The Sun Hasn't Died
Blood At Twilight
Watch me fall above like a vicious dove.
They don’t see me come, who can blame them?
They never seem to catch my eye, but I never wondered why.”
Priest could fight.
We were back to back in yet another dark and dubious alleyway. This time, the situation was a lot more dire than it had been before. Now, instead of one black oozing Thing, we were confronted by no less than five.
One was horrific enough. Five was enough to make me shudder.
They were hideous - from anatomy alone, one could deduce that these creatures had once been human. They had the right proportions, the right number of arms and legs, and they even had human forces - sort of. Something had happened to them, though. Something horrific and altogether unholy.
They were hunched over, their backs deformed by a grotesque hunch that tore through their already tattered clothing. Their skin apparently went through some sort of gradual metamorphosis - one, the strongest one incidentally, had cracked, pure black skin. The others had skin in various shades of pallid grey - they all oozed a thick, putrid black liquid. The first time I caught a whiff of them, I gagged - the smell was a mixture of rotting flesh, burned blood, and scorched sewage. They smelled like a battlefield, honestly, and it was a smell I both knew and hated.
If they affected Priest’s olfactory senses, he didn’t show it. Not that I could see much beneath the wide brim of his white fedora. The skin that was exposed was the lower half of his face, from nose to chin; his eyes were hidden in shadow, so I couldn’t gauge anything from his demeanor.
The Things were vicious. Besides being ugly and smelling like death, they had twisted claw-like hands that were tipped in razor-sharp bone that I assumed had once been fingernails. The black-skinned one was missing half its jaw and it’s tongue - a blackened, drooling monstrosity - hung out. It was twice the size of a normal tongue and flopped around grotesquely as the creature moved. All of them had opaque red eyes - no pupils, no irises. Just a blank slate of hellish red where their eyes had once been.
I was going to have nightmares about these things for a while; they were infinitely more hideous than the Chitauri. In fact, next to...whatever these were...the Chitauri were almost cuddly.
I had been prowling around the streets, like I usually did nowadays, with the intent of actually looking for Priest. He intrigued me and I hadn’t run across him for several weeks. In fact, it had almost been two months since we last crossed paths - almost eight months since the Battle of New York. I was in Brooklyn at least three times a week, spending time with Mother Eli at St. Francis’. I usually stuck around after those visits and waited for night to fall; I would then find some abandoned building to change in and start policing the streets as Captain America.
The news had caught up with me; it was now common knowledge that I had taken a special interest in Brooklyn. No one really questioned it, though - after all, it was also common knowledge that I was originally from Brooklyn to begin with. Oddly enough, no one found out that I was spending time at St. Francis during the day. I suspected Mother Eli and her congregation kept their mouths shut and I was grateful to them for their silence. While Tony and Thor never seemed to mind the cameras, I was more like Bruce, Clint, and Natasha - I avoided journalists like the plague. I don’t think I could have born the thought of having my one sanctuary in the world overrun by overbearing paparazzi.
It was hard to keep my nocturnal habits a secret, though. For one, the suit was a little hard to miss. For another, it was hard to overlook statistics - Priest did a pretty impressive job of keeping violence down on his beat, but with my help the crimes of Brooklyn practically vanished. It was now lauded as the safest district of New York City. If I had been a journalist, I would have been all over me just from that angle alone, so I couldn’t really blame the news for making a big deal about my involvement. It also seemed to take some of the interest away from Priest (as I had learned from Mother Eli), which I didn’t think he minded in the least - if he was a priest in his daytime life, then I suspected he was grateful for the diversion of public interest. All the better to keep his identity hidden. And, in turn, that took some of the heat off of the priests and ministers in the area, which I knew Mother Eli appreciated, if no one else. She - along with most of the clergy in Brooklyn - hadn’t cared for the media’s scrutiny.
The only menace left skulking Brooklyn alleys was these abnormal caricatures of human life. The media hadn’t yet picked up on their existence and I wasn’t sure whether or not to be relieved about that. I was definitely starting to think that maybe I should say something to Fury - this was now the fourth time I had encountered them, the second time I had encountered them with Priest present, and the first time I had encountered more than one of them in the same location.
As I backhanded the ringleader with the edge of my shield, I decided to have a quick word with Priest at the end of our fight. I needed to know if he had noticed a marked increase in the presence of these things.
