People never talk about what happens after you save the world. They don’t talk about the consequences, the things you lose. They don’t talk about the nightmares, the anger, the hypervigilance.
They don’t talk about trying to cry silently so people will finally stop asking if you’re okay. Or waking up in the middle of the night and reaching for someone who isn’t there. Who will never be there again. Or the empty ache inside when you watch people walk by, oblivious to what you sacrificed to save them.
That’s what brought the anger, the bursts of white-hot rage lashing out at a hapless victim who’d done nothing to deserve it. It was promptly followed by days of listlessness and depression, only for the cycle to begin again.
Saving the world really sucked.
You lose your innocence and all sense of security. You lose the ability to feel safe, even in one of the most secure buildings in the country. You lose the ability to sleep at night, when all you see are the people you let down, the ones you couldn’t save.
And the future that you had seen for yourself, the one you hoped and dreamed for, is now irrevocably shattered. You may have saved the world, but you have no desire to live in it.
In the end you ask yourself, was it really worth it?
The dream was always the same. Sun-bleached sky, palm trees, the smell of sand. A well. And a humanoid figure, made from silver bark and green leaves, its presence familiar and yet not, ancient and vast and alien. And always the same words.
Come and be known .
Darcy had been having the dream with increasing regularity over the last four weeks. The pull had gotten stronger, the need to pursue it, to discover its meaning. Darcy had learned the hard way that her dreams weren’t just dreams. They had the tendency to come true.
She had a secondary mission, too. Find someplace to hide the Tesseract where it wouldn’t hurt anyone ever again. She had a feeling that her missions were actually one and the same. Of course, SHIELD didn’t know that Darcy had the Tesseract. If they did, they wouldn’t let her leave the building.
Darcy finished tying the laces of her boots and set her feet on the floor. Then she pushed herself off the bed and stood up straight. The muscles in her stomach had finally stopped pulling painfully, and her legs finally felt strong again.
It had been a month since… well, since Ragnarok hadn’t happened. Darcy had spent the intervening time in SHIELD custody, but they didn’t try to interrogate or confine her, thanks to the efforts of the Avengers. Mostly Steve and Thor. The others were still a little wary about her. With good reason.
Darcy Lewis wasn’t really Darcy anymore. Holding Ragnarok, being Ragnarok, had changed her in ways she still didn’t understand. She’d regained a good deal of her memories, with some large, rather annoying gaps. She felt… more in tune with the universe. Even now she could feel the turn of the Earth beneath her feet, it’s orbit around the Sun.
It felt like waking up for the first time.
She got lost in it a lot, losing track of time. She’d remember something, but she couldn’t tell if it was past or future. Or she would get distracted by mapping a single person’s life, from birth to death. It was overwhelming, sometimes.
It was easier just to be Darcy, human being. But that Darcy was dead and gone.
Confident she wasn’t going to keel over and pass out, Darcy picked up her coat from the hospital bed. It was a deep purple color, covered in intricate embroidery in the same shade. Thin bands of flexible metal curled over her ribs, from under her breasts to her hips, like some kind of stylized armor. She shrugged it on over her plain black long-sleeved t-shirt.
Her long, dark brown hair was already pinned up in a simple knot at the base of her skull, and a purple ribbon the same color as her coat was bound around her forehead, from which a silver emblem of a horned moon hung between her brows.
Black cargo pants and combat boots completed her outfit. She wasn’t dressed to impress anyone (though the coat was damn stylish). She was dressed for a long hike. Because Darcy Lewis was leaving Earth.
It wasn’t the first time she was leaving the planet she’d been born on. It wasn’t even the second time. Darcy had lost count of all the times she (or at least her consciousness) had visited another realm. She’d been doing it on a nightly basis for the last two years, and on a monthly basis before that ever since she was thirteen.
She took a deep breath and turned towards the door. She didn’t carry any luggage with her. She didn’t have to. Everything she needed was stored in the tiny pocket dimension she had created. She would have access to it anytime she wanted. Squaring her shoulders, she marched over to the door and pulled it open.
