Epilogue: The Hollow Men

. . .

Kara stroked the back of the purring flerken, who was dancing back and forth across Nebula's digitized table for attention, her delicate toe beans just barely missing buttons that would scatter critical data. "Unpredictable elements aside, the operation came out clean. One general is down and we kept all eyes shut while we did it."

"It was still messy," complained Nebula. "Loki got loose on the field. My informer nearly got outed last night by one of Proxima's agents, I'm still going to have to move them. They've got enough information to look for retribution, and Gamora's going to have to keep her crew off grid for a little while because I got seen at the port." Spirit wedged her wet nose under her arm. Nebula, not in the mood for it, hoisted the flerken gently around her waist and put her down on the floor.

Spirit got back up onto the table less than a second later. Nebula braced her arms along its edge and hung her head in defeat, the fluffy tail occasionally bapping into her forehead. "If we can't move cleaner than this, we're going to get smoke down the line," she said to the space between the table and the floor.

"We're going to get smoke. We have to start planning around that, Nebula, it's just how it has to be. Loki is who he is, he's never going to be a fully predictable element. All we can do is work around him. And, gods help us all, with him, when the time comes around. Properly, next time."

"Is that why you told him you'd be staying local?"

Kara scratched her upper arm and grinned at the top of Nebula's head. "Yeah. I told him the big truth up front, and he didn't think to ask the rest of the question. That's one of the very few ways to tunnel him. He'll be chewing on that so long, he likely won't think there's a very good reason why."

"Well, with the Maw already inserted on Earth, he'll figure it out eventually."

"By then I'll be in position and know more about why he's there. And Loki better have his ass together, because if I can't get the immediate jump on a sorcerer of the Maw's caliber, and I probably can't, Loki is going to have to take that one head on."

"And he's going to end up distracted by a goddamn civil war, meanwhile. I've already got a satellite purchase lined up, I'll have eyes on Jotunheim within the week." Nebula's fingers pressed against the table, causing a creak. "Why does everything happen all at once?"

"I don't know. I wish I did. It's my entire career in a shell, long spaces of mundanity punctuated by shit flinging itself suicidally into fans."

"Long spaces, Miss semi-immortal handmaiden. Fucking Asgardians."

Kara snorted at the joke-derisive tone. "Tell you what, after this finally winds up, I'm picking the most obnoxiously precise embroidery project I've got in my queue and throwing myself into it for about a decade."

"Bullshit, you'll be out stabbing pirate ships to death again within a week. Tam already tried to bet on that with me, I told her I'm not a sucker."

"Embroidery projects are transportable." Kara sniffed. "Both things can be true. Besides, embroidery is really just terribly precise stabbing, when you get right down to it." She waved her hand and barely whiffed the flerken, who meeped at her to watch her goddamn aim. "Sorry, kit. But anyway, Tam should already have the long range set up. We'll be making a main camp on Earth in a couple of weeks, not close to main targets."

"And what are you going to do for fun on Earth meanwhile?"

"Get a lot of takeout, apparently. Might check local bounty lists."

"They don't really do bounties on Earth, Kara. And don't take jobs from any militarized force other than SHIELD unless you really know the geopolitics involved."

"Well, fuck. About the bounties, anyway. The latter is just a given." Kara frowned. "Let my fingernails grow until things explode, I guess. See if there's some defense-only civ work I'm willing to do. Concerts or whatever."

"You're gonna be bored as hell." Nebula pushed herself away from the table and tossed Kara an emergency comm tab. "Have fun with it. And don't use that to call and bitch to me about your princely friend when he goes off book again, I'm going to be staying busy."

"Lucky you," said Kara, dour now. She gave Spirit another good scritching just under an ear and let herself out of the office. "And he's not my friend."

Nebula watched her leave, then waited for doors to close, leaving her alone to mutter safely. "Yeah, but here we all are anyway. Always wondered what having an idiot little brother would be like. It's annoying as hell."

