He felt the jolt as someone breached his wards. Not the outer ones placed on the outer perimeter of the premises, or the ones on the driveway to alert him to the arrival of visitors.
Not even the ones separating his private rooms from the business area of the building.
Someone or something must have made it all the way to the display room – or the hallway in front of it in any case.
He sketched a rune of calling over the small screen integrated in his desk, which immediately changed to show him his head of security, who seemed to be quite at ease in his office, oblivious to the problem. Oh, those mortals. They had grown so complacent in their technology, their gadgets and devices these days that they had lost nearly all appreciation for the simpler and more direct applications of spells and wards.
He didn't bother to keep the edge from his voice as he addressed the man. "While you've been busy keeping comfortable over there, someone has apparently started raiding my treasury," he announced. "Would you kindly do something about it?"
His hands – oh, his entire body itched for action, for sweeping down there and doing something about it himself. Whoever, whatever had made it in this far unnoticed had to have had some powerful help, or powers of his or her own that one did not come by naturally in Midgard.
Nevertheless, he forced himself to remain seated where he was. He was not going to blow the cover he had so painstakingly built up for himself in years of work. In contrast to what some people might claim, he did not have a tendency to act rashly.
His role was that of a collector and businessman, collector of rare artifacts, supposedly dating back to the time of legends, suspected according to rumor unproven to have ties to some less-than-law-abiding circles.
Erik Ivarsson would never dirty his own hands personally attending to anything as insignificant as a petty criminal sneaking in to rob him.
Too bad that Erik Ivarsson did not exist.
He almost winced as a security detail came trampling through his wards. They had to work on their response time, really. There would be a very stern talk between him and their boss before the day was out.
At least the time between their arrival on site and the call to inform him that the collection had been secured was acceptable.
"Everything is secured," the woman who commanded the security detail reported. "We caught him trying to sneak in. The displays have not been breached. What shall we do with the intruder?"
His lips twitched scornfully. "You mean you caught him having snuck in after I was so kind as to inform your boss of it," he pointed out. "Lock him up. I will deal with him later."
There were many things that were high on his current to do list of things for the near future. Showing his face to someone who might be connected to them, someone who might even be able to recognize him, was not among them.
He switched the screen in this desk to the holding room.
It was a simple, windowless affair, but virtually escape-proof. He had heard some of his staff joke that it could even keep a jǫtunn in. Of course, few believed in such a thing as the jǫtnar anymore.
The truth of it was that it was secure enough to keep a jǫtunn in. He knew because he had placed the warding runes in the very material of the wall when it was built. He had secured the only opening that it had, the door that was all but invisible from the inside. As a matter of fact, he was reasonably sure that it could even keep an ás in. That, of course, he had not had an opportunity to test yet. He stayed well out of their ways these days. He might be a match for one of them, but they had this unpleasant tendency of rarely making solo appearances anymore.
Oh yes, they were growing weak. Tied closely to the nature of the world, all of them had gradually lost a share of their power as the mortals increasingly gained mastery of the very elements they represented. Some more so, some less. They were growing weak in comparison to what they once had been. All things in life were relative, however, and a relatively weak ás or jǫtunn was still a formidable opponent, particularly if you dared not disclose too much of your own nature.
Yes, he could face and get rid of one, probably even two or three. His own loss of power had been negligible so far.
But if he did, if they got any inkling of where he was, what he was doing these days, they would swoop down on him in numbers, and that he could not counter. Not yet, in any case. They might not believe it, but he had just as strong a wish to live as they did.
Anyway, his holding room, planned into the very foundations of the building when he had had it erected, was secure enough to keep in a jǫtunn, and that was lucky because, unless his screen had suddenly picked up a habit of lying to him, there was a jǫtunn in it right now, and that jǫtunn was very pissed off at being apprehended, seized and thrown in the dungeon like any petty criminal.
This wasn't just any jǫtunn, though.
He called his head of security again.
"I changed my mind," he said. "Bring the intruder to my office. I will speak with him."
Hanging up the call before the man could answer, he rose to his feet and walked over to the window to look outside, taking a deliberately relaxed stance.
