In the year 1602 A.D. on the outskirts of the Austrian countryside, an emissary from the Holy Roman Empire was sitting in a rented room at an inn, attempting to make the best of a bad situation. One of the increasingly violent thunderstorms that marked this year had seen fit to roll across their path without warning, forcing them to take shelter somewhat earlier than he had hoped for that day. Their horses were well-rested by now, but his escort would no doubt appreciate a night spent indoors with a warm fire in the hearth and soft comforters in place of hard ground. And he was not above looking out for the welfare of his countrymen. In addition, this gave him the chance to work on certain projects. One had to put one's time to good use.
A sudden commotion from the taproom below attracted his attention. He paused in his efforts, debating whether or not to investigate. The soldiers in his retinue had been known to become somewhat rowdy after drinking. Were he not there to scold them, the honest innkeeper and his comelier serving maids might find themselves the victims of some unpleasant harassment.
And that might reflect poorly on their leader.
When the ruckus did not die down quickly, the head of that party resolved to make an appearance. It took him less than a minute to change his wardrobe. Now properly attired in expensive robes and concealing hood, he donned his mask and betook himself down to the common area of the inn.
Expecting to be met with a situation that needed resolving, the Germanic envoy was surprised to find the festivities had already ended. Even more noteworthy than this was the undeniable fact that his half-a-dozen trained men-at-arms were scattered around the room in various stages of battered insensibility. Clearly someone had delivered them a stout thrashing in his absence. However, the identity of the culprit was not evident, as the only people left standing were the innkeeper and a wide-eyed tavern wench. Hardly likely candidates.
Crossing over to the captain of his guard, the diplomat lifted the man's head off the ground and asked, "Would you like to explain to me how this came about?"
A pained groan was his only response. Rather than receive any more such unhelpful enlightenment, he instead turned his attention on their host. The mustachioed manager jumped a little when their eyes met, clearly still uncomfortable in the nobleman's presence. "Mein Prinz," he began, chewing his whiskers nervously, "t'was a foreign troubadour and his mistress. They… or rather, she inquired about purchasing some of yer Lordship's mounts. The soldiers took objection to the idea, and then she… well, sir, things happened, and…"
His tongue appeared to fail him then, but there was no need to elaborate.
"You are telling me a minstrel and his fraulein subdued my entire complement of guards?"
"Nah, sir," the tavern wench piped up then. "Only the lady did the fighting. Her man be blind, of no good in a tussle. They left just a'fore ye came down, sir." Her bright blue eyes were large with amazement and something quite like awe. "She beat them all, she did. With her bare hands, no less. Was the most wondrous thing I ever did see, it was."
He considered her words, along with the mess of men in which he stood. Coming to a conclusion, the emissary stalked on over to the pair of serving-folk. They cringed at his approach, but instead of delivering retribution upon them, he instead reached to his purse and withdrew a hearty handful of silver coins. Taking the hands of the maid, he pressed the small fortune into them.
"For the damages, and the care of my men. When they awake, please inform them that I chose to continue my journey unaccompanied. Time is precious to me. I will continue to my destination alone. They may return home and inform Baron Zemo of my decision."
With that, he retrieved his belongings and made his way out once again into the torrential downpour. Saddling his horse, the envoy did not fail to notice that two of the steeds in their retinue were now missing.
A blind man and a warrior woman, eh? These are strange and familiar times, indeed.
Crossing the North Sea to arrive in London, the emissary learned, much to his disappointment, that Queen Elizabeth had already passed away. While he bore the English no dearth of resentment, it had been a delicious thrill to meet the famous monarch on a previous visit to her court. To his surprise, she had proven to be not only intelligent but engaging as well, forcing him to keep his wits about him during his time representing the interests of the Holy Roman Empire. Though barely spending twenty minutes in her presence, she had impressed him nonetheless, and he had actually deigned to demonstrate a traditional German folk dance with a member of her retinue for the Queen's enjoyment. Unbeknownst to the aged sovereign, he had added a few twists to the performance, so that what most of his countrymen would have termed a Lander dance actually graduated to its more refined descendant, the Waltz. There was no way the Queen or anyone else could have known this, but she proved highly appreciative of his efforts, nonetheless, and in spite of the hatred he nursed for her people, the envoy had found himself liking the wizened old woman for it.
As things stood now, there proved little to keep him in London. While traveling under the auspices of a diplomatic courier for the Empire, his true reason for making the trip to Britain was of a personal nature. Unfortunately, Fate seemed to be conspiring against him at every turn. It turned out that his quarry had already fled the British Isles following the arrival of Elizabeth's successor, the despised King James of Scotland. No doubt they were on their way back to the Colonies. In addition to this, unnatural storms persisted in plaguing his travels. They had increased to such an intensity that he found himself unable to book passage on any ships to continue his pursuit, the captains of those vessels proving unwilling to head out to sea under such apocalyptic conditions.
While awaiting a milder strain of weather under which to travel, the German amused himself as best he could. He managed to attend a presentation of 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus' onstage at the Globe Theater. While unimpressed by its ending, preferring the grislier versions he remembered as a child, it was good to see the English being exposed to more of his culture, however diluted it may be. And to his greatest pleasure, the emissary was able to catch the first ever showing of a new play entitled 'Hamlet'. He spent the entire performance up in the balcony seats, viciously heckling and deriding the actor portraying the title character at every turn, until the flustered man flung up his hands and quit the stage, refusing to come back on. Before anyone could catch him and demand his own departure, the German surreptitiously exited the theater, satisfied that he had done his part for the arts.
The next day dawned clear, and he found an English trading ship, The Hobgoblin, which then proceeded to take him across the Atlantic in search of his destiny.
Attired in deepest black under a moonless sky, the Teutonic traveler emerged from his private cabin and approached the master of this vessel. Face hidden behind a wooden mask, the former emissary then repeated his conditions. "Remember, no contact with the English settlements. Simply pass them by. You will find the French fur-traders a more profitable stop, anyway."
