solemn, Stark has his arms crossed, tense and angry, but it’s Thor whose discomfit is most obvious. His hands are white knuckled around the grip he has on the podium.
In an abrupt show of violence, the cadence of the stranger’s voice changes. Lightning pulses, arcing hot and wild from the terminal as its proclamation roars out.
“Now, your future has changed. Descend into Chaos! Make war with your brothers; only one of you from each tribe may ascend to Valhalla. Her gates are now open to you. Come to me, Warriors of Ragnarok and prove your devotion!”
There is a moment of stunned silence, then an eruption of noise as more than a few of the leaders try to make their voices heard.
“What the hell do you mean? We’re to attack our own men now?”
“‘Fed’? Fed with what?”
“What exactly is Valhalla?” This, from Banner, who, of all the others here is the sole member who looks as if some part of this strange occurrence has left him relatively unphased, though it’s strange question. The inhabitants of the Ghostland have always known what Valhalla is. It is... is....
A great crash interrupts them, rocking the terminal and sending the communicators into frenzy. It takes him a moment, but Rogers locates the source of the disturbance; it’s the leader of the Aesir, his face twisted into a mad grimace and as Rogers and the others watch he takes his great hammer and rears back to strike it again. It crashes through the communicators, flung from his grasp.
“Yes, yes, feed your anger, slaughter and destroy!”
It arcs high over their heads, destruction dragging in its wake, sending showers of broken concrete to crash down around them. The mocking laughter fizzles out in a haze of sparks. Rogers crouches, arms flung up to protect his head and the hammer changes trajectory, spinning back to wreak havoc once again. There is no other choice; the foundation of the tower is shaking; he and the other leaders must get out. They have their orders, there’s nothing holding them here any longer. Rogers runs, and behind him, the communicator comes crashing down.
Stark’s guards stand just outside the door. There’s a no munitions rule in effect inside the compound and for three miles out into the surrounding area, but they stand at the ready anyways. They snatch him back, and the smaller one slams him against the adjacent wall. He hears a shout from behind; a third party, some kind of protest but he can’t see well beyond the helmet of his captor. His partner is shaking, he keeps darting glances behind Rogers in an attempt to see the carnage he emerges from. Rhodes, who had been there at the first is, it seems, absent.
“What-- What the hell is going on in there,” the other asks.
Rogers pushes hard against his bonds, but his greatest strength does not lie in the density of his muscles.
“You have to move,” He says, making a point of looking them in the eyes, first one and then the other. He keeps his voice low, convincing in confidence. “The central foundation is collapsing and if we don’t get out of here now there’s a chance the entire building will follow.”
The man holding him flush against the wall risks a glance behind him at his partner.
“And if you don’t let him go, right now, you’ll have us to deal with.” This voice is familiar, Rogers plugs him as one of his own.
There comes a bone wrenching shudder from beneath their feet, shaking the mortar. Stark’s man falls into him, squashing the air out of his lungs, but still, when he raises, Rogers manages to hiss:
“Move,” he says and it goads the other into startled flight, running down the corridor to freedom. The man holding him eases off enough to Rogers to shove him in the chest, and bellow with greater confidence without his weight restricting him. “Move, Soldier.”
Stark’s remaining man and his own follow the first into his exodus --Dugan and Jones he sees-- Rogers pounding after them, bringing up the rear. Ahead, Stark’s first man stumbles, tripping over his own feet. Rogers reaches out as he makes his way past, slowing down just enough to grip into his uniform and haul him without ceremony to his feet; he’s little, but he long ago learned to use the strength he does possess, even in service of an apparent enemy.
“Thanks,” he says, coughing on the dust that’s followed Rogers out of the command’s room.
“No cause to worry about it, Soldier,” Rogers replies and together they crash through the entryway, emerging into the murky light of day. Outside there’s riot of activity as the other tribes make their own hasty escapes from the unstable tower.
