They’re walking toward the fortress, which Morita scouted out before Barnes and Crane arrived, when the demon-things attack them.
Without discussing it, they’ve fallen into a variation on their old marching order, with the addition of Crane next to Falsworth, who heard his accent and is doing his damnedest to pump Crane for information on family and school ties despite Crane’s caginess on those topics. It feels too weird to take Steve’s place at the head of their little wedge formation, so Barnes has let Morita take the lead and taken the position behind and to the left of him. That leaves Dugan free to fall in on his right and start up a steady stream of ridicule, most of it centering on his hair. Apparently Barnes looks like a “goddamn hippie,” whatever the fuck that is. He lets it go on for about a half-mile before he finally says, “Figured my hair needed to look pretty damn stupid to compete with your moustache, Dugan.”
“You always were jealous you couldn’t grow whiskers on that baby face of yours, Jimmy boy,” Dugan says, which is ridiculous, given how badly Barnes needs a shave right now. “Truth is, that mop on your head really works to distract me from how bad those twenty-first-century clothes are, and that’s before you put your own special touch on them. Do you even own one thing that ain’t ripped or bloodstained?”
Barnes isn’t about to admit that he’s still wearing the Captain America T-shirt, layered under a Henley that’s definitely seen better days, so he says, “Only your ma knows for sure, Dugan.”
Jones chuckles, and Dugan grumbles, “You think you’re something else, don’t you, Barnes?”
“Your ma wasn’t complaining.”
Dugan manages to look angry for almost a full three seconds before he cracks up and pulls Barnes into another one-armed hug, using the other hand to muss his hair. “Damn, I’ve missed that mouth of yours, kid.”
“That’s… That’s what your ma…” Barnes can’t even finish; he’s laughing too hard.
“Forty years I’ve worked with them, and I still find American humor bloody incomprehensible,” Falsworth says.
“It does take a bit of getting used to,” Crane is agreeing, when the demon things jump them.
It’s a classic ambush, a lot of demon-things springing out of nowhere at them at the same time, and even Barnes’ enhanced senses give him less than a second to prepare. As for the Howling Commandos, they have a procedure for being attacked by evil nightmare things, left over from their HYDRA-fighting days, and that procedure is “get behind Steve until you can figure out where the things’ soft parts are and shoot them.” Without Steve and his shield… well, he guesses that grouping up behind the guy with the metal arm is the next logical choice.
He doesn’t have time to make fun of any of them for it or, more importantly, time to find out if, being dead, they can get killed here, which now strikes him as a pretty fucking major oversight in his intel gathering. Maybe he was just scared to ask too many questions, in case looking too hard at the miracle made it vanish. But it’s too late now, and besides, even if they do turn out to be functionally immortal, they’re his guys. Of course he’s going to protect them.
Barnes spins a knife into his right hand and lets the Asset’s instincts take over. His body explodes into motion, throwing a spinning kick at the closest demon-thing before grabbing the next-closest by the throat with his metal hand. “Crane!” he yells, while he stabs his knife into its chest, even though he has no idea how to hit anything vital in its weird demon anatomy. Crane is already behind him, ready with a handful of salt to fling into its face, but he holds back—and then Barnes sees it, too: he doesn’t need to. The thing’s flesh is sizzling and melting, the same way the demon-thing in the bookstore parking lot melted, but this time the effect is spreading outward from his metal hand. “The fuck,” he says, but another one is swiping its claws at Dugan, and then Barnes takes a flying leap at it, grabs its head in both hands and cranks it to the side in a way that would break any human’s neck. He doesn’t feel the crunch of a spine snapping, but the thing falls down anyway, and this time, the imprint of the metal hand on its grizzled-looking face is clear.
“Crane, what is happening right now,” he demands, while he goes after the demon that’s charging toward Jones. Jones is firing his rifle into its midsection, but it isn’t falling down.
“Save your bullets! They’ve got no vital spots to hit,” Crane shouts at the Commandos. He grabs a canister of salt from his backpack and tosses it at Dugan, who’s closest, before he—God in heaven, he actually draws a sword. “They only have two weaknesses: salt and cold iron.”
