Moksha, Pt 1

January 28, 2017:

Nadryv finale scene, part 1. A team finally descends into the heart of a Hydra(?) base to free James Buchanan Barnes and Jane Foster from their captivity, and to prevent a terrible idealized reality from overtaking the world.

Ozone Park, Queens

Deep underneath this place.


NPCs: Avram Vasilevich Golubev (NPC'd by Jane Foster), assorted Hydra(?) techs (NPC'd by Winter Soldier)



Mood Music: Exit Music (For a Film)

Fade In…

Ozone Park, Queens.

The fabric of reality is not stable here. There is a nexus of power incubating somewhere in the area that batters the senses of those magically-inclined, and can be felt even by those who are not. It is strong enough, standing right on top of it, that it can be tasted. Felt in the teeth. Down, it whispers. Down.

The easiest way to go down is to descend into the nearest subway station: Grant Avenue, on the Fulton Street line. This late at night, there's nobody there— even in a city as busy as New York— and it's not hard for a group of this size, particular 'talents,' and connections to get onto the tracks undetected.

From there, it's just walking east along the tracks, remaining mindful of any oncoming trains. East, down a sudden fork that diverges from the main Fulton Street line, one that ends at a blank, bricked-up wall. It looks like the wall was once fully sealed, but recently a small opening was cut at one corner of it, disguised such that it would not be found unless one was standing at the right angle, looking at the right spot.

Beyond is what appears to be an abandoned subway platform. There is no light save for what the group has brought with them. The place has a sepulchral, closed-in quality, what with the flat, featureless ceiling capping overhead, and the rough, unfinished support pillars periodically interrupting the open space.

It is not anything one would notice right away except as a sense that something is… missing. But eventually a keen eye would notice that the everpresent graffiti of New York is wholly absent here, as if regular humanity never managed to penetrate into this place.

That nagging feeling still insists, even here: down.

Dressed in his uniform and wearing a rather somber expression, Captain America makes his way toward the staging area. A short distance away from this evil location in question, Rogers waits with Agent Carter. He keeps a calm lookout, both to ensure that there isn't any surveillance equipment as well as an eye on the multitude of gifted individuals who have volunteered or been asked to join him on this grand mission.

As he waits, Steve is entirely silent, perhaps mentally preparing himself for what is to come. He sips from a water bottle, attempting to look calm, but everything about him is on high alert. His eyes flicker about, his muscles in his body are tense as they come. It's little surprise considering the mission itself he is like this, but he is doing his best to keep himself as collected as possible. After all, a lot of people are depending on him, both on the team and in that area.

After some debate, Rogers decides the stress is too much and he should have a cigarette. Slowly, he pulls out a white stick and places it in his mouth, but he's so tense that he bites into it, allowing the sugary children's confection slip into his mouth. He tries again a couple more times before he runs out. Man, no telling when he'll find candy smokes in this ultra Politically Correct world. Curse you, Hydra.

This isn't the first time she has found herself in an abandoned subway tunnel.

One of her very first trips to Italy had necessitated something similar, in the days when she was young and untried, apprenticing under the Great Zatara. She remembers the echo of her quick steps as she followed her father into the deep darkness, and whatever horror laid waiting for them at the end, clutching his walking stick and fooling herself into believing that she wasn't afraid. Stepping deep into these underground confines draws that sense of deja vu over her, though the cadence of her own steps are less hurried than they were back then. Quick still, yes, but this time, she isn't chasing after her father's shadow, though it may always linger in the fringes of her most conscious thoughts. There simply isn't any time to dwell on his presence - or the glaring lack thereof.

Zatanna feels it still, something dark, yawning and massive lurking somewhere ahead and it's enough for gooseflesh to mottle her skin underneath her clothes. Clad in her signature blacks, a longsleeved shirt of translucent material pulled over a tanktop, her ripped jeans and her boots, she has thrown on a jacket for good measure as well as a pair of fingerless gloves. Her face reflects a determined certainty that she doesn't feel and she has spent the remaining hours attempting to arm herself - items with stored power fill her pockets, the black bands around her throat laden with charmed silver. She is determined not to use her endless, terrifying stores, though she knows deep down that should it be necessary, she has to prepare herself mentally for that eventuality. She can't falter now, images recalled and imagined - the torment of Bucky Barnes. The deconstruction of Dr. Jane Foster.

Espying Captain America already waiting for them, she gives the famous icon a wave, though she blinks at the cigarette he slips into his mouth. "Hey, Cap, I didn't know you— "

He bites into it and her expression flattens. But that fades in lieu of a faint grin. Wholesome as ever.

Pivoting, she moves over to wherever John is waiting, her pale hand lifting, palm up. "Do you have your lighter?" she asks him, keeping her voice low.

He knows this place. At least by reputation. It's hard to live in Queens and not have heard of it. The secret, abandoned subway station near Ozone Park. The urban legend that got away from itself until a whole myth sprung up around its existence. He's seen all manner of things written up about the station's phantom existence. All sorts of things he thought were just downright ridiculous about five years ago.

At this point in his life, though, Spider-Man really doesn't have much cause to think of anything as ridiculous anymore.

"So, liiiiiike…" This is a voice that comes from behind one Steve Rogers as he goes through candy cigarettes like he was a human woodchipper (but not a human -woodchipper-, thank you very much, Fargo); hanging upside down on a line of webbing, the spidery vigilante peers at his heroic idle. Chewing on candy cigarettes. It makes him seem so… human.

He internally suppresses a fanboyish squeal.

"Okay, so, maybe not the Avengers, right, I get that, copyright laws or something something, fine," continues the masked hero (menace) conversationally as he swings back and forth waiting for the others. "So maybe we call ourselves something else until I get the official invite? (Is that like, by e-mail, or text, or is it a formal, personal thing—?) Like, I dunno. The Defenders? Or does that seem to passive? The All-Star Squadron? -Ultimates-? Spidey and the Mystery Gang? Solving spooky mysteries, one phantasmal subway station and Spidey Snack at a time?" He seems very adamant about all this.

Or maybe he's just distracting himself from the incredible pressure mounting up at the back of his head as his spider-sense slowly goes ballistic.

"Spidey Snacks aren't like, a euphemism for weed, by the way. Sir. I don't do that — I mean, unless you're cool with it — but I haven't. Clean as a whistle. … are whistles even clean? People spit into them, like, -all day-, where did that saying even come from—?"

Either way.

For a long moment, The Dark Devil thought she might be the only nervous one, but as she waits, arms crossed and looking up at Steve Rogers from behind her domino mask, she can see the anticipation is getting to someone else.




Captain America's candy cigarette body count rises, and icy blue judgement falls across his too-perfect jawline. She wants to make a snappy comment, something to break the tension - his or otherwise - but the pull of the place below them tugs at her layered soul, gaze drawn to the ground for more than contemplation.

She feels it like a whirlpool, and her gloved fingers curl at her sides. There's a slow blink, and she's certain she can almost see the distortion, but then reality rushes back with the clear snap of Captain America's final candy cigarette. Yeah, it's time to get her mind off of what they're about to do.

"Hey Cap. Cool shield. Quick question… do you still know the words to Star-Spangled Man? Asking for a fri-"

Then she hears Zatanna. The hum of the magical dirth around them all filters like a soundtrack to her head turning, one tick at a time, until she can see her, and next to her now, John - the man she'd met in the bar. She tells herself, not now. They don't have time for complications. Bucky and Jane are at stake. One truth remains, however.

As she looks on, she's never going to hear Captain America answer her question.

Red Robin brought an attache case with him, when he melted out of the shadows as though he'd been part of them.

It's plain black, unremarkable, something you could pick up anywhere for maybe twenty dollars, but it doesn't need to be in any way fancy. Its job was simply to carry a few odds and ends, things that he couldn't carry on his utility belt.

"Going by the audio file we recovered from the HYDRA computer, it's highly likely that Barnes and Foster have been implanted with the same control chips as the technicians as part of their conditioning process," he explains in that electronically modified voice of his, once those who were going on this little escapade were suitably gathered. Others had pieces of this information already - those who had heard the audio file, whether in the hospital or later; Jessica Jones, who had been present for some of his experimentation - but it was always good to put things together. He sets the attache case on the ground, and pops it open as he steps back: Inside is packing foam, cut to hold a few small black boxes.

"The chips appear to have some influence on the brain chemistry, presumably helping to reinforce HYDRA's mind control, using nanites that operate in the actual brain tissue. They also function as a killswitch. Detonating behind the left ear, destroying the victim almost immediately. Each one of those cases has five small, focused EMP generators. One side is adhesive, the other side has a button. Stick it on someone with one of the chips, as close to the implant site as possible, press the button, and it will trigger. It should disable the chip without causing undue harm to the target."

His head tilts, as he considers. Full disclosure? Or don't burden anyone else with the possibilities?

"It may not work. There's a nonzero chance it will trigger the killswitch. I was only able to try it on one chip, and that was in a corpse."

Long story.

"Everyone take one box, just in case."

Jessica Jones arrives with hands in pockets, looking pretty much as she ever does. Leather jacket, jeans, hoodie, boots, all in various stages of battered and beat up. The ward John gave herthe Pinchis stored carefully in an inner pocket, wrapped up in a glove to keep it padded. It would suck for that to break because she got hit just the right way. She ambles up after Azalea, smirking faintly as the younger woman lives up to her promise to ask about that theme song.

"Captain Rogers," she says gravely. Whenever she sees the man she stands a little straighter; a little more confidence enters her bearing. She's no more conscious of that fact than she is conscious of her tendency to slump, just a little bit, most of the time, to tell the world, subtley, most of the time, that she isn't worth the air she's breathing.

John and Zee get a warm quiet greeting of, "Hey you two." She's aware of the effect Zee's presence is having on Azalea and equally aware the girl has what it takes to avoid getting too wrapped up in it. They'd known she'd taken Azalea under her wing, after all.

Besides, there's Spider-Man, breaking the tension with a never-ending stream of babble. "Well we'd better not call ourselves anything with the words silent or quiet in them, or you'd be voted off the island in 15 seconds flat." The snark is a lot friendlier than it seems though, accompanied as it is by a smirk.

She takes her case, then, and peers at the /five/ EMP generators. "You've outdone yourself, Red." She pulls it over her shoulder, criss-cross, so it won't fall off, sounding genuinely impressed…after all, she'd thought he might be able to pull off one or two per person, and she'd thought even that would be a stretch.

Do or die time.

For John, the plight of James Barnes and Jane Foster has felt like a Damocles' sword of tragedy, hanging by the thinnest of threads, no indication as to when it might yield to the inevitable and cleave everything — himself, others, the world — in two. He ought to be nervous, knowing only the vague outlines of what it is they might be facing, Nazi technosorcerers and weaponized mind-control supersoldiers enough to convey that what they mean to do will be no easy task…

…But if he is, it does not show. His expression is collected, watchful but neutral, if a little bit distant as they draw closer to the source of the thrumming energy that cuts and turns through the center of him. It distracts the way an aggressive, petulant wind can be distracting, tugging at pieces of him sensitive to the fabric of things, underpinning the Real. Opened that way, he can sense Zatanna's approach before she's visible in his peripheral vision, and his head turns slightly that way in expectation, though his gaze remains pinned ahead of them to the floor. His answer to her question is to slide his hand into the left side of his coat and retrieve the pretty little silver object with nimble fingertips, finally tearing his attention away from Down in order to glance at her and place it in her hand, the metal warm and heavy. "You're planning a dramatic entrance," he says. It isn't inflected as a question, but it has an element of query to it, nevertheless. In his mind's eye, a series of vignettes flick past, memories: Zatanna, hauling them both through the sky into a drop-landing amidst questionable characters, as though they were bloody space marines; Zatanna hauling open the doors to Graceful Moon's inner sanctum in Hong Kong; Zatanna dangling from the top of a monkey cage in Sumatra and kicking the door off of the hinges; Zatanna opening a door in the Caligula club in spite of the hanging sign on the door handle reading 'Private, Room In Use'…

It's an educated guess.

He quiets, though, when Tim begins to talk people through things, attentive to the details. He winks at Jessica when she gets nearer, but his focus is largely on the boxes Red is providing them, and the nuances of the devices they contain. 'Nonzero chance' merits a twitch at the corner of his mouth — not a frown, quite — but it's far better than the alternative, isn't it? He steps forward, leans and plucks up a box for himself, raising it in Red's direction in a kind of 'cheers' gesture, and then retreats again to where he was, turning the box over in his hands and inspecting it with a genuine curiosity born of an absolute lack of familiarity.

The stream-of-consciousness from Spider-Man forces a furrow to Azalea's brow, and the Devil Inside tenses, as if some of the sounds he had made might combine into an ancient rite to release it from it's prison. There's a blink, and she looks up at him on that line of.. stuff. OH GOD. IT'S THAT SPIDER GUY AGAIN.

"No one gets a special secret decoder ring or an invitation to anything but a hospital until Bucky and Jane are safe." She leans up on her toes, but doesn't really get close to Spider-Man, mouthing unmistakable words: 'Shut the fuck up'.

Her teeth grit, and she swipes one of the special secret packages Red Robin brought. Not that she knows his name, you see, she just calls everyone who works with Batman 'Robin. And this guy wears Red. She's heard good things though.

She turns it over as Red gives them all the business, then tucks it away in her army surplus utility belt.

Finally, she takes up a spot next to Jess, side-glaring the Spiderling, and thinking back to all those articles she read on the Daily Bugle that used the word 'menace'. Still, she could not totally pass judgement on him. He was pretty handy the other night in the fight against Barnes.

The abandoned station is, as everyone might expect, a dead end. The platform leads nowhere, and compared to actual subway platforms in service, it's visibly unfinished.

Off at one end is something that is not usual to subway platforms, however. There's what looks like a small service building against one wall, with a door keyed with a security pad. It's not terribly difficult to crack, especially with the likes of Red Robin present, but when opened it leads to what looks like a yawning elevator shaft, tunneled straight down into the earth an unknown distance. It looks far, however.

And the elevator is definitely not at their stop.


THUD. Pavement groans underfoot as the heavy weight of the God of Thunder slams down. Hammer falling into his grip, he scans his surrounds with his depthless blues, brow drawn down in what may be just a moment of worry, concern. He reaches to his belt, taking out a device not of Asgard.
"The pin is right here, this must be the meeting location," he says to himself, tapping at the phone that seems child-sized in his hand. People casually walk by without much concern for the God that just fell from the sky. He frowns.
"Perhaps I need to go? deeper?"


Thor attempts to gain a train ticket by exchanging money for goods.
"We don't take fake gold here, sir," the ticket lady informs him.
Thor's frown deepens.


Thor sits down on a train, easing down next to a man in a big red robot suit.
"You on your way to the spooky-themed singing restaurant too, huh?"
Thor lifts a hand to his forehead.


THUD. Pavement groans underfoot as the heavy weight of the God of Thunder slams down. Hammer swinging at his hip, he straightens from his landing location, having just leapt over the nearby stairs instead of descending them in a more graceful fashion. His eyes linger on the floor beneath, the sensation to plunge further an intriguing option.

