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06 August 2013 @ 12:06 pm
Hail of Shadows 3/?  
Previously: (AO3)
Chapter One
Chapter Two



The feast was continuing, but Thor had grown bored of it, especially now that so many were deep in their cups and Frigga had left.

He was intending to seek out Loki and see how his chambers fared, when he spied the very target of his interest slinking across the far end of the hall, carrying the Casket of the Ancient Winters in both hands.

Thor hurried to meet him. Loki and sneaking were never a good combination, and certainly not when he had an object of such power in his hands. "Loki!"

Ahead of him, Loki's step paused and then he slowly turned, a smile fixed to his lips. "Thor."

"What are you doing?" Thor tried to keep his question curious, not accusing, since Loki responded poorly to being doubted.

He still stiffened. "I worked while you were carousing in the hall. I need to take this to a safer place to perform another test."

"You do this now? It is late."

Loki gave a shrug. "No matter."

"Ah, I will walk with you."

Loki grimaced as if he very much wanted to object, but said only, "If you wish."

But as they descended, passing Loki's previous cell without a glance from him, Thor became uneasy. They passed near the site of the previous shadowpath gate into areas unfrequented by anyone. "Where are we going?"

"I know not where you are going, but I am going to the Chamber of Winds."

That paused Thor's step briefly. The Chamber of Winds was an immense cavern, deep beneath the palace, there was a narrow platform above a deep abyss, out of which powerful winds swirled upward. Thor had always wondered if it was a gap in Asgard and that hole might plummet all the way to Jormungandr. Whether it did or not, it was a deep, bottomless pit and no fit place for magical experiments.

He had to hurry to catch up. "The Chamber is forbidden to us, since our youth."

Loki snorted. "I have visited many times."

That did not surprise Thor at all but he objected anyway, "It is dangerous!"

"I need isolation and a place to send any wild power that will harm no one," Loki explained, not slowing or hesitating in the maze of tunnels. This deep in the undercroft, the walls and floors were only polished stone, far from the finery of rugs and wall-hangings above. "And it has no furniture to damage."

Thor wasn't sure if it was amusing or troubling that Loki thought nothing of disobeying Odin to visit the Chamber, while obeying Frigga's request to move his experiment to a safer place. "I thought Father sealed it."

"He did. I opened it." Loki shrugged. "I keep it shielded against anyone else though, so perhaps that was all that mattered to him."

He turned abruptly to face the stone wall. Holding out his hand, he stripped the shield, revealing a narrow crack that led off into the darkness. Thor recognized the entrance, but it seemed smaller than he remembered. Loki ducked his head to enter and . Thor followed, shoving himself into the lightless passage.

Loki moved with enviable swiftness, familiar with the tunnel, even as Thor struggled to fit both himself and Mjolnir between the ragged stones.

A cobalt light glimmered ahead of him and Loki's voice taunted, "If you are intent on joining me, could you move along?"

"You brought us this way deliberately," Thor accused, having to turn sideways and duck his head, while feeling for rock protuberances.

He could see Loki's face looking back at him, lit by the Casket's blue glow, grinning as he watched Thor's awkward progress. "It's the only way. But still amusing."

"I remember the way being more spacious," Thor complained, shoving his way past another narrowing of the path and tearing his tunic sleeve when the stone would not release him.

Loki chuckled. "It has been a long time, but I assure you it is not the passage that has narrowed."

Thor groaned at the jest. "Will you still be so amused when these walls will not give up their prize? And you trapped within?"

Loki's chuckle deepened. "Always so alarmist. The passage opens out in a few more steps."

'A few' was a lie, but it did finally join a bigger tunnel, and Thor could stand up straight and take a deep breath again.

The only light at first was the light from the Casket in Loki's hands, but with a gesture, Loki lit the glowstones in the brackets fixed to the stone. This part of the tunnel hadn't changed in centuries, probably millennia. Where the narrow passage had been mostly natural, this tunnel was clearly not, with the floor smoothed and gently sloping, and the ceiling made higher, wide enough for at least two people to walk abreast.

The upper end of this wider tunnel stopped, as he recalled, in a wall of stones meant to seal it shut, which had been very exciting to find as a youth, but made him wary as an adult. People walled off things that were dangerous or shameful, and probably should not be used as Loki's personal magical laboratory.

Lights flickering to life as he approached, Loki led the way as the passage began to slant and curve more steeply downward, becoming stairs. There were no other tunnels or passages that came off this one, directly heading to the Chamber, with no way to be lost.

"I never thought to wonder as children," Thor said, modifying his voice when it echoed in the enclosed space, "what this place's purpose once was. Do you know?"

"Our ancestors --" Loki's voice faltered, and he corrected himself with painful precision, "The ancient Aesir, in the days before All-father took the throne, used to sacrifice their enemies here. They called it feeding Jormungandr."

