He falls through blackness, through void, through the abyss. He falls until he struggles to remember a time before falling; he falls until there is nothing but falling.
He falls until he accepts that this is death: that he died when the bridge cracked beneath him, and this is his fate, to plummet eternally through nothing, his spirit trapped forever in a single, helpless, endless moment.
And then he strikes the ground.
They come and gather him up -- the broken remnants of an unbreakable Asgardian. He does not resist. He does not cooperate. Both are beyond him; everything is beyond him, even the understanding that his fall has ended at last. That there was something at the bottom of the void. That he is not, after all, dead.
It would be easier if he could remain in that state. But his mind has never been good at stillness: even now, shattered by betrayal, by failure, it insists on thinking. He sees the creatures he has fallen among, and knows they are nothing he has encountered before. Their language is alien to him, and his to them; he knows this by the way they respond, the way they do not respond, when he licks dry and bleeding lips and tries to speak. Asgardians think themselves the masters of the universe, but where he has landed is beyond anything his people know.
Two parts of him flinch at this rift. One part -- the contemptible part; the part he should dig out and throw away -- craves connection, the ability to speak and be understood. The other part . . . .
The other part craves information. Without it, he cannot scheme.
He learns what he can from observation. They drag him from the stone that broke his body, take him some distance away, stretch him across more stone and bind him there. They do not trust him, then. Satisfaction flickers briefly at the thought. But no -- he is not treated like a dangerous thing. More like a curiosity. A few come and stare at him, other skull-faced creatures like the ones who found him; he watches them through blood-glued lashes and tries to tell them apart.
He has to recognize them before he can know them. He has to know them before he can manipulate them. He has to manipulate them before he can get out of here.
What comes after that, he cannot even begin to plan for.
But it is all wasted effort. When the leader appears, it -- she, he -- turns out to be the only one that matters.
This newcomer bears something in its hand. A staff, or a scepter, or a weapon; he does not know what name to give it, but the cool blue light radiating from the orb at its heart is clearly sign or source of power and authority. He tries to straighten in his bonds, ignoring the protest of abused muscle and bone, but stops when the object's pointed tip comes to rest against his throat.
For a long moment the newcomer stands, studying him with alien, unreadable eyes. Then the tip traces a sharp line downward, stopping at last over his heart.
And that's when Loki wishes he had never stopped falling.
The light breaks him open like a geode, exposing all the fractured planes within. There is no defending against this assault: thoughts, memories, feelings, fears, every bit of him is subjected to the pitiless light. Falling. Screaming. His arm turning to ice. Odin, the Allfather, the lying despot of Asgard, lying unconscious under Frigga's watchful eye. Laufey and the jotuns, Sif and Hogun and Fandral and Volstagg, Heimdall frozen where he stands.
Thor. Rival and brother, enemy and kin, shattering Bifrost to save those who deserve to be destroyed.
Loki's own kind.
All of it laid out for the creature to see. All the ambition and pride, all the fury and loss. He would welcome Mjolnir crushing his skull, rather than have his spirit stripped so bare, but no one offers him that mercy. Everything he hopes to be, everything he fears becoming -- he, trickster and liar, cannot conceal any of it. He is naked and helpless before the light.
Not speech, and he does not hear it with his ears. The sense reverberates down the scepter, into his flayed soul. This creature is intrigued by what it sees.
It can make something of him.
Upon that thought, it reaches through, grasping the shredded strips of his spirit, and twists. Fire has always burned within him, against the cold detachment of his race; now the creature takes those contrary forces and braids them into a new shape. Loki shrieks within his mind, tries to fight against it. This is not healing. It is crafting, remaking, taking the pieces of what was once Thor's brother, Odin's son, and molding them according to someone else's design. Forcing him into thralldom, and then refining the cage further, until he feels even the awareness of his own servitude slipping away. He clings to it, desperate not to lose that horror; dreadful though it is to know himself a slave, it is worse not to know. To kneel, and think himself a king.
It is gone.
His body sags against its bonds. The breath of frost that had coated his eyes fades, and with it goes the memory of his torture.
Skin and bone are whole once more. So, too, his spirit seems to be. Sense returns; he looks at the Other before him, and knows it to be Chitauri. He does not question where the word came from.
"This place you have seen," the Other says. Its speech is as clear as Loki's own. "The world you call Midgard, or Earth. There is a thing there we desire. Bring it to us, and that world is yours."
Earth. Refuge of those wretched creatures, those humans, Thor loves so much. It would pain Odin's son to see them brought to heel.
Power and revenge, in one strike.
Loki smiles. His chains fall away. Already schemes are forming in his mind.