Spirit chittered at her partner, laughing as she might on seeing a bird flying too close.

. . .

Proxima had a black box with sixteen hours of unusable footage and a handful of mercenaries she'd had her men round up for the crime of desertion. They would be executed by night's end, both for their abandonment of Cull Obsidian in his final hours, and for their utter uselessness. A few described the ships used in a bombing campaign that wiped out the encampment - anonymous. Some others were in orbit when the enemy fleet arrived - anonymous. And the remaining dredges sent to control other pressure points across the Triuum cut and run without bothering to engage the arriving security forces.

All of it, useless. There was a package inbound for her, too, apparently. She had her suspicions and her fears. Warnings to heed. More useless baggage to wrangle.

She'd had a glaive made for her a couple years ago, melting down the whitesteel tri-spear she had favored throughout her years of service to Thanos. The new glaive bore her colors, blue and white, but had been otherwise made to mimic her dead mate's. With some certain upgrades. As a mark of what stood beside her.

Corvus was with her. Always now, Maw's curse and gift as they gradually understood what Thanos had done with his enslaved spirit, the Maw giving the soul some autonomy by re-chaining it to her. A difficult work, but he had done it for their family.

Corvus Glaive was somehow not like the other prisoners long consumed and then released by the Soul Gem during the fall of Sanctuary. He had been kept, and none of them were sure why. Even Maw, who had overseen most of Thanos's ghoulish studies of the Infinity Stone, had few answers for her.

Proxima reasoned he'd had some purpose to it. She had trusted to the Titan's purpose for almost all her life. It was unthinkable to her to suggest that there had been nothing to it, some mere and abject cruelty. She would seek the reason, claim it, fulfill it. Until her own death, if she must.

She reached up to touch her mate's face, knowing that her fingers would never connect, knowing that his blazing, maddened eyes only barely saw her. In death he was all but lost, a feral thing fueled by his last emotions alone. He spoke rarely, and when he did, they were vague prophecies of violence, screamed inside her dreams, rattling her skull. She counted each one a blessing, and marked them down in a private journal for reference.

For now she would feed that anger and vengeance. Use his words for their purpose. For love, though they had been distant once. "Can you see him, Corvus? Can you see our brother?"

The shade kept silent. Hating, his aura touched by sickly black fire.

"Cull Obsidian is with you now. The detestable traitor managed some miracle, blinded my eye and claimed my little dwarf." She looked over the spirit's head, seeking Cull, but he was not there. "It is myself and the Maw. And the Swan… though we understand little of what her mission truly is. I know we are aligned. I know she believed in the Father. I trust in her, for now, and she in me." She smiled at her dead mate, brittle. "That will have to be enough. Until we can reclaim the power Thanos is owed."

Those flickering eyes stared through her.

"He is gone. Let the Collector keep the vessel. But the work remains." She pulled back from the spirit and glanced at the doorway to her Sakaaran quarters, sensing the arrival. "Your lordship."

"Yeah, yeah yeah." A long, almost spindly hand festooned with jewels whipped at her from within the drape of a too-large golden robe. The Grandmaster's eyes darted around, and if he saw the ghost, he didn't seem to care. "Listen, babe. The money doesn't mean anything to me, okay? It's nice, but money is, uhhhh…. Easy for me to make. Time, at most. I got time. I got plenty of that. It's the methodology behind it. The purpose, the road to El Dorado - you know, forget the metaphors." The hand continued to whip around, gesturing wildly at who knew what. "So. We got skinned out there, on the, the Triuumvante or whatever."

Proxima said nothing to correct the witless immortal. Swan had advised her to let him be as he was, very well. It was difficult. The Grandmaster was difficult, and he did not understand that his losses here were minimal. She had lost much today. A brother. A friend. A weapon.

"That's a setback. That's, uhhhh, very bad. For you. So, I know what's gonna be next. You're gonna need some time, and you're gonna need some more of my guys, and that's fine, I've already got Topaz on it - sweetie, Topaz, baby, you do, right?" He swung his head out the door and nodded enthusiastically at someone.

