Happy New Year everybody! Here is the next chapter of ATP. I have decided that I will be pushing this to it's conclusion from here on, so expect a chapter a month, although the size of the chapters will vary wildly.

Update 1/2/2022: this chapter has now been edited by Morte24. He got it back to me on the 31st, but for some reason his emails went into my spam box. I have no idea why, as I certainly never sent anything he's ever sent me there, or did any other modifications to my filter, but there you are. Hopefully, this means there are less mistakes inside the chapter now.


Chapter 46: Wheeling, Dealing, and Weddings

Harry spent the rest of that day and some of that night in New York speaking with representatives from the dozens of smaller nations in the UN, mostly answering questions about his long-term goals, and what it would mean for their country in particular that there was now an empire whose reach started at the outer edge of the atmosphere. It was almost astonishing to Harry how ignorant some of these politicians were regarding what he had been doing in space along with his overall policies. Most of them only knew what he had said in his earlier meetings with the UN, and what their countries' newspapers told them.

The delegates didn't even read the local American newspapers. And to say their local papers were merely underinformed would be a huge understatement.

Indeed, even the American news outlets put their own slant on what was going on. Bugle News seemed to be somewhat neutral if very wary of Harry, while CFN was very against Harry's creation of the EDF. And the third of the 4 Big News Agencies, ABC, was subtly anti-mutant and thus against Harry Potter. Still, with Lourdes News Network printing the truth, Harry was satisfied the rest would either be forced to do the same or would eventually be proven the shysters they were.

In many cases, these discussions showed a growing divide in several areas of the world. The South American Resource Union, the African Defense Organization and the Pan Asiatic Alliance, the smaller bodies who Harry had been dealing with before this in terms of getting the resources needed to build the Earth Defense Fleet and its immobile fortresses, seemed in some ways to be part of the problem, as they did not have equal representation of all the existing nations that should comprise their constituents.

Still, while the news they were being fed was part of the reason behind the delegate's ignorance, a large segment of that was caused by the delegate's own disinterest in Harry's space-based enterprises. Most of the Asiatic, a few of the South American, and many of the African countries simply didn't care, and in the pan- Asian and Asiatic countries only knew that Harry had made trade deals and other agreements with China and Japan.

Both of whom were very disliked by most of the other nations in that area. For Japan, that went back to World War 2 and the horrific way Japan had treated the rest of Asia during its attempts to become an empire. And as for China? China was the new bully boy on the block, the biggest nation with the fastest-growing economy. Not to mention that its population was larger than all the other Asiatic countries put together.

There, Harry knew he would probably have to step in soon to make certain they didn't try to use the PAA to simply rule over the other nations in the area. India had been a part of PAA and a counterweight to China's influence but had pulled out after the Eurasian War, making its own agreements with Magical Minds. That left China as the only major power in the PAA, which was not a good thing.

Mind you, occasionally talking to these representatives allowed Harry to do something right now. For example, the Taiwan and Nepalese representatives wished for something specific: to make new personal trade agreements with the Avalon Empire. They wanted Harry's help in creating a commercial infrastructure (roads, trains etc.) and to help get their education programs to the next level. In return, they'd allowed Harry to name his price, which was somewhat steep.

By the time he sat down to a rather late dinner at eleven o'clock local time, Harry was wiped. "There's only so much talking I can take," he groaned as he slumped into the dining hall at Emma's mansion.

"You will get no sympathy from me," Emma chortled, shaking her head with a laugh. She and Sage had also been busy that day. With the formal declaration of the Avalon Empire, it meant that the Empire was also open to foreign investment and industrial connections. She hadn't made all that many more such connections, but many of the previous agreements made with other members of the Hellfire Club had now come out into the open. "Give and take discussions like that are my bread and butter."

Snorting, Harry moved to pull her chair out for her, causing Emma to smile and lean up to kiss his cheek. That was one of those small romantic touches which had so endeared the man to her. Harry's power and mystery had been what had attracted Emma to him in the first place, but Harry's gentlemanly nature, humor and moral fiber (although she would never say that last aloud) were what made him Emma fall in love with them.

Stepping back and moving to his own chair, Harry looked around, noting how quiet the mansion was. "I thought Ororo and Hela were going to join us?"

Jean was still in bed. Her body had been rocked by the sudden reversal of its former fortunes. Even with the best of care, she was probably going to remain in bed for another week at best.

"The two of them are choosing colors for Jean's wedding." Emma sighed theatrically, shaking her head. "How someone can take such pleasure in that kind of activity is beyond me."

"As if you've never taken any pleasure in picking out dresses, my dear," Harry chortled, calling her out on her little bit of sophistry.

Then he sobered, leaning forward. "I haven't had time in the past few days to check-in, but how is work going on with the former prisoners of the Black Spectre?"

This time Emma's sigh wasn't theatrical, although it was heartfelt. "It's somewhat complicated. Of the group the Spectre was indoctrinating in his basement, only two men and one of the women that are above the age of sixteen didn't have pre-existing criminal records. And I am talking about serious infractions, ranging from drug dealing to various violent criminal acts, including murder and even, in the case of one of the women and four of the men, rape. Which I found harshly ironic. Despite how sympathetic I am to how they were treated by the Black Spectre, I can't say that many of them were on the side of the angels, to begin with."

"The few that were relatively innocent and the younger set of prisoners have all remained in the Magical Minds headquarters. We've only found a few of their families so far, but we have confirmed that a few others are either connected to organized crime themselves or dead."

"And the Black Spectre himself? I presume you did your usual excellent job of ruining his brain?"

"In every sense of the word bar physically, the Specter's mind more resembles a kind of slurry, rather than an actual human brain." Emma smiled thinly. "Do you object?"

Harry shrugged. "It's not something I would've done, but I understand why you did."

"Oh, what would you were done?"

Harry's smile was just as thin and vicious as hers for a moment. "I would've handed him over to the people he'd abused. Men and women who have been wrong can be particularly vicious with those who have wronged them. 'If you find yourself lying on Afghan planes, and the women come up to cut out what remains…"

Emma laughed, shaking her head. Harry could be utterly vicious at times for all his people saving and heroic tendencies. Still, there was a decision on this topic Harry had to make. "So, what should we do with the individual's Spectre abused but who have criminal records?"

"Hand them over to their governments," Harry answered after a few minutes of thought. "It can be a little litmus test for them, I suppose. I will have Dennis watching what they do with them with interest. After all, given what was done to them, I think many of those people have already paid for their crimes. But that doesn't mean they should be let free until we know they won't go back to their old ways.

With that, the discussion turned to other matters, specifically, bringing in more businesses into the Avalon Empire, which Emma had been busy with since Harry's formal announcement of the empire that morning. Starducks and a few other such chains had approached her in her Diamond persona to open up shops on Fortress Mars and in the Savage Land. But Harry didn't really want food chains and so forth to butt in just yet. He was much more willing to give out loans to the people who were already in place in the Savage Land and Fortress Mars to create such local businesses. Indeed, he'd been doing that kind of thing all along, although most had to do with construction.

Emma and Sage had been overseeing that work in various forms, although Emma admitted that she hadn't been to the Savage Land in a few months. Whereas Harry had routinely stopped in at least once every other week.

"It's certainly becoming a rather interesting place," Harry said with a chuckle. In the tower Magneto had been using, we have the educational center and the Savage Land's overall parliament. To one side, the tower abuts directly into the lands controlled by She-ra's people and the jungle. In the other way, there is this corridor of cleared land to the lake, which is the center of the colonial presence, protected by those sonic-based defenses."

"The… I can't really call it a city, not yet, but it is certainly interesting thanks to the eclectic mix of individuals there. Scientists brought in because they literally begged on hand and knee to study the Savage Land when they learned through Carol's think tank that the Savage Land existed. Families and dependents of people who work in Fortress Mars or in Magical Minds and wanted to move. The natives who, despite what many of their leaders will tell you, are interested in technology and a better living. You have the two hundred or so teachers Ororo's hired in cycles over the past few months. And then there are the foresters, miners, and construction workers who work in the Savage Land or on the various projects in orbit and who live in the Savage Land. Oh, and security, both police and jungle rangers."

"That… that sounds like a lot," Emma answered, trying not to show her shock but knowing Harry could probably tell anyway.

"The last census taken was a few days ago, and there were two-hundred and forty-two thousand colonists. The look local natives add another three-hundred and nineteen thousand from the various tribes and clans."

Emma gaped. "That many!?"

