Fire and Blood

January 15, 2017:

John Constantine assembles a team to get Zatanna Zatara's blood back from Hanussen's agents. Following their trail all the way to the Bernese Alps in Switzerland, they somehow end up at the doorstep of the Cult of the Cold Flame.

New York City, then the Alps, Switzerland

From an old warehouse in Brooklyn to a cult stronghold in Switzerland.

Characters

NPCs: Giovanni Zatara (?)

Mentions:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Once again, several lives converge in a specific point. In this case, it is an abandoned, waterfront property close to the Brooklyn bridge.

Shattered windows, a decrepit roof, all the signs of construction decay scattered around it suggest years-long abandonment, and yet strangely enough, in a city where homelessness runs rampant, there are absolutely no signs of squatting. The property, with its barbed wire gates, and doors falling off its hinges, would function well enough as a temporary safe haven against the Winter cold, for anyone out in the streets, and yet there is not so much as an empty liquor bottle or flaming trash can in sight.

The old, tried and true analogue methods of the Winter Soldier serve him well here - triangulation between cell towers and the information he received regarding Muller's - Hanussen's - phone number lead him to this location. On the flip side, Spider-Man, suddenly plagued with fitful, twisted visions of this place two nights ago, has managed to finally divine an address. With the recruitment of Jessica Jones on the trail, working with John Constantine as she is, any poking and prodding about the location yields some strange stories from the local degenerates; how people in dark suits occasionally slip in and out of the ruined doors, strange lights and noises, disembodied whispers. Not even birds would roost on its roof, or the fence. Plenty say that it is haunted, from a lot that is as far from superstitious as they come.

When it's time to round up the bodies and enter this not-so-sacred space, it is dark and the moon is full, and the rest is silence. The closer they get to the building, the more sounds they hear - creaking floorboards and a quiet conference. If someone peeks at through a window, they'd find two shadows carrying a metallic bowl with them, its tarnished patina catching ambient light spilling from the outside world - what Constantine would recognize as a sacrificial apparatus, for small biological bits…like blood.

Both men, both clad in black suits. They cross an intricate circle outlined in chalk on the floor, all the markings present to focus will and magic across long distances. There is muttering, grousing and one of these men lift a gloved hand to open a door at the farthest point in the room.

—-

With those individuals John has had contact with at the outset, he took pains to make his primary concern very clear: /none of the occupants of the house can be allowed to escape./ Whatever methods people must use, whatever lengths they must go to in order to ensure that no one is able to slip away, he sanctions — no doubt to the displeasure of some, who prefer non-lethal means of resolving virtually everything.

He's quite open about the stakes. If someone should escape with the blood they've been using in their ritual, it will mean starting all over again, and it may cost Zatanna her life.

Earlier, he spent some of his time circling the property at a slight, cautious remove, inscribing things on the pavement at periodic intervals designed to ensure that none of the house's occupants are able to simply teleport away. If they intend to escape, they'll have to do so on foot.

When the appointed time comes, he stays close to the others, looking slightly uneasy about the size — or maybe even the existence — of the group. He's accustomed to working alone. He knows that he /needs/ the help, but he doesn't seem quite sure what to /do/ with it. And he's very slightly distracted: there is a symbol etched into the soft flesh of the inside of his left wrist, and the closer they come to the house, the more it throbs. Were he not wearing his coat, it would be fluorescing through the white fabric of his shirtsleeve.

Beneath the window, after that oh-so-cautious peek, he turns blue eyes silently to the more physical of those in attendance, most particularly Captain America, who has /actual experience/ leading a team. He puts his index fingers together in parallel and then spreads them apart: /we should split up./

—-

TWO WEEKS AGO

"You have got to be kidding me."

"You said you wanted stuff to fight evil, but you know how it is in this day and age, you have to respectful for all religions and a lot of them wanted to help Captain America."

"I understand that. But this is a bit too far. I wanted the holy water and the blessings on the shield. I accepted the amulets from the Jewish mystics and the wards from the Shinto priests. But this is too far. I mean, I saw this on a movie last week."

"Just be accepting and just take it. Just because you gave your word doesn't mean you need to take it or use it."

As Rogers hears the SHIELD agent say that, there is a small frown as he resigns himself to accept the final gift in his war against evil: A small quartz crystal given by a man in brown robes. "It is the Council's hope this crystal attuned to the Light will aid your quest. May the Force be with you, Captain America."

"And with you," he states with a smile to suggest honor despite inward thinking how silly this is. But the world is an odd place and Steve adjusts as best he can.

PRESENT TIME

Right now, he has his trademark uniform along with a satchel slung over his back containing some of the blessed items given to him in his fight against evil. He looks to Constantine. It is true, normally he is used to leading a team of people. But right now, he doesn't know who this people are and what they are capable of. Or really who they are fighting. It's like drawing randomly from a superhero deck and hoping you get a winning hand in some sort of life or death stakes poker. Not that Captain America gambles.

The man speaks at a very quiet whisper. "Me and Agent Carter will split up, try and divide yourself based on ability." As he says that, he hands the woman some of the evil fighting stuff he got. It's not SHIELD tech, that's for sure. "We want the two teams being able have magical insight and solid hitters. We don't know what we are going up against, but it's clear we are messing with people that can summon things from other worlds, so we need to be ready for this to go sideways at a moment's notice." Okay, so maybe he'll try and lead DESPITE having no idea what he's working with.

—-

BEFORE!

Peter Parker's been having dreams. Vivid, haunting dreams. Of a house. That's probably haunted. So after a few nights of waking up in cold sweats and sometimes screaming "DON'T EAT ME HOUSE!," he finally gets an eye-widening epiphany. He knows. He knows where it is!!

And so, as promised, a call comes through for one John Constantine from a number that had been given to Zatanna's weird Spider-friend. And also so, the first conversation between them will go something like this:

"OHMYGODhiIdon'tknowyoubutIfoundthehouseIknowwherethehouseislet'sgolet'sgolet'sgo"

*click*

… about five minutes later, Spider-Man calls back, offers said address, and then helpfully informs John Constantine he is Spider-Man. Of the friendly neighborhood variety. Please don't call him something else, his ego is very fragile right now.

And so it goes.

NOW!

Spider-Man had also called a certain, superheroic restaurant before coming here tonight. Person. Just -named- after a restaurant.

It's still miraculous he hasn't really commented on that yet. Give it time.

And so, Spider-Man arrives, deathly quiet. Like a ninja. Like a—

"Oh wow, there are a lot of people here. Wow. Look at all of you. I feel like I'm at some sort of super-convention."

— some sort of really chatty ninja. But he can't help it! All the PEOPLE! And Captain America is here oh my god Captain America is here and— wait. Wait. Wait. They're all getting together. … and another word for getting together is…

"Oh my god. Oh my god! Are we assembling!? Is this the Avengers?? Are we making an Avengers team right now?! Yes sir, Captain America, I'm ready to do whatever you need! … within reason. Like — y'know. There's limits. Please don't ask me to do weird stuff, it'd shatter my image of you, wait, no, sorry, that was strange to say, ignore all that. This isn't affecting my potential membership, is it?"

Pardon him. He knows what he has to do. He's just going to be gushing for a little bit as he lets his fantasies get away from him.

—-

At least one person who knew about tonight is decidedly not hanging out with the group.

But the Winter Soldier is here, somewhere. Somewhere he has a good view of everything. The head of one of the men in the room is in the crosshairs of his M24's scope, in fact.

It remains unshot primarily because nothing seems to have happened yet, and because the Soldier has noticed the rather large group forming up.

—-

Normally, Jessica Jones is one of those people—one of the ones who prefers non-lethal means of solving problems.

But these aren't thugs or muggers or abusive husbands. These are people who can put a big man down with a word, who drench their hands in blood for more power, who have been hard at work trying to murder Zee from afar, who think nothing of throttling a blind man.

Her fists had slowly clenched when John ahd spoken, but resolve had silently firmed her jaw. If she had to cross that threshold of her own accord, today was going to be the day to do it. She respects life, but these people have crossed lines that place them in a category of exceptions.

She had distracted herself from these thoughts by delving deep into the questioning of the locals. Now that the hour is here, with her breath streaming out of her mouth from the bite of the cold, she stays close to the team.

She feels out of place.

Captain America. Agent Peggy Carter, whose name even she has heard of in history books, which privately wigged her out since she'd called her Lady Agent McBritish or something like that the other day. Spider-Man, who had bad press but whom is quite obviously a hero. John Constantine, a hero from the shadows. And one of Gotham's own, the Red Robin.

And her, the failed hero, who nobody has freaking heard of, who keeps her abilities—well, not a secret exactly, but she doesn't advertise them either. Probably to anyone here she just looks like some random, grungy PI. The words rattle around in her brain behind a face that looks outwardly blank. Failed hero. B-list. A career that was a mere pimple on the ass of the great body of hero work.

Spider-Man cheerfully asks if they're making an Avengers team, and Jessica Jones thinks there's nobody /less/ suited to ben Avenger than /her/.

Still. Heavy hitting? She's got that shit on lockdown. And it doesn't matter if she's failed in the past. She's not going to fail today. Zee doesn't need her to be a hero. Zee just needs her to get the job done.

Still, even as she'd stayed close she'd sort of lagged behind, like that one loner kid in high school who finds herself suddenly thrown in with the coool kids and who mostly hopes not to be noticed by them, even if she's found reasons to like, trust, or respect the few she's had a chance to speak to for a few moments..now trying to figure out how to let people know what she can do without sounding like the lame kid who gets picked last for all the gym events going, "pick me, pick me!"

Maybe she'll just wind up with John, which would be fine. He now knows what she can do. But her quick count of everyone here says that if they're going in pairs, they might be short on people with magical insight. To her count, unless the Red Robin has some (which he might), there's only one, and Cap didn't entirely leave himself anyone with said insight, unless Agent Carter had some (which she might—she'd known the name Hanussen, after all).

She has to give them some idea of what she can do or they won't be able to act effectively. She knows it, and she finally parts her teeth. The two words she gives might seem especially curt in contrast to Spider-Man's effusive enthusiasm, but…it's all her own inner demons allow her to give.

"Heavy hitter," is all she says, just so they know, just so it's out there, just in case they need to know.

—-

The unexpected, extra member of the group is quiet.

Red Robin hadn't expected to hear back from Spider-Man quite so quickly, and fortunately he was still in New York on other business, business which definitely does not involve going into any SHIELD facilities he's not supposed to be in… Although, given how things have worked out, that might end up not being necessary.

The black cape and cowl keep the vigilante's figure shrouded, the white lenses that cover his eyes making it difficult to tell exactly where he's looking at any given time, making his face almost as inscrutable as the fully masked Spider-Man's; the silence helps the carefully cultivated air of mystery that the Gotham crowd generally prefer… It's also generally adviseable when you're breaking in someplace, he's found, and if the blond, trenchcoated man who seems to know what's going on here is keeping quiet, then it's probably an even better idea.

Besides, Spider-Man isn't letting anyone else get a word in edgewise.

Fortunately, Captain America is there, with his expertise in small-unit tactics, though the proposed split might leave them in a bit of a bind.

"Unfortunately," the cowled young man says, his voice lowered and shrouded by a faint electronic fuzzing, "my only experiences with magic have been people trying to kill me with it. I'm more for sneaking in. But it's your show." He's well aware just how out of his depth he is, here, and that makes him more likely to go along with what the more experienced members of the group think they ought to do. Otherwise, he'd probably just be picking out an upstairs window to slip through, by now.

—-

As Rogers takes in Spider-Man, there is a soft chuckle. "Well, we are dealing with magical stuff, Spider-/Man/, so things might get strange, but I'll never ask you to do anything that questions your moral beliefs and I'm sure our mutal friend here-" A motion is given over to John. "Won't as well." Evidence that Steve really has no idea who is he working with tonight. "Apologize about getting the name wrong previously." With that said, the weight of guilt is lifted from Captain America's shoulders. Should he die here, he will have no regrets!

Steve gives a thinks about Peggy. Really no regrets. Not one. AANNNNYYYYYWWAAAAY!

Cap reaches into the bag, pulling out headsets. They are mid-grade in quality, clearly Rogers not trusting these guys with top of the line stuff. There seems to be four up for grabs, clearly not expecting this many people. They are already tied into the frequency they are using to the battle, meaning his helm's communication is already up and running.

Jessica Jones gets a nod as she states who she is. "Right, then you're with team two, Jones. If you think you can take point, go for it and keep John safe, I'll be taking point on the other side with Spider-Man."

As Red Robin offers his input, Rogers nods. "Well, if that's your strong suit, stick with it. If we are going in their full force, best to have someone that is out of enemies' attention. A hidden ace up our sleeve."

A glance is given toward everyone. "Does this seem like a plan? If you got questions or concerns…" A pause is given toward Spider-Man as an important disclaimer is given. "…related to the mission, speak now." He doesn't even talk about the Avengers. How Rude.

—-

"Think I'm the only one with the knack know-how, mate," John whispers to Cap, reaching to take one of the headsets, which he puts on, albeit not without a skeptical look at the little piece of technology. He slants a look back at the big guy, and then over at Spider-Man, when the latter is assured by the former that John would never ask him to do something that violates his morals.

"…Yep," he agrees. Because he wouldn't ask, that's true. He'd probably just do it himself.

