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Ne'er Say We Die

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To think that it all began with the asking of a question.

Not an entirely simple question, but a straightforward enough one. The weight it carried was only that endowed by the eagerness of Jane’s scientific curiosity.

To say that Jane, in the midst of what she believed was uncovering something new in her work, had a driven personality was to give too much of a slight. She seemed an ordinary enough mortal woman but when it came to inquiry and discovery a fire burned within her. The Asgardians had learned to recognize it, to give her what she wanted and stay out of her way, as they looked on in curious admiration from afar.

Any puzzlement they once had over their prince’s infatuation of her, lovely but human, had faded, once they’d come to know what she was within. They spoke of her with respect, a wizard of the strange magic known as ‘physics’.

Her reputation preceded her. Though, just this once, if Jane had possibly known what would come of her actions, the trouble it would cause for her friend Darcy, maybe she would’ve stopped herself from asking the question.

Then again…maybe not.

She and Thor were that afternoon down by the far end of the rainbow bridge outside of Asgard’s capitol, where a splintered and scarred end petered off into black and open space.

A short distance from the edge, her fixation in the search for information doing wonders to counter her vertigo, Jane knelt and examined the energies being given off by the structure with a piece of equipment she’d brought from home.

Thor stood a few feet back, enough not to be in her way. He did an admirable job of staying silent as he watched her with a smile – for he thought she was just about never more lovely than when she was caught up like this, her eyes seeming to shine brighter with an excited fury.

Heimdall held his post at the space that once had held the Bifrost, never blinking or shifting from his upright pose, sword in hands, and gave no outward sign he was bothered by or had even noticed the mortal’s presence.

Jane finished reading off the output. “I’ll have to take these numbers back to the lab, to analyze them more fully.”

But even as she made her statement and got to her feet, she was frowning and shaking her head.

Thor noticed, and stepped closer. “Is something wrong?”

She opened her mouth, lips already forming the word ‘no’, and then stopped. She sighed. “This is taking so long, Thor.” She turned to look up at him. “Not that I don’t thoroughly appreciate all the help that you and the other Asgardians have had to offer, but even after all the months of analyzing things from this end, I feel like I’m getting nowhere.”

“You successfully recreated the effect of your own Bifrost,” Thor exclaimed, “a feat that none would have thought possible, mortal or otherwise.” He reached to touch one side of her face with his broad palm. “You should be proud.”

Jane placed her hand on top of his hand, distracted for a moment. But she shook her head again.

“That was a while ago. And my version of the Bifrost is hardly perfect,” she reminded him. What she had built relied too heavily on natural weather patterns for an energy source – even with a bit of luck, it could sometimes take weeks after one generation to create another, during which time any would-be travelers would be stuck on one side. “If you’re ever going to be able to freely come and go as you please, I need to figure out how the original was powered.”

“What you have gathered here today is not enough?”

“Not really.” Despite herself Jane’s exasperation was beginning to show through in her voice. She hated being up against a dead-end like this, when all the effort and calculations in the world couldn’t seem to do anything. It was just so frustrating. “The Bifrost itself was completely destroyed – all I have to go on are these…ghostly traces of residual energy it left behind. It’s just not enough to build a working theory on!”

Thor moved his hands to her shoulders, embracing her lightly in a vain hope to try and calm her down. Jane kept speaking, gesturing.

“What I really needed was a chance to study the event while it was happening: a trans-dimensional bridge in action, not what’s left over after the fact.” She exhaled heavily. Closing her eyes she rested her cheek against Thor’s chest. “But with the Bifrost your people built gone, of course that’s impossible.”

They only had a moment to get comfortable against one another, before suddenly Heimdall spoke.

“This gateway may be gone, but there is another.”

There was a beat. And then swiftly Jane opened her eyes again, pulling back from Thor so that she could peer past him, sharply, at Heimdall.

“What?” she demanded.

The great guardian stared straight ahead, not looking at Jane even though it was clear it was to her that he spoke.

“The Bifrost built by the great ancestors of Asgard is long gone, its secrets all but lost to us. But the people of Nornheim have something of their own that is very similar.”

“Nornheim?” Jane’s hands still rested against Thor, his on her shoulders; she looked back at him, seeking an explanation. “That’s what – another of the nine realms?”

“After a fashion,” Thor answered, seeming bemused by Heimdall’s offering of information, thoughtful. “Though their world is far closer to ours than any other. We have always been able to journey there across land rather than by using the Bifrost.”

“So you go there often?”

“Not…that often.” Thor’s face became stern, mouth set in a line. “Nornheim is ruled over by the Norns, a sisterhood of enchantresses. Things between our worlds are diplomatic, civil, but not entirely friendly. Most of my travels there were in my youth, in search of adventure.”

Jane twisted in his grasp, looking questioningly back to Heimdall. “But they have a Bifrost?”

“They have their own way of walking the path between other worlds,” Heimdall corrected, flatly. “It is not the Bifrost. It was not built by the same architects. But the way it functions is much the same.”

Jane’s expression was purpose-driven. “Do you think they would let me look at it?”

The golden eyes at last moved to look at her. “That, you would have to ask them,” he informed her, simply.

Jane spun back to Thor, excited. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!” She rambled on, not giving him at first a chance to speak. “If I can have a chance to study a real, working device that embodies all the principles of an Einstein-Rosenberg bridge, that might provide the clue that I need, to get what I’ve invented finally working!”