A leather purse exchanged hands then. Opening it, the captain's face was lit by the faint glint of torchlight reflecting off gold.
"Your coin is good, German," Captain Kingsley scowled. "That is the only reason I will consent to this."
"My thanks, Herr Hauptmann," he shot back, stepping onto the waiting rowboat. "It would have been troublesome attempting to swim to shore. I have done that enough in my life."
Night had fallen as they lay anchored a mile off the Virginia coast. The passenger secured his equipment and waited for the crew to lower his one-man vessel into the cold rocking waves. Once in the water, he cut the lines and set to on the oars, pushing against the tide with strong strokes. It did not take long for the lamps on The Hobgoblin to diminish into mere pin-pricks as they turned their ship and sailed northwards.
Assured of his presence not reaching the wrong ears, he made his way to land on the American colonies.
The maps he had purchased proved to be of decent quality, and his own knowledge of the landscape allowed him to make good time. In just over a day, he had reached the settlement of Roanoke, coming upon that dirty and patchwork collection of huts in the early morning. Nothing truly to recommend itself to a man of his bearing at first glance. But the German knew full well what awaited him here, and so he exercised the utmost caution in approaching under cover of the trees.
Two ships lay docked off the coast. The tiny colony was nowhere near as sleepy as some might expect. Even more interesting than this was the quality of people to be found here. Safely hidden in the woods, a telescope of his own design allowed him to spy some truly eye-catching characters. True, there was the only slightly incongruous pair of the bald invalid and the one-eyed veteran soldier mixed in with the regular poor pioneers. But in addition there was a man with the appearance, if not the behaviors, of an ape. Even more startling to residents of this hamlet was the great orange golem, a creature that looked to be carved of stone counterfeited as a human. After a while he caught glimpses of a young fellow of almost preternatural beauty with white angel wings growing out of his back. He did not let the appearance fool him. There also appeared to be a gentleman whose limbs stretched and wound about like hot taffy. A blonde swashbuckler with a tendency to emit flames from his body walked along chatting with another youngster who doused those fires with ice from his own.
Quite the weird gathering. Nothing surprising, though. They were as familiar to him as anyone he could name.
It was only when he caught sight of the giant Indian with flaxen hair did his heart begin to beat rapidly.
The pale savage accompanied a child at all times, a girl with hair of an even lighter hue, so that it appeared almost white. Her protector never strayed far from her side while she chattered merrily with the unusual guests or played with friends her own age. This, then, must be little Virginia Dare, the first child of English origin born in the New World, and the source of a troublesome foreboding on his part.
The master spy watched them all day and into the evening, noting everything that occurred. He considered how best to accomplish his objective. That hulking brute trailed in his ward's wake like an obedient dog. The idea gave him a form of grim amusement. They were inseparable, but surely at some point they would have to…
Ah. There we go.
It was a cold night. Several of the leaders of this colony, whether man or monster, appeared to be having a conclave to discuss the issues that concerned them. The observer was not fully aware of what those issues might be, but he had his suspicions. At one point the ape-man came out of that gathering and quickly found his way over to where the Indian stood at watch, outside the house where his tiny mistress now slept. They conversed for a time. At first it seemed that the guardian would not forsake his post. But eventually, the kobold appeared to convince him that his charge would be in no danger that night, and so they moved off to the main building to participate in the building of a strategy. And possibly a nation.
This was his chance.
In minutes the German had breached the edge of town and slipped unnoticed down its spare muddy lanes. Moving from shadow to shadow and hugging close to the wooden shacks, he came at last upon the house he desired. However, he did not enter through the front door. A sense of danger, combined with foreknowledge about his opponents, kept him crouched in a patch of darkness off to one side. For several minutes he watched the front of the house, concealing signs of his presence as much as possible.
Eventually his suspicions proved well-founded, as from the chill night air there came a slight cough, along with a tell-tale puff of misty breath.
This evidence of life appeared to emanate from empty space, but he knew that somewhere in the area before that door, an invisible woman was standing guard. The big oaf would never have dared to leave the girl completely undefended, after all. A wise decision.
But fruitless all the same.
Traveling around to the back of the hut, he scaled its uneven timber walls until he had reached the thatch roof. Some pushing and maneuvering followed, all done with the greatest care so as not to attract the notice of the sentry in front. Eventually, he had made enough room to slip his lean frame through the ceiling and into the girl's chambers.
His target this night was curled up under her quilts and blankets sleeping peacefully. Being the daughter of the colony's leader meant that she could expect a modicum of greater comfort than the other peasants scratching out a living on this inhospitable rock. Still, they had been here for the better part of fifteen years, which certainly did not jive with his own lessons about the subject. That in and of itself had alerted him to the prospects when he had first heard of Roanoke's continued existence. Soon after he had gained information about the colonists, and when the child and her bodyguard dared cross the Big Pond in search of aid from the home country, he had made his plans and acted accordingly.
And now they were together at last.
With this thought in mind, the intruder stole over to where that pale nymph lay dreaming. She shivered a little, whether from the cold or his approach, but did not wake. Standing so close to her, the German paused to consider his options.
The most perfect scenario would be to affect her death with no one being the wiser, even the girl herself. Then in the morning, when that lumbering lout found she was not rising at her usual time, he would start to worry. Is anything wrong, he would ask himself? Perhaps I should give her another minute. And yet that minute could make all the difference. Lives had been lost in less time, hadn't they? So at last he would open her door, or break it down if necessary. Crossing over to where she lay, his fears rising exponentially with every beat of his heart, he would say her name, softly. And when she did not respond, then he would reach out and touch her.
Feeling the cold, lifeless body, he would know she was lost.
Afterwards, his grief and rage would be at such levels that he might just kill every living soul he could get his hands on, regardless of what it meant for his future, his country.