Blue eyes flick from those two over to the masked Batling, whom he gives a silent thumbs-up to. Blessings for stealth entry bestowed, Jessica is the last to receive his focus, brows knit very slightly. His voice is barely more than breath. "There's a bowl in this room" He thumbs over his shoulder, "that may be what we need. Let's make finding out our priority."

The others get one last look, and then he just…starts to edge his way toward the door. "Our arses are hanging out while we're standing around." John has hit his limit for organizing by committee, apparently.

—-

Whenever Teams 1 and 2 finally hit the building, there is…

…absolutely nothing.

Save for the two men in the suits, who have vanished in the lone, functioning door at the very end of the warehouse, there is no movement. The space is devoid entirely of bodies, and there aren't even any traps to speak of. Nothing but lone, empty space, save for the magical circle inscribed on the floor and the telltale signs of candles and candlewax littering its perimeter - but without the right chants and accoutrements, it is nothing but a fancy piece of graffiti.

There /is/ something, however, picked up by John's mystical senses and Spidey's arachnid ones, attuned to danger as they are and whatever connections spiders have with the arcane. Emanations through the door, faint and pulsing, growing stronger, and more foreboding, the closer they get to it.

And there is no other way in, even if they inspect, even as they try to find a way to go through the back. When the door opens…

…they are no longer in New York.

The door shuts with an absolute, resounding finality behind them.

The group stumbles into a geographical jumble that makes no sense - roads criss-cross in different angles, a rusty train rushes past their /heads/, with no tracks to speak of carrying it to the distant corners of this Otherwhere. A set of stoplights loom ahead of them, suspended with no visible foundation, and buildings, some of which they would recognize, such as the nearest post office and Grand Central Station, floating on sidewalks and blocks, their mirror images slanting underneath them at an angle and stretching far beyond the point of comprehensible reflection.

There's a smell; of rot, blood and eldritch things in the dark that have yet to announce themselves. In the haze of rust orange and brown mist, they'd find bodies, scattered randomly across the twisted landscape, bound in metal rings, the ones at the top scything them across the neck and bleeding them out like cattle put to slaughter. Crimson splashes against nothing, the rain of blood drops falling endlessly towards…somewhere they can't see underneath them.

It /looks/ like Hell, but it isn't.

The road before them stretches further into this breach between…worlds? Destinations? It's difficult to tell. What isn't so difficult to discern, however, is the sensation that they are being watched, one that blisters from all directions. Whoever or whatever it is, it'll probably come to call shortly.

—-

The Winter Soldier, from his perch at a window of the nearest adjacent building, watches the interaction outside the house through his scope, observing what the group is going to do. Surely they won't just go in the front. That would just be—

John Constantine starts going in towards the front. The Soldier's mouth thins.

He continues to observe from a distance as the group enters, covering them from a distance in case the two men re-emerge with a considerable number of additional other men, but nothing happens. They move around the building, transparently looking, but there is nothing to find unless— presumably— they go through that door.

Bucky tries to get a look, but not even he can see what might be beyond the door. Putting up his M24, he moves from his location, strafing in an attempt to get a different angle and scout it out. No way to see in, though. No windows.

With a vague sound of discontent, he is forced to abandon his perch, slipping down the side of the building and crossing over. He has a look, himself, at the back of the building. No dice. He follows the group back around, at a slight distance, as they go back in and finally try the door.

They go in. And then, without any of them actually moving to close the door, it SLAMS behind them. Almost like some kind of magical trap.

Bucky sighs.

He removes a grenade from his belt and rolls it towards the wall, backing up with his rifle raised, apparently expecting the group to be trapped in some sort of hellish naked Satanic ritual. But the hole created by the blast reveals there's nothing on the other side. Nothing but normal warehouse. It's all that door.

Bucky sighs, again. With eminent reluctance, he heads for the door himself.

—-

It's good nobody here is a telepath, or they'd hear the brain of one PI babbling along as bad as Spider-Man babbles. Captain America wants her to take point on the second team, like she's some sort of person who can take point. Like she even knows what that means except 'walk in front'. Well, no. It means walk in front and hit anything that comes along, right? Right. It doesn't mean she has to be an analog to the god damn paragon that is Captain-Freaking-America. She just has to be the tank. Get in front and hit things. She can do that.

Jessica's stolid nod might make her look quite a bit more confident than she feels. "I'll be happy to take point, Captain," is what she says, very professionally, as if she takes point every day. Sure she does. Every. Frickin. Day, by the sounds of all the faked confidence in that voice. Her fucking hobby is taking fucking /point/, not being a fucking /bar brawler/ who usually works alone and just /kicks/ whatever is in her way.

Even if a brief look of surprise had crossed her features that Steve Rogers had even remembered her name.

She had figured Zatanna had made the impression, and she'd just been…that random other person with the two-cents that he'd seemed to dismiss mostly out of hand, because when you say "mind control" you sound crazy, like that's some sort of rule. Oh, you said mind-control? Go sit in the penalty box for at least 6 minutes, or maybe 6 weeks, or you know what? 6 EFFING months, just 6 effing months in the you're-crazy penalty box, there's a girl.

And then there's the matter of these headsets.

Shit, are people who take point supposed to take headsets? They probably are, right? Does she take a headset or does she leave it for someone else? There's this whole mental struggle about the headsets.

Oh /fuck this/. She reaches for one. She's /on point./ Captain America remembered her god damn name so she gets a god damn headset. Today she's going to fake it till she makes it. She's going to just take point and she's going to wear a headset.

Someone observant might note her surruptitiously wiping sweaty hands on her jeans.

But…John steadies her with his comment about the bowl, not that she gives /too/ many outward signs of needing it. "Right," she says, and here she really is on more solid ground, because this all reminds her sudden dry-mouthed anxiety that this is just way less complicated than she's making it out to be, that she can do this and she has to do this because Zee's blood is in there somewhere and that's what matters, not anything else. So she gets on point— or at least gets in front of John—and moves when the others do.

And through the door they go…

And here they are in demented Wonderland. "Oh. Goodie. Another twisted dimension chock full of effed up things," she mutters her voice sardonic and flat (though she's trying to keep her language clean for Cap's sake), wiping some of that dripping blood away as it patter-splats onto her forehead. "And here I was afraid I'd never ever get to vacation in one ever again." Having something to snark at and gripe about at least sets her on a more even mental footing.

—-

As John states he's the only one with mystical knowledge, Cap just rubs the back of his neck. "Oh. Hum. Guess protecting Constantine will be vital since he'll be the only one that will likely be able to make sense of this," he replies with an awkward smile. As the teams prepare to move out, he notices the look from Jessica, the sudden lapse into professionalism. He knows that style of defense. Mostly because it's one he does far too often himself. There is a long pause before he moves to go, making the mental note that he has the chance to talk to her and see if those still waters run as deep as they appear to be.

The multipronged assault is good to go and everyone does their part. Cap rushes in, his shield making the door nothing but splinters as he readies himself to find another door that when everyone goes into it, it teleports them to another dimension along with the rest of the group. A raid on a house to deal with people dapping with occult, he's been and there that, as well as handed over the mind shattering relics to the SSR to prove it. The Star Spangled Man with a Plan… has no plan. His instinct is to charge through whatever this place is and just punch evil until a solution presents itself, but he's wise enough to know that it might be more complicated than that. "Was this expected, Constantine?" he inquires as he takes a look around, his blue eyes narrowing.

—-

Of course, they weren't /all/ going to go in the front door, that was the whole point of splitting up, right?

Captain America and his ascot would head off one way with the ladies, while Constantine and Spider-Man would find the kitchen and make one of those comically too tall sandwiches. Then there'd be an extended gag of everyone chasing everyone else in a hallway, and they all come out of different doors than they entered.

Naturally, Red Robin takes one of the headsets before producing one of those fancy grappling guns from underneath his cape - almost like magic - finding a likely spot to reel himself in up near the roof, because of course he was planning to head in to an upper floor, or to lurk in the rafters, or something like that.

But once inside, there's a whole lot of nothing.

"Clear up here," Red Robin's lightly fuzzed voice says over the earpiece comms, his cowl's eyepieces giving him a clear view despite the interior darkness. It's actually fairly disappointing, especially once it becomes abundantly clear that the only way forward is the singular door leading further into the warehouse, and that singular door slams shut behind Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends with an air of disconcerting finality.

And THEN someone sets off a grenade.

Once the bits of warehouse interior stop scattering everywhere, Red Robin lowers his protective cape, seeing another mysterious figure heading towards the door. Quickly, he considers possibilities: Nobody had said anything about backup, though he doubts Spider-Man had given Cap or Constantine much warning about /his/ arrival either. The worst-case scenario is that this new arrival is working with the bad guys, having come up from behind the group to trap the intruders. So, what to do? Come out swinging? Wait and see? Or…

Red Robin drops to the ground almost noiselessly behind the Winter Soldier, as the latter moves towards the sinister door.

"Hi," the electronically shrouded voice says to the cyborg assassin, while under his cape, the vigilante palms a few items just in case. "I don't suppose you're a friend of that British guy's? I don't really have time for a misunderstanding fight right now, lives are at risk, so let's just skip to the reluctant cooperation part."

—-

Blissfully unaware of grenades, John Constantine nevertheless has unfortunate developments of his own to contend with. Stepping through the door almost immediately has him rolling his eyes, tilting his head back and turning /right back around again/ — there is just no time for this! — only to find the door gone. The breath he draws is so deep that it hoists his shoulders a full two inches, and he exhales it in a long sigh as he right-faces again, scratching at one angle of his jawbone and giving the place a glancing-over.

"This," he tells them, with a vague gesture at the landscape of nonsensical awfulness in front of them, "Is a Snare," he says, and there's enough emphasis to capitalize the first letter of that word. "Psychic emanations from nightmares and night terrors eventually do accumulate into a sort of labyrinthine mess. Sometimes they're deliberately siphoned off for nefarious reasons, but this one looks like New York's own homegrown snare. Mental Bad Touch overflow, if you like. The fact that it's connected with an actual door suggests this part of it was curated, though, and that's…not…great. It implies somebody with a lot of magical weight to sling around." He glances aside at a spattering of blood that hits his shoulder, frowning as it rolls down the water-resistant front of his coat. "There's one way in and one way out, and somewhere in all of this mess there'll be a guardian. A warden, a prisoner. The proverbial minotaur in the labyrinth."

He dips his hand into his interior coat pocket, retrieving a silver lighter etched with complex engravings. "If we wander around we'll be bloody lost in no time. Anybody have a ring?"

—-

Bucky is nearly to the door when something gives him pause. He hesitates, feels eyes on his back, and spins around immediately, right hand producing a sidearm and aiming at the cowled figure behind him.

He doesn't fire. He recognizes Red Robin as part of the group. Slowly, the sidearm lowers again, muzzle pointing at the ground in clear de-escalation.

"I wouldn't call it 'friendship,'" he replies warily. "I owed a favor, so I was watching in case I was needed. Let's say me not shooting you is my proof of that."

The Winter Soldier shoots a glance at the door, clearly restless.

"I don't really want to go in there," he says frankly, "but I'm not seeing other options. Unless you found one while you were fucking around up there."

—-

Jess doesn't have a ring; she does a quick scan of the Real Superheros and notes none of them seem to be wearing one either. Now, she's completely focused. She reaches out, plucks a stop sign out of the twisted landscape, and bends the metal as casually as someone else might bend a coat hanger. "Will this do?" She asks John, even as she irritably wipes more blood off her face. That's getting really disgusting really fast.

Still, this is a relief, because real problems do a great job of chasing all the demons of her earlier anxiety far away. Propotion and perspective are wonderful things.

—-

John stares. He can't help himself. It wasn't that long ago that Jessica hoisted both he and Zatanna up off of the ground like toddlers and flung them down the street in Hell's Kitchen like a /grasshopper/ — most awkward experience of his entire life, by the way — but still, though.

"S…ure," he says slowly, reaching for the rather large 'ring.'

What happens after that he does not bother to explain. It involves a brief muttering of incantations, the lighting of a cigarette, and the blowing of smoke through the stop-sign ring. The smoke propagates on the ring's continuous exterior, sheathing it, and then — even after he hands it back to Jessica — begins to consolidate as it twisters away from the ring in a long funnel, drifting in a specific direction with evident purpose. "You 'ang on to that and we'll just go where it tells us to go. I'd prefer to keep my hands free."

—-

The smoke trail leads them to what is watching them in the dark.

It suddenly appears when they walk far enough - pale, gangly limbs and large enough for its shadow to dwarf the rest of the group. Like a spider, its abnormally stretched, cadaver appendages bend double-jointed by the elbows, its legs twisted and bunched somewhere behind it, stretched all the way up that the curvature of its buttocks stick straight into the air. The large, near-skeletal head is twisted in an unnatural angle on the right and clipped to exposed muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments are the same sharp, metal rings that have bled out the rest of the souls in here; large, macabre piercings swinging at its every breath.

"DeATH is YOuR onLY exIT," it rattles, the flesh-mass quivering at every syllable.

It may genuinely believe it, or it may be consciously lying, but John's smoke trail is unmistakeably curling around it, to point straight up its….

…well, its ass.

The exit from the Snare is literally up its massive ass.

"I aM AShlEY." What. "FoR seVEntY-FIve yEArs I hAve GUardEd tHis lAByrInth sNAre. NO ONE ESCAPES, aLl fAiL eveNtualLy, cUt UP aND hUNg aNd lEFt to LIVE in sUch pITiful sTateS foR yeARs. T-t-TAkE UP a RIng tAke uP a RiNg and SpArE yOurSELves frOM ad-d-DitiONal tORments."