Harry shrugged. "There is a reason why it was the first area ready to govern itself under the guidelines we created. It was also helped by the fact that the locals already had their own leaders and so forth in place. And if you're wondering, Pinoptes is running twelve different elementary schools pre-k to seventh, in conjunction with the various teachers, four high schools going from eighth grade to twelfth and Avalon Academy, an actual college. The college is situated in Magneto's former spire."

Emma shook her head with a chuckle and asked dryly about how often the prehistoric animals and so forth caused trouble, and Harry regaled with a few tales that Logan and his girlfriend, She-ra, had passed on to Harry during a meeting a few days ago. Logan had once more returned to the Savage Land, and along with his daughter, showed no sign of wishing to leave again. The tribals were his kind of people, and the jungle more his home than even the forests of Canada, with danger and beauty mixed.

That was more than fine with Harry, although he had requested that Logan be available for occasional 'wet-work' operations. But with Mystique and Natasha joining Sir Dennis and Diamondback, Asp and Black Mamba already evincing interest in doing the same, Harry doubted that Logan would be needed often.

From there, the conversation turned to other matters, specifically the first freighters being prepared to be sent to Corsair, what they would carry, and how Harry's discussion with Steve Scott had gone. The two of them had a meeting the day after Harry got back in which Harry had explained how Scott's brother had wished to be left behind with their father, Corsair. The fact his father was alive shocked Scott a lot more than the fact his brother wanted to stay with him obviously, as Scott freely admitted that he would've made the same decision. Still, the young man had nearly demanded to have some time off to go and visit with his father and brother, and Harry had promised to try and make that happen.

After that, they talked about Dr. Banner, Charles and his work with the man, which Harry would be looking into the next day. That led to the issue with the Winter Soldier and how they would deal with that can of worms. The answer was probably going to be a lot of money accompanied by many apologies both from Bucky and Steve. But the man's fate would truly be in Charles' hands as, if Bucky's mental conditioning could not be broken, then they would have to think about what to do with the man at that point.

But eventually, the serious talks faded, and by the time dessert and Emma's wine had come out, they were in full-on flirt mode. And once dessert, cherry tarts cooked up by one of the house-elves who Harry had stationed here, were eaten, another hunger took its place.

Upstairs, Cordelia and her friend Firestar and possibly more, both of them were a little curious in that direction, heard a series of thumps. "What was that?" Firestar murmured.

"I don't know. Let's go see," Cordelia answered, hopping to her feet.

"You just want to get out of watching my choice for tonight's TV show," Firestar grumped, hopping to her feet and pushing the cards they'd been playing with to one side as she followed her friend. "Despite the fact I've won three out of five hands."

"I hate Fluffy! Don't you remember how much teasing I got having the same name and even something of the same background as that bint, Cordelia Chase?" Cordelia snapped back. "Vampires are nice and all, but can we have more sexy, brooding vampires and not bimbo teenagers?"

"How about some Star Wars then?"

Cordelia nodded at that suggestion and slowly opened her door, leaning her head out slightly to look down the hallway. Firestar stuck her head out above her, turning in the same direction, biting her lip to keep from gasping. Below her, Cordelia clamped her free hand over her mouth to stop a similar noise from escaping.

Both of them stared as Emma and Harry wound their way up the long staircase to the second floor and along the hall towards Emma's bedroom, bumping to a halt occasionally as they seemed to lose their sense of direction. The reason for this was the intense make-out session the two of them seemed to be locked into.

Emma was in Harry's arms, her legs around his waist, his hands underneath on her rear, squeezing as they made out. Occasionally they pulled away, nuzzling into one another as Harry continued to carry her, a giggle escaping Emma as they made their way down the corridor, until she swooped up for another kiss, twisting them around somehow, Harry's back banging against the wall as Emma literally began to hump Harry.

Their course was slow and almost tortuous because of this, but eventually, the two girls had to duck back inside Cordelia's room, closing the door before they could be noticed. Exchanging giggles, they raced back to their beds as Starfire asked, "Do you think we could get away with trying to listen in? It might be educational."

Cordelia shook her head, almost mocking the other girl's interest but not quite, considering that she was also a bit interested in what would be happening in Emma's room any moment now. "No thanks. That is my sister we're talking about, after all. Let's just watch some TV. We can always interrogate her tomorrow."

OOOOOOO

Harry spent that night buried to the hilt in Emma, waking up several times to make love. The next morning when they entered the dining room, several of the mansion's inhabitants looked at them with blushing, amused or curious faces. "Damn, I forgot, Emma's room isn't soundproofed! Sorry, Love," Harry sent through their telepathic link, feeling Jean in Scotland laughing at his misfortune.

"Harry, I'm not exactly a prude. I didn't complain last night. I certainly won't complain now," Emma replied with a chuckle.

Before they could sit down at the table, Emma saw Cordelia, Firestar, Kitty and Wanda, and Rogue stand up, moving towards them purposefully, their eyes locked on Emma. Kitty, Wanda and Rogue were here at her mansion because they were going into the city later that day for a shopping trip. "I think I'm about to be kidnapped, Harry. Help?" She said sent telepathically.

However, Harry simply smirked, turned around, took Emma into his arms, and, before she could protest, leaned in, kissing her. It was a very thorough, possessive kiss and left Emma gasping and wondering if perhaps she could get away with dragging Harry back to bed.

But then Harry pulled away and smiled, bowing towards Cordelia and the others. His tone was quite upbeat as he left Emma to the wolves, dancing around them and heading towards the dining table. "She's all yours, ladies."

"Traitor!" Emma sent before Cordelia took one arm and Wanda the other, pulling her back out of the dining hall. Her protest of "Damn it, I need breakfast first, you bitches!" didn't stop matters, as two of the others had already grabbed up some plates.

The only one of the women currently in the mansion who didn't join this rush was Danielle, and she smirked as she leaned back in her chair, watching as Harry exchanged what she had heard called bro nods with Sandman, and Emma's chief of security, and Kurt, the older two men leaving soon after to start their own day. "Hey Kurt, I take it you were roped into joining the girls on their shopping trip? You have my sympathies."

"Ah, but mine Freund, the fair Wanda has mentioned actually letting me see what she'll be trying on. Using my teleportation powers to take their purchases back here is but a small payment for such as that," the young German replied.

"Good answer," Harry approved before turning to Danielle, asking quizzically. "Why aren't you joining them, Dani?"

He knew she'd done the same thing with Ororo and Jean a few times.

The Cheyenne woman shrugged her shoulders, setting her hair, tied in two long pigtails down her chest at present. "I wanted to talk to you about Spiderman, actually. Did you read the full report about what went on before us smacking down the Black Spectre?"

Harry frowned, thinking back and nodding slowly. "He was involved in the investigation side, right?"

"Yes. We've tried to reach out to Spiderman a few times, but I know we haven't made a real effort in that direction. I think it's time we did."

Harry cocked an interrogative eyebrow, and she said simply, "Harry, he's wasted where he is. The guy's a genius, I mean, he is probably not on par with Dr. Doom or Mr. Fantastic, but he's at least at a Master's degree level in chemistry and electronics."

From there, Danielle explained how Spiderman used his own web-shooters, trackers, and other homemade gadgets. "He's built those things on his own from things he's bought in hardware stores and pharmacies. That's impressive, right?"

Harry nodded again at that, then asked if she had looked up this Peter Parker. Danielle hadn't and admitted that it felt like a breach of trust to be doing so after she told him that they weren't going to use his secret identity against him.

"There's using it against him, and then there is trying to do it for his own good." Harry frowned thoughtfully, then shrugged. "He's of an age with the rest of you, so I doubt he's had more than a year if that of college. We can tell that without looking into Spidey more deeply. So here's what you're going to do: find him and make him an offer of a full scholarship to the Avalon Academy as well as us paying the bill for any of his hero-style duties."

Danielle nodded at that, understanding the draw and looking forward to her studies with Pinoptes. Like Amara, Piotr, and a few of the others in Camelot, Dani had begun to take college courses, although rarely in person. Instead, they all followed different classes designed for them by Ororo and Pinoptes.

That was just the tip of the iceberg, of course. With Ororo helping, Pinoptes had created one heck of an educational system, which had grown with the society it had to serve. At this point, as Harry had mentioned the night before to Emma, this went up to the college level. And it was free up to that point for any dependent of the Avalon Empire.

Danielle wondered idly how that was going to play out in the future, considering that technology was most decidedly a part of that education from the very start, and education would continue to improve as technology did, which was most decidedly not the case in public schools in places like America or elsewhere.