“Iron!” Barnes repeats, and a smile spreads across his face. He doesn’t know a ton about metal, but there are a couple of basic facts that came up while he was learning weaponry. His beautiful Gerber Mark IIs are anodized steel, and he guesses they don’t have enough iron to count under whatever freaky supernatural rules these bastards follow; the bullets in the Commandos’ guns are copper and lead. But he’s pretty sure his arm contains a little of the same vibranium as Steve’s shield… and Howard Stark told him once that the stuff was so rare, so weird, that even the shield wasn’t made up of it entirely.
Iron-vibranium alloys, on the other hand, function beautifully in weapons design, and his left arm is—was always meant to be—a weapon. Shit, it might as well be made for killing these sons of bitches. And when the surprise wears off, he throws himself back into the fight as if he was made for this, too.
With the Commandos behind him, Barnes has never fought faster, or harder, or better in his life than he does for the next eight minutes: punching, kicking, and in one instance that he’s especially proud of, slicing the chest of one of the demon-things open while his left hand throttles another, then ramming his metal elbow into the cut. It might not have any vital spots, but that move disintegrates it so fast that it literally splits in half and falls down. Take that, fucking creepy HYDRA ray guns, he thinks, and scans for his next target, only to realize that there are no more enemies to fight. A few yards away, Jones is pouring salt on the last of the demon-thing corpses, which Crane apparently took down by flat out decapitating the fucker with the sword.
“Nice work, Mack the Knife,” Dugan says, dusting salt off his hands. “What are those things?”
“Bullshit,” says Jones.
Barnes can tell it’s more of an expression of shock than actual disbelief, but it’s still pretty funny that Jones, who’s back from the dead, has just now exceeded his tolerance for weirdness. “Call bullshit on me when you don’t owe your life to the Morton Salt Girl,” he says. “Frankly, I’m more interested in how Crane learned how to pull off a decapitation with one hit, which is not as easy as it looks. Believe me, I’ve tried. Where’d you pick up that trick, buddy?”
“Are you familiar with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?” Crane replies.
“Right, right. My fault for asking.” Barnes pulls himself up, straightens his shoulders the way he used to watch Steve do after every Brooklyn fistfight and every Howling Commandos firefight: shaking it off, reminding himself that there are eyes on him. “Is everybody okay? I’m invoking the Steve rule here: if you’re hurt, you speak up, because I will beat your ass if I find out you’re trying to act tough.”
“Monty a été rayé par les griffes d'un démon,” Dernier says, and when Falsworth glares at him, he adds, “Ne me jugez pas, frère. Comme il le dit, il est plus que capable de battre nos derrières.”
Falsworth does have a couple of nasty scratches, and the way he flinches when Barnes grabs his arm to look at them certainly answers the question of whether the Commandos can be hurt. He hopes he doesn’t have to find out any more than that. While Morita’s patching up the wounds, he takes Crane aside and says, “How worried do we have to be about infection from those things?”
“You and I, perhaps a bit. Your friends, I shouldn’t think very,” Crane says, also pitching his voice low. “You know, of course, that their time here is limited. At the end of this, we’ll need to send them back.”
Barnes stares. “What, as in kill them? The fuck is wrong with you, Crane?”
“That’s not at all what I mean, and I think you know it. You don’t strike me as the type to bury your head in the sand, Sergeant. You know in your heart that your friends are long dead and that the current state of affairs can’t possibly last long.”
“They look alive enough to me. They bleed, Crane. How much more proof do you need?”
“‘Embodied’ is rather different to ‘alive’ in this case. The soul gem is holding them here now, but it’s most likely a temporary measure. Once we return with the gem—”
“Most likely?” Barnes repeats. “That means you don’t know.”
“Nothing in my research indicates that the return of souls from the afterlife can be permanent.”
“Does anything indicate for sure that it can’t be? Crane, the thing is, me and Steve… we’ve already lost so much. Look, if this was Abbie we were talking about, wouldn’t you have to try to find a way?”
“On one occasion, it was my wife,” Crane says, and suddenly he’s got that carefully neutral look that means he’s trying very hard to keep his expression from going all scary-intense. “That was Purgatory, not Hel, and although my wife was never truly dead, the cost of her return… let us say that it was steep. For the souls of those already dead, it may well imperil your own soul to try to return them.”
“So souls are on the table, huh?” Barnes gives him a smile he doesn’t feel. “Shit, somebody might be doing me a favor to take mine off my hands. I wasn’t exactly a saint even before I was, you know, brainwashed and murdery. Used to say the only way I was getting into heaven was that Steve wouldn’t go through the Pearly Gates unless they let my sorry ass in, too.”
