Bearing Witness to the death of an Old One was not a truly somber affair.
That was not to imply that it was a joyous one, of course – even Reapers, as hungry as they ever were for departing souls and lifeless flesh, couldn’t find themselves even the slightest smile of delighted anticipation as they watched the decrepit bodies shake and suck and moan in pain in their final hours. If anything, it was an affair of contemplation, of discipline-born respect, of an denial of acceptance that they were all to eventually meet the same fate. It was a funeral before death.
Bruce hated it.
He stood feet away from the rest of the quiet, watchful crowd, hunching his shoulders into himself as he braced his body against one of the many stabilizing pillars. There was nowhere for him to truly hide here – the Temple of Dust was directly under the glow of the sun, its white marble structure completely without shadow, and every inch and crevice of the flat floor and every pillar was bathed in light, and when the moon rose, it was exactly the same. Even now, separated as he was from the crowd, he could feel eyes on him, patiently waiting and heavy with the weight of expectation. They never pushed him – supposedly being a being concentrated of pain and rage earned him some twisted sort of pitied understanding – but they followed. They knew. They demanded. It made his lips twitch in desire to snarl at their audacity.
A heavy hand landed firmly on his shoulder from the other side of the pillar.
“Calm, my friend.” Thor’s voice was low and commanding, comforting as it always was. “This is neither the time nor the place to unleash yourself. You will be away soon enough.”
Bruce growled under his breath, the sound vibrating the edges of his teeth as he twisted his neck to catch sight of his friend. Thor’s eyes were glued to the event in front of them as he stepped forward, hand falling away to be replaced by his own shoulder which he rested alongside Bruce’s own. His face had grown, expanded from the grief he had suffered months before at the loss of so many of his people, but even still it looked the same, a small smile on his face, one that spoke of understanding and shared dislike of the entire affair, gaze holding just a bit of bitter mischief. Bruce didn’t slouch into the contact, but he did lean into Thor’s warmth, relief at the return of his friend igniting his nerves.
He growled again as the sensation of being watched pressed down heavier with more eyes.
“What’s wrong with him?” a tiny voice posed quietly. Jarred by the unexpectedness of it, Bruce whipped his upper body around, looking straight down to quickly catch glimpse of the child who had apparently snuck into the Temple, forbidden as it was. He was met with two small eyes glowing unnatural blue right back at him, before the child flinched and ducked back behind the safety of Thor’s legs.
“You know of the gods of turmoil, Loki,” Thor chided gently. His left arm darted out of sight, presumably chasing after child.
Bruce startled. The last time he had seen Loki, the being of mischief had been as tall as Thor, standing on the outskirts of his mother’s funeral with tears that had made even Bruce uncomfortable. He certainly hadn’t been a child.
“They feel pain deeper than us,” came the muffled response. “Fath… Odi… he says you’re in danger of becoming one.”
Bruce’s eyes darted back to Thor’s face, but it still held that same small smile. “Perhaps I am,” he admitted quietly, and then his arm twitched with a gentle shake. “But that is neither here nor there. Come out and say hello to Bruce. I have spoken to you about him, remember? He will treat you kindly, I promise.”
The dark head moved out from behind Thor’s legs, those blue eyes narrowing and locking onto Bruce with suspicion. “… they call you the Wretched,” he muttered. Bruce could see his small fingers dig painfully tight into Thor’s cloak, and he added in a much softer tone, “they say you bring pain.”
The little thing flinched back again as he spoke the words, returning to the safety of his hiding place, and Bruce felt his emptiness stir at the tremor in the small voice. The rage in his chest began to light beneath it, attempting to rise to meet the call of whatever suffering Loki had endured, but again Thor’s hand found his shoulder, squeezing hard enough to warn away the beast it would form.
“Calm,” the blonde man said again, and his gaze finally fell from the crowd and onto Bruce, revealing the film of sadness that rested over the bitterness he had not noticed before. “I have already removed my brother from the source of his pain, and put him into a state where he can achieve the most healing. This one is not for you to bleed for, my friend.”
Loki peered out again, eyes narrowed with even more suspicion than before, hair still mashed under Thor’s large hand that he made no attempt to get away from. Bruce stared right back at him, willing the flames in his chest to die back down to smoldering embers. As an adult, Loki had scoffed at and ducked away from every touch, not an ounce of trust in his body. Now he sought comfort through his brother’s presence, latching onto his body as if he was starved for it.
