Loki's eyes flew open. A shock cut its way through him, and awoke in him a natural desperation and emotion long forgotten in the fog of anger and revenge. Yet his mind didn't comprehend it that far; he only knew one thing:
He knew that voice.
He flew to transparent wall of his prison and began to beat at it, his head still full of the screaming, the voice reaching helplessly for him—and then it abruptly stopped. He began to scream himself:
"BRING ME ODIN! BRING ME THE KING! WHERE IS ODIN?!"
The flickering form of Odin looked haggard as he faced the Captain of America. His one eye holding steady even as the lines around it deepened. "He was taken."
"I don't understand." Banner said, pushing his glasses up, his eyes unfocused as he tried to wrap his head around the news. "I thought this was a meeting with a potential ally. He went because they have had dealings with Asgard before, and would be more likely to trust him than any of us."
"It was a trap." Natasha said quietly, folding her arms as the line between her brows showed itself.
"Yeah, but a trap for whom? For him, or for just any of us?" Tony asked, hands moving as he walked the perimeter. "They asked for a meeting with the Avengers. Not Thor."
Grimly, Odin shook his head. His mouth was a thin line. "I am afraid," he said in a low, harsh voice. "That is not the case."
"What?" Tony blinked, his face neutral.
"The very fact that they claimed to be a race that Asgard was familiar with, cloaking themselves as allies and friends, is proof enough." The king explained. "They knew from our past dealings with that race that he would be the one sent, to set the foundation for your world to build its allegiance upon."
"Who are 'they'?" Natasha asked.
"An ancient race long thought gone from life. It would seem a few survived."
Odin paused. "It was I who destroyed them." he said quietly. "They were laying waste to world after world, destroying entire peoples. We drove them back, but they were relentless, rising to kill even when only a handful were left. A bloodthirsty race, remorseless, with a great love for conquest and cruel subjugation." He looked upon them gravely, and though his expression was as controlled as ever they could see the anger and great fear in the father's one eye. "When they chose to keep a prisoner, it was not to put them in a cell under lock and key. They do not hold for ransom. The interrogations…only prolonged the inevitable."
The unsaid was perhaps the loudest resounding words in the silence that followed. Clint's eyes narrowed and grew sharp, darkening, and Natasha's always grim face grew grimmer still. Banner closed his eyes and pinched them and his nose with his fingers, as though he could erase the images rising in his mind with the act. Steve remained frozen, in movement and expression, thinking back to the horrors he had seen during the war. And Tony—always upbeat, flippant Tony—had gone stone faced, his eyes hardening into flint.
It had been two weeks since Thor had left for the 'ambassadorial' mission. A mission expected to last a month.
"What tipped you off that your son was taken?" Tony asked, his tone calm and yet gritting.
That was not the answer anyone had been expecting.
"He began to call for me from his cell. It is not always uncommon, for prisoners to do such in isolation, looking for mercy from their king." Odin said wryly, and then his expression fell. "It was a full day before I at last answered him. He had heard Thor's…" He paused, glancing to one side as emotion welled up, and he swallowed and bared his teeth, gaining control. "The screaming had begun suddenly in the middle of the night. For a few minutes only, but it was enough."
"I don't understand." Steve said, tipping his head and narrowing his eyes.
"Thor and Loki have always had a strong bond. It used to be easy, as some things are, for them to sometimes connect in thought and mind and share silently. As they grew into adult years Loki's talents in that area increased with his skill in magic, but for Thor it lessened. Till it seemed to be mostly gone, a loss felt keenly by both." He paused. "For Thor to make the connection…for the situation to be…"
Again the unsaid hung heavily in the air.
"What can we do?" Steve asked. His frozen shock was gone, and he was once more the strong, determined Captain who had successfully led the Avengers team for years now.
"I need you to save him."
The request was all the more poignant in its quiet, whispered words.
"Us?" Tony exclaimed. "Why not you? What about you and your glorious golden army?"
Odin bared his teeth. "They have cast a spell over their end."
"Translation, please." Clint said shortly.
"They have spelled the path to their world, and fixed it upon our kind, so that any Asgardian who attempts to cross will immediately burn upon reaching the other end."
Banner widened his eyes and blew out a slow breath.
Steve crossed his arms, his gaze calculating and thoughtful. "Can you get us there?" he asked.
