Who: Thor, Sif, Dr. Strange, Loki What: A rescue and an agreement is reached. When: backdated, around June 1st-ish. Rating: Green
By the time that Strange came out of the library, he was effectively done with today. It would never be enough to give into the general human whim of becoming judge, jury, and executioner. He might be teetering on the edge of temptation, but he took an oath to protect life. Not take them.
That didn't mean he wouldn't trade some lives to protect the needs of the many.
"All right, let's get started." As he walked toward Sif and Thor, he took out the strand of Loki's hair, stretching it out between his thumbs and forefingers while moving his hands in a series of circular arcane motions. The hair illuminated like a rope of fire, twirling and turning until it resembled a burning triquetra, the Celtic symbol of body, mind, and spirit. It should have been easy to locate a person based on their actual hair, but Stephen found himself concentrating with greater intent and intensity to locate someone on another world, entirely.
After a long moment, he caught the hazy image of a grey wasteland, a swirling mist of ever present fog, difficult to concentrate upon. And within that vision, the spell latched on to its intended target. Loki was sitting hunched over upon a rock, surrounded by ash and bleached white bones. Any remains of shielding was barely hanging on by a thread.
It wasn't unwise to take a last stand in a place that even the most adept magicians - save for a well-trained necromancer - would have trouble penetrating. He almost...almost...appreciated the ingenuity. Too bad it was from someone who wasn't willing to share his expertise. Yet. Stephen meant to address that, shortly. Executioner might be out of the question, but judge and jury weren't.
"He's in Hell," said Stephen, flicking the symbol aside so it spun itself around into a portal, revealing the wasteland beyond. He nodded toward it. "Or as Asgardians would know it, Helheim. His ability to shield himself from notice is failing. After you, your highness and Lady Sif."
Thor had been brimming with energy that was somewhere between anxious and furious for what felt like days. He’d been feeling reckless in a way that had not been felt in a long time, and the few lightning storms that had cropped up since he realised that his brother had gone missing - run away, Darcy said, to hide the tesseract - were a testament to that.
Standing in Strange’s home, which hardly seemed like a home and definitely was more akin to a place of business with a few attempts at making it seem more homely, Thor had his arms folded across his chest and his grim expression was set. His hands clasped his biceps as he waited for Strange to finish what he was doing, to complete the sorcery that flowed naturally from him.
Helheim. Of all the forsaken realms that Loki could have chosen to hide in, of course he chose the worst one of them all. There were precious few places in the universe that were as unpleasant.
He pressed his lips together, that grim expression not going anywhere.
“Thank you,” he said tightly, dropping his arms from where they had been folded. Without any hesitation, he stepped through the portal, knowing that he would be followed shortly. He thought about Val, and then about Darcy, who would undoubtedly be waiting anxiously for them to return with Loki in tow. He hoped she had more to share, and that she would share what else she knew. With ill times approaching, they needed to work together more now than ever. Keeping secrets would do nothing but tear them apart, as would egos and old grudges.
Perhaps it had been foolish of Sif to hope that they were long past secrets and subterfuge but it would seem that for all the progress made Loki was still at heart a trickster who knew no other way to handle things than by falling back on old habits. The very same old habits that had set them all apart in the beginning and wedged a hole between them that none could cross.
She however held her tongue especially as she knew of Thor’s concerns, both borne of memories from another time and now with Loki’s disappearance. He was Thor’s brother after all and Thor was her King but more than that he was also her friend, she would gladly follow him to the halls of Valhalla and beyond if he had need of it.
Helheim? Sif’s eyebrow lift spoke volumes for Loki Odinson’s taste for hiding places and she chanced a look at Thor and it was on his face that she saw his opinion was the same as her own. “We will return shortly,” she said to Strange as she followed Thor into the portal and readied herself for whatever lay beyond.
Strange gave a low chuckle like someone was sorely mistaken. This was far out of Asgard's hands now.
"Returning shortly? Oh no, this is not just an Asgardian issue, anymore. It's an Earth issue. Therefore, I am now directly involved." Strange's statement brokered no argument, as they passed by and he followed behind, through the portal. If anything, he had a better gist of the situation from talking with Darcy, and had a very good idea of what could be done to fix it. Using the power of magical library books. Of course.