Surely whoever bound the creature here meant for the thing to be scary and intimidating, in a manner fitting a maze-like world bred from the nightmares of a city's citizens. But while the name seriously tanks the intimidation factor, it doesn't change the fact that the entity is absolutely serious about convincing the rest to grab its piercings for its own to cut their own necks with to spare them the additional tortures that may follow if they decide to engage it in fiery battle.

Or it could be a trick, a ploy. Seventy-five years is a long time to be chasing the unawary and clamping them in their own medieval torture devices. Maybe Ashley got tired of it and has resorted to conning people to make its life a little easier.

—-

Hey! Captain America remembered his name! AND he apologized! AND he didn't say this wasn't technically a tryout for the Avengers!!

… Aaaaand that's about as good as Spider-Man's day is going to get today.

So, he follows Captain America, quite eager to please, barreling through with a lack of flipping around and diving through windows he's known for, a quip locked and loaded about how he's seen scarier evil homes in episodes of 'The Property Brothers,' but… there's no one there. And then also they're in some sort of hellscape, or something.

"Wow. What a convoluted way to get to New Jersey," Spider-Man utters, feeling some strange sensation as if he's stolen someone's joke. He shakes it off quickly, though. It's hard to feel shame when you're Spider-Man.

And so he follows, eager to help, but not exactly, like, equipped for dealing with mystical bullshit. So, he looks at Constantine as he starts his little magic trick. Illusion. Gandalfian spell. Whatever. Behind the mask, he squints a little bit. He remembers Zee telling him — this man tried to kill Muller. Maybe before he even knew the man was immortal. Whatever Steve's assurances… whatever John Constantine's warnings…

… Spider-Man's keeping an eye on him. Because he promised Zatanna. And because, well… he's just stubborn enough to throw a monkey wrench into Constantine's surly workings if he has to.

Fortunately, though, all that's come of said surly workings is that they're being magically pointed at the big magic ass of a big magic spider thing.

"… So like, no offense, I'm sure you're great and all - cool trenchcoat by the way did you get that at Noirs-R-Us - buuuuuut…" Spider-Man's lenses whirr into a mechanical squint. A moment of poignant silence passes.

"… I feel like I have to question your magical prowess here. Just a bit."

'I aM AShlEY.'

Sure why not.

"Hi, Ashley!" Spider-Man greets. He even waves a hand. "… is it just me, or has Amanda Bynes really let herself go?" Sometimes, Spider-Man jokes to distract. Sometimes, he jokes because he's nervous. Sometimes, he jokes to break the ice.

This time, he's joking because he doesn't want to go on a magical quest up the spider-cadaver's butthole.

It's all very complicated.

"So, no offense, but this is one Journey into Mystery I'm really not down for, so if anyone has a solution that doesn't involve being Spider-Ashley's arcane suppository — there's NO way I'm related to that thing by the way so don't even BRING it up — I'm, like. All ears. Totally. Sorry, Ashley. Really." …

"Sorry for just… your entire situation."

—-

Since around the age of fourteen, Red Robin has had a lot of guns pointed at him. Guns held shakily by terrified people, guns held firmly by cold professionals, guns waved about theatrically by deranged lunatics. You don't really get comfortable with that sort of thing, but you do get /used/ to it. The primal terror that comes with looking into the circular, rifled abyss, when you know what those things are and what they can do to a human body, tamped down to something controllable, something useable.

The cowl helps, it hides more than just the domino mask did. Featureless white eyes look inhuman, unflappable, unreadable. As though having a gun trained on him meant nothing at all, his attention focusing past the gun to the masked face, the goggle-covered eyes meant to make the Winter Soldier as much of an inhuman cipher as any Gotham City vigilante.

"I bet you main Soldier 76," the younger man decides, in what might as well be complete gibberish to someone like Barnes. But the gun is lowered, and he gets a kind of an answer, one that produces a grim little smile where Red Robin's cowl reveals the lower half of his face. Not getting shot at is a good start, in his books. A foundation on which to build. Though…

"Funny, he seems more like the time to owe favours than to be owed them. Well…" The caped and cowled young man considers as he moves closer to the door which slammed shut of its own accord behind the others, the door through which neither of them really want to go.

"This place is pretty much empty, except for that door. Some symbols and stuff that don't really make any sense to me, I took some pictures though. So our options are to stand here and do nothing, and tell ourselves we're covering the exit, and hope that they're able to rescue themselves, or…"

His black gloved hand falls on the door handle.

He opens it.

—-

"Well, if we need something to guide us and we can't use a ring" Cap is pulling out the 'Force' crystal when suddenly Ashley comes up. Whelp, guess that is crystal isn't being used. As it makes its threats and declaration, Captain America calmly moves the crystal into his belt before he withdraws the vial of holy water. When Spider-Man speaks, it buys the war hero a little more time to do… whatever it is he is going to do. With a recently blessed shield in one hand and the vial of holy water in the other, Steve handles this like one would expect.

"I don't know where you come from, what you are, 'Ashley', or what you planned on doing," Rogers begins as he marches toward the creature, likely to make sure he's away from everyone in case it decides to focus it's ire on him. "But I do know that you are dealing with people you never have dealt with before and likely never will. I am giving /you/ one chance. Release us now or I'll be forced to make a new way out."

And with that, Captain America digs his feet in and readies himself for the worst as he raises his shield defensively in front of himself.

Let it be known that Steve Rogers does not negatiate with DemonSpider Amanda Bynes.

—-

'I bet you main Soldier 76.'

The Winter Soldier stands there, assault rifle slung damningly across his chest, and looks completely bemused.

At least it doesn't seem like a /hostile/ remark, however, so his sidearm is holstered again as Bucky facelessly takes in Tim's comments. "He's gonna owe me one after this is through," he grumps to himself, as he follows Red Robin to the door.

Against all their better judgment, but because it's better than sitting around while everyone else dies horribly, they follow through the door.'

—-

Jess hangs on to her giant ring, nodding purposefully. "You got it." That's a neat trick, the smoke spiralling out into the funnel that leads the way. And then…THAT happened. That…Ashley happened. And most of the heroes talk to it, because…well, because they don't want to go up its ass, probably. She can't blame them. Still, the way forward seems pretty straightforward.

Whelp. If someone has to go elbow-deep in proverbial wyvern shit, making that the job of one Jessica Jones seems fitting. Not that the others tried to do that, but that's what it's coming down to, because they're putting off what she sees as the inevitable.

She wastes no time. She just strides around to Ass-ley's back end, says, "Shut up." She rears back her free arm, balls up her fist, and…well. She tries to punch through the ass of the Snare's strange guardian. She's woken up in her own vomit more times than she can count. What's a little monster poo between friends?

Takin' one for the team. Yep.

—-

Well, that's… a thing.

…yep.

John wishes he could say this was the strangest or most disturbing thing he's ever had to deal with in his short, checkered career as an occult specialist — boy, does he ever wish he could say that — but he'd be lying if he did. Still, it probably makes the top twenty, if only because the construct's name is /Ashley./

John slants a look at Spider-Man, cocks a brow. "I'm to take fashion criticism from a grown man in a red and blue spandex onesie, am I?" He rolls his shoulders, flicking his gaze over the tangled monstrosity of ruined flesh in front of them. "The spell did what it was supposed to. Just because we don't like the results doesn't mean it didn't bloody work." Unfortunately.

So very, very unfortunately.

In spite of his riposte, John has no criticism for the young hero's decision to engage the warden verbally, or even his decision to apologize to it. He did say that it was imprisoned here, and one might fairly assume that it doesn't like its present circumstances anymore than they like having to look at those circumstances.

"Seventy-five years sounds like a long time to be stuck here trying to keep tossers from being cut up," says John Constantine, gradually assembling the fragments of a vague idea. "You probably—"

'Are going to be punched in the sphincter by Jessica Jones' was not the way he intended to finish that sentence, but that's what happens.

Oh, shit.

—-

John Constantine does what he usually does when he's encountering otherworldly beings with an unknown power-set: He chats it up. And really, so does Spidey, because he doesn't really want to go up there.

But Captain America responds with a threat, and Jessica Jones just punched it in the ass.

So when the Winter Soldier and Red Robin catch up with their compatriots, this is what is happening.

Ashley unleashes a gutteral roar when the superhuman punch slams into its tailbone, breaking bone and sending flesh and dessicated muscle bits exploding outwards, only widening the hole in its backside, its eyes flashing red.

"yOu DAre— !" it shrieks, its massive body swinging around, though this does mean that it only pushes Jessica /right into its ass/, and she vanishes from view from the rest of the group. Multiple limbs thrash, one foot rising and slamming directly down on Constantine's head. It's angry, naturally - not only was it imprisoned in the whims of whoever cut this path through the Snare for almost a hundred years, but it delivered a courteous warning and got punched for its trouble.

How rude.

A sharp, metal ring swings, fingers stretching out in a claw to try and snare Spider-Man off the ground and send him spiraling away into the nothingness below. Another limb swipes at Captain America as it lets out another shriek.

And once again, everything goes sideways.

As for Jessica Jones…

The moment the shadow falls upon her and the resounding slam of dessicated flesh meets concrete, she suddenly elsewhere.

Stone columns hold up old arches, spanning equidistantly from one another across an open-air passage that leads into the tower before her. Her breath leaves her lungs in torturous wisps; wherever she is, it is cold and the heavy fall of snow dusts the outside world - while the walkway is covered by the same gray, blue-veined ancient stone as the columns, there are no windows, leaving the traveler at the mercy of the open air, which seeps thin and wanting into her lungs - characteristic of high elevations. If not careful, dizziness will set in, to those who don't have superhuman constitutions anyway.

Turning her head, she would find herself situated in the midst of mountains - blue with frost and sliced with thick drifts of snow and ice. It is not indigenous terrain in the United States, but it is somewhere on Earth, and the ones known as James Buchanan Barnes and Steven G. Rogers will find the silhouettes of these distant peaks extremely familiar, if they were with her.

The sigil chiseled on the yawning archway leading into the tower before her is something that she would not have seen before - a half-circle stitched over a single flame, the lone sentry welcoming her to…

THE BERNESE ALPS, SWITZERLAND
TEMPLE OF THE CULT OF THE COLD FLAME

Near the ravine that took the life of one James Buchanan Barnes.

—-

"Hey, man, whatever you read into that is totally your thing!" Spider-Man remarks with the helpless lift of his hands. He'd say more, but, well — spider. Ass. Amanda Bynes.

"Maybe we could play a riveting game of charades with you instead— " the webbed vigilante begins to venture and then Jessica Jones just up and punctures through its ass like she giving it the world's most scientifically incorrect enema.

"— or we could just donkey-punch your ass that's a thing we could do sure I can't see any possible way THAT could go wrong."

And then the thing freaks out. He'd say I told you so, but, again, Ashley's freaking out, and it spins, and Jessica disappears, and Spider-Man is now intensely worried that the frightening, surly woman is getting reverse-eaten alive or something equally disturbing and—

"I DIDN'T WANT TO THINK ABOUT THAT, OH MY GOD —"

So, everything's going terribly. A limb is going flying for Constantine, a claw whipping for Spider-Man's head. His spider-sense blaring, the young man moves just barely fast enough, not away from the claw, but -towards- it. He has every intention of leaping onto the limb of the thing, away from the sharp, dangerous bits, clinging onto the surface as he goes for a ride.

"SO HEY, I SEE POSSIBLE WAYS THIS COULD GO WRONG, SURPRISINGLY!"

And, feet still clinging onto the swinging limb, Spider-Man lashes out, looking to create a web-line between him and the limmb that's crashing down towards Constantine and then -yank-, using his own strength and the momentum of Ashley's own swing to send that long, powerful limb veering off-course from its intended trajectory of 'squishing John like a goomba.' Hopefully.

Things could go horribly wrong too, that's a very real possibility.

"HEY SCARY LADY, ARE YOU THERE?! Please tell me that you found the secret portal to Narnia!! IF SOMEONE ASKS YOU FOR TURKISH DELIGHTS IN THERE DO NOT ACCEPT THEM— "

—-

It doesn't really take long for the Winter Soldier and Red Robin to catch up, which is good because there was likely zero small talk along the way, and it was probably really awkward.

It's /bad/ because it means they happen upon this tableau sooner rather than later; one member of the group is already gone, the rest engaged in combat with some… thing.

The Winter Soldier stops moving forward long before he'll get anywhere close to the actual melee, standing some considerable distance back: though not so far he's out of eyeshot. Not because he is reluctant to engage, but because he's already within his effective range.

The M24 comes off his back. He readies it standing upright, using his left metal arm as a rudimentary bipod to steady the rifle, squints down the scope, and fires a .338 directly at the thing's face.

—-

There's no /shit,/ so bonus. Not that she doesn't plunge her arm into some snow and scrub at it just in case. Jessica Jessica is dimly aware she's forever going to be known as the B-lister who ass-punched a monster, which hopefully they won't morph into something gross like fisting, but…it is what it is.

And she can't apparently yell through the asshole to tell people to hurry up and follow her. If they can even bring themselves to.

"Well. Go me. I took point." Jessica mutters under her breath. She hasn't visited the Smithsonian, and she doesn't realize the personal significance of this to one Captain America and one Bucky. She does think Temple of the Cold Flame sounds bad (even if Matt didn't share the information that would have told her she's absolutely in the right place).