Odin's image flickered, and then he nodded. "And bring you back. But you must understand…their portals are closely guarded. I can open one of my own, but it must be far from their city, or else you will have no chance. They would destroy you the instant you arrived."
"Understood." Steve said, and snapped up straight, a soldier ready to go to war. "Give us an hour. We'll wait for you in the usual place at the top of the tower."
Odin nodded, and then looked at each Avenger in turn. "Thank you." he said, and his voice grew heavy and choked on the last word.
"We'll bring him back, sir." Banner said quietly.
With a final nod, Odin's image flickered out. He was gone.
Steve turned. "We need a plan."
"A quick strike would be best." Clint said. "In and out. Don't try to take the enemy out."
"Just a nabn'grab." Tony finished, nodding. "With a distraction. One person to zoom in and pluck Thor out while the others sport and consort mayhem in all her glory."
"And that should be you. Doing the nabn'grab." Steve said.
"No, that should be you, mister indestructable-not-even-Thor's-hammer-can-dent-him . Better protection."
"Better speed." Steve countered, pointing at Tony. "You have the suit. You fly in, grab him, and fly out."
"But I'm better at bombing the bad guys."
"I'll give you one of my suits, okay?" Tony said.
"I don't know how to use them." Steve insisted firmly. "Besides, I'm sure there'll be plenty of guards that will need blasting on your way to Thor."
It was cold. So cold that he thought his bones might crack.
Strange. Not so long ago it had been the other way around. Heat that should never be allowed to exist roaring through and over his body like a raging wildfire, consuming all in its path without mercy.
Yet they had left him alone now for several hours, long enough for the temporary heat to leave, long enough for the cold of the stone he was chained to to seep into his limbs, cracking along his bones and pooling in his joints.
He would be rescued. Somehow, someday, it would happen. He just had to keep himself sane—safe—intact until then. Let them do what they would to his physical self; but let his mind go untouched.
Something moved, and then before he could react a strong, rough hand grabbed his matted and bloody hair and pulled his head back, shoving it against the stone wall, the grip so tight it made his swollen eyes sting. He flinched. Not because of the pain, but because of the touch. Any touch meant more…and he wasn't sure how much 'more' he could take.
Warrior he was. Torture and pain he had endured. But nothing like this. Nothing at all like this.
He had to guard his mind; he was so close, so in danger of losing it already…
He would rather die with it than without.
He opened his eyes; bright, gem-like azure all the more brilliant when surrounded by the filth and red. They were hard as they gazed upon his tormentor.
The creature—almost like a man, but with too much beast and monster to be truly a man—laughed, his wide, tattooed mouth opening and spreading in a pleased smile.
"Still you have heart! Still I can see your strength!" he said, his voice richer and deeper than the deepest mountain caverns. It would have been a beautiful thing to listen to if it hadn't come from 'him'. If it hadn't the remorseless tone to it. "I am very glad. It has been far too long since we've had any true strength among us." A harsh hand touched the side of Thor's face, and he pulled back, from the sting of the touch against his wounds and the abhorrence of the touch itself. "Most creatures are too frail for our use…we have to be so delicate in our dealings with them, if they are to last beyond a day. But you…" That sharp grin again, far too wide, too close to Thor's face. "With you we do not need to hold back. It is very…satisfying."
The creature breathed in deeply, as though to savor the foul scent of filth and blood and sweat that surrounded him. He turned and went to the stone shelf in the wall, as long and wide as a table, and he made his selection. Then he turned.
Thor's weakening legs trembled, bracing when he saw.
Father! Save me! I am strong…
…but I do not know if I'm this strong!
Show up, create all kinds of chaos and mayhem while Tony rescues Thor, and then get out as fast as possible.
That was the plan.
It was a good plan. Lacking in details, perhaps, but with plenty of wiggle room for the unexpected.
Tony liked lots of wiggle room.
The moment the portal opened again and he could see a great expanse of mountains and harsh foliage he hit his thrusters, bursting out of the brilliance of the portal and into the tangible. Behind and around him were his teammates, hunched low over their riders—supplied by Shield and improved upon by Tony himself—their faces grim and dark.
"We'll go in first. Stark, you move in once the action starts." Steve's even voice ordered over the coms.
"Aye aye, Captain." Tony quipped, and hit his thrusters again.
Thor gasped for breath desperately, the action harsh and sporadic. A wordless sound was carried on every breath as he tipped his head back against the wall, eyes closed tight and his teeth clenched and bared.