There was a guard outside who looked sharply at her, his hand shifting towards the gun on his hip, and then he stopped himself. He wasn’t there to keep her from leaving. In fact, none of the agents in the building could have kept her from leaving.
Darcy was not a warrior, but she was something much, much more powerful.
Darcy Lewis was a norn.
She gave the guard a brief nod and walked down the hall. The guard fell into step behind her. He would shadow her until she left the building, and then she would pick up a new detail, who would tail her until she reached the Ways.
She wasn’t concerned. The Ways were protected, and even if the SHIELD agents literally watched her walk through one, they wouldn’t be able to find or use it themselves. It took a great deal of training to use the Ways, and there was only one person other than the norns who had been able to do so.
Darcy strode through the Triskelion, her strides long and her gait sure. People looked up as she passed and scrambled to get out of her way. She wasn’t a particularly imposing figure, being only five foot three and not in any fantastic shape, but the aura of power that simmered around her was enough to send people ducking for cover.
Except for one.
Darcy heard a patter of hurried footsteps, and then a woman, even shorter than her and at least twenty pounds lighter, slid around a corner on the slick floors before regaining her equilibrium.
“Darcy!” Jane Foster called, and ran towards her. Darcy had enough time to stop walking and brace herself before the petite scientist flung herself at her, throwing her arms around Darcy’s neck. Jane was a lot stronger than she looked, and Darcy rocked back on her heels.
“Oof,” she said, wrapping her arms around Jane’s waist on instinct. “Damn, Jane.What have you been eating, rocks?”
“ You should talk,” Jane muttered back. “You’ve lost weight.”
“I got stabbed in the stomach, Jane,” Darcy replied flatly. “It hurt to eat until last week.”
“I can’t believe you’re leaving already,” Jane said petulantly, releasing Darcy and stepping back. She kept her hands on Darcy’s shoulders. “And without telling me!”
Darcy shrugged unapologetically. “I figured it would be easier,” she said.
“You shouldn’t leave without saying goodbye,” Jane insisted, squeezing Darcy’s shoulders. “Come on, Darce. I thought we were friends.”
Darcy was silent for a long moment, staring at the other woman. “We are friends,” she said at length, and Jane subtly relaxed. “I just…” she trailed off. “I didn’t want to get emotional,” she finally admitted.
“I don’t cry easy,” Jane told her, tossing her hair. “Remember, you promised to come back.”
“I’ll come back,” Darcy said with a tiny half-smile. “This… this is my home. My world. I won’t stay away long.”
Jane nodded decisively. “Good.” She patted Darcy’s shoulders. “Okay. Go sort yourself out. Do what you need to do. When you get back, call me.”
“I will,” Darcy promised.
“I’ll miss you,” Jane told her. “We all will.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” Darcy said dutifully. Jane leaned forward to hug Darcy again, gentler this time.
“Do you want me to walk you out?” she asked.
“No, I’m good. Get back to work,” Darcy said, patting Jane’s back.
“Okay. Just, stay safe, Darce.”
Darcy leaned back from Jane with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. “Hey, I’m a freakin’ goddess. I think I’ll be fine.”
Jane poked her in the shoulder. “You are my intern, and my friend. Your goddess-ness is secondary.”
“Tell Steve and Thor I said bye?” Darcy asked, already turning towards the door.
“Yeah,” Jane said sadly. She wrapped her arms around her stomach. “Bye, Darcy.”
Darcy took a couple of steps backwards. “Bye, Jane.” Then she turned around and walked towards the door. She didn’t look back.
It was nine in the morning on a Tuesday in Washington, DC. Rush hour traffic was still in full swing, and the sidewalks were just as crowded as the streets. But Darcy’s aura was just as effective here as it was in the SHIELD headquarters, and people swerved to avoid her.
The Way was in a Metro station, an unmarked door that led nowhere. Darcy trudged down the stairs, not bothering to look back at the trio of agents that were following her, and made straight for the door at the end of the platform. It wasn’t locked, and opened into a dark, unlit doorway. She stepped through.