When she voiced that, Harry shrugged. "That problem's going to occur in Europe too when other countries are going to be comparing themselves to Latveria. It might seem like an anachronism of the Middle Ages on the surface, but under that, it's about as technologically advanced as we are. The education system doesn't have Pinoptes, and it isn't mandatory, but it's there if the civilians want it."

"As for Spiderman, we might want to think about something we can do now. Before this, we've used only words and offers of money. If we have something on hand that can really help him, he might jump on it. After making sure that it doesn't have a tracker in it, anyway," Harry finished drolly.

"You might also promise to help him cover up his secret identity. How much do you want to bet the FBI or some other group knows his identity?" Kurt suggested, then brightened. "Hey, what about something like my image inducer?"

"That's a good point, Kurt. You have an extra, right?" When Kurt nodded, Harry instructed Dani to head to the X-mansion first and grab it.

Dani agreed, and their conversation shifted to Danielle's place on the world guard, as well as Kurt's position with the X-men. He was very happy there, but these days there weren't as many small-time missions as there had been when he first joined the group. Charles was on him to put more time into his schoolwork, still being in High School, and that was okay, but Kurt had no idea what he'd do at college and so wanted to volunteer to help Stinger's retrieval team for now. "Maybe more work in that direction will let me decide on my course for the future."

"I'll pass that along, but remember if your grades slip, you'll only be called in on emergencies," Harry warned. "And what about you, Dani? Do you want to keep working mostly solo?"

Dani's work on hunting down and killing the Kingpin and this latest bit of espionage had impressed Harry. She was also, like Amara, Dani, and the Proudstars, very much a leader. But the problem was, in the Custodes, Amara, Piotr, John and Steve filled those roles very well, as did Harry and Ororo when the big guns were needed. The X-men also had their officer's slots filled, so to speak with James having been transferred to them fulltime. And Stinger was doing a great job with her own group too. So there really wasn't a position that would let Dani use her leadership skills to their full potential. Hence, Harry wondered if she would prefer to use her other skills.

Danielle, however, surprised him by shaking her head. "I realize you mean well, Harry, and while I know my powers lend themselves to investigation even more than combat, I think that I prefer to be a more active member of the world guard. If we're not going to be running missions, I'll cheerfully back up Stinger. And no, I don't want to take over for her. Nor do I want to be a full-time part of Sir Dennis's spy network, either.

"It's your choice, of course," Harry shrugged as he finished his last sausage patty. "I just thought as a hunter, you would have enjoyed that kind of position."

I do enjoy hunting down criminals, although not having to do so would be a wonderful thing," Dani answered, her eyes going dark and gaze far away as she remembered why she had killed the Kingpin: his ordering the very messy death of a family whose father had begun to work with Magical Minds.

Watching silently, Kurt and Harry waited for her to come back to herself, which Dani did with a shake of her head. "Anyway, I much prefer camaraderie to that kind of thing."

"And that'll give you time with Piotr and Amara?" Harry asked slowly, hesitantly. He made a point of not butting into his people's relationships unless they asked for advice, but he knew that Amara and Piotr were almost but not quite as serious about their relationship as his own polycule was and that Piotr was something of a staunch Russian orthodox. He knew that Dani and, in the past before Steve Rogers had joined them, Betsy, had shown interest in joining them but had been turned aside.

Yet Danielle simply shrugged, now grinning at him. "You leave that to me, Amara and Piotr. I'm not going to butt into their relationship Harry, and I don't really know where we stand. But whatever is going on between us, it's good enough for me."

Harry shrugged. "I thought that maybe you were still interested in Spidey," he admitted, without any hint of embarrassment.

Danielle guffawed, shaking her head. "No, thank you. Besides, I haven't actually seen his face, so any kind of attraction there doesn't have much fuel, you know. From what I've seen of him, he's a bit too much of a mouthy little so-and-so for my taste. Besides, I prefer the more artistic type."

Harry rolled his eyes at that, knowing both Amara and Piotr were artists on their own time. Indeed, the two of them had begun a small project since Amara had returned with Harry. They had put up paintings all over Camelot, asking people to rate the different styles.

At that point, Emma and the girls came back, with all of them looking at Harry and giggling between themselves while Emma firmly moved to his side and gave him a bit of payback, kissing him very thoroughly, running her nails up and down his clothed chest, which she knew got his engine running. Then it was her turn to pull away, sitting down primly as if nothing had happened. "So, what is on your agenda for the day?"

What was on the agenda for Harry that day was heading up to Canada. Connected to Harry's agreements with the UK and the British crown, Canada had worked very well with Harry and his faction (they didn't have a name for it all at the time) during the Eurasian War, and they'd had good but informal ties since then. This meeting was about formalizing that agreement as he had with the UK and setting down a trade deal between Canada and the Avalon Empire, along with what they had told Sage were 'a few other things'.

However, walking into the meeting room in the West Block in Ottawa, Harry's eyes fell on the maple-leaf-colored Vindicator, and he understood that the Canadians might not have told Sage everything. "Jean, if you could warn Sage and Emma, I might need their opinions on things soon? And that lawyer fellow who hangs around Magical Minds."

The lawyer in question was actually a British lawyer recommended to Harry months back. He was an expert on international law, British, French, Germanic, and Canadian law. Harry had kept him on retainer and made him the head of Magical Mind's personal law and contract division but had only rarely actually talked to him personally.

A telepathic snort was quite a thing to experience, and Harry fought to keep a smile off his face as he heard it now, followed by Jean's mental giggle. "You just won MJ some money, love. She bet Sage that the Canadians were going to jump you with something new, but Sage didn't think so. Emma's busy with her own business right now, something about…" Jean trailed off.

The next moment Emma's voice took her place, the two telepaths linking all three of them for a moment. "I am about to fire a few fools for not following my work policies and then look very closely at the whistleblower. I am getting a feeling from the reports which reached me before this that he is playing his own game here, and I wish to nip whatever it is in the bud. You're on your own, love."

"Ah well, then I will just have to deal with those new glasses Reed designed and Sage being my shoulder angel this time."

"Heh, that better only be metaphorically speaking, Harry," Emma warned mockingly, not meaning it but wanting to tease Harry.

"Trust me, my dears, four women is more than enough for any man. Well, any man with a lick of sense, basic intelligence and a romantic bone in his body," Harry retorted. "I might not have common sense, but I think I'm intelligent enough to see that."

"Ooh, nice answer, and I will pass on to Hela that you count her against the total already," Jean caroled. "She'll get a kick out of that, hehe."

Shaking off this mental conversation, Harry nodded coolly at Vindicator. He'd learned more than a bit about the other man, his wife, Alpha Flight, and Weapon X since they'd last met in person, and to say what he'd learned had changed his opinion of the man was, to put it mildly. "Gentlemen, I thought this would simply be a trade agreement of some kind, but it appears I was mistaken. And Sasquatch, Mr. Hudson, I thought the both of you were thinking about hanging up your spandex."

While Harry and the Custodes had worked with the Canadian military during the Eurasian War, the former members of Alpha Flight, the government sanctioned superhero team, hadn't been part of that. They had been mauled by the Abomination and Hulk's rampage, the two green beasts having been under control of the alien, Thanos at the time. The Custodes had come to their rescue then, but too late for most of Alpha Flight.

James Hudson flinched a bit at the knowledge that Harry knew his secret identity, Sasquatch chuckled at his turn of phrase. "While I don't wear spandex, the business of being a hero is hard to just drop when you look like I do. And just because we got our rears kicked does not mean that our country has ceased needing such as us. We're not going to be projecting power beyond our borders, but we still have a few homegrown villains, including one who seems to be on the verge of taking over our entire criminal underworld. That is not exactly a good thing."

Harry nodded thoughtfully at that, then turned over and shook hands with Sasquatch, asking politely about Aurora, the only other survivor of the original Alpha Flight as everyone sat down. She was doing alright but had no desire to be involved in Alpha Flight in any way anymore. Indeed, she had gone back to school and was currently trying for a degree in Physics.

Finishing fielding some questions about Phoenix and her powers as well as what Ororo was up to, Harry leaned forward, tapping the table. "Now that the small talks are over with, perhaps we can get to the real reason behind this meeting? If you're going to ask me for help against this criminal mastermind of yours, then you should've indicated that when you reached out to Sage to start this meeting."