He’s mostly joking. Mostly. But Crane looks him in the eye. “If someone wishes to take your soul from you, Sergeant, consider that proof positive that a great deal depends on your keeping it.”
“Okay, Crane, I get that you deal with this stuff all the time, but I’m out of my depth here, and we’ve still got your girlfriend to rescue. Do you think we could hold off on the philosophy until after we finish hitting stuff?”
“For Miss Mills’ sake,” says Crane, “I can endorse that suggestion with no small amount of enthusiasm.”
Barnes started off his Army career with a sniper’s eyesight, and from there, the super-serum enhanced his vision from pretty darn good to fucking amazing. He doesn’t need Jones’ binoculars to see what’s waiting for them up on the hill, and he doesn’t need to spend another minute inspecting it through the scope of the rifle Minnie gave him, but he does it anyway, because it takes him a while to believe what his perfectly good eyes are telling him. Finally, he hands the binoculars off to Crane and says, “You ever see anything like that before?”
Crane does exactly the same thing Barnes did: he looks, and then he looks again, and then he keeps looking at the… thing… that’s between them and the… structure… that’s obviously the Enchantress’s fortress. This would be easier if Asgardian was one of the languages he knew. “I believe,” he finally says, slowly, “I believe that particular creature is called a bilgesnipe.”
“A whosa-what now?” Dugan asks, making a grab for the binocs. He stares, then whistles. “That’s one ugly motherfucker.”
“Language, Dum-Dum,” Barnes says absently. He’s seen some things in his time, but never anything with scales and antlers before. “The good news is, she seems to be the only thing guarding the place. I guess they figure they got her, they don’t need to post a guard 24-7—or however long the days are here.”
“She?” says Morita. “You flip her over and check underneath when I wasn’t looking?”
Barnes ignores him. “Bilgesnipes don’t happen to be vulnerable to iron, do they?”
“No,” Crane says. “This being is of Asgard, not Hel. They say the hide can’t be pierced by any weapon known to man. I was only able to bring a few of my books, so a solution may take—”
“So we’re gonna blow the sonofabitch to high heaven, right?” Jones says.
Crane turns and stares at him, but Barnes is already smiling. “That’s the kind of can-do spirit I appreciate, my friend. Dernier, what’ve you got for me?” Even in the afterlife, it’s impossible to conceive of Dernier running around without at least a couple of explosives.
Dernier holds out his backpack. Barnes looks inside and his grin widens. “Oh, yeah,” he says, selecting a fragmentation grenade. “This’ll do.”
“This seems a good time to remind you of the impenetrable hide—” Crane begins.
“Not gonna go through the hide,” Barnes says. “Gonna toss it down her throat. Nice little contained explosion in its guts ought to do the trick.”
“Will that work?” Jones asks.
“Well, Crane can probably tell us for sure, but it went okay when I used it to fight a fucking dinosaur a couple months ago, so I’m gonna say it’s worth a shot.”
Crane frowns. “It’s an unorthodox idea, and I suppose it’s worth a go, but… what exactly is a dinosaur?”
Barnes blinks. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I’m not familiar with the—creature?—in question.”
“Crane, if you’re trolling me, this is a bad time.”
“Killing a troll would be an entirely different matter, Sergeant.”
Barnes sighs. “No, I said trolling, which is Internet for ‘deliberately being a jackass.’ I refuse to believe you know about demons and bilgesnipes and what George Washington ate for lunch, but not dinosaurs.”
“Hey, does anybody know when they found the first dinosaur fossils?” Jones asks suddenly.
“Uh, early 1800s, maybe? I know Cope and Marsh got started in the 1870s,” Barnes says, and then, when the rest of them look blank, “The two crazy fossil hunters who were always sabotaging each other’s shit? Nobody knows that story? Seriously, we thought Red Skull was nuts, but he had nothing on those guys.” They’re all still staring at him. “What?”
“You just happened to have that specific piece of information in your brain? Barnes,” Morita says, setting a hand on his shoulder, “I mean this from the bottom of my heart: you are such a nerd.”
“What? I had to learn about it in a hurry one time, okay? What’s more interesting to me is, how has this guy never heard of dinosaurs? Jesus, Crane, have you been living underground for the last couple decades or what?” Now the Commandos are openly grinning, and he sighs. “Okay, I get it. I’m the fuckin’ дурак who’s missing something obvious again. Go ahead, have a good laugh at my expense, God knows that’s your collective fuckin’ raison d’être.”