But she's loathe to explore on her own. She drops into a defensive stance, still clutching the ring, cocking her head to listen. Nobody might show up, after all. They might nope the fuck out or end up somewhere else entirely.

But fortunately, she hears Spidey.

Scary-lady? Well. It's not the worst superhero name she's ever heard. Better than Trish's suggestion. But whatever. She's not a superhero, she's a PI, so she ignores that, cups her hands, and calls, "Yes! I found a temple!"

Today is weird.

That just needs to be said.

Then she realizes the other heroes might need more incentive to follow her into the dark, so she adds, "I'm not covered in anything gross, come on. Stop messing around with the Snare."

—-

John is narrowly spared being crushed by an enormous, /disgusting/ foot by the webline that Spider-Man affixes to the flailing limb. He reels back and is just about to call for the web-slinging wonder to bind the warden up when there's a report from some distance behind them. He whirls where he's standing, and sees—

Barnes?

His expression passes through several complicated things, the dominating aspect of which is raw surprise, but with all of the thrashing behind him he doesn't have the luxury of looking for too long.

Not least because Spider-Man's shouting into the — into the Ashley — actually results in a response, echoing back to them from a long, long distance away, in space if not in time.

He stares at the posterior end of that pitiful, terrible thing, dread and regret pushing everything else off of his face. "Oh, /bollocks/," he says weakly. He tries to orient his thoughts on Zatanna; how badly she needs them to succeed, but trying to combine thoughts of the young magician voluntarily imprisoned in his flat with the mess he's seeing is crossing wires that were never, ever meant to be crossed.

Nooooope.

And then he puts one shoulder forward, and charges the…

…aperture.

—-

Only a short time inside this strange alternate space and Red Robin is already wishing they'd just stayed outside to make sure nothing snuck up on the group inside. It's definitely /somebody's/ idea of Hell, and he keeps half-expecting a Cenobite to pop up out of nowhere in scary Hell bondage gear.

That might have been preferable to what they /do/ see, when the caped vigilante and the brainwashed assassin find the others, getting into a fight with a horrible monster while Jessica Jones vanishes up its poop chute.

"What," that electronically fuzzed voice says, flatly.

The violence continues, naturally, with Captain America and Spider-Man in some kind of a melee with the whatever the heck it is, and the Winter Soldier deciding to take a shot at it, though even as a layperson Red Robin isn't entirely sure that angry Cronenbergian monstrosities are vulnerable to being shot, no matter how big the gun is, just another reason why most of the students of Batman eschew firearms.

And /then/ Jessica's voice comes echoing out of the monster's delicate donut, shouting about a temple, and about them following.

"Wha…..at…?"

Naturally, Constantine is the next to rush headlong up the demon's dirt road, and Red Robin just lets his cowled face sink into his gloved hands.

"I think he's gonna owe you two favours, '76," he tells the heavily armed cyborg, tossing back his cape and joining the charge for the puckered, cavernous exit.

Zatanna is really lucky that she's so likeable.

—-

Spidey's web-line does its work; the limb flies wide off the mark, tilting the massive body forward and angling its posterior up even higher as a result. As Ashley attempts to reorient itself, the Winter Soldier puts a massive slug through its face. The stripped end of its tilted skull, part of its jaw, explodes at an angle, bits of bone and gore flying from the impact point, splashing those who are unfortunate enough to be on ground level, which includes Captain America, and possibly Constantine, except the latter is already moving, followed by Red Robin, cape flowing (dramatically?) behind him.

The large body just crashes face first into the ground, as it could really only do so much with half its brain missing, but by the rattling of those exposed bones, it will not last. This thing is the protector and prisoner of this domain, and so long as the city that never sleeps soaks in the nightmares of its citizens, it will never die, but Spider-Man and Bucky Barnes /do/ give the rest time to exit the Snare.

There is no shit, proving that Jessica has elected to tell them the truth instead of conning them into just entering the Asshole to Perdition. The tower looms in front of them at the other end of the chilly walkway, and once John is through, the insignia, to him, will be familiar - the Cult of the Cold Flame does have a specific reputation in occult circles; well-resourced, numerous, dangerous. A veritable cross between the Mafia and the Freemasons in the magical world.

Closer inspection of the tower will reveal wards - magical protections. And not just those - engineering brains like Spidey and Red Robin will easily be able to pinpoint several tricks in the stone, traps that ensure that the tower's various windows are tethered to alarm systems, on top of the arcane locks that hold the tower close to all comers.

There's also a low din, echoing from the stone. Multiple voices, muffled, suggesting that wherever this meeting is taking place, it's occurring on the lower levels.

There are fresh prints on the snow, two sets of tracks, probably from the two suits that vanished from the door earlier carrying the bowl that Constantine is interested in, snowfall already eroding the patterns they leave on the walkway.

—-

Angry Cronenbergian monstrosities might not be vulnerable to being shot, but the Winter Soldier figures that it never hurts to give it the good old college try. All it costs is one bullet.

One bullet which slams home and rips half the Cronenbergian monstrosity's face off. It's impossible to see expressions on the masked assassin's face, but the way he puts up his sniper rifle and reslings it onto his back seems somewhat self-satisfied.

Not that that lasts long as the missing member of the group suddenly yells for them to follow her from somewhere Bucky can't discern. He looks puzzled— and then just dismayed, as Red Robin says something about John owing him /two/ favors, and then everyone just starts running for the thing's posterior.

"He's going to owe me ten favors," he says, mostly to himself, as he follows—

— and finds himself somewhere familiar.

He stops dead. staring off into the distance, unerringly oriented towards the ravine where he died, as still as an android that has been shut off. He will likely not move up until he realizes everyone else is moving without him.

—-

As the powerful claw comes right for the red, white, and blue hero, the famed shield is brought up with swift desperation. The impact against the unique metal causes Rogers to fly backward a few feet, rolling into a three point landing. The shield is raised again, protecting him from most of the mess created when the monster is taken down, which is good because it's best to have gunk on the shield than on himself.

Despite the defeat of the gatekeeper, Rogers almost just avoids moving forward, not exactly a fan of the required motion in order to get to the next area. After he takes a breath and grits his teeth, however, he finds the strength within and continues on. When he finds out where it goes. Rogers merely presses on with a large frown, giving a deep swallow as he speaks to Barnes. "Come on, don't have time for dallying," he states in a dark tone as he pushes on. "We got people depending on us."

That said, Cap moves on himself.

—-

"You see a temple," Spider-Man repeats slowly. That he can do this calmly, while on top of a flailing limb, is clearly one of his greatest super-powers of all.

"You found the Hidden Temple. Inside… its butt."

"Is this thing just made of Nickelodeon shows turned into gross nightmare fuels or what? Like seriously, I want to know— whoa down it goes!!"

The sound of Spider-Man letting out a startled yelp is drowned out by the bullet ripping through Ashley's poor skull and the subsequent crash. He flips off just in time to avoid being crushed by angry pseudo-dead spider-limbs just in time to land in a crouch just beyond the thing's angry, dead ass. Kinda dead. He's not really sure how magic works anymore, except it's heavily inspired by children's shows turned into weird, sexual kinks, apparently.

And there's everyone else, just diving right in. "So, we're just going inside, huh? Right. Great. Okay. Sorry Amanda Bynes. But if you make me smell of demon stank AGAIN, I swear, there's gonna — there's gonna be a RECKONING."

And so, Spider-Man steels himself. He braces himself. He starts running to the chant of, "I don't wanna do this I don't wanna do this Idon'twannadothisIDON'TWANNADOTHIS I'M SORRY AMANDA BYNES I LOVED YOU IN SHE'S THE MAN—"

Jump.

Tumble.

Graceful stop.

He'd say ta-da! but—

"So… this is the most ominous poor man's Narnia I've been to in a while."

"And I've been to one."

And so, he follows after, wide lenses viewing that tower carefully and with vague concern behind that mask. His lips tug into a slow frown.

"Hey — watch out. We got traps here, I think. Like… I dunno." He gestures, at the stone, at the locations he can spot.

"What sort of traps did the Hidden Temple have? It's probably some weird raunchy version of those that's gonna give me nightmares tomorrow. Just a guess."

Maybe he needs to start researching childrens' shows more to learn how evil magic works. Food for thought.

… except thinking about food is making him -really nauseous right now-.

—-

Jessica shrugs apologetically as Constantine comes through. "You did say this was how this worked."

Aaaand heeeeere's Bucky. "Sergeant Barnes," Jessica says evenly, as he just pops out. Just matter-of-fact. Because why not? Of course he's here. She looks relieved as people start following her into the worst kind of breach. She's regained her cool now. Hands in pockets in the snow, waiting for others to arrive so they can get in there and save the day.

When Captain America comes through she mentally punches the crap out of the goofy urge that bubbles up in her, the one that wants to say, like a proud six year old, 'Hey, look! I took point!'

The mental punch works. She does not say that. The urge vaguely convinces her that maybe she really does need all that therapy that people keep telling her she needs.

As Spidey swings through just babbling away she gives him a bemused look and finally says flatly, "Scary Lady? Really?"

Then she looks to Tim, because well, he said he was sneaky. "Are you good at disarming traps?" She asks this hopefully because OH GOD SHE'S NOT TRYING TO STEAL CAP'S STATUS AS LEADER but you know it popped into her head in…She takes a deep breath, trying to squash all this anxiety because there's still a good need to focus.

—-

It is very, very cold.

John doesn't have much in the way of body fat, and he's no super-soldier, mutant, or otherwise empowered individual, so his resistances to things like exposure are no greater than the average person's. Worse, likely. Nature and John Constantine are not particularly well-acquainted.

He folds one side of his coat over top of the other across his lean torso and turns around once he's fully through, looking for the others. All he can do is wait. And maybe he ought to be spending more time examining the temple, especially in light of what the insignia tells him about its origins, but until everyone arrives in one piece, he just…can't.

All of his reservations about being responsible for roping people into this come stampeding to the fore of his thoughts during the time he spends waiting to see whether or not everyone is accounted for. A decade has given him enough time to practice keeping certain of his memories from stealing into the full light of conscious thought, but traces of Newcastle find their way in around the edges: the smell of blood and rot, of brimstone, the screaming of friends and of a small girl.

…and then they're all there, and he exhales a breath he was not aware he'd been holding, turning around. "I did say that luv, yes," he says to Jessica, distracted. Blue eyes sweep over the building. Spider-Man is pointing out areas of physical danger. "There are wards as well," he adds.

The question Jessica asks is a good one, and he turns his expectant gaze toward Red Robin, waiting for the answer.

—-

The wind up in the mountains tugs at Red Robin's black cape, the heavy material rippling as flakes of white snow settle on it, but fortunately he barely feels the cold. He'd be more concerned about Spider-Man, who /seems/ to be wearing full body spandex, but given that he was operating in New York in the dead of winter, he's either got some protection against the elements that isn't obvious, or maybe it's part of the same abilities that let him flip around and contort in ways that would make Nightwing jealous.

And then, of course, there's Constantine, who is by all appearances a normal person. A very cold normal person.

"At least some of them," Red Robin answers, fishing around in his utility belt and producing a rolled-up item; it's a chemical heat pack, which he tosses towards the English sorceror. He's the only one who looks like he's particularly suffering in the current situation, anyway. It's a good thing that those Bat-types take being prepared to a frankly ridiculous degree.

"I don't know anything about wards, or magical alarms, but…" Another device, this one electronic, like a smartphone that's had major reconstructive surgery and maybe injected with steroids. It helps him look for wires, for sensors, for alarms of a more modern and technological nature, assuming that these evil wizards living on top of a cold-ass mountain are going to have traps more advanced than something Indiana Jones would've run into. Or Conan the Cimmerian.

"What is this place, anyway?" he wonders while he works, already picking out a selection of tools - wirecutters, some extra lengths of insulated copper wire, and the like.

—-

Demonstrating faster reflexes than most might give him credit for, John snaps the heat pack out of the air as it's tossed his way, glancing down at it uncomprehendingly until he begins to feel the radiating chemical heat. He drops it into an inner pocket of the coat, somewhere near the middle of his torso, and fastens the coat closed. "Ta, mate." The words are not effusive, but the sound of his relief expresses his gratitude well enough.

"This is a temple belonging to the Cult of the Cold Flame. Imagine a magical mafia, if you will — which explains how they were able to go on casting for so bloody long. Global operation, this. There are a lot of the sods."

—-

Sadly, it's not all that hard for Red Robin to imagine a 'magical mafia'.

Though he'd taken a certain pride in whatever grounded practicality still made sense in a world that included all the strange things he'd seen over the years, even that had proven to be a limited worldview lately. But was a magical mafia really that much stranger than, say, a world-spanning secret society of super ninjas, led by a man who continually came back from the dead?

Honestly, dealing with alarms and traps was a positive relief under the circumstances. Much more straightforward, even if they might die at any moment.

"Up there," the caped crimefighter says, pointing up towards the third floor. "That east window. That's our way in."

And then, with a faint *pfft* of compressed air releasing, Red Robin is drawn up towards that window on a grapple line, hooking himself in place long enough that he can reroute the alarms, and any mundane nastiness that might be tied to them. Once Constantine presumably makes sure they can go through without getting turned into frogs or getting teleported back out of some demon lady's rear window, he opens the door quite quietly - he even applies a little WD-40 to keep it silent - and then slips through.

Presumably, expecting everyone else to follow.