"They could stand to be more loyal, your lordship."

The Grandmaster rolled his eyes at Proxima as he swung his face back inside, waggling the expression all the way down through his shoulders. "You knowwww… I love to watch you guys work, you generals, and all. It's really, uh, something. But, ah, it's the techniques you have. Not everyone works best all rigged up like your Chitauri guys."

"Your prisoner restraints would be perfectly useful enough, ensuring loyalty and free thought. On our schedule."

"On a broad scale?" He piffled a noise through his flapping lips. "That's a lot, I mean a lot, logistically. You run some risks, you know, trying to control more than a dozen roided up sweaty guys on a trip-pad, it keeps the arena limited."

"With certain of our technology, I'm quite sure we could counter the problem." Proxima smiled, stepping towards him in a slithering, vaguely seductive way. It had worked on Corvus, when they were young.

The Grandmaster eyed her, somewhat more unsure than the young general had been.

"And with the restraints mastered, it might expand certain of your options. Why, imagine a grander battle royale, not constrained merely to the arena." She smiled at him, as earnest as she did not feel. "The very world as a battleground, under your command. For all the universe to witness your entertainments."

To his credit, the Grandmaster didn't visibly recoil. He did blink, though, and then shook himself like a dog. "Baby, you are intense. But! But! It's a good thought, it's a very good thought." He snapped his fingers. "I'll take it under advisement. Topaz! Remind me to think about that, give it a good snazzy deep think. In the shower, maybe. Or the bath. It's bath night, great night… you're always welcome, baby." He managed to not make it sound like he hoped she would refuse.

Proxima inclined her head. "I must recommit myself to our next plans."

"Of course, of course." He looked relieved. "Well! All right, good talk, hey, where's that snappy little number, the other girl?"

"She is away on other matters of some significance to her, your lordship. More than that, I do not know, I'm afraid." Which bothered her more than she could elucidate. Certainly not information this creature needed.

"Well, let me know when she comes back. She was a delight for sore eyes." The Grandmaster sashayed out, instantly bored with the conversation and probably forgetting most of it.

"Corvus…" she whispered when the Grandmaster was well and truly gone, feeling the chill of her ghost. The chill was matched within her, dislike and roiling hate. "Sweet Corvus, tell me in dreams a secret stolen from Death Itself."

She turned on her heel and snapped up her glaive, caressing it as she would have him, once. "Tell me how to slay even an immortal."

. . .

Frej knew a fair amount about the terrain she was currently in. She had access to Loki's laptop and its privately annotated copy of his report, which was conveniently cross-referenced with the earlier infiltration by a Natasha Romanoff. She picked her way through the quiet city with care, though, looking like nothing more than a stray cat, picking off the rare mouse here and there.

There were drones in the air on occasion, but they seemed a little more dull than she'd been prepared for. No central control at the moment, and very few guards. The bots stood still at the mouths of city streets. The rural villages of Latveria minded their own business, same as they always had, assuming that their secretive king was still among them.

Victor von Doom had not been seen since the events that felled the warlord Thanos. Trapped in Hell and the material plane observed tightly for his re-emergence by an artifact spell of Loki's design, the country might as well be frozen within a cycle of repeating days.

Still, Frej was perfectly aware that nature abhors stagnancy. Things would change - and Spirit had told her of the vague suspicion Nebula had pieced together. One general was already on Earth, this was known. Why? Nebula wasn't sure and neither was Spirit. It probably had to do with Loki, naturally.

But it also might have something to do with the fact that another general was here. The mysterious Swan.

Armed with Spirit's scraps of intel and SHIELD's stolen briefing sheets, Frej was now skulking carefully around the outside of Doomstadt's castle. She found it an ugly thing, of course, all jutting medieval stone and metal plating, cast together with the haphazard sense of aesthetics a scientist had when easily distracted by the next fascinating discovery, and she was grateful that there were low odds that the scent she was tracking would eventually end up inside.

