The length of the fall through the abyss between Yggdrasil’s branches cannot be expressed by any normal conception of time. Time has no meaning there and nor does space. It merely is. Not that Loki even possesses the presence of mind to be aware of his surroundings. The pain of being in a place where sentient life is not meant to exist is little compared to the pain of final and complete rejection. Odin Allfather has named him monster, and even the very act of trying to prove him wrong, to show that Aesir nurture had indeed tamed vile Jotun nature, merely showed that such a thing was impossible. No action of his would be enough. All his life he has been wrong, and in trying to do right it seemed he did the worst of all.
It is no longer any wonder that he has always been treated second best. Of course a monster could not adapt to Asgard’s ways, of course a monster could never be normal, could never be a true warrior. And Jotun are meant to be fierce fighters, so it seemed he failed even there. His own kind didn’t want him, a forsaken runt taken by Odin out of pity and the potential of a willing tool.
What a fool he had been, to think he ever had a family. To think he might have been able to earn his false-father’s love.
In this place beyond time he passes through darkness, his sight the first of his senses to be stripped away. He does not know when taste, or smell, or hearing leave him, for there is nothing in the abyss that he can use them upon. Touch is last, the awareness of his own body gone, leaving him trapped inside the poisonous curves of his own mind. There is nothing to occupy his thoughts but to dwell on the injustice of it all, to be enveloped by pain and anger and a bitter loathing, wishes of how it could have been.
When the abyss finally spits him out he returns to himself only slowly. He is far from any part of the Tree he knows, far from even the most adventurous paths he has walked. The stars are strange, and his magic weak. The journey seems to have drained him, and he allows himself to drift, aimless, in the faint light of a far-off foreign sun. He might be a monster but he is still a god and a sorcerer, and neither the cold of space nor the lack of anything to breathe can harm him, if he does not let them.
It is only by instinct that he does not let them.
Eventually, inevitably, he is discovered. He is barely aware of being brought to a floating fortress, a chill, desolate place carved from asteroids and metal similar to that used in Asgard, protected from the perils of space by a force-field of a type he does not recognise. Loki rouses himself sufficiently to examine it with the weary tendrils of his power, finding it devoid of magic. Mere science then. That is not to say that these people, strange grey-skinned creatures who seem to communicate without speech, do not have sorcerers of their own, merely that they do not incorporate seidr into their technology. Not so great a realm then as... As that which is no longer his home.
He is brought before a leader of some kind. He does not bother to resist. What would be the point? He is far, far from anything he knows, and too weak to do anything about it.
“What are you, I wonder?” the creature muses to itself, the first Loki has seen capable of speech, the words automatically translating through the All-tongue, magic divining meaning. “Strange pale thing – how are you still alive?”
Loki says nothing. It is better to observe and gather information – this much is habit, even if he can’t bring himself to care about the situation he is in. Everything inside him seems to have been flayed open and frozen, numb and empty as the wastes of Jotunheim. There is perhaps one slight, small glowing ember that remains and that is hate, because none of this would have happened if Thor had been worthy of the throne, or if Thor’s friends had not committed treason against their king (yet what else should he expect? Somehow they seem to have always known the monster that dwelt beneath this cuckoo-skin, for how else to explain their hate of him?). Yet even these memories seem shattered and confused after the abyss, sharp and jagged-edged as a broken mirror.
“No matter,” the creature says. “Let us take a look and see.” It reaches out to touch his temple and it does not quite occur to him to resist until it is too late. His drained seid is too little to keep out the mind that comes questing in. His self, his thoughts, his history are naught but pages in a book to be perused, examined, turned over and cast aside. He is distantly aware that his body has gone rigid, gasping for air in something like pain. Like pain, for he is not entirely capable of feeling such a thing yet. He has not quite returned to himself.
“You have been to the planet our master seeks,” the creature says, taking its hand away. It seems... satisfied. “The realm you call Midgard. You know a way there that we cannot take. This is good. You will be able to open a door. You will be able to retrieve the artefact.”