After a long series of stumbling steps, Rogers judges it safe enough to come to a halt, turning back. The building shudders one, then stays still; It seems as if for now at least, the worst of it’s over. Rogers swallows his relief. The other twitches in his grip, and Rogers lets go of him, in favor of curling over and bending at his knees as he catches his breath.
Chapter 4: Memories of Manheimr
WARNING: this chapter contains semi-graphic scenes of major character death.
Stark’s man doesn’t look at him when he tells Rogers to go, to take off like he doesn’t have a job to do, like they’re not all held to rules that have begun to look less like the salvation they’ve been promised and more like ugly suspicion.
In the commotion, he’s lost Dugan and Jones, but he can make out the marks of their passage in the concrete sand as he takes the well traveled road back to Manheimr. He sees evidence of no more than those two tracks crisscrossing the path, but there’s something chewing at his gut, an uncomfortable sensation that has his teeth clenching. Is he sick? He can’t tell, but his mind has been blank since Stark kidnapped him and there’s no reassurance to be had from that.
He jogs back to the compound, keeping steady pace. It isn’t long until the looming, half broken walls come into view. There are marks tagged into the concrete, words and scribbled pictures. None of his men left them there; they’ve existed in the base longer than they have, but they’re a familiar sight by now. He’s even got a favorite: a man with a large nose peeking over the line of a wall. He’s not sure what the scribbled marks mean beneath it, but he’s always had a strange sense that he should.
The reserve soldiers being used on watch are not his usual men, and there’s far more of them than he expects. A voice rings out as he approaches, and a small squad of men come pouring out from the main gates to greet him. Rogers approaches, but something is off; usually he is greeted only by Barnes and Lieutenant Carter. He hails the man at the head of the squad.
“What’s going on,” he asks when he reaches the top of the steps. “Why has the watch been changed?”
None of his men relax their stances; he shouldn’t expect them to, but....
“You are not permitted past this point,” his man tells him.
“What do you mean,” Rogers asks, low enough for intimacy in the face of his insolence.
“Manheimr is closed to you,” he says, hard faced and stoic, like he does not recognize him and clearing up nothing.
“I’m your leader,” he says. “My base cannot be closed to me.”
“You are no longer the leader of the Mathr,” the guard replies. “The execution of your second in command was ruled unjust and you have been expelled from our ranks. Your acceptance of the new order has proven you unfit for rule.”
“The execution of-- What? Barnes is...?”
The guard does not reply, but the angry lines around his eyes tighten.
And there, just like that the dam breaks. His mind opens to him with a flash across his vision, the scent of blood, now familiar in his nostrils. Rogers stumbles back, away from his former base, sick and horrified as his memories descend on him. He crashes to his knees, assaulted from all sides.
He did not simply kill Barnes.
“Yes,” he whispers at the ground, voice a harsh croak. “You’re right. Of course. I’m-- I’ll go. I am unfit. Only give me a moment.”
“...Someone will escort you off the grounds.”
It is Morita who steps forward to help him up, face pinched. His grip is firm, but there’s kindness there. The white lines he digs into his arm are there for show when Rogers struggles to his feet.
“Not all of us agree you’ve betrayed us,” he says, muttered in his ear. “But I wouldn’t count on that to save you if you come back. Get out of here; if any of us are fit to make it out it’s you, Cap.”
“Go,” Morita replies, shoving him hard; they’ve returned to the edge of his base, the jagged drop dizzying. Rogers stumbles, catching himself before he can tumble. Morita has picked an out of the way place to leave him. “And take this with you, I see you lost yours when Stark captured you.”
Morita holds out a Thompson, battered with wear and use. With a certain amount of ginger reverence, Rogers takes it from him. He has a grim sense he knows to whom it used to belong.
For a moment they stand, awkward, then Morita sighs. He claps Rogers on the arm.