She knew her Loki well, and knew how he shaped his words to hide things. Buried in the report was a secret he would never say aloud - the inside of the castle could be a terrifying place, and it would be far, far worse if its dark king returned. Hints of terrible experiments lay within, and forbidden magics. She trusted his judgment implicitly.

The scent she traced was a strange one. Cold granite after the rain, something like snapped ozone, and more concerning, a deep and corrosive fire. It wasn't all magic, that smell, but some of it was. The latter, to her dismay. The smells of Hell, a conceptual plane that went beyond what faith knew of it and became something worse yet. The lair of demons, and things worse than demons, where only the most foolish or mad of sorcerers plied their bargains.

Frej's fur prickled along her back, making her stop by the corner of a wall to plump herself and shiver in discontent until she felt in control again. Her poor Loki had felt like this, but he had been in a shape strange to him, and would not have known to his bones all of the old rituals felines do to center themselves. She was close, close enough to hear a thrum in the air.

At the edge of a long, broken wall, Frej began to hear the words and immediately shut her ears to them the way Loki taught her. She kept going, until she saw the speaker. Terrible things, eldritch and awful, spilled from the mouth of an impossibly lovely woman. Marble white knees were knelt upon scorched earth, two perfectly formed hands raised aloft in a plea. She wore black, dead and featureless black that lined her sculpted hourglass shape in a strangely purposeful way and revealed to Frej that everything about this person was engineered, and meant to be deadly.

From where she was, Frej could see the look of distaste on the Black Swan's face. That was a puzzle itself, and Frej noted it down. Magic was difficult work if you didn't love or at least respect the process. This edged closer to hate, as if there was no choice to her but to summon the blackfire veil between reality, speak to it in that forbidden language, and she loathed this need.

Frej looked between the way Loki had taught, and saw the structure the Swan was building. A ripple went down her back again, wrinkling her skin until the fur just atop her spine raised all the way down to her tail. Her ears were straight back, and her eyes narrowed as she understood that this was not just a summoning spell. It was a command. And it was on the cusp of complete. Who knows how many days the woman had been here, forging the nearly impossible spell?

Spirit's hunch had paid off. The worst was true. Frej hunkered down and waited, cursing all the petty human gods for placing her here in time for the climax of this obscenity. An after-report would have been better. A scouting trip, good enough. But no. She would bear full witness, instead.

The earth split with a screaming roar, and the air filled with the scent of sulphur and shit and molten metal. Black smoke curled towards the sky, touched with the same unearthly gleam as an exposed nuclear core.

A hand thrust up from that scorched earth, the skin bubbled with horrific old scars, scrabbling at the ground for purchase. Another hand, and then began the grunting, pained hoist upwards to the ground.

The Swan didn't move to help him. She continued to kneel, her forehead now pressed to the ground and Frej couldn't hear her words over the din of the sundered planes.

Doom pulled himself back up onto the Earth, unsteady but strong. He was naked, Hell having stripped his armor, his royal robes from him. Frej looked upon his awful, broken face and then looked away and begged her mind to forget what was there. Yet it burned behind her eyes, like a nightmare. This was no longer a being that could pass for purely human.

"Rabum Alal, Great King of the Unwritten Future, child of doom in whose blood burns hope itself. You are reforged." The Swan continued to prostrate herself before the silent figure. "I have broken the eye that seeks to halt your coming. I have gathered the allies that will witness your rise. O, my King, let me tell you of what I have seen, so that it may be prevented and a new way forged." She lifted her face and looked boldly into his, never flinching from the scabrous horror that begged for a mask. "Thy prophecy came to you too soon. You are the one to save us. Thanos was not your true enemy, only a tenebrous moment in the stream of time, a warning, a marker. I have claimed his children and will bend them to become your own. I have put in motion the great work that will place the Infinite into your hand."