There was a flash of multicolored light, like a blink of the Bifrost, and then Darcy was walking on sun-heated cobblestones, the noise of a busy market erupting around her. She was assaulted by the smell of spices, leather, unwashed bodies, and cooking food. The world around her was a riot of color, and it took her a moment to adjust.
The exit of the Way behind her was a narrow archway wedged in the corner between two building made from orange-red stone. She stood in the middle of a bustling market that looked like a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and Mos Eisley. Most of the people surrounding her were humanoid, or close to it, with dark hair and dusky skin, wearing light-colored, loose fitting clothing to combat the heat.
And it was hot. The sun overhead was blinding, shining from a heat-bleached sky. Darcy merely adjusted the inner workings of her body, adapting her moisture loss and heat regulation. One handy skill she had recovered after being Ragnarok.
In her dreams, the ones that had been plaguing her for the last month, Darcy felt herself drawn to a desert. As far as she knew, Muspell had the most deserts of the Nine Realms. Hence her current location. Now, finding the exact location she had seen, that was going to be the real trick.
Thankfully, Darcy had sources. She started working her way through the market, ignoring the press of the crowd around her and the pushy salespeople hawking their wares. Her stomach growled as she passed a tent selling grilled meat, though, and reminded her that she had skipped breakfast that day.
She paused in front of the tent, and then remembered she had no local currency. She would eat when she got to her destination. She pushed onwards, heading towards the palace looming in the distance. She didn’t stop again until she reached the gates.
The guards moved to intercept her and paused when they took a second look at her. She drew herself up to her full, insignificant height, and said in a regal tone, “I am Lady Sigyn. I have come to speak with the master of your city.”
They stared at her for a long time. People didn’t try to impersonate the norns. The norns always found out, and they were not merciful. One of the guards stepped forward. “My lady,” he said, bowing deeply. “I will take you to the Lord Favrius immediately. Please follow me.”
Darcy lifted her chin and gave him a slight nod. She followed him through the gates into a large courtyard. There was a fountain in the middle of the courtyard, and palm-like trees and flowering shrubs in large pots. Overhead, stretching between the walls of the courtyard, was some kind of tinted, translucent membrane that cut down on the sun’s harsh glare.
The guard led Darcy into the palace proper, made from the same red-orange stone as the city. The main doors led to a great hall, at the end of which was a dais and a carved wooden chair under a canopy of red, gold, and orange silk.
There was a cluster of people just to the right of the dais. Most of them were natives of Muspell, the Eldjotnar. Darcy picked out the off worlders, and two people who were distinctly non-human. One of them had fur. The other had horns.
“My Lord Favrius,” the guard called as they reached the cluster of people. It parted to reveal a tall man, silver in his dark hair, standing at the head of a table over which several holographic images hovered. The man’s dark green eyes darted immediately to Darcy, and he reached up to smooth his fingers over his short beard.
“Who is this?” Favrius demanded in the native language of Muspell.
“My name is Lady Sigyn,” Darcy said in Allspeak before the guard could reply. “I come bearing the greetings of the norns.”
There was a low murmur among the people gathered around the lord of the city, all of them staring at Darcy. Favrius circled the table to face her. He was a handsome man, with dark olive skin and deep creases at the corners of his eyes. His clothing, while made of rich brocades, was practical and functional rather than opulent, and he carried a short sword at his waist. He wore no jewelry or marking of rank.
“It has been some time since we were graced by the presence of a norn, Lady Sigyn,” Favrius said, bowing and extending his hand. Darcy let him take her hand and raise it to his lips. “Welcome to Amirtha.”
“Thank you,” Darcy murmured, pulling her hand away when Favrius held it too long. “I am hoping you can help me with something.”
“Anything I have is at your disposal,” Favrius promised. “But come. You have just arrived in our city. Surely you would like to rest, and eat.”
“My journey here was not long,” Darcy told him. “But I will be glad to discuss business over a meal.”