Loki may have been brought low, lost much, but he still has some pride. He is a prince, if not quite the Prince of Asgard he thought. He is royalty and he will not be used by some unknown race. He holds his head high, despite his exhaustion, despite the trembling in his limbs. “And why should I do this thing for you?” he asks.
“We will reward you richly for your services to us,” the alien creature tells him. “Knowledge, power, dominion over that far realm once we have what we desire. I have seen what it is you want, and it is in the power of the Chitauri to give it to you.”
“Oh,” Loki says, allowing his disbelief to show. “And what is it that I want?”
“Revenge. Revenge on the family who treated you ill and cast you out.”
“And if I refuse?”
The being reaches out again. This time Loki knows what is coming, this time he tries to block the intrusion, but his seid is still too weak, a frail pathetic thing barely clinging to his bones in exhaustion. The creature goes straight for the parts of his mind that link into his nervous system and agony explodes like arcing lightning through every part of his body. Now he remembers what it is to feel pain.
Loki screams. He does not stop screaming for some time.
When the pain stops, every muscle aches with the strain of constant contraction. He is lying on his back, staring up at the stars. The being stands over him, its arms folded calmly in front of it, hands tucked into the sleeves of its robe. Eyes can just be glimpsed in the darkness of its hood, catching a faint shine. Loki may have some difficulties reading its unfamiliar body language, but he knows avarice when he sees it. Pleasure too. Avarice for whatever ‘artefact’ it is they seek, and pleasure in having another being at its mercy.
Whatever these Chitauri are looking for, they want it desperately. Desperation is something Loki can use. Indeed, it seems he may have to use it if he wants to make it out of here alive. Pretend to agree for now, and search for escape when he can. Or wait until they trust him to go to Midgard. The artefact is likely to be a better prize that whatever they offer.
In honesty, he doubts this race can have much to teach him; he has long since made himself an ardent scholar of every scrap of knowledge he has ever come across in his travels. He is nigh unparalleled in seidr – only Odin and his mo- Frigga are greater. He has little use either for a world to rule – he has never wanted a throne. The idea of revenge... It pulls at something inside him, at the little ember of rage fuelled by pain. It becomes a... pleasant idea. But the promise of revenge will not make him abase himself as a servant.
“I will... consider... your offer,” he says, summoning strength enough to speak.
“Do not consider it for too long.” The Chitauri beckons; two of its subordinates come forward and take hold of him, pulling him to his feet. “I would not wish our methods of persuasion to break such a useful tool.”
Delving into his mind, it soon appears, is not all the Chitauri can do. He is strapped into a machine of their devising which seems to have the same nerve-stimulating effects. They leave him there for hours at a time, not even able to write in agony for how tightly he is tied down, pausing only occasionally to ask him to submit. It never quite reaches the heights of horror that his fall through the abyss managed, but the pain is unrelenting and unvarying. In many ways that makes it worse; he thinks he would manage it better if there were ups and downs, something to focus the mind on in different ways rather than this constant barrage.
His mind, his sense of self, fractured as it already was by the abyss seems to be splintering ever further. When he is even capable of rational thought every part of him is turned to rage and anger, and it is not particularly discerning in its targets. He hates his captors, he hates Thor, he hates Odin, he hates Laufey and he hates himself for being so weak to be caught in this trap.
At one point he surfaces from the torture to find the robed Chitauri from before standing over him again. Loki bares his teeth and wishes the creature were close enough to bite. He would eat of its flesh, quench his thirst with its blood, devour its soul to restore his seid.
“Have you considered our offer?” it asks. “If you will agree to serve us, all this can stop.”
He does not know how long it has been. It seems like a long time. He cannot remember what the Chitauri’s offer had even been.
It must have been the wrong thing to do, for him to refuse, mustn’t it? All this, he recalls vaguely from before, had been about doing the right thing, the Aesir thing. But trying to do the right thing has shown itself to be futile; it landed him here. No choice is the right choice. Therefore when everything he does is wrong, when everything is the sign of the monster he is, the only recourse is to embrace it. Chasing after the respect of Odin and Asgard gained him nothing. Perhaps the only way a monster can be happy is acting in accordance with its nature.