—-

Bucky knew that Steve was here. He almost considered leaving because Steve was here. He was not ready to face Steve, and still is not ready. But duty is heavier than a mountain, death lighter than a feather— or so they say. So he came anyway, despite the fact that he still does not feel… whole— worthy— well enough to stand beside his old friend again quite yet.

In the end, it is his old friend that snaps him out of his reverie. Frozen in place, staring, he does not see Steve come up. But he does hear his voice, urging in familiar tones that one priority they always held above all else, when they fought together: other people need them, right now. There is no time for self-indulgence.

He glances at Steve, though his gaze can't seem to linger before it drops away. His hands tighten on his assault rifle, and he makes his slow way up to join the rest, though he stands a bit at a remove, seemingly completely unaffected by the cold. He IS the Winter Soldier.

He's not far away enough for Jessica not to notice him, however. His masked features turn towards her in clear surprise, before he exhales and reaches up to pull the mask from his face. Doesn't seem very relevant now if everyone here just knows him. "…haven't we fought before?" he observes. "I should… probably apologize about that."

He falls silent, however, as Red Robin asks what this place is. His blue eyes go distant again. "It's the Bernese Alps," he says. "Switzerland."

When the best way in is eventually found via Tim's assortment of tools, Bucky moves to a spot beneath the window in question, looking up. He removes a grapple from his own belt, firing it up, though this isn't a fancy one that draws him up: this is one that he lets dangle once it's secured, the line forming a way up into the window for others to follow.

"Hope everybody's in shape," he says. "I'm carrying whoever can't climb that themselves."

—-

Jessica /could/ have offered to smash through a wall with no wards or traps like the Kool-Aid Woman, but that would a) end their element of surprise and b) she's already thinking living down the other thing is kind of going to be a long shot and it's something she'd like to manage in her lifetime.

So she sits tight, cause Constantine's the only one who can handle wards and Tim's the only one who can handle traps.

But if there are any giant boulders, well, that /is/ a challenge she can handle.

But then Tim manages to solve that problem with a minimum of giant boulders. And Bucky's apologizing. She gives him a little half-smile that conveys some measure of…understanding, perhaps, that goes beyond merely giving him some kind of pass. It's not 'oh hey I heard about your situation, it's cool.' It's something else. "There's no need to apologize," she says quietly. "Truly."

She glances at John ruefully. Spider Man can probably get up there. The Super Soldiers can probably get up there. John might have a spell? Otherwise she's going to have to offer travel via Air Jessica again, and she knows how much he loooooves that.

—-

Scary Lady? Really?

"What? Hey — listen, just — look, they're not all gonna be winners! But you tell me what YOU'D be thinking if you saw some cr—… reasonable, rational person -punch their way into a butt-."

He thinks cold, hard, rational logic is on his side with this one.

Still — he might be able to see those traps, even figure out how they work, but Spider-Man almost certainly does not have the tools to deal with them. Thank god, then, that he invited 'Really Rich Red Robin' along for the ride, then. He pats himself on the back for that foresight, and when the other masked crime fighter points out the best possible path, the webbed vigilante is quick to follow, only pausing right at the edge of the wall to look up.

"Oh! Uh. If anyone needs a ride, just, like, get on my back. And don't make it weird. This is platonic wall-scaling."

It's a joke. Really. Then again, one thing leads to another, he doesn't know the kinds of romantic entanglements that can ensue from a scenic wallcrawl across the Apocalypse Tower of Grim Bad No-Good Things.

He'll wait, then, for a polite amount of time; whether someone takes him up on his offer or not, he's climbing his way right up that wall, not by grapple line or otherwise. Just… crawling along it. Like some kind of — insect? Bug? Ant? Something like that.

"So, like, real talk here — is crawling up demonic anus into a hellscape usually how these things go? Are all bloated spindly-limbed things with disarmingly cute names tesseracts? I'm just trying to find, like — a set of laws to follow here. 'If X, crawl up anus. If Y, consider another cataclysmic orifice for your dungeon-diving needs!'"

It helps pass the time. You're welcome.

—-

Constantine does, indeed, make sure that nobody is going to be turned into frogs or anything else, for that matter. Once Tim points to the window he intends to secure, John turns his attention to the network of wards, tracing lines and linkages, discerning which pathways lead to which glyphs.

When he's eventually narrowed things down enough, he pulls that silver lighter of his from his coat pocket and trudges upward toward the temple through the snow. Snow…gets into his boots. Because he wasn't planning on a field trip to — wherever this is. 'Bernese Alps,' says the assassin, somewhere behind him. Switzerland, he says.

John is listening, but he's also doing…well, John things, near the wall. Whispering things, hand-on-wall things. At some point the network of wards including that window glow red, catch alight, and seem to turn to quick cinders and ashes that are swept clear of the facade by the unceasing wind.

Almost-numb fingers replace the lighter in his pocket, and then he's circling back around to find that Red Robin has already disappeared into the building. The Winter Soldier — who is living up to his name by not looking as though he's phased in the least bit by the cold, which John vaguely approves of, because otherwise what the hell — drops a grappling hook line from the window ledge.

John's hands are cold. Before long, they'll be freezing.

He still starts to climb the rope.

That's the /thing/ about John: he's not an athlete, but he is /athletic/, as anybody to get a look at his actual body could attest. He needs to be: sometimes he has to move quickly to stay alive. Given the right incentive, he can make a go of it. And the incentive here is 'not riding on Spider-Man,' which is just about as strong as incentive gets.

"It wasn't demonic," he says, puffing a misty breath into the air. "It— nevermind. I wasn't bleedin' thrilled either. I was going to have a wee natter with it, find out if we could swing a— " He grunts as he reaches the ledge, hauling himself up. He is not swift about it, but he makes it. And he didn't have to sit on Spider-Man. "—a deal, but then Madame Assblaster down there decided she'd —"

There's no time to say whatever else he means to say, because he slides up and over the ledge, and into the building

—-

The whole of the tower echoes with a myriad of voices chanting softly somewhere in its bowels, spiral staircases present from the third floor to lead down towards them. Following the trail will lead the group to an entire congregation of cultists clustered in front of a raised dais in which four large chairs have been situated. Only one of these are occupied, though given the fitful illumination the surrounding torches give to the gathering, his face is obscured in the shadows. Whatever is happening, the group seems to have, at the very least, stumbled in the middle of either a ritual, or something else entirely.

"Raphael before me," whispers the half-shadowed figure on the chair, voice too low to be recognizable. "The cold flame will heal the wounds inflicted on the Earth by the wicked."

"Raphael before me," replies the chorus.

"Gabriel behind me," the figure continues. "The cold flame will abolish terror and ignorance."

"Gabriel behind me."

"Uriel on my left. The cold flame will bring the gifts of peace and light to all."

"Uriel on my left."

"Michael on my right side. The cold flame will destroy the self-serving enemies of humanity."

"Michael on my right side."

The half-shrouded figure taps his walking stick on the dais once, twice, thrice. "With the power of these hosts, I bestow their graces upon this gathering." The head slowly lifts as the long, lean figure rises from the chair, taking a few steps to the light, a gloved hand, deft, graceful, gesturing to two cowled figures in the group. The darkness of his top hat swallows up the golden glow of the firelight.

"Apprentice Jesselnik, Apprentice Salazar, approach your master, Zatara."

The dark suits that have brought in the bowl walk up towards the tall, lean, spindly form of Giovanni Zatara on the raised platform, uncaring as to whether he was in the middle of a ceremony. As the older, elegant gentleman pulls a blade out from the walking stick he holds, ice-blue eyes stare dispassionately at the intrusion. The bowl's carrier hands him the metallic crucible, leaning in to confer with him.

"No sign of her today - physical or otherwise," the suit reports. Zatara plucks the bowl in his hand and examines it carefully.

"Mistakes were made, clearly," says the top-hatted gentleman. "But worry not. We will locate her eventually, have I not taught you the value of patience? Now look what such aggressive action has cost us. We do not have a lot of time to dally." A dark brow lifts. "Mammon expects her soul, and our endeavours will be easier if her body is in our custody…the secrets it contains will be useful. What of the boy in Germany?"

"Our agents are watching him as we speak, to see if his great-grandfather makes contact."

"Excellent."

Zatara turns back to the collective, setting the bowl on a small round table next to him before lifting his blade. "The Cold Flame claims all, in Life or Death. It transforms. It /purifies/." His ice-blue eyes fall on the two apprentices. "Does it not?"

"The cold flame burns," they murmur.

With a flick of his wrist, the thin blade in his hand glows, blue-white light streaming from base to tip. A swipe of the sword takes off both of the apprentices' heads in a single stroke, heads bouncing and rolling on the floor. A sudden shriek pierces the air as bodies /within/ bodies emerge from the corpses - black, faceless and wreathed with ebon smoke. They crawl out of their flesh-prisons and rear up towards Zatara…

…who consumes them, /takes/ their latent magical talents, all that they are, all that they could be, into himself to fuel his own already considerable gifts. An arm extends outward as they continue to dwindle into a gaseous state, seeping into his pores, curling over his wrist, twisting over his sword arm and blade, which he sheaths into his walking stick with a quiet click.

—-

"I'd think, there's Jessica Jones braving one for the team skipping straight to the part where we get to the Temple of Doom because she listened in class, Bug," Jessica retorts. Really, she's needed some target for her snark for some time now, and Spidey has ENGAGED.

"Madame Assblaster?" Jessica grumbles. Damn. Well, she couldn't keep his respect forever. She really is starting to feel the need for a drink. She gathers her legs beneath herself and leaps, soaring grumpily into the building. Everyone else can just get up there their own damn selves. She lands, crossing her arms and staring grouchily ahead. Grouchy turns into pissed and maybe even a little hurt in short order, and the scowl on her face is deep.

And when they get to this spectacle…she's just completely gobsmacked. Has Zatanna's /dad/ been trying to /kill/ her? Or is something else going on?

Forgetting her ire, she mutters, "Should we…rip his arms off, John?"

—-

Bucky notices the way Jessica looks at him before she absolves him. It implies a deeper level of commiseration that he does not know how to engage or respond, especially in public and with limited time; he simply nods, his eyes tightening with obvious guilt, and looks away: down at the snow.

He waits for the rest to go up before he follows— eyeing Spider-Man with some vague 'what the fuck'— so he can recover his grapple.

Once within, there is surprisingly little resistance. As such, soon enough, they reach the source of it all— lean out and look over an entire congregation of creepy blood mages.

"There's… a lot of them," he observes quietly. So what he does, of course, is lift up his assault rifle, check the magazine, remove something cylindrical from his belt, and start methodically attaching it under the barrel of the weapon. It looks quite a lot like a grenade launcher.

—-

Down the stairs they go. John might have reassured Jones — or made things worse, or both — if he'd noticed her mood taking a dive, but now that they're close to their objective, he has no focus for anything else. They descend with as much caution as they can, listening to the ongoing ritual below. The fact that the cultists are calling on members of the Heavenly Host does nothing to alleviate his tension: as he told Jane in her car weeks ago, if she thinks demons are bad, she ought to try spending time with angels. 'Wankers, the lot of them.'

What they find at the bottom of the stairs causes him to stop dead in his tracks, back pressed to the curvature of the interior wall of the stairwell, blue eyes widening, then flinting down to sharp, narrow slashes as he watches /Giovanni Zatara/ officiate a grotesque sacrifice. His insides feel like cold stone.

He hears Jessica, but for some moments says nothing. Some part of him probes the atmosphere, the taste of magic emanating from the slim figure in the top hat.

"Something's not right," he says, which may well qualify for Understatement of the Year. And it's only January. "It's — it's him. But it's also not him."

Whether that means this Giovanni is the real Giovanni and he's being manipulated, or this is someone masquerading as Giovanni, with a portion of the real deal's power stolen for itself, he cannot tell.

Dread rings his chest like razor wire. They have to stop the casting, but what if that means /killing/ Giovanni Zatara? How would he ever explain that to…?

—-

The passage through the temple was uneventful, which was nice, but it was also at a cautious pace. It was always a possibility, of course, that the Cold Flame cultists felt secure enough in their outer layer of alarms and wards and people having to crawl through some lady's no-no hole that they didn't need to have more security on the inside, but as someone who has played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, Red Robin can't help but be paranoid about the possibility of further traps on the inside of the lair of an evil cult.

At least it was easy enough to find the heart of things, the congregation of this 'magical mafia', with all the chanting and ritualism any Catholic could want. At least they're doing so in English.

Behind the featureless white lenses of his cowl, the caped vigilante's dark blue eyes narrow. He can see in the fitful light, better than most, see the heat generated by the different bodies, magnify the ambient light to see a man who he's never met personally, but has certainly felt the influence of. Giovanni Zatara, who taught Bruce Wayne many of the techniques of sleight of hand and escapology that were passed on to him. Giovanni Zatara, who he only recognises because he googled the name the first time he met Zatanna.

There's a moment of conflict, as he notices the Winter Soldier prepping a grenade launcher. It /would/ be an efficient solution, assuming it worked, but is adding to the mounting pile of dead really the way to go about it?

"I hope you've got something in the way of a flashbang or a concussion grenade for that," the cowled young man says quietly. "He just… /Absorbed/ two of his minions when they died. What makes you think he can't keep doing it if you kill them?" Red Robin has no idea if that's even possible, but it seems like something an evil wizard overlord would do, and it makes for a potentially tactically compelling argument against mass murder. "Constantine. That bowl, the blood. Do we need to /get/ it, or just destroy it?"