What lay on the other side of the portal was a wasteland devoid of sound, where not even the air seemed to stir. While it was clear but oppressively cloudy in places, this was an area obscured. The dust skittered and shifted with unseen steps and the fog swirled thick around them. The portal was close enough that it took only a few steps through the soup for Loki to emerge into view.
His leathers were torn, his hair tangled. There were bruises and cuts and burns that were healing, thanks to a very tumultuous trip to Muspelheim. A trip that resulted in the residents giving Proxima and Cull a fight they hadn't expected. He barely had the strength to lift his head, after hopping through enough planets and moons that he lost count, avoiding Earth entirely. He did not move at first. Not until he noticed figures approaching did he sit up straighter, his body tense and his eyes wide and staring as though in a daze. When he saw Thor, he wistfully smiled. That abruptly stopped short as he noticed Sif and Strange following behind. He glanced at them and then at Thor, suddenly full of apprehension. As he approached closer, Loki began to speak.
"I told Darcy that I was going to bring it back, but they caught me unawares," he said slowly and a little sheepishly, fingers of one hand picking at the palm of the other. The memories of Thor bound in metal while having the life crushed out of him were still fresh in his mind, and that made it hard to meet his brother's gaze. "I'm sorry? I could not return, not while they were so close in pursuit. They are close, for I have heard their ship pass by in the distance. Kindly leave me to my doom...so I can face it with some measure of dignity this time."
Of course, Loki had seen the bleedover from the other timeline. Thor could not imagine how frightening that had to have been, to have the memories that Loki would now, the icy coldness of true death, something he could not trick or worm his way out of, that he could not use an illusion to free himself from to return later. It made sense that he had run, but it stung. It stung because they had talked. They had talked and Thor had been hopeful that it would lead to Loki trusting him. But it seemed that was not the case.
He crouched down in front of his brother, hesitantly reaching out with one hand almost like he was expecting his hand to pass right through the illusion in front of him. But when his hand caught Loki’s knee he dropped to both of his and carefully - but firmly - pulled Loki into an awkward hug. He was mindful; he could see that Loki had been injured, the grave pallor on his face gave Thor no joy.
“If- If anything had happened to you,” he murmured quietly, voice thick with a sorrow he could not name. “Who is nearby? Which ones?” he asked. “They will not get to finish what they started.”
Drawing back a little, he turned his head to look at Sif and Strange. He was glad to have them here, even the Earth magician. His spells were formidable, they had to be if he’d managed to transport them here and still be standing with barely any sweat on his brow.
Sif like Thor could see the injuries inflicted on Loki and she could hear the concern in Thor’s voice as he came to settle in front of his brother. She turned her attention from the reunion to their surroundings, hand going to unsheath her sword as she took up a comfortable position patrolling the invisible perimeter around Thor and Loki.
She would sooner die than let anybody get near her fellow Asgardians.
It took everything in Loki's power to remain still and appear calm. All semblance of composure shattered when Thor hugged him, and there was nothing awkward about the response. Loki let out an involuntary shudder and then clung onto Thor as though afraid to let go. Which he was. Very much afraid. Not only of what he witnessed in that dream, but of what might happen. What happened on Muspelheim, a fight full of fire and brimstone from all sides, rattled him. At first, the fire giants weren't happy to see an Asgardian there, after Thor's defeat of Surtur. And then they really weren't happy when the Black Order showed up, with a pack of their mindless mutated mutts.
"I'm sorry," whispered Loki, already babbling like a floodgate of secrets was opening. "I'm sorry. There were two of them. Proxima and Cull. They had a small pack of Outriders with them, most were lost on Muspelheim." He paused to draw in a trembling breath, "Brother, I resolved to bring it back to you before I had the dream, and I meant to retrieve it. You were right. I should have taken someone. I didn't think. They caught me unawares, and made me drop the warding. I ran with it soon after, with no way to let anyone know. I feared this, I feared it would happen. I only took the stone to barter with, and I should have told you sooner. And yet I thought maybe if you didn't know, Thanos would not harm you...and...and...."
His voice trailed off and to try to save face, he promptly leaned in to bury his face into Thor's shoulder. All pretenses of pride were fading in the wake of being weary and terrified, to the point that he was on the verge of tears.