Also, it will make the pain stop.
“Fine,” he says. “I accept. Tell me what I have to do.”
The Chitauri desire the Tesseract. Loki could laugh, if his vocal cords were not so sore from screaming. He is a little surprised that he remembers so much about it, but then such knowledge is seid, and thus written onto his very bones, impossible to forget. The Tesseract is no mere power source, nor is it merely a device to allow movement across vast distances without recourse to the Bifrost, as this race seem to believe. It is an artefact passed down to Odin from his forefathers, from Ymir, from the very earliest days of the Nine Realms, long thought lost. It is something that had filled nursery tales in his youth – the crystallisation of Yggdrasil’s essence itself. In the right hands it can remake worlds. And these fools wish to use it for transportation.
So yes, Loki will help them, at least for a short while, because he has given his word and because they will hurt him if he does not. But he sees in this an opportunity to take his revenge. It seems that their skills in telepathy only allowed them to take his surface thoughts, the most recent memories; else they would already know how small are their ambitions. He will help them escape their restricting little corner of Yggdrasil’s outer twigs, and then he will take the Tesseract for his own. Still, it is not yet safe to plan, not when they might delve back into his mind at any time. He will wait to return to Midgard, where his thoughts will be his own.
In the meantime he accepts the fruits of the other terms of their agreement.
The knowledge they promise him, the so-called ‘secrets of the universe’ are hardly that. Oh, it is certainly a different perspective, and their science is certainly of an academic interest, but they have a rather inflated opinion of their own strength and advancement. He supposes it is inevitable, from creatures residing in such a backwater of the World Tree. They have no sense of scale. They have no knowledge of the deep mysteries, of the secrets of seidr that allow connection to and manipulation of the very fabric of the universe itself, the warp and weft of the loom-fabric of reality.
(He will burn their living flesh and dance on their bones.)
The power, on the other hand, is of more use. As the Tesseract embodies Yggdrasil, so the Chitauri have learned to extract a part of that power, even out here on the edge of things. Of course they can access only the smallest portion of it, yet it is still enough for weapons and vehicles, for them to give him a staff that will let him home in on the Tesseract’s location. There is something oddly pleasing in it being a spear. He supposes he associates it with the power of kingship, and it suits his fighting style when he is forced to resort to close combat more than a sword.
It is in gaining this weapon that he first meets the master of this realm, one these Chitauri do not name. He too is strange to Loki’s eyes, and while he may not have the scent of seid about him his mind is deep and vast and malevolent, his body strong as Asgardians are strong, his very being seemly tainted with energy echoingly similar to that of the Tesseract.
(This is the one who wants the cube, who caused his torture. Loki will take his time with him. He will pay back his agonies sevenfold.)
“So you are Loki, Prince of Asgard,” he says. Loki does not mistake the mockery.
“Of Asgard no longer,” he replies. “Say rather Loki of nowhere. Loki No-onesson.” Whatever pain there is in admitting it comes deep under layer upon layer of ice. It fuels a feral thing that has grown up in his heart.
“Do not mistake me for a being with mercy,” the nameless one says. “If you fail to fulfil our bargain, it shall not go well for you.”
Loki does his best not to laugh. What more can be done to him after all he has gone through?
“Perhaps you wish a demonstration?” The alien raises his hand.
Pain. Pain enough to shatter the ice, to spear through to the very heart of him. It seems that every molecule of his body cries out in shock and agony. He does not understand how it can be so great, worse than the abyss, worse than the rack. This is utterly unlike anything he has ever experienced.
When he comes to himself he is sprawled out on the floor, salty blood in his mouth and trickling from his nose.
“I believe I have made myself clear,” the alien says.
(You will die slowly and begging me for mercy.)