"That is not what this meeting is about, unfortunately. You see, while the government is willing to provide some funds for Alpha Flight, we aren't entirely on board with the idea either, for several reasons," One of the two unintroduced men answered before introducing himself as Marvin Aruga and his companion as Boris Tringle. "We don't want to tie Alpha Flight's actions behind a ton of red tape. That would cripple their effectiveness. And if we pay for their activities on our own, there's no way that we can successfully distance ourselves from them. But if you provide the money, you can do that."

"On the other hand, we don't want to be part of your growing conglomeration, the world guard, like the fantastic four or the X-Men down in America," James interjected.

Boris waved one hand from side to side. "Still, we need some non-monetary aid, specifically transportation. Canada is huge, Mr. Potter, and we don't have a fifth of the super-powered hero-type help that America has. Indeed, we don't even have as many mutants with truly combat-usable powers. But we do have both super-powered villains and, um… supernatural occurrences that we need to combat."

"In other words, you want access to my technology along with my money," Harry hummed thoughtfully, setting aside the mention of supernatural occurrences. Logan had mentioned something about a Wendigo spirit, so there might be more like that out there somewhere.

"Yes. Your method of travel is amazing, and Canada is, as Boris mentioned, extremely large, with a scattered population. We could do a lot more for the nation if we could get to problem zones quicker than we can currently. Only a few of us can fly, and not for very far, or very fast in terms of jet travel," Vindicator elaborated.

"And you lot aren't willing to just pay me for access, you want me to fake taking Alpha Flight under the Custodes envelope?" Harry was kind of incredulous. "I was here originally to sign business agreements with your government, to open new factories and power plants. I know you have the money for it. Frankly, not having any control of your actions means I don't really see an upside to this concept."

James shook his head firmly. "Those treaties will still go through, but they are something we can be upfront about. Continuing to pay for something like Alpha Flight, a team of superpowered individuals that are supposed to act beyond the laws in many ways is not."

"Then who funded the weapon X project?" Harry answered sharply, glaring at Hudson. "You and your wife were both involved in the start of that project, weren't you?"

Vindicator started, then scowled, his teeth clenching. "There have been rumors that you were involved with Wolverine. I suppose that comment makes it obvious where you got your information on me. You do know he is still wanted in Canada for several crimes, correct? Including murder?"

"You do know that people involved in the Weapon X program were unilaterally sentenced to death by both the Avalon Empire and America for crimes against humanity?" Harry rejoined.

"America has no leg to stand on! Not only did they welcome the remnants of that very program, it was but one of their attempts to recreate the Captain America experiment," James rejoined. "The needs of the nation always outweigh the rights of the individual."

"But I do have a leg to stand on, as you put it," Harry answered mildly, although his face was like stone. "While I may have broken international laws and ignored local laws hundreds of times, I certainly have never attempted to indoctrinate or experiment on people. And as for your statement, I have always put the rights of the individual and individual freedoms in front of everything else. Or at least I've tried to."

He stood up. "I think we're done here. Prove to me that you won't misuse this money I'll be giving you, prove to me you won't run some kind of indoctrination program or some such shite, and then we can talk."

"What, like you've done to your Custodes? What is the median age of your troopers besides the FF, Potter!?" James growled out, while Sasquatch just frowned, not liking how this conversation had gone. Boris looked somewhat annoyed while Marvin was watching with interest, his thoughts very well hidden, but Harry felt he might have detected a bit of annoyance that Harry wasn't just going along with things.

Harry cocked his head to one side. "I've trained the Custodes from the start, instituted a payment plan with combat benefits, convinced them with word and deed that we are fighting the good fight and have proven it by making this world a better place not just for mutants but all humanity. At no point have I attempted to indoctrinate or experiment on them. Something you certainly cannot say, seeing as you turned in your best friend at the time to the inhuman experiments being conducted by Weapon X. All I hear from you is simple attempts to turn these arguments against me, rather than anything that can truly defend your own actions."

Vindicator growled, trying to get to his feet, but Harry lashed out with some magic, sticking him to the chair, turning to the others. Marvin was still mostly unreadable, although Harry detected a bit of anger underneath it. Huh, so perhaps James was being someone else's stalking horse? "As I said, I think we're done here."

"I think not," said a voice from the doorway, a feminine voice, one Harry had not heard before.

Turning to look, Harry had to blink in surprise, staring and cocking his head to one side. Because in the doorway was the woman named Snowbird, one of the members of Alpha Flight who had died in the battle against the two green behemoths. "I see that the rumors of your death were greatly exaggerated, Miss," he said slowly. "I'm afraid I don't know your real name, only your codename, Snowbird."

"No, those rumors were quite accurate. But death for many people isn't quite the end-all that most assume. In my case, I got better," The woman said simply, walking into the room.

Sasquatch had stood up and now pulled out a chair for the woman, incongruously reminding Harry of how his date last night with Emma had begun. But there didn't seem to be any kind of romantic affection between the two of them, simply friendship, at least if Harry was reading Sasquatch his body language right. Snowbird was almost as hard to read as Emma would be without Harry's intimate knowledge of the woman.

"But you are correct in believing that our initial requests toward you were far more like demands than we should have allowed. For now, please leave us Mr. Potter. We will discuss things and develop a better agreement to offer you. Can we assume that you will at least be happy to go forward with your public agreements with our government?" Snowbird went on, waving one hand airily and somehow canceling the sticking spell Harry had used on James Hudson.

"My agreement to set up a factory here to build power generators, yes. And I will also be willing to sell you my Saab-hover ambulances. As for the rest, I will cheerfully step outside to allow you all to talk." Harry continued staring at the woman even as he moved around the table. "But I have to wonder, why are you the one giving orders here?"

Snowbird looked at him, and her eyes were white, almost like Ororo's did when she was using her power, and her presence suddenly magnified to Harry's senses to a level approaching that of Hela.

"Does this answer your question?" she asked before smirking and looking over at the four men on the other side of the table, her voice and presence returning to normal. "As I said, we will be discussing this."

Harry nodded acknowledgment, more of what she was than Snowbird's words. Although how a goddess of… I suppose the indigenous peoples has come to still be around, let alone hold a position of power where she can make demands of their government is beyond me. And that is more than fine with me, I suppose.

Outside, Harry moved to one of the windows, staring out into the city beyond, remembering the last time he'd been here, and why. Staring out over Ottawa, Harry didn't see the city, only the purple face of the alien who had manipulated the Hulk and the Abomination to do his bidding. Thanos.

Contrary to what many among his people thought, Harry had known there was a chance that Thanos was out there somewhere. Regardless of the fact his Bloody Insane spell would not have left anything behind, Harry was certain that the reason he didn't find any evidence of the creature wasn't just that, but the fact Thanos had somehow gotten away. Ever since that fight, Harry had begun to plan out a battle against the purple bastard in the back of his mind. And crippled or not, that means he will be coming back here. Still, I know a lot about what he can do, just as much as he knows about me. And I've got both the power-up after the Eurasian War, the fight against Galactus to call on for experience, and even the work I've begun on that rune that Lady Death and the Phoenix Force gave me. Heh. You might be the one to set the time of our next dance, Thanos, but you'll find I'm going to be the one calling the tune.

Several minutes passed with numerous voices raised in anger within the room, but eventually, Sasquatch came to the door, asking Harry to come in. When he did, Harry saw that Vindicator and the two government officials looked particularly dyspeptic. It was very clear that Snowbird and their higher-ups had given orders.

"We have come to an agreement. While we wish to continue to act independently, that is a necessity, we will be willing to give you, or someone you choose, oversight of how we spend the money you are willing to gift Alpha Flight with. We are also willing to sign agreements that this money will be used in such a manner. Further, we will allow you to create any curriculum needed to train further super-powered mutants we might add into our ranks and our education of any mutants found within our territories requiring additional physical requirements to see to their education. In return, you will have no oversight as to our actual combat missions, and you will provide the team with limited military technology."

"I still say you are overstepping your authority there," Marvin growled out. "We have eighty mutants scattered across Canada with powers that are combat-capable. We need to train them to…"

"To control their powers. Not to be unthinking weapons primed to be aimed at whoever your government points them at," Snowbird rejoined. "Remember that this country does not condone indoctrination of that kind. Nor would I. And I would hear about it, no matter how you hide it from me."

Her eyes flashed, and Marvin quailed, but Harry wondered if that had been his idea or someone else higher in the government. Regardless, Harry decided to leave it in Snowbird's hands. She seemed to have the bit between her teeth and didn't need his help there.