“Of course, of course,” Favrius said, offering Darcy his arm. She stared at it for a second, then up at his face. She didn’t take his arm. He faltered for a moment, and then lowered his arm. “If you will come with me, my lady,” he said, sounding more subdued.
She followed him through the palace. While the walls were made of the red-orange stone, they were polished to a high gloss and carved with huge murals. The floor was white marble with veins of gold and black, and the domed ceilings were decorated with colorful, glass tiles. Darcy could smell myrrh, and cinnamon, and frankincense, burned in silver thuribles hanging at intervals in the hallways.
Favrius led her to a small, enclosed courtyard filled with plants and flowers. There was the same tinted membrane overhead, and jewel-colored birds flitted among the small trees. A table made of dark wood sat on a patio of white stone, surrounded by soft cushions.
As soon as Darcy lowered herself onto one of the cushions, a servant appeared, a comely girl with round, ruddy cheeks and a sweet smile. She placed a small, glass teacup in front of Darcy and poured a dark, fragrant liquid from a bronze pot.
Favrius sat opposite Darcy, and was likewise served a cup of tea. “It is almost midday,” he told Darcy. “I will have the kitchens send up a feast for you.”
Darcy sniffed the tea before taking a sip. It was strong and spicy, like chai without milk. “I have certain dietary restrictions,” she said out loud. “I would appreciate it if you would accomodate them.”
“It would be our pleasure,” Favrius assured her. “Tell the girl all you need.”
Darcy smiled at the servant, who was hovering nearby. “What’s your name?”
“Talisa, my lady,” the girl murmured, dropping a curtsy.
“Talisa, if you could make sure that the food served to me has no meat, and hasn’t touched anything that has touched meat, I’d be very grateful,” Darcy told her. “And if you have bread, that it hasn’t been baked in an oven used to cook meat.”
Darcy found it was often easier to forgo eating meat rather than try to determine if the meat she was offered was Kosher.
Talisa dropped another curtsy. “I will see to it, my lady,” she said, and glided off.
“So, what realm did you travel from?” Favrius asked, studying Darcy with a solemn expression.
“Midgard,” Darcy replied, tasting her tea again. She didn’t like it quite as much as kava, but it was a close second.
“Midgard?” Favrius asked, his eyebrows rising. “The mortal world? I would think such a place would be tedious for an eternal being. Such fleeting lives. How quickly the generations pass.”
“I like it there,” Darcy replied simply. “It’s been my home for a while.”
Favrius gestured lazily. “Well, it is one of the Nine Realms. Tell me, my lady, when were you last on Muspell?”
Darcy closed her eyes and summoned the memory. “Salarin ruled in Bazrahk,” she said. “I stayed to see the birth of his grandson.”
Favrius nodded. “That was nearly twelve generations ago. Our people are not as long-lived as the Aesir, but still, that is quite some time.”
“I’ve been...preoccupied,” Darcy said shortly, and put her teacup down. She heard footsteps approaching and looked up.
A young man, appearing no older than Darcy, appeared from behind a potted fruit tree. He had the same deep olive skin and dark green eyes as Favrius, and his dark hair curled appealingly. Unlike Favrius, he wore an abundance of gold jewelry, and his clothing was in the latest fashions of the city.
“Ah, come here, boy,” Favrius said, gesturing to the young man. “Lady Sigyn, this is my son, Hadris. Son, this is Lady Sigyn, of the norns.”
Hadris bowed deeply, his eyes never leaving Darcy’s face. “It is a pleasure, my lady,” he said in a low, velvety voice.
Darcy resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She knew exactly the kind of person Hadris was and what to expect from him. She really wasn’t in the mood for that kind of attention, especially so soon after--
Darcy’s mind abruptly went blank, her eyes unfocusing as her brain shunted away from that train of thought in pure self defense. She didn’t let herself think about it, not even for a second, not even when she was alone, because if she did, if she opened that door, she knew she would never get it closed again. She couldn’t afford to carry that pain right now.