I watched him out of the corner of my eye; the man was more than impressive and he had possession of some sort of super-human power that I had never seen before. We currently stood back to back, his smaller frame practically tucked against the hollows of my significantly larger frame. I briefly wondered if maybe Mother Eli had a point - stocky as he was, he seemed almost too slight to be a man.
Such close contact with him, though, made my blood hum. I had no other word for it - I felt warmer than normal (which said something, since I was my own personal reactor) and my heart raced twice as fast as it normally did. It felt as if every last blood vessel had been enlarged; my heart felt as if it was pumping double. The closest feeling I could compare it to was the sensation that overcame me when a large amount of adrenaline hit my system. I always felt that way at the start of a fight - any fighter would - but this was a sustained sensation that reached its peak when I felt Priest’s back against mine.
I felt as if I could fight faster, harder, longer - which was pretty damn impressive, since I could outlast all of the Avengers in hand-to-hand, with the exception of the Hulk. When I body-checked one of the things into another, and sent both of them careening into the nearest wall, I suspected that I could fight better with Priest at my side. The creatures slammed into the brick siding with a sickening crunch and I knew that they weren’t getting up. We had three more to go.
Furious at the demise of their fellows, the remaining Things emitted a singular keen that sent chills down my spine as they swarmed us. A transparent, reddish dome suddenly surrounded us on all sides. I paused, just briefly, to stare and wonder where that had come from; I felt Priest’s warmth separate from my own and I glanced over my shoulder to see him standing just a step away from me, his right hand outstretched.
He clutched a faded leather book to his chest with his free hand, and both his hand and the book glowed red. I looked back at the dome shimmering in front of us and marveled momentarily at the way it seemed to move in front of me, like fluid. The appearance of the dome startled the things as well and their leader showed something like intelligence. It stopped dead in its tracks, just inches away from the liquid-like barrier and hissed, it’s tongue lolling wetly across its shattered chin.
One of its followers wasn’t so bright. It careened head-on into the barrier, only to freeze the instant that it came in contact with it. The creature’s red eyes suddenly bulged and its mouth opened in a scream that was inhuman, to say the least. It shuddered, shaking the dome in its death throes; its eyes practically melted in front of me, an ooze of sickly red blood, and more black slime slid out of the corner of its mouth and out of its cadaverous nose.
It then collapsed and the barrier flared a brighter shade of red, just for a second, as if a surge of energy had suddenly strengthened it. I felt a little sick to my stomach as I turned toward Priest with wide eyes - call me crazy, but I almost suspected that the creature’s death had fortified the blood-red dome.
Priest met my gaze for half a second; I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew he was looking at me. The set of his jaw was tight, as if he were clenching his teeth. At first, I wasn’t sure if that was because of determination or effort, but then his outstretched hand trembled and I realized that it was costing him something fierce to defend us.
“Drop it,” I growled; I was one of the strongest men in the world and I wasn’t about to let my partner fall out from exhaustion when I could pick up my share of the fight.
Priest hesitated just a moment, then nodded. The red barrier shimmered, then faded as suddenly as it had appeared. The remaining two Things howled in something like triumph and the last grey-skinned one launched itself at me.
I swung hard at it with my shield; to my surprise, it was faster than it looked, as it dodged the blow and scuttled crab-like toward the side. I moved to bring my shield down on top of its misshapen head, but it moved again; I narrowed my eyes and glanced toward the black one, which was just hovering malevolently.
The two were up to something. Clearly, their intelligence didn’t entirely leave them as they rotted away.
The black one started to move, quick as Thor’s lightning, and Priest shouted something behind me. It froze in mid-leap, a red haze glowing around it as its eyes bulged angrily. I turned my attention toward the smaller Thing, which was moving toward me with evil intent. I decapitated it with one fell blow and I turned quickly on my heel to dispatch the leader.
It was clearly fighting whatever Priest had done to it. My companion stood next to me, legs spread and feet firmly rooted to the concrete beneath us. Both of his hands were on his book again and he had it stretched in front of him in a defensive gesture. He was glowing that eerie red again, but the glow around the Thing was flickering like a faulty light bulb.
I moved as quickly as I could, knowing that Priest was holding the Thing up so I could get a clean death-blow. In the instant that I moved, however, it broke whatever was holding it in place and the red glow vanished. Priest grunted, as if punched, and the Thing flicked its vile tongue at me in something like insolence. In the instant that I stepped into its space, it slithered to the side, into the shadows, and vanished.