Thor gazed down at her, smiling faintly. “If this is what you desire Jane then I will do what I must to make it so.”

He grasped her shoulders firmly, bending so that he looked her straight in the eyes, taking in her grinning face as he swore, “We will ride to Nornheim. The Norns should open their gates to us. And there we will hopefully find the answers that you seek.”

“Your highness,” Heimdall spoke again, causing Thor to glance back in his direction just as they’d been preparing to leave.

“What is it, Heimdall?”

His great helmeted head turned, staring down at Thor with serious weight. “The Norns are not renowned for their trickery. But they are a long-lived race, full of knowledge and easily bored. They offer freely but often give only at a secret price.” There was a pause as if he was waiting for those words to sink in before adding, “My advice to you is to take your brother along.”

Thor blinked a few times, puzzled. But he responded, “If that is your counsel, wise Heimdall, then I shall take heed of it. My thanks.” He bowed then reached out to take Jane by the hand. “Jane, come. We shall go back home, to gather ourselves quickly for our journey.”

She let him pull her in easily, wrapping arms around his midsection to hang on as he used Mjolnir to fly them away.

*

As soon as they got back to the palace Thor began giving orders grandly, sending servants and guards running to gather horses and outfit them and send word to the king and queen they were leaving.

Jane stood off to the side, arms folded, smiling faintly. Watching Thor in his element was always interesting. And it was obvious from his behavior and everyone else’s that this sort of thing was commonplace – him venturing off at the drop of a hat, for some unspecified amount of time in search of a new adventure.

She wondered if it was common for everyone on Asgard, or just Thor and his friends.

“What ho! Thor, what is all this?”

Jane’s head shot up at the voice, startled. As if summoned by her thought of them, Thor’s group of warrior companions had appeared, Fandral bringing up the head with Volstagg, Sif and Hogun close behind. They looked about, taking in the preparations.

Fandral continued, astute, “It looks as if you’re about to partake in some quest!”

“And without inviting us?” Sif demanded, head swinging towards Thor, her expression cheeky.

Volstagg gave an amused huff. “Can’t be going all that long,” he observed. “Not bringing much in the way of rations.” Moving to one of the saddlebags he removed an apple and took a bite.

“Fear not, my friends,” Thor assured them with a boisterous chuckle. “I go only to escort my lady Jane to the household of the Norns. She wishes to make observation of some of their magic.”

“They have an inter-dimensional gateway,” Jane put in quickly, explaining. “Something that might be similar to the Bifrost. I just want to look at it, study it a little. Maybe ask some questions…”

“But is not sallying forth in search of answers, even minor ones, the very picture of a quest?” Fandral exclaimed.  He gestured grandly at Thor, with a flourish. “Of course it would be only our greatest pleasure to accompany you.”

“It has been far too quiet around here, now that you do most of your battles elsewhere,” Hogun put in, more frankly. “We could use a break from the boredom.”

Thor nodded, still beaming, unhesitant. “Well of course if the four of you wish to join us, you are welcome.” He winked at Fandral and stepped forward to clap Hogun on the shoulder. “Sadly, I cannot promise much in the way of excitement, but we will do what we can.”

Jane barely fought back a groan. This wasn’t at all what she’d had in mind. She liked Thor’s friends well enough but it was hardly going to be a quick scientific journey with all of them tagging along.

Even though it was probably too late, she tried to undo the damage; “Actually,” she said, “I think the plan originally was only to take Loki along…”

She realized immediately that she’d made a mistake. At the mention of Loki’s name a stiff tremor went through the four, though the men endeavored to hide it.

Sif did not. There was a cool hardness in her eyes as she declared, brusquely, “If Loki is going with Thor, then so are we.” Her tone left no room for argument.

“We can’t let him have all the fun,” Volstagg added more lightly, trying to defuse Sif’s angry if unspoken accusation.

The implication was clear however. None of them fully trusted Loki, especially not to be left alone with his brother, and no one guarding Thor’s back.

Jane’s feelings on the matter were torn. Her first introduction to Loki had been under unfavorable circumstances. Her attitude towards him was doubtful and never entirely warm. But she tried to be understanding of how strongly Thor was attached to his brother.

And her heart always sank a little in sympathy she couldn’t help feeling, whenever she witnessed the circle left open between Loki and the rest of Asgard; cold and suspicious and disapproving.

If Thor noticed the way his friends were acting right then, however, he did a good job of hiding it.

“The five of us, partaking on a journey together,” he stated merrily. “Truly, it will be just like old times!” He glanced towards Jane and his expression took on a softer kind of happiness. “Except that Jane will there, to make it all the more pleasant.”

Jane returned his smile as best she could, though the feeling in her gut told her they were already off to a bad start.

They were all startled by a sudden high-pitched sound, like the frantic bleating of a goat. Though it wasn’t a goat that bolted into the room then but a small unicorn, not quite waist-high, with a brown and white speckled hide. It ran on spindly but still obviously functional legs, darting around the room in circles, trailing a golden leash.

“Unicorn on the loose! Look out below! Gangway!”

Darcy appeared in the doorway, her breath huffing slightly from exertion, holding up the skirt of the Asgardian dress she was wearing awkwardly with both hands.