Standing off to one side, Strange listened and watched. Before Sif could get too far, he raised up his hands. Around them, the fog seemed to shimmer and crystalize, forming a mirror dimension around them and the portal back to the Sanctum. If Loki's magical shielding was failing and this Black Order was scouring through a realm filled with enough obscure energy patterns to confuse their sensors, then he was going to offer aid.
"I've bought us some time. Lady Sif, if you'd be so kind, keep an eye out through the crystal. Let me know if they get close," Strange asked, nodding to her before directing his attention to Thor. "I think we three need to have a very serious talk, when you're ready. We need to get him back to Earth."
Thor listened, grateful that Sif was there to guard their backs even as Strange seemed to push them into some kind of strange bubble, a fractured shield appearing around them as though they were inside a crystal. As Loki’s face came to hide in his shoulder, Thor gingerly lifted one hand to gently cup the back of Loki’s head, his other arm remaining steadfast around his brother’s shoulders and holding him there tightly. His fingers flexed in the ripped and tattered fabric, not wanting to let go but knowing that he needed to in order to make sure that they got back to Earth. Got back to where they could understand and work with the others to protect the Tesseract.
“When we are safe, Loki,” Thor mumbled to his brother, “you and I need to talk about the lengths you are willing to go to. And how much you have to stop disappearing on me- I cannot lose you.” The word ‘again’ hung unspoken between them; Thor knew what it was to mourn Loki multiple times, but the last one, the one he witnessed from his dream, that had been the worst. Thor never wanted to feel that emptiness in his chest again, that gaping vacuum that told him without a shadow of a doubt that he had lost most of his people. Lost his best friend and his brother in one fell swoop.
He pressed a kiss to Loki’s temple and drew back a little. “We should move, if Thanos’ people are here, as much as I want to give them the fight they deserve,” his voice was low and angry, “we have more important things to attend to.”
He drew in a breath, “When we return to earth, Strange, and Loki is safe, we will talk.”
Lifting his head, Thor continued. “Loki, can you stand? Sif- are we still clear?”
Sif’s head turned when she heard the hushed exchange between Loki and Thor, frown marring her features because she knew of Thor’s nightmares and how beside himself he had been when he had not been able to locate his brother. The same brother who had rather foolishly run off on his own in the hopes of keeping danger from knocking at their door. She feared that it was too late for that.
“They are drawing closer,” she informed Strange as her grip once again tightened around the hilt of her sword. “But if we leave now we should be able to evade them.”
While he felt marginally safer now with Thor and Sif there, Loki could not help but wonder if such a thing as 'safe' existed anymore. If anything, he wanted to go home to where his brother and Darcy were, promptly dig a hole, and hide himself in it. Even then, Midgard wasn't home, and he hated knowing how diminished Asgard's might was that they couldn't combat such a threat. As he sheepishly looked at Thor, it struck him just how much he really was like Odin, harboring secrets that only served to tear everything apart. Such a discussion with Thor was now unavoidable, and a long time coming given everything they now knew.
But what caused him to look truly sheepish, was that he didn't think he could get very far on his own. Otherwise he wouldn't have been sitting on a rock in Helheim while waiting to be captured and (no doubt) killed. There was worse news there, but he was going to wait until he could get Thor alone to talk about it.
"I loathe having to admit this," Loki told Thor in a very low voice, which went even lower so it was somewhat hard to hear, "but I might actually require...get help."
True to what Sif said, a low rumble could be heard, reverberating throughout the crystalized space and causing the ashes to shake and shift under them. Loki tensed up and stared at Thor as though he would go through a million years of Get Help if it meant getting them out of there.
Gathering that wasn't a good sound, Strange glanced over at Lady Sif, wondering if she could see anything past the gray haze outside the crystalized pocket they were in. Time truly seemed to be of the essence. He agreed with Thor that a fight without preparation or planning - one that was not on their turf - was not a great idea right now. He raised his hands and began casting.
A circle of sparks suddenly opened up under Loki. He dropped through it with a yelp followed by a loud oomph noise. Below, Loki could be seen owlishly blinking up at the portal, having safely landed on the couch in the foyer of the Sanctum.
"Sorry not sorry about the abrupt departure," announced Strange. "Safe is subjective right now. Since he was having problems, I'm portaling us to the Sanctum for that talk."