“What…?” I sputtered, stopped dead in my tracks.
My chest heaved with exertion and power, my eyes scoured the darkness in front of us. I could hear the Thing scuttling away, but it matched the shadows so well that I couldn’t track its departure. I could hear it, though, so in a last ditch-effort, I threw my shield after it. All I hit was brick, as debris clattered down to the ground and a hideous, gurgling chuckle mocked us from the distance.
I knew, instinctively, that it was gone and I turned, suddenly exhausted, toward Priest.
His chest was heaving as well and I couldn’t help watch him in awe.
“What are you?” the words tumbled out of me in a breathless rush.
I hadn’t meant to be so blunt, but he had done things that defied any sort of technology or science I knew. I was particularly disturbed by the Thing that had died on the barrier; I glanced down at its still-oozing body and couldn’t help shaking my head in disbelief.
“A friend,” Priest rasped into the darkness as he knelt down next to one of the broken bodies.
“Is that all I get to know?” I felt a little surly - we had now fought twice together.
Was trusting me that difficult? I didn’t want to know his identity, I just wanted to know how he did what he did. It was...I was hesitant to admit it to myself...almost like magic.
“For now,” Priest pulled what looked like a vial out of the inside of his white coat and held its open mouth against one of the Thing’s leaking sores.
I realized, as I watched, that he was taking a sample. I raised my eyebrows in interest behind my mask.
“We should go after the one that got away,” I suggested, almost as an afterthought.
“Not until we know more,” Priest stood up and casually stuck a stopper into the vial before sliding it back underneath his jacket. “I think that one could be deadly, if approached without a better understanding of what we’re up against.”
“It was uncanny smart,” I admitted, remembering the hair-raising chuckle and glancing nervously behind me into the darkness.
“I think it’ll lay low for tonight,” Priest reached up and tipped his hat to me; I realized that this was goodbye. “Shall we hunt together tomorrow, Captain America?”
I was a little surprised by the unexpected offer of alliance, but I nodded wholeheartedly.
“Yes,” I put one fist into an open palm and cracked my knuckles thoughtfully as I considered the shadows around us. “Meet you at the steps of St. Francis’ Episcopal Church?”
It was the most familiar landmark I had in this new and modern Brooklyn. Priest hesitated, oddly enough enough, for just a second or so, but then agreed.
“At midnight, then,” he made the sign of the cross. “And God be with you.”
+ + +
“Well, you’re here late, Steve,” Mother Eli poked her head around the corner of the church kitchen and raised a reddish-blond eyebrow at me.
“Oh, yeah,” I was suddenly sheepish and I shuffled my feet. “Uh...hope you don’t mind?” I glanced down at the cup of coffee in my hand and mumbled at it. “Didn’t make any sense to head back to Manhattan. Got some…” I paused, realizing what I was about to say.
“Meeting someone?” her smile dazzled me and I blinked a bit stupidly.
Her intuition was remarkable.
“The papers haven’t exactly made a mystery of your work with Priest,” Mother Eli’s smile was practically roguish. “If you’re hanging around until after dark - and it’s twilight, now,” she glanced toward the kitchen window with a knowing eye. “Then I’m going to assume you’re up to something with our clerical vigilante, Captain America,” she emphasized my superhero name with another cheeky grin.
“Yeah,” I laughed a little nervously and ran a hand through my hair. “I hope you don’t mind…don’t really have anywhere else to hang out around here.”
“No problem at all,” she waved a hand dismissively at me, as if hanging around in her church was no big deal. “In fact, if you need to use the premises as a base of operation, feel free,” she eyed my street clothes and surprised me with a wink. “And if you need to use the bathrooms to change, have it.”
I was immediately humbled. Mother Eli asked for nothing in return, but kept graciously providing me with a space to call my own, away from Stark Tower, away from the Avengers, away from S.H.I.E.L.D. In turn, my time at St. Francis was slowly anchoring me into the modern world and making my adjustment to it in Manhattan a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. I still had my struggles, my burdens, my sorrows - but they always seemed a little less pressing in the building where I had once worshiped as a boy.
“Thank you, Mother Eli,” I thanked her softly; her smile just grew more brilliant.