“Sorry guys,” she offered. “He got away from me again.” Craning her head in the direction her pet had gone she whistled. “Bad Spot! Come here, boy.”

“Save your breath, Darcy.” Loki slid in behind her, hands going briefly to her shoulders as if she needed steadying balance. “I’ll collect him.”

Fandral shot up quickly. “Oh no, no – my fair lady, allow me.” He beamed in Darcy’s direction and unfastened his cape. He waved it like a bullfighter, apparently planning to toss it over the wayward unicorn like a net.

Loki gave him a withering, annoyed look. It was all for naught though: once it calmed down, the unicorn wandered straight to Volstagg, wanting a bite of the apple still in his hand. With his free arm he scooped it up easily, laughing.

“That wasn’t so hard,” he had to remark.

“Oh. Well done, Volstagg,” Fandral managed offhandedly, though he was still embroiled in a slight staring contest with Loki.

From where she stood Jane could see the younger prince’s throat work as he swallowed dryly. His gaze slid sideways to fix purposefully on his brother.

“You sent for me?” he asked, as if Thor was the only one in the room.

“Aye, yes.” Thor nodded to him. “We’re going to the Norns. Heimdall recommended that you come along. It seems that once again there is fear that without you I will manage to get myself into too much trouble!”

Thor made the joke easily, carefree, and Loki forced a smile that seemed genuine so long as one didn’t look too closely at his eyes.

“Of course, if that’s what you want. I’ll accompany you, brother. It would be my pleasure.”

Sif strode forward, arms swinging, shoulders squared. “I will be all our pleasures.” Her voice had a note of a challenge.

Loki’s posture grew even stiller as he met Sif’s hostile stare. “Oh – you’re coming too?” It was both a question and not. “How wonderful.”

“Isn’t it just?” Thor swung arms around their shoulders companionably, causing each to stumble with the sudden weight before quickly recovering. But there was a fierceness to Thor’s smile this time that suggested he was not entirely clueless.

“Peace, the two of you,” he said in a tone that sounded very much like an order, glancing between them. “Remember that we are all friends here.”

Loki gave a smile that was more of a smirk, shrewd and mirthless. “If you say.”

Sif was slower to respond as she slipped Thor’s grasp, nostrils flaring. She nodded once, hard. “Of course.”

“You guys are going somewhere?”

Everyone else’s heads turned as Darcy spoke. In all of the tension, they’d as good as forgotten she was there.

Darcy stood on her tiptoes, straining to take them and the room and the gathered supplies all in. Spot nuzzled against her leg, chewing her dress, and with one hand she sloppily carded fingers through his mane.

She blinked hopefully. “Can I come too?”

Loki opened his mouth: “That might not be such a good idea-”

He was drowned out by Thor and Fandral declaring as one, “Of course you can!”

Jane squeezed her eyes shut, shoulders dropping, and this time she did let out a heavy sigh.

Great; now it had somehow become a field trip.

Opening her eyes she addressed Darcy, sternly. “The unicorn isn’t coming along.”

*

Jane had never before in her life ridden a horse.

She supposed it was a thing every little girl was thought to have accomplished at least once before growing up, but somehow, she missed out on that one.

Not in much of a hurry to start learning now, she’d been more than willing to agree to ride as Thor’s passenger. She sat in front and held the saddle horn for balance between her hands, back pressed securely to Thor’s chest, his body warm even through a layer of clothing and armor. His arms went around her as he held the reins in a clearly practiced manner, not having any difficulty keeping a view of what was ahead past her tiny frame.

Darcy had ended up paired off with Sif, possibly to keep Loki and Fandral from slowing everybody down with another staring match. She balked at the idea of sitting in front of the other woman though, the balancing act implied too much for her to handle, and instead insisted on “riding bitch”.

The mare carrying the two women trailed close behind Thor and Jane. If she turned her head and looked under Thor’s elbow, Jane could make out partial glimpses of them and the rest of the pack.

“Are you doing all right there, Darcy?” Fandral asked her good-naturedly, bringing his horse almost alongside theirs.

Darcy nodded, comfortable with her arms wrapped around Sif’s waist, though she kept shifting her body below the hips slightly.

“Yeah,” she told him, perfectly carefree “It’s just been a long time since I’ve had something this big between my legs.”

Sif didn’t bat an eye but Fandral started so hard that the reins went taut in his hands, his horse mistaking it for a signal to stop. Loki vaulted past him on his sleek black mount, laughing openly.

It took a few hours but they made it to the border of Nornheim without incident. Instead of any kind of obvious tower or gate or wall, the marker was a sheer wall of a cliff’s side that stretched on far as they eye could see.

Directly before them was a shimmering waterfall that came from overhead. But at the bottom where it should have hit the ground or run into a lagoon, it disappeared inside a small cloud of mist.

“There is the entrance,” Thor proclaimed for Jane and Darcy’s benefit. Jane looked around but couldn’t see anything besides the waterfall itself. “Here we will dismount.”

Some of the horses were starting to shy and twitch anyway, as if something bothered them. Even if they’d been allowed they probably would have ventured no further. After tying the animals off to ensure they’d stay, the group walked the rest of the way forward.