Still mantled from tip to tail, her eyes enormous, Frej stepped back, deeper into the shadows. Loki's watchful spell had been broken. Doom was free. All of this was dangerous enough. The woman continued to speak.

"My great king. I have cursed myself back through time to serve thee, for the future must be sacrificed on its own altar of bone." She lifted her hands to Doom, a supplicant. "Let me love thee."

Doom's blazing eyes looked down upon the marble woman, and he whispered to her something Frej couldn't hear.

"Of course, my king," said the Swan. "And I have new robes laid aside for you."

Another whisper.

"Anything, my lord. Anything for you."

Doom bent towards the Swan, and that burned hand touched her forehead, gently. As if he had been waiting for her, all along. He lifted that awful head to examine his surroundings, and well-taught paranoia made it seem as if he looked at a darker corner of the broken garden wall a little longer than anywhere else.

Frej had seen enough. More than enough. She committed all these last details to her mind and then fled, first on four legs, and then, when she'd put enough space between herself and the cursed castle, rippled herself throughout dimensions until she panted safely deep within the SHIELD facility where her Loki currently slept.

. . .

Daisy walked with Loki towards the library and its corner he'd long ago commandeered for his use. Growing past just a private sorcerer's space for contemplation, it had a bit of extra office as well, where he kept certain classified matters that related to the magical work he oversaw for SHIELD. Agent Pandora Peters, WAND's primary assistant with a lot more sense in dealing with everyday people, had a 'normal' office on the other side of the wall, which was sometimes a wall in a purely theoretical sense. Daisy yawned, hugely. "I dunno, dude. I still think you're being oversensitive."

"Maybe." Loki sipped his coffee. "It was a good play, that much honesty. But the trio has no reason for any of them to idle around this territory."

"But they do, y'know, you're the job."

"And I'm safer here, out of the way, with my own eyes cast outwards for problems. So why waste the time? Lady Kara is too efficient for that. There's something I'm missing. Something she tried to make sure I didn't think to ask about when I had the chance." He put his mug down on a nice desk he'd 'borrowed' from a dead sorcerer somewhere along the line, getting ready to sort out the morning's stack of papers waiting for him. Frej jumped onto the desk, pinning them down with her butt. "Kit, now's not the time. I slept poorly and I'm fit to argue about it."

Frej meowed up into his face, insistent and sharp. Her paws patted on the stack of paper, making it crinkle. She began to cough in that deep, dry way that spelled trouble for any cat's human companion.

Loki stared at her. "Really? Really, we're going to make it that kind of day?"

"Good kitty," said Daisy, vastly more amused.

Frej summoned up a much bigger cough, and then, with a wince and a wiggle, dry-heaved a rolled piece of paper in front of him. She patted at it, insistent, then began meowing up at him with new desperation.

Loki looked at Daisy, then gingerly picked up the - actually oddly clean - roll of paper. He opened it and then sat down heavily in his chair.

Time I talked, read the note, messily scrawled with a pen dragged by tiny teeth across paper. I need a pad like Spirit uses.

Doom is not coming.

Doom is here.

Loki read the note twice, his fingers going cold. Then he looked into the flerken's face and saw a glimmer of genuine fright in her eyes that he recognized, that, Gods help him, he knew too well. He put the note down and scooped the flerken into his arms, letting her burrow under his neck for comfort.

"I'll go get a tablet from Resources," said Daisy, and she took off in a run.

"It's all right, Frej. It's all right," said Loki to the animal in his arms. "You're safe now."

Frej meowed into the hollow under his throat. She wanted to believe him, and would again, in a little while. She, young, and unlike others with equal good cause, had always believed in her Loki.

But for now, the ruins of what had once been a man still burned behind her eyes. Seeing her.

Seeing everything.

~Fin

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom

Remember us-if at all-not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

~ TS Eliot

6/3/2020 - all rights to the usual suspects. thanks for coming.