"It will work," Thor states tersely, hearing the end of the apparent plan, his head lifting. Holding his hammer high, it casts a pale blue light over his full battle regalia, and likely a good portion of this meeting location as well. Yep, he looks pretty godlike. Stepping forward to join the group, he glances to and fro, taking in the surrounds. "You mortals have built impressive caverns for yourselves in the last thousand years," he says.

"Perhaps we can make it a fitting tomb for whoever is responsible for these craven acts," he adds, stepping past the group towards the end of the platform.

When people come in, Rogers gives them each a nod, trying to keep his fight or fight instinct down when people like Red Robin or Spider-man elude even his slightly heightened scenes. Parker's verbose discussion on "I'll trust the name of the group to you. I was never really that inventive when it comes to things," Cap replies with an awkward smile toward Spider-Man that seeks to counter Az's wonderful people skills. The Howling Commandos wasn't his idea for a name. It was mentioned after Cap really tried to tell them that the Fists of the Founding Fathers, or the Triple F, was really nifty.

Kingston's question gets a simple, "I do." He doesn't go into more, as it really isn't the time.

Once all the needed people are gathered, Rogers begins to give them all small earpieces to ensure they can all communicate with one another. As before, Captain America prepares to do what he's known for: Taking the information, taking the skill sets for everyone that is gathered and coming up with a unique game plan that makes them a complete whole better than anything else they would have been able to do separately.

"I know what some people are thinking coming into this, that we have three simple objectives: Get Dr. Jane Foster and James Barnes to safety, trash Hydra, and take back anything they might have taken. In reality, that's our goals and to reach them, we'll have a game plan to deal with the complications that they are throwing our way. Now, Hydra is going to be expecting us to give the traditional assault. If we make the presumption that they know what Bucky knew, then it stands to reason they know most of the players involved. What they don't know, however, is that we have a few tricks up our sleeve; the most important one being that when great people work together, the impossible and the incredible becomes standard procedure. I have a plan here that I've put together. If it has problems, share them. If it doesn't work in the field, change it. Just because I think it's our best shot doesn't mean that it will be perfect."

"All that said, my plan is to have multiple teams. Thor, Star-Lord, Dark Devil, you'll be the Attack Team," he states, looking to each one with a nod, as if understanding and respecting their critical role of taking the 'brunt' of the Hydra assault, at least at first. "I know you three are larger than life, so I want you to go after those Hydra like you were each an army and go for the 'front door'. If you need additional support, ask for it and we'll adjust as necessary. Be careful, when the other team attack or the feel they are overwhelmed, they may try and ask for additional support."

Now Jessica and Peggy get a look. "Jones, Carter, you'll be with me. Two minutes after the first assault we will begin a secondary assault in an attempt to get in and find Barnes. Considering his sniper background, it's likely he will be the facility and attempting to take out members from the assault team."

"Red Robin, Constantine, Zatara, and Spider-Man, you'll be the Infiltration Team. Your job is going to be to get Dr. Jane Foster, any artifacts of importance-" A prolonged look is given toward John and Zatanna as if the last passage had extra meaning to them. "-and if you can, getting into the Hydra systems to get any useful information. Once you get Foster, try and get her to Thor, who is likely the one that could provide the swiftest extraction out of all of us. Also let me know, because that will likely be the time I push the assault on Barnes, since he won't have desperation if Foster is saved and his handler taken out. At least…. I hope."

"Red Robin's already handed out the devices and explained their use. Hopefully, they will keep the causalities lower than they need to be. Unless anyone has any questions…." With that, Captain America points the way forward. "Let's do this, team."

Jessica had greeted Agent Carter too, while everything else was going on, pausing to shake her hand. As Thor arrives she even gives him a smile and a sort of bow. Star-Lord gets a quick smirk too. "This is probably better than the poop emoji I was going to use to signal you," she says, tone conversational. She'd returned John's wink.

But once Captain America starts speaking? Nobody else has her attention.

Those who saw Jessica in the utopia realm might know that on some level, some part of her is soaring. It's a feminine part that might wear a goofy suit and go by an equally goofy name, who might have once considered dying her hair pink to help out her weird superhero schtick.

Fortunately, her face shows nothing but concentration and professionalism as she sets a timer on her watch for two minutes. She doesn't start it yet, obviously, but it's ready to go. "Got it, Captain." she says, tucking the ear piece into her ear. There's so much at stake.

She does pause to touch Azalea's shoulder. "Hey."

A pause. "You got this."

Taking up the silver lighter, she works while John retrieves one of the boxes from Red Robin, her fingers rolling over the cold iron fused with enchanted silver, the sigils that she had invented and carved with her own know-how. The raised metal circle moves in a series of clicks at her ministrations, the other symbols moving with them until they latch into place. Her lips move near-silently, another word from a dead language spoken backward - she has always made that seem effortless in spite of the complicated cerebral gymnastics that requires, before they part and she breathes against it, metal come alive with magic, blue-white mist expelled like frost as it fogs into the reflective surface once it makes contact.

A thumb rubs over it to remove traces of clinging humidity, and once John retrieves his box, she deposits the lighter back into his fingers.

"With the likes of…" Thor arrives. Surprise moves over her expression. "…Captain America and the Norse God of Thunder around, I think dramatic entrances are covered," she tells him quietly, slipping her hands in her pockets. She angles him a small wink. "In a pinch, though, I'll see what I can do. Hopefully this'll be cleaner than the last time I kicked the door open. The jacket's new, not looking forward to letting it get covered by simian surprises anytime soon."

Ice-blue eyes fall on the lighter. With a quiet sigh, she tilts her head up and pecks his cheek.

"Be safe, John. And be careful with that."

The warm greeting from Jess earns her a brilliant grin and a thumbs-up, though this falters when another stealthy form ventures out of the shadows. Her expression runs a quick flip through a variety of emotions - surprise, apprehension and understandable guilt - when those eyes fall on Azalea. She almost calls her by name, but the fact that she has her domino mask on means that she is working and she shuts her mouth with a click. She can feel it, still, Xiuhnel's essence twisted up inside her. Fingertips lift in a gesture of wordless hello, reminded that there are other things that need settling, once this is all over.

Taking a few steps towards Red Robin, she takes one of the EMP boxes, giving it a glance, but there's no skepticism there. "When did you have the time to make all of these?" she wonders quietly. "….nevermind, forget I asked. This is great, Red. I was wondering what we were going to do if…" She will take a chance over nothing any day.

With the battle plan laid out, she nods, tucking the EMP device in her pocket and reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. With Spider-Man coming along with them, her grin returns, and nudges her shoulder with his. "Almost all my favorite people in my group? Should be a snap. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"

The jinx. Look, it's tradition now.

Meeting Jess' eyes on the way, she mouths something quietly to her before turning to head off. Now that tasks have been delegated, there's no time to lose.

"It's what I do," Red Robin tells Zatanna and Jessica when the latter alleges that he's outdone himself, and the gothic magician calls it 'great'. The squeeze on his shoulder elicits a sidelong glance from the cowled young man, but otherwise he doesn't really react.

He's on the job, now. What's needed is Red Robin, cold and logical, not some foolish mooning child.

He listens to Captain America's speech and instructions, to be sure, but only with half an ear (using magnified hearing thanks to his cowl's various concealed instruments) as he drifts towards the apparent entrance. The white lenses of his cowl gleam faintly as he scans around, looking for electrical signals - probably more difficult with Thor there - and checking ultrasound as well, until he finds the right spot.

He scans the keypad as well, checking for security measures before opening up the case. If there was more time, he could probably figure out the code, but he knows there isn't. He can feel it, in his bones, that sense pulling him downward. He doesn't like that, doesn't like feeling things he shouldn't, but at least it's kind of helpful.

A few moments later, the elevator doorway opens, to a gaping pit of nothing.

"You're good to go," Red Robin tells the 'Attack Team,' giving the Dark Devil an encouraging nod before he moves over towards his own team, letting his black cape hang around him like a shroud of shadows. Time to get to work.

There is a massive /thud/. John's head snaps up and around, and pale blue eyes alight on—

The sight of Thor causes one of his brows to dip slowly in toward the other one. "Blimey," he opines. The quip he wants to make — something-something RenFaire LARP lightning-bolt — is quashed by the sight of the gigantic fuck-off hammer, which insofar as he's able to tell is not actually made of spray-painted styrofoam.

His attention is recaptured, anyway, when Cap lays out his plan and group assignments, and John takes the earpiece, but his brows skew for the second time at the roster for the infiltration team, a skeptical glance angled in the direction of the chatterbox in red and blue spandex. They're taking the Monologuing Spider on an infiltration objective? Really? In spite of his obvious immediate hesitation, he fails to openly object. He hasn't forgotten that Spider-Man kept him from being trampled, or the way he put himself in harms' way to try to save the illusion John had projected of himself when Giovanni's doppelganger set it on fire. It doesn't matter if people see or hear them, he supposes, if they're all glued to the walls and ceiling with Spidey's silly string, right? If nobody gets out to call for reinforcements, it's /basically/ as good as not being seen.

While he tucks the earpiece into his ear, he watches Zatanna work her knack on the lighter, imbuing it. She hasn't been using her magic, so the effort and the kiss draw something other than his businesslike focus to the fore, surfacing briefly in the blue eyes that sweep across her features. It's softer — at least until she /says what she says/ and he looks up at the ceiling, brows knit, heaving a sigh from the flat breadth of his chest. His eyes briefly close. /Every time/. She does it /every single time./

"When Fate gets its boot stuck up my arse I'm holding you responsible," he says, gathering with the others near the now-open door.

"Hey! Look. We've all got our strong points," Spider-Man insists at the criticism of his spectacular wit. "You've got the surly, buttpunching thing down pat, I handle the witty zingers, and—"

And there's Azalea, leaning up to snap at him. 'Shut the fuck up,' she mouths. White lenses whirl a scant bit wider.

"—and whoever you are apparently handles the sunny swell of optimism that keeps the team chugging along to the very end of the line," he continues on effortlessly. "So what's your name? Blood Bank? The Dark Syder? Captain Murderdeathkill? Can I make a costume suggestion?" That webline slips a little bit lower, so that Spider-Man may conspiratorially cup one hand to his mouth and whisper as if sharing a trade secret in a way that's projected way too loudly to be all that secretive:

"-More spikes-."

His hands shift, until he's giving a pointing thumbs up with one and a regular thumbs up with the other. His right lense whirrs into a squint.

Like he's winking. Is he winking? He's winking.

Like an upside-down Buddy Christ.

And there Spider-Man goes, climbing right back up his webline until he ends up stuck to the safety of the ceiling above. He's flashing an 'okay' sign to Cap, absolutely prepared to follow up with some more name suggestions —

— when in comes, with dramatic might and power, a man who can only be known as —



There we go.

"(wow this is so coooooooooool)"

And so, Spider-Man (graciously) quietly gushes, snagging one of Robin's devices with a -=thwip=- of webbing and giving him a little salute until the good Captain starts talking. Nonzero chance everything fucks up and they kill the people they're trying to save with these things. Great. He'll just have to hope Parker Luck isn't on his side tonight.

But, as the mission is given, and his role is assigned, Spider-Man focuses. The banter helps to distract him, but that pounding at his senses… none of this is good. He has to be prepared for the worst. "You got it, chief. Um. Captain. Sir," says the Spider, ever-so-respectfully. "And we'll — we'll save 'em. No matter what." With a healthy dose of naive optimism. But, at least he's sincere. Almost painfully so.

"'What's the worst that could happen'? You just — you just had to take a good moment and just — /ruin/ it, Zee. Just. I can't even speak to you right now." Harrumph goes the Spider as he starts to crawl away.

"'What's the worst that could happen,' just… -asking- for Bucky Barnes to drop out of nowhere with a nuclear-powered magitech apocalypse-arm powered by the souls of fifty super-devils or some crap, stupid robot arm—"

And so, with that, Spider-Man will make his way forward until he reaches the elevator shaft. From his position up above, he peers down. And down. And down.

"Oh hey, I'm staring into the Abyss. That's cool. I'm pretty sure they say that's a healthy thing to do, if I remember my wikiquotes right. Sooooooo—"

-=thwip=- goes the webbing, attaching to one wall of the empty shaft, slowly starting to descend as Spider-Man leaps inside to attach to the wall and start working his way — and his webbing — ever-downward.

"Anyone going down—?"

When Zee gives Azalea that silent wave, she returns it, and then buries the rest. Later. They'll talk later. If they survive. WHY DID SHE HAVE TO SAY THAT?!

The hand at her shoulder from Jess draws her gaze, but then she can't help but look over at the Star Spangled Man. It isn't until Captain America starts speaking that she gets sucked in, and even The Devil Inside stands transfixed. Sure, it wants to chew off the top of Steve Roger's head - but this is a /mild/ reaction to such displays of confidence and poise. For Azalea's part, she almost believes that she can be the one-person-army she needs to be by the time he's done talking.

Then, there is a God of Thunder, and her eyes go wide. Worse, Xiuhnel reacts in a most unexpected way: With glee? It uplifts her spirit to see him, though she dare not venture a guess why. It is heartfelt, from a long time past, some distant memory. Did.. did they used to go out drinking together?

In all her time since she joined with this thing, she never thought she'd feel so very /normal/, except when Zee was placating the monster. It's almost enough that she does not catch the last bit of /her/ part of the plan.

Slowly, like a kid in school, her hand rises, meaning to ask a question of Cap. "Uh… that plan sounds great. But who the /fuck/ is Star-Lord?"

Oh God, right right. Action! They're in it now. It isn't until Red Robin nods at her that she knows it's real, and then she checks a glance at Thor before moving right up to Red, reaching inside his cape, and grabbing for a his unmentionables. That is, the unmentionable wealth of Bat-gear inside. "Just need to borrow this. I promise I'll pay you back. They're like.. under 20 bucks each, right?" Her brows lift in mirth when she comes away with a mini-grappler.

Then, the Spider. She simply stares, watching in dead, open-mouthed silence as he rattles off those names, her pupils widening, and then he dashes off down the elevator shaft. And she very simply leaps after him, intending to hitch a ride on his back! He might juke her, but this is about /teamwork/ right?!

"Sure am."

Zatanna de-velcros the fingers of her gloves to slip them back on, working those slender digits into the leather. "I've still got some of Jane's bandages with me," she informs the group. "And this place is heavily warded, half the reason I can't see past it to figure out what kind of monster invention HYDRA's got. But presumably once I'm through the field, I'll be able to find her."

Presumably. She doesn't know what other countermeasures that could be waiting for them.

"I remember the techs back in the hospital said that there were mystics setting up the machines we found," she continues, keeping her voice low. "So…once we get in there, we might not just be dealing with guns."

With Spider-Man leading the way, she peers down at the descent, staring down at the abyss, which stares back.

Taking a few steps back, the young woman launches herself into a dead run and…

…leaps into the elevator shaft.

Fingers snag at the tether Spider-Man leaves behind, the thrum of her presence rocketing down the deceptively, ridiculously strong web, letting him know even without looking that she's coming up right behind him. Tucking her boots around the wire to give her some control over her descent, she starts sliding downward.

"Well spoken," Thor compliments the Captain, taking an ear piece, though he looks highly skeptical about it. He spares a glance to those who have gathered, particularly the individuals who are apparently going to be on the same team with him. The earpiece is tucked inside of his chest plate. He also spares the rather noisy crawling mortal, this Spider-Man, a glance as well.