The waterfall echoed with a proud roar, but Jane frowned as she realized something was wrong. She had been to Niagara Falls before – underneath it you couldn’t even hear yourself think. The sound should have been much louder.

“Is the way clear, brother?” Thor asked.

Loki stepped forward, Jane all but losing sight of him completely in the mist. He was eyeing with scrutiny something she couldn’t see. At last he stuck his hand through the curtain of water, seeming unaffected by its touch or force.

He nodded. “After you?” he offered with a thin smile.

Thor grasped Jane’s hand and she let him take it automatically, not sure what to expect as he led her forward. The closer she got to the waterfall the more that she noticed. The air wasn’t cold enough. She couldn’t smell any moisture.

Jane took a deep breath but was only mildly surprised when they walked through where the waterfall should have been, and she felt nothing. It was an illusion.

The instant they passed it everything turned black and deathly silent. For a moment Jane couldn’t even hear herself breathe, and she was overcome by the sensation as if she floated in a void of space. She could feel Thor’s hand in hers and nothing more. Reflexively she clung to it tighter.

A strange shudder went through her entire body, and then they were walking forward into a circular room the color of iron, and there was light and sound again.

Thor led her off to one side, holding her upright as she touched her forehead dizzily, wordlessly asking her if she was alright. There was a fluttering sound as one by one the others appeared behind them.

“That was intense,” Darcy remarked aloud. “Like hopping on an express ride to Narnia.”

“There you are all,” a melodic voice noted, cheerily. Jane turned her head to realize they weren’t alone.

At the opposite end to the chamber, her back against an open door, was a woman with flowing yellow hair. Her ornate and loose robes wouldn’t have been out of place on Asgard, though she was probably too short and slight to fit in entirely among their people.

She bowed her head to the visitors, smiling.

“If you’ll follow me? Queen Karnilla has been expecting you.” As she turned to go, seeming to assume they’d follow, she continued, perfectly nonchalant, “You were supposed to have arrived several minutes ago.”

In the beat that followed her exit, Darcy broke the silence by saying, “Any chance you think that was just to freak us out?”

Jane exchanged a glance with her friend, brow furrowed, and tried to remember what Norse mythology she’d absorbed in the little time she had to spend on it. “The Norns are supposed to be able to see into the future, right?”

“They are said to have gifts of prophecy,” Sif explained. She sounded briefly irritated. “Though good luck getting any of them to tell you your fortune. They take on a vow of strictest secrecy.”

“Many a warrior of Asgard has ridden to the Norns seeking a glimpse at his fate,” Loki chimed in, quiet. “Most have ridden back with nothing to show for it.”

“You’ve stolen from the Norns before, though, haven’t you Loki?” Volstagg asked him, somewhat curtly. “At least that’s what the rumors say.”

Loki turned to favor him with a sour, dark grin. For a moment Jane felt a chill up her spine, wondering that a younger Loki might have seen his own future. With everything that was to happen, what could he have possibly glimpsed at?

“I have stolen things from them. Magic,” Loki informed them coolly. “Not information.” His eyes slid away, absent. “Even I was never quite so talented.”

Out of all the people that could have spoken next Jane was surprised it was Fandral. He laughed.

“What you’d need to be talented at in this case is earning the favor of women,” he suggested. He gave Loki a friendly enough pat on the shoulder as he walked by him – Loki turned to stare at the spot where Fandral had touched – as with his other hand he reflexively tousled his hair and smoothed his mustache. He squinted at the wall, endeavoring to see his reflection. “Something at which I have the most experience. Come along!”

Fandral practically bounded out of the room, as if eager to get on with seducing every Norn in sight. The others followed behind in varying states of amusement.

Jane had expected to be led into a throne room, but that didn’t appear to be where they ended up. At least it wasn’t at all like the one on Asgard, or any throne room she had ever seen or could imagine.

It was the inside of a cavern, the room built directly into the rock. At uneven intervals the natural surface was broken by large metallic circles that had been set into the stone, all over the wall, floors and even the ceiling, and every one wider across than the height of a man. The metal was covered by strange letters and patterns.

At the center of a room was a tall, robust woman with long wavy chestnut hair. In one hand she held a staff and there was a thin crown on her head.

Thor and the other Asgardians made to bow, and Jane and Darcy followed their leads with the best curtseys they could manage.

“Queen Karnilla. Thank you for your hospitality,” Thor intoned. “We come to your realm on a peaceful mission, in search of answers to questions posed by our mortal guests. We hope that you will oblige.”

“I know why you come here, prince.” Karnilla’s voice was stately and musical, with a lilting accent. She smiled at them serenely. “And it is only my pleasure to indulge your friend’s curiosity.” She waved a hand grandly, indicating the room around them.

“Look, Jane Foster. In this room is all that you seek. Look, and uncover at your leisure.”

Some of the color drained from Jane’s face at being addressed directly, her name already known, but it came rushing back as she took in what the Norn queen was saying to her. She shot to her feet, turning slowly as she took in the room.

“You mean…all these portals…?”

Karnilla nodded. “Gateways to another realm.” She shook her staff meaningfully – Jane noticed an object hung from the end of it, strange and complicated, like a thin metal puzzle. “This is the key that can be used to open any of them.”