James still looked as if he would object, but what he said was somewhat strangled and about a far more personal point when Snowbird looked at him. "We also want an agreement that Logan will not be allowed to set foot on Canadian soil. If he does, we will be free to arrest and try him."

Hearing that, Harry reflected, that was probably more about how Logan had once told him about how James and his wife had been among Logan's friends for a time until the man had decided to volunteer Logan for the weapon X program. And how the wife and Logan… might have begun to feel a little closer to one another than just friends. If that was indeed the case, Harry was fully willing to James some slack on that point. "Agreed. Now, let's get your lawyers in here and get all this down on paper."

Harry signed the dotted line eventually, then headed out into the city under disguise to grab some food before he had to head to another meeting.

This one occurred in High Note, or rather, the prison complex where Dr. Banner had been placed. Walking into the large cavern assigned to Bruce, Harry paused, staring in shock at the green giant sitting at the main table. He wore clothing built for his size, a formal shirt, pants, suspenders. He looked like he needed a shave but was otherwise almost dapper.

Bruce, and it could be no one else, was working on a computer of some kind when Harry came in, talking animatedly to Charles, but both of them turned their full attention to Harry as he entered. After a second spent staring, Harry chuckled. "Okay, this is not what I was expecting, and now I know why you and Emma were unwilling to tell me anything about him.

"Harry, welcome to my abode!" Bruce laughed, waving a large hand towards the seat next to Charles at the table. "I have to thank you for the use of this computer. While I know my access to the internet is heavily monitored by that fascinating AI that Stark created for you, it has still been a godsend."

"I'm glad to hear it. Although I'm somewhat astonished that this was the solution you two reached," Harry waved his hand, indicating Bruce's new body. "Can you two walk me through what precisely this means?"

Bruce looked over at Charles, who nodded at him, and after taking a deep breath, the large green giant, who Harry realized, wasn't quite the same size as he had been when he had fought alongside abomination in Canada, began. "I ah, I apparently have a deep-seated temper issue. I, um, I get it from my father, but part of the reason why I suppressed it, denied it, for so long is also because of what my father, my father…"

Smiling synthetically, Harry interrupted to caution Bruce. "You don't have to go on if it's painful for you, Mr. Banner."

"Please, call me Bruce. Without your help, who knows how much more blood would be on my hands. Not only that, but you protected me for being tried as the animal had been before," Bruce interrupted.

"Only if you call me Harry then. Still, I take it there was a direct link between your anger and the Hulk? I remember you saying at one point that the angrier you got, the stronger the Hulk became."

"Exactly. The Hulk was created when I was inundated by Gamma Ray Radiation, but that only allowed a physical change connected to my beating heart to be embedded into my DNA. However, a secondary aspect of that, an inner Id, the Id that was the symbol of my oft-ignored anger, had come alive. It somehow became mentally connected to that physical change, and when I was in Hulk form, my anger was in full control. Thanks to Charles aid, I came to acknowledge this fact."

Bruce sighed, remembering all the time he'd wasted looking for a cure to the Gamma Ray's impact on his body, attempting to control his body so he wouldn't become the Hulk in the first place instead of looking to control both the Hulk and himself more. "Before that, I always thought…well I thought that the Hulk was a curse, something that I had to do away with entirely, that nothing in it came from me. But that wasn't the case."

"That level of denial and the walls Bruce had already built up around his anger and other negative emotions are what really caused us a lot of trouble," Charles admitted freely. "The two of us walked Bruce through his mindscape, through the memories of his father."

Here the older man gently touched Bruce's large forearm. "Bruce's hate and anger at him was the basis for Bruce's own anger issues, as it is so often in cases like that. We then walked several control exercises, mental training on accepting his anger, and slowly, the so-called monster within him began to disappear."

"At that point, well, it was as if my inner anger had also somehow been the control switch, so to speak, on my transformation. When I acknowledged my inner anger, that control switch disappeared, and the change became permanent. I am like this all the time now, unfortunately. I will say it's better than the alternative, although it does come with quite a few limitations, both social and physical. I had to ask for this computer to be built specially with my large fingers in mind, and um, that is the least of my concerns in that direction…"

Harry nodded slowly, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Do you have enough clothing in that form? I like the outfit you're wearing, but I want to make sure that you have enough to get on with. And do you believe that you are fully in control now?"

That question was directed at them both, and Harry breathed a deep sigh of relief when both Charles and Bruce nodded their heads in unison. "Yes, I have enough clothing, and yes, I believe that I am in full control. I won't say I don't have a temper, though. Part of accepting the fact that I had this inner monster of a temper was the fact that I had to acknowledge the fact that the potential of it was within me, and that removed my mental inhibitions against it."

"I see. Well, that isn't exactly a problem, all too many people have tempers, and if you know about it, you can stop yourself from losing control. Does anger still make you stronger now?"

"Not nearly as much," Bruce said with a chuckle. "We actually tested it and found that I'm about half again as strong as I was before and can only barely reach my previous strength no matter how angry I become."

Harry blinked. "How exactly did you test that?"

"We had him watch modern-day children's video, Ben and Stimpy, Robert and Stuckey, and that purple dinosaur Darney were particularly rage-inducing to both of us," Charles admitted, chuckling. "Honestly, if I ever start taking in children that young into the mansion, there is no chance in the universe that I will allow them to watch shows like that."

"Personally, I think Jeevus and Rearhead are worse," Harry commiserated, having seen them occasionally when shopping. "But I see your point. I don't allow any cartoons like that in Camelot."

As the other two men laughed at that, Harry leaned back in his chair, touching his forehead scar thoughtfully. "All right, I think we will take a chance on this, but I don't think I want to release you to the Canadians just yet, Bruce."

As part of the initial statements he'd made for keeping Bruce in his own prison instead of handing him over to Canada, he had stated Bruce would work for the Canadian government to make reparations for the damage and deaths he had caused when under the control of Thanos. Since then, most of the damages had been repaired, so what manner of reparations would be accepted was something Bruce and the Canadians would have to work out. With me as a broker. Sigh. Oh, for the days of action and adventure with none of this leadership shite.

Explaining that, Harry watched as Bruce nodded, looking thoughtful, perhaps already thinking up ideas in that direction as Harry went on. "And I don't think we want to send you back to the United States either, lest some fool gets it in his head to arrest you for giving away government secrets or if Ross and his ilk still have people free to act on that whole Super-hulk soldier program thing. One can never truly predict the idiocy of government agencies."

Charles chuckled at that, while Bruce nodded, indicating he understood." I'd actually like to go to work with you in the meantime. Charles has told me that you have of all of your think tanks, many of which I could join, I think."

"My mansion's former nurse, Dr. McCoy, has also put in a request to be transferred to one of those think tanks. He had a bit of a problem with admitting his mutant heritage, but we helped him through it," Charles admitted. "And now with Moira Mctaggert there, we really don't need two immensely overqualified people."

Harry nodded, told Charles to send the resume over, and he would send it to Carol, who, despite not really adding much to the think tank, was still his go-between with it. and between the think tank and the EDF too. "As for you, happy to have you aboard, Dr. Banner."

"Happy to be aboard, I just hope that this ship is large enough," Bruce joked, and Harry laughed.

OOOOOOO

While meetings and romance were the order of the day on earth, Loki and Thanos were staring at a series of images on the distant homeworld of the Skrulls. "What exactly is this? I demanded the 14th and Grand Fleets submit to my control, or I would attack them. Instead of a straight answer, they send me what looks like a video recording and a data packet, along with this message."

Those two fleets were the Grand Fleets, the Skrull equivalent of the Kree Battle Fleets, stations on the far side of the Skrull Empire. They were both being led by one man, Fleet Overlord Len'dok. The man's message simply read, "My reasoning for not responding will be revealed within."

At first, Thanos had assumed it was a trap or some kind of trojan horse, some program that would impact the local computer networks. But it wouldn't. Instead, Len'dok had seemingly just sent him this data package and assumed it would be enough to assuage Thanos' anger.

"One does rather have to give the man points for courage. He did everything he could to make this seem strange and odd to get your attention while also making no effort to obey your commands," Loki quipped. "The effrontery, the gall… the mystery. Perhaps we should view the information within before making any decision, hmm?"

"While your attitude annoys, your advice is unfortunately good." Thanos waved his hand, and one of the videos contained within the data packet began.

It was a battle recording taken from the video camera connected to a random trooper, bouncing around as the man in question fired at a building at the far end of a street in a city somewhere. The street was a wide thoroughfare, matching most of the main roads in every other Skrull city Loki had seen. However individualistic each city might be in terms of local architecture, almost all Skrull cities were laid out with the same road network.