—-

"Look," Spider-Man begins in his grave aside to Jessica Jones,

"… it can be two things."

He seems fully ready to have a long-term discussion about this, but there's walls to scale, and Spider-Man isn't that far behind the others. And besides, there's Constantine, offering up his two cents. A few seconds pass, as Spider-Man remains perched in the window, peering at the man. "-Not- a demon? But it was all… demon-y. And Ashley sounds like a demon's name." Right? … Right??

"So is there like, some kinda Monster Manual I can borrow, a wikipedia page, something to keep track of all the varieties of ass monsters or exploding egg monsters or assplosion monsters out there, or— "

Fortunately, the webbed vigilante knows how to stay quiet when they infiltrate their way down the stairs. For now, Spider-Man sticks to the walls just to have a different vantage point in case there need eyes in multiple locations. But then—

No matter what vantage point you take it from, the next thing the young man sees has one pretty loud and clear message:

"Wow, so we're boned."

This is delivered in hushed tone the second he sees -all those people- doing their -creepy-ass rituals- with the -sword that glows like the one from Lord of the Rings-. But more importantly…

'Zatara,' he hears the voice say. And he knows nothing of Giovanni. He remembers Zatanna mentioning her father, but this? For Spider-Man this could be anyone. Except for the way that Jessica and Constantine react. Lenses whirr into a slow squint.

Is that…?

It's him, but also not him, Constantine elucidates. "Oh, well good, I was gonna say," he remarks, even as his eyes train on the creepy not-Giovanni-but-kinda-is with the furrow of his brows. How are they even going to approach… this… wait is that guy getting out a -grenade launcher-?

"Wait — hey— Liquid Snake, hang on a sec there—" he begins, looking down at Winter Soldier suddenly. His Spider-Sense is all abuzz. NOTHING about this is good. But… "Don't — what're you doing? You're just going to aim that at the roof or something, right? Distract them? Disrupt their weird little evil magician love-in without, y'know, killing them?" He's making it a question, because he hopes he's what he thinks isn't right. Or that the Soldier will listen to Red Robin. Not just because of the practical reasons for it — but so that he doesn't have to keep his eye on -two- possible kill-happy people. This bit of naivete probably dates Spider-Man terribly, in that moment. But he doesn't care. He's sure that they can do this without turning it into the Happy Magic Killzone.

Spider-Man, also, obviously has never met Winter Soldier before.

—-

There's a sudden halt in the raised platform. Whether or not the person on top of it is Giovanni Zatara is perhaps a question to be shelved at another time because the elderly magician's head suddenly snaps up when he feels someone take a sip of his essence to determine his identity. Ice-blue eyes fall heavily towards the seemingly empty staircase, but Constantine can practically feel his stare bore through the stone to get to his back.

"….we have guests." That long-fingered hand reaches up to take the bowl off the table, the other waving in an imperious fashion to the rest of his congregation. "I do not know who they are, but it hardly matters. Leave the magus alive if he is alone, if he is not, leave /one/ alive and kill the rest, then bring the survivor to me."

With a sweep of that magician's cape, Zatara, and the prize, start descending from the steps to head further towards the back of the room, presumably where another exit lies.

The collective group of mages turn towards the stairs, a myriad of hidden faces shrouded by hoods. They suddenly move quickly, dispersing from the center of the room. The air grows thick as threads of power start pooling around the practitioners - ranging from novices to adepts - fingers pointed towards the stairs.

It isn't long until the first attack hits.

Fire slams into stone, exploding outward and sending a massive shockwave upwards, chipping and ripping at stone and causing some to fall from the ceiling. Not the best thing to do tactically, but Master Zatara has given his orders, and they are clearly not above sacrificing their bodies for whatever

—-

"Bug," Jess hisses. "When I go, get the bowl with your web things."

Jessica Jones has no attachment to Master Zatara at all. He's the man she was hired to find. He's got the blood, which he /cannot/ keep. And now he's getting away with it. She isn't out to kill him when she just leaps across the room over the heads of the cultists, feeling the heat of the fire but ignoring it, focused on his retreating back. If she kills him, Constantine can't figure out what's wrong.

But she is out to knock him out. She uses all of her control as she takes her punch, aiming hard enough to knock him out but not to cave his head in. But…she does err on the side of putting more strength into it. She hopes Spidey actually goes for the proposed combo, since there's no time to figure out if 'get it or destroy it' is enough.

—-

John can't quite tear his eyes from the scene playing out in the next room, though he turns his head enough to answer Tim's question. "It depends on whether they've done something to it with the bowl. But assuming it's not — " He gestures with one hand, shorthand for 'a lot of magical detail that nobody but him would understand and therefore there's no point elaborating at great length,' "— then destroying it's fine."

Another two beats before he says, "Hey, Spider-wozzit, when we do this, I need you to web up his m—"

….outh.

Everything erupts into fire and noise then, and John takes the first impact through the stone he's leaning against, jolted into a forward stumble. "You should go, find another way down, let him think I'm the only one here."

He's aware of the likely futility of the words even as he's saying them. They have no knowledge of whether or not there's another way down. They have no-one else equipped to deal with magical threats that can't be resolved with — is that a grenade launcher…? And they're not, by and large, the sort of people who just leave their associates behind. He finds the latter sentiment noble but not particularly practical, even when it's his neck on the block.

And then Jessica goes leaping off, proving his prediction true almost before he finishes making it.

Giovanni did not say his name. The two of them know one another — cannot help but know one another. He knew Giovanni's signature, and the older mage would assuredly know his…

Is he protecting John, or does this avatar not know the things that Giovanni knows..?

"LEAVE HIM ALIVE," he shouts after Jessica, as all pretense of subterfuge is shattered. And that instruction may prove useless in the end, anyway: of the reasons he can think of for this Giovanni being such a convincing fake, all of them are /bad/. One of them is part of the trifecta of Fallen ruling /Hell./

—-

The Winter Soldier pauses in his work as not just one, but two people start to question his methods. His blue eyes move between Red Robin and Spider-Man, sharp and cool and distant as the jagged peaks of the mountains outside. He does not exactly look /happy/ about what he's doing, but in his eyes there is little reticence to do it and a hell of a lot of grim necessity.

For the Winter Soldier, it's just Tuesday.

So while Red Robin does make a compelling logical argument, Bucky still doesn't look /quite/ convinced. "None of them can get away," he says, very simply, "or Zatanna dies. At best, this just starts over again."

He pulls a grenade from his belt and feeds it into the launcher. It does not look remotely nonlethal. "If you have a better idea— "

Things go wrong.

"This is /why you don't delay me/," the Winter Soldier hisses as he sees Giovanni start to leave with that bowl. He looks at John once, takes in that indecision on the man's face, and grits his jaw as he realizes just what the substance of that indecision is.

Well, what's another sin on the soul of James Buchanan Barnes?

He sees Jessica moving in. He lifts the rifle, aiming down the sights, tracking Zatara and accounting for any evasions he may make against her—

— only for John to shout that he must be left alive.

"God damn, make up your minds," he mumbles to himself, as his weapon swings to a different angle. The grenade he fed in earlier is fired straight at a cluster of the cultists, because the Winter Soldier cannot really fathom that people would still be clamoring for nonlethal methods when they are being shot at with /fire/.

—-

Behind his mask, Peter keeps those hazel eyes affixed on the Winter Soldier with all due caution. He might have more to say, more to press about…

… but Jessica speaks, and then Constantine tries to say something, and then everything goes straight to hell, as things do.

"Web up his what? His manners? His marbles? His mixed up sense of identity? What— oh wow that's a lot of evil magicians staring at us, why can't they ever be the fun ones, like Mickey Mouse— "

And here comes the fireballs. Spider-Man's already moving, rushing across that wall at high speeds as the stairs just kind of -explode- into a shockwave. Debris blows outwards as he flips his way past — but the billowing burst of kinetic force catches Spider-Man, sending him spiraling through the air with a startled yelp. A slab of stone crushes against his ribcage with a painful crack as it powders against his body. Oh. Yeah. That might've bruised something. Or broke something. Wow. Breathing kind of hurts right now—

"— or Glenda the Good Witch, or the Fairy Godmothers, I'll even take that asshole Snape at this point—"

Though that doesn't really stop him from talking.

Twisting through the air, Spider-Man tries to ignore the pain; he sees Jessica rushing. He knows what he needs to do. Pushing past it, he makes a web-line to the nearest available wall, and -yanks- himself forward to reorient himself. His trajectory takes him swinging past the cultists, near Zatara, or whoever he is, offering a cheery wave when Jessica just ups and tries to pop him one.

"Hey you prooooobably don't know this but leaving big bowls of blood just lying around is a -huge- safety hazard so I'm just gonnnaaaaaaa— "

-=thwip=- goes the webbing as Spider-Man tries to snag that webbing, and drag it along with him for the ride as he swoops past.

Aiming one last burst of webbing for the man's mouth as he goes. God he hopes that's what Constantine meant.

"Sorry!! You'll thank me for this later when the Arcane Health Services comes rolling through here demanding to make sure all your ominous bloodbowls are properly stored—"

And so busy is he, that he doesn't really notice that grenade fire until it's much, much too late, and he's already multi-tasking far too much to be able to divert his attention in time. Behind his mask, hazel eyes widen.

"No— !"

—-

As usual, when things go badly, they go badly with a quickness.

They're spotted by Zatara, who directs his insane cultists to attack them, the figures below pooling their arcane might and hurling it against the small band of mostly heroes' current perch, in a way that isn't conducive to balance if you aren't a supersoldier, or an actual superhuman. Red Robin is many things, his mind and body trained to a ridiculous degree, but he is ultimately a mere mortal. No super-serums, no radioactive blood.

A consequence of this is that he too is unable to stop the Winter Soldier from unleashing that grenade, too far to even knock the weapon upwards to deflect the explosive projectile from falling among the cultists and doing its bloody work.

Two dispassionate thoughts bubble to the surface, in the back of the cowled young man's keen mind: One is that it /is/ an efficient solution to the massed numbers of magical practitioners trying to murder them with sorcery. The other is a strange kind of relief as he remembers that, statistically, fragmentation grenades are pretty bad at killing people, but very good at disabling them.

Perhaps it's a rationalisation, to let him continue the work. Perhaps it's his own thoughts reordering themselves so that he can focus on what's important, the mortal life and eternal soul of Zatanna Zatara.

Perfect teeth grit in anger as he turns his attention away from the Winter Soldier and towards the prize, the bowl currently in the possession of Spider-Man. Who is swinging with it, doing all sorts of things. He could lose it, or spill the blood - maybe enough blood that, as Barnes rightly reminded them, it could just start all over again.

Utility belt. Back compartment.

"Let's hope it's not," Red Robin says, repeating the vague gesture Constantine made earlier with an almost eerie precision before one of the costumed vigilante's hands blurs, releasing a small yellow disc; the disc hits a wall bounces, rebounds, landing with calculated precision in the bowl full of blood, whereupon it releases its contents, the stolen life turning into a red foam, a single hard lump.

"Spider-Man, drop the bowl!" Red Robin shouts.

This part is important, because about five seconds later the explosive gel in the foam detonates, probably taking the bowl with it.

—-

Jess tries - she makes a valiant effort. As her body clears through the smoke generated from the first attack, aiming that punch at Zatara, she'd find herself /grabbed/ by nothing but dead air, magic swirling around her as her mid-air leap is redirected, flung towards other cultists, and there are many, who are already calling up their spells. Lightning, ice, fire, they all /rip/ into her as she's sent hurtling towards the attacks that have already started to fly between the cult's members and the intruders. As strong as she is, as durable, there is a /lot/ of magical firepower crashing into her just then.

At the very least, Winter Soldier is quick enough with his reflexes not to catch the PI on friendly fire either, turning his grenade launcher towards another group. A single grenade fed in, then launched, it drops somewhere within the throng on the east side of the room; there is a second or two of absolutely nothing happening when the explosion /rocks/ the massive chamber, throwing bodies upwards as the shockwave ripples out - it kills a few, and it knocks a few off their feet, magic spells going awry at the sudden incendiary blast. A few ping harmlessly off a wall, a few take out other mages, a domino effect that can't help but happen in a scene as chaotic as this.

But what Jess doesn't manage to do, Spider-Man is at least able to, too quick, too agile, and really who among the cultists /expects/ the crimefighting vigilante from New York coming all the way to Switzerland? The web does its work, snatched out of Master Zatara's grip, causing him to pause from his tracks; as ever, he doesn't panic - he is calmly rounding on the arachnid-boy who /dares/, his mouth webbed up…. just as he becomes distracted by the grenade explosion caused by the Winter Soldier.

It is the opening he needs. And since his mouth was not webbed up…

A hand comes up to /tear/ his gag savagely off his mouth and chin. "Gninthgil ruoy gnirb, em deeh Kudram!" Slashes of lightning slash through the air, emanating from the elderly magician's fingertips, aimed towards Spider-Man's back, his webs, aiming to injure and cut him from his tethers, and send him hurtling into the very dangerous crowd below. One side of his lip, under his mustache, curls up in a hint of a snarl.

One of the men in the dark suits leaps from the stage to land on the ground, making a beeline towards the blue-and-red spandex-wearing vigilante. He has the bowl, and he needs to get it back….

Except Red Robin is already on it with that expert flip of his disc into the bowl.