“I’ll watch over them for you, alright? We won’t--” he shakes his head. “This won’t beat us. But you gotta go. The situation’s SNAFU, anyways. Ain’t a reason to stay.” His teeth flash in a small, self-deprecating smile. He glances behind himself where the others are still watching, from their distant perches. He cringes, then gives Rogers a curt nod and turns from him, jogging back the way he came.
Rogers scrubs a hand over his face. It’s not normal though, nothing about this is normal. He cannot shake the sense of one of his dreams, dragging on his thoughts and eating into his rationality. He turns from the sight of Morita’s retreating back to fight his way down and up the steep trench. He slips and slides, shale disappearing from under his feet, folded together in unknowable patterns. It isn’t easy, but it’s fitting and Morita’s warning is ringing in his ears. His legs move like they’re swimming on land and that ache is eating at him again, insidious and vicious and now Barnes is dead, Barnes is gone and there’s no one else in this forsaken place to blame but himself.
If there is one thing the Ghostland has an abundance of, it is great, sweeping expanses of absolutely nothing. The Ghostland is a ruins, but everything had been dulled down by the constant rain until it’s become an indistinct mess, a dead grey pool. The only things of consequence in this place are the humans that inhabit it, and the sickness he spews into that deadness doesn’t make a dent in her secret club, even if it is just another mark signalling to ghosts and invisible things that life still sings here.
He staggers to his feet, stumbles away from the mess he’s made. He’s never once before now considered why he’s only ever seen the faces of fellow humans. It’s a heavy underscore that emphasizes his dysphoria that that is the thought that turns him away from his horror. He longs for something more, something different, and he can’t put his finger quite on what that is. Oh, he knows the names of the missing: trees, flowers, grass, insects chirruping in summer heat as the sun pounds over everything that basks in its glory.
Why did he never question this before? Maybe it’s time to find answers.
He owes Bucky that much at least.
Chapter 5: Heru-Ur
ALREADY FAILED AT POSTING ONCE A WEEK WHOOPS
to be fair I was totally out of town for a week so.
He’s been walking, aimless, for a good hour before he comes aware of being watched, followed, eyes locked on his back. He does not slow his steps, but he adjusts the comforting weight of the Thompson strapped to his back.
He looks right, left, but there is nothing.
He only thinks to look up when his own shadow flickers, altered by the murky light filtering through the grey clouds.
There is a great shape passing over head. Its outspread wings are almost too bright to look at and Rogers throws up a hand to shield his eyes, but already the over-bright light seems to be fading to a silver glow, purple at its edges. It dips closer and Rogers can make out on the underside of its wings what appears to be two great eye-like spots, but it rapidly becomes harder to distinguish as the speed of its descent becomes obvious, too fast, and much too close. Rogers breaks into a run, ducking into a roll as it slams into the earth behind him. Its wind rocks him, shooting dust into the air, forcing a cough from his lungs, but he comes up in a defensive crouch, rifle out and at the ready as it settles.
It’s huge, much larger than Rogers first thought. It stands straight and tall, towering over him. Its razored talons dig into the concrete beneath, legs bent at the knees, backwards to a human’s. A banded strip of fabric is slung about his waist, armored in the front and minimal in the back to admit the spreading of its great train of tail feathers. Its torso is that of a muscled human male, with thick arms situated before the wide breadth of its wings. In its right hand it carries a longbow, three times as high as Rogers is tall. The curled tips of the limbs are stylized depictions of the moon; the upper is full and the lower a quarter. Slung over its back is a quiver of arrows, their feathered tips burning red hot. Its head has the vague shape of a bird of prey, situated atop a long, swaying neck, with three beaks facing three different directions, but he’s grown a distinct lack of eyes.
Rogers can feel himself gaping. He shakes himself out of his stupor and brings his rifle to bear, grim determination filling him.
“I don’t know what you are,” he mutters. “But I’m not going down without a fight.” His finger creeps towards the trigger.
The creature opens its foremost mouth; Rogers expects a shriek, but to his surprise, it speaks.
