On the planet of Salja, there are giant birds with wings that span his height ten times.
They are not anything he has seen before. They have five claws on each foot, beaks needle-sharp, and each feather is tipped with gold. Legend has it that in the mountains where the creatures make their nests there is a pool of water that, if tasted, will allow one to see the dead.
He searches the planet for years. He scours through every inch of its forest, sends magic scurrying through the deepest veins of its soil. In a fury he sets fire to it and then freezes it over. He turns himself into a python and follows the birds to their waterholes; but the water is always sweet, clean, springing out crisply from between the rocks, disappearing underground.
In time, he grows weary. He grows finally tired. He realises, as if he’d known it all along: that way, that path, is not open to him.
The Tesseract does not allow him to sleep.
He hovers between the threads of dreams. He sees Frigga, sitting on the edge of a dais, holding a bowl of insects that crawl over her arms and into her hair. He sees great metal towers rising up out of Nlieth’s second moon. He sees ice; he thinks briefly that it is Jotunheim, then perhaps Midgard several millennia ago, then perhaps Salja after he was finished with it, a world glittering in the pale light of a dying star.
He gestures at Barton, commanding him closer. “Tell me about yourself.”
Barton’s tongue seems to stick in his mouth. The Tesseract has not permitted him to sleep either and there are cold, purple bruises under his eyes, a papery tinge to his skin.
“Sir?” Barton says.
“Tell me your story.”
“I don’t have one. Not one worth listening to, anyway.”
“That is not yours to decide,” he says, propping the sceptre across his knees. “Tell me.”
Barton hesitates again. He watches Barton’s fingers clench and unclench, a silent war.
Then Barton says, “Natasha Romanov is an orphan. Her parents died in a hospital fire when she was six. She’s left-handed and you’ll always find an opening on her eleven after she throws a left hook out of sequence, because she’s got an old knife-wound there no-one knows about.”
“No-one except you,” he says.
“Except me, sir.”
“I thought I told you to tell me about yourself.”
Barton blinks at him slowly, not comprehending. “But I did.”
Amusement twists a bitter taste into his mouth. He stands and, with the curved edge of the sceptre, smashes Barton’s jaw. Barton hits the ground heavily on his side but even before he’s fully down the Tesseract sends out smooth tendrils of light to weave the crushed bone together, strands of magic knitting him whole.
Barton shudders briefly in the dirt.
“I don’t want to hear about Natasha Romanov,” he says, sitting down again. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Barton says.
“Good. Now get up.”
In his dreams they are young again, dashing through the halls of the palace. Thor runs without ever looking over his shoulder. The firstborn son, with nothing to fear; all things cleave to him, all things love him as a matter of fact. He is not as fast but he lets his feet morph into hooves, his body bending and elongating. He catches a glimpse of his own shadow against the wall as it flies past. Long, graceful horns curl out of his skull, and his heart thumps rabbit-fast in his newfound ribcage, fluttering against bone.
He gallops. He is faster, now. He can only ever catch up to Thor when he is not himself.
They are children and Thor is feverish. In the healing halls, with the sharp scent of spices making his eyes water, he looks down on his brother. They are the sons of Odin; they are told that they are gods; with Thor’s clammy hand in his, sweat breaking out across Thor’s upper lip and neck, teeth stuttering, he thinks: they do not tell us we are small. But we are.
He is not meant to be there. Thor’s hand tightens, digging half-moon welts into his palm.
“Tell me a story, brother,” Thor says. “A long one.”
His mouth twists down. “You are meant to be sleeping. I just came to – ”
“Tell me about the beasts on Morphrey, and how Father killed them in the Battle of the Seymir, on the back of a great white eagle. Tell me how the battle was won.”
“You already know that story. Better than I do, it seems.”
“I want to hear it again.”
He tips his head curiously, watching a drop of sweat bead on the line of Thor’s lashes.
“You never want to hear about anything other than war,” he says. “Doesn’t it ever bore you?”
“And you never want to hear about anything other than spells, and magic,” Thor says, grinning up at him. “And about the nature of foreign worlds. Doesn’t that ever bore you?”
“There is more to a planet than simply beating it into submission, Thor.”
“You only say that because you are not all that good at the beating.” Thor tugs his hand again. “I want a story. Just until I fall asleep. Or a song.”
He considers for a moment. “I can show you something else.”
He wipes his hand dry on his tunic. In the flickering candlelight of the hall, the creases of his palm are steeped in shadow; he calls the magic forward from the little nugget of heat buried inside his chest, the one that he has layered, nacre on nacre, cultivated carefully like a pearl.
A small green flame opens in his hand, and Thor shouts in excitement: “You must teach me!”
He snuffs the fire out, hissing.
“Quiet, idiot, you’re going to get me in trouble – ”
“Why did you put it out? You must show me again – ”
“Quiet – ”
Thor tugs him down into the blankets, laughing, and for a long moment they are a blind tangle of fabric and limbs and boy. They arm-wrestle for a while. Thor accidentally puts an elbow in his mouth, nearly knocking out teeth. The damp cloth on Thor’s forehead, soaked in salve, falls off.
