Chapter Thirty-Seven

Escape from Aakar Part I

Fornax Galaxy

Tayo System

Sakaar Orbit

'Showtime everyone. Time to take over, Juyu,' Stark said.

'I'm really not sure about this,' Juyu answered, but still moved closer.

'You'll do fine,' Loki told her as he walked into the back.

The girl took a large breath then took the seat from Stark, gripping the wheel just a little too tightly.

'I hate you both,' she grumbled.

'Communication is open, we're going to hear each other constantly,' Stark started and indeed Loki could hear his voice coming from the earpiece as well. 'If someone gets offline the others will know something's wrong, don't take it out or turn it off.'

Loki was ready to go. He had the crystals, his blades and his gun. The transporter was almost close enough. Bee and Drongo stood in the back too, but they kept their distance of course. Loki focused on his breathing. This was not going to be a simple task. Stark was now standing in front of him, his eyebrows furrowed in worry, his armoured arms crossed over his chest. He was looking at Loki like that since that morning. It looked like he wanted to say something, but he refrained. They already talked about all risks, the flaws in the plan, there was nothing left to say.

'Wait,' he said then walked closer. Loki really hoped he was not about to repeat his concerns again. In the end, instead of words, the man just put a hand on the back of his neck and pulled him close for a short hard kiss. They looked at each other for a moment when they parted and Stark just smiled as his fingers trailed down the braid Loki had today. 'Go get 'em!' Loki smiled back and reached out to the constantly-pulsing energy swirling in the crystals and for the first time in a long while his magic burst into life. It filled his body, overwhelmed his senses, it was like the most exhilarating free-fall, but there was no need to worry. He had wings now.

'Loki?' came Stark's voice through the earpiece even before Loki completely managed to take in his new surroundings.

'I'm inside,' Loki replied quietly and pulled both of his blades out. His alyndor daggers were flawless twins, thin straight blades almost as long as his forearms, the handles were wrapped in soft leather, his grip on them couldn't have been better. He did made them to be perfect for his own use after all. They were one of the best blades he had ever crafted. The enchantment he placed upon them made wounds bleed longer. Not that much enchantment was needed to make these weapons magnificent. Alyndor blades were marvellously light and deadly to begin with.

He was in a small room at the back of the transporter. He listened for a moment, but when no noise came from the other side of the door he started moving. Suddenly he remembered the day they took over the IronMage, but this was different. Stark was not entirely correct, reasons did matter, not just deeds. He would spill blood again, like he did many times before, but it still did not feel the same and he was very much aware of that.

x-x-x

He did not kill them all, since he learnt from their previous mistake. There was only a crew of six on the transporter and he only had to kill two of them. The other four he knocked out, tied up and locked into a room. They could have valuable information regarding the spacecraft or something else, they were Sakaaran Imperials after all. He barely heard any sound from Stark and the others, so he assumed they stayed silent in order to not distract him.

'I'm finished,' Loki said then.

'Everything went smoothly?' Stark asked.

'I even have some hostages,' Loki replied.

'Good, we're closing in. You need to disable the primary defence system and enable the airlock so we can dock in and get inside,' the human instructed.

Loki was glad that in the last two years he became significantly better at handling the technology on spacecrafts, so he knew what Stark was talking about. The displays were completely different from that of the IronMage and the Drake, but it looked simple and the security was easy enough to find.

'Defences down,' he said when he managed to find the right control panel. 'I don't see any controls for the airlock though.'

'No problem,' Stark said. 'It has to have manual controls, so if you can't see anything there, just find the airlock itself.'

Loki looked around one more time, but he didn't want to waste time so he took off to get to the airlock. That he could find without a problem so he was standing in front of the large metal door only after a few minutes.

'There are three separate control panels here,' he said as he arrived in front of them.

'Describe them to me,' Stark asked, so Loki did. The left one he realized controlled some sort of hydraulic system even before he finished describing it, the middle one and the right one were very similar though.

'Definitely the right one,' Stark said after Loki was done talking.

'The middle one also has pressure control,' Loki reminded him.

'But an airlock doesn't need energy stabilizing, so the middle one cannot be it,' the human answered, which should've been obvious really, but asking Stark was a lot faster than figuring it out on his own. 'You need the right one. First turn it to zero pressure, then open the outer doors. Once we docked in you need to raise the cabin pressure back to normal again.'