Thor felt ill at the thought, imagining captives being forced down this staircase. "They threw people into the abyss?"

"So Wulfgar told me. Those were dark days."

Thor nodded, and followed down the winding steps, troubled.

"It must be reassuring," Loki added unexpectedly, "to know that such practices ended long ago here, even as they continued in other Realms."

"Not very," Thor said. "I find it difficult to imagine such dishonor here at all."

"At least it was never children. Even the primitive Aesir were never so… barbaric."

That was when Thor realized Loki was talking about himself, left to die in Jotunheim, and perhaps recalling his own fall into the abyss from the Bifrost. He agreed softly, "That was terrible. But perhaps it was fate, Loki. You are far greater here than you would have been there."

"Greater here?" he snarled in sudden sparking rage. "I suppose, when my other choice was to be a starving beast." He leapt down the section of stair to take the turn out of sight.

"Loki!" Thor hurried after. "I meant no offense. Please - wait -"

To his surprise, Loki was standing at the next bend. He wouldn't look at Thor, keeping his gaze on the darkness of the path beneath. "There is no succor for the truth." His fingers were white on the Casket, gripping it so tightly it seemed it ought to shatter, and his voice was halting. "I... dream of what might have been. Of cold. Of what I am. But... I cannot..."

He trailed off, inhaling a ragged breath, and seemed unable to finish, even as his throat fluttered with words that tried to escape. Thor watched him, hurting for him, wanting to comfort him but unsure what he would hear and believe. Thor gripped his shoulder. "Remember we love you true, Loki."

It helped, Thor was glad to see, as Loki managed a fuller breath and his grip loosened. He gave a little nod, bringing himself back to calm. Thor squeezed and let him go. Sometimes simple was best.

They emerged through a stone archway, grandly carved into ornate curves and twists, into the Chamber. There was an unprotected platform capable of holding perhaps a hundred people, and extending out from it a narrow finger above the abyss. Now that he knew what it was used for, he could imagine all too well a small crowd gathered to watch as some enemy was forced out there and off the end.

Loki held up the Casket, brightening its light, but even so Thor could barely see the far side of the chamber. There was a smooth dark rock face, polished by the winds which swirled all around them. High above was a rounded ceiling like a dome, but below, when he sidled cautiously closer to the edge, was darkness. He had once thrown a lantern over the edge as a child -- it had disappeared beyond his sight and he had never heard it hit anything. Imagining people being hurled over the edge was horrifying, and he remembered Loki falling from the Bifrost, falling and falling... He could barely keep himself from grabbing Loki's arm and forcing him back up the stairs and away from this place.

He wondered how Loki could bear to be in this space, when Thor's own fear of seeing him fall again was stealing his breath.

But Loki did not seem unduly disturbed by the infinite drop just a few paces away. "There is power here," Loki murmured, his voice barely audible against the wind. He held out a hand, feeling the power. "It comes from the heart of Asgard."

He whispered and the invisible wind now glowed palely golden. Streamers of power writhed like living things from the abyss, blown upward, swirling and curling back down, restless as the sea.

Thor found his back was pressed to the cavern wall, away from the tendrils of power.

Loki glanced at him sidelong and smirked. "You can leave if you wish. I have no need of you here."

Thor stepped away from the wall and rested Mjolnir on his shoulder. "No. You need someone to watch over you."

Since Loki did not object and had allowed him to follow, Thor figured he might agree. Perhaps the wreck of his room had taught him a little more caution.

"Do not interfere," Loki warned and set the Casket on the floor. He removed what looked like the blade of a spear or polearm from his coat and set it between his feet and the Casket. The blade did not look like metal, but rather some form of clouded crystal, and Thor recognized it.

"Is that…?" Thor asked, taking an urgent step forward.

"Yes," Loki answered shortly. "Stay back."

Thor recovered his step but was no less concerned. That was the blade from the Hall of Treasures. It was said to be unbreakable, harder than diamond, could cut through anything, made in the fire of Muspelheim by the fire demons.

And Loki intended to break it.

Thor opened his mouth to ask whether he had permission to take it and shut it again, knowing it was a foolish question, because Loki never asked permission to do anything.

"How did you--" Thor started, but gave that one up, too, when Loki grinned. He probably didn't want to know how Loki had taken it from the Hall. He sighed and objected instead, "You did not ask me to join you."

Loki glanced at him, eyebrows lifted in surprise, and then rolled his eyes in derision. "You would have tried to stop me."

"I would not." Which was probably a lie, since Thor couldn't imagine a conversation about stealing a treasure that didn't include something about persuading Loki against taking it, but he liked to think he'd still have gone along with it, if only to keep Loki out of greater trouble. He sighed. "If you destroy it, Father will be angry."