He still had his back to the window when the prisoner was brought in.
"Leave." He told the guards. "I will call you if I need you."
They knew better than to argue.
"Well?" he asked without introduction.
"Well what?" Stubborn defiance in his voice.
"Well, what were you thinking, sneaking in here and trying to get at my property?" He elaborated as he turned around and, with some satisfaction, registered the series of emotions that chased each other in the intruder's face. Sudden recognition gave way to shocked surprise, replaced in turn by a moment of delight and ending in guarded wariness.
His captive was a tall man, lean and lithe, with the body of a dancer – a body that was entirely hairless, without even a shadow that suggested that he had shaved his scalp. He was dressed in a skin-tight, dark suit, supple shoes and fine leather gloves. His hands were currently shackled in front of his body. The guards had not taken chances with him. "You are…"
"… by far in the superior position. So tell me, what were you looking for?"
"There's rumors about ancient artifacts being kept here. I was merely investigating." He surveyed him out of unblinking eyes.
Well, those rumors existed for sure. "You're working on your own?"
The bald man shook his head. "I have backup waiting for me. " He hesitated for a moment. "Actually, he probably knows I've been taken by now, so he may not be waiting anymore."
"Who's your backup?"
With a smirk, the other man lifted his hands. "Why don't you untie me, and I'll call him?"
He shook locks of strawberry-blonde hair from his face as he considered that. "Why would I? You might try to harm me if I did."
"That," came the reply, "would be patricide and not particularly polite. I came to this place to relieve some vain upstart of a couple of pieces that he shouldn't have had in the first place."
"Which, of course, is much more polite than killing your old father."
The younger man shrugged. "If I'd known it was you, I would have come politely knocking at your door," he claimed.
"If I'd known it was you, I would have gone down there and spanked you myself instead of calling security. How did you get in, by the way?"
That brought a chuckle along with the response. "I am a snake, remember? I can slither into places that others may find impregnable." He pulled at his shackles. "What are these things? Not souvenirs you kept, right?"
"Not souvenirs," he confirmed, suddenly very serious, his eyes losing every trace of the twinkle they had held a moment earlier. "Come here, Jǫrmungandr."
There was nothing but to obey the command. He stepped closer to his father whom, up until a few minutes ago he had believed a captive himself, concealed in an inaccessible place.
Without much fanfare, Loki reached out to touch the thin tie that bound his son's hands. As it sprang open, the older jǫtunn caught it before it could fall to the floor and put it in his pocket.
His son rubbed his wrists briefly, a smile of relief lighting up his face. "Now, do you want me to..?" he asked.
"Am I going to be in trouble if you do?" Loki wanted to know.
The smile turned into a half-smirk. "Not really," the Midgard Serpent decided, shaking a phone from a hidden pocket in his sleeve.
"I really need to have a word with my staff," his father muttered.
"You still hanging around?" the son asked the person on the other end of the connection he had quickly established. "Kind of an interesting turn of events here. You might want to come in." A short pause as he listened. "I think you can take the front door, actually." He shot a questioning glance at his father, who shrugged and nodded.
Jǫrmungandr snapped shut the phone and returned it to its hiding place, as Loki quickly placed orders with the guards by his entrance to not deter whoever was gong to come knocking in a moment, but instead send him straight up to the office.
Then he pointed at a chair. "Will you sit?" he asked his son. "We have some catching up to do, no matter what your … associate … is going to turn out to be. Nice twist with the phone, by the way. I hear most of us prefer to steer clear of the more technical gadgets these mortals have come up with."
The younger man gave a half-shrug as he folded himself bonelessly into the chair. "My nephews have declared allegiance to motorbikes and the 'Net," he said matter-of-factly. "And they're doing fine with it. Stronger than ever before. I see nothing wrong with embracing whatever works."
"I didn't know we could do that," Loki admitted, just as the door opened and a third man stepped into the room. He was even taller than the other two, wearing a shaggy mane of hair with a beard that could have been much better trimmed over a suit of leather as was the fashion for the modern speeder bikes. He stopped dead in his tracks as he set eyes on the master of this property – who in turn stood open-mouthed for a moment, staring at the newcomer in equal bewilderment.