Around the trooper whose video recording they were watching, other Skrull soldiers moved in tandem. Three of them charged forwards, holding large shields, while behind the group, others moved into cover, providing covering fire. The ones holding the large shields pulled up what looked like grenade launchers. Several of the buildings to either side of the street began to take damage from grenades launched through windows and doors. A blast of actinic energy flashed from some unseen heavy weapon, lancing down range at a distant target.

At first, the enemy these troopers were fighting couldn't be seen in the confusion of the recording, but then, as a series of gabled orders were shouted out in Skrull, there was a screaming sound. A second later, green energy beams began to flash back towards the Skrull troopers.

"What is this unit doing the fighting?" Thanos mused, leaning forward with interest. And green plasma energy, much more than compressed than most infantry weapons too. Or is it plasma at all?

The recording had paused as he spoke, and one of the nearby Skrull Potentates, cowed completely by Thanos and his troops, answered quickly. "Those soldiers are part of the 14th Grand Fleet's surface component, I believe that is the group called the 19th division. They are a mixed combat arm division, with tanks, artillery, mechanized infantry and regular infantry all in one. No Specialized soldiers, however."

Thanos grunted in acknowledgment, and the video resumed, and one of the plasma bolts struck. It punched through one of the trooper's armor, killing him. A second later, fire came from several of the buildings which had been attacked already, while the soldiers returned fire. But then a shout came from someone to the side of the video. "Above! Kli'ak, Ta'vor, turn and engage!"

At that order, the man whose recording this was shifted, pointing upwards, his rifle firing as he did, blasting upwards and killing a creature. A creature that Thanos had never seen the like of before, which he voiced.

The creature in question was large and looked like a reptilian crossed with a bug of some kind. It had a short, whiplike tail, only one pair of arms, and hands which looked prehensile, but which ended in long claws. It had no neck to speak of, but a large head, with dozens of sharp teeth set in a thin, triangular face with wide eyes set to either side of their head.

Once more the video had paused at Thanos' question, but this time there was no answer, and Thanos waved his hand, growling, "Continue and do not stop unless I say so."

The listening computer, an artificial stupid, answered instantly in the affirmative, and the video started up once more. The creature died under the bolts of plasma from the trooper, who fell back to a roared order, overheard by the pickup. "Fal back, fall back, we're in danger of being enveloped by these creatures, curse it!"

Another voice broke in, this one more contained than the first. "Lieutenant, pull back. Your position is being flanked by a large force of the creatures. I'm calling in artillery onto your position and fifteen fulon either side."

The odd term made Loki blink, but he automatically translated it to 'degrees'. So the artillery would cover a certain radius around the position where this recording is occurring.

Moments later, as the video taker ran, Thanos asked where this video was being taken, remarking aloud that, "The video should really be telling me that, the trooper's name, and his parent unit as part of the recording. Something to look into in the future, should you Skrull have such a thing."

As the video went on, it took a few minutes to see any landmark that could be used to denote this planet out of the thousands the Skrull controlled. It was the sight of a bright purple ocean between two buildings that gave them a clue, one that stunned many of the still-living potentates watching the recording with Thanos. "That, that is Broang! It is one of the 14th's main anchorages and a major trade hub. What is going on here!?"

Thanos quirked an eyebrow at that and turned his attention back to the video as it shook, the trooper falling to the ground. For a few moments, all was static. Then the video began to clear up again, the trooper crouching while firing into the dust created by the artillery shells. Several of the buildings around him had been destroyed by the artillery bombardment, but a few still stood.

The video continued, with more of the creatures appearing. Evidently, the artillery barrage hadn't killed many of them. Suddenly, there was a hissing sputtering sound, and the trooper turned, shouting out a curse in his language, as something had just smashed into the train tank behind his company.

"Fall back! Fall back!" came the order once more, as the watchers saw three more tanks dying, drilled like white-hot nails had smashed through them, making each of them look like Swiss cheese.

The retreat was not to be. As the troopers retreated, more creatures appeared behind and to both flanks. These, however, looked almost like the original creature mated with a Skrull. "Kill them!" One of them shouted in perfectly acceptable Skrull. "Kill them for the brood mother! Claim this planet!"

"What… what is this…" one of the potentates muttered.

"Most intriguing, for certain. Some kind of parasite race, perhaps," Thanos mused.

"It seems likely. And these animal-like aliens are both fast and strong," Loki added, smirking slightly behind one hand. "Stronger than a normal Skrull soldier, anyway."

Soon the trooper whose video recording they had been following fell, blood covering the video from some wound to his head or upper body. At that point, the video shifted to another battlefield, occurring outside the first city in what looked like already shattered and blasted suburbs. This video was from an artillerist's perspective, as he shouted orders to his guns. They began to lob barely contained balls of lightning into the city as direct fire attacks, while other guns flung out large shells. The shells split in the air, landing as multiple munitions across the city.

However, the artillery blasts didn't continue for long in that vein, as shouts of alarm began somewhere out of sight of the recording. More strange mixed breeds appeared behind the artillery line, attacking the army units dug in around the big gun. Most of them were mowed down, but the artillery had stopped, some of them even turning their guns in that direction.

The true threat came from the city. Large creatures appeared there, smashing several buildings, charging towards the guns. It was a massive version of the previous creatures, with more arms, which ended in slicing scythes. But otherwise, it looked pretty much the same. They even sounded just as intelligent, hissing out something that sounded like orders to a dozen smaller versions on its back as it charged forwards.

One of the artillery guns ranged on the first beast in sight quickly. The balled lightning tore off several of its arms, halting the creature, but not fast enough. Because behind it came still more.

The artillery went to rapid-fire as best they could, hitting many of them, and the infantry battle began. But more of the shape changed creatures came from either flank, pushing in on the military forces, and then, the image changed once more as the previous trooper fell. He fell, his video recorder facing the sky. More green-scaled creatures were flying down towards them, dragonfly-like wings on their backs.

The next scene was obviously taken from aboard a ship. A security officer was standing in a doorway, firing at other creatures of similar make but a different color scale, as they came on. His weapon's fire bounced off some of them. these enemy units were gray in color, while others wore something that looked almost like body armor as they closed. "For the Brood!"

The first view from the fight inside the ship went down, to be replaced by another, a guardsman again. Unlike the first one, this one stood in a prepared defensive position. A bulwark was set up in front of him, with several others alongside them.

The team of four fired their blasters as the enemy came on, but soon enough, one of the other creatures came close enough to lob what looked like a grenade over the defensive barricade. It flashed, and the video ended for a second before beginning again as one of the brood creatures leaned down into the pickup.

Slather was falling from its mouth, and its teeth wiggled in its mouth like that of an eel. Leaning down, it opened its maw wider and bit down, tearing away a chunk of the man on the ground. He began to scream and continued to do so as the creature fed.

"My, that was disturbing," Loki observed, smirking slightly as he leaned back, listening to a few potentates retching nearby while keeping his own gorge down with difficulty. In terms of violence, Loki had seen far worse before. Eating your enemy alive was a new one to him, though. That smacked of Draugr to him, a thought that made even Loki shudder.

"I as well," Thanos admitted, although if he was bothered, there was no sign of it as he scratched his large square jaw and chin thoughtfully with his one remaining hand, grimacing as he felt some of the scars. "Still. Show rest of the data on the disk."

The computer instantly understood, and once more, the biological data of the Brood creatures appeared. But the audio, when it began, did not describe the information shown. Rather, it was the voice of the man who had sent this odd missive to the potentates and Thanos.

"Lord Titan Thanos. My name is Fleet Overlord Len'dok, and I lead the 14th Grand fleet. Or I did until several of our anchorages were destroyed and the ships stationed there taken." He rattled off three names to go with the one already mentioned, then said, "Several other anchorages have fallen into the Brood's hands intact. As such, I only have one more anchorage to my name as my sole supply point."

"Before that, when the planets like Broang went silent, I sent portions of my fleet stationed elsewhere to investigate while gathering the rest from their various defensive positions to respond to what I felt was a plague or some kind of civil disturbance. When my ships found the anchorages fully online, we investigated and found civil unrest. But it was a trap, and the ships sent to many of the anchorages were lost to these Brood creatures, these creatures who have infiltrated us!"

There was a murmur of equally astonished and insulted tones from all around Thanos, who had to let out a chuckle at the irony. Loki was also chuckling, the whole idea calling out to the trickster in him.