Whether Spidey keeps holding onto it, whether he drops it, there's no stopping it. It /detonates/ before the dark suit can get to it, reducing it to dust, scorching whatever biological traces are implanted inside and rendering it useless for the cult's purposes. For a moment, Time goes still as a hush falls over the mages' collective in the chamber, failure weighing down on their shoulders.

It does /not/ make Zatara happy.

"KILL THEM!" he roars, the uncharacteristic loss of temper causing those pale eyes to grow luminescent with power. "LLA MEHT LLIK!!"

The assault starts anew. The patch of wall Constantine is hiding behind takes the brunt of plenty of the spells being thrown. Giovanni throws his own magical weight into it, unleashing a massive shockwave with a single, reverberating word. The stairs start to break apart as he attempts to dwindle these heroes' avenues of escape one by one.

—-

Jessica doesn't begrudge Constantine his yell; she supposes he has no way of knowing that killing was not on her mind and that it's not normally her M.O. to begin with. Though she really can't begrudge Sergeant Barnes his. He's a /soldier/, after all. It's different for soldiers.

She even knows Constantine doesn't know the extent to which she can modulate her strength, control it to keep it from causing disaster. That was one skill she had managed fairly early, way back when she was a teen. Otherwise she'd just be inadvertantly breaking things left and right.

But then the results of her gambit play out, and it does not go well. She hits the ground hard, screaming in agony as she's pummeled by the elements. As much endurance as she has, she's not immune to pains; she's never tested the theory of just how much she can shake off. She has always been careful about bullets, for example, as Bucky can attest to. And while the Saskarian taser had not taken her out the other day, it had also disoriented her and left her hurt. All this?

All this has her screaming, arms raising to protect her head briefly and futiley. It's all she can think to do. It's a measure of how painful it is that she can't even think to be utterly mortified that she's ended up smacked down this badly in front of the real heroes.

That will come later…if she lives.

The agony is mercifully short…one can't take all that and stay conscious. She is soon passed out on the floor, with…well, her life probably ticking away in seconds if she's left there to continue taking the brunt of that.

The fact that they all stop and freak out over Red Robin's own gambit probably saves her life for a few moments, though whether that will continue, well.

—-

The Winter Soldier notices the general distress about his grenade usage. It is beyond him why people are still upset about this when plenty of SUPER LETHAL SPELLS are flying around through the air right now. But then, he is at his core a soldier, and the entire point of a soldier is this: you don't die for your cause. You make everyone else die for theirs.

Nobody would be a very good soldier if they didn't kill before they could be killed.

So he doesn't stop at one grenade. He's got five more, and he's loading up number two already. He moves quickly, from cover to cover, dropping his grenades in clustered packs of cultists, using quick and deadly-accurate bursts of fire from his rifle to try to take out individuals.

Let magician fight magician. He seems intent on cleaning up the cultists before any of them can escape to cause more trouble.

Then a shriek cuts the air. He turns and sees Jessica on the floor, ravaged by the elements. He shakes his head, curses, and leaps down towards her, approaching as close as he dares to the arcing power. Using his left arm, he makes a game attempt to reach in and grab her, hefting her one-handed to pull her clear and behind some cover that hasn't been blown apart yet.

—-

Normally, Spider-Man would have some bewildered witticism for how Zatara manages to just rip that webbing off his mouth without, like, losing his lips in the process. Seriously, that's just -frightening-. Normally it'd be all the inspiration he needs.

But right now, he doesn't really feel like joking.

As he circles around the chamber on his web-line, stringing together a new one to bring him back towards the others, his attention is on the crowd of sorcerers as that grenade explodes. Some of them live through it, disabled or maimed or whichever. But some of them don't. And Spider-Man sees the whole thing.

None of those people are probably those worth missing. They're here, they're trying to sacrifice Zatanna. He could easily see it as an us or them scenario. Easily just say it was Zatanna's life or theirs.

He doesn't let himself off that easily. He doesn't try to justify it in his head. They died. They didn't have to.

And he couldn't save them.

Something like anger swells up in Parker, but he has no time to dwell on it. He hears that backwards talk, and even if he doesn't know what the man is saying, his experience and his Spider-Sense is telling him it's something bad. Something very, very bad. He twists through the air with preternatural grace, twisting just in time for an electrical arc to ionize the air he was just occupying. A new blade cuts his web. Another web is fired, another blade, bending underneath it. "You — just — do not — give up—!!" he complains to the heavens.

And then he hears something fall into his terrible scary blood bowl. Sees it fill up into a hard, dangerous-looking lump. Hears Red Robin shout.

"Ah, crap," he declares, to no one in particular. Ah, crap indeed.

Because it's about then that Spider-Man notices a few things happening. One, Bucky is on a rampage. Two, this bowl is about to explode. Three, Zatara is unleashing the Pain Train. His attention splitting, dangerously so, Peter drops that bowl. At the same time, he twists through the air, trying to web Bucky's gunbarrel before he can shoot down more cultists. His body twists unnaturally as he tries to aim that last shot of webbing just right to get it in time—

— … and the webbing launches just as the last carving edge of lightning lacerates Spider-Man's back, his attention too split to notice. The bowl explodes in mid-air beneath him just as the electricity pulses across his nerves, overcharging them and sending pain blasting across his spine as it slices through the spandex of his suit.

"Ggkk"

And, smoking, Spider-Man falls. When he lands, he doesn't land on his feet. He lands in a meaty thud and a little unpleasant crunch as he hits his shoulder, rolling across the rumbling ground with a hoarse groan of pain. His legs feel like rubber, tingling and senseless. He tries to ignore it.

And now, as he tries to crawl his way back onto his feet, he can official put 'being electrocuted' on his list of things he -does not like-.

—-

There are too many cultists for John to push his way into the room and expect to survive. His coat is heavily warded, and there are wards on his skin, but they're outnumbered, and whoever that is occupying a skin like Zatara's, they're wielding enough power to be convincing in the act, and that is no small thing. To say nothing of the fact that he's actually spellcasting backward.

But Jessica screams, Spider-Man gets pummeled in every direction, and he can hear /that/. And Giovanni — or whoever he is — has every intention of destroying not just their way out, but every last one of them.

/Not again./

The thought of another Newcastle is enough to push John through prudence and into recklessness.

From somewhere within the pile of maimed cultists, a thoroughly blood-spattered John Constantine, pushes his way to his feet, panting and injured but angry, determined. He wipes a rill of blood from the corner of his mouth and pushes away from the wall he used to stand, lurching forward. None of the cultists saw him cross the room to get there, but then he's John Fucking Constantine, isn't he? He's a magician. He does things.

Power seems to swirl off of him, in stark contradiction with everything he's ever been rumored to be. John Constantine does not use magic unless the circumstances are dire — or maybe the wound is a mortal one, and this is Synchronicity energy fleeing from his ravaged flesh.

Either way, he advances on this purported Giovanni.

"Why, Zatara," he says, with the ragged voice of someone whose bleeding is not entirely external. He sounds as though he believes Zatara really is whom he purports to be, as though he's in ignorance of the subtle differences. "You owe me at least that much, don't you? If I'm going t—" Stumble. Wince. "Going to die."

Of course, for anyone in the stairwell, this little vignette will make very little sense whatsoever, because John is still there, albeit his eyes are rolled up into the back of his head, only thin crescents of white visible

—-

There's another grenade launched into the mass of cultists, and with Spider-Man having fallen and Jess out of sorts, there is nobody to stop the Winter Soldier's onslaught. It detonates, sending more bodies sprawling on the ground, more people dead, the body count rising inside of the chamber. Bucky Barnes, at least, manages to grab Jessica with his metal arm, dragging her off to safety, but he has been spotted by the others and they turn their efforts in that direction. Fingers lift and point their way, words of power chanted almost in unison as tatters of the earlier wave of magi turn their efforts to fry or electrocute the Winter Soldier, and finish what they started with Jessica Jones.

Peter Parker would have suffered the same fate if Red Robin did not intervene. Near-silently, he lands right in front of his new Spider-friend, collapsible staff whirling in his grip as he proceeds to take out his would-be attackers with the brutal, savage efficiency of someone who isn't just trained in a staggering number of combat arts, but also one who is more inclined to think more tactically than the other Robins before him. He manages to clear enough space for Spider-Man to regain his bearings, but in the end, John Constantine's assessments are correct - this is a Cult of the Cold Flame stronghold. They /are/ outnumbered here.

The bloody English magus staggers towards Zatara, and his appearance gives the master pause. Glowing eyes fall on the other man and a gloved hand reaches out to grab 'John' by the throat, gripping tight. Tight enough to see veins rill red in the white of his eyes.

His expression bears no recognition as he looks down at him.

"Who are you to ask me for such a boon?" Giovanni murmurs. "Do we know one another? It matters little, for you are correct. You /are/ going to die."

A word sets John Constantine on fire, starting from the hems of his trousers, angry red-gold tongues licking upwards and catching at the end of his trenchcoat.

"The blood moon will rise," he continues solemnly. "And with it comes the power to make this world ours. The Cult of the Cold Flame will finally ascend to the place in which it rightfully belongs….unfortunately for you, you will be too dead to experience this."

He lets go at that, shoving the flaming body backwards.

—-

There is no one to stop the Winter Soldier. So he proceeds with all the cold inexorability of his namesake. And while he would probably feel a little bad for Peter's distress, if he knew… a large part of him would also think Parker simply too young to know what is best for him. What is best in a scenario where your only options are an assortment of terrible choices.

He fires into the room, over and over. Grenades and bullets alike. People die. The Winter Soldier is in his element, doing what he has been created to do: kill. Efficiently, swiftly, with extreme force if necessary. He does not take particular pleasure in it, but there is one goal here and one only.

None can escape to restart this whole thing over again.

Of course they eventually take umbrage. Bucky ducks behind cover as fire and lightning fly his way, his arm humming with discontent at the electrical power thrumming in the air. He peeks cover briefly, trying to aim his weapon to get off a few shots—

— and web flies in and totally gums up both the rifle's barrel, and the mouth of the grenade launcher.

"For FUCK'S sake," the Winter Soldier complains, dropping the now-useless weapon back against his chest in its sling. Fortunately, that's why he has five other weapons— and his arm. He breaks from his cover obviously in an attempt to draw their fire from Jessica, racing faster than a man should be able to run, weaving past bolts of fire and electricity to bring the fight into close range.

His right hand carries a pistol. But it is the left that is his true weapon. He snatches for one cultist, tries to jerk and lift him from the floor— and then attempts to hit all the rest of them with his swung body, using the man himself as a rudimentary weapon. It might seem encouraging that he isn't using the gun yet—

But it is highly debatable whether the Winter Soldier barehanded, using this tactic, is actually any less lethal.

—-

There's one thing for sure. As predicted, Spider-Man is totally boned.

As fast as he recovers, and considering he just got, like, -lightning lashed- by Voldemort's more dapper cousin or something, he's recovering -pretty damn fast- — it still wouldn't be fast enough for him to save himself and beat some dumb cultist behind before they magically flash-fry him into Kentucky Fried Spider-Man.

Or… whatever.

Thankfully though, Red Robin is there to save the day! The staff warding maneuvers of the other young crimefighter give Spider-Man just enough time to drag himself back up on to his feet. "… ughhhh… thanks. I take back, like… all of the things I thought about your codename." Red Robin — Spider-Man's new greatest Spider-Pal.

Which is why Spider-Man helps, by flinging himself into the fray; he ignores the burning pain that still makes his skin tingle like pins and needles as he hits ground hands-first, rotating like a spin-top of flailing feet to kick any magical evil jerks that get in the way of his Feet of Fury. It's bizarrely acrobatic.

Shut up. He's breakdance fighting!

And there Winter Soldier goes, out of the corner of his eye, grabbing another one of his like, fifty thousand weapons (literally) to go back on the rampage. Flipping back up onto his feet, Spider-Man thinks about blocking -that- one too — but then Winter Soldier just goes about using one of them like a living bludgeon and Peter Parker just blinks behind the mask.

He isn't sure if he feels comforted about that, or… not. Honestly, he still feels queasy. But it's something he can't focus on right now. He just tries to keep the Soldier in his peripheries. If he needs to, no matter how much he's putting himself at risk — he'll do what he has to.

— Not that people are making it any easier, what with setting John Constantine, that guy Peter promised Zatanna he'd look after, on fire. Like. Literal fire. Literal -magic- fire.

"NO!" The shout is impulsive, but also calculated as Spider-Man springs forward, trying to ignore all the pain, all the doubt, all the everything just long enough, and hope 'Zatara' turns his attention towards him—

— so that he can get a whole faceful of webbing. Again.

And then the hands.

And then the feet.

Just trying to bind up -every- extremity he can as he rushes towards John Constantine, doing his best Human Torch impression, and hoping to god he has some sort of magically fire-proof skin so this doesn't end up going really bad, really fast.

—-

The illusion of John puts on a convincing show of writhing in pain as it catches aflame, if only to keep 'Giovanni' preoccupied long enough that some of the others have time to regroup or retreat. As the flesh begins to char, however, the illusion begins to lose its potency, and gradually the body of the dead cultist John reanimated for his purpose makes itself evident through the licking fires, beginning with the toes and finishing with the face, a grim but cheshire smile the last thing to dissolve.

There is no way that is Giovanni Zatara.