Bruce offered the little boy the barest of smiles and dipped his chin.
Loki’s eyes relaxed half of a fraction.
A sudden murmur from the crowd snapped all of their attention back to the center of the Temple, where bodies had begun to sway and turn toward each other to whisper. One broke away, stepping backward in their direction, draped in a black robe three shades darker than Bruce’s own. He heard Loki’s nearly nonexistent whine as the figure grew closer, but Thor did not tense, and neither did Bruce, for when the person was only a few feet away, it turned, twists of red hair slipping out from the edges of the black hood.
“Your physical presence is being requested.” Natasha’s voice was dry, green eyes unblinking as she surveyed them all. Loki whimpered when her gaze fell on him, again hiding behind his brother’s body, and her gaze took on a curious gleam. But in true Natasha fashion, she did not speak on it, merely shifting her attention back to them.
More specifically, back to Bruce, who crossed his arms over his chest at her expecting look.
“I can assure you, my body is not an astral projection. I am physically present,” he returned, voice just as dry as hers. “If the Elders are doubtful of my attendance, feel free to assure them otherwise. Not even I, contrary to what they believe, would bring such disrespect into this place.”
As much as he would like to.
“The Elders would love to leave you as you are. They are convinced they can get you to come around on your own, given enough of their pressure.” Bruce snorted, and Natasha briefly smirked, before her expression melted to blank. “It is not them requesting. Apparently it is calling out your name and no others.”
Now Thor stiffened.
Though Bruce could not feel it through the tensing of his own body.
While Witnessing the death of Old Ones was mandatory through the enforcement of the elder gods and too many centuries of tradition, it was the only time any of them had any true interaction with them. The Old Ones were past old, past ancient, existing long before the construction of the Temple and the city the gods had built around it. And they acted like it; as if they were above the gods and the creatures who surrounded them. They never spoke except amongst themselves, not until their dying day where they would utter prayers and oaths in their lost language. Never a name, and certainly not one of theirs.
“Come.” Natasha snagged the edge of his robe, her look sharp enough to silence the protests bubbling on his tongue, and tugged him forward. “You as well, Thor. You have been missed.”
The murmurs of the gathered gods died to silence as they approached, a small line of darkness with Thor’s gold at their back. Bruce could feel their eyes – all of their eyes – burning against his skin as they began to separate, making the slimmest of paths for their small train to walk through. Their emotions tickled his skin unpleasantly as he passed them all, their disgust and hatred and their own building rage, and they all gathered along his spine as they fell behind him. Unmoving as he entered the rim of the inner circle.
He could feel the Elders watching him, their gazes burning where the others had merely irritated, and his bones ached to screw out of his skin, to vanish, to leave his self bodiless and overwhelming. But his eyes were drawn to the raised altar between them, and the twitch form on it.
At some point, Old Ones had probably appeared as the gods now did – immortal humans whose skin glowed just a bit too much, tall enough to stick out from the masses and incapable of hiding the otherness of their eyes. But while time had gifted them millennias, it had taken its toll from their bodies, twisting their bodies into inhuman contortions, wrapping their bodies with the carcasses of animals they had consumed, threading their hair with that of the humans they had killed in their schemes. This One was surrounded by that hair, laying on a thick mane of it that separated only for the horns that had spiraled crookedly from its skull. Its face had deformed, nose stretched over a drastically elongated mouth filled with so many teeth that many were pricking out. It coughed, bits and pieces of fine material puffing out, spiraling to the floor like leaves abandoned by the wind, and when it sucked in another breath, it whined like one of the great whales of the seas.
But its eyes, its eyes were no different than his, than Thor’s or Natasha’s or even Loki’s. Hazed over as they were in preparation for departure, that were still dancing in an electrical storm of knowledge, of planning, of everything that made the Old Ones so powerful, and so dangerous.
It whined again, this time in the despair reminiscent of a baby in the arms of its dead mother, and he shivered as the notes of it pathetically wormed their way into the sound of “Bruce.”
And its eyes locked with his.
He could not move though his limbs strained to do so, body trapped in unseen bonds. The disaster inside of him erupted in a rage that had no release, tangled in a panic that ate at his lungs. Distantly, he was aware of the sudden commotion around him, of the shock at the acknowledgement being bestowed upon him, but all he was truly aware of was the calculating gaze burning into his, of the way the deformed lips seemed to spread into a smile. It wasn’t a greeting, or a threat, or a grant of favor. But it seemed almost satisfied with the sight of him.