Thankfully, Talisa returned at that moment, accompanied by two more servants, carrying platters of food. Hadris sat down at the table, slightly too close to Darcy for comfort, while Talisa and the other girls served the food. Darcy confirmed that the food she was given met Kosher standards, and thanked Talisa with a smile.
Favrius spoke once they started eating. “So, my lady. To business. What has brought you to my city?”
“I’m looking for a place,” Darcy told him. “In the desert. I’ve seen it in a dream, but I’m not sure of it’s actual location. I was hoping you could give me maps of this realm, so I could figure out where I’m going.”
“If you have only seen it in dreams, how will you know when you find it?” Hadris asked, swirling purple wine around in a glass.
Darcy gave him a level look. “I’ll know,” she said flatly.
“Our library is at your disposal,” Favrius said. “I will escort you there myself when you are finished eating. As always, it is our pleasure to serve the norns.”
“Yes, our pleasure,” Hadris said, watching Darcy with hooded eyes. “But the deserts can be dangerous, my lady. You should not venture out without a guide. I would be more than happy to accompany you.”
“My business is of a sensitive nature,” Darcy replied in the same flat voice. “I will be fine alone.”
The rest of the meal passed in halting small talk. Darcy didn’t feel very much in a friendly mood, and Hadris’ ham-handed attempts at flirting were giving her a headache. It was almost a relief when the meal ended, and Favrius led her to the library.
It wasn’t nearly as large as Asgard’s, but Darcy wasn’t expecting that. Favrius introduced her to the library’s curator, a wizened old woman named Agathe, and then took his leave, much to Darcy’s relief. Agathe was much more accommodating to Darcy’s desire to be alone.
The maps were thin, transparent sheets of a flexible material that displayed the areas of the desert with startling clarity, like high-definition TVs. Darcy found that she could scroll, zoom in, and zoom out by touch. The incredible detail allowed her to examine landmarks in the desert, trying to find a match to the images from her dream.
She’d been working for a couple of hours, sipping from the glass of iced, peppermint-flavored tea that Agathe had brought, when the curator approached her with a sheepish cough. Darcy looked up with a frown.
“Forgive me, my lady, but there is someone who is insisting to speak with you,” the old woman said in a creaking voice.
“If it’s Hadris, you can tell him to get lost,” Darcy muttered, turning back to the maps.
“It… is not, my lady.”
Frowning harder, Darcy looked up and saw a young woman, maybe a few years younger than her current vessel, standing a ways off and wringing her hands together. She was clearly a Eldjotnar, with the deep olive skin and dark hair. She wore flowing garments in deep red, and an orange scarf over her head. The scarf meant something, but Darcy couldn’t remember exactly what.
She beckoned sharply for the woman to approach. “What’s your name?” she asked, a bit harsher than she had intended.
The woman curtsied, hands still wrung together. “My name is Fatimah, my lady,” the woman said in a voice barely above a whisper. “Fatimah Mosaleen.”
“How can I help you, Fatimah Mosaleen?” Darcy asked, leaning back in her chair.
“I beg of you the service of mediation, my lady,” Fatimah said, her eyes fixed on the floor in front of her feet. “I seek justice for myself, and for others like me.”
That got Darcy’s attention. She leaned toward Fatimah, her brows drawing together. “What happened?” she demanded. “What do you need justice for?”
The woman reached up to touch the scarf around her head, and it clicked in Darcy’s head. Covered head: unmarriageable. “There are four of us, my lady. We tried to speak to the magistrates, but they would not hear us. The judges threw us out of their courts.”
“Why?” Darcy asked, keeping her impatience out of her voice.
Fatimah finally looked up to meet Darcy’s eyes. “Because it is the Lord’s son, my lady. Hadris. It was he who wronged us. And no one will believe us. They say we are lying, that we are greedy. But we only ask for the bride-price, as is our right.”
There was a sinking feeling in Darcy’s stomach when she realized where this was heading. “What did he do to you?” she asked softly, gently.
Fatimah took a deep, trembling breath. “He raped us, my lady.”