She was everything to him. That much had come clear in the brief time the assassin had been watching them. This stripling, who was not even related to him by blood, carried the so-called Indian's hopes and dreams with each breath she took.
To finally crush his heart, she need only die.
How to do it? A blood-bath might be even more traumatic for his old colleague to walk in on. This thought left him considering slipping the dagger at his hip from its oiled sheathe. But that would doubtlessly make noise, attracting attention. The other scenario would be so much more delicious. Perhaps a single fatal thrust, then. Let her blood quietly leak out beneath the layers of colorful quilts and add to their chromatic bounty. And of course, there was the quick snap of the neck, which would be all the more horrible when her protector gathered her up in his arms and saw the head lolling about like an apple on its stem.
He would surely go mad then, fully aware of his own benighted folly.
Yes, he would lose his mind.
The villain paused.
The man would go mad.
And as a result I will never be able to speak to him again. Never more to twist the cruel knife of truth into his thoughts and watch him shudder beneath its force.
He would never know how it all turned out.
He would be spared that agony.
I won't allow it.
And so resolved, he withdrew his knife.
"Good morning, Rojhaz," Sir Richard Reed greeted the towering time-traveler as he literally wound his way up to the house.
"Richard," the blue-eyed American inclined his head. "And Lady Storm. Thank you again for watching over Virginia last night."
"You always know where I am, sir," a woman's voice drifted on the morning breeze without any visible sign of the speaker. "How do you manage that?"
A slightly mischievous smile turned that stern face truly handsome for a moment. "If you're worried about your modesty, don't be. Thor's the only one who can possibly catch a glimpse of you naked, and he's not around at present."
"Not quite an answer to my question." But they could both hear she was smiling back at him.
"We've come to invite you and Virginia back to the site of the Temporal Singularity," the stretchable scholar continued, peering around at the world as if in search of some puzzle to keep his magnificent mind occupied. "Is she already roused?"
"Virginia doesn't normally 'rouse' until her breakfast is ready," her guardian spoke, still finding himself amazed by the similarities and differences he continually recognized in people. "But she won't want to miss any of this."
With that, he opened the door and led the superhuman couple into the tiny quarters. It was a one-room affair, with cots off to the side for the Dare family to sleep in. The only member of that brood in question was burrowed away under the covers, clearly not ready to wake yet. Rojhaz crouched beside her and whispered her name softly.
She did not move.
"Virginia, it's time to wake up."
A measure of anxiousness stole over him. "Virginia?"
And at that the girl moaned and turned away.
"Rojhaz, I don't want to get out of bed yet."
"Come along, young lady. You can't spend such a beautiful morning acting like a little lazy-bones."
"I'm not lazy!" the fourteen-year old bolted upright, blue eyes still pinched shut and a scowl working over her pretty face. "You just never sleep, is all."
"True," he admitted, happy just to see her, as he was every morning. "Now it's time to start the day. Sir Reed is anxious to have us accompany him in his investigations."
She glanced over his broad muscled shoulder. "Sir Reed looks busy examining our linens."
"Fascinating, simply fascinating," the person in question spoke as he got up from the floor, holding a white kerchief in his elongated fingers. "I do believe I recognize this from somewhere."
"It's a handkerchief, Reed," his spectral accomplice whispered. "I'd be worried if you didn't. Can you at least say hello to Virginia after just barging in?" She pitched her voice a little higher. "Good morning to you, dear."
"Hello, Lady Susan." The girl's prompt reply was significantly more courteous than the one she had bestowed on Rojhaz, and he couldn't help but be amused at the difference.
"Pardon?" Reed looked up. "Oh, yes, hello, Virginia, good to see you well. Sorry, my mind's a million miles away. And I know it's a kerchief, Susan," Richard continued as his slightly distracted gaze turned back on them. "I was actually referring to the symbol someone drew on it. This sort of thing isn't anything I would expect to come across in these parts."
He then held out the scrap of white cloth like a banner.
Helping little Virginia out of bed, Rojhaz turned to see what he meant.
When he saw what Richard held in his hands, the giant froze.
"It's a symbol of Eastern origin," their learned colleague prattled on without any ability to stop seemingly. "We encountered it a few times on our travels through the Orient, before Doom captured us in Russia. It's called, if I do recall correctly, a 'manji'. A symbol of peace and intellectual strength. Now, its uses in the religions of China and India are…"
"Richard," Susan spoke again gently. "I think you're getting a little off track here."
"Eh?" he responded, glancing down at the small white flag. "Oh… you're right, completely right, my dear. Honestly, I don't know what is wrong with me."
"It's no trouble, just…"
"How awfully obtuse of me," Reed bulled on without having heard her. "You were right to correct me, Susan. I didn't notice Virginia's initials are on the other side. I was looking at it from the back of the cloth, the dye just seeped through, very lurid red color. See here, these arms are going clockwise, not counter-clockwise. It's actually another mark entirely. This isn't the 'manji' symbol at all!"
He spread out the fabric once more, displaying four crooked lines branching out from a central point.
"This is what's known as a 'svastika'."
As he said this, Rojhaz rose to his full height.
Cold sapphire eyes swept around the room, locating everything in it and comparing it to what he knew.
A slight disturbance in the thatch roof caught his attention.
"Stay here. Watch Virginia," he spoke to the remarkable pair of adventurers before stepping swiftly outside. He heard the child ask him what was wrong, but he could not spare her the time to answer. Coming out into the cool dawn, the warrior from the future took in all that was transpiring around them. Every settler shuffling off to tend his fields or speaking to her neighbor, every super-powered warrior from the Continent coming back from early combat training; he saw it all.
When he went to the back of the house to inspect it, Rojhaz could just barely make out where someone had climbed through the roof.
Dropping to his knees, he examined the churned and frosted earth. There were certain boot-prints that stood out as unnatural to him. No attempt had been made to cover them, leading off down the way.