Though his seid remains weak after his fall Loki has enough power remaining to begin moulding his new weapon to his own will, tuning it to his frequency. It is a useful gift, though it has not the potency of either Gugnir or Mjolnir. Once he is done with it, it will allow him to amplify his powers, to focus them. It will allow him to begin the work of gathering information. It is not possible for him to travel the long, long ways to Midgard in his current state, but he has no need to. A mind, a sense of self, can go where physical form cannot.
So Loki builds constructs, spun from seid and Yggdrasil’s energy, and sends them out to find their echo realms away. They move through mirrors and reflections, borrowing form, listening, ever listening. They feed off the nearby Tesseract and then when they are strong enough they return to him and share what they have found.
Thus does Loki learn of SHIELD, of the mortal scientist Erik Selvig, of the Midgardians’ efforts to harness the Tesseract’s power both at the present moment and in their past. He learns of the hidden place the Tesseract is kept in. He learns from idle gossip of the ‘Avengers Initiative’ and somewhat of those the mortals term ‘superheroes’. It is not hard to begin to work a subtle weaving to touch the mind of this Selvig, to begin to whisper ways to rouse the Tesseract, to prepare the way. His passage must be made as easy as possible if he wishes to be able to actually do anything once he arrives.
(The mortals will die too if they try and interfere in his revenge.)
So does Loki gain knowledge, and plan, and ever hoard strength. His Chitauri liaison is not best pleased by the apparent slowness of his progress, but their intrusive mental scans now reveal only what he desires them to, and they cannot argue with the reality of the situation.
Certainly he is going as fast as possible. He has absolutely no desire to stay longer than he must in this miserable place. His room is little more than a cell, their food unpleasant and barely palatable. Without his seid to transmute the more deadly elements he might have starved by now, and it wastes his precious energy with every meal. He does not bother to cut his hair in its accustomed style, nor does he need to shave. He has never been able to grow a beard.
(Jotun monster. Soon he will show them what that means.)
There is little way to tell the passage of time in this place, but at least time does pass, unlike in the abyss. He marks the days by the growing strength of his hoarded magic, by the slow, certain pulse of energy like sap through Yggdrasil, mapping the universe. He fans the flames of his hate into a firestorm. Finally he deems himself ready.
The journey to Midgard has none of the ease of the days of his strength, despite the aid of the Tesseract’s energy. It is long and arduous, and his once-sure feet seem to slip upon the narrow path. To fall may very well be fatal, and he has not survived the abyss once already to let it take him a second time. Finally he reaches his destination, the central of Yggdrasil’s nine greatest boughs.
His arrival is in a great cloud of steaming cold; the chill between the stars that has never been able to hurt him. Much of his life makes greater sense with the revelation of the truth. The warmth of Midgard is strange on his skin after so long in cold places. He does not like being reminded of his last visit to this realm.
The movement of feet over solid flooring tell him that the mortal guards are moving to surround him, their weapons no doubt ready to strike. As though (a monster) a god has anything to fear. Loki rises. He thinks of what is to come, and a smile breaks across his face, wide and teeth-baring. The Tesseract is there, before his eyes.
“Sir, please put down the spear.” The man is loud, echoing within the metal walls of this vault. Loki looks at him and is struck with the heavy weight of memory, of another one-eyed man wielding a voice of authority. Though little else of his appearance is the same, for a moment Odin’s shade is before him.
(He condemned you to this! Destroy him!)
Loki recalls that he is armed, that his spear is in his hand. He calls on his seid.
The beam of energy that erupts from the weapon would have struck the man had the soldier beside him not thrust them both out of its path. Loki hesitates no longer. A long leap takes down the first of the mortal guards, the fire from their pathetic weapons shattering on Aesir-forged armour. His spear tastes its first blood. Two knives find the throats of another pair of mortals. Loki may not be a warrior by Asgard’s standards, but he has battled before, killed before. This is child’s play.
Another blast of magic, drawing on the nearby energy of the Tesseract, takes down another, followed by a slashing cut across the fifth’s throat. These Midgardians die too easily. Thor would say there is no honour in it. Yet is that not the monster’s lot, to defile the halls with a glut of blood and death? What little honour he had left after seidr and a coward’s knives has long since been wiped away.