'I know the rest,' Loki said and lowered the pressure. The IronMage had a lot simpler dock and airlock system, but maybe having to control this one manually was what made it seem overcomplicated.

The whole process did not take much time, but it would've been a nightmare without the constant communication link. When Loki could finally open the airlock Stark, Bee and Drongo walked in. Stark already activated his suit, only his helmet was not in place.

'Juyu, dock out and pull back. Stay close, but out of sight,' Stark said once the airlock gate closed behind them again.

'Sure thing,' the girl said.

'You're our sentinel, Juyu,' Loki added. 'Keep your eyes open. Warn us if you see anything getting close, no matter how insignificant it may look.'

'You got it, big guy,' Juyu answered and Loki could even hear when the Drake docked out.

'You good?' Stark asked him then. 'Not too drained?'

Loki pulled up the sleeve of his coat that revealed the three rows of crystals he fastened around his forearm instead of his usual vambrace. More than half of them were completely dark, a few were still glowing dimly, but some still burned brightly with energy.

'Only these are,' Loki answered.

'Excellent,' Stark smiled and while it may have seemed like a flippant answer Loki could see the relief in his eyes. 'Let's move on to Phase Two!'

Loki nodded and they headed back towards the control room with Bee and Drongo following them. So far so good.

x-x-x

'Need any help with the transporter?' Drongo asked.

'No, everything seems fairly obvious. It's ridiculously simple technology,' Stark answered while his eyes still roamed the various displays. 'Loki, is any of the hostages a captain or some sort of officer?' he asked then.

'Probably,' he answered.

'Might be the time to bring one of them here to get some questions answered.'

They talked about this before. How they could avoid unpleasant surprises. Both of them were certain that it was unlikely that they would be able to get to the children easily. Only they did not know before whether Loki would be able to take over the transporter without killing the entire crew. Stark was surprisingly accepting towards that possibility, but Loki knew why he was, so he did not need to ask.

'Do not use your real names around them if you plan to leave them alive,' Drongo warned, which was indeed a reasonable precaution.

'Be right back,' he said and headed out towards the small room – almost a box really, maybe it was a storage room – he used to lock the still alive members of the crew up. Actually he left the two corpses in there two. He had plenty of reasons for doing that, striking fear into their hearts by showing them that he had no qualms about disposing of them was only one of them.

The one Imperial he chose to take back to Stark was completely awake and aware of what was happening, he did not struggle, but his eyes darted around quickly in obvious search for an escape. That was not going to happen. When they arrived back to the control room the Imperial stiffened in Loki's grasp at the sight of Drongo. He was probably getting a better idea about what was happening. Loki kept his grip tight as he dragged him closer to the others.

'Ah, here's our songbird, just in time,' Stark looked up from the control panels in front of him. He turned fully around when Loki stopped with the man. Bee was standing between Stark and Drongo, eyeing the Imperial with a narrowed gaze, not in a curious way. The Imperial kept his eyes on Stark.

'So here's what's going to happen,' the human started. 'I ask you some questions, you answer them all, and then you have a chance to get through this alive.'

The Imperial scoffed. 'I would gladly die for my King.' It made Loki snort, because he knew this. This loyalty to one's king the man was so proudly proclaiming. He also knew that no matter how solid and unbreakable it seemed, in reality it was like cold metal, easily shattered by applying the right pressure.

Stark stared at the Imperial for but a moment. 'I don't think you would,' he said calmly. 'I want to know about the security on Aakar, I want to know any sort of codes or identifications that are needed to land, and you are going to tell me all this.'

'I won't,' the man answered. 'You cannot make me, because you do not scare me.'

Stark smiled a little. 'Oh, pinky, I'm not the one you should be worried about,' he said easily.

'None of you scares me! You will fail, you will be crushed like the worms you are!' the Imperial snarled angrily and for some reason the only thing in Loki's mind was that he hoped he did not sound like this when he was angry. He was quite certain he could use a superior tone better than him, surely he did not sound so ridiculously theatrical like he did.

'None of us?' Loki mused and caught Bee's eyes. When she looked back at him Loki was sure that she understood what was needed here. He was not scared? Oh, they could change that very easily without wasting much time.