He wants me to come after him.
And I will.
"Rojhaz?" Richard Reed's head came around the corner on his serpentine neck. "Is something the matter?"
America's champion regarded his once-and-future ally closely.
He stood up then.
"I'm going to go hunting. Tell Fury and the rest of them to not let Virginia out of their sight until I return. Do you understand me, Reed?"
A look of piercing clarity came over those aristocratic features. "Would you like some help on your… hunt?"
"No." The great blonde ponytails shook from side to side, and his face was deathly calm. "I hunt alone."
Turning, he found Virginia staring up at him, barefoot in the dirt with worry written all over her face. For a moment Rojhaz's resolve faltered, and all he wanted to do was pick this wondrous child up and carry her far away, into the wilds where none of the monsters from his past might ever hurt her.
But the enemy waiting out there didn't want her. It wanted him.
So this had to be dealt with on his own.
Taking one of his huge fists in her own tiny hands, the firstborn child of America regarded her companion anxiously.
"What's wrong? Is it something I can help with?"
Reaching out, Rojhaz gave her cheek a fond caress. "Virginia, you wait here with our friends. I'll be back soon, I promise you."
She didn't look very reassured by this statement, but she gave a nod in understanding.
After one final look at her, the warrior turned away. A hand on his arm alerted him to the invisible woman's presence once more, and he heard her say, "Don't be out there too long. We don't know precisely how much longer we have before the Time Distortion destroys all of Creation. We need you, more than anything else."
"It'll be all right," he responded back softly. "I promise you'll all be safe."
He did not add 'one way or another', but the two adults knew it.
Either they send me back to my time, or I die. Those are the only ways to win.
They watched him walk away.
It took him under an hour to locate his quarry. As he had expected, the man wasn't trying to hide from him. Just anyone else that might interfere.
Coming out onto a cliff overlooking the coastline, he spied a person in black robes seated on a chair by a large stone. An empty stool lay across from him.
Over the sound of the surf and the wind, Rojhaz then heard a voice, one that he had prayed to never hear again.
"Guten morgen, mein brav Hauptmann Amerika!"
The bare-chested champion made his way over to where that sinister figure sat. There was less than five feet of distance between them now. Rojhaz stared at that hairless face, the teeth bared in an unintentional grimace.
"Sit." His old enemy indicated the stool opposite him. "I stole these seats from your village. In return, perhaps you would like to share a drink with me." From a pack beside him, he then withdrew a bottle and two tankards. The cork popped out, and golden beer was soon foaming over the sides of the heavy stone cups.
Rojhaz made no move to comply with either suggestion.
A sip of his brew drew a grunt of satisfaction from the villain. "Good. Very good, like only Germans can make." Those bright hideous eyes peered up at the big man. "Though perhaps you would prefer good clean rainwater, eh, Geronimo? No chance of being poisoned then. I assure you, I have no intention of proceeding in such a prosaic fashion. Why, if I had brought the child here to accompany us, it would have been insufferably close to a scene from that one insipid movie you Americans adore. What was it called, again? 'The Princess…' Something along those lines."
"It's really you… isn't it?" Rojhaz murmured softly. "Not some past-life version."
"I assure you, I am the man I have always been, Aschblonde."
His opponent considered this.
Then he slowly seated himself across from the black-clad devil, though he made no move to touch the tankard. "Hello, Johann."
Johann Schmidt tilted his head curiously. "So that is how you want things? Very well, Rogers. That much is settled. Now, questions." Taking another drink, something he managed to perform with considerable aplomb despite having no lips, Schmidt leaned forward and said, "How shall we begin this conference of time-travelers?"
"For starters," Steve Rogers spoke with slow, deliberate care, "How did you follow me here?"
"Ah. I also have a vital question for you, but I will wait for a better time to ask it. How like you to be interested in reasoning things out when faced with something that makes no sense. But let me see…"
Johann looked off towards the ocean contemplatively, and for an instant Steve was seized by the instinct to lunge forward and snap this monster's neck before he could do any more harm. But as he had so many times before, he fought the compulsion down. An image of Victoria swam before his eyes, and he stubbornly refused to picture her in the archfiend's grip, preferring only to listen for now. In that time, his adversary had settled on a speech.
"When I learned what became of you, I was understandably irritated. After all, while I appreciated the cosmic irony of your own country turning on you and damning your soul to oblivion, that was a pleasure I had always hoped to experience myself. So I set about seeking a means by which you could be brought back, located, or at the very least, share the same sphere with me again."
"People might think you're in love with me, Schmidt."
He had been looking to get a rise out of him; instead this tactic brought nothing more than a laugh.
"Rogers, any man or woman who thinks they stand a chance at catching your eye is bound to be disappointed! You are more in love with your own deluded ideal of America than you could possibly be with a mortal of flesh and blood. Although, if you found a figure who embodied those virtues to a sufficient extent, perhaps there is a chance for progeny in your future after all."
The way that skeletal figure leered at him right now was warning enough of where this conversation was headed. And when Schmidt leaned in and fixed him with a knowing look, Rogers got a sense of how disturbingly close their minds worked.
"She's a pretty child, your Virginia Dare."
Even knowing it was coming, it took a considerable amount of willpower not to end their peaceful dialogue and lapse into bone-jarring combat. But Steve Rogers had years of experience, and he was resolved not to let the bastard provoke him unnecessarily.
When nothing came of it, Johann settled back. "But you distracted me. You wished to know how I came to be here. Well, I should let you know that our separation has been rather long from my perspective. Over thirty years in the future, and ten more here. That's nigh on half a century you've eluded me, Rogers. Initially, I searched for a technical means by which to affect your return, that being my admitted forte. But none of the methods I devised proved sustainable. Not that I was incapable of recreating the nonsensical approach your abusers used to banish you in the first place, but it was so very random and crude as to render a precise set of calculations impossible to determine. Exactly what the world has come to expect of Americans."