(A monster cares not what he kills. Make them suffer as you have suffered.)
Once more the little projectile weapons fire, the little spits of metal no more effectual than biting flies. One hits above his collar; it barely hurts. A little seid scatters them. The next to attack is met by a boot to the chest, sending him flying. So fragile. So pathetic. No wonder his own barbaric kind sought to rule them. What warlord, what monster could resist?
All of a sudden he is left in silence. The mortals are scattered, their primitive machines in many places spitting sparks. Loki breathes deep, taking stock. Even such a small amount of magic use after his journey has left him more light-headed than he would like.
There! Movement. The brave soldier is getting to his feet. Loki is before him before he can reach for his weapon, grasping his wrist and twisting. He gauges the pressure it would take to break the bone – barely anything. He has met Asgardians who shake hands harder. There is something familiar about this mortal’s face. Perhaps one of his constructs saw him among the other little ants scurrying around this place. Yes, that seems right.
“You have heart.” And he will need servants to fulfil his needs on this realm. He does not need to look far into this one’s soul to see that he has much blood on his hands. How appropriate. He reaches out his spear, touching the tip to the man’s chest. He extends his will. It takes a surprising amount to sway the mortal to his own ends. Loyal are you? I will need loyalty.
There is one other mortal still alive, aside from the One-Eyed One and the scientist, and it is but little effort to overcome his heart as well. This one is much easier. His motives are monetary.
Loki allows the little lord to believe he is not watched as he removes the Tesseract for transport. He would not like to risk touching it yet himself. Not until he has had a chance to study it. The power might prove dangerous.
The little lord rises. “Please don’t,” Loki says, turning. “I still need that.”
“This doesn’t have to get any messier,” the mortal says, and it is not entirely bravado. He is truly keeping his calm. Extraordinary. Loki puts the pieces together in his mind. This must be Nick Fury. So far he is showing little to deserve his epithet. Mayhap it is of a sarcastic cant.
“Of course it does. I’ve come too far for anything else.” It’s more truthful than he meant it to be. He must remember who he is. He has lost much, but he is still Silvertongue, still Liesmith. “I am Loki, of Asgard. And I am burdened with glorious purpose.” Will the mortal read those words right, he wonders? For the nameless one’s geas is truly a burden, though one he soon intends to shed.
“Loki!” This time it is Selvig who speaks. Ah yes, the scientist. The would-be sorcerer, playing with things he cannot hope to understand, save for on a most superficial level. After all that Loki has whispered to him over the vast distances of space he will be easy to turn to his own ends. “Brother of Thor.”
(Thor! Traitorous fool! Willing to protect little mortals but not the one he calls brother!)
The rage that comes at the sound of That Name is more than he would have expected. What fools these mortals be. Brothers? Golden Thor, ever-beloved, brother to a monster? Nay, only Odin’s lies. If Selvig did not factor so heavily into his plans, he would strike him down where he stood.
“We have no quarrel with your people,” Fury says.
Hah, Loki wants to say. Even now my people are the monsters of your fairy-tales. He is aware of the legends of both Aesir and Jotun that persist even to this day. “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.”
“You planning to step on us?” Ah, a hint of a challenge. This ant has a spine.
“I come with glad tidings.” The lies slip from his lips like silk. “Of a world made free.”
“Free from what?”
“Freedom. Freedom is life’s great lie. Once you accept that, in your heart...” A demonstration perhaps. He turns upon Selvig, seid awaiting the command of his will. It is pitifully easy. “You will know peace.” For that is the truth he has found in the abyss. Fate cannot be fought. Nature will win true. A monster will always and forever be a monster.
“Yeah, you say peace,” Fury says. “I kinda think you mean the other thing.” Above his head the Tesseract’s energy swirls.
“Sir?” His new soldier speaks. “Director Fury is stalling. This place is about to blow; drop a hundred feet of rock on us. He means to bury us.”