"I have lost more than a third of my Grand Fleet in attempting to reclaim these anchorages. And now I'm in a fight against still more insurrections caused by these Brood creatures and the captured fleet vessels. As such, I am in no position to bring my fleet to join the Grand Armada, Lord Thanos."

At that, Thanos, wry smile turned into a scowl. The fact of the matter was, he had been unable to gather as much of a military force as he had expected from the Skrulls. For one thing, unlike the Kree, the Skrull's defenses didn't rely just on mobile units. Instead, they had created several defense platforms, from small hyperspace mines to the largest space fortresses, like the one he had destroyed on his conquest of their home world.

And the admirals of the fleets facing the Kree had flatly refused his summons. Fear of their old enemy overrode fear of Thanos.

Now, Thanos could smash them. But doing so would remove chunks of the very military strength he wanted to use. So he had allowed them to remain where they were and had even helped turn back a Kree foray, crushing one of their own battle fleets to dust between the greater numbers of his own ships and that of the Skrulls. This freed up some of the numbers Thanos needed and further tied the Skrull to him.

But he had counted on the two fleets under Len'dok to make up his numbers, the numbers he would toss at the humans, Guardian and his other super-powered allies to wear them down. These two fleets faced the Skrull's border facing into the great unknown. This was an area of space that had yet to be colonized by any known race.

"Furthermore," Len'dok continued. "Given the timing on all of these assaults, and how much of the local population have been… turned, we have no idea how deep this rot spreads. There could be branches of this invasion on every planet within our Empire. I ask for both aid and that some scientific means of discovering who has been infected with the brood is found. This is Fleet Overlord Len'dok, signing off."

That last observation brought Thanos and Loki both upright, and Thanos then looked around at the Skrulls. "Indeed, how would we tell," Loki murmured, frowning thoughtfully.

Thanos was a genius in nearly every branch of science any being could name, and biology was not an exception. Muting the video, he read through the biological information quickly. "Hmm… the Brood, an excellent name for them. They emplace their seeds into an individual. Then, as little as a week later, the individual's body starts to change, which is affected by the Brood to become a Brood hybrid. Hmm, a psychic connection and a mental dominance too. No wonder the Skrull are having trouble."

Of course, that wasn't all he saw on the page of biological information. Speed, regeneration, strength, the Brood were well beyond what any normal Skrull would be able to deal with. The infiltration aspect too was important, and Fleet Overlord Len'dok and his forces had killed enough of the infected to let them run full scans of them, and it was quite disturbing. A change on the atomic level, changing the infected from 'Skrull' to 'Brood'. How long it took was up in the air, as was how fast the indoctrination worked on its victims.

"We will need a living sample, something we can scan and analyze of a an actual brood," Thanos mused. "Between that, and my own technical knowledge of biology and scanner equipment, I will be able to devise something that will be able to pick these Brood out from the masses."

He turned to the Chitauri leader. "Prepare half your fleet. The rest will remain here. Loki, you will go to the 14th expeditionary fleet with my own forces along with Ebony, Corvus, and Black Dwarf. I refuse to be stabbed in the back by these strange beings and so we will deal with them, although from what I've seen, they pose no true threat to me personally."

"Yes, master," said Ebony while Loki merely nodded his head. A thin alien of undetermined race spoke up for Thanos' other generals, Ebony was bald, with long fingers, pale skin and pure white eyes. Corvus was built along somewhat similar lines, but was from a reptilian race, with a pointed chin, incisors, and long claws. He preferred to go around with nearly skintight body armor complete with gauntlets, and a cloak. Whereas Ebony was armed with telepathic and telekinetic powers which were among the strongest Thanos had ever seen, Corvus, was

In contrast to the others, Black Dwarf's physique was similar to Thanos himself with wide shoulders, thick waist and powerfully built arms. A member of another reptilian race, Black Dwarf disdained armor, and wielded a massive double-bladed axe, and was something of a blunt object. Whereas Corvus used a glaive, and both he and Ebony were Thanos' chief strategists.

"My daughters, you two will also go. But your mission will be to capture one of these Brood creatures for me, bringing it back here. I want at least one live sample, and one body."

"Yes, father," came two voices, and Loki turned to look at the speakers, taking in the view with some appreciation. After all, for all that they were the adopted daughters of a madman, they were both beautiful. And despite a small voice in the back of his mind telling him it was wrong for him to do so, he was a man, and would take what joy he could in the sight before him. Honestly, would it kill them to wear something more sensual?

Both women wore what could be called form-fitting, futuristic leather jackets coupled with leather pants, with one being colored in tones of red and brown. Nebula was her name, and she was blue-skinned and bald, but despite being bald, Loki felt her body type was more appealing, being slightly more mature and seductive than the other sister, Gamora, her breasts and hips slightly larger, despite the fact she was about as fit as any soldier Loki had ever met. Gamora was a green-skinned alien woman, and her body was much more obviously that of a skilled warrior. Her breasts were smaller, her body taut with muscle and little fat visible.

They were both the same age and had been paired together occasionally to hunt down dissidents among the Skrull but seemed to dislike one another for some reason. Or at least seemed to when around Thanos. Loki, as an outsider, had long since decided that their animosity was false. How he would use that was in question, but perhaps he could somehow pit the two daughters against the generals? It would behoove me to think about that most closely. After all, while I am working with him willingly for now, Thanos and my future might not always lay in the same direction.

"We will be back within the week, Father. And we will take numerous samples just in case," Gamora announced.

Nebula glared at her for a moment before promising the same, adding, "We will not fail you!"

"And what will you be doing, pray tell?" Loki asked.

Thanos thought about striking the godling down for his temerity but decided against it. Instead, he smiled. "The Skrull have a super-soldier named the Super Skrull, who apparently has all the powers of the human group called the Fantastic Four. He was able to assume those powers and keep them permanently, although no other Skrull has been able to do the same. I will solve that issue, and so doing, give us a cadre of Super-Soldiers to hurl at Guardian and his allies." One way or another, my Lady will be pleased by the coming concerto I am preparing for her! This, I swear!

OOOOOOO

Unfortunately for Harry, his marital plans and hopes for some months to themselves, the next disaster had been building up for months. In a separate dimension connected to the Earth upon which Harry Potter and his people resided, Yggdrasil grew, its size beyond even the imagining of most gods, a tree that contained within its boughs several different worlds.

Yet a group of Asgardian gods was traversing it now, and no matter how large it was they were finally, after several months, reaching the area they had traveled to explore, among its lower branches and roots. Here sunlight was rare, bright blazing bits of fire flashing from the distant sun among the verdant, shadowy green. Unlike above, this area was a land of shadow, of darkness to the upper reach's light. And it was here where the dread wyrm Níðhöggr lived, gnawing at the roots of the world tree, growing mighty on its endlessly regenerating matter.

They should have been here more than a month ago given the speed with which even an overweight Asgardian could climb and move at need, several times that of nearly any normal human. But it was only in the past few weeks that they had begun to see true differences in the areas they were traversing through, seen real progress, the boughs growing thicker, then thinner, the sunlight disappearing almost entirely.

It was because of Skadi and Thor, though even the Huntress didn't know how to explain it, being but one of the two vessels through which Gaia had once more allowed the power of the Asatru faithful through. Ever since the day after the fight with the Ratatoskr weeks ago, Dani had felt something was different around them. And yet, she couldn't discern what. Then Harry Potter had gifted Gaia with the greater portion of the magic of more than several billion drained Dire Wraiths. Most of that magic had gone to her own ends, saving this species or animal, reviving that species of tree or moss or amoeba.

But the rest, Gaia had thrown behind the prayers going to Skadi and her son, Thor. For, like any mother, she would have her son and his fellows freed from their enforced slavery. And now had the power to do something about it.

One day, the two of them had been standing on a tree limb about to climb up, not down Yggdrasil's trunk to the branch high above them, when they suddenly saw this very thing plain as day. They had looked at one another, confusion on both their faces, then Thor had shouted, "Hold fellows, there is a time for japes and a time for serious work. This journey, for all that we might carouse and exchange skalds around the campfire, is a time for serious work."

Seeing the looks of confusion on Sif, the Warriors 3 and Tyr's face, Skadi pushed around Thor, who looked more annoyed than worried. He doesn't realize what this is then. "It's like before," she explained. "Before we fought the Ratatoskr, we were going in circles. Some foreign device, some fell magic is somehow inserting visions of falsehood into our minds."