"I have sought out the Fates on at least two occasions, young mortal, and I do not wish for any of them to place their old, rotten feet anywhere near my backside," the God of Thunder says to Constantine, leaning over some of the collective mass of domino masks and capes to peer down into the elevator shaft.

His face turns thoughtful, and after a brief argument with himself - all painted across his features - he does the logical thing. "Step back," he warns those still on the platform.

Thor jumps.

Rushing right past the already descending lot, he falls a considerable way, his substantial weight slamming down into the elevator that's nestled a hundred meters below. A second thud echoes moments later, much softer, like something heavy falling from say, waist high. There's a grunt that echoes up to those above.

Then another. Then another.

"By Ymir's toes, what sorcery have they cast here?!"

Once the group descending is closer, they'll see Thor standing there, Mjolnir imbedded into the top of the elevator. With one final attempt to pull his hammer from its new perch, a furious-looking God turns his attention to his surrounds. "Be wary, mortals. My enchantments do not work down here."

Reaching down, he TEARS the top of the elevator off, instead of simply kicking in the access door. Dropping down inside of it, Thor takes the elevator doors, and peels them back like he was opening a can of sardines.

John's approach to the elevator is subdued by comparison with the rest — a placid walk that turns into a hand on the line of spider-spooge. "Mmhm," he says to Thor, with a sidelong glance that seems wary. Fates, the man says. Not the Wheel, but the sisters, the spinners, another face of the same thing. "The Moirai have rotting feet, do they?" Casually asked, as he sidesteps the heaving bulk of the Asgardian, and leans to look down, watching him cannonball into the depths.

"Hm," is all he has by way of follow-up.

He drops the augmented lighter into his pocket, leans out over the drop and lets the cable take his weight, sliding downward into the elevator shaft silently, slowing to a stop only once, when something /BANGS/ down below him, to look out over his shoulder.

The viking is tearing the elevator to pieces.


"Right," he says, to no one, and begins to slide downward again.

Because Red Robin is a collected and patient individual who's been trained to deal with all sorts of situations, he does not freak out when Azalea gets her hands under his cape.

The only visible part of him is his mouth, and that starts to pull into a frown as he feels her rummaging through some of the items attached to his utility belt and to his costume generally, until she comes away with one of his spare grapple guns.

'I promise I'll pay you back,' she says.

Behinbd the featureless, inhuman white lenses of his cowl, his eyes narrow slowly.

But otherwise, it seems, that it's time to head down the shaft. Thor simply jumps in with the casual indifference of someone who is borderline invulnerable to harm, while many of the others are depending on Spider-Man and his weblines to get them down more easily.

Red Robin stands at the edge of the shaft, looking down into the dark as somewhere down below Thor is giving the elevator car a good thrashing. So much for subtle, he figures, and then his weight tilts forward and he falls.

He doesn't even try to slow himself at first, just a black figure that drops straight into the darkness, his cape trailing behind him… Until with a simple motion he activates the electrical current waiting to run through the memory material, once he's past the climbers: The black cape snaps into a more rigid form, his hands grasping the edges as it catches him, slows his fall enough that he can release it again, and drops into the elevator car behind Thor as the latter uses his frankly ridiculous strength to open the way.

"Fortunately, we don't all have to worry about enchantments," the young man in red and black rumbles in his electronically masked voice; once the way is open enough, he'll move to start scouting ahead. He might not be an invisible Norse god, but sometimes it's better to be sneaky anyway.4

A simple finger is pointed toward Quill as Azalea asks who is Star-Lord.

As everyone offers encouragements, warnings, and a variety of quips, Rogers just gives a simple look toward Peggy. The meaningful unspoken communication of 'Let's do this together' given, Captain America takes the rear, understanding that it's time to let other people shine. They have their gifts, their abilities, their amazing skill sets that they will put to use. With little fanfare, Rogers gets out a traditional rope and hook, merely using that to get himself down instead of leaping, magic, or webs that may or maynot be sticky. If Peggy allows, she will be carried by Cap as he lowers himself down. Once he touches down, a hand calmly rests on one of the devices given to him by Red Robin that will hopefully spare his lifelong friend from a tragic end. The expression is clear the moment all eyes are removed from him: He's nervous.

Once she's sure neither Cap nor Agent Carter will need her awkward assistance, Jessica Jones simply leaps down the shaft herself. She lands lightly, in stark contrast to Thor's crashing, one hand touching lightly down on the ground to balance herself since she lands in a crouch. Her eyes narrow faintly as she looks about. Then she stands up, and moves out of the way of the others who might be coming down, waiting for her team.


"What — what the hell— ?! Use the webbing like a normal person, Ninjak, I'm not — like — a spider-mobile—!"

This would be the sound of Spider-Man getting a backful of Dark Devil as he crawls his way down the shaft; despite the sudden landing, he shoulders her weight like it's nothing — and despite his protests, he also doesn't just bump her off to send her careening down into the darkness below, because he's not a monster(-man).

Hopefully she holds on tight, though, because given their positioning, they're crawling their way upside-down.

"… rassumfrassum… spider-taxi… Blood Rayne over here… mumble mumble… whoa, lookit that."

Spider-Man squints as he lands in the ruined wreckage of the elevator a second later, fully intent on shrugging off Azalea if she hasn't disembarked from the Spider-Train yet. He looks around. Looks at Thor.

"Did… did this elevator kill your dad, or something?"

For the most part for this trip, one Peter Quill has been blessedly silent. Maybe he's been distracted. Maybe he's been fantisizing about women. Or any of a dozen other things that people don't want to know about. But he /has/ been silent.

That stops right now.

"Right," The man pauses. "Down the super-scary magic eating pit of doom. I'm sure this won't go wrong at all." He seems more amused by it all than worried. He does wave to Az, a smirk on his face as he hitches up the suspicious bag that he has thrown over one shoulder.

If he had been asked about it. He would have just said 'Rocket's gifts' and left it at that.

There may be a 'Do not open till Xmas' sticker on the top of said bag.

Anyone who knows his explosive minded companion might fear whats in said bag, but Quill doesn't seem to care. Instead he glances down the shaft at the multitude of lines that the others hang from and grins. Thor goes barreling past of course, and the half-human half-something else just chuckles. "Man knows how to make an entrence." He comments as he just steps off into the blackness and goes tumbling down the shaft.

Its fine guys. He has jetboots. At least a spare pair of them. That should save him from any splatter-style landing at the bottom.

…technological things work fine right? RIGHT?!

A backwash from the jets just before he lands proves that they seem too at least and Star-lord lands with little more than a hop. "Freefall. Total rush."

Rappelling down the elevator shaft feels like an endless task — a forever highway that leads straight down to the hells of Hydra. The air is sharp and chill and smells clay-sweet and distantly of the sea. It's hard to imagine the foundation of the city even goes this far — and nevetheless exists this deeply. It is tracked with sparse lighting and built well, though the construction itself looks dated. Something built out of the beginnings of the Cold War. Hydra, sliding along on its belly, curled in the bowels of New York, coiled, asleep, and waiting.

Halfway down, those with magical attunements will feel the unseen-but-there crossing gateway of the wards. They stretch out in a protective dome to protect what exists so far below — a jealous Tarnhelm ensuring that no others exist save for it.

It smothers magic the instant it is crossed. Zatanna will remember that twisting, uneasy sensation wrought upon her once before, a curdling of her blood as most of who she is were forced into fetters. It affects everyone with similar imbuements, an invisible weight pressed on their backs, also rendering Mjolnir to stubborn uselessness, and even thinning the connection of the dark, godly passenger to Azalea's soul — snuffing its whispers, muffling its wants, even pressing down on its lended abilities.

At least for Thor, his worthiness and hammer may be suppressed, but his physiology is not entirely. He rips through the elevator and peels up its door, all of its strict security protocols dissected in one fell swoop.

Hydra should know they are here.

Reception for their uninvited guests should be expected, here, awaiting them in the first good glimpse out —

— and yet there is only silence.

It opens to one hallway in a vast, labyrinthine, subterranean base. White and sterile, but high-ceilinged, running with cabling that ultimately must power this secret establishment, the hall runs on emptily, opening up into a arterial network of more halls, banding out in a dizzying many directions. Unmarked doors pock the walls every so often.

There is no one in sight.

Oh no, The Dark Devil has found her new best friend, and she hugs onto Spider-Man like she hasn't seen him in /ages/, even inverted, she keeps a leg hooked around his middle, and if he were anyone else she'd be crushing the breath out of him with the body triangle she uses for leverage.

"I think the spikes are a great idea. But, maybe we shouldn't go overboard. Maybe just a codpiece? We could..we could test it out in private?" The Web-Slinger will hear her whisper against his ear, just before they're about to make landfall.

She drops before he does, smirking up at him and then that smile just grows and grows as she watches Thor defeat the elevator ever so soundly.

But her smile is a thing that fades when she feels Xiuhnel's glee slip away. When she feels the weight lift, strain, ever so far. There's a thrashing, a straining.

Oh God. She almost feels like herself again.

She staggers sidelong, right into Spider-Man, one hand pressing to her head as the space between her and her Passenger rebounds and twists and pulls all over again.


Once she lands in the bottom of the shaft and crosses the threshold, it envelopes her again and it all comes flooding back.

Of being strapped down to a chair, a pair of hands weighing her down as she struggled. The look in those cold eyes peering at her through the Tarnhelm and the metallic fingers of one Bucky Barnes clapping her mouth shut, while the rest of her face was grabbed. It nearly locks her limbs, trauma remembered, echoes of her own screams swirling inside her own head as she stares at these labyrinthine halls blankly. It happens all over again, those astral fingers reaching inside of her, grasping the ephemeral strains of the supernova of her too large soul and /pulling/. So hard, so tightly that she can barely breathe and there is excruciating, physical pain…

Zatanna doesn't realize she's tilting until the cold metal of a nearby wall finds her shoulder, her hand reaching up to grasp the front of her shirt and feeling her heart lurch painfully against her ribs. The beginnings of cold sweat renders her pale skin sick under the harsh lights of the maze before them.

Shaking fingers dig into her pocket, to produce what remains of Jane's bandages. She knows it's useless. She knows. She's been under the full brunt of this blanket before. It is suffocating.

She shoves it back into her pockets. She turns her eyes over to John.

"We need to do something about these wards," she tells him quietly. "You, me, Az and maybe even Thor, we're crippled here if we don't."

That is not a good feeling.

The moment John crosses the wards, it feels as though he's passed into the crushing atmospheres of some deepwater ravine. The pressure of nullification. It begins a mild headache somewhere just between and above his eyes, sizzles and pops across the essentially unworldly nature of the symbol branded into the inside of his left wrist. It causes the shadowy thing in the glass bottle in one of his pockets to riot in murderous silence. For a magician to be stripped of that vital force is not unlike any other mundane human being suddenly losing the majority of their ability to see, and if John feels it this keenly, then…

He slants a glance in Zatanna's direction, assessing. Just in time to see her tilt into the wall. He reaches, grasps, supports with an arm around the back of her, though his expression is carefully curated. Only small traces of his worry bleed through. "Yeah. The moment they go down, all hell's going to break loose, though. They'll know."

Cursory exploration into the unmarked doors yields side rooms: storage, medical areas, intake areas. Many are empty.

Some are not.

One room they come to has personnel in it. Just two people, both women: apparently the favored number of people to staff at any given station. It looks like they're at their usual post, as they're seated at terminals, but they're not working.

They're just sitting and waiting.

"Some of you may not, but I believe half our company are defenseless as a result," Thor notes to Red Robin, as the caped crusader darts off ahead. As everyone begins milling past, he spares one last glance towards the half-ruined top of the elevator, and the hammer whose shaft juts out just so. So proud, and firmly, it juts. That's too sexual.

As Spider-Man makes the quip, the Thunderer's expression twists into a faint grin. "The elevator was in the way, young one." He'll return for you, Hammer! Soon!

"Something feels decidedly off," he states the obvious as he strides forth, the 'Assault Team' designation requiring him to be the vanguard, save for the lone scout out ahead. "Quill, doors on the left. Ah, 'Dark Devil,' perhaps the right? Surely that is not your real name?"

Thor? Thor's just going to keep walking straight down this hallway until something either shoots him, or shoots Tim Drake, as the scout should always be the first to take an arrow. Pausing at one door with a rod-like handle next to it, he glances back towards the group. And then he kicks the door open. "I remain a God, Zatanna," he says, the door slamming into the wall for the exclamation mark there. Asgardian hearing is something, alright.

Ripping the inanimate carbon rod from the wall, he seems about to throw it until he sees what lies within the room. The way the workers within simply sit there, waiting. "Yes, something is decidedly off here," he repeats himself, gesturing for the others to inspect the room as he stalks on ahead.

Jessica had shot Zee a sharp look as she'd hit the wall, concern flooding her features. But as Zee simply says what needs to be done, she relaxes.

It occurs to her that this set-up makes a wonderful trap. Get a rather large number of the super-powered and the skilled to come charging down here after someone they care about. Then spring the trap shut and take them all, put chips in all their heads. With only a few exceptions, there were no fast escapes for anyone up that shaft.

It didn't change what needed to be done. But it did cause her eyes to narrow even more, and a tense expression to tease over her face.

Thor starts walking.

She hits the timer button on her watch. The tiny, tinny beat cuts through the air.

Magical senses he doesn't have, technological though? Those Peter has in spades. A quick touch to his earpiece and his armor unfolds. The skintight shield a familiar and welcome sensation. The metalic faceplate and the glowing red lenses of his optics unfold to conceal his features as he pans his head around the empty space again.

"Sure bossman," Comes the unhurried and unworried drawl from the pilot. He's not one to get worked up over nothing, he'll save that till there happens to be something to really worry about. One pistol is drawn before he peers into the room on the right and finde…


More nothing. A whole lot of nothing.

Alright. Getting creepy now.

HIs technological sensors inside his eyepieces search out active power sources. Trying to penetrate though the walls to check just where the power is flowing too and from. Sourses of heat. Anything they can find, scrounging for every scrap of information as his pistol tracks left and right.

The pair of people though that cause him to pause as he peers around Thor, idily running biometric scans on the pair.

"Right, getting totally creepy now."

The God of Thunder raises a fair point, one that makes Red Robin pause, and then nod. Whatever's doing this they'll have to deal with quickly, with Zatanna and Constantine in particular both fairly vulnerable when brought back down to normal. Though he of course doesn't know for sure, he can imagine that it was something like this that let HYDRA subdue Zatanna in the first place.

But for him, nothing. An advantage to being a generally normal human, perhaps.

The /emptiness/ is strange, not at all what Red Robin had been expecting; surely there would be some kind of security, something other than the whatever-it-is that nullifies any magical abilities inside of the base. But then, at least, they find some people, thanks to Thor kicking open a door. Two women, sitting and waiting.

For what, though?

His gaze slides past them, to the terminals, before settling on the women themselves; like Quill, he does some quick scans, but he feels like he knows what he's probably going to find. They didn't even react to the door being slammed open, it seems.

The caped and cowled figure moves closer, cautiously, his steps utterly silent against the floor. Probably unnecessarily; the rest of the group has already made plenty of noise.