“Like the Pharaohs of old.” A leader ready to sacrifice himself to halt a threat. Perhaps not all these mortals are without merit.
“He’s right.” Selvig this time. What good, loyal servants. “The portal’s collapsing in on itself. We’ve maybe two minutes before this goes critical.”
“Well then.” The soldier needs little in the way of instruction, seeming to pick up on the coming command subconsciously. Or perhaps he simply knows how this must go. His weapon leaves its sheath with great speed for a mortal. The weapon knocks the little lord from his feet. Loki makes for the exit, trusting his servants to pick up the Tesseract.
(They are his now. His to protect. His to keep.)
This has taken much out of him, more than he had hoped. Sudden pain and weariness overtakes him. Just a little further to go. He has his own guard now. Everything is proceeding as planned.
Loki knows more of Midgard than Thor, who in his arrogance and unthinking stupidity assumed that all worlds were either as Asgard was or else naught but backwards barbarian lands out of Odin’s tales – at least until seeing them for himself – and hence did not bother to learn of them. However there is still much that is unfamiliar to him. During his most recent and very short visit he had taken the time only to retrieve knowledge on the most appropriate form of dress for one of his station, scooping it from the mind of a nearby mortal. But there is much more to a realm than clothes. Listening in to the idle talk of those gathered around the Tesseract had helped, but they were mostly concerned with their work, and many of the references they made were meaningless without context.
This fact is only brought home by the leagues they travel once pursuit has been evaded and the base collapsed behind them. The surface the captured vehicle travels over is dark and paved with a substance that – if his magic tells him true – is derived from oil. It amazes him. Asgard has not had such a substance since eons past, and Jotunheim never. Loki only knows of its existence itself because it is mentioned in some of the very oldest books of magic, those that rather more closely match the science of this world. In such primitive ways of seidr it was a necessary ingredient in many spells and constructs. How far behind their own this world is!
(Primitive ants! Affection for them has made Thor soft. Killing them will be a worthy revenge.)
The cold night air washes over him, but it does not cause the chill that suddenly makes him shudder. A strange thing to feel, but he dismisses it as unimportant. Though t’would be better if it were caused by the cold, he thinks bitterly. Even in Aesir disguise he is still what he is. Jotun. Monster.
The vehicle that carries them is swift, near as fast as Sleipnir when he exerts himself. Like a chariot it has space at the back for him to stretch out, though he cannot imagine any mortal finding the wind of their passage comfortable. Strange little creatures. Little ants.
He makes himself comfortable. He will need to rest, gather his strength after the journey. Closer to Yggdrasil’s heart his magic will be swifter to return to him. Then he can begin to put his plans into action.
Loki is woken from half-dreaming some time later by the touch of a hand on his shoulder. It is light but he instantly alert, calling his seid to defend himself. However that is not necessary. It is only his little Midgardian servant, the soldier. They have stopped moving. The vehicle has come to a halt by a low building with an open wall-less courtyard covered by a roof. Machines three-quarters of his height sit in lines, and the whole place is lit by harsh yellow light.
“I thought you might be hungry boss. We had to stop for gas anyway, so I picked up a few things.” He passes over a bag made of something thin and slick. “I didn’t know what you like, sorry.”
A questing touch of seid reveals another oil-derivative. How common is the stuff in this realm, that they can use it so frivolously? Looking inside, he can see several small cakes wrapped in clear film printed with a variety of small words and the legend ‘Twinkie’, some kind of sandwich in a cardboard retainer, three packets of ‘beef jerky’ which seems to be dried meat, a clear bottle of water and another containing liquid the colour of pitch marked ‘Coca-Cola’.
This is all very strange. Not merely the Midgardians’ idea of food, which certainly seems to have changed greatly over the past few centuries, but the fact that his new servant anticipated his needs so swiftly. At ho... in the palace, servants had cleaned and waited tables and prepared food certainly, but they did not bring him anything unless he asked for it. Was it different, having a personal servant, or did mortals merely make particularly good ones?