Loki snorted a laugh. "If I succeed, it will mean I may be able to unmake Thanos and it will be an acceptable loss. If I fail, it will be untouched and I may return it with no one being the wiser."

"And if it falls into the abyss?" Thor pointed out the unmentioned flaw in his plan, and Loki flashed a grin at him.

"That would be unfortunate. Now, be quiet." He knelt on the stone and Thor sidled to the side until he could see Loki's profile and watch as he held out a hand. The Casket's energy brightened, twirling within the confines and then emerging to flow upward in a smooth stream into Loki's hand.

Thor frowned. Was it merely the brightness of the powers all around him that was making Loki's skin color an odd gray shade, or was some of the bluish tint of his birth skin showing despite the illusion he was keeping over it? It was either reflex that he was not dropping it altogether, or he was hiding it from Thor, forgetting that Thor had already seen. He should sit Loki in front of a mirror so he could see himself and understand he was not as different as he seemed to believe.

The golden tendrils in the wind seemed curious, approaching and then winding around Loki, as his hair whipped wildly around his head. He closed his eyes.

Lips moving, though Thor couldn't hear anything he might be saying over the wind, Loki started to merge the powers, cobalt and gold, into a brighter, whiter light in the palm of his hand.

It built, and the winds turned bitterly cold and started to scream all around, threatening to tug Thor off the platform until he put Mjolnir down and held on. Still the wind and the power grew, tugging at him, trying to pull him from the handle.

Then… all went silent and still. The stream of power from the Casket to Loki stopped, and for an instant Loki held a star in his hand, brilliant and terrible.

Then he turned his hand and thrust the power down against the blade.

Everything, the air itself, exploded, crashing with a blinding flare and a shock wave that slammed Thor into the wall. He pulled Mjolnir with him, and it broke the stone.

When he blinked away the blow, he saw Loki and the Casket still there, thankfully only knocked backward, as it seemed the greater force had been shoved away from them. The Casket was dim, its energies now quiescent within as a soft glow.

"Loki?"

Loki didn't answer for a moment, his shoulders slumping tiredly and hair hanging in wind-tangled disarray. He picked up the blade on the ground before him and hurled it furiously like one of his daggers into the wall near Thor. It struck the rock with a curiously musical tone, splintering stone, so all fell to the ground.

Thor bent to pick up the blade and turned it over in his hand. It seemed untouched despite the power Loki had used against it.

"Yes, it failed." Loki's voice seethed with anger that echoed from the walls. "That was my best hope for a spell that would work. And it did not even penetrate the surface."

He scrubbed a hand through his hair, pushing it back, and climbed to his feet. With a curled lip, he shoved the Casket into the aether, hiding it away with a fluid twist of his hands. Thor watched, impressed that was possible at all; stashing daggers and his armor was one thing, but the Casket should be different. But afterward Loki staggered an alarming step, drained by the previous effort more than he had expected. But as Thor darted forward in concern, Loki straightened and headed past Thor and up the stairs with single-minded determination. "There is an answer and I will find it."

"More power?" Thor suggested.

Loki huffed a breath as if Thor was an ignorant fool. "I could use the tesseract and it would not matter. I need a better spell."

"Perhaps there is nothing within Asgard or the Nine Realms that will suffice," Thor said.

"Then I will go outside. There are other sources of knowledge. I will go to them and get an answer."

Thor hesitated. Loki's rage was unlike his own, burning cold and implacable, but that made it no more reasoned. 'Other sources of knowledge' sounded very dangerous. "He is not here, Loki. He may not be able to enter Jormungandr at all."

"He cannot. Not yet. But he hovers on the boundary and he will find a way to tear open another portal to bring him inside. If not me, then some other fool he will ensnare. He needs only a foothold from which to launch an attack on the rest of the Realms."

"Heimdall will see."

Loki glanced over his shoulder. "By the time Heimdall sees it may be too late. There are ways to shield oneself from his sight."

"You are not alone in defending the realm," Thor reminded him, trying to be reassuring.

"I see precious few others helping," Loki snapped. "Odin All-father presumes he shall do what he did before and banish Thanos outside the serpent again. But what if he cannot? What then? Do we sit helpless and watch as Thanos and his army trample the Nine Realms and kill all who stand against him?"

"No, of course we will fight."

"Fight. And die. Or wish you were," Loki muttered.

Thor held his shoulder on the landing, forcing him to stop and face him. "Loki. You must believe we will win, or you cede the ground before the battle begins."