He gave a contemptuous snort. "Truly, what could they have been thinking? I doubt they even knew what they were doing, probably using technology they had plundered from more intellectually-gifted minds. But I finally determined that rather than obliterating you as they intended, what actually happened was that you had been forcibly and violently removed from our chronological plane. As I said, repeating that procedure held absolutely no chance of locating your new time period. But when all my mechanical options failed, I was suddenly struck by inspiration, in a most Germanic fashion! To put it simply, Rogers, I remembered my cultural roots. And so, like Faustus before me, I bargained with the powers of darkness to transport me to your era."
At this point, Steve felt compelled to interrupt. "Johann, are you telling me that you sold your soul to the devil? Wouldn't that be a case of offering him something he already owned?"
The menacing figure chuckled. "Funny, mein Hauptmann. You have gained a sense of humor in prison, it seems. But no. No Mephisto for this wizard. I doubted my ability to come to a satisfactory conclusion in regards to him. Instead I sought out your friend Doctor Strange's nemesis, the interdimensional conqueror Dormammu. Rather than requiring servitude or any such nonsense, we bargained in terms of freedom. I affected his release from the Dark Dimension, and he in turn transported me out of a world that held no interest for me."
"I arrived in this time period ten years past, in the heart of mystical congruences known as the Bermuda Triangle in our day, or simply the Sargasso Sea in this one. It is my understanding that my appearance coincided with a particular quartet of adventurers sailing upon those same waters being transformed into certain… fantastic forms. They are currently at your colony of Roanoke, I believe. As for me, I found myself floating in the ocean, and guided only by my knowledge of the stars, I swam in the direction of civilization, arriving on the coast of Portugal after several months. Certain precautions regarding my appearance kept me from finding trouble with the Church," he indicated a black wooden mask that was lying on the stone table, "and so I journeyed to the Fatherland, where I took up service in the court of this age's Baron Zemo. Don't trouble yourself on that score, Herbert Zemo proved nothing like ours. Very noble old man, not inclined to scurrilous behavior."
Rogers stirred. "If you came looking to find me, Johann, why didn't you swim for America? It was a lot closer."
"But I couldn't be certain you were in America, eh, Hauptmann? And besides, it's a rather big country to scour in search of one person, especially for a lone individual. Instead I resolved to put myself in a position where I could utilize the finest social connections and spies at my disposal to keep an ear open for word of you. If you were operating in Europe, it wouldn't be in a shy capacity. Not with your overblown sense of heroics. Any other civilized spot, your distinctly Norwegian features would cause you to stand out and hinder your effectiveness. And if you were in America, I counted on you eventually contacting the settlers there, and word of a blonde blue-eyed Ubermensch leaking back to the continent. Though I must say, Rogers," Schmidt continued scornfully, "the people of this century must be hopelessly guileless as to not question the appearance of a seven-foot tall white-skinned Indian among them."
Something in this relation got Rogers' attention.
"You say you've been involved in politics, and also you've been keeping track of any sightings of me."
The German had another swallow of beer. "What of it?"
"Something that's been bothering me." Steve moved into a more advantageous position without much effort. "When we arrived in London, an assassin from Latveria tried to murder Virginia. He failed, but I have to wonder: why would Otto von Doom care about killing a little girl from the English colonies?"
"Oh, that." Schmidt took a drink and wiped the foam off with the back of his hand. "I heard about you and the girl, as well as your devotion to her, from travelers to the colony. When last I visited the Count's court in the guise of a wandering pilgrim, I informed our world-conquering friend that the girl was destined to rule the planet, in accordance with some musty church prophesy I cobbled together and in defiance of his own hopes in that regard. Things proceeded naturally from there."
The seeming savage absorbed this information. "I see."
And then he tore across the table.
Any other man wouldn't have been able to avoid the attack at such close range. But not this one. Schmidt moved gracefully in his seat to evade him, the tankard still at his mouth. As Roberts swung a massive fist backhand in his direction, he ducked with the same level of superhuman dexterity as his attacker, and then smashed the stone flagon to pieces against the side of his head.
Steve recovered swiftly and rounded on his foe, who had danced a few paces back and stood in a martial artist's stance. They closed slowly, warily on one another then.
A kick that could have uprooted a small tree soared towards the villain's skull, but instead of ducking, he braced his feet and caught the blow on one forearm. Chemically enhanced muscles absorbed the shock, and the smaller fighter slid in and aimed a punch for the heavy man's exposed crotch. The Indian pivoted on one foot to evade and brought his arm chopping down like a tomahawk at the same instant. Schmidt in turn converted his attack by bowing at the waist and kicking up with his heel at the spot where the blonde head now occupied.
Both blows connected. Rogers twisted his neck to minimize the damage, and Johann continued his previous motion to do the same. At that point while they were close together, a great hand clutched at the remaining tankard, raising it on high to swing. In the same instant, a knife appeared in the black-gloved fist and sliced through deerskin breeches to press against the femoral artery.
Their eyes met, and they faced one another down, each frozen in that weird tableau, prepared to do what they felt was necessary.
"The Super-soldier Serum in both of us virtually guarantees we shall survive," the German rasped. "All we shall gain from this is pain."
"Dammit, Schmidt!" the American spoke from between clenched teeth. "What do you want from me?"
"I believe I just told you, dorf trottel! PAIN! Pain of the everlasting variety!"
Poised to crush the fiend's skull, Steve Rogers felt a terrible weariness steal over him.
He then let the tankard fall from his grip.
"Do it, then," he spoke, his voice dull and sick. "Hurt me as much as you like. Kill me if you can. If it's the only way to put an end to this, then so be it."
Brown eyes stared into blue ones.
Then slowly, the killer drew himself up straight. The dagger disappeared back into its sheathe, and he stood looking into the face of his hated enemy.