“Greida is going to murder us,” Thor says, breathlessly, and then they are both giggling.
He tells Thor of the planet of Mrarn, where the maidens have beaks instead of mouths and long, black tails that are covered in spines. He sings softly the Ballad of the Hall of Iss, and then the Ballad of Reimling. He sings of the daughters of the creature Vos, whom murdered their husbands and were cast upon a rudderless ship as punishment, to always roam the seas; he sings of Zhashtar, whom courted cruel Asliem, and gave up his only eye to be with her.
“I would never be that stupid,” Thor mumbles sleepily against his shoulder. “I would never give up an eye for a maiden, even if I were in love with her. I’d rather keep my sight.”
“It’s a story,” he says with a sigh. “No-one’s asking you to give anything up.”
He tucks his face into Thor’s hair; he falls asleep.
The weak Midgard morning breaks out over the city, and beneath it, the mortals rouse.
He is sitting on the window ledge of a metal building that stretches towards the sky. On the planet of Jojuvar, metal is alive; it stirs beneath the surface of dark, lost oceans, blindly seeking.
“Enjoying the view?” Barton says, dropping down next to him.
“Yes,” he says. “Considering it is an empire that will soon be mine.”
“Ours,” Barton says.
It’s the Tesseract speaking. Sometimes it is difficult to separate out the man from the magic. Perhaps it can’t even be done anymore – magic, he’s learned, is a living thing, with its own breath and will and heartbeat. Perhaps it is already too late. Perhaps it’s there already, in the bones.
He hums noncommittally and doesn’t turn. “Be careful you do not overstep your boundaries, Barton.”
“Do you have anything to report?”
“No,” Barton says. Squinting out against the sunlight, gold flecks of his hair shifting in the wind. “Quiet as the grave all around. Came up to check though, just in case. See better up here.”
He stands, balanced perfectly on the ledge. Barton looks up at him, leaning forward a little, the Tesseract a hungry flare in his eyes. “Can I ask you a question, sir?”
“You may ask,” he says, already turning away. “I may not answer.”
“What are you going to do once you’ve won this world?”
“I don’t know,” he says breezily. “Perhaps I’ll improve it. Perhaps I’ll raze it to the ground, or push it into the orbit of a star. Perhaps I will be kind. In Ashrah, there is a king who has slaughtered all of his subjects and buried their bodies in the ice, so that he might feed his wolves until the Ragnarok. Each wolf has four eyes and their fur turns to gold when shed. There is a child prophetess in Zemlibath – ”
“No,” Barton interrupts. “I mean, what will you do. With yourself. Once this is over.”
He blinks. “That is none of your concern. I shall do as I please.”
“Just wondering why you chose our planet, is all. We’re a pretty unimpressive race.” Barton shrugs, inches from a half-kilometre plunge; black leather, gold-tipped. He thinks of Salja. “You’ve said it yourself.”
“You are but a stepping stone,” he says, “to worlds beyond. And you had the Tesseract.”
“Pretty cheap bargain, if you ask me – Earth in exchange for a Tesseract. Someone’s having you on.”
The magic prickles at the base of his skull with a dull heat. It surges briefly into his fingertips. He looks over at the line of Barton’s shoulders and spine, hardly stronger than a twig. He thinks of the torpid city below and how easily his rage could flatten it.
He thinks of fire, and the power of loneliness. He thinks of doubt.
“There is a debt I have yet to repay,” he says, because it is the only thing that Barton will understand.
On the planet of Byantr, nothing lives – an enchantress who lost her lover to the pull of the stars shattered everything, letting her magic run wild in revenge, levelling whole cities.
“Are you sure about this, sir?” Barton says.
His fingers tighten on the sceptre. Erik Selvig, calculations scattered about on three adjoining tables, is directing a team of assistants around the makeshift lab with a terse line of anticipation in his shoulders.
“Is there a part of my plan which displeases you, Barton?” he says, keeping the threat open.
Barton shrugs. “Just feels like a lot of risk, is all. Bad force ratio.”
“Risk is always proportional to gain.”
“Not like this. I’ve been in my fair share of operations, sir, and respectfully speaking, this one’s a little loose. It’ll come back and hit us all in the balls. I can feel it.”
In his dreams he is falling from the Bifrost again. He is being wrenched through the dimensions of all the Nine Realms. There is no air – no manner of judging the distance – he feels the vibrations of distant worlds on the edge of his vision, trembling through his fingers.
Gungnir, when he’d first held her in his hand, had sung to him of galaxies discovered and undiscovered; he remembers standing on the highest point of the City, shoulder-to-shoulder with Thor and looking out. He’d wondered what else the universe held, hidden away like a prize. Odin had placed a heavy hand on his shoulder. There is no prize.
He thinks, I cannot be forgiven now. I have given up everything. I am finally, terribly, free.
He faces Sif across the sparring field. She is bent low in a defensive crouch, her double-bladed spear resting lightly in her hands as she surveys him, searching out his weaknesses.
She makes a sudden feint and he dodges a step back.