He began opening up a closer portal for them to walk through, rather than drop through.
Once they were all in the Sanctum and the portals to Helheim were closed, Stephen turned to Sif and Thor, turning his back to Loki and ignoring the trickster god's attempts to sit himself upright. After twitching his head to simultaneously cast a silence bubble and cue some muzak outside of it - 'Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go)'. It was queued up next in the playlist.
"Here's the thing. I talked to Darcy. She's not harmed, and I've worked out a seperate deal of recompense with her. Good news? I don't believe that your brother's hopelessly evil, without the possibility of redemption. My professional opinion...if you'll pardon the Earth vernacular...is that he's a hot mess that's making shit up as he goes along. Bad news? That leads me to believe he's running scared, even before he dreamed about dying. I don't know if he's going to talk about that to me.
"I might have a way to provide permanent incentive for him to behave," Strange said with a raised eyebrow, "and be more forthcoming with information, if you're both willing to play hardball with me. Now's the best time. He's incredibly drained, totally helpless, and won't be able to cast any magic without a few day's rest. If this is going to work, I need him in a weakened state. I also need this to be a formal agreement, between Earth and Asgard. In front of him. Because I'm not doing anything without full disclosure. So here's the better news? I have a plan. You might get your little brother back in a more permanent and workable capacity. He has incentive to comply. Are you two ok with this?"
While he let them think it over, Stephen conjured up two giant mugs of ale and floated them over to Thor and Sif. As an afterthought, Loki got the green tea with honey treatment. Although that cup unceremoniously plonked down onto the end table beside the couch, some of it spilling over the rim.
He was only a halfway decent host to allies, and Loki wasn't one of those.
"It was difficult to see with all the lost souls in Helheim, but your aura is a mess," Stephen said out loud as he dropped them both through a portal into the dark of the Sanctum's basement. Loki landed on an old sofa in a cloud of dust, as the cloak floated Stephen down as light as a feather. "I can't fix that. That's a self-help situation I don't have time for. Ironically, your bad plans ultimately worked out well for us."
"Oh, did it?" Loki's sarcasm lacked bite, instead sounding as tired as he looked. "I'm ever so pleased someone believes so."
"Like it or not, you're a stonekeeper like I am," the doctor explained. "Darcy assures me you're not evil, but we all agree that you are seriously misguided while acting on your own. She's blunt and I know you're not magical manipulating her to say that. Your brother wouldn't start a storm that big if he didn't care about you and the Asgardians so much. Apparently, some people still give a damn about you. So here's what I need to know. Do you know how to use the stone? Tell me what you know about it."
There was a wary gleam in Loki's eye, visible even in the dim light of the basement.
"I am a walker of secret paths. Of course I know its inner workings," Loki admitted with only a trace of princely haughtiness. He suspected that Strange talked to Thor and Sif, and that it was kept outside of his hearing. "I've traveled through the Tesseract. There was no occasion to use it since. It was kept safe in the treasure vault after sending the Aether away to the collector of antiquities. For all the good that did...."
All traces of aloofness faded with the memory of the threats while a 'guest' of Thanos, haunting him nearly as much as the dream of his death. It was a time he couldn't help but dwell upon, where any remaining shreds of compassion and care were utterly crushed, his need for revenge and validation played upon with too much ease.
He became convinced that Thor cast him out into space, instead of willingly let go. He wasn't entirely sure if it was what Thanos counted on while he was being taught how to use the scepter. He was certain if it was his own insecurities and self-loathing at finding out his heritage as a monster, one of the enemies of Asgard.
These days, Loki considered it to be a potent combination of both.
What he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, was that failure would never be tolerated. He lost not one stone, but two. If not for the fact the Tesseract was hidden and could only be drawn out by wasting time torturing him, Thanos would have killed him on first sight for such a monumental failure.
Strange's voice invaded his thoughts with an impatient, "Do you know how to use it?"
Averting his gaze, Loki clasped his hands together and tried not to wring them together while admitting what he knew.
"I do," he replied, "but I know better than to use it on a whim. I had not the strength at the time to save our people. I could not transport an entire ship away, as I wanted to. Nor could I use it to escape, and I would not while Thor's life was in peril."