Jane took a step, hesitated, and then rushed forward to examine the nearest circle, silver and set in the wall just above the level of her head. She ran fingers gingerly around the edge as she stared at it. The symbols didn’t appear to be the ones the Asgardians used, but some of them could be equations. Pulling a notepad and pen out of her jacket pocket she jotted them down, moving from one circle to the next as she tried to see if they had any patterns in common.

The rest of the group spread out, milling around the room. Thor remained close by her side but the others wandered.

“So,” Darcy observed, slowly, head tilting way back as she looked at the ceiling, “I’m noticing that there are way more than nine of these things.”

“Nine realms only refer to the major ones. The most expansive and explored,” Loki told her. He trailed close in her footsteps, following without making it too apparent. “There are, indeed, far more than that.”

He stopped where he stood, head turning.

“When the universe was formed, the fire of creation met the absolute cold of an abyss of nothingness. What was melded in the center mostly cracked into nine even pieces, but other worlds bubbled up in between. The unnamed realms.”

“Yes, what I wouldn’t give to set foot in one of those,” Fandral murmured exuberantly. “Uncharted territory. Now wouldn’t that be a lark! We never managed that even in the old days in all our wanderings.”

Karnilla smiled at him slowly from beneath her eyelashes.

“Is that what you would like? Is that what you desire?” she asked him. Her voice was pleasant, words carefully formed. “I would supply you with anything of all these worlds have to offer. You have but to ask.”

Something about her tone seemed to alarm Loki. He stilled, eyes flashing, and then he quickly turned to head in Fandral’s direction. His mouth was open in warning, one hand upraised to reach for the other warrior’s shoulder.

But Fandral had his back to him and noticed not at all.

“What I desire?” he repeated, cheerful but musing, clearly not taking Karnilla’s words as serious. “Good lady, that could be said to be many things,” he said to her with meaning, chortling. “But what I desire most these days, is adventure. I crave for it. I miss it so.”

Volstagg nodded enthusiastically. “Hear, hear!”

Karnilla smirked. Behind them, Loki had stopped in his tracks, eyes closed with a wince and a silent groan.

“So you seek to find adventure,” Karnilla stated.

“Yes,” Volstagg began – too late he saw the look on her face, and grew apprehensive. He tried backpedalling. “Er. I mean, no-”

Still smirking, Karnilla raised a hand with the object she had referred to as a key hanging from her palm. By some unseen mechanism the pieces turned. There was an audible click.

Loki moved to accost Fandral. “You great fool-!”

Fandral returned in affront, “Well now, hang on just a moment-!”

A short distance away from them, Darcy stood, unknowingly putting her back to a metal circle in the floor beside her feet. It flew open and a violent gust of air sucked her in. She tumbled backwards with a shriek, trying unsuccessfully to catch herself.

Both men ran to her in alarm. Bending down Fandral managed to grab one arm, Loki the other. Darcy clung for dear life as she hung over what seemed empty space.

“It’s alright, we’ve got you,” Loki tried to assure her, breathless.

“Hang on, Darcy,” Fandral exclaimed.

Darcy struggled to reply, frightened and having great physical difficulty. “I…” Her white fingers were slipping, the weight of her body dragged at by invisible winds. “I can’t!” she cried, just as she lost grip on them both.

She vanished from sight down the spinning dark hole. Loki was frozen, hands still outstretched, his face bloodless.

Fandral reacted very differently. Without a pause for thought he stepped back, enough room to give himself a running start as he dove in, headfirst.

Sif, Hogun and Volstagg stood close nearby, staring at what had happened. At the still open portal where both Darcy and Fandral had gone, that Loki now gaped at, doubly speechless.

Volstagg snapped out of it first. A conclusion seemed to come over his face. Hefting axe in both hands he gave a strange, amused chuckle. Striding over to the portal he jumped into it himself.

There was a beat, and then both Hogun and Sif turned to exchange a knowing, exasperated roll of the eyes.

Sif readied her glaive and went first, Hogun hanging back to check his own weaponry. By this time Thor and Jane rushed over, having finally noticed what was happening.

“What’s going on?” Jane demanded, alarmed.

“Where are you are all heading off to?” Thor asked in bemusement.

Hogun gave him a dry look. “Adventure, apparently,” he remarked. And then he too turned to follow into the portal after his fellows.

At that explanation Thor’s face broke into a wide, excited grin. “Excellent!” He started forward, but Jane quickly moved in front of him, holding up both hands to stop him as she got in his way.

“Thor, wait! We have no idea where they’ve been sent to, where they’re going or how long they’ll be gone. I really don’t think it’s a good idea to jump into this blind. And…and shouldn’t somebody stick around to go back to Asgard, to tell them what happened?”

Thor frowned, but begrudgingly listened to her. He turned his attentions toward Karnilla. “What is it that you have done to them?”

“It’s nothing that your friends shouldn’t be able to handle, son of Odin,” she told him peaceably enough. “They’ll be allowed to return home again once they’ve achieved what they sought after.” She shifted in her position, adding aloofly, “There are many challenges that await them…both physical and mental.”

The meaning in her words was clear. Thor turned, meeting eyes with his brother. Across the distance they seemed to have a silent conversation, Loki wary and sharp and Thor pleading.

Finally Loki turned away abruptly, evidently relenting, for he too leapt into the hole. Behind him the cover slid closed.