“I love it when we break his linguistic center,” Jones says to Dernier, who grins and slaps him five.
Barnes rolls his eyes. “Okay, guys. You’ve had your fun, but seriously, animals this size are no joke. If this goes sideways, the backup plan is that I’ll lead it into the woods and try to lose it, you all run like hell the other way, and we rendezvous back here in an hour. Yeah?”
“Oui, mon capitaine,” Dernier mutters, not quite far enough under his breath.
“Hey! I am not pulling a Steve here. This plan doesn’t involve jumping off anything,” Barnes says, which gets a couple of smiles, anyway. He picks up the grenade in his left hand and draws Minnie’s gun with his right—no, it won’t hurt the bilgesnipe, but he thinks he’s earned the right to having what amounts to a security blanket—and starts down the hill, keeping low and out of sight, to get as close as he can to the monster before he kills it.
And then he stops, because he hears what he just told himself.
“Curule,” he mutters at himself, and then, before he can think too hard about it and talk himself out of this, he stands up, breaking cover. He clearly hears Crane say, “Sergeant, no!” and Falsworth say, “Bloody hell,” in unison, but he knows what he’s doing. He deliberately steps on a branch, breaking it.
The bilgesnipe’s enormous horned head swivels toward him, yellow eyes gleaming as he takes another step. It doesn’t react beyond that, though, and he starts walking forward at a slow, steady pace, trying not to project menace, trying to project friend. The bilgesnipe watches him alertly, and he smiles, carefully, without showing his teeth. “Hey, buddy,” he says. “Hey, pal, it’s okay. It’s all gonna be okay.”
The bilgesnipe curls its lip, just a little, showing the edge of a fang, and Barnes stops, trying to be still without that coiled, ready-to-spring stillness they trained into the Asset. The bilgesnipe lowers its head and whuffs a breath at him, a half-reptile, half-something-else alien smell that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up, but he sets his jaw and moves again, slowly, feeling the Commandos’ horrified eyes on his back. He knows the only reason they’re not all screaming at him is that they’re trusting him not to fuck this up. He hopes they’re right to put this much faith in his damaged brain. Hell, he hopes he is.
“Hey,” he says, and he’s twenty feet from the bilgesnipe, then ten. He holds out his metal hand, and it skitters its massive bulk a few yards back, then leans forward, narrowing its eyes at him. “Hey, buddy. Hey, Bilgey. It’s okay, I’m a friend. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The bilgesnipe stands and shakes itself. It’s… well, it’s not bigger than the average dinosaur, so that’s something. And once it stands, he can see the shackle on its hind leg. The chain it’s attached to is long; the bilgesnipe is definitely still a threat to anyone who gets close to the fortress. But it’s a chain, all right, thick metal links attached to a shackle around the bilgesnipe’s hind leg. Some of the scales have rubbed away, leaving raw spots under the band.
“Aw, no, pal, they hurt you! That’s not okay,” he says, reaching his metal hand up to touch the side of the bilgesnipe’s neck. The animal jumps back and lets out a noise that isn’t exactly a roar but definitely isn’t friendly, and he instinctively raises his metal arm higher, as if that would protect him from something that can basically swallow him whole. But he waits, and the bilgesnipe eventually makes an almost dismissive huffing sound and lowers its massive body to the ground again.
Barnes walks around behind the animal, which turns, making the chain clank, and keeps a wary eye on him, shuffling away as he runs his hands down the length of the chain and around the ring that holds it to the wall. The ring is solid, and the chain doesn’t have any obvious weak links, so he’s going to have to do this the hard way. He wraps the chain around his metal hand, braces one foot against the stone wall, sends a silent prayer out to the universe that this isn’t made of some weird space metal like Thor’s hammer is supposed to be, and starts to pull.
The metal arm can stand up to a lot of punishment, but the rest of Barnes is human muscle and tendons, and it’s been a long time since he tried anything like this Coney Island strongman shit. There’s a bad moment where he flashes back to the helicarrier fight, the part where he was trapped under the metal bar and Steve’s muscles strained and popped the way his are now, fighting gravity to free his sorry ass; but he grits his teeth and keeps pulling. When he lets go, he doesn’t think he’s made any difference, but then he sees it: just the tiniest separation in one link, where maybe the metal wasn’t welded properly. He adjusts his grip and redoubles his efforts, and the metal starts to bend. It takes him another two tries to make a wide enough gap, and by the end of it he’s sweating and panting and seeing black spots in his field of vision, but then, then he grabs the chain with one hand steady and the other hand shaking, and separates the broken link from the solid one.