“Brother,” Thor bellows from outside the ring, laughing. There is a heavy layer of mud matted into Thor’s hair. Hogun’s work. “You had best watch yourself, or you are going to end up in the dirt.”
“You had best watch yourself also, or you are going to find my next knife in your throat. Be quiet.”
“Stop distracting him, Thor,” Sif says without looking away. “I want a fair fight.”
Sif is a warrior of the old kind – the kind like Thor. Courage, honour, sweat. He thinks, a fair fight is for those who do not know how to press their advantage. Not even the All-Father, in all his millennia of battles, recited by bards the universe over, fights fairly. Thor tends to ignore this fact.
He splits himself into three and feels a dark spike of pleasure when Sif’s eyes grow cold.
“Loki, I’m not here to play games with you,” she growls.
He throws his first knife. It glances off her spear at the last minute, but flies close enough to make the point. “I did not say that I was playing a game, my dear Sif.”
“Then stop using your magic!”
“You would prefer it if I treated you like a maiden? You would have me handicap myself?”
“Loki,” Thor says warningly from the sidelines.
“You dishonour her by protesting, brother. She is not weak or defenceless. What say you, Sif? Shall we play, like children, or shall we fight? The decision is yours.”
Her eyes are hard and stormy. She snaps at him: “We are not children.”
They spar for almost an hour. Anger turns her movements choppy, saps her of the fluid strength needed to make the most of her weapon. She leaves him too many openings. He has never fought on the same field as Sif or Thor, with all the heft of brute strength – the body, he has found, is but a lesser creature compared to the intricacies of the mind and the heart. The greatest warrior will be worthless in the face of fear; the hardest hand may be stayed, at the very last moment, by love. Sentiment can turn the tide of battle. Thoughts and ideas – not just soldiers, or war – can break an empire, crumble it into the dust.
They are both breathing heavily by the time he gets close enough to get a solid grip on her armour. A brief panic goes through her face. He isn’t gentle when he flips her bodily into the mud, turning the tip of her own spear on her throat.
“Do you yield?” he says.
For a moment she tenses, her eyes flashing hot. And then she lets it go. “Yes, I yield.”
He moves the spear aside. Thor, he knows, would’ve offered her a hand, tugged her sportingly to her feet – but in this way, as in many ways, he is not Thor.
The first time he’d fallen down in the garden, Frigga had watched him from the path with soft, sad eyes.
And now, my son: you must get up.
The prophetess of Zemlibath lives in a hut on the edge of a great river.
He approaches without his armour. In his pocket, he has a pouch of ash that he has collected from the tail of a meteorite. Zemlibath has two moons, and as he makes his way past the river’s edge, he can see how they are reflected in the water – four owlish eyes that do not blink.
The child is blind, but she comes to the door of the hut to meet him. Her nails gleam against the wood.
“You should not have come, Laufeyson,” she says.
“I seek only an audience with you.” He bows, slightly. Her magic tastes strange, a thin, reedy note that fractures when he tries to make out the shape and shade of it. “Word of your Sight has travelled far.”
“I no longer have my eyes. A carrion-fowl made off with them.”
“One of the vultures of Salja? I have heard the tale.”
“Then you must know you have come in vain.”
He inclines his head. “I do not believe so.”
“I have not seen a vision for many years,” she says, not moving aside to let him in. A black fluid oozes out from under the strip of cloth wound over her eye-sockets; it drips off of the delicate line of her jaw, glinting darkly, vanishing when it touches the ground. “I do not have answers for you. You must search elsewhere.”
“I have searched all through the Nine Realms, prophetess.”
“Except in one place.”
He watches her, on guard, as she steps across the shallow stream that courses in front of her doorway. Stones rise up out of the water where she places her feet.
“They say my blood allows command of the dead,” she says. “Do you believe it?”
“I am prepared to believe anything, if you promise me it is the truth.”
She laughs softly. “Then you are still a child. I cannot offer you the truth that will set your mind at peace, because in your heart you already understand it – you just will not accept it.” She sets a small hand against his chest, her touch cool as fresh snow. She gives him a gentle shove. “You push it away.”
“It is they who have pushed me away,” he says, eyes narrowing. “I am in exile.”
“Only as long as you wish it. They believe you dead; you can still return to Asgard.”
“I am not a fool.”
“No,” she says. She is tired of him. The light shines for a minute on her brow as she turns away. “A fool is ignorant, and for that he may be forgiven. But knowledge is what condemns you, Laufeyson.”
“You must know already that I will make you kill her,” he says, watching as Barton tests the balance of his bow. “I will not spare either of you. I will make you murder her with your own hands.”
Barton nocks an arrow without batting an eye. “And will you kill your brother?”
“Yes,” he says.
“Are you that afraid of him?”
He hesitates, stunned for a moment. The Tesseract pulses against his palm. “I am not afraid of him, nor of anyone in Asgard or beyond. I have wandered the entire universe, and it is nothing.”
“Ah,” Barton says. His eyes are blue and alien; he lets the arrow loose. “So you are afraid of yourself.”