“Rogers of the Mathr, I come only to converse,” it booms and before his eyes its form flickers and becomes indistinct, warping and fading as it shrinks. When it’s over Barton of the Alfr stands before him, tiny against the afterimage of the great monstrosity that stood in his place. There’s a slight discomfort in his human expression.
“Right,” he says, voice returned to a normal timbre. “So this is kind of awkward.” He mutters something else that Rogers can’t hear, then, “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your concern, but I’d rather you not be training a weapon on me for this. Can we maybe just talk for a bit?”
Rogers stands, cautious. He lowers his gun, pointing it at the ground, but his finger does not quite leave off the trigger.
“So this is what’s happened to us,” he says. He doesn’t remember Barton’s form specifically, but there are others peppering his dream-- his memory of that fateful battle at Coordinate 0. Angry, creeping, demonic things, tearing into each other, horrid screeching roars, furious, mad, pained--
“You don’t remember,” Barton asks, knocking him out of his head. Rogers takes a deep breath.
“Only snatches,” he replies.
“And you haven’t, uh, tried it out since then?”
He shakes his head. Barton frowns.
“Why the fuck not? You’re missing a real ride. No, nevermind. Look I just-- What did you make of our new orders?” He hides it well, but there is an odd jump in his movements, one Rogers just catches out of the peripheral of his vision. Barton’s fingers are white knuckled around his bow and he eyes scans the perimeter ceaselessly; the terrain is too open, but it’s the only traversable path Rogers knows this far from Manheimr.
“You mean how we’re apparently supposed to split up now? They’re trying to destroy us. Why else would they tell us to throw our lot in with people we don’t trust, people we’ve likely met more than once on the battlefield.” He hasn’t spent much time considering it, but the more he speaks, the more it makes sense. “It’ll send all of us into chaos.”
Barton glances at him, just a sharp moment before he goes back to scanning the terrain, but the sudden intensity of it sends a short shock through Rogers’ spine. Barton’s very... focused.
“A few days ago I didn’t even know what ‘trust’ was,” he says, flat. “And now suddenly this. Why are they doing this now? What possible purpose could it serve? And what the hell is happening to us?”
“...You don’t just mean the, uh,” Rogers falters, but Barton seems to understand. He grunts agreement. “I don’t know. I’ve-- I’ve noticed it as well. Before we were summoned Stark managed to capture me.”
Barton’s gaze whips around to him once more.
“He didn’t kill you?”
“Er, no.” He might have intended to, the possibility was always there, he had ample opportunity but he didn’t. Instead, when the summons came, he let him go. Barton’s got a point there. Why didn’t he? “But when I was a, uh, guest in Svartalfaheimr, he was there most of the time. He was acting... off. Everyone has been, since....” He trails off, the words stuck in his throat; he has no way to describe it.
“You’re different too.”
Different? He doesn’t think he is. It’s true that his dreams have gotten more vivid, less like ancient pictures faded with time and exposure, but they’re not new and his dreams. . . aren’t really just dreams, now are they? Not when he can see them just as easily awake as he does asleep.
“Yeah. I guess I am.”
“So,” Clint says. “I’m guessing you’ve got a plan?”
Rogers doesn’t laugh, no matter how funny the sentiment seems. Clint raises a brow.
“No?” He scrubs the back of his hand under over his mouth, rubbing the tips of his fingers over his lips. “. . . Romanov and I, We were allies for awhile,” he says. “We made pacts when the God Hand got too restless and started coming after us.” His smile is a fleeting thing, there and gone in a second, self-deprecating. “Then I made a bit of a mistake and Hell hath no fury and all that. She’s a little upset with me now.”
“Oh,” Rogers says, not quite sure where this is is going.
Clint nods, once, like he’s made a decision.