Bee took a step forward and slid her eyes back to the Imperial in front of her. By the time the man turned to look at her Bee's skin already started rippling and changing. First it looked like she was changing into her normal Skrull-green form, but then thick and hard scales started to appear on her as the muscles and bones shifted under her skin. Well, Loki did want to see her do more than the basic partial shifts he'd seen so far. While the Imperial tensed as his breath picked up, Loki watched the girl in fascination. Skrull shapeshifting was truly remarkable.

Her limbs started to grow longer and thicker and the scales hardened even more, and then there were even spikes coming out from under her skin. Her head reshaped too and her hair disappeared, her small jaw widened and a set of very-very sharp teeth grew out in her mouth. Hands shifted into thick clawed forelegs as the oversized undershirt she wore as a makeshift dress stretched out over the new larger form, the too big boots she wore now fitted perfectly too. She looked a little bit like a green Yirbek, but also like some sort of an animal, maybe she copied and mixed together several different reptilian creatures she knew, she even grew a large thick tail. Her red eyes had yellow slits as pupils now, locked on the Imperial's face of course.

The man in Loki's grasp was trying to twist away now and move back, even more so when Bee got down on all fours and a low deep growl rumbled in her chest. She moved closer, slowly approaching like a stalking predator circling its prey and the closer she got the more panicky the Imperial in Loki's hand grew.

'What- what is-' he tried to get out of his mouth. Loki held him in place as Bee moved slowly closer, all her fangs in sight.

'Still not scared?' Loki asked in a calm voice and Bee got even closer. Stark and Drongo both had suitably neutral expressions on their faces, not that the Imperial was paying any attention to them.

'Get it away!' the man yelled then. When Bee suddenly leapt forward Loki let go of the Imperial and allowed the girl to tackle him down. The panicked scream was out of fear and not pain, because Bee only dug her claws into the metal next to his head. She growled and snapped her fangs close to his face while the man was stuck between trying to get away and flailing mindlessly.

'No! Please, get it—No!' he babbled and whined.

'Speak!' Stark said. 'And speak quickly.'

'The transporter's identification code is CEN-54RU, our docking access code is 675-333-FYG, we are under the command of Ole-Oman, I'll tell you anything, just get it off me!'

Now that the man was close to hysteria, it was not going to be hard to get answers out of him. Loki reached out and touched Bee's shoulder lightly between two spikes with his fingertips, only for a second, but it was enough. She got off the Imperial with one last growl.

'Well done,' Loki praised then grabbed the shaking man by his scruff to yank him up to his knees so he would face Stark again. He was a perfectly well-behaving songbird now and answered whatever question they asked. Bee staying in her reptilian beast form even after she crawled back between Stark and Drongo definitely had something to do with that.

x-x-x

'Is everything quiet… Sentinel?' Stark asked, their Imperial songbird was obviously still with him. They tied him up and gagged him, but Stark could need him to answer questions, so they left him in the control room.

Juyu easily understood that the question was directed at her. 'No one in sight either near or far, the orbit is clear,' she replied. 'Commander.'

'Uh, I get "Commander", I like that,' Stark said delightedly. 'Not like my ego needed anymore boosting.'

'Focus, darling,' Loki told him over the communication link and he heard Stark chuckle in a pleased way in reaction to the petname. Loki was in Imperial form, this time he even reshaped his face to look like the captain they held hostage. The Oldstrong Shadow form Bee wore was something she already took on a day before, Drongo told her all the small things she needed to change in order to look convincing. The three of them were on their way out of the docks while Stark remained with the transporter, keeping it ready for what was obviously going to be a quick departure. Their arrival was without problems with the information they gathered in advance. "Data is everything" was what Stark said and Loki definitely agreed with him.

'The kids will be probably guarded,' Stark spoke again. 'I don't like not being there to fight.'

'Assuring our safe escape is more important, Commander,' Drongo answered before Loki could. 'And most of the children will be able to fight along with us once they know that they have a chance to escape.'

'You need to find them first,' Stark said.

'I don't think that will be a problem,' Loki told him when he caught sight of the three Imperials walking towards them.