“Where is Selvig?” he asks, opening the bottle of water. Not glass, as he had expected, but more of this malleable oil-stuff. He just hoped they didn’t put it in the food. The water tastes odd, and the balance of minerals is decidedly different from what he is used to, but it is perfectly palatable.
The soldier waves his hand in the direction of the building. “Paying and getting us coffee. It’s his turn to drive. I figure you’ll tell us where we need to go when we need to know, and until then getting as far away from SHIELD as possible sounds like a good idea.”
A smile curls Loki’s lips. “I am glad I chose you. Competency is hard to find in any realm.”
“I enjoy what I do,” the soldier says, matching his grin.
Loki extracts the sandwich and examines it for a moment before unwrapping it. “What is your name?” he asks.
“Agent Barton. Clint Barton, also known as Hawkeye.”
“Barton,” Loki turns it over in his mind. “Bart’s son?”
Barton shakes his head. “We’ve not used that naming custom in a long time boss. Besides, I couldn’t tell you either way. My parents died when I was a kid.” He says it the same way he says everything else. Calmly. Loki frowns.
“And that does not... bother you?”
Barton looks momentarily confused. “It did... before,” he says. “It’s in my file, but I never told anyone about it. I didn’t want to. But... it doesn’t seem to matter anymore.”
Ah. One more side effect of the binding spell then. Certainly something to keep in mind. “Freedom,” he says quietly, mostly to himself. “Freedom from woes and pain.” Rather merciful really, for a monster. He shall have to remember to be nastier next time.
At this point the door of the little building opens and Selvig steps out. He ambles over towards them, holding a kind of recessed platter with three cups tucked into it. “Excellent!” Barton says, going over to meet him. “Caffeine!”
“This is the ‘coffee’ you spoke of?” Loki asks warily, noting the similarity of the root words. The All-tongue translates unfamiliar concepts strangely, conveying half the sounds of native language, half an almost sub-conscious sense of the meaning behind it.
“Do you want yours?” Barton asks. “It’s a stimulant, so if you’re planning on sleeping it might not be the best idea. Might not affect Asgardians though.”
“Aesir,” Loki corrects, though he does not mention that his biology is as alien to the Aesir as it is to the Midgardians. “Another time, I think. I still need to recover my strength.”
“You’re not cold back there?”
“No,” Loki says, looking down at the untouched sandwich in his hand. “Not at all.”
The next step of the plan is to find a way of harness the Tesseract to create a portal both large enough and stable enough to transport the Chitauri’s army. This requires equipment, which requires people to acquire and work on said equipment, which requires a further exertion of his powers. Selvig, while far from even a beginner when it comes to seidr, at least knows the capabilities of mortal science and technology. He can identify what they need, once Loki has explained the principles in small enough words.
It is easier, in the end, to simply dump the concepts straight into his brain through the channelling powers of his staff. Knowledge; that is the weakness of men like Selvig. Loki knows, for it is one of his own many weaknesses. Much he has learned, over the centuries, and much he has paid for it. Selvig is no different. It is even conceivable that he might have made a bargain such as this willingly, if given the choice.
(His most recent pain was payment for nothing. He will take what he is owed.)
The first request is for a primitive computation device, which merely indicates further that these Midgardians are barely capable of thinking for themselves. Compared to the elegance of constructs like Odin’s ravens, which can analyse and prioritise information from the entirety of the Nine Realms, this ‘laptop’ that he steals from a barely-guarded warehouse is like a child’s toy. Still, they work with what they have. He manages to acquire a few of the other items on Selvig’s list during the same trip.
The next thing is to find a safe place from which to work. Barton’s skill-set comes into use here. He is an assassin, a silent killer, and a ‘secret agent’ which means that he does the dirty, dishonourable work other mortals do not wish to sully their hands with. As such, he knows many appropriate locations, not to mention his knowledge of where they might find the manpower required to build and monitor the stabiliser device as well as do whatever other jobs might be required of them as Loki’s plan adapts to future circumstance.