“Yeah, I think I’ll go with that. Thanks. Sometimes a guy just needs an outside perspective, you know?” He rolls his shoulder and lifts his fingers to his mouth again, this time letting out a piercing whistle and oh for the love of--
Another shadow flickers across the ground and then another in rapid succession. Rogers’ head snaps up; there are two black shapes moving across the sky and all at once he figures it out. It wasn’t fear of exposure Barton was concerned about, it was how easily he could stage his ambush.
“Sorry,” Barton says, but he doesn’t sound it and he’s shifting, the air warping around him as he grows once more. Roger opens fire pretty much the moment he figures he’s been duped, but the bullets do nothing, bouncing off what, apparently, isn’t just simple, downy feathers as Barton shrieks into the sky. His wings outstretch and those are definitely eyes on either side, piercing and wide open, with jagged rays for lashes, glowing a purple silver and gold.
Rogers ducks into a defensive crouch as that golden, glowing light stretches to surround him, burning with murderous intensity.
Chapter 6: Ogun
The golden light shines white hot, flashes, then subsides. To Rogers’ relief it does nothing but stun him; dangerous but not painful. He’s buffeted by the wind of Barton lifting off, a screech of rage, then a bang like hammerfall, a single blow that rocks through him, knocking him off his feet just before his eyes can readjust to normal light. He hits the ground hard, laying dazed for a precious moment too long; he only barely makes it back to his feet and gets his rifle up just as two three-legged crows come winging out of the sky. Their claws rake open, and Rogers lets them have it.
They fall back, cawing, as the bullets tear into their flesh; they have no armor to protect them as Barton does. Another burst of fire and they’re falling, bodies twisted in rigor as the drop to the harsh ground below.
He whips around, but too late; impact, jarring every bone in his body, then the world is spinning, tumbling as his body flies jack-knifed through the air. When he finally meets ground again he skids across it and finally comes to a stop a good hundred meters from where he began. He sits up, woozy. There’s blood everywhere, dripping down his arms and soaking into his uniform. The impact has shaved skin from flesh. He groans, tries to heave himself to his feet, but gravity drags him back, demanding. Even that small, second, impact leaves his vision strange.
He will die if he doesn’t get up, if he doesn’t move, find cover, anything. His hand gropes in the shale. He hears a sound, and his eyes crack open, watery slits. A talon descends upon him, twice again the size of his head. His gun twitches upwards, clutched in a nerveless grasp. His ears are ringing.
The ringing resolves itself, building into a crescendo, and with a burst of low light, it is Barton’s turn to go tumbling. The strike of his talon careens wildly off course, kicking up shale next to Rogers’ ear, but it’s a miss and that ringing builds again and releases, once, twice, thrice and each impact sends him farther.
Something grips him hard by the shoulder, dragging him to his feet. There’s that whine again, only now it’s directly next to his ear, attached to the bright red streak that’s blocking out half his vision. Rogers blinks at it, squinting. Does he have a concussion? That might be unfortunate. . . .
“Hey, Rogers, look at me!”
There’s something, shaking his shoulders, his head lolls, then snaps upright and a wave of nausea spreads through his gut like poison. His vision clears a little, but there’s no making easy sense of what he sees.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
Again, that voice. Rogers squints at the blurred form, trying and failing to resolve it into a clear picture.
“Uh,” he says. “Red?”
“Yeah that, no that doesn’t help Rogers, that’s on the other side of helpful right now. Concussions, great, wonderful, just what I need when I have a giant fucking pigeon attacking me.”
He shouts the last words and Rogers cringes away, staggering out from his grip and going crashing into the dust once more. There’s another great shriek, that sounds suspiciously like ‘Fuck you, Stark,’ and then little stinging rocks are pelting him, sinking just far enough past the skin to hurt.
“Hey, hey, I’m not carrying your dead weight, I swear if you pass out I am leaving your limp carcass here, you hear me?”
Something hits hard into the dirt beside him. The red blur resolves itself just enough that Rogers swears and jerks away.
“Holy,” he starts, but the sudden movement just makes that nausea rear its head, his limbs weak as a kitten.