Then for a few minutes the breathless sound ended, replaced by something much more terrible.
Those minutes were few, but they seemed unending, stretching out so that every moment was marked with the silent plea 'Stop! Stop stop stop…let it stop…!' And when it did stop he returned to his struggle for air.
He would not last. He had endured torture before, but nothing like this. These creatures had tasted sweet revenge with his blood, and it had stirred their hunger to impossible heights. If there had been information they wanted, or if they held him for a ransom, he would have something to hold to. Something to ground him. Something to fight. But this was revenge, pain for the sake of pain, which meant no escape, no bargain, no hope. Even the hope of rescue had been torn from him as his tormentor had explained to him, his eyes burning with bloody delight, that the portal to their world had been spelled. Should any of his kin try to cross, they would burn immediately, with nothing but ash to mark their arrival. Tears, hidden in the filth and blood on his face, had left their trails in his hopelessness and grief. He would die here, with no end to his torment, and if any rescue were attempted he would have to watch his father and a thousand warrior souls burn before him.
Yet he doubted he would have to endure that grief. It had only been two weeks. It would be another two before he was missed.
As the pain tore through him yet again, seizing his limbs and tearing through his core, he knew he would not last that long.
The distance from their portal to the crawling city was hours. By flying. On foot it would have taken a good day and night. As they flew each member went over the information supplied to them by Odin; nothing about the current city layout, but plenty about the characteristics of the race they were about to attack, and their strength and weaknesses. How they operated.
What they were capable of.
At last the city came into view. Low to the ground, lit here and there by fires, sprawling like a giant bug's nest across the valley floor on the other side of the mountains.
Tony grimaced; how on earth was he going to find Thor amidst all THAT?!
"Jarvis," he muttered. "You have his specs?"
"Yes, sir." the polite voice said.
"Start looking." Tony stared in dismay as they drew closer. "And look fast."
He slowed down, dropping behind the team and letting them go in first. Darkness was falling around them fast as the light disappeared behind the mountains. That would be both an asset and a disadvantage. He would be able to move a little more freely, but it would also make finding the Thunder man much more difficult. Not to mention their escape when he did find him.
Shouts and chaos suddenly erupted, punctuated by Hulks furious roars and rapid gunfire and explosions.
"Scan, Jarvis! Scan!" Tony yelled, and his thrusters burned suddenly and brightly in the dark night.
Loki stared at the spot recently vacated just outside of his cell. He had refused to look at Odin who, after telling him of the Avengers plan, had asked him… quietly, a hope in his voice… if he would connect with Thor. To tell him. To give him hope. Instead Loki had fallen silent and looked away, standing straight with his hands clasped behind him. His pale face gave nothing away, and Odin had dropped his gaze, a father's heartbreak clear. He had hoped that Loki had begun to let go of the anger towards him.
As Odin had turned to leave, Loki had hardened himself against the tinge of remorse that had dared to raise its head. He would do as HE pleased, not as Odin pleased.
So the moment he was sure he was alone, Loki turned and strode to his cot and sat down, crossing his long legs beneath him, and he closed his eyes and turned deeply in, and then sent himself out.
He had so very little energy available…he could feel the pull on already drained reserves…
Still he pushed outward, shooting himself across time and space till suddenly he found himself in a very, very dark place. It was strange, being in someone's head and spirit, but never had he connected to something so horrifying.
The strong, invincible hammer of Asgard…curling up in his own mind like a child, begging for it to end. Believing all help and hope lost, and simply holding out for the sake of pride…and waiting for the only thing that would release him from this place, and grieving for such an end.
The pain that curled and rolled around him was like a roaring fire, like a furnace. The sounds that rose were blood curdling.
Loki wondered that the end had not already come.
With a cool, pale hand he gently reached out. There was a jolt as the touch was felt, and he quickly spoke, keeping his touch constant and soft.
"Thor. I am here."
A sobbing gasp echoed around him, and his name flittered through his mind in a broken voice, filled with such desperate relief that his long-callused heart felt, for the first time in years, the pangs and love of a brother.
"They are coming." Loki said, his voice gentle so as not to scrape agains the rawness around him. He said it again, pouring the hope and light of an end to it all into his brother. "The Avengers are coming. They will be here soon."
A flash of light around him, a pulse of hope for the first time in an eternity, and then a wet rush as the hope was truly realized…pouring around him and soaking him completely in the broken relief.
Help was coming.