Codpiece and… what?

"Yeeeeeeah… no," declares Spider-Man as he idly dusts himself off. "Sorry. That's like, a super romantic overture by creepy crazy people standards I'm guessing, but you look like the kind of person who likes to eat who they mate with, and I'm just not that kind of spider. Sorry, I'm sure our future children Lord Death Man and Lady Darkness Scythe will be devastated—"

And there goes Azalea, slumping into him like she just got hit with heatstroke. The spandex-clad vigilante blinks behind his mask as the woman staggers, and it probably says something that he reflexively moves to support her despite their earlier back and forth. "H-hey, you alright? I mean, I'm sure they won't be devastated, they don't even exist — god, I hope they don't exist -"

But that's not the problem, and he knows it. He looks to Constantine, to Thor, recalling the god's words. Lenses widen in tandem with the realization that grips Peter Parker behind that mask. He looks towards Zatanna — and it's all he needs to know, seeing her in such an almost sickened state, to know what's going on here.

It looks like someone turned the 'off' switch on these people. Zatanna talks about wards. Peter's lips crease into a thin line behind that mask. "Wards? … What would we be, like, looking for, for that?" Magic — not his forte. But if things stay like that, at the very least Constantine and Zatanna and possibly the Dark Devil — really, he thinks, but is polite enough not to voice when she's seemingly dying from Magic Plague — are at a serious disadvantage here. Not so much Thor, probably. … Because he's Thor.

For now, the webhead will just make sure Azalea can stand, and walk on her own towards that door that Thor indicates, keeping an eye on her as he leaps towards the ceiling to adhere to its surface — waiting to get a direction to seek out in this very creepy, very silent place. Seriously. He thought HYDRA would be like Bond villains, with slow moving laser beams and monologues and stuff.

This is starting to feel more like Silent Hill. Damn HYDRA! Stop crushing his expectations!

Waiting is the worst. More so when things are not going according to expectation. The plan? It is currently up in the air if it is wise. The hallways make it unclear where the objectives are and with the magical wards up and the place underground, the means of his peers and SHIELD to find people are not at his disposal.

"We were definitely accounted for," Captain America offers quietly into his communication device as he doesn't move from the point where the group left the shaft. To everyone else who is wearing the earpiece, the soft whisper of Super Soldier can be heard. "There is a good chance that this may be blocked or tapped, so be on guard. The possibility is that they may try and separate us, so consider staying reasonable close to your teammates."

Idly waiting as Jones puts on the timer, Rogers stands in front of Peggy protectively and gives a glance toward the woman as he waits for her to be his cue foward. As he does, the large hammer just chills right in front of him. It almost calls out to him. But something seems wrong, just grapping a guy's hammer without asking permission. So he just leaves it be. He'll just ask to handle Thor's hammer another time when they aren't on such a dire mission.

Quill's scanning picks up something deeper in the facility. It reads like… the energy stolen from his ship's power core, in fact. It's being used to power something, though exactly /what/ is beyond the ability of his scanners to really detect.

His scans on the two workers reveal nothing out of the ordinary about them.

Red Robin creeps closer to them. They finally look around— more because of the noise the rest are making than Tim— and see the intruders.

They smile, peacefully, but do nothing hostile. They have the looks of people for which none of this will matter, very soon.

It has been so long since she's known real fear that Azalea almost doesn't know how to process it, the sickly feeling tugging at her insides forcing her to recoil. But she can't afford it. Any of it. She watches John and Zee struggle to, but they make do, and so must she, finding her footing with the help of Spider-Man.

If only she could concentrate on his voice, on the way he jokes and banters about the future children they will never have. Finally she steadies herself with his help, and the look she gives him cuts through all of their bullshit so far, one hand reaching up to curl over his shoulder and give Peter Parker a squeeze. A thank you. He's the only thing keeping her on mission right now.

A few quick breaths and she engages the door she was ordered to, kicking it in and taking a peek. Of course, with Spider-Man still literally hanging around, she feels just a little better - she honestly does not know what effect this will have on her. She doesn't throw fireballs, but besides feeling sick.. can she still fight? Still move?

Time to find out.

She leans into the support momentarily, her eyes far off, though John's words ring true enough. Zatanna gives her head a hard shake, rubbing her fingertips over closed lids, hard enough to be able to gauge her eyeballs out if she isn't careful. "I don't think we're going to have much of a choice," she replies, keeping her voice low. "I'm not exactly comfortable with the idea of you facing the Tarnhelm without your full arsenal."

The God of Thunder's rejoinder has her lifting her head. She squares her shoulders, and shifts her weight, ensuring the solid plant of her booted feet on the ground. She's no good to anyone, if she forces any attention to be split. There's a quirk of her lips. "If the rest of us only were so lucky, Thor," Zatanna tells him, all dryness and good humor, easing slowly from John's bracing arm and giving him a reassuring nod. A hand reaches to brush fingertips on his cheek before she moves on, brass knuckles slipping out from between previously empty fingertips - not magic, but the smooth effortlessness of her legerdemain might as well be, fitting the metallic object over her fingers and closing a fist.

Magically neutered, for now, that doesn't mean she can't punch someone's lights out if she has to.

Espying the two women at the terminals, she hesitates, but she does cast her glance sideways towards Red Robin. Oddly enough the first thought she has is that these two figures might well be wearing those cerebral devices in their heads. The other thought that follows after that is if they use their EMP devices in this room, it could short out the terminals as well, and there goes their currently best chance at finding any information about this facility.

Spidey's question is sound, though. There's a glance at John, and then she murmurs: "We'd have to look for the central point where it's the strongest," she tells him quietly. "And pick the locks from there. The terminals might help us figure out where to go, though. Either way we're going to have to have some idea where to start, so unless anyone else has any other suggestions, I'm all ears."

With that, she takes a step forward.

"Afternoon, ladies, mind stepping away so my associates can get to work?"

The looks on their faces unnerves her.

"Lovely weather we're having," she continues conversationally. "So what do the two of you do here?"

The women look up at Zatanna as she asks if they mind stepping away from the terminals. They exchange a look, and then quite easily get up and move aside, walking to other chairs in the room and resuming their seats there. Their departure reveals the terminals they were staring at are not even on.

To them, it truly does not seem to matter.

What do the two of you do? "Biomedical engineering," one of them says. Looks like they found partor all of the maintenance crew of the Winter Soldier.

In the meantime, the pulse of magic beats around them. The wards themselves are not complicated— a similar magic-dampening field as John and Zatanna have personally experienced previously— with anchor points at various locations around what is presumably the perimeter of the base, like tent pegs tethering down a blanketing field over them all.

There is something else going on, however. Something powered by energy John cannot sense. It is hard to pin down what it is— it feels like eddies, a slow swirl of something building in the air, like thunderheads.

Bee-dee-be-deep. Bee-dee-be-deep.

Jessica reaches down to stop the timer, then looks to her two teammates. "Ready?" she asks them. Doggedly sticking to the plan until either told otherwise, or…well, until it all goes wrong, one of the two.

Then she takes point.

What? It's tradition now, right? Granted, the super soldier is probably just as durable as she is, especially in his suit, but he's far more valuable than she is, and Agent Carter doesn't have either benefit. The math, to her, adds up…if someone is going to get shot, or bitten, or irradiated, or whatever, it should be her. Of course, nothing is happening. There's not really anywhere to go other than where they already all have gathered, this room with the techs.

The look on the faces of the techs causes a sour, dark look to flit over her face. But she follows them. If they'll answer questions…"You two don't seem too concerned about our presence here. Why is that?"

"Those rat bastards," Peter seethes. "I knew they did something to the power core! The Milano hadn't been the same since Bucky put his grubby hands with the Tron runes all over it!" Quill is very protective of his ship. Naturally.

He nods towards the reading he's picking up. "They are using the stolen power for…something. I don't know what but I'm glad they didn't get the whole core. Might slow em down doing whatever wierd Lost Ark things they might be doing."

At least they have a direction now, of course it could be a trap.

Who is he kidding. Its totally a trap.

"Well, I guess it would be rude to keep them waiting, eh Blondie?" He asks of Thor. "Should we go introduce ourselves?"

Biomedical engineering.

Zatanna's eyes flare. She'll let Red and perhaps even Spider-Man handle the terminals as she presses the human element. Whatever remains of her mystical senses feels the spread, detects the tethers. But one thing at a time.

Jessica's question is sound. "What's Bucky Barnes' condition?" she asks. "Where are you keeping him? Where are you keeping Dr. Jane Foster?"

With the women so easily moving themselves, Red Robin doesn't waste any time frowning over their disconcerting condition. He just takes one of the previously occupied seats, moving to turn one of the terminals on.

There's not much point in worrying about their presence being noticed just yet - at least, not their presence in general, with there perhaps still being some purpose to following Captain America's earlier plan of splitting off from the rest of the group to sneak around while the heavy hitters hit things heavily - so there's probably not really any downside to trying to take a look through the computer system. If he's lucky, it's not isolated. If he's lucky, down in their lair, HYDRA doesn't keep different elements of their intranet sequestered.

Sure, he would, in their place. But he's an optimist. Really.

What he wants is of course internal maps, security measures, anything that might tell them where to find things: The wards that muffle the talents of the magically inclined, the location of the central control for the control chips, if there is such a thing; and yes, even as Zatanna asks the two women about it, the locations of the Winter Soldier, or the missing Jane Foster.

For his part, it seems Thor will stand guard and wait for the people with familiarity of Midgardian technology to do their thing. He steps down a few more doors, ears carefully listening for anything that may be approaching, when he hears something else instead.

His frown returns, and he steps back over towards the door with the still workers and the bulk of the group. He holds up one finger to forestall the question of the Star-Lord.

Once he's back at the door, the Thunderer is going to politely clear his throat. His fingers rap against the half-crumpled door he kicked in a minute ago. "Apologies, but did I just hear you mention the Tarnhelm?" The question is delivered lightly, but his expression is anything but. The thunderheads may be building in the air, but there's one growing on the face of the God of Thunder right now.

"That would explain a few things," he all but growls the word, and starts down the hallway again. "Yes, Quill, work with the man on the Apple-" Tim Drake. He means the computer. "-and once we have the location, we will begin the assault." He starts tapping the rod on his open palm.

With very, very few exceptions, John has no interest in, or patience for, the human element of a scenario. Once Zatanna finds her feet, he follows her out into the corridor with the others, but he trails slightly behind, and while the group splits its attention between reconnaissance and probing the two individuals in the room Thor opens the door to with one enormous foot, John explores in other ways.

The piece of him that tastes magic, a palate refined by decades of experience, is numbed, but not useless. He lingers on the hall side of the room's threshold, half an ear on the goings-on within, the rest of him bleeding outward into the improbable facility buried so deeply beneath the leviathan city overhead. He uses his affinity like a compass, searching for the anchor points Zatanna mentions, the tethers that bind the wards in place. A direction, a movement, a flow — anything.

The effort is cautious. Exceedingly so, particularly for someone like John, for whose job recklessness is often a mandatory qualification. Somewhere down here is the Tarnhelm, and his soul — tatty thing that it is — is not nearly so durable as Zatanna's. A sip of him might give that bad hat a terrible bellyache, but it would no doubt do him in completely in the process.

The fine, invisible hairs on the back of his neck stand up when his awareness flits through a ripple in the warp and weft of more predictable magics. Like the ominous silence before a tornado. "Something's happening."

Vague. Not helpful. As accurate as he can be, even so. "There's some sort of power done here that's not suppressed by the wards." Is it magic? He extends himself, and cannot tell. Whatever is driving it is beyond him. "There isn't a central anchor point for the wards. They're—" He gestures, suggesting a circumference. "Arrayed."

Crawling in from the ceiling, Spider-Man offers the two chipper cultist nutjob-looking personnels a clipped little wave as he passes on by, and a very polite, "Sorry to interrupt, you must have been very busy staring listlessly at the walls thinking of how great your next e-meter audit is going to be, so we'll be out of your crazy hair in juuuuuust a sec—"

And so does the webbed vigilante fall down into one of those now-unoccupied chairs next to Red Robin's. He gives his fellow masked crime fighter a little thumbs up before leaning leisurely back in his seat, cracking his knuckles, and—

"Wh— these aren't even -on-? Wow. Just. HYDRA must have the -worst- work ethic, this is just… shameful -"

And so, with a belabored sigh, Spider-Man turns on the computer, waits for it to boot up, and tries to look into any sort of distribution for HYDRA's kooky magical ward system, personnel files — anything of miscellaneous use that he can find that might be handy while Red handles the main thrust of the work.

Which is, of course, when Constantine starts talking. "So, just f y i, every time you say 'something's happening, I clench a little."

"Just, y'know, thought I'd share."

Tap tap tap.

"So.. would breaking one..part of the array…" It almost feels like she can't breath. For Azalea, it is something different altogether. Not a suppression of her entire being, just a dark half. It also rings true with what she had suspected all alone: There is no longer a 'whole' left of her, the edges blurred and overlapped with Xiuhnel in ways that make them one and the same. Her teeth grit and she shakes, adrenaline surging as she fights back against the crush of that power the only way she knows how: She gets angry.

Weakened and teetering at the edges, the God-Thing inside her acts very much like it does when subdued by Zatanna's magic, except that this is not some contented creature that's rolled over to sleep. It's been put in a choke hold.

All she can do is stare on while the others work it out, finally moving over to Thor, to prepare for their breach, to get ready to move when he does…. and stay behind him when they do.

"Sharing is never a bad thing," Peter Quill adds as Bug-Boy starts to work on the other computer. He'll let the pair work, since they seem to be faster at it than he is. Tarnhelm? No idea what what is either.

Instead he does something else.

He pulls out a little iPad like device and flips it on. The readout for the tracking device that he slipped into someones pants the last time he met the Hydra people. "No I have no idea how wards work or anything like that, but could ya set up something like a cascade failure if they have em all spread out?" He's leaning new things about magic every day. Its fun and exciting.

"Also I can find someone else for you ta ask about the helm-thing if you want." He adds as he flips on the little device. "Well it'll find her pants." A pause. "So we could just be heading to a laundry room, but I thought I'd at least throw out the offer. Once we get a map at least."

The two Hydra personnel look on vacantly, untroubled by the group, their intrusion, their presence, their questions. The two women do not seem drugged, do not feel possessed by some otherworldly force, are not sensed to be any way amiss —

— save for a shared, unobtrusive sense of peace. Sitting and waiting for something to occur.

One woman gazes patiently through so many questions from so many people. "It doesn't matter," she says. "None of it."

The other smiles a little hopefully. "You all should find a place too. Wait for the change. He'll welcome you too. No one is going to be left behind."

The terminal turns on to an administrative log-in, though the only network is — not found. Not found, it keeps saying. Anything that was is no more. Wiped out. Deleted. Digitally scoured out.

Constantine mentions that the wards have been arrayed.

"Astute of you, Mr. Constantine," replies a new voice, soft and aged and distantly-accented. It permeates through the room, gentle, formal, but everywhere — it appears through the base's intercom system, but also speaking directly through and into everyone's heads. Zatanna would recognize this voice. She has heard it before. It was introducted to her as Avram, the kindly old man who apologized before ripping out her soul.