“Alright, alright, he’s gone, calm down, let me just--” Something sets against his arm, cold and metallic and before he can react there’s a clicking hiss and pain shoots up his arm.
“Relax, med-kit, it’s just a med-kit.”
Rogers blinks in the clearing murkiness. He does feel better. There’s a coolness spreading through his limbs, soothing.
The big red beast holds up a metal-clad hand and waves at him, showing off an impressive row of teeth in what might be a grin, if ever there was a lizard that could smile. Rogers closes his eyes once more.
“Stark, I presume?” He says to the backs of his lids, until he feels up to facing it. This one he does remember from his confused memories. He’s large like Barton, streamlined and covered in metal plating. Where he bends, the bright red and gold separates, showing glimpses of leathery skin beneath. Its form is mainly humanoid, with a domed head, dexterous fingers and feet fused into a boot, but there’s a blue glow in its veins, spidering out from the bright circle embedded center in its chest, a filmy membrane protecting it as its edges disappear beneath plated armor. Like Barton, it has no eyes, and until its mouth splits to show off those teeth, its face is smooth and featureless.
“Right in one,” Stark says, pointing at him in some way that’s apparently meaningful. The creature-that-is-Stark tilts its head. “So what did Mothera want?”
Ignoring some of the stranger things Stark says is quickly becoming a survival tactic; disconcerting considering before recently their interaction had been minimal at best.
“Nothing,” he replies, levering himself to his feet. “Why did you save me?”
“You might not be asking me that much longer," he replies.
Rogers teeth grit.
"Why do you always do that," he says. "If you have something to say, just speak plain and get it over with."
"You'll figure it out soon enough. Here, since I doubt they kicked you out with provisions."
"I have my own, thank you," he says, but it's that wonderful smelling fillet he fed him before and his teeth grit around the words. Stark shrugs and pulls his hand back, tucking it into a compartment that whirs open unprompted, the gears and metal moving over leathery skin in a mesmerizing whirl. Stark turns, and strides away from him. "Where are you going?" Stark raises a hand, in a vague gesture, but doesn’t turn back.
"I was thinking of maybe, you know, making our way out of the big, wide, open, space, but I mean if you wanna stay, that's great too. I mean, obviously you have everything under control."
"Why me?” Rogers asks to his back and Stark pauses.
"Of all the others, you came after me. If you're really dedicated to this new objective, what loyalty do you owe me?”
Stark sighs, an odd, metallic growl.
"It's simple math," he says, turning around and crossing his arms. "Of all the others, you're the only one who never went in with all those games. Barton turned right around and tried to stab Romanoff in the back after they tag teamed Thor. Thor himself just never quits, never turns off. I don't know if they guy even knows what making nice is."
"What about Banner?"
"I don't trust anyone who acts like they might know more than I do as a matter of principle. So are you coming, or what?"
Rodgers cards a hand through his dusty hair.
"Yeah. I guess."
When he catches up, Stark holds out the giant, sleek claw of his hand. Rodgers takes it, with a touch of apprehension, eying the appendage in suspicion, but all he gives is a quick shake, one, two and for the moment, they seal the deal.
Chapter 7: The Society
They take shelter in an empty alcove, two great slabs of concrete fallen against each other into a 'v' and supported by a pile of rubble cascading between the dark depths. They clear away a circle to rest in. Steve's limbs shake, frustration building with each new discomfort. He catches Tony watching him more than once, but neither of them say a word, until after their bed rolls have been laid out, and even then their words are sparse.
“Goodnight,” Rogers grumbles, flicking back the top layer with an uneasy hand. Stark grunts in reply, head tilted. He's out of that. . . form, thank goodness for small mercies, but that frank, vaguely lizard-like stare hasn't faded with the rest of the hulking form.
Rogers keeps his back turned to Stark's pack, but the scent rising from it isn't so easily evaded. He slips into his roll, Stark doing the same on the other side of him, and throws the hood over his head.