Then it was gone in a whirlwind of red and pain and cracking and sharp shards, and the screaming deafened him and made Loki want to shut up his ears for the rest of time.
Instead he surrounded him, holding him tightly within intangible arms, grounding him with the strength of stone. Holding together the frayed and scattered pieces, Loki gathered them up and surrounded him completely, holding him together and closing his eyes as his name was screamed in desperation.
If only he could use his magic for more. If only he could truly be there.
He could feel the weakness begin, his reserves aching in emptiness. To continue would mean damage, and being being ill for a long, long time as his body struggled to recover. His message had been delivered; he needed to back out now, and return.
"I am here."
"I am here." Loki whispered into his deepest being, breath warm against his ear. Something shifted within, and Loki settled down, his decision made. "I will stay, brother. You are not alone."
And his brother turned into him, and Loki closed his eyes and tightened his embrace as the storm continued its destruction around him.
Tony flew over the hovel tops, the scans coming at him left and right. Here and there were the ruins of medieval-esque stone buildings…like those of ancient castles…now taken over and crawling with the huge, ugly beings that seemed to be everywhere, roaring when they caught sight of him.
"Jarvis?!" Tony shouted.
"No sign of him yet, sir." Jarvis replied.
His strength was fading. They had hooked a creature to his neck, a parasite, to kill him slowly…and cause more pain. For if it was poked at, or pulled, it released a toxin into the blood that made your veins burn and boil within you. A natural deterrent to its being removed from its host.
His tormentors enjoyed poking it.
'Help is coming.'
Even as his teeth threatened to crack from the tension of being clenched, even as he was sure that his skin would be blistered and peeled if he dared to look, even when his voice broke and tore and could hardly make more sound than a raw croak, even then he repeated it to himself. He held it within his heart like the greatest treasure in the world, and clung to its hope.
He was a warrior of Asgard. He was the prince of his people. As long as there was hope, he would make it.
And yet even then the torment would sometimes rise around him so thickly he could not move; till he could not think and could not breathe and just wanted it to stop, and then Loki would tighten his arms and Thor could feel his brother's embrace, holding him together till it passed, whispering comfort as his screams filled the air. More than anything—any hope or help—his brother's solid, quiet presence saved him. It had been so long since they had connected like this he had forgotten the comfort of it, and he clung to Loki as his only lifeline in this Hel.
Then he felt it. The change within, and he knew: his body would fail him before the parasite would kill him. No matter the renewed hope and determination to hold on. What was that Earth saying?
'The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak…'
"Absolute nonsense." Loki hissed in his ear. "Foolishness and lies!"
Thor tipped his head back, chest heaving.
I am trying, brother…
"Not hard enough, you fool." Loki took advantage of the small reprieve and adjusted his hold around Thor, making it more secure against himself, so that Thor was well supported.
Thor had forgotten how strong those slender arms were.
"Creatures… insects such as these… cannot defeat the God of Thunder! They will not!" Loki's fingers suddenly became like talons upon him, tightening and bracing. Thor refused to open his eyes to see why.
He arched in his restraints a moment later, and to the shame of his warrior pride…what little there was left at this point…there were tears in his voice as it rose with the pain.
"It will be over soon!" Loki said in his ear, a desperate, hard note to his deceivingly calm and soothing voice. His arms remained unrelenting bands as Thor jerked within them, holding his brother unto himself.
Thor wanted to believe, and did. Some would call him a fool for believing Loki, as often as Loki had played upon his sentiments in the past, but this time Thor did not care…Loki was here, and the hope he had given was enough for Thor.
And he had his brother back, if only for a short time.
I will kill them! I will kill…
He began to shake; they were not stopping this time. His fingers splayed in hooked and grotesque forms, unable to curl into fists. His legs were locked and unable to move; and his chest began to tighten. Every muscle, till he couldn't breathe, and his heart began to beat frantically and heavily against the constriction.
He was being shaken from within, as though Loki could bring some sense back to him, but his bones were breaking and his blood was burning and Valhalla he couldn't THINK…! He gasped, and then suddenly he couldn't stop moving, straining against his chains and roaring and if he could just get away from it, then maybe he could think and breathe again…!
"It's okay!" Loki shouted over the din in his mind, over the shouted 'Stop! Stop! STOP!' that filled him and drowned out every other sound. "It's okay! It will end soon…It'll end soon! I am here, Thor. I will not let you go. I will not let you go!"
And then it did end.