"No, Hauptmann Amerika. It is not with this that I shall destroy you. Or even the girl, much as I know how her death would grieve you. I chose not to slay her last night, because it dawned upon me that you would suffer the less from it. If you lost all hope, it would not hurt you so badly when I explained what happened to our world after you left it. Would you like to hear the tale, eh?"
"Stop it, already." Rogers seated himself on the rock and slumped forward on his knees, looking sad and spent. But the maniac continued as though he hadn't even heard.
"You still do not understand our purpose in this universe, do you, Amerikaner? When the both of us assumed our natural ages years past, and fought as two old men on the verge of death, I explained to you the great cosmic potential that was carried in our conflict. It was our destiny to battle one another, until one had been completely vanquished! Not just in body, but in spirit. Even after you won, and I perished despite your refusal to give the killing blow, you balked at grasping that perfect order! Perhaps it was this failing on your part that allowed me to return from beyond the grave so many times. And because of your failure, our destinies that had been so clear became muddied!"
Steve blew out his breath in a sigh. "God, you're mad. I wish I knew what made you so utterly certain of all this lunacy, but…"
Schmidt walked up and slapped him across the face.
Clutching his stinging cheek, the guardian of liberty glanced up at his adversary with surprise.
"Dumkoff!" the reborn Nazi yelled. "Everything that happened was YOUR FAULT! You were so blind to the truth, living in your fat lazy stupid American paradise. Because their defender failed to act according to his destined purpose, all began to unravel. Being outside of that system, you could not see where it was heading, but I… I DID! I watched as your so-called haven of liberty grew corrupt, rotting from pride and decadent ignorance while continuing to bray and slaver about equality. With your benighted countrymen lashing out against all those they considered their enemies: the Muslims, the foreigners, the homosexuals and learned intelligentsia. How I delighted at their fervor, mein Hauptmann! With their blind, fear-filled, slavish devotion to the words of their leaders, believing everything they were told or simply not caring if it made no real sense. They just waved their flags and shouted threats against any who disagreed with them, handing over more of their freedoms in exchange for the perception of security! Suspected traitors being arrested on the streets and in their homes and being sent to secret prisons without trials! Sitting back and not caring when their elected representative declared himself President-for-Life? The pomp and circumstance of a self-absorbed society! Do you have any idea how hard I LAUGHED, when I heard your politicians accusing each other of trying to create a fascist government, when they had already done what I had believed impossible? Resurrected the spirit of my nation on America's shores, Nazi Germany reborn? A FOURTH Reich?"
Steve didn't respond to any of this, and Schmidt continued uninterrupted. "You tried to fight it, but by then, it was too late. Your efforts were embarrassing to watch, I'll have you know. All you had to do was kill a few key people, and the rest would fall upon each and tear the mess apart in their desperate fury to protect themselves and come out on top. But you couldn't even do that! Instead four years after your defeat, when the world economy finally, mercifully collapsed for good, your blustering imbecile of a President appeared on television to placate the masses and assure them that all was well. And while he was sitting there on the screen, smiling like a banal fool, one of the bodyguards behind him pulled a gun and blew their leader's brains out on live television!"
Shmidt paused gleefully to remember the moment, then carried on. "No warning, no reason given! Just one man finally reacting in the only way that made any sense. It was an absolutely beautiful sight, and all the more so because I had nothing to do with it! I watched it for hours on end, and couldn't stop laughing! They gunned down the assassin, and afterwards when that goblin of a Vice-president assumed command, your country finally self-destructed. Virtually every state seceded from the rest of the Union, and civil war was declared between them. Soldiers and police officers killed anyone they saw on the streets because they were ordered to, until finally their own family members murdered them in their sleep just to stop the slaughter. Washington, D.C. was burned to the ground, and the new President-for-Life was hanged on the White House lawn by a howling mob. More cities followed, until the United States of America was just forty or so tiny screaming independent nations intent on killing their neighbors to survive, most armed with nuclear weapons of some sort. Once they launched one missile, it was like eating peanuts, and they couldn't stop! The North American continent was virtually blasted off the map. Purple mountains majesty no longer!"
"Does it matter anymore what happened?" The American super-soldier's words sounded flat, devoid of feeling. "You don't understand, they're going to send me back there anyway. I don't know when I'll return, maybe right when I left, so everything you've told me might have to change. It's all being arranged as we speak, by my friends. I have to go back, they tell me. Otherwise the world, time itself… maybe even the universe… it all might end."
"What's that?" Johann peered down at him suspiciously. He cast a glance all around them. "You are telling me… the storms, the discrepancies in history I have seen, even all these familiar faces… it is attributed to you?"
Steve only shrugged.
"You?" the cadaverous terror repeated. "You are telling me that the cosmos might be destroyed because of Captain America?"
And with that, he threw back his head and laughed like the madman so many proclaimed him to be.
When he paused to catch his breath, Schmidt gasped out, "Oh, Rogers, it is simply too amusing! And you still do not see the grand absurd jest, do you? Whereas I have been reviled the world over as a demon and monster, a threat to all mankind, in the end it is you who has proven to be the world's bane! YOU are the menace who might actually condemn all their souls to the Unterwelt! Valhalla shall not open its gates for you, will it, my friend? Instead it is Dante's Inferno, as you unleash the Gotterdammerung upon us all! The Twilight of the Gods!"
"I'm not going back."
There came a pause in their conversation, one that stretched for several minutes. Steve made no attempt to fill that void. There was nothing to be heard now, save for the churning of the waves against the shore, the wind blowing off the ocean, and the sound of birds in flight.
The sound of his America.
"What does that mean, Hauptmann?"
There was no point in responding, so he didn't.
Johann removed a rolled cigarette and lit it with a match of his own creation, exhaling the smoke contemplatively. He then began walking in a circle around the seated warrior, speaking all the while.