Once he was gone, Thor took in Jane’s face and tried to reassure her. “It will be all right. I doubt there is a task out there that between them my brother and our friends cannot meet.”

Jane said nothing. She leaned against Thor, fingers curling into his clothes, and felt incredibly worried for Darcy.

*

Darcy tumbled through time and space, feeling like she was both falling and flying.

She wasn’t sure when she blacked out. She only knew that the next thing she was really conscious of was that there was sand under her back and she was lying with the bodies of five Asgardians in a heap.

Darcy’s eyes flew open and she sat up with a gasp.

From beneath her right elbow came a groggy mutter. “Are we there yet?” Volstagg rubbed his eyes. “Is it time for supper?”

Head turning, dazed, Darcy took in their surroundings. They were on a beach, the sand pale and the unclouded sun glinting off of it brightly. Behind them was nothing but rocks, before them an endless expanse of light turquoise waters. They appeared to have arrived on an inland or maybe a peninsula, the wet shoreline stretching off without visible end in either sideways direction.

The light on her face was suddenly blocked by a shadow, and Darcy turned her head, squinting. She could just make out part of Loki’s face.

He extended a hand to her where she still sat on the ground. “Are you alright?”

“Um, yeah. I think. Thanks.” Darcy let him help her to her feet, making a pathetic attempt at brushing the sand off her heavy and rumpled dress. Why couldn’t she have been like Jane and begged off on the Asgardian duds today? At least right now she’d be comfortable.

Shading her eyes with one hand she took a few unsteady steps forward.

At the edge of the water Fandral and Sif both stood, hands cupped around their mouths as they made varying entreaties up to the sky for Karnilla to come and retrieve them.

“You can stop that right now,” Loki snapped. “It isn’t going to work.”

Both whirled around to face him, moving back towards the rest of their party.

“Why not?” Fandral demanded tartly. “You don’t figure that she’s listening?”

“Of course she is. I’m certain that from here on out she’ll be watching our every movement. No doubt this is great source of amusement for her.” Loki shook his head. “But we were sent here under the guise of a deal. Karnilla will not let us simply go home again. Not until we’ve satisfied her.”

“He’s right,” Sif agreed with a weary sigh.

Fandral frowned unhappily, giving a mutter. “I’d prefer to be satisfying her in a much different way.”

Hogun shot him a look from where he was double-checking to make sure he’d landed with armor and weapons intact. Volstagg stood next to Hogun, heedless of the others as he endeavored to get all of the sand out of his thick beard.

Loki however was far from amused. He stepped forward, getting right in Fandral’s face. “Do you think you could focus for once? It’s very well for you to play it so lighthearted. We wouldn’t be in this mess if you hadn’t opened your mouth!”

“How was I to know what the queen was thinking?” Fandral scoffed, face twisting in a scowl to match Loki’s. “You’re the clever one, my good man; why didn’t you say something to stop me!”

“Hey!” Darcy stepped between them, an arm going to bump each of their chests. She pushed them apart. “You know, I’m not an expert, but I’m thinking now’s really not the time for this.”

Fandral and Loki huffed but they did stop arguing, though neither of them apologized.

Darcy continued, “What are we supposed to be doing here, anyway?”

“Whether we realized it or not, we asked Karnilla for adventure,” Hogun stated.

Volstagg glanced up from his grooming efforts and agreed, “Stands to reason she won’t let us go home again until we’ve gone and found one.”

Darcy flapped her arms, raising and dropping them in exasperation. “Today I’ve visited two different dimensions apart from my own one, and been flung out of the sky into a third. I’m already having one hell of an adventure here.”

Volstagg chuckled. “Maybe for you that might be something, friend,” he said apologetically, “but I’m afraid it’s nothing in the ways for us. Not until we siege a castle, or slay a vicious beast, or…something.”

Darcy’s shoulders drooped. “How long is that gonna take?”

Volstagg only shrugged.

Sif turned a querying gaze to Loki. “I don’t suppose there is any chance you could simply transport us back to Asgard?”

“Doubtful.” Loki sighed, examining their surroundings. “If this is truly an isolated world, there may very well be no connections out of it. In any case, I can do nothing without knowing where we are.” He turned to face the others. “We need to try and find civilization.”

“What if there isn’t any?” Volstagg asked.

Sif exclaimed, insistent, “There must be something. She wouldn’t have simply dumped us into a wasteland!”

Fandral nodded in agreement with the estimation. In a trail, by unspoken consensus, they were already starting to walk along one side of the beach. “Where’s the fun in that?”

“Fun,” Darcy repeated, scoffing. She hung back behind the rest of them, her steps grudging. “Oh sure. Right now I’m having tons of fun.”

Loki walked over and arranged his cloak over her shoulders, providing some small relief from the brutal sun. Darcy tried to give him a weak smile.

“Thanks.”

Loki merely nodded back, giving her a wan look of his own. The two of them continued to follow the others.

After a few minutes, Volstagg sighed. “I wish Thor was here with us,” he said in an absent, mournful tone.

Loki gave a short sound of irritation. “What, do you think we can’t do this without him?”

As a one the other four stopped in their tracks, heads turning over shoulders to give Loki narrow and burning looks. It was, evidently, far as the warriors were concerned, the absolutely wrong thing for him to say.

He went still under the full force of their combined anger, his face hardening, mouth set in a narrow line.