“Just don’t tell me what you’re up to,” she withdrew, but I could still hear her voice, amused, around the corner of the kitchen door. “I don’t need to know!”
I couldn’t help grinning a little foolishly at her words. She was a quirky little dame…
I carried on with my cup of coffee, without really realizing that somewhere along the way, I had started to think of Mother Eli as a “dame”.
+ + +
Her scream rent the quiet twilight air in two and my name echoed eerily against the church walls. I was halfway through changing - I had decided to grab my old rucksack, which I usually kept stuffed in the back of a kitchen cabinet when I came to visit, and change a few hours early. I still had a good five hours to go, but it was early November and the nights were starting earlier. I figured I could go back to the scene of our fight last night and do a little investigation, before heading back to St. Francis and meeting Priest for our joint venture.
I was barefoot and shirtless, but thankfully still wearing my battered pair of jeans. I didn’t even stop to think. I grabbed my shield and barreled through the men’s bathroom door. Mother Eli screamed again, this time her words an inarticulate jumble of fear, and I made a beeline toward the sound of her voice.
She was outside, on the steps. A bag had fallen to the ground, books and a shattered tablet scattered around like casualties. I realized with a pang that she’d been leaving to head home, but there wasn’t any time to dwell on the thought. She was on the ground, struggling with something huge and dark that seethed evilly above her.
I saw it raise a twisted, clawed hand and slash down toward her face. Her scream curdled the air. I threw the shield with every ounce of strength I possessed.
The shield hit it just as it raised its claws for a second blow; Mother Eli had fallen eerily still. The thing grunted and snarled in pain; I closed the gap between us with two long strides and I realized, with a jolt, that it was the black-skinned ringleader from last night.
“You bastard,” I hissed, as I grabbed my shield as it spun back toward me.
I couldn’t tell where the shield had hit it, but the Thing wasn’t assaulting Mother Eli any more. Disturbingly enough, however, it wasn’t assaulting me, either. It bared it’s black and bloody teeth at me, then took off over the church gate and into the alley between St. Francis and the shops next door.
I shouted a challenge and pursued it. I threw my shield again - and hit it, I assumed, in the back. It grunted and I saw its hulking form stumble for just a moment. But, then the shadows overcame it and when I ran to where it had been, it was there no more. I looked frantically all around the tiny alleyway and even craned my neck to look up at the tops of the buildings, but it was nowhere to be found.
“Damn!” I shouted my frustration at the darkness.
Somewhere, in the distance, I heard sirens. I didn’t know who had been called and I didn’t know if they had been called for Mother Eli, but something instinctively told me that she was beyond the help of civilian law enforcement or medicine.
I wanted to go after the Thing and hunt it down. I wanted to wait for Priest, so we could hunt after it together. But, I had seen it tear into Mother Eli and I had seen her form go limp against the ground. My blood ran cold as I left the pursuit behind me and hurried back to her side.
She lay at an awkward angle on her back, illuminated by the wan light from the street lamps on the other side of the church fence. I could see the blood pooling beneath her head, black against the off-white pavement. I fell hard to my knees beside her and paid no mind whatsoever to the pain that shot up my thighs in protest.
“Mother Eli?” I reached out to her.
I knew better than to move her, but I let my fingers dance over the side of her face and her neck. While blood was pooling, sticky and wet, beneath her braid, it wasn’t originating from her skull. I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding and leaned closer to examine her torso.
Her shoulder was ripped to shreds, white bone glinting in the light near her elbow and her clavicle. I swallowed hard and pressed a finger to my ear, where I kept a comm link to Stark Tower at all times - even Tony had sensible ideas from time to time.
“J.A.R.V.I.S?” I called into the bleeding darkness, my voice tight with fear.
“Captain,” the A.I.’s cultured British voice answered me and relief flooded through me; thank God for Stark and his stupid gadgets. “How may I be of assistance?”
“Tell Tony to suit up and to bring Dr. Banner along with an emergency medical kit. I need an airlift. There’s a civilian down and she’s badly injured.”
“Of course,” J.A.R.V.I.S. responded and then, after a delicate pause, “Should I contact the nearest hospital instead?”
“No,” I answered grimly, with a furtive glance toward shadows that rippled eerily beyond the circle of light around us. “This is an emergency for S.H.I.E.L.D.”