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It burned him to remember that it all began as a way to impress his “father.”

He had been young, still sure that Odin’s advice was good (ha), that there was an honest chance that he would inherit the throne. Young enough to still yearn for acknowledgment, for praise; naïve enough to imagine he could earn respect through magic.

It sickened him that he had ever been so foolish.

The plan itself was elegantly simple. Finding a primitive world had taken a matter of minutes; much more of his time had been spent browsing through the hundreds of realms of lesser creatures. Weaving a spell that would blind even Heimdall himself to Loki’s machinations was another matter entirely, but the days of ink-stained hands, of fatigue and migraines, were well worth the prize.

And what a prize it would become.

The chosen realm was utterly ignorant of magic. Materialism and greed had parceled the land into countless kingdoms; those very same vices fed endless war over resources, beliefs, and the arbitrary borders themselves. The rulers, whether self-instated or chosen, failed to protect their subordinates, often sacrificed their people’s health in favor of fattening themselves. For the decades Loki observed the realm, nothing had changed beyond a few lines drawn in the dirt, gallons of blood spilt, and currency changing hands.

Certainly, a younger Loki had thought, this backward, self-destructive realm could be saved, if only they had access to advice from an evolved, mature race. In the face of Odin’s teachings, surely these primal beings could slough off their base desires and myopia, could emerge as a proper kingdom. Perhaps they, given eons and guidance, could one day build a kingdom worthy of a young Asgard itself.

Perhaps, this naïve, stupid boy had reasoned, all they required was a gentle, subtle push. And, if he could one day show his father how he had understood and implemented his lessons, had saved these poor, suffering creatures from writhing in their own filth for innumerable millennia—well, that was just a bonus. It was merely a matter of time until Thor would be forced to accept that his brand of brash, witless action did not a king make. This, the boy who was to become the Liesmith, the Pretender, the Monster, had thought, would just bring about the inevitable; it was, in fact, merciful to show his superior ability so completely, so unquestionably, that Odin would be able to end the charade at last, would be able to give Loki the throne without damaging his (true, only, Aeser) son’s pride.

And so the plan had been set in motion. Hours upon hours, days upon days Loki had spent flitting across this land, whispering second-hand advice into the ears of incompetent rulers, watching as his guiding words altered plans, goals, minds.

But, as the end drew close, Loki had grown distracted. These creatures had proven themselves more stubborn than expected—nigh comparable to Thor himself—and reiterating the same lessons, oft without much effect, grew tiring.

It had merely been a matter of time before his visitations stopped entirely, until his plans, once so consuming, faded into distant memory.

Until, one day, after he had become the Trickster, the Liesmith, the Outsider, after he had finally culled his idiotic, childish hopes and dreams, well after he had recognized Odin as the failed king he was, he felt a tug on an old, powerful spell, and he remembered.

And he returned, centuries later, to a changed world.

He wandered the streets, picked his way around the huddled bodies, the charred rubble. He scaled the steps of the Capitol building, the only pristine edifice in miles, and watched as lines of soldiers streamed across the blackened earth toward the screams, the shots, the plumes of smoke. In the distance, a flying contraption loomed on the horizon, black against the murky gray of the sky but for the orange, flickering hue of its helm. He stood, among the chaos, the suffering, the destruction, on the single intact building on the continent, and surveyed what Odin’s teachings had gifted this world.

His mouth twisted into a smile.

Inside, a man, halfway through his life and uncomfortably aware of it, pored over beryl, ghostly maps bleeding red. On the ground, glowing toy soldiers battled, fell, and crumbled into glittering dust. Above these translucent bloodbaths, hulking, metallic phantoms floated; occasionally, they would rock to the side, leak a fading trail of smoke, and crash into the flickering countryside. Numbers hung well above these skirmishes, changing every few seconds as officers were slain and new troops arrived. Black strokes cut numbers into the terrain itself; dashed lines represented whichever arbitrary borders were currently in use. Loki wondered over this realm’s odd brand of magic as soldiers and machines alike fell, man-made shadows of the men and women perishing on the frontlines. Soon, the map itself whirred and projected new, smaller territories on the continent’s face.

The man cursed, and the final piece of Loki’s new plan slid into place.

“I believe I have a solution to your… problem.” The God of Mischief leaned forward, bringing his lips to the general’s ear as though revealing an intimate secret, as though a passerby could possibly hear him in the first place. “Tell me: Do your people still remember the phrase panem et circuses?”