"I'm pleased to see you healthy again, Miss Zatara. As for the rest of you, I give you welcome. Allow me my apologies for not welcoming you directly."

Agent Carter is ready for assault and infiltration. Though she may not have magic or super powers, she does have a small array of weapons she has brought with her from SHIELD. As they prepare their entrance, Peggy moves in tandem with Steve, placing herself solidly behind him: he has both the shield and his durability to withstand the blast, she has neither. It makes tactical sense. Once braced, she nods to Steve, ready.

Inside the room, she studies the faces of the workers, frowning. "They've most likely been brainwashed," she explains to Jessica softly. "That's how they keep their assets under control. They—they rewrite parts of their memories to make them believe they are doing what they want, but it's mental conditioning."

When the aged voice sounds across the room, Peggy can't help but start in surprise. Steve was right, they've been accounted for. "A disembodied voice welcoming us into their humble abode? That's certainly never a good sign," she says under her breath, dryly. Her hand tightens on the grip of her gun as she starts to study the space about her, looking for weak points, for places to hide should this turn into a fish in a barrel situation. Then, a little louder so a few others can hear her through the earpiece: "Be prepared to tactically scatter." That sounds a lot more dignified than ducking and running for cover.

It is clear from those close to Cap that he is annoyed, his chapstick-ed lips frowning at how things are proceeding. He worked hard on that plan and because of magic; it is getting all messed up. His shield goes instinctually in front of him, ready for any random teleporting foes, demons, or leprechauns telling him not to steal their lucky charms (not that Steve would get that reference). "Stay close," he states to Carter before moving in slowly to be in front of her, clearly not wanting anyone or thing to get the drop on her because he was too far away.

Others take the point and speak to the person. For now, Rogers just keeps his attention on everywhere else, attempting to see any signs of sneaking Winter Soldiers, evil portals, or anything else that might make the group's day a little more difficult.

Jessica nods; she had figured that much. Her concern, though, was why they would be ordered to just sit there staring at a blank screen while a bunch of intruders helped themselves.

"You know, sticking your pinky out and telling us you've brought out the good tea set doesn't make you any less of an asshole." This is to the disembodied voice. Whoops. Language. She shoots a quick look at Cap, then scowls up at the sky, then at the primary assault team. This strikes her as a great time to smash something and do some assaulting, but…also not her call.

"Tch." The non-responses earn the two women a faint curling of her lips.

"The man who calls himself Gottfried Muller lent a couple of artifacts to the Gotham Antiquities Commission's centennial gala a few weeks ago," she tells Thor. "The immortal Nazi sorceror. One of them was the Tarnhelm, we got to concluding that he gave them up so he'd have traps set in the gala when it was time to snatch the Liber Consecratus— "

Something elderly and familiar bleeds into her mind then, cutting off her words before she could supply any additional background to the God of Thunder. Ice-blue eyes widen at the sound of his voice. So courteous, so benevolent.

/You're going to help so many people./

Her fingers clench tightly into fists at her sides.

"Pleased?" she hisses, that white-hot temper manifesting on her pale cheeks in a flush of lurid red. "You /put me/ in that state to begin with and you seriously expect me that you're 'pleased' to see me alive?! You /stole from me/ and that's not even half as important as all the damage you've done to— "

Words. They pile up at the back of her throat, the beginnings of a blistering row ready to launch. But reason seizes her at the last moment and she grinds her teeth together in a tight clip. The visible struggle to let go of her fury, at least just a little, is on her face, and those who know the young woman well would know just how much of a herculean effort this is.

"….what do you intend then, Mr. Avram?" she asks between clenched teeth. She at least repays his courtesy in kind, pain-filled memories reduced to the finer details. "You said I was going to help so many. Does the Tarnhelm have enough power now to send everyone in this entire city into different individual worlds, or just one? In your image, then? Of your choosing?"

Her jaw sets.

"What do you intend to do with Bucky and Jane?"

Spiderman informs Constantine about his clenching reflex, and John glances that way, a single blue iris visible in the corner of his eye. "Yeh. I've been told I have that effect on people." Which is true: John almost never has /good/ news. There are many reasons that people dislike seeing him turn up on their doorstep, but that one rates fairly high on the list. "Try not to clench /too/ hard. We're probably going to need those spinnerets of yours."

Does he think Spidey's goo comes from…?

When Azalea speaks, he actually turns his head, shifting his full attention. In the strange, magical silence, he can sense the compression of the thing inside of her — something he'd want to study if they had the time. They do not. "Don't know, luv. We'd have to break one to find—"


That cultured, foreign voice inside of his skull earns a tightening of his eyes and the swift erection of mental barriers, well-honed resistances to having his thoughts tampered with. The inside of John's head is not a particularly pleasant place for anyone else to be — even John has been known to need a vacation from it, from time to time — but on occasion people have tried, and for John, that is the ultimate transgression. A twist of red anger burrows itself in his chest even /before/ he realizes, from what's said, that the voice likely belongs to the figure in the helm in that small room where two men pillaged Zatanna's soul — something Zatanna confirms moments after he suspects. The revelation feeds what began as a barb, thorned vines of a slow-growing ire boiling up out of the pit of his stomach and winding themselves through his chest. His expression shifts very little, but it gains something hard, an anvil of resolve.

He says nothing. Decides to take a risk: he feels his way toward the link that feeds the voice into them.

/Where are you, you bastard./

"I sure hope Mr. Ghostwriter intends to go fuck himself." The Dark Devil murmurs almost to herself, and then she bites down on her own lip. She needs to be ready. Needs to feel lethal again. Rousing what's left of her demon is not easy, but pain helps, and she curls her fingers into fists as she listens to the man in her head, to the retort by Zee, and begins to understand.

This is the one who tried to kill her.

Oh, that'll do. Xiuhnel thrashes in the abyss, diminished, but not undone, and it wants more than anything to eat the soul of the creature that dared try to take away it's delicious candy.

"Then we should break one."

Azalea asides this to Constantine, then looks at Thor. "You seem pretty fucking unstoppable, lets fuck some shit up." Her plan is probably a terrible one. But she very simply does not know how much time they have, and can only imagine that every moment waiting is a moment wasted.

Maybe they just need the violence of action.

Damn, Red Robin thinks to himself.

The computers are useless. They'd come too late into whatever preparations HYDRA has been making for this 'change', and now the system is completely wiped. This time, at least, he doesn't take out his temper on the terminal. Not that there's much time to do something like that, since they truly have been noticed, and now they're being addressed. Over the intercoms, yes… But he knows that the voice is also inside of his head.

Lackily magical or other supernatural abilities though he does, Red Robin possesses some excellent mental defenses for a normal human being, courtesy of some of the more esoteric training he's received, particular from the Batman himself. But this goes right through it, as though his safeguards weren't even there. A polite voice, for all the intrusion. Mannered.

He hates polite villains. They're always the worst.

When Zatanna, quite naturally not in a very good mood, reveals that this mystery speaker is the person responsible for what happened to her, the cowled young man lets out a slow exhalation. The odds were they would locate that individual, when they went on this mission, he knew. Still, it makes it all the more distasteful to hear that voice inside of his head, making his skin cawl.

He tries to ignore it. Push it away, along with any other emotion: Wall it off in a tiny corner in the back of his mind, where it's nothing more than a nuisance. He looks towards Zatanna though, a faint frown on that visible bottom half of his face. He needs a plan, but he's out of his element. There's not much for him to go on, and worse there's the concern that this 'Avram' can hear what they're thinking.

Hearing the explanation doesn't do much to improve Thor's disposition. He pauses as that voice speaks from overhead, seemingly everywhere, before his head cuts a quick shake. "Mortals, playing with powers far beyond them," the God mutters, not angry, but most definitely disappointed.

Scratch that, he is angry. His hand twitches, clutching at the air, but the Hammer does not heed his call. The connection being severed draws back memories that are still fresh. His banishment, his Unworthiness. Jane Foster. "Whoever you are," his voice lifts. "I would advise you to release Jane Foster with all due haste! You have angered a God, and that is beyond merely being unwise."

It would seem that Azalea's call for action is going to be needed. Her words draw forth a soft exhale of amusement from the Thunderer, and he gestures for Quill. "Lead the way. I grow weary of this inaction." He also has words for Azalea, as he starts jogging down the hall now, armor issuing soft clanks and boots issuing heavy thuds. "Verily, your words are most crass. I trust that you have the strength to match that tongue?"

And Spider-Man's monitor turns on… to nothing. No network. No anything. He remembered what Zatanna said, talk about these people making a better world. Of course. Why bother to keep things around if you're going to The Good Place?

"Aw, fiddlesticks," declares Spider-Man, hands launching skywards. "They couldn't just be thoughtful and leave all their evil plans here for us before they go meet Ted Danson, could they?? Just. The worst! I—"

And there comes that voice. So polite in the way universally recognized as the Received Evil Pronunciation. Masked face snaps up, towards the intercom, lenses widening — but it's not just there, is it? No — it's all around them. Reverborating in his skull. Making his spider-sense feel like the Fourth of July. He tenses in his seat, ready to spring at a moment's notice.

He hears the man. Hears the emotion weighing down Zatanna's reply. It's more than enough to put two and two together. Quiet for the moment, he hops out of his seat, moving forward to place a steadying hand on the Zatara heir's shoulder.

"Oh, it's okay, we understand — at your age, it takes time to get up and meet people. Find your walker, wiggle into your adult diaper, we get it, it's tough. We'll come to you. And can I just say — it's a -huge- honor to meet the disembodied voice of Mister Rogers' Evil Vaguely European Cousin. Huge."

He looks Constantine's way, very slowly. As if to quietly say 'this, this is why.' A second passes.

"(And my webbing doesn't come out of my butt. Just — whatever. Nevermind. I'll explain later.)"

-He promises-.

For now, though, he nods his head towards the exit of the room silently, for anyone who might pay attention. To indicate — maybe they should start moving. Find the evil old guy. Punch him in the nads. Pronto.

John reaches out tentatively and feels along the link coiled into their thoughts. It is not difficult to follow the magic tendrils webbed through the air, but it is difficult to do so undetected. It's slow work.

Eventually, though, it reveals the vague outlines of a great network of magic spun out all around them. The wards, whatever is transpiring around them… they are linked, necessarily, by virtue of originating from the same source. The helm.

Perhaps if less power were required for whatever is being done, the flows could have been separated: isolated into separate enchantments persisting without need for a constant feed from the helm. But they are not.

If, perhaps, they could be assaulted from the anchor points…

"Was getting bored anyway," Quill says cheerfully before he raises a hand to wave to the rest of the group. "See ya on the flip side." Comes his cheerful call. Nothing seems to be able to get Quill down for long as he reaches down to settle his headphones on his head. The walkman is turned on(its how you know he's being serious) as he turns to start for the door.

"And no dying any of you, Rocket and Groot promised to cook breakfast when we make it back. So no missing it." A pause. "And you might need a new kitchen, Zee. In totally unrealted news."

He flips on the scanner, starting for the door. "…alright polite-but-totally-creepy voice in my head. See you soon!"

He turns for the door, quietly humming along to his mix tape as he strolls off, following the tracker.

…I mean, Captain Pajamabottoms wanted them to make a mess and some noise. Might as well start.

It is a peculiar fate that pushed her in Thor's direction, and Azalea is thankful for it. For that feeling of familiarity, something she will have to try to discover later. If Xiuhnel had adventures elseworld, or even hung out with people that spoke like this romance novel looking motherfucker, it would explain a lot.

Thor's question hits her jumbled mind like a truck, her brow furrowing as she moves side by side, two Gods in motion. To bad she only has a spirit-God, or she could answer his question with a resounding 'Yes'.

"I'm stronger than I look. Usually. Whatever has your weapon stuck back there, whatever THE FUCK is going on in this place, it's fucking me up too. I only came here to do two things: Sexually proposition Spider-Men and kick the shit out of Hydra. Looks like I'm all out of Spider-Men. And, you know. After the battle.. revels?" Why did she mention revels? Not even she really knows.

"Star-Lord!" That's right! Someone remembers his name! "Make a ruckus! I want them to start coming to us!"

Why is she shouting out orders? Well, for the first time in a long time she actually has a little more clarity than rage. Might as well put it to use.

"Please," the voice replies to Zatanna, to everyone, "Call me Avram Golubev."

He seems to possess enough patience to answer questions. "As for the Soldat, James Barnes, I intend to do nothing. He is a man, and as is the right of all men, his fate is in his hands. His fate, and the fate of the woman he chose.

"And with your assistance, Miss Zatara, it does. I am pleased to see you well. Yes, I committed that assault upon you. If I had the choice not to, I would have taken it. I am an old man. I have sat vanguard through too many wars. I've sat opposite side to that of your fathers, your grandfathers. It is a cycle, I've learned, same, unchanged, no matter what side you take. Agent Carter, to see you young again. I know you far older. Whether SHIELD or Hydra, we were interchangeable pieces on the chessboard. I gave my life to the cycle. I gave it…"

The sentence lingers. He does not wish to speak of that. Instead: "Of our choosing. All of us. My people. Your people. Men. Women. Gods. All of us."

Even as the party disperses, and some begin missions of their own, tracking down white corridors in different directions — and met all the way by more Hydra personnel: simple people, unarmed, not needing to be, all sharing the same smile, some holding open doors, others welcoming with vacant-eyed tilts of their heads, otherwise standing still, looking up, waiting, expecting, hoping — the voice follows. Golubev's papery voice is everywhere.

"All of us who gave to the cycle," recites Golubev. "All of us who have had taken. All of us joined on the one same side: loss."

The taste of magic thickens on the air, power so raw it burns along those who are sensitive — and still feels sharply-felt, like the switch-on of an electric field, to those who are not. It ignites, felt distant, off four points, tracing leylines that turn and braid on themselves, back-and-forth, through this room and past it, writing on itself the shapes of runes, runes that some hear could close their eyes, trace along inside their heads, and recognize, recognize the shapes: rift magic.

The two Hydra women hold hands, afraid and excited and eager, pressing their lips and holding their breaths. Other personnel, seen by others moving, close their eyes at all the same time. Preparing.

Reality tears. Its fabric unravels. And —

For Jessica Jones and John Constantine, nothing happens. The magic moves through them, and skips them like lamb's blood has been painted on their doors. They are still in the base, untouched, but alone. Everyone else is gone.

The rest of the party awakens to the nightly noise and clamour of Times Square, Manhattan's heart wreathing them in a vibrant pulse of towering buildings, flaring, flashing signs, and thick, moving crowds of people. Tourists, throngs of them, families with laughing children, take photos, waving into cameras, centerpieced in a backdrop of colour and light. Many wear New York's iconic hats and shirts, with one focal difference: I <3 L!

Newspapers at stands show it. It flashes sporadically over Times' Square's billboards. JANUARY 28, 2017! WELCOME TO LERNAEA!

Peggy gives Steve a bit of a raised eyebrow at his order. It clearly reminds him that she doesn't need protection, however, she does follow the order: it's just as easy for her to watch his back as it is for him to watch hers. It also allows them to watch more of the room. Hopefully, between the two of them, they'll be able to see anything attacking them from just about every angle. Carefully, she moves forward with him, gesturing for Jessica to join them. Like he said before, they may be attempting to separate them and staying close to their designated groups is a good idea.