'You found another one,' the one standing in the front said without any sort of greeting. Loki nodded. 'And him?' he nodded towards Drongo.

'Loyal to the King, he brought the youngling to us himself.' Drongo bowed his head towards the Imperials in what looked like a sign of respect and obedience.

'Good,' the Imperial said again. 'We take her from here.'

Loki shook his head. 'I've been given strict orders to not let her out of my sight until she is with the others. She had escaped twice already. We will accompany you.'

The Imperial looked at Bee for a moment, but then nodded.

'It never hurts to be cautious,' he said. 'Your assistance is appreciated…' he let it trail off as a question.

'Eman,' Loki answered with the name of their hostage captain.

The Imperial nodded in acknowledgment and lifted his arm 'This way.'

Stark was silent on the other end and so was Juyu, but they definitely heard enough to know that they were on the right path to get what they came for. Loki counted them incredibly lucky that this galaxy was not as familiar with shapeshifters as the inhabitants of the Andromeda were.

x-x-x

Loki didn't want to fall in the trap of overconfidence so even if everything went exactly as planned he stayed alert. His mind ran with possibilities constantly, he thought about a new possible plan every second minute. He was ready for an attack, any sort of attack. The three Imperials lead them down the corridors without trying to make small-talk. Sometimes the utter loyalty demanded by an absolute monarch could be exploited in the best possible ways. That was the only reason they did not need to answer more questions. Loki didn't even wear Sakaraan armour, even if he refrained from wearing his alyndor one. That would've been too out of place. His simple black coat was perfect though, it hid his blades and his crystals as well.

'Here we are,' the Imperial that lead their little group said as they reached another door. 'The younglings are to start their training soon. We can hand over the new one to Master Ging-Dian right away.'

The door opened a second later and they all walked in. Well, that was easy. There were at least twenty children inside though, which might be problematic. On the other hand, there were no guards inside the room, probably the whole building was only accessed by Sakaaran Imperials, so they only guarded the entrances and exits. The master the Imperial mentioned was also not in the large room, well it actually looked more like an arena. Loki turned to catch Drongo's eyes and he raised a questioning eyebrow. Was it time or should they wait? Drongo nodded so it looked like he agreed with Loki that it would be foolish to waste time.

'Thank you for your assistance,' Loki said and as soon as the Imperial turned to look at him he whipped one of his blades out and stabbed him in the throat. Drongo's heavy fist went flying and it smashed the second one to the far wall with bone-crushing strength. The third one already had one of Bee's axe-arms in his chest by the time Loki pulled his bloody dagger out. She shifted into her Skrull-shape, her axes looked a lot less rough than the last time Loki saw them.

Loki also shook the Sakaraan form off, because these younglings had to know that they were not sent by the Red King. Drongo already moved forward towards them. The youngest children were at least as tall as Bee, the older ones easily reached Loki's height. Drongo still towered over them all, but they were not scared of him, not even a bit.

'We came for you,' Drongo told them. 'A tribe will take you away to safety,' he said. 'Where the Red King can never touch you again, but we need to hurry and you need to fight!'

'We're tired,' one of the older boys told him.

'Calm your hearts and clear your minds,' Drongo said in a deep even tone. 'The Old Power is there for the taking, reach out and let it seep into your bones, let it sharpen your senses. Grip it tightly, I will lead, you only need to follow.' He spread his arms and took a deep breath while his hands clenched tightly. It took only a moment for the younglings to follow suit, some closed their eyes, some put their hands together, all breathed in and out a few times. It was strange, what Loki felt in the air. It was nothing like the power of the Yggdrasil and it was not exactly the Power Cosmic either, but it was something powerful, something just for the Oldstrongs. Loki could never reach out to it, but he could still feel it crackling just on the edge of his perception.

Then Drongo turned around. His gaze was heavy with power, the black in his eyes seemed even darker, the green irises brighter. The younglings were calm and focused and like they were all listening to the same tune only they could hear, like even their hearts beat together right now.

'We are ready,' he rumbled.

'I'll lead the way,' Loki said and turned to run with Bee close on his heels. 'We're coming Stark,' he said.

'Just in time,' the human answered. 'It looks like I'm going to have quite a situation over here very soon.'

Loki cursed and ran faster.

x-x-x