“Bruce,” it whined again. Unaware, he stepped forward.
Itching, for some reason, to reach out.
And then, just as quickly, the eyes ripped from him as the Old One arched off the marble slab, heaving in a massive breath that echoed tortured screams. Its body spasmed horrifically, bones loudly snapping, head snapping back and forth so rapidly the movement was a blur. It began to chant, low and fast, the unknown words swirling around the Temple.
Teeth chimed as they fell to the floor, flashing from white to gold as they rested on the marble. Strands of hair released in waves, hovering in the air in oddly formed shapes as they discolored and wilted. Bruce’s instincts screamed to step away, to fall back into the rim of the circle and into the safer distance. But his feet were rooted, mind entranced.
The chants cut off as the Old One released an inhuman wail.
Dust burst out from where the body had been, expanding into a sphere that enveloped the center the gathered gods had left open. It covered the Elders, shrouding them in what they always claimed was the smallest bit of knowledge the Old Ones decided they could have upon their deaths. But Bruce stood just an inch too close.
And the dust reached him, too.
It felt like millions of tiny feathers as it traced over his the tops of his fingers, caressed the skin of his cheeks, touching him as if with a longing affection of a lover he didn’t remember. It soothed the madness inside of him to a stillness of nothing, and his bones wept in relief that reached his eyes in tears. He had never felt such a touch before, never felt so loved before, and in that moment and only that moment, all else ceased to exist.
And then it was gone.
The dust sucked back, away from him and the Elders who were staring at him in surprise of his presence. It pulled into itself, swirling spastically into a smaller, denser ball, and inside of it, there was a flash of brilliant blue lightning.
The Elders surged forward with an audible gasp echoed by the gods, but just as their fingers were stretching out to the ball – to touch it, capture it, stop it – it exploded again, bursting away in such force that all staggered a few steps back. The dust raced through the pillars, losing itself in the winds and blowing into the next life.
And the lightning struck down, straight through the flawless marble floor.
Straight to the Earth below.
For a moment, there was a deafening silence.
And then chaos erupted.
“Where did it go?” An Elder demanded. Strangely enough, he was glaring at Bruce. “Where did it go?”
“Wanda!” Another called out. They were all frowning. “Come forward! Call forward a globe. Show us who it has struck.”
Helpless, still feeling incapable of moving, Bruce twisted for a sight of his friends. Thor stood off to the side, Loki’s tiny body wrapped in his arms as the child sobbed into his shoulder at the horror of the sight of the death. Natasha was still directly behind him, fingers twitching to grab his robe again, though remaining the respectful distance away. They both watched him, expressions warring between concerned and serious.
He turned back as a slight woman in a crimson cloak stepped toward the spot where the lightning had struck. She fell to her knees beside it, head bowed, small hands moving to cup over the invisible spot. In a second of silence broken only by Loki’s hiccuping whimpers, her hands began to glow red, and a transparent globe grew from her palms.
In the center was a man - a mortal human, hunched over a table covered in piles of iron ore. His hands were moving over the pieces rapidly, turning them and studying them with a tightly furrowed brow. Some he dropped back to the table, but others he tossed carefully to the side, into a large basin that rested on a small sea of vibrantly glowing embers. His lips were moving slightly, his words unheard between his life and their vision, but he looked animated about something.
Bruce watched in horror as the lightning that had been born feet away from him sliced into the vision and struck the man directly in the chest.
The globe filled with red, no distinct shapes or images other than bursts of orange and yellow that sang of ignited flame. The girl on the floor grunted, and then released a small cry of her own, before her hands tightened, and the globe sharpened to a vision once more.
The man now lay within rubble, his iron around and under and on top of him. Flames roared around him, the fire thriving from the lightning strike, but not one rope of it reached out to lick the mortal’s skin.
“Is it?” the first Elder whispered, awed. “Is it?”
The human’s eyes snapped open.
Glowing in the same electric blue of the lightning.
There was a communal hum of satisfaction in the Temple.
“A new Chosen,” another Elder confirmed, nodding sharply. Impossible. “Finally.”
The Temple filled with noise again – the gods chattering away in disbelief and excitement. The girl on the floor groaned once more, and then seemed to collapse on herself, the image and globe fading with her.
Bruce felt Natasha at his back, felt the urgent tugging on his robes as she attempted to pull him away.
But Bruce was still rooted to the spot.
That human’s eyes had looked at him.