There's a widened eye look at Azalea as she launches an attack, but that was originally their plan: have three heavy hitters to distract while the others move into place. However, there's an incredulous look over her shoulder at Steve when she sees Star-Lord put on headphones and strolling. Who invited that guy?

Avram Golubev. In tandem with his explanation of Barnes and Foster, something pings in the back of her head, a voice saying, "Under the guidance of AVG". Her eyes narrow. Unfortunately, then, she gets distracted. The hairs on the back of her neck start to rise. The build up of magical energy feels just like static electricity to her. Crap, that's not good. The last time she felt intense, concentrated energy like this, she found herself in a different century. The woman starts to move forward, a bit of panic in the pit of her stomach as she attempts to almost shove Steve forward - away. "We've got to get out of range," she says, loudly, so the others can hear. They have to find a way out of this.

It's too late. Peggy's eyes refocus to find herself in Time's Square, eyes immediately picking up on the different slogans, the billboards. First, however, she searches out Steve to make sure he's there, too, before surveying the others to see if they're all there.

"Shit." Then, immediately, "Sorry."

Times Square is a raucous place, even in this alternate reality. It's hard to really focus on any one given thing with thousands of people milling in a thousand different directions. With billboards on all sides shouting down their messages at the crowds.

But there are some things that just stand out. Like the man standing sentinel above the crowd, on raised steps leading up from the sidewalk, many meters distant. The lights of Times Square flash off the exposed steel of his left arm.

The Winter Soldier regards Steve in particular, before turning and descending those steps, merging into the crowd.

Gobulev makes her think of Eve Gobulev, but there's not much time to go 'oh hey.' Jessica stiffens and scowls as the magic tears through her, as everyone else disappears. She does a slooooow circle as everyone is just gone. Off to Hydra-World.

The circle takes her back around to John. "Well, looks like it's up to you and I," she says, frowning darkly. "What's our play, John? Cause other than…we're not going to be able to solve things here, and all I've got is…let's move further into the base and see what we can accomplish…I got nothin'."

The welcome weight of Peter Parker's hand rests on her shoulder just before the sleeping dragons of her temper fully uncoil. Tension strings along muscle at the side of her throat as Avram addresses her directly and somewhere deep within a part of herself, through the silver tether that connects her and John Constantine together through mystical layers beyond human understanding - one that transcends rules, one that transcends even physical death - she senses him stretch out, propelled by his own fury in an effort to seek answers. But the rest are clamoring for action and she is in tacit agreement, turning her head to look up at Spidey's eyes. His expression is hidden from the rest, given the full coverage of his mask, but she knows his face very well and she can imagine it in the back of her mind. She gives him a quiet nod.

And then everything changes.

She feels it tingle before it happens, strains of magic coalescing around them and setting her mystical senses on fire. "Wait!" she cries, when the rest start to disperse, when others resolve to beat answers out of any living bodies they can find. "Don't— !"

She latches on instinct. A spell leaves her lips, but horror dawns when she realizes that she /can't/. She does the next best thing, reaching out to /grab/ onto Spider-Man because there's no way she's going to be able to stop what's happening and whatever is coming, she does /not/ want to be separated from those who are still in the same room as her. The tearing of reality vibrates through her skin. She hears it come apart and shatter.

Wide, ice-blue eyes find Constantine's from a distance. A hand reaches out…

…and she fades.

Before her eyes, Jess and John are /gone/. With Peter Quill, Thor and Azalea having left the room, the only ones of her people that she could see are Spider-Man, Cap, Peggy and Red Robin. And beyond them, surrounded by the crush of reveling bodies…

Is New York.

Avram's New York.


The burst of fury leaves her lips before she spins around and /kicks/ a…

…there's nothing. The streets are so clean there's no plastic bag or coke can in sight. She stares disbelievingly at the pristine concrete underneath her feet.

Nope. This is definitely Perfect New York.

"We need to find Star-Lord and the rest, once we find a way out of here, I don't want to leave them behind," she says, drawing an obsidian obelisk from her pocket. She exhales, letting her mist fog up the surface. It crackles and glows, magic thrumming over stone. There's that at least, her magic is back. And just as quickly as she realizes this, she lifts her head and catches a glint of metal…

She does not wait.

She whips the 'wand' forward and barks out a word. The red, very indiscreet glowing orb fires towards the Winter Soldier, to follow and to function as a flare in hopes that their separated comrades will be able to see it over the raucous crowd.

Captain America is a very patient man. An extremely patient man.

For weeks, people have said 'Please save Bucky' and he has said, 'I will'. For weeks they have said 'Please save your friend right now, he's in pain and really wants his close buddy back' and Cap has said 'you have my word'. So when the time came when he had the information, when the time came when action was needed, when the time came that he needed the allies to make it happen, The Plan was made. It was a really nice The Plan. Or at least so everyone he told it to thought so.

Now, despite his talk of teams, eventualities, prepareness, he finds himself… in another world known as Lernaea. It cannot be seen due to the proud A that covers his forehead, but his brow, it's definitely twitching.

"It's okay," Steve replies, clearly a little more compassionate on the language considering he is about to BUST OUT WITH BAD WORdS HIMSELF. Since it is unlikely that his headset is working in? wherever this place is, Rogers speaks with a tone more suited for an elderly curmudgeon rather than a war hero. "New plan: We break out of this stupid place, we find the stupid Nazi, and beat the stuffing out of the stupid Nazi and Get. Our. Friends. Back." It's clear from his extreme and mature language that he is fuming. A glance is given toward the crowds of people to search for the group, particularly Zatanna or Red Robin, clearly expecting one of the pair to have some insight whether it be from technology or magic.

But as he scans the area, Rogers he finds something else. "I've got eyes on Barnes, I'm moving in," he says on the headset, regardless who can hear him. He begins to move through the crowds with a frenzied pace. "Keep an eye out for Foster, the place might change along with the rules, but the goal never will." As he moves his hand and shield through the people, the EMP still held in his hand, Rogers grits his teeth. In NYC, Paris, the Moon, or the Gates of Hell, the location doesn't matter. What matters is that come Hydra or high water, he will end this tonight.

While the others speak, John feels his way blindly along corridors of humming energy, threads of discord inside of them — emanations from the Tarnhelm's parasitic heart. He is focused enough on his work that he doesn't hear Spider-Man's promise (threat) to explain to him how the webbing actually works, which is unfortunate, because had he heard he might have spared himself that inevitable discussion. What is worse — infinitely worse — is that he only half-listens to Golubev, caught up in tracing the faint trails of magic, divining patterns and sensing an ultimate destination amidst the linkages…

What he discovers, negotiating the interconnectedness of it all, is that everything is stitched together — one enormous magical circuit, everything dependent upon the battery of the helm. A terrible but likely necessary design decision, though it does mean that the vulnerability of the network is also its strongest point.

Nevertheless, the objective becomes clear. The trouble arises in the knowledge that Avram can hear them, and John has no way of knowing whether or not Avram is also able to /see/ them. It may be impossible to securely communicate what he's discovered. He stares, aims a look brimming with opaque meaning at the others, but John is no telepath. So what can he do?

He does what he always does: he resolves to go and do it. He's just beginning to pivot, in fact, clearly intending to step out into the corridor, when the runes activate.

His head snaps up. He knows the runes almost by heart now, committed to a memory that finds the identification of such things facile. His heart skips a beat, eyes widening as he turns back, his eyes drop back down—

—in time to watch Zatanna and the others drain out of this existence and into the other. He reaches out as though to snatch the hand she extends, but he knows even as he does so that it won't work. He remembers Jessica's hand passing through his, as they were separated…

Shock and fury war for dominance over his expression, for just a brief span of moments entirely unchecked, fully on display. "No," he says, in quiet remonstrance, denial of the theft. Molten wrath surges up through the small fissure, white hot and explosive. It lashes out of him like an arc of lightning, driving his arm forward, his fist into the wall. Drywall dents. Paint flakes, flutters to the ground. Skin breaks. "/No!/"

The echoes of that word have yet to fade before he's already moving, disappearing through the door and back into the corridor, all of his focus bent on one thing: the vortex of energy at the center of the web. At six feet tall, his strides are long, and he's moving fast. Jessica will have to hurry to keep up. "It's the Tarnhelm powering everything. The wards, the rift — all of it," he says. "It's at the center. I can /feel/ it. And if we don't shut it down, it's going to bloody take over everything. The field is spreading. I can feel that, too." A pause. "We're /bringing them back/, Jones. "

Because he cannot fathom the alternative. He cannot even begin to allow himself to think about it, even in hypotheticals.

How they're going to do that…well. He only wishes he knew. What they'll do when they reach the helm, if they can reach it; if they don't have to push their way through the wards first, if —

All John knows is that he will do /anything/ to rip them back into the world they belong in. Anything.

Whatever it takes.

Whatever the price, as long as it's his to pay.

Peter Quill was chugging right along. They come to a closed door and some of the nice-but-creepy Hydra folks would open it. Or Thor would kick it in. It was working pretty well, heading towards the goal. They were getting closer. Closer.

…and then magic happened.

Quill had been /around/ magic lately, but he was not very familiar with the invasive, world shattering kind. The kind that you can taste like ozone after a bad stome. That sudden rip-tear of reality as it breaks apart then snaps right back together. Not unlike FTL travel, but with a subtle and wrong aftertaste.

Thrown from utter quiet into raccus noise doesn't help either.

He reaches up to take the headphones off his head and look around the cityscape he finds himself in. His armor retracts as he looks around, letting the sights and sounds assault the senses. Then a deep breath before he looks around at the little knot of people he /suddenly/ finds himself back with.

"Well. That was different." He finally says as he reaches up to pull the headset down to dangle around his neck again. "And this place is so…clean." He scrunches up his nose a moment. "…its just wrong." He adds finally before drawing a deep breath. "So tracker is dead. So where do we go th—HEY ITS VADER!" Yup he saw the arm as he points towards where Bucky is rapidly dissipearing.

…and then Zee is shooting off flares.

And Steve is giving chase.

"I like his new plan much better!" He decides as he starts off at a run after Captain America.

Nothing quite like the sensation of rushing down a hallway, only for it all to melt away with the heavy pressure of magic. "Not the first time," Thor mutters, as the new reality sinks down over the old. His running charge comes to a quick halt, right in front of a group of incredibly well dressed individuals who are selling opportunities to take a picture with them for a few bucks. There's not a single inch of improper flesh to be seen!

A man in a Bort Simpson suit goes by. And there's the man from the subway earlier, in the knockoff red robot outfit.

Face a scowl of disdain, the God of Thunder turns to his cohorts in this venture. "Why do I expect this is not mere illusion?" he questions, following after the others at a more casual pace. He's taking in the sights, the sounds, and the ideal serenity of it all. It doesn't seem so bad. Certainly better than murders in the park.

"Still no hammer," he also notes.

"Excuse me, Thor, can we have a picture with you?"

The request is from a family of three, both parents perfectly blonde, their child also. "I am no performer. I am seeking Jane Foster. Do you know where she is?" Everyone is focused on Bucky, but Thor? He'd like to find his friend. Thus, once he's done taking a picture - and taking a $10 bill with a mysterious figure on it - he'll begin asking everyone he passes if they've seen Jane Foster.

The Tarnhelm pulses like the heart of a malignant parasite at the center of this writhing mass of energy. It is unfathomably powerful now in full operation, feeding on the sort of energy potent enough to drive ships through the dead void of space, pressing its influence /outwards/ in an urge to take and transmute MORE.

The entire world, if not stopped.

It would be madness to run headlong at that kind of power. It is madness to run headlong at it. But John Constantine is no mere hedge wizard, is he? John Constantine was born to it. It is in his blood. He can /feel/ resonances, synchronicities, in ways that, say… less skilled Hydra mystics could not.

He can read the pattern and its subtleties. And he can read a structural weakness to the entire build of the spell.

If he started at an anchor point, and sent a strong enough shock along it, in exactly the right way, the feedback could reverberate up the threads of the wards, infect the greater matrix of the spell.

Perhaps shatter it, like a crystal struck in just the right spot.

Though he is no mage, no wizard, Red Robin knows enough of what's been going on lately to know basically exactly what's about to happen. He feels strange. He feels a sense of panic, sickly sour at the back of his throat and creeping its way down towards his belly; the 'perfect worlds' of Constantine and Jessica Jones had been visible. What if something like that happens now? Someone might see. Someone might know. Who he is, who he's connected to. He feels a strange sense of anticipation though, too: What would a perfect world be like?

Apparently, the answer is that it looks like New York City.

That's a letdown.

Immediately, he examines himself. Makes sure he's still in costume, still caped and cowled, still secret, still safe. The others are there - most of them, anyway, the fact that the effect had passed over Constantine and Jessica Jones not being lost on the masked young man - and they look intact, safe. That's a relief.

His skin crawls again, anyway. The whole place feels /wrong/… But is that just because he knows, consciously, that it isn't real?

"Fine by me," Red Robin says to Captain America's plan, producing a gun-looking device from behind his utility belt. It's not actually a gun though, not in the sense of being a weapon. "We'll take the high road," he adds, gesturing towards Spider-Man, who he knows is also the 'swinging across the city' type. "You going on foot?" the cowled young man then asks of Zatanna, already lifting his grappling gun towards a suitable high target.

When the world changes, Azalea Kingston is in pain, the weight of magics that crush her passenger down conflicting with those that mean to rip her across causality and into another place. A better place. Her hands lift as the weight of the anchors fall away, and something inside her flares to life in the spirit world. No longer the fractured, mad creature it once was, subsisting on the Azalea's soul as a substitute for it's stolen heart, a Dark God is reborn in Time's Square.

A mortal coil, reinforced with the ichor of the Gods, she is Xiuhnel, the Restored.

Her hands fall away from her face, and the domino mask falls away to reveal the pale gold of her eyes, changed from the icy blue they once were, and with a slow look to regard her companions, to see the world in a much different way, she marvels at what she sees of them in the realm of souls.

A hand rises, fingers dancing in the warm tendrils that wisp off of Zatanna, to play in the ephemeral ether of a new reality. A /better/ reality, where she no longer feels pain or conflict form her desires. Now, she only feels balance. Her gaze falls over her friend, haunted by how she can covet without such terrible heartache, her fingers moving to cup the magician's cheek. But then, she has her mission, and they slip away without purchase.

"We will find her, Odinson, and we will make those who have wronged her pay /most/ dearly."

It is not the crass hammer of a girl who barely knows how to deal with her condition, or naked aggression, but the decree of a kindred spirit who has decided that Xiuhnel's role tonight is one of perfect vengeance.

"Oh boy, the guy who helps brainwash people for a career path espouses the, whatever, glory of free will. Let me take a gander at my ironydar — oh, look at that. It exploded. Wonky."

This is Spider-Man's petulantly flat rebuttal of Avram's long, winding declarations. He'll lift a hand and make a little flapping noise with his fingers as if to indicate a wordless 'blah, blah, blah' — which he can do irony free, because, as mentioned, his ironydar has already exploded.