Stark's breath evens, slows. Rogers doesn't believe him for a second.
The last of his coherency is spent on Stark, and his distaste at working with him, an enemy until so recently, but old blood sticks in his throat and clogs up his airway and he rolls over and goes to sleep, thoughts circling each other like angry sharks while all the while the hunger snarls inside him.
He opens his eyes just as Barton shoots past him, an unseen targets dropping like dead flies, falling to his knees beside Romanoff, fallen, still.
"Natasha," he hisses, frantic hands roving over her prone form, searching for anything, any sign of life from her cooling body. Rodger's heart aches in his chest, bleeding, but he says nothing. Barton's hand slides from her skin and he sits back on his heels.
"What the fuck is this place," he says, voice cracking like ice at the edges. Eventually he gets to his feet. The knees of the faded fabric of his trousers are red.
Rogers takes a step towards him, but Barton just steps over her, homing in on the trail of her blood congealing deeper in.
Rogers says a quiet prayer over her body before he follows.
The trail takes them to a closed, inconspicuous looking door. Barton flattens himself to the wall and Rogers follows suit, the concrete leaking cold through his thin shirt. Barton holds up his hand; they'll go on three, Barton first. Rogers stands at the ready.
They have no weapons.
Barton's fingers fold, one after the other, slow, until he's holding a closed fist. He creeps out a hand, twisting the door open. Silence. Barton chances a glance in. Nothing happens and he inches forward, careful, so careful.
"Clear," he calls it and Rogers rolls his shoulders and in they go. He flips the lights on as he passes the switch and the room floods into clarity.
Slumped over a sleeping console is the dead body of Tony Stark.
"Shit," Barton says, face pinched and tight. He takes a step forward and then suddenly he's lurching, falling, the pain in his eyes fading from hot and vicious to dead nothing. Rogers' ears ring with the nearness of gunfire and he whirls around, dropping to a crouch on instinct, making himself a smaller target.
Bruce Banner is looming over him. His eyes are bruised black with exhaustion and fatigue, but his expression is hard and determined. His feet are planted firm, anchored to sterile ground. His hair is wild and in his hand is the smoking gun.
Behind him there are creatures, teeth bared and claws scratch deep gouges into the ground. Their growling rises in a low crescendo. Rogers fists clench at his sides.
"I'm sorry," Banner says, simply.
"Sorry," Rogers snaps. "You're sorry?!"
Those creatures push past him and Bruce's eyes glint, reflecting gunmetal snapping up and taking aim. There's a sound from the hall, a croak like laughter, and Banner wastes a fatal moment with a glance over his shoulder. The creatures pounce and Rogers rolls out of the way The wild shot Banner fires after him misses by a hair and he swears, tracking him, as the monsters roar in shrieking rage, their teeth gnashing chasms in their twisted faces. Rogers' back hits the wall.
"I'm sorry," Banner repeats, and this time his aim is unwavering. "I won't let them have you." And he fires.
Rogers comes to all at once, and there's blood in his nostrils, on his tongue and something slick covers his hands.
Someone is dead. He can smell it on the air, their screams still fading in his ears and the new blood sinking into his clothes, into his skin, into his very bones drowning him in their dying rattle. The dim, shifting light of dawn rolls over his sight in grey waves, slow and inexorable and giving everything in sight a nightmare quality. He backs away, until his back hit concrete, breath coming in uneven pants and the dream wraps itself around his head, pounding through his skull with vicious, clinging beats. His fists clench and he bites back a keen.
“What the fuck's wrong with you,” he grumbles, words softened and confused with sleep. Rogers' head jerks up and he stares, Stark's body shifting beneath the bed-roll. With the shock of life, evidence inexorable, the grey slowly leeches from the edges of the world and as it fades, so too does the soaking stink of new blood.
“Uhm,” Rogers says. “Nothing. Nothing's wrong.”
Stark's pack gapes open in the half-light and the hunger inside him is muted and dull.