Loki's gaze fell everyone else other than the Midgardian sorcerer, disconcerted by the oppressive atmosphere and the darkness around them. His fingers impotently twitched, as he wanted nothing more than to cast a spell to bring light to that dark space. His seidr was so spent that he couldn't manage the illusion of a firefly.
"The Black Order gained the ability to track the Tesseract's signature, should it be used. They honed in on its location on Earth, meaning they know of the stones that are here. They used it to send me to Earth at Thanos' bidding..."
When Loki hesitated, Stephen prompted in a low voice, "Go on."
"They know that it opens doorways," he continued, grateful to talk about the stone rather than himself. "Both doorways can be traced. If Midgard's scientists knew how at that time, they might have located where Thanos was years ago. The vaults of Asgard were well shielded. Thanos would never challenge the Allfather. Even in a weakened state, Odin would have bested him. Thanos was merely biding his time, waiting for an opportune moment. One which our sister amply provided from within."
Stephen silently watched Loki. It was now clear that Loki was privy to the stone's inner workings and still chose not to use it. Not even when he was at the height of his abilities. Not even to further power or prestige for himself. And not to attack other worlds for gain or glory.
Maybe there was some good in him, after all.
He took a closer look and in the shifting mess of that aura found an answer. Sure, it needed some serious self-cleansing and some good grounding forces around it, but it wasn't entirely bad. Whatever negativity was present had been present for many years, but it hadn't consumed him entirely.
Taking into account everything he knew so far, it was easy to reach a verdict what needed to be done. A more permanent incentive might be necessary so they wouldn't have a bleak future, like their primary counterparts. It was time for the ultimatum.
"As the highest ranking sorcerer charged with protecting Earth and its people, we're going to reach an agreement. I've spoken to your brother and Lady Sif, already. If you comply, then I might someday remove you from that list of planetary offenders."
"That would be lovely," Loki grumbled, looking as if the tiniest of breezes might send him toppling over onto the floor. Trying to keep up appearances, he used the arm of the sofa to keep himself mostly upright. "I will hear your offer. As is said in Midgard...what is the catch?"
"We both know there's always a catch," was Strange's all too dry reply. "It's been hinted that these stones are sentient, in their own way. They choose who they answer to, until they are gathered together under one master. As we now know, it takes considerable power and a means to harness them, to bend all of the stones to work together under one person's will."
Strange pointed down at Loki, who was still slumped on the couch.
"Unintended by Thanos, your destiny just might be inextricably bound to the Tesseract. Possibly from the first moment you came into contact with it. That might explain why you've been compelled to protect it, even if you never fully realized why. And even though you've done a piss poor and incredibly dumb-ass job of it so far. That's why you earned yourself a deep crack in your incredibly thick skull that's still not mended up. Yes, I can tell. Neurosurgeon."
Unable to draw any daggers over what was a string of verbal offenses, Loki protested with a softly spoken, "...hey."
That went ignored. Earth's highest ranking sorcerer - essentially the only Sorcerer Supreme the planet was left with - was laying down what was going to happen from now on.
"With Thor's permission," and Strange gave Loki a stern glancing at, "I decided that this stone should continue to be entrusted to Asgard's royal family. That means him and you, both. We sorcerers already have a stone to protect. The Avengers already have a stone to protect. So I'm offering to bind and ward the stone into your pocket dimension, which should provide additional shielding between our separate schools of magic.
"It won't be a pleasant. I can help so you won't be hunted down so easily. Because I'm binding it to you both, the stone can't be removed from your pocket dimension unless Thor asks you to. It won't be usable, unless he asks you to use it and dictates how it is used. You're the lock, he's the key. That gives us all an advantage Thanos won't expect. You'll be helpless to hand the stone over on your own. This means you will wisely use your skills to work with us. Not against us."
Loki mouthed a silent 'what?' at Strange.
"Don't. Talk. Yet. I've cast a ward on Darcy so nothing else happens without her permission. I've given her a protective relic, and I'm teaching her some very basic magical self defense. She's never going to be truly adept, so I'm considering it community service for covering for you. She's not overjoyed. But I doubt she'll be keeping her insignificant other's secrets anymore."
Loki didn't look pleased about being called insignificant and he felt the first twinge of jealousy over Strange teaching Darcy any magic (not even if it was conjuring rabbits from hats). This resulted in a much more offended sounding, "....hey."