"Pretty sick and tired of crazy old people trying to tell everyone what they do because they think they know best since they're so old and — I can't, cannot, can -not- stress this enough — crazy. 'Oh, go in this bunker, I know what's best for you because I'm a crazy coot. Oh, choose your life for yourself as long as it's while you're hailing this mythological multi-headed serpent that apparently is symbolic for evil bigots now, and also while doing everything I say, because I'm a crazy old coot.'"

Spider-Man's hand starts to slip from Zatanna's shoulder. He pivots sharply on a heel, intent to march off and find this weird psychic geezer with or without a known location for him. He's tired of this. He's fed up with people like this Avram, acting like they know best, acting like they're doing such great things for people who just don't know any better. And, muscles tensed, he has every intention of showing the man just how much—

When a blinding hot blare of warning ricochets through the base of Peter's spine, a white flash across his gaze that makes his nerves tingle like pins and needles.

"Wh— what's happening—" he utters as his spider-sense overloads. As space tears. As they're all (mostly) sucked in towards the wrinkle in spacetime.

The feeling is so overwhelming that Spider-Man's perfect balance fails him, toppling over into Zatanna's sudden, secure grip and blacking out in a brief flash of overloaded senses as the darkness takes him…

…. and he awakens. In Times Square. Surrounded by the throb of life and sound and light and—

"GUH!" gasps the masked vigilante like someone desperately waking from a dream as he snaps back to alert life in his friend's grasp. His eyes are wide behind his mask. Cold sweat clings tenaciously to his skin and smears on spandex interiors. His eyes squeeze shut in rapid blinks as he tries to absorb everything around him, everything that's happening. "Ugghh… I think I can taste time… or bile… not sure wh—"

'I <3 L!'


His mind is drawn into focus. He remembers his Greek mythos. Puts two and two together in frighteningly short order that he wishes he hadn't.

"… oh. Okay. It's bile. That's just… fan-tastic-. I—"

He sees him. From the corner of his eye, seconds before he starts to move, before Zatanna releases that flare. He doesn't think. He moves. He runs, leaps, spins a web and -swings- above the crowds entirely on kneejerk impulse, to chase after one Bucky Barnes, Winter Soldier. He promised he'd help save them. Save him. Even Bucky Barnes.

He doesn't care what world this is, right now. He's going to keep his promise, no matter what.

At Azalea's touch, she gives her friend a faint smile, lifting a hand to cup the back of her knuckles. The moment is brief, before she's letting go to face the group.

In this moment of time, Zatanna has yet to master flight. Levitation, yes, but she can't exactly sling over crowds like Spidey, nor can she just perform feats of superhuman athleticism like Captain America, Thor and even Azalea, who is augmented by the powers of a bloodthirsty Aztec god. As the chase begins, she stares at the mad crush of the crowd with visible trepidation. Even Star-Lord has his rocket-powered boots, and god knows what Peggy's got in her flats. If she doesn't take the help, she's going to be left behind and that absolutely cannot happen.

Her brows knit as she looks at Red Robin's grappling gun. She looks up to meet those white-lensed eyes.

With levitation, she is at least in control. To fly across rooftops and skyscrapers on a /tether/ wielded by someone else…

"….oh, god, this is happening. I can't believe this is happening," she laments, moving to hook an arm around Red Robin's shoulders. She shuts her eyes with good measure.

"I'm going to scream," she tells her best friend as a warning. "/Don't judge me/."

"Of course we're bringing them back," Jessica says, jog-running to keep up. Her legs are a little shorter, and she doesn't feel like leaping about like an idiot cricket. That's why she didn't react with the same level of fury he did; from the moment Gobulev started speaking she had braced for something bad.

Something bad came.

Now all that remains is to deal with it. Right now she's just compartmentalized every last emotion she has into a generalized sort of focused pissiness. It's just too bad she can't stalk properly while keeping up with him. Eventually she assumes he'll either find her something to smash or she'll have to defend him while he does some sort of Mysticky thing. She's antsy for that, wanting to get the job done, wanting to put an end to this threat once and for all. For now, that means following, and trying not to be a distraction, and trying to keep Constantine focused by projecting nothing but confidence in their ability to do just that, a rephrased reiteration of what she told him back in the bunker.

Lead, and I'll follow.

Once Zatanna is close enough, Red Robin loops an arm around her waist, adding to the frankly probably not very reassuring security that will keep her held against him once they're aloft. Getting around a city swinging by yourself, without anything in the way of superpowers like Spider-Man's, is virtually impossible. Doing it while holding on to another human being…

"You're safe, I won't let you fall," he assures her quietly, solemnly, in that electronically masked voice. Honestly, with her magic, she's probably better equipped to survive this going wrong than he is.

There's a quiet *paff* of air as the grapple fires, catches. There's no time to waste anymore, they need to catch up to Spider-Man and the others. The grapple suddenly starts reeling them in, speeding up, adding propulsive force for when it… Releases, Red Robin's memory-material cape billowing, catching the air, keeping them aloft long enough for him to find something else to grapple onto, to swing off of, building speed in the air over this strange, entirely too clean Times Square that doesn't smell in the least like pee-covered hobos.

"I've been doing this since I was fourteen," Red Robin reminds the magician, a thought that is probably more harrowing than reassuring.

This new world moves around them as freely as the last. There is only one difference, one small change that separates Lernaea from the remnant of New York City —

— a tall, monolithic tower dominating the skyline southward, huge and dominating and ornate, lit with lights. A tower that does not exist in last world. A last world that —

— seems to be receding.

A feeling begins to pull at the backs of their minds. Not an intrusion. Not a sense of someone else reaching in to change their thoughts. It feels like a lock keying open, and something filtering in. Something that was never there before.


Memories they never had. Memories of here. Memories of this reality. Memories of lives lived. Memories to ensure they are not alien, not misplaced, not lost, not strangers to a world that does not fit.

AZALEA KINGSTON: Commands the whispers in her head. They concede to her. The dark passenger bows his head and listens. She wields his power and she teaches him. She shows him there is more to life than to take — than to feed. She has taken back her soul. She has commanded power and become the hero she's always hoped to be. She has stability. She has serenity. She has a purpose. She has a team. She has governship as a keeper of this peace.

PETER PARKER: Something keeps nagging the back of his head. A list of things to do. Something simple. Something menial. He is a superhero, in a way, more like a famous kid-wrestler, bringing back the luchadors in a way that really impacts the millennial crowd. It pays the bills to keep his aunt and uncle happy in the penthouse apartment — that's right. He still has some groceries he needs to pick up. His parents are back in town from working overseas, and on May's suggestion, they're arranging a big get-together dinner. All five of them.

PETER QUILL: Clipped into the walk-man in his hip is AWESOME MIX #38. His mother sent it to him last week. There is no need for cassette tapes now, in this digital time, but it's their private joke. She is so proud of him. Cancer never took her, not when his father came back. Came back with the means to save her. Memories begin to cycle in, slowly, so slow it feels like reaching through a too-thick fog. They were taken up to the stars. Star-Lord grew up among them, reigns the void of space.

STEVE ROGERS and PEGGY CARTER: Lost James Barnes to the train. Mourned him. Let the memory of his fallen brother compel him to board the plane of Johann Schmidt. He kissed his best girl good-bye. But she had other ideas. She managed to board it with him, against his wishes. They stopped Schmidt. They knew they had to stop the plane. They spend the last few minutes having their dance. They go down and save the world. Decades later, they are found. Found by Hydra. Found and integrated as hero and heroine of this world, this generation that, from their sacrifice, came into the seeds of peace. They keep that peace now. They serve a world that is without war. The world serves them too. They are allowed to indulge. They were even married.

TIM DRAKE: The costume begins to feel… heavy. Too tight. Uncomfortable. Not something he wears. Not something he's used to wearing. His parents love him. They juggled their work and care for him. No search for connection. No longing for a sense of belonging. They were never taken. They were never lost. Who is Bruce Wayne? Who is Dick Grayson? Who is Stephanie Brown?

THOR: This Odinsleep goes on far too long. The time is far more unprecedented than those before. The councils of Asgard fear the worst. But his mother, while grieving, is not in despair. Because Asgard has its next king, and Thor is its worthy ruler. Thor governs it wisely and well, even bereft of the legacy of Mjolnir. Though he remains worthy, the weapon has changed hands, and now is wielded in those of another: his loyal brother, and trusted emissary to Midgard, Loki. Between the two brothers, they have joined the realms to bring Midgard into a new age. To propel Asgard from its too-long isolation.

ZATANNA ZATARA: One fact comes in startling clarity, more than a memory, but a sense of /being/: Zatanna Zatara knows her mother. She knows her. She loves her. Her mother is kind. Her father is content. And Zatanna Zatara never felt alone.

The memory comes on them slowly. It forces the harder the think, the deeper they concentrate. To remember encourages and hastens the process. But this memory cannot reconcile with the last. Two states cannot exist together in its paradox.

There is only one consequence: to forget.

The question remains: do they want to? Will they fight it?

Steve does not need to chase. Nobody really needs to chase. As he rushes through the crowds, there comes a point where they part naturally to show the Winter Soldier walking to meet him, calm and unhurried, no weapons in his hands, no hostility in his stance.

"You made it, Steve," he says.

Reality twitches around him, distorting briefly, like fabric being pulled for half a second. The Winter Soldier blinks, his expression twitching too. Then it smooths back into placidity.

He looks at Steve as if he knows the new memories circulating in his head. The memories that want him to accept them as reality. "Will you stay here with me now?"

As Xiuhnel watches Zatanna leap away with the strangely dressed man, a man that she no longer remembers, her hand rises up to rest on Thor's shoulder, though her gaze lingers. Zatanna. Someone important to her. To them all? Perhaps. But not more important than her work, or her mission. What was it again?

"Good King Thor.. you were.. " She trails off, and her eyes fall shut, if only for a moment. "Looking for someone? I apologize, this crowd makes me weary, perhaps we should go another place? Your search might resume in a better state, were you to take drink with me and together we can scour the entirety of the city for all the best places to go wenching."

It's like speaking any other language, really, and she knows so many now, her smile a distraction, her touch on the other God's shoulder an invitation to head off into the night - somewhere /else/. Search for who? For what? Why should any God find themselves beholden to such /menial/ tasks?

John had sensed the through-line of the ward to the Tarnhelm, and when the others were still present, the ward was his objective. Once they disappeared — once /everyone/ disappeared — he turned his focus to the helm, an object, a symbol, a /thing/ that he could rend, place his hands on and shatter into a thousand pieces, channeling his fury into its destruction.

It becomes clear as he moves closer to the center that those are impossible plans. The tide of churning magic radiating outward from the helm's place in realspace is overwhelming, and intensifies by the moment. It's too much. The swirling remaking of this plane of existence threatens to tear him apart at every kind of seam.

"Change of plans," he says on a rush of exhaled breath.

He does not want to do this here, where the Tarnhelm's corrupt influence holds such dominion, and his own grasp of magic has been so compromised by the wards…but he and Jones here for a reason, he has no doubt. And if that's true, then…

He does not close his eyes, but they lid. Somewhere deep inside of the seat of himself, he unhitches the construct of his consciousness from the flow of events. He /forgets to be in the world/, and the world, in its turn, overlooks him. All semblance of control slips. Awareness dims, drifts through an indistinct haze like a dream. The vessel of him empties and is filled again with Synchronicity, a wave of the stuff of Fate rolling into him as a tide does, pushing him along. It comes to him in fragments: the wards, the conduits of power, their spatial harmony, their vulnerabilities.

The place where they might be shattered, if only he can give enough of himself in the effort.

He turns, drawn along toward the right ward by the Wheel like a marionette.

The energy of the facility scourges him. He is bereft of control or protection in his present state, and if he took the time to remember himself, break free of the wave travelling, he might never stop throwing up. The sterile underground lighting reflects a glow that will soon become a sheen of perspiration, his body's response to the maelstrom of forces passing through him.

'If you had a chance to give it all back, would you?'

It was a question Zatanna had asked him when she had told him about this other world. This supposed paradise. Where everyone gets what they want. He couldn't answer. Not honestly. It's easy to say he wouldn't. He'd be the hero. He'd choose the right thing.

But until you see it for yourself, how can you know? Really?

The question is a memory now, but it, and his reaction, both sear brighter than a star in his mind when thoughts and recollections spontaneously start to simply… -exist-. A different life now running parallel to his own to the point he can't tell which was there first. Perhaps they'd always been there, side-by-side, and he had just never noticed the other. Never saw the potential of what could be.

A different life. A happy life. Where he's famous, not reviled. Where his family lives comfortably, not barely scraping by. Where he's getting groceries, remember? For his family. For his Aunt May, and his—


"U-uncle Ben—"

The words are choked out in a pained gasp of realization as hazel eyes snap wide behind his mask. Just like that, he forgets where he is. Where he was. What he was doing. The robber — never killed him, never had the chance, and— and—

He might forget where he is, but physics does not. So thoroughly distracted, Spider-Man's impeccable balance shatters as he careens shoulder-first into the wall of a nearby building at high speeds. The CRACK sound of his shoulder dislocating is a sickeningly unhealthy one as the masked vigilante cries out in surprise and pain, rebounding off the side of the wall as his grip fails him.

Eyes wide, Peter Parker falls, hitting the roof of a dumpster and rolling off into the despicably clean and sterile alley below with a metallic CLANG followed by a meaty thud. Every nerve ending in his body calls out in agony. He doesn't notice.

He's just staring up at this strangely perfect sky, in this strangely perfect world…

… where his greatest and most unforgivable mistake never happened.

"… I… uhh.. g-guh…" For once, his words have left him. Because he's crying beneath that mask.

And he has no idea whether it's from joy or self-loathing.

'I won't let you fall.'

Her expression softens there, for a moment, just a moment, and then it is gone again, turning her resolute face forward.

"I know," she says quietly, grimly. Her other arm comes up to hook around the front of him and steels herself for what's to come. "Come on, Red Robin, let's fly."

And they do.

And she regrets it /almost immediately/.

Zatanna manages to hold onto her diginity in the first, dizzying, breathtaking parabola upwards, but when the line /releases/ and another *paff* is lost in the din of the crazy crowd below, to unleash another tether to grip into New York's many towering constructs, this is when she screams. "Oh god! Oh god oh god oh god oh god I don't like it I don't like it I don't like it I— you were /fourteen/?!" Images dance in her head, of Batman just picking up adolescent Tim at the back of his cape and /throwing/ him off a building.


But no matter how powerful her emotions, the world starts to exact its influence. A sudden wave of contentment washes over her, sinking further into Red Robin's grip. It allows her to open her eyes, blank and confused, staring off at the distance and the strange tower lurking there, a part, and apart, of the sprawling urban jungle of New York. Memories start to push in from the corners of her mind; her mother, benevolent, who calls her while she's away to college, who always fixes her favorite tea, there to counsel her through her numerous boy problems. Her father, always accessible, who wows everyone on stage and that is all. Who goes home without fail to have dinner with them every night…

As she sinks further into that seeping sense of completeness, there is a push. Hard, disjointed. For all that her mind latches onto the willingness to believe that this is her life, something that should be there is not. Something is missing.

/I'd still choose you./

The voice comes without warning, burying deep and generating an ache so indescribable she chokes on it. That searing, sudden, blinding sensation of loss fills her lungs, renders it hard to breathe. Her fingers tighten on Tim, nails raking into his kevlar weave as she struggles. As she fights. Because when does she ever not when something important is on the line? Her eyes burn.