"You are going to remain in this period, I take it. Damn the fates and prophesies of doom, and make a life for yourself here, at the very birthplace of your country, as I was present for the birth of my Germany. I could almost admire such sheer brazen folly, were it possessed by a more intelligent man." The black-clad lecturer wagged the hand holding the cigarette. "Everything is becoming clear to me now, Wunderkind. You are like a child told by his parents that he cannot play outside anymore and must go to bed. You have convinced yourself that there was an actual purpose for your coming back to this era. That the stupidities of your faltering future nation actually were meant to provide their iconic hero with the opportunity to correct all the mistakes of the past. And so Steve Rogers, the immortal patriot, will walk through American history, using his knowledge of bygone events to retroactively right all the wrongs your countrymen perpetrated, against themselves and everyone else. With you guiding them by example, there will be no slaughter of the native tribes that inhabit this land, will there? No 'Massacre at Wounded Knee', no 'Trail of Tears', not even a French and Indian War if you can help it. Instead the colonists will grow to love and cherish their primitive neighbors, and the two tribes will benefit from one another."
Rogers' crystal-blue eyes watched the man as he went by, but otherwise he made no attempt to disturb this recitation, which paralleled his own thoughts so closely.
"But you won't stop there, will you, Aschblonde? No, you will also see to it that the Salem Witch Trials do not happen, and the Negroes are never enslaved on these shores, won't you? Let the darkies come and be free of all discrimination. There won't be a need for a Civil Rights movement with you championing their cause, nor even a Civil War to begin with. Clearly you've thought a great deal about what must be done, so that America need never feel ashamed of its past as it did in our time. But can you truly do it, Rogers?"
Schmidt left off his pacing, and sat down beside the half-naked hulk.
"Let us be truthful here. You are of no great intelligence. Honest and brave, yes, but I doubt your mind can be relied upon to counter every evil shadow that creeps into the hearts of men. So what if you put out a few fires of hate? Humanity will dream up new ones, the likes of which will leave you grasping and striving vainly to counteract them. And history will repeat itself. Can you foresee every fault before it happens, eh?"
He held out the burning nub of his cigarette. "Consider this: tobacco, grown here in the States and popularized into a prosperous worldwide phenomenon. It was a crucial staple of the Colonies initially. And four hundred years later, the end result was a pandemic of cancer and addiction to this 'noxious weed' that straddled the globe, buoyed by greedy American businessmen who cared nothing for the lives that ended prematurely as a result of their product. Did it occur to you that this is another crime that can be laid at your nation's doorstep, one that you must take steps to ameliorate before it grows too big for any one man to stop?"
A frown etched its lines into Steve Rogers' brow.
"What about the whaling and fishing industry? Can you prevent the honest, short-sighted sailors of this land from driving all those species to the brink of extinction in two hundred years? Or the buffalo. Will Buffalo Bill find you standing in his path with a spear, advising him to go home and plant squash and cabbages rather than slaughtering the land-cows? It's a very big country, Herr Amerika. And there are so very many crimes that can be committed in those vast open plains."
When his archrival yet made no move to defend himself or his people, only stared straight ahead at the dancing blue horizon, the enemy of democracy leaned in and hissed right in his ear.
"So here, then, is the question I promised you earlier, Hauptmann Amerika. It is one I believe you have heard before, and undoubtedly asked countless times without really expecting a response. Answer me this, schwein, and I will leave you in peace."
The next words came out in a pleased, gross chuckle.
"Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?"
A violent shudder went through Rogers' bowed frame, and Schmidt drew himself up.
"There is no need for you to think on it. I believe we know the correct response to that now, do we not, superheld?"
"It doesn't have to turn out that way," Steve insisted stubbornly. "They're my people. I have to try and help them."
"And you expect that everything Richards told you, or Reed, or whatever he calls himself now, that will not come to pass? Time will not destroy itself, the Universe need not unravel, simply owing to awe at your nobility of purpose?"
Captain America closed his eyes.
"I have to try."
A click sounded before him.
Looking up, he found a Desert Eagle pistol being aimed at his chest.
"Something I spent several years building," Johann said by way of explanation. "We couldn't bring anything back with us, after all. That would pollute the time stream."
"Put it away, Schmidt," Rogers spoke wearily. "They put a bullet in my head and it didn't kill me. What good will that do you now?"
"They didn't know where to aim, Rogers," his grisly nemesis replied. "But I know how our organic systems work far better than them or you. Whatever you might think, we are not truly immortal. Several of these cyanide-tipped hollow-point bullets precisely through your heart, spine and brain, and even your body will recognize the futility in going on."
He remained sitting stock-still. "You came all this way just to kill me?"
"I am the only one who can. I imagine your death will have the same results for the time-stream as sending you home would have. Home or heaven, it matters not to me. Just so long as your dream dies with you."
The hero nodded, his eyes drifting off to one side. "I see."
There came a whistling sound, and then a stone-tipped arrow was protruding through Johann Schmidt's outstretched forearm.
Before he could respond, Rogers dove forward, and this time the charge connected. In an instant he had tackled his startled opponent to the ground. Wrenching the advanced firearm from his bleeding grip, he pointed it at Schmidt's chest.
They glared at one another.
"So you brought friends after all, eh, mein held?"
"Surely a few Stone-Age people with bows and arrows shouldn't be a problem for the Master Race?" Steve breathed softly. Then, in a much more menacing timbre, "You shouldn't have threatened Virginia."
His voice was steady, but Johann did not fail to notice the tension in his enemy's square jaw. The sight made him chuckle even in his helpless position.
"Have you come to a different conclusion, then, about what must be done to triumph this time?" His voice turned low and seductive, the tones of a devious trickster that had enticed many trusting souls into placing their faith in him throughout the years. "Are you prepared to be America's original murderer? Will you kill your brother, Cain?"