Their new hideout is in the sewer system of a nearby city, damp and dank with walls of red brick. Loki keeps out the wet and the smell both with his seid, while Barton splices into the local power grid to power their machines. Loki leaves Selvig to his laptop while he and his soldier arrange how they will acquire scientists and mercenaries sufficient to their needs.
“SHIELD has plenty of enemies both domestic and international,” Barton explains, as they go through the list he has drawn up, making calls and arranging deals. Loki does not yet have quite the strength it would take to bind quite so many souls to him. Not yet. Money has a power of its own though, and that tends to by enough.
(If you own them they are yours and you cannot be a slave if you have slaves yourself.)
“This realm is still ruled by many petty warlords then?” Loki asks. For all that has changed in the past few centuries, other things seem to have remained the same.
Barton laughs. “I guess you could say that. It’s kind of a mess at times. Wars everywhere. Still, it makes plenty of work for folks like me.”
“I am beginning to think the Chitauri had the right idea of it,” Loki says. After all, who better to unite a world than a Prince? A Prince of Monsters, it is true, but... there is so much he could do with this realm. There is great potential here waiting to be unlocked, that much is plain. United, he could make this a world to rival Asgard!
But if he tried he would be doomed to failure. This much Loki knows, this much has been made violently clear to him. Trying to do good is not in his nature, and so it turns to dust and slips through his fingers. He has no wish to do that to Midgard. No, he will stay with his original plan which requires his failure. Let the Chitauri lose their war and take the Tesseract for himself. He will be content with power; he needs no realm.
“So tell me Agent Barton,” he says. “Of SHIELD’s capabilities. What forces could they muster to turn back an invasion?”
“What magnitude are we talking?”
“Perhaps two or three thousand, including several wings of small flying craft, and perhaps four-score war-beasts. Very large, well-armoured war-beasts.”
“Sounds tricky. The Helicarrier has decent firepower but it’d go down pretty quick against that lot. They would have to call on the US Army and Air force, and that would take a bit of time to scramble - to get into position. Unless they could get a nuke off from a distance, but things would have to be pretty damn fucked up to resort to that.”
Nuke – nuclear. Interesting. An old-fashioned sort of power source, but with the potential to impart massive destructive force, if one were willing to pay the price. So many of the old paths of seidr are like that. And the cost of that path is particularly terrible. Loki has never been tempted to meddle in such magics.
“What of this ‘Avengers Initiative’ I have heard discussed?”
Clint grins. It’s a harsh wolf-grin, a feral bearing of teeth. Loki finds himself liking this little mortal more and more. He is like a well-trained hunting hawk, ready to stoop upon its prey. “If I know Fury he’s already started to get the team together. They’re his pet project – I was meant to be part of it, before you claimed me. He’ll be glad of the excuse you’ve given him – though he’ll want to get the Tesseract back very badly as well.”
“A pragmatic leader then?”
“Very,” Barton says seriously. “SHIELD have a habit of doing whatever it takes.”
“I shall... remember that.”
(Hurt them! Hurt them before they have a chance to hurt you!)
“The first prospective team Fury drew up was Iron Man, the Hulk, ‘Tasha and me. Then we found Captain America, so he got added to the roster. Thor was put down as a maybe after New Mexico.”
Loki’s eyes narrow. “Fair warning,” he says, barely keeping his anger in check. “I react badly to that name. Do not speak it in my presence unless absolutely necessary.”
“Sure thing boss.” Suddenly an unexpected hand is on Loki’s shoulder. “Family can really fuck you up, I know.”
“Do you?” Loki spits, suddenly venomous. “They are not my family. My family was nothing but a lie.”
“You grew up with them though,” Barton says softly. “I know what that’s like. Family is at least as much what you find as what you’re born into. By bond, not by blood. For me, first it was the circus, and then later on SHIELD. ‘Tasha and Coulson, hell, even Fury a little.” For a moment confusion passes through his blue-hazed eyes, but it goes again as quickly as it came, and he smiles. “Actually since you took over from them, I guess that makes you my family now.”
For once in his life, Loki is speechless.