"Tim," she whispers. "We need to get out of here."

Her ice-blue eyes follow the red ball of light she has shot over people's heads in an effort to track Bucky.

"I have an idea, but we need Bucky."

The trail takes John Constantine and Jessica Jones straight to one of the anchors of the wards. And there, in one of the side rooms, they find anchored a great focusing crystal, rife with the power flowing through it, a perfect conduit through which to stream vast currents of magic.

The face of it is carved with runes. Thurisaz, Raidho, Kenaz, Berkano, Dagaz. Five runes, repeated over and over— on one facet of the crystal. The one facing inwards towards the torrent of power that is the helm.

John can feel— can practically see— the current of magic as it flows through and around the crystal in orderly patterns, refracting perfectly through its facets with almost scientific precision. The more he looks, the more he inspects, it becomes quite clear that to /turn/ the crystal, rotate it a few critical degrees, would disrupt all those flows and open a vulnerability for John to reach through and crack the rift-spell.

That crystal is huge, though, twice their height, and anchored firmly to the floor. John could never move it under his own power.

But of course, John isn't alone.

Everything shifts. Just slightly. Then further, and further. The new reality settles down upon Thor's mind, which resists. A battle commences, this ideal world with his brother's love, versus the reality that a friend is in grave peril.

A hand settles upon his shoulder. King Thor turns to regard the source, wise brows drawing down. "I was looking for?" he replies, only to pause. Who was it that he was looking for? The rest of the offer comes then, a chance for drink and perhaps something else. It draws a sharp laugh from the good King. "Would you be so lucky to entertain the King of Asgard for an eve."

He brushes the hand away from his shoulder. His armor, shifted from blues and reds to the finest of silver, rests easily upon his shoulders. The fact he only has one eye, and wears a patch to cover the loss, merely the same burden as it is every day he attempts to grab something to his right.

"I seek my brother. He and I were to sup this eve, and discuss the future of relations between our realms." Something strikes wrong about that sentence. A loss, sharp and quick. Inside of his burly form, the fight continues, the stages of grief where war has not yet been waged fighting against this rewriting of history, this utopia of acceptance.

The King's expression twists, disdain clear. "My Queen should be here shortly. She went to shop for shoes."

His Queen, his throne? His brother, alive? It all seems so nice, so quaint, so easy to simply embrace and slip quietly into…

Yet it cannot be. The God of Thunder is a man of courage, a man of unyielding strength and resolve. The King's face contorts further, as his inner battle begins swinging back in his favor. The silver armor begins to crinkle, falling away, only to be replaced with the typical blue and chainmail silver. The cape ripples, regal blue replaced by that wholesome red.

Thor's face contorts in open dismissal of not only Azalea's advances, which he'll likely have to apologize, but more for the realm about them. "This - is - wrong."

Quill chases, finally jetting over the heads of the crowd around him to get a leg up on the competition. "Hey Thor!" He calls over his shoulder. "Jane is usually /with/ Bucky! Remember?" A pause. "Cause she's /with/ Bucky!" A longer pause. "Like really /with/ Bucky!" Longest pause. "I'm trying to be subtle for Steve's delicate ears!"

He's helping.

However as he is coming in for a landing something smacks him right in the heart. In the head. The memories flood back. Just a trickle at first and then a flood. Memroies that are his…but…are not? Its confusing. Two tides colliding somewhere between his ears. His landing if off. His balance is wrong. He fumbles the landing, twisting with the impact to fetch up hard against a wall.

Music starts to play as he accidently slams the button on his walkman.

Its forgien but oh so familar. He remembers his last birthday. The secret smile as his mom handed him that package of multicolored paper. They were somewhere in Andromeda. The nebula a nice backdrop as his father laughed at…

No. Thats all wrong.

Thats not right.

But if feels right.

One hand raises to steady himself against that wall as he looks up in confusion. It would be easy just to let himself stay here. I mean look at the women! …and he does. He is. It would be so easy…

But…something gnaws on the edges of his mind.

"My dad," Comes a growl. "Is an asshole."

That certinty. That core seems to fight against the encroching fog.

His friends arn't these fake hotchicks. (Please let them be fake. Please. Because if he gives up on this and they are real he might kick himself forever.) They are a irrascable Raccoon. A cheerful tree. A beserker that does not know the meaning of the word 'metaphor'(Seriously. He doesn't.) and…a green skinned hot chick. Right? Those faces are familiar.

It catches up to him at the worst possible moment, of course. The reality he's in tries to assert itself, tries to overwrite his own memories, the things he knows to be true… While they're in the air, swinging. Doing a thing that Red Robin can only do because he's been trained to do it, relentlessly so, until everything about it is second nature to him.

A second nature this place tries to steal from him. Their course in the air falters. For a moment, he doesn't remember what to do.

Instead, he feels things creeping into his memories. Things he knows never happened; things that did happen, but different. His parents, getting off of the plane from Haiti, on their own feet… Not Jack Drake wheeled off in a coma, hooked up to all sorts of machines to keep him alive. Not Janet Drake in a body bag.

"No…" No. It's not real, he knows it. He knows what this place is doing to him, trying to do to him. Trying to make him part of it, part of this hell.

No. Picture what really happened. Picture your mother in her casket, killed by poison, killed by an evil magician, looking just like she was sleeping, looking like she might wake up at any moment. A funeral your father couldn't attend, still in a coma. Bruce standing at your side, his hand on your shoulder.

It isn't real. It isn't…

Picture coming home, blood is everywhere. Your father, dead, murdered. Your stepmother, a bloody mess. The man who killed them killed in turn. Picture the Batman, there to catch you when you fell.

It hurts.

It hurts, yes. Hold onto it. It burns, like a live coal in your hand. Hold onto it, tightly, tightly. The pain is good. Use it.

"You can't… Take it. I won't let you," he mutters, and they're swinging, and oh god they're flying, falling, his body not reacting how it should. Wetness fogs the inside of his cowl's lenses, creeps traitorously down his cheeks, as he holds onto what he knows to be true with all the tremendous willpower, the unstoppable determination that he possesses… Whether by dint of an accident of birth, or a product of his upbringing, his training with the Dark Knight.

"/It's my pain, I won't let you take it/!!"

A line shoots out, catches them, they swing; he hears Zatanna, they need Bucky, she has an idea. He nods, unsteadily, uncertainly, shifting his weight in the air, shifting Zatanna's, causing them to take a sudden turn to the side, to swing in a wide, wide arc.

And now they're careening towards the Winter Soldier.

Much like Zatanna, Peggy Carter does not have any advanced means to propel herself forward. However, what she does have in her favor is a Star Spangled Man with a Shield who starts running through the crowd toward Barnes. Right behind him, Agent Carter uses the empty spaced opening in his wake to try and keep up. He's much faster than she is, but she is determined and is in good shape - he'll pull ahead, but she'll at least keep the distance gap between them even.

Then, however, something invades her mind. Her steps falter and slow as the memories hit her. The train, the plane, the kiss, the dance. The investigator in her needs to know more, to figure out where these memories come from. They look technicolor in her mind's eye, too bright, too vibrant, but also warm and welcoming. It's like they have always been there. This is truly what happened, has always happened. She never lost Steve, she could always have him.

But, there's a flash of grey, the static of a bad connection, "This is my choice."

Peggy shakes her head to clear it of the bad memory, but it remains. Another flash, this one of sunset over the East River. The colors are almost watercolor in comparison to the bright blues of the memory that is her dance with Steve on the Valkyrie. But, still, she remembers: pouring a vial of blood off the Brooklyn Bridge, the tears wet on her cheeks, "Goodbye, my darling."

Jarvis, smiling after the end of their first adventure together: "Should you ever need my assistance, Miss Carter…"

Angie calling her English, Daniel in the surveillance van, Thompson and his blackmail with the ever infuriating 'Marge', Howard - who may have been exasperating but stood by her and silently supported her.

Then, there is Steve and Peggy, in the freezing cold, standing in front of James Barnes' grave, arms wrapped against each other and the biting wind, the redness of embarrassment hot on her face.

It's hard to tell what is real, what is true. What can she believe? The more vibrant memories hold fast in her mind, left there merely by her desire to live a life without regret, but it is impossible to ignore the more muted tones of reality. Peggy Carter has spent quite a lot of time thinking of her past choices and how she might have changed them. It is hard to push away the memories she might have wished for the most, but, that would be to deny her friends: now perhaps dead and buried, but that helped her survive after the war. And it would deny who Steve really is - who she knows him as now, not a black and white picture in the past. "Stop" she says, softly but firmly. "This isstop."

Synchronicity coughs John up at the feet of a crystal, lays hands on his thoughts and leaves him with what it insists is a solution to the problem. The configuration of the crystal, its redirection of those energies, everything linked together in perfect resonance.

It can be broken. It can be shattered. This is what Fate and mastery of the occult tell John. But as the wave leaves him, and he returns to himself, his own thoughts, he becomes fallible. Doubts pick at him, try to fill the space that remains. What if this shatters the helm, but doesn't bring them back?

He hesitates. Even now, even knowing that the entire fate of the world rests on blowing the fuse to this thing, keeping existence as he knows it from being swallowed by that many-headed leviathan, he hesitates. Selfishly.

Fate led you here, whispers the better angel — there's only one, and they're part time as it is — of his nature. You have to trust that. You have no choice.

Gritting his teeth, he turns to Jones. "We need to twist this. Turn it. Just don't — don't break it. Angle it away, the face with the runes, just — carefully."

Jessica Jones nods once, and she grasps the crystal carefully, with the infinite control that keeps her from breaking chairs, say, every time she sits on them, which allows her touch someone with gentleness and not bone breaking force, should she wish too.

"Just say when," she says.

In a way it's a relief. When he'd started sweating, following mystic threads only he could see, strains of music only he could hear, all she could do was follow, follow with no target for her own need to act. Presented with this, she's almost ridiculously careful about it, turning the thing as precisely as one might turn a cog in a particularly delicate machine…which, she supposes, is exactly what she's doing. She twists it slowly, ever so slowly, to give John a chance to tell her exactly when to stop.

For one terrifying moment, their sojourn through the skies falters. As Red Robin is gripped by the throes of his re-written memories, the tether slips and they…

Zatanna latches onto him, fear curdling her stomach and forcing adrenaline to surge with the breathtaking force of a MAC truck plowing through a nitroglycerine plant. Ice-blue eyes widen as they are nearly sent into the side of a building. The possibility of turning into nothing but red smears on concrete and glass. She turns her head to the side, face tucked into the space underneath his jaw.

"TIM WAKE UP!!!" she shrieks, terror twisting into her words, her scream lost in the din of rushing winds and the crowds below.

But he regains his mental footing, and holds onto his pain, and his resolution to stick to the terrible, beautiful life he leads outside of this one. She nearly slips out of his grasp, boneless with relief when the grappling gun is out again and he manages to swing them /around/ the corner that would have killed them if they didn't.

Oh god.

She's /never/ doing this again.

Which pretty much guarantees that she will.

/What's the worst that could happen/ indeed.

As suddenly as the chase begin, it ends. Bucky just… standing there. The question comes and the answer seems so instinctual of 'I am here though'. As if he was never out of this place that doesn't really exist. Bucky is here. Peggy is here. They won? They are happy?

For a moment, it seems as if there isn't a need to choose or fight, after all, if they are safe and happy, what else is there. But Rogers moves up to remove the headgear he'll no longer need, the EMP device placed in a random belt pouch. As the belt was designed by good old SHIELD agent Liefield, he's got a lot of pouches. His red glove brushes up against something. The letter feels so strange, so foreign. To try and figure it out, he pulls it off and looks at it. The letter 'A' almost stares back at him. The headgear is tucked under one armpit and he looks to the shield, as if he hasn't seen it for years. His hand reaches out, caressing the metal star in the center.

As Steve tries to remind himself why these things are important to him, the phantom sensation is felt on his finger. Does he have the wedding band on his finger underneath his glove? He fears if he wants it to be there, it will? But why would he fear what is good, what is deserved after everything he and his friends fought and were willing to die for?

Then Steve remembers America and he remembers Hydra. Both cannot live in harmony. Even when trying their best, Hydra cannot make Steve Rogers happy while they still exist, there is no perfect world where they are in harmony.

As Peggy shows that she is fighting, as everyone else shows that they are fighting with screams, declarations, and tears, Captain America slowly puts the helmet back on. His eyes are clearly pained, but he doesn't shed a tear. Not while Peggy is watching. Not when his country is depending on him.

"I'm sorry, Bucky. But I can't," the war hero says softly. Slowly, Rogers slides into a fighting stance. "You know me… I'd rather die the most horrible death imaginable for the American Dream than live the perfect life in a Hydra Nightmare."

The shield rises as Rogers lunges forward with a loud battle cry as he attempts to bring it right for the Winter Soldier's jaw.

There in the plight of the Mighty Thor is the truth that Azalea Kingston could never find on her own. The role this world has set for her fits too easily, and when her hand is forced away, her brows lift. Not in the anger that should come next, but with a shock and surprise as she watches his strength unfurl from within. Watches the armor fall away, and his previous visage restore. This is what a real God is made of.

His will acts as a mirror. It shows her how very weak she is.

In her mind's eye Xiuhnel cackles a mad laugh, and whispers in her ear, shock gripping her soul, twisting, plying, shattering. It tells her the truth.

'We will never have this peace, unless /I/ win.'

Breathless, the memories begin to peel back and she staggers, because she is weak. Because she was fooled, and because Xiuhnel is right. To become her perfect self, she'd have to stop fighting him.

She'd have to give up. But she won't.

Thor's strength brings inspiration, and then words beset with urgency. "Think of her. Think of Jane." Azalea reaches for Thor again, and in the fluxing power of this place, with all of Xiuhnel's abilities at her whim, she calls out for The Link and raises her other hand high, to search for A Soul.

She needs only to know what she's looking for, and perhaps she could point them in the right direction.

It is the Winter Soldier's turn to do nothing as Captain America lunges for him. The sound of impact is loud in the sudden hush, ringing out as he's thrown back against the wall.

He looks up, after a pause. Blood trails down the side of his face. His expression wars between confusion, agony, anger, and grief. He grips briefly at his hair, as if trying to parse what Steve is even saying. "If you won't accept it," he eventually works out, "then you cannot exist here."

His weapon draws, aiming for Steve's face. "If you won't accept," he says, "then I have to kill you."

Violence breaks out among two heroes.

The din and clamour of Times Square goes silent. One world ago, there would be screams, there would be panic, there would be mayhem as people flee in all directions, unsure what to do, ignorant, afraid. Everyone stares forward. No one speaks. No one complains.

Here there is order. Tourists and civilians move away with the formality and patience and foreknowledge of compliant ants, tiding away, dispersing without fear or uncertainty.

The flashing signs and billboards all flicker and go dead, unnecessary now, the frivolous privileges extended to modern civilization duly taken away when not earned.

There are a second set of lights installed, and they all switch on glaringly, hot and bright and searing, bringing light to everywhere. A city block on lock-down.

This is Lernaea.

It maintains the peace.

Continued in Part 2.

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