The personification of American virtue stared down at the emblem of Nazi tyranny.
"Reed says there are millions of different realities, all with various versions of how things work out. I chose not to kill you in the last one, for what I thought were good reasons. This time, I think I'll be a little selfish."
He pulled the trigger three times. Once for the chest, another in the throat, and lastly in the brain.
Rising off the body, Steve Rogers picked it up by one leg and dragged it over to the cliff's edge. He flung it into the ocean, followed by the paradoxical pistol.
He then went to thank the tribesmen waiting in the woods.
Sir Nicholas Fury, formerly of Queen Elizabeth's spy squadron, staggered towards the glowing portal with the unconscious body of Rojhaz the Future-Man draped across his shoulders. The Indian had proven resistant to their enterprise in the end, stating that he intended to remain here and see his nation's future done right. A simple deception, combined with the fellow's trusting nature, had allowed Fury to club him senseless and remove any such fanciful notions from play. He then carried the incredible weight of that man for miles towards their goal, slogging through knee-deep bogs and across rocky, uneven ground until his strength was largely gone.
But the glowing band, that Time Scar or whatever you want to call it, was now just a few yards away.
"Reed!" the English spy-master screamed hoarsely to his hidden comrades. "I brought… Rojhaz! Whatever you're… going to do… do it… now!"
The world was leeched of all color around him, rendering everything a shade of gray save for that small golden glow hovering over the prairie. It was hard to lend credence to the idea that such a thing represented the possible destruction of Heaven and Earth.
Then in the center of that light, the looped Moebius Strip of Time split and expanded at the behest of that era's Master of Magnetism, while at the same moment, the Norse God of Storms swung his hammer and called down lightning from a clear sky.
When that bolt struck the golden arc, it flared with new force, making Fury's one good eye squint and illuminating the grass with an angelic aura. Stumbling forward, his legs threatening to buckle at any second, the striving soul wondered if he was about to pass through the Gates of Paradise after all.
"Just a few more… steps," he gasped and panted, striving to convince his weary body that it was not about to collapse. "Only a few… more… steps."
With his eye locked on that wondrous display, Sir Nicholas did not see the shadowy figure stealing upon him from behind. Huddled in the trench they had dug, neither did any of the others.
I have to get Rojhaz out of here. My Queen, my country, my honor, it's all lost to me. But this I can do. This…
His foot slipped on a wet patch of grass, and the exhausted soldier felt himself begin to topple only a yard away from the portal.
Damn me. I came so close. Fury, you shameless failure, you've doomed us…
And someone caught him.
"Faltering at… the last moment! How did your weak people… endure the Blitz?"
Whoever spoke wrapped an arm around his back and helped him stagger forward. The realization that he had not fallen gave Nicholas the strength to carry on those last few feet.
Turning his head to the right a moment before the end, he found his savior to be none other than Death, with a red skull and living eyes in its sockets.
They passed through the golden arch, and the horizon of earth and sky melted away.
Walking now, Fury felt as if every step he took was traversing a thousand miles, though there were no landmarks to explain why he should think that. It just felt like they were moving incredibly fast. After a moment, this sensation went away, and they passed through white nothingness, while all around them, what looked to be hazy reflections of themselves moved purposefully in the same direction. Could these be the other versions of Nicholas Fury that Reed had warned him might exist throughout time? They all seemed to be headed on the same journey. Towards what, he could not say.
Then suddenly, the unholy figure at his side spit blood. Without thinking how he should be afraid of it, the British spymaster asked, "Are you injured?"
"Pah!" Death snarled. "Spare me your… concern, Engländer. Just be grateful this… great oaf we carry… has little experience in killing people. Otherwise… we might all be doomed."
Its voice held a familiar accent. "You speak German?"
"I am German!" his ally commented haughtily, a bravado that was marred by fresh blood emerging from his throat in a hacking cough. A black-gloved hand wiped evidence of this away. "A good thing the Hauptmann did not check… to see if I was wearing armor beneath my coat. The pistol… was not the only thing… I worked to build."
The Englishman recalled hearing a Hessian mercenary from his younger days recounting this story from his homeland about a German who played a game of chess with Death, but the details slipped away from him. Perhaps this figure was related to that folktale in some way.
They continued for a ways without exchanging words. It came to Fury then that some of the shadow versions of themselves were altering as they walked, taking on different clothing and appearances with every step.
"It was a… joke, by God."
The one-eyed warrior looked over at the hideous visage so near his own then. "Pardon?"
"A joke, Zyklops! I finally… realized it." The German reached up and wiped more blood from the hole in his temple. "If Captain America was about to destroy the Universe… would it not be quite hilarious… if it was the Red Skull who saved it? Would even God Himself… be willing to admit as to… the absurdity of it all then? I have to wonder… will anyone back home laugh… when I tell them? Yes, I certainly do."
Just then, someone giggled faintly.
Glancing behind, Sir Nicholas saw a strange trio. One of them was a great muscular man garbed in a blue cloak and skin-tight gray uniform, with a mask that covered the top of his face and two horns emerging from it. Beside him was a younger fellow, dressed in colorful clothing of red and green that made him look quite festive by comparison, with a short black half-cape across his shoulders and an Italian fete mask over his eyes. The third looked to be a clown, wearing purple garments and sporting a white face with green hair. Red lips curved in a truly frightening smile. It was this last who had laughed, and continued to do so, though clearly his comrades saw nothing funny about the situation.
Fury had to concur with them. Now was not a good time for mirth. Instead he turned his attention back to whatever awaited them up ahead. The future, or damnation, he could not say.
Against his instincts, he decided to ask Death.
"Do you know where we are going, sir?"
The grim reaper slogged along beside him in silence for a while. Just when Fury was considering repeating the question, he got his answer.
"Where, you ask? Why, to the land of the free… and the home of the brave!"
They kept on going, writing a story four-hundred years in the making.
The tale of America.