"If you refuse to work with us, or if you actively work against any of us," an undaunted Dr. Strange continued, "then I will not hesitate to astral kick you directly into the Dark Dimension. Your physical body will be left behind to rot. You can spend eternity dodging Dormammu, or have your soul eaten. Do not pass go, do not go to Valhalla. If you behave and by some miracle we succeed in thwarting Thanos? I'll consider releasing your from this responsibility and take you off the threat list. Without a bargain? I'm fully prepared to dispose of your like yesterday's trash.
"I think you'll find this a fair offer, since our government still considers you a war criminal. Helping grants you freedom while in your brother's care, and everyone does their fair share protecting an Infinity Stone. So, I ask you...do we have an agreement?"
A ghostly pale Loki was staring as though watching a massacre of the remaining Asgardians all over again, clearly unsettled by this so-called bargain.
When Strange didn't budge or say anything further, only stared down at him, Loki knew there were few other options left available to him. He spent days being hunted already, and he had little doubt that Thor and Sif would agree to such terms and conditions. What more, Darcy probably agreed to it, as well.
"...do we have an agreement," Strange reiterated in such a way, that it brokered no argument.
"I fear I have little to negotiate with." Loki closed his eyes and his shoulders slumped down, so he seemed the very image of defeat. At least he was, for now. "There is nothing more I want now, than to thwart Thanos. Therefore, I agree. Do your part to bind it to me and to Thor, for I have no choice but to prove my worth."
Strange didn't hesitate. He didn't wait for any protests or permission. He raised his hands and instantly formed two eldritch sigils, with one hand thrust out toward Loki and the other held up to where Thor was, the floor above. A portal opened over their heads and Strange sent a sigil to each brother, where it hit with a blinding shower of warmth and sparks before absorbing into them both.
While Thor possessed enough energy and strength to take a binding spell without batting an eye, Loki did not. His was the more powerful of the two, as there was shielding, warding, and binding involved. He hit the back of the couch so hard it toppled over and knocked the wind right out of his lungs. His already tattered fighting leathers and about an inch of his hair were left singed or smoking at the edges.
Stephen made a 'ouch' face afterward. Loki did not get up or move, not that Stephen expected him to after that.
Even the greatest and most powerful magician could overtax themselves, needing both rest and sustenance. Loki had been forcing open paths and trying to shield himself from being found, and he sensed that price was dearly paid. It was enough that a human would have long since burned themselves out. Strange could tell where magic was used to mend cuts, scrapes, burns, and broken bones. Someone's magical reserves were running on fumes, and no one willingly goes to a place like Hel (one L or two, it was all the same) unless it was the last place left. A good place to hide or die.
When he heard Loki let out a groan and saw a hand clutch at the couch, Stephen said, "Congratulations. The Tesseract is now bound to you both. Good luck. If you die, which is still a very real possibility, it stays in the dimension pocket until Thanos finds a way to retrieve it. And trust me, that's only a matter of time until he sets other magicians on that, to try to unlock that."
They both knew that would be at the expense of those magician's lives. Dimensional storage pockets were personal spaces for a reason: they were safe.
"...costly and time consuming," agreed Loki, although his voice was weak and he still hadn't managed to sit up.
"If worse comes to worse, I can't rush in on a whim to help you or your brother. I have a stone to protect already. This is Asgard's task now. And to do that? You're going to need about a week to recuperate. Have fun. Buh bye."
"Wha---ahhh!" Loki yelled as Strange immediately portalled him back to his home. He would land on one of the couches in their living room, Strange supposed, as he opened a portal above for Thor and Sif to walk through. Another was opened in the library for Darcy to leave.
To Stephen, it almost seemed like a divine comedy that if this Loki died now, a stone would be stuck in a dimensional pocket that would be incredibly difficult for Thanos to ever retrieve. While killing Loki was an option that Strange would never take, it meant Thanos wouldn't be able to do the same either. That there was no way for Loki to barter for lives of those he wanted to save, even if he wanted to.
This put a huge bullseye on the trickster's back as a tempting target...or it could force him to become much more responsible.
Since trickster archetypes were highly mutable creatures? He wouldn't bet money on that responsibility lasting too long.