"If you believe we can win as we are, then you are a fool." Loki glared at him, fury and fear distorting his face and shining in his eyes. "He cannot be stopped, Thor. He is stronger than you, more powerful than I, and he cannot be hurt or harmed. He can shape minds and dreams, and he has taken a gift of long-life from the Celestials and twisted it into becoming a being that cannot die. Tell me, brother, how do we win against that?" he demanded and twisted out from beneath Thor's grip, to take a step back. "We do not. So that is why I will learn how to destroy him, if I must find a way to exterminate the Celestials first."

"Loki-"

Loki's eyes were chips of ice, merciless. "Do not mewl to me about rightness, at this moment, brother. If I find leverage over them to clean up their vile mess, I will use it. Of that you may be certain." He whirled and started back up the stairs.

Thor followed him, not answering immediately. It seemed less likely Loki would find a weapon against the Celestials than against Thanos. Celestials appeared rarely in the Realms and were beings of great primordial power; they were true immortals, unfathomable observers of existence who had slipped their physical forms not long after the creation of the universe. Not that it made it better to hear Loki threaten to kill them all, no matter how improbable, but as a measure of his desperation it was sobering.

In the narrow tunnel, Loki cast a small green light like a tendril of smoke to show the path. Though it was dimmer, the way out seemed easier, making him wonder if Loki had done something to the passage on the way in, after all, but he forbore to ask when Loki was in such a mood. Once they were out of it and Loki set the protection back in place, Thor felt more ready to speak his thoughts as they entered more familiar corridors.

"You think as you fight," he observed, pleased when Loki glanced at him, frowning in puzzlement at why he would say that. And when he stopped, Loki stopped, too, curious enough to listen. "You fight with daggers, with a spear, with magic - with all of these weapons, you wait and you plan, and then, in one moment, when opportunity arises, you strike like a viper." His free hand imitated the attack in a quick swoop. "It is devastating, but if it fails, you are left open and vulnerable. So it is with your plan to kill Thanos, Loki. You search out the one perfect spell that will destroy him, but after its failure, you have no other recourse." He turned somber eyes on Loki, trying to make him understand, as he lifted Mjolnir in his hand to draw Loki's eyes to it. "You must fight more like me. I do not expect my first blow to fell my opponent -- sometimes it does, but often, I must hit it many times before it falls. But it falls in the end. Maybe one blow or one spell will not defeat Thanos, but who is to say many will not? We will strike, and strike again, until he falls."

Loki dropped his gaze to his empty hands, expression thoughtful. "Mother said much the same," he murmured.

"If you will not listen to me, then at least heed her." He smiled, trying to encourage Loki out of his failure. "The sons of Asgard will fight united, and nothing can stop that."

"You…" Loki trailed off as though he could find no appropriate words, and eventually lifted his gaze back to Thor's and found a smile to return to him. "You are wiser than you look. On occasion."

Thor grinned at him. "And you are too clever for your own good."

"A state you are never in," Loki retorted. Thor tried to smack his shoulder, but his hand passed through the image, as Loki flashed into view two steps ahead, chortling.

Thor dropped Mjolnir and pelted after him, and it turned into a very old game where Thor pursued him and Loki tried to stay uncaught, while staying close enough to taunt him.

"We are too old for these childish games!" Thor exclaimed in frustration after the one he was sure was real, turned out to be illusion.

"Do you give up then?" The smug purr came directly behind him.

Thor whirled to grab him, but he dissipated like smoke, with a chuckle of pure glee.

It was frustrating that he kept falling for the bluff-and-double-bluff illusions, but the game was worth it to see Loki throw off the shadows around his heart and play again, as they had as children.

It ended when Loki cast what seemed like a hundred copies of himself, and when Thor spun around, swiping quickly to find the real one before Loki could switch them, Loki started to laugh so hard he couldn't stop even when Thor was standing right in front of him. Thor reached out to touch his chest. It was solid, not the illusion he still half-expected. "I win."

"Your face -- your face was--" Another peal of laughter came out of him, as the illusions all vanished. Loki fell back against the wall, still letting out chuckles with a hand across his stomach as he caught his breath. After a moment of companionable silence, he admitted, "I had forgotten."

Thor assumed he meant he'd forgotten how to spend pleasant time with his brother, and if he did not, it made no difference. "I never did."

Loki glanced at him, humor fading for some more serious emotion as he looked away again. "Even when you should have."

Thor grasped his shoulder, recognizing what that was about. "I will not ever give up on you, Loki. Take that as your certainty in this life and the next. We are brothers, family, for always. That will never change."

He could see that Loki was grateful, and his smile seemed affectionate and genuine. "Still so much sentiment," he chided, teasing, and pushed off the wall to head for the steps. Yet when he thought he'd turned his head enough to be unobserved, the smile vanished and his eyes flickered with doubt.

Thor followed him upstairs, wondering what he could do to make Loki truly believe him.



Crossposted from DW There are comment count unavailable comments over there. Feel free to comment wherever.