“Go on, buddy,” he says, leaning back against the wall. He needs a minute to catch his breath; if it turns around to eat him now, he’s not going to be able to run. But he doesn’t think it will, and for once, he’s right. The sound of the chain dropping from his hand startles it, and it darts forward a few steps, then seems to realize that the weight of the chain is different. It turns itself in a circle, so much like a dog chasing its tail that Barnes actually manages to crack a smile, and finally sees the broken chain dragging behind it.
Its reaction is to let out an immediate bellow and start running.
Barnes throws himself flat as the bilgesnipe charges at the gate of the fortress, and the Commandos give up on stealth and rush down the hill to join him as the gate shatters and demon-creatures come pouring out. The bilgesnipe doesn’t seem to have any trouble figuring out how to kill them; if it doesn’t have a good opportunity to tear them to pieces with its horns and claws, it just steps on them. “Go Team Bilgesnipe!” he hears himself say, about the time Falsworth reaches him, and leans against the wall, breathless again with slightly hysterical laughter.
“What is wrong with you, Barnes? You just completely blew our chance at stealth!” Morita shouts. “Why the hell did you do that?”
Barnes shrugs. “It looked sad.”
“You risked your life because you thought a giant alien monster looked…” Morita shakes his head. “Of course you did. Well, it’s not going home with you, and you’re definitely not naming it Bilgey.”
“I know. But seriously, we gotta move. Follow me.” He grabs the grenade and the pistol again and manages a sprint toward the damaged main gate, and the Commandos and Crane follow him. “Change of plans,” he says. “Everybody behind me. We’re doing this—”
“As Steven would have done, no doubt,” says Falsworth.
“By running straight into trouble?” Dugan’s moustache is quivering with amusement. “We’re always up for that, Jimmy.”
“Good.” Barnes leads them past the bilgesnipe, which is making short work of the last few demons—God, he loves a good revenge story—and tosses the grenade through the wrecked gate and into the fortress, counting on the resultant explosion to clear out anyone (or anything) staying at its post inside.
Déjà vu hits him hard as he waves for the Commandos to follow, then kicks aside what’s left of the doors and leads the way inside. Like so many other things, this used to be Steve’s job. There’s no time to dwell on it, though. They’ve entered a large hallway with widely spaced stone pillars and doors leading off in all directions, and while there are no immediate threats, there are also no big flashing neon signs reading “This way to abducted human prisoners.” He turns to Crane. “Any ideas about where to find your girl?”
“I’ve no earthly idea. It will be faster if we split up.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Have you never seen a horror movie? We stick together.” Barnes spots a stone arch, way in the back of the hall, that looks like it slopes down into a stairwell. Well, prisoners go in dungeons and dungeons go in basements, so it’s worth a shot. He leads the way, waving the Commandos once again to follow, and stops at the base of the stairs to look around. Yep, this is less inviting accommodations, although he’s not sure it qualifies as a dungeon exactly; it’s just a lot of big empty spaces set off by what looks like ordinary glass—until he pokes it with the metal hand and a mild electric shock runs through it. A containment unit, he’d say, more than a prison cell. “Mills!” he shouts, while he gives the metal arm a crank from the shoulder to make sure all the circuits have reset.
“Barnes?” a voice calls from the end of the hall. Is it Abbie? It could be. “I—” he’s beginning, when Crane darts past him and races toward the last cell.
Shit. He let himself forget, just for a minute, that Crane is Abbie’s Steve, and people’s Steves do the stupidest things for them. Barnes pelts after him, but he has a sinking feeling that it’s already too late.
The cell is open; the glass, or screen, or whatever it is, is down. Crane is in the cell, being gripped around the throat by the tallest, blondest, objectively most beautiful and generally most terrifying woman Barnes has ever seen—the Enchantress, of course. Mills is in the corner, with her hands tied behind her, gagged, so she couldn’t give warning. And she’s watching helplessly while blood drips from the dagger the Enchantress has just plunged into Crane’s chest.