The Serpent leaned back in his chair and enjoyed the scene.
Both found their language skills returning the same moment. "How did you get out?"
Instead of answering, both chuckled, then they closed the gap between them, embracing for a second.
"If you're free," Loki said, holding his oldest son at arm's length away from himself to look him over, "Why is the world still in one piece?"
"I could ask you the same thing," came the reply.
Loki grinned almost sheepishly. "I enjoy life as much as the next person," he admitted. "At this point, I have no wish to fulfill that prophecy."
"So you have acquired a taste in artifacts?" Fenrir asked, all business now.
"Acquired? No." Loki grinned at the pair. "Permitted myself to indulge it, though. Here, why don't I show the two of you my collection? Why are you so interested in it, by the way?"
Jǫrmungandr got up and moved smoothly towards the door, taking that comment as an invitation. "Should we have left them with some crazy mortal who happened to get them in his possession?" he asked. "Just imagine what that might lead to."
They followed their father to the very room the Serpent had broken into earlier.
What Loki usually merely referred to as his "collection" was a circular room that held several display cases with one piece inside each.
"I hate to tell you so," Jǫrmungandr said as he walked along the perimeter of the room, looking at each one of them in turn. "But your Mjǫlnir is a fake."
Loki laughed at that. "Not a fake, a placeholder," he said. "I haven't quite got my hands on the original yet. That Gungir is very much the original, though." He watched his other son stare at the weapon. "And I'd appreciate it if you stopped looking like you wanted to break it."
Fenrir growled. "Well, I would," he said. "I have a personal feud with that thing, you know."
"Easy for you to say," his son retorted. "You'renot scheduled to be killed with it."
The older jǫtunn stepped behind him and contemplated what looked like a plain, wooden spear supported in a cabinet. "As long as these are here, they can't use them to harm any of us," he pointed out. "They may be looking for them, but with the changes here on Midgard, they have lost so much power and so many artifacts that they're not likely to actually find them the way they are guarded here. You didn't feel them from outside the building, or even the room, either, did you? However," now he started to walk away from the display case and towards a small, simple door located in the opposite wall, "I'm pretty sure he would feel its destruction, and possibly be able to pinpoint where it happened. No, son – it's safer in one piece."
"How do you know?" Fenrir wanted to know. "How do you know what they are doing or not doing? Did you walk into Ásgarðr and ask them?"
His father opted to ignore the sarcasm as he unlocked that door with a few runes.
"I have my contacts," he said as he threw open the door with a flourish. "Apples, anyone?"
The two younger men stared. The door opened into another room, this one with a glass ceiling. It held only one thing, planted effectively at its very center: A young apple tree, just old enough to bear fruit, its branches bearing what might be its first harvest of wondrously golden apples.
"You stole Iðunn's tree?" the Midgard Serpent asked incredulously shocked by the sight into forgetting that this tree looked far too new to be the one.
"Nonsense," Loki retorted as he entered the room to pluck two of the apples. "It's just an offshoot. Here." He tossed one of them at each of his sons. "They're just as good, though."
"I can't believe Iðunn gave you a – I can't believe Iðunn gave you… Iðunn gave you…"
"I never said she did so gladly, voluntarily or even remotely amicably," Loki pointed out. "I just had some very good arguments." Actually, the arguments had been Sigyn's. He had also really needed those apples to deal with the effects of having acidic snake poison poured over his face from time to time. To this day he sometimes imagined that he could still feel the scaling, burning pain of flesh being eaten away down to the bone. He shuddered at the thought and pushed the memory away. "And it's not like she's going to tell them. Think what they'd do to her if they knew."
A smirk crossed Fenrir's face as he chewed. "You know what?" he said without bothering to swallow first. "I think I have an idea of where the original for your placeholder might be stuck. It's not like we," he indicated himself and his brother, "have the resources to get to it."
"Resources are not one of my immediate problems," Loki admitted, closing and locking the door that concealed his tree again. "So why don't we sit down and talk about a… cooperation?"
"That," the Wolf said, immense satisfaction radiating from him, "was precisely what I had in mind."