/No way./

Even if Giovanni were being somehow piloted by someone else, his mind overtaken by some corrupting influence — to the point that he did not recognize John — John finds it very difficult to believe that he'd ever have been fooled by an illusion like that one. Not after he put his hands on the cultist's mangled body. The question remains as to how, exactly, his magical signature — his essence — could be so very like John's former mentor's, and that in itself is enough to make him leery of calling for the man's execution, though he's loathe to let him go. There might be some connection between the two. They don't have enough information.

Back in the stairwell — the one he never actually left — John's eyes unroll themselves, and he pushes himself up off of the wall. He leans to look around the edge of the damaged wall and finds himself looking at a scene of absolute bedlam.

And the man in the blue and red spandex onesie is trying to save not-his life. Well, doesn't that just make him feel a bit of a prat?

…Only a bit, though.

"BLOOD'S DESTROYED, TIME TO GO," is what he shouts into the din. And as he watches Zatara — or whomever — be sprayed with webbing, he adds, "BRING HIM IF YOU CAN, LEAVE HIM IF YOU CAN'T!" And after a pause to think, adds, "IF YOU LEAVE HIM BRING ME PART OF HIM." Just…part of him. You know. A piece of the guy. No big deal. He leaves it up to Spider-Man to make the call as to which part, because he is a gentleman.

—-

The Winter Soldier is a whirlwind of brutality. As Red Robin takes down every other body he can find with all the non-lethal means he can, the metal-armed man manages to bludgeon a bunch of cultists using one of their own number, sending them sprawling away from him as spells sling uselessly into the stone walls, warded as they are against individual magic attacks. With his intervention, Jessica manages to remain safe and presently unassaulted while John applies his gambit elsewhere, still holing out behind a wall while his other self burns in the middle of the chamber. It isn't bilocation, nothing so taxing at that, but rather…

Spider-Man leaps back into the fray, clearing a path for himself. He manages to send other bodies flying or crumpling away from him too, even while others attempt to do the same thing Master Zatara has done. His danger sense enables him to dodge most of these, attacks leaving a streak of static over his spandex or narrowly missing a limb. But then…

He gets desperate.

Master Zatara doesn't expect this, as taken up as he is by the burning Constantine that the web latches into his face again, and then his wrists. So hampered, he turns and starts rushing backwards…but the webbing catches his legs.

He feels himself falling. With a muffled sound of frustration, he hurls himself into the back wall….and proceeds to /melt/ into it, visible ripples moving over stone as reality bends to grant him egress. Webs pull in, get /sucked/ in, and Spider-Man can elect to keep holding onto this tether to see where it leads, let go, or resist and see what he catches at the end of the line.

And just in time because…

Footsteps rush down from the top, light, quick, a pair of long legs descent from the very edge until the newcomer drops the rest of the way on the landing just above the shattered steps, nowhere near the ground floor. She catches herself on the edge, tilting her head down just enough to see the resulting carnage and the full-scale magical battle occurring between her friends and the cowled figures still milling about the room. And judging by what she saw on the way here, she /knows/ more will follow. The insignia outside was enough to tell her that this place probably doesn't have a shortage of bodies to throw at any intruders.

Jessica is /down/, and she doesn't see John anywhere. Tension bands tightly over her ribcage and renders her unable to breathe.

Didn't she say it? She /knew/ she would follow.

"/POTS/!"

In all of her life, Zatanna Zatara has only done this /once/. Without the full measure of her power, it is /taxing/ but it was the only way to get the room under her control…and unlike John, she does not pay the toll for her skills.

Time stops in the chamber. Bodies outside of those she has a personal connection with freeze like living photographs, spells flung in mid-air glittering in dead space like scattered nebulae. Her fingers shake, her arm trembles. She can't hold it for long.

But she pushes herself. She tries. Gritting her teeth, she slowly turns her other arm to the side of her, tracing the air with a few gestures. Graceful, in spite of it. Practiced.

Reality /splits/ thunderously, in the same way she attempts to do the same with her concentration, a doorway opens. New York traffic beckons at them from the other side.

Alarms /scream/ from the higher floors. Panting from the strain, /resisting/ the call to tap further into her reserves, she does it a third time; a blue-white circle flashes at the top of the stairs, just in time to take the brunt of the next wave of spells coming in from reinforcements.

"GO!!" she cries, frantic. "I can't…it's too much…!"

—-

Clearly signaled that he is disallowed his weapons, the Winter Soldier just resorts back to his most basic and potent weapon: his own self. He attacks with his bare hands, suppressing the cultists with that alone. Preventing them from focusing on more important targets.

The time bought is enough for that blood to be destroyed. John calls it out, prompting the Soldier to immediately break from his attack and return to Jessica. Hoisting her over a shoulder without difficulty, he turns—

— and sees, of course, Zatanna herself shown up to save everything.

He doesn't question it. Doesn't say a word. He shoots Zatanna a glance, unreadable, and then He just bears Jessica back through the portal.

Whenever the others follow suit, all they will find is Jessica: left carefully in an upright position, safe. Of the Winter Soldier himself, there is no sign— the man clearly gone back to ground.

—-

As people are suffering, people are falling, there is one simple and question that people would ask?

/ Where in time and space is Captain Fudging America? /

The answer comes as the super soldier walks past Bucky. The answer is one simple stone that is knocked out of place, one half buried in the snow. The chuck of quartz is hit and with that, Rogers is not here. Not just disappeared, like people didn't even know that he was gone. Or perhaps even here in the first.

Everything is in grey and shadow, like Cap was wearing the One Ring. Not that he would get that reference. He sees the rest of the group go on and he tries to move, but he can't. Everything feels so disjointed, he thinks and then he sees something. A being of shadow. "to take my place, you've come. Outside of time, you've arrived. Take your place in life, death, and all inbetween I shall. New Steve Rogers, I shall be. To stop me, nothing you can do," it offers in a raspy voice before it gives a blood thirsty cry.

Rogers throws the vial of holy water, which causes it to fling for merely a second, but it is enough to make him think that perhaps, perhaps this unknown battle can be one. "We'll see."

The battle is intense. It is long. This shadow being has powers of strength, speed, and all sort of cool things that are kinda hard to explain with simple things like words or even images. But somehow, the sanity of Rogers holds. Even as it holds up as his broken body is lifted by an unseen force at the shadow's command.

"Spent, you are. Defeated, you are. Your life and memories to enjoy, I have."

As the warrior is lifted, he looks down. An important clue is visible despite all the shadow. There was a circle, one he bumped. And that stone… Was quartz. He knows what he needs to do. Perhaps somewhere, in some other world, a person tells him.

USE THE FORCE, STEVE

Not that he would get the reference.

A hand slips quietly into the pouch, pulling out the needed material and with a simple flick of the hand as he feels the air escape from his body, the stone is replaced in the circle. The cry of pain from the hidden horror is only heard to Steve. It is hard for him to bear, almost too much. The shadow offers words in some language Rogers doesn't understand and then? Everything is back to normal.

Steve looks up the mountain to hear the sounds of people fighting magic. Well, normalish.

As Zatana appears to tell everyone that they need to go, there is one figure that makes his way through at the last second, climbing with a desperation to not be left behind in such a crappy place, running with the earnest desire to enjoy the modern world which seems so ho-hum by comparison. After the dramatic leap to safety, Rogers looks toward everyone here, regret coloring his voice. "Sorry I fell behind everyone, but it seems we did it… Right?"

—-

I got him.

I got him?

I got him!!

This is Spider-Man's thought process as he sees Giovanni Zatara, or Giovanni Zatara's evil parallel universe twin who cleverly shaved his goatee, start to wobble. But like the mighty Weeble before him, the magician refuses to fall. Instead, he hurls himself towards a wall and, Spider-Man, deducing that this is -probably- some attempt at mind-bending magic and -not- Zatara trying to concuss himself to deny Peter the pleasure of it, reacts.

Two web-lines. One for each wrist. Master Zatara starts to meld into the wall, splitting solid matter into a convenient portal through space and time. And as he does, Spider-Man -tugs-. He. Will not. Let him. -Leave-!

The magician gets to feel a brief sliver of that titanic strength Peter Parker normally keeps in reserve as he tries to fight the pull of bending space itself. Fueled by nothing but rage, and desperation, and despair of being unable to keep his promise to a friend when he needed to most, Spider-Man -refuses- to let Zatara leave.

And then he sees Constantine, not-burned-alive, yelling at him. And then he sees Constantine beneath him, burned alive, being a not-Constantine. Or cultist. Whichever. His mind's -all out of sorts- right now.

"Bwuh?!"

This is Peter Parker's loquacious proclamation as he stares at John. The spandex around the lower mouth area of his mask stretching would be his jaw going slack. Much like his grip on those webs.

"What— how— god — just — You know, for a guy with a -really cool coat-, you are -unsurprisingly really bad at telling anyone your gameplans-. I thought you turned into — like — some kinda, y'know, Burning Man over there, and I REALLY hope that reference parsed so you know how disgusted I am right now—"

And as his grip goes slack, those weblines start slipping away towards the portal.

"— ah crap —"

Startled, Spider-Man only has time for one good yank before Zatara disappears completely through the portal. Both webs snap free, whipping out of that bended space. One empty. The other one: holding a watch.

A -fancy- watch.

Spider-Man barely has time to feel good about the fact that he got -something- before he collapses right on his ass from the overcompensated momentum with a long, frustrated groan.

"… owww… I really hope this doesn't become some sort of recurring ass-fall theme. … and now I'm thinking of asses. Dammit. This is all your fault, Constantine!"

Yes. He's blaming John Constantine for his thinking about Ashley's cosmic asshole.

So there's that.

And now there's cultists all rounding around him, ready to blast him into angry oblivion or something equally dire. He tries to get up, to defend himself… and then everything…

Spots.

Which is, of course, backwards speak for 'Stops.'

Peter Parker blinks as he stares around him, at everything, everyone, besides them, frozen within a moment of time, as if space itself had been preserved in some sort of temporal Lucite. He hears that voice. He knows that voice. "Zee…? Are you…?" She's — bending reality?

He doesn't have time to think about it. Or time to wonder where Captain America's been, and what wondrous adventures he might have been going on. There'll be plenty of time for both later. Zee makes herself perfectly clear.

And so, Peter makes a mad dash towards that portal, towards New York, towards home, with only one parting message:

"I was -REALLY- hoping to get the mustache, you have no idea how disappointing that is—"

poof

—-

John watches the avatar of Zatara fall through the solidity of a wall, and the corner of his mouth tightens downward. Not ideal, though it's hardly anyone's fault. The watch that Spider-Man reels back through that fluctuating solidity is a /fine/ consolation prize, however, and in spite of the allegations being thrown his way, all he does is lift his hand and shoot the masked hero a thumbs-up, which theoretically means 'Good job, Spider-Man!' and not 'YEAH BURNING MAN' or 'Awesome, asses!' He feels almost good about things, briefly, in spite of the chaos. All he has to do is paint a sigil on the wall, slide them sideways out of this reality and into one of the lesser-populated celestial spheres, and sure, it'll cost him a couple of weeks of his life, but—

And then it all goes very, very wrong.

Footsteps. Legs he knows. Magic he's familiar with, a susurrus of it he can feel on his bare skin even though he's full clothed. The knife of adrenaline in his stomach, the disbelief. Shock, really, as he shifts out from behind the portion of wall he'd been using as cover.

It ignites in him so quickly that he has no chance to compress it down, a claw of white hot, absolute-zero fury that punches through his abdomen and gets its iron fingers through the muscle-webbed gaps in his ribcage and closes those fingers into a fist, making it momentarily difficult for him to breathe.

There is no time for him to spend shepherding his own emotions or curating the contents of his head. He does the next best thing: his expression locks down entirely, an icy steel plate set with two cold, sharp eyes. They track the passage of the others through the portal: Red Robin, the Winter Soldier carrying Jessica Jones. Captain America. Spider-Man.

Once they're through, he picks his way through the timelocked maelstrom of blood and thunder, sidestepping shattering fragments of stone suspended in the air. The urge to plant his boot on Zatanna's ass and kick her through that hole is so overpowering that for a moment he is genuinely unsure he'll be able to restrain himself. He does manage, though: the urge is a rumble in the thunderstorms locked in the vault of him, but the vault door holds.

He cuts her a sidelong look as he passes. With such a tight hold on his expression there isn't much to glean from his gaze, but that is perhaps telling in and of itself. There is no smiling reunion, no relief. No gratitude. No promise of celebration to come.

On the other side, he moves straight for Jessica Jones, to drop into a crouch beside her and check her vitals.

—-

They can have it out later, but it wasn't as if he didn't have any warning. Don't be too long, she said. I'll follow, she said.

With everyone going through the portal, Zatanna wrestles with her grip on the reins of her power for a moment, holding onto it as she makes several steps backwards to the portal she made, and only when she is certain she's close enough that she lets go. As Time catches up with itself, as the ward comes down from the bottleneck it makes at the top of the stairs, the raven-haired magician jumps into the portal, and the rift seals shut.

With Jessica down, color drains from her face. She is battered, unconscious, and alive, but injured. Her ice-blue eyes tick over her injuries, but there's only so much she can find outside of her clothes. She reeks of magic, though. It stings her nose.

Her hand reaches out, leaning over to press her palm and fingers over the fallen private investigator's eyes and closes her own, murmuring a few words. Bruises will heal, cuts will knit and burns will gradually reclaim their old skin.

"There's nothing I can do for the shock," she says grimly. "We need to get her out of the cold."

With that, arrangements will be made, and the group will disperse, but any 'debriefings' will have to occur later.

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