Darcy looked back and forth between him and them, and after no one said anything, she made a pathetic attempt at a distraction. “Oh, look,” she said quickly, blundering. “Over there, is that a house? Oh no, wait, it’s a rock. Oops. Sorry.”

She trailed off, but it seemed to be the necessary reminder that they should all keep moving. The others shook themselves and wordlessly set their feet to walking once more.

Darcy was sure her nose was already starting to peel before they glimpsed their first sign of the harbor. When they did, though, the entire group broke out into exclamations, their trudging pace turning to running as they raced forward.

The harbor turned out to be only the start of it. There was a small natural inlet from the sea, into which had been built the wooden docks where tall ships of varying sizes were tied up, sales floating in the breeze. Behind it was a sprawl recognizable at a glance as a town – but one from what to Darcy’s world would have been several centuries ago.

A sign faded by sea salt and creaking from thick rusted chains hung near what served as the main entrance. In carved letters it said ‘Kraken’s Cove’.

Darcy could feel her jaw dropping. “Whoa.”

“Well,” Fandral remarked, after a wary moment, “it appears we have found civilization.”

But what kind of civilization, seemed to be the unspoken question from all of them. Their group clustered more tightly together as they made their way down the uneven dirt-lined road into town.

There was a tall gate that had been left open to allow easy access, and for the most part they blended in with a bustling pedestrian crowd. Darcy glanced up, spotting soldiers in powdered wigs and brass-buttoned uniforms guarding the ramparts. Part of a fort was visible nearby. Inside past the gates was a teeming mass of people that walked unpaved streets between wooden buildings and open market stalls; livestock and rolling carts, men in vests and women in skirts and bodices. To the Asgardians the setting probably looked simply alien – Darcy felt as if she’d either walked onto a Hollywood movie set or wandered back in time. It was the perfect image of the port town in a period action flick.

Or at least that was how it appeared at first glance. Differences began to stand out the more she looked.

Kraken’s Cove seemed to have been built inside a canyon, a natural break in the rocky terrain they’d first noticed at the beach upon arrival. It was a wide expanse to start with but obviously still not enough, going on by the way which the buildings leaned towards one another. It had been built up over time; quite literally, as many of the structures towered to five stories and over. Darcy knew jack about architecture, but she was pretty sure with technology this outwardly dated, that shouldn’t be possible.

In addition to the streets at ground level there was a network of ramps and walkways between the higher buildings, a few suspension bridges, the occasional platform. It was like some kid’s tree-house fantasy had gotten way out of control and turned into an entire city instead.

And as she watched, every once in a while, one of the walkways would swing around and move, Harry Potter staircase style.

“This is a world that has magic,” Hogun noted, having made the same observations as Darcy.

“Maybe so. But so far there doesn’t appear to be anyone openly practicing,” Loki said in a murmur, eyes darting as he scanned the crowd.

As Darcy turned to look, she caught more than few faces among the natives staring back at them, frowning.

“We seem to be attracting attention,” Volstagg remarked, the staring obvious enough that all of them began to notice. “Just once, you know, I’d like to visit a new realm where armor is still a commonplace fashion statement.”

“Let them stare,” Sif muttered, boldly.

“No.” Loki spoke up with caution. “We don’t know anything about what the system of law is like here, what is commonplace. Perhaps we could all fight our way through an army if we had to, but right now it’d be safer if it didn’t have to come to that.”

“Right,” Fandral drawled. “So, clothes?”

Loki nodded. “Clothes.”

After some searching they found a nice secluded ally to duck into. Loki had quick enough study of the population that he was able to transfigure what they were already wearing to garments that blended in – though getting the rest of them satisfied with his alterations took some further doing.

The other Asgardians balked at the idea of losing their armor, but their common sense was appealed to enough that eventually they relented. Weapons had to be concealed. Sif refused a skirt and had to be put into men’s clothing. Fandral kept being dissatisfied, chiding Loki repeatedly to make him ‘more fashionable’, until the sorcerer looked ready to brain him over the head.

Darcy tried to be less demanding. She felt the squeeze of her bodice and pretended she was at a Renaissance Faire.

“Can I have a tri-cornered hat?” she had to request though, tentatively.

Loki gave a slight sigh, sounding tired, but he waved his fingers around and the weight of one settled on her head. Darcy fingered the brim and smiled at him.

“Thanks.” She paused. “And, uh, what about my glasses…?”

He made an impatient gesture. “I could transform them into something more suitable for these people, or you could just hide them in your pocket.”

Darcy made a face. ‘Suitable’ in this case meant bifocals and wire frames. She was so glad she could see enough without them.

“No thanks. I’ll just, yeah, hide them.” She swiftly pulled them from her face and tucked them into the small bag hanging from her belt.

“All right.” Volstagg glanced from where Fandral was admiring his feathered hat, to Sif smoothing her doublet. “We fit in. Now what?”

“Now we go take a look around, it’s to be supposed,” Sif told him. “Somewhere in this place must be something that can pass for adventure.”

It wasn’t much of a plan, but nobody else was offering. Still staying close, heads turning around them with wariness, but doing their best to try and blend in, they returned to the streets. The crowds hadn’t lessened any and with the heat of the day came the press of unwashed bodies and a distinctive smell.

Darcy’s nose wrinkled. The longer they were there the more the exoticness began to lose its charm.

They paused near the open square and hung back, watching the crowds move around them. Across the way stood a dilapidated building that was a tavern judging by the drunks stumbling out, and the women in ratty skirts that leaned against the wall next to the door, peddling their ‘wares’ in broad daylight.

“It’s a lot less Port Royal, way more Tortuga. You know?” Darcy commented.

There was no response to that, the reference probably lost on her friends. An old fisherman walked past, leered at them and spat between missing teeth on the ground.

Volstagg’s eyes moved over the numbers around them, uncertain. “Does anyone else get the feeling this village is not usually so heavily occupied?”

“Many of these people do appear to be travelers by their appearance,” Sif agreed. “I wonder what the appeal must be.” Volstagg gave a hopeful, halfhearted shrug.

“Maybe there’s a festival in town.”

Fandral turned to watch a group of hairy men in turbans walk past, his distaste and dubiousness evident. “They don’t appear to be all that festive.”

Darcy was only half paying attention. Outside the tavern, a short distance away from the prostitutes, she’d noticed an interesting sight.

There was a heavy-set burly man lying face down on a straw mat placed on top of a table, two women giving him a back massage. A merchant counting a handful of coins, and a tall man carrying a club stood nearby, watching the proceedings. It looked like the two men were responsible for the renting out of the ladies’ services.

The women didn’t look quite like anyone else she’d seen in the city so far. They were petite and slender, willowy, with bony faces boasting almost elflike features. Their faces were impassive blanks as they rubbed at the man’s skin in tandem. Their dresses were little more than slips covering what needed, their long hair in thin waves that made it look permanently damp.

Darcy wandered closer, straining to see. She was abruptly knocked off course by a small boy plowing into her at the waist. With a startled grunt, she looked down just in time to see him sticking hands inside her bag.

“Hey!”

The little would-be thief quickly stumbled back, empty-handed, only to be grabbed by Hogun roughly at the shoulder.

“And just what do you think you were doing?” Loki wheeled around to face the child, eyeing him carefully.

“Lemme go! Get off me!” The boy shook in Hogun’s grasp to no avail.

Loki ignored his speaking. “If you’re to be making a living at being quick-fingered, boy, I suggest you get a little more practice,” he advised. He lifted one hand and uncurled fingers: a rough leather pouch dangled by a cord, the coins that were inside it clinking.

The boy went pale with disbelief then red with indignation. “How did you…that’s mine!

Loki smiled at him detachedly, holding it just out of reach as he made a grab for it. “How about a trade?”

Trade?” the boy spat. “I ain’t making a deal with you for what’s my money, fair and square!”

Loki’s smirk fell and he feigned a thoughtful look. “Fair?” he repeated, musingly. “You earned this at an honest employment? Plying some skill, perhaps.” The boy turned stiff-lipped. “We’ll call for a lawman, then, let him sort it all out-”

“What is that you want for it?” the boy interrupted, terse. Loki dipped his head in mocking nod at the child’s acquiescence.

“Information. My friends and I, we’re not much familiar with these parts. Where would a good place to go be if we were looking for…excitement, of a different sort? Something interesting?”

The boy’s face squinted up and he made an impatient sound. “Most folk just head to the pubs or the brothels, they want to pass the time. The weird ones go looking to talk to the Blind Beggar.”

“The Blind Beggar?” Sif repeated, inserting herself into the conversation. The others had been all watching intently but had been content up until that point to leave the questioning to Loki. “Who or what is that?”

The boy gave as best a shrug as he could with Hogun still holding fast to his shoulder. “This old codger, lives in a cave just around the edge of the harbor. People say he can see the future, or something. He’s supposed to know all kinds of stuff.”

“Perhaps, where to find us an adventure,” Fandral offered in a murmur, the others leaning in close together and nodding in agreement.

“Either way, it’s probably a good place to go,” Darcy put in. “Isn’t this how a lot of quest stories start out? Some guy who doesn’t know what to do next goes to talk to a seer or a wise man?” She was pretty sure that’s how it went in her mythology and western literature classes.

The Asgardians all made brief eye contact with each other – and from the glances exchanged, Darcy was reminded that these people had literally known each other for thousands of years. They’d done the whole group adventuring before. She had no doubt that entire conversations and debates were going on in those glances.

Finally, Loki looked to Hogun, who nodded, and released the child with a mild shove. Loki tossed the bag of coins from his hand – the urchin caught them with both of his, barely fumbling.

“That satisfies the terms of agreement.” His countenance darkened. “Now get lost.”

“Yes,” Fandral raised a fist, a look coming over his face that was just as fierce as it was sly, “before we teach you a lesson about trying to make off with the purses of unsuspecting ladies.” Beside him, Volstagg was purposefully cracking his knuckles. Sif and Hogun just looked generically threatening.

The boy didn’t need any further urging. He turned tail and vanished.

Fandral gave a scoffing laugh at his exit, and then turned back towards the others.

“So then. On to this ‘Beggar’ chap, I take it?” he offered, almost sweetly. Volstagg clapped him one on the shoulder and Loki rolled his eyes.

Darcy shook her head and bit back an incredulous laugh. If hanging around with this group when they were only getting started was this exciting, she couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like when the real adventuring got started.

But one way or another, she supposed she was going to find out.