Even Thor looked confused at that, but none of them argued as she went around to each in turn, tying them to her and Thor once more with what climbing rope they had left. The Huntress was in many ways the real leader of this party, at least up until they came upon their prey's hunting grounds. As each was tied to her, the understanding of what they had been doing came to them, and they frowned, the more wary among them realizing the same thing Skadi had.

"The Huntress is right," Hogun growled. The dour warrior hefted his club, made from a broken-off portion of the World Tree. "Once more, we have been captured in a veil of illusion. Once could have been but happenstance, an area of the tree ensorcelled to do such in some ages-old conflict from when Lord Odin searched for the Fates and Wisdom both. But twice? Twice to ensnare us so, to keep our feet from the proper path, and for who knows how long? That is enemy action."

"Verily, that was more words than I have ever heard you speak at one time, my grim friend," Fandral quipped, but he did so while scowling, an odd look on his mostly upbeat and handsome face. "Yet if this hidden enemy was twice able to capture us, then how so shall we protect ourselves from being so ensnared a third time?"

The others thought hard on this as they continued, but Skadi chuckled, a rare thing from her. "Ah, but you have me here. I am a Hunter, and what kind of Hunter would I be if I could be fooled by the same trick twice."

As the others looked at her, Skadi continued to smile. While outwardly her almost catlike eyes had not changed over much inside, power had slowly begun to build up within her for weeks now. And unlike with Thor, whose area of influence did not include hunting or stalking, Skadi's power made her a consummate huntress, as she had said, and it was those who hunted who worshipped her. Now that the power of her worshippers on Earth had built up to a point, she could see through the illusions trying to constrain her and would never be tricked again. "Let me but lead you to the battle, oh mighty wielders of oh so deadly weapons," she teased, "And you might hit the right target. Might."

The others laughed, but they were internally tense and wary as Skadi, apparently, led them down. They twitched at anything even slightly unusual around them. When they were not busy with climbing, Hands strayed to weapons and stayed there until called upon once more. Even Thor, for all his hard-headed self-confidence, was worried. After all, none of them were magic users. Only Thor had ever fought one in recent memory, the Sorceress he had initially been on Earth to drag back to Asgard. It hadn't worked out very well, which he remembered all too well. Worse was being completely dependent on Skadi for leading them.

Yet Those Who Watch in Shadow were stymied. While one of their anchors resided in Níðhöggr, that did not mean they could reach into the realm of Yggdrasil easily. They could conjure up illusions, but those illusions could now not break the will of Skadi, sustained by Gaia as they were. Indeed, even Thor, for all his lack of ability with magic or anything that could be used to find his way forward, was extremely hard-headed. If their illusions changed the area around them a bit too quickly or were too subtle, Thor would simply blunder through them uncaring. This was especially true now, with power from Gaia and the Faithful there filling him as it had Skadi.

And if they could not ensnare those two, they, in turn, would break the illusion on the others. The Shadows could still try to direct other creatures into their path, but that would only slow them with Thor and his fellows on guard.

They attempted just that three times, trying to see if they could wear away the added power Gaia, the pestilential whore, had funneled to her son and Skadi. But they couldn't. The connection between Midgard and Yggdrasil was too intrinsic to the great tree's being, and Midgard itself now had immense magical defenses from influence from other dimensions.

Skadi continued to lead them downward, ever downward. By that point, they could no longer send creatures after the godlings. No other animal would enter the area Níðhöggr roamed in. So now, the Shadows could do two things: just watch events unfold or empower their anchor more. However, that route was risky since they stood to lose any extra invested power if the anchor was somehow destroyed regardless. They were also very leery of any such 'direct' confrontation after they had lost in their attempt to retain control over Hela, thanks to the human mutants who had aided her.

So the Shadows did what came naturally. Like spiders in their web, they just waited to see what would happen, unwilling to risk themselves but unable to look away.

The Huntress led the party down into the darkness at the roots of the World Tree. Here, they started to see marks on the tree. At first, these were simple marks on the smaller roots, although each of these roots were like trees in their own right, growing out of the even larger branches and roots around them which they traversed like giant roads.

And now on those branches all around them were marks on the trees, long slash marks in the bark, scabbed over but still visible to Skadi. The others could barely make them out, even Tyr, who had the best eyesight of the rest of the Asgardians. But to Skadi, they were like a pawprint in white powder.

As they moved deeper, the roots also began to show small markings. As they continued downward, these marks grew in size until they were great slashes. Made of claws as large as a tall man's leg, they were still not deep, and Skadi felt they were made by something moving around the tree rather than trying to claw at the roots on purpose. But the size of the marks was enough to make more than one of the group leery of what was ahead of them.

Then they found the first real, honest bite taken out of the roots, and the groups wariness ratcheted up further. The bite was huge, a section of the root having been torn out by massive jaws, leaving behind ragged edges that, in the light of their torches, to be bleeding sap. And like the slash marks, these bites were not healing as quickly as they should.

"Tis said the sap of Yggdrasil was used to make the best of Lord Odin's own personal mead," Volstagg said, scowling as he stared at the bleeding, ragged gash. "Yet when I, Mighty Volstagg, do see it coming out like this, it seems too much like blood to my mind. It could put even one with my appetite off his drink… for a time at any rate."

"What think you, Skadi?" Thor asked, scowling as he fingered the hilts of his hammer. "Would our quarry be near? How large is its territory?"

Skadi was silent, staring around them, trying to penetrate the deep gloom of the trees. "Douse the lights." When her fellows all started to protest, she turned on them, her fury plain in her face, her words a near-venomous hiss. "Douse them now! You are killing our night vision, making this impossible!"

Sheepishly Volstagg, Sif and Fandral, doused the torches, wrapping each in a wet cloth. As they did, the group found themselves in a darkness that would make even a moonless night seem bright in comparison. But it didn't last. As the Asgardians' eyes became accustomed to the dark, the sap from the World Tree's wounds started to glow. Not brightly, but a diffuse dim green light, enough to see by, but not very well for most of them.

To Skadi, that was enough and what she saw was disturbing. She looked over at Hogun, the only other one in her opinion among their party who had the makings of a true scout and hunter. "What think you?"

He was kneeling down next to one of the slash marks, gently running his finger into and out of it, then along another one nearby, not touching the sap but feeling the depth of the mark, the heat of it. "Some of these marks are hours old, maybe even older," he said with a grunt. "But some of them are new. You can tell by the sap in them."

"And what think you of the size of our mighty foe, do you think it will be big enough to fill up mighty Volstagg?" Said Volstagg with a laugh thumping his stomach with one hand, trying to chase away the darkness with his usual braggadocio.

"The meat of a Dragon is said to be rare indeed, perhaps worthy of mine own beauty," said Fandral.

Sif shook her head irritably, kneeling down beside Hogun, looking him in the eye. "You were saying?"

"This looks to be the outskirts of his territory," Hogun said, gesturing around them. "And I would wager that…"

Whatever Hogun would have wagered was lost in a bellowing roar nearby, seeming to come from their left and below on another root. A second later, noxious fumes began to waft their way through the verdant green all around them.

It was as if someone had mixed poison with the coldest breath of winter ever known by man or god. When it touched, the tree's leaves faded and died or simply froze, shattering an instant later, the bark underneath becoming gray and marred. It started to heal itself an instant later, sap coming out of the new wounds where leaves had been, but it was clear that the fumes were doing some damage even so.

"Do you think it's close then?" Thor asked rhetorically, pulling his hammer out of his belt and standing ready to do battle.

The others all pulled out their weapons. But they were not as well-armed as they had been when they started this journey.

Skadi had made herself a new bow, but the wood was green, the string not of the best quality. Worse, she only had ten arrows tipped with steel remaining from those she had used during the battle against the giant squirrels, having been unable to find her used arrowheads. Beyond that, she had a simple hunting dagger.

Hogun had his wooden club instead of a metal mace, although there, the wood of Yggdrasil might help him. It was heavier and denser than most metals.

Astonishingly, Fandral had a backup sword he had brought along but no shield, having lost it in battle before this. Tyr had also lost his shield in one of the prior battles, although he had retained his sword come what may. Thankfully, Volstagg retained his giant claymore, and Sif and Thor still had their original equipment.

"I think that Níðhöggr knows we're here and I think at this point, who is hunting who is up in the air," Skadi murmured, stringing her bow with deft movements before placing an arrow on the string, laying out four more beside her as she hid herself in one of the deepest, darkest portions of the surrounding area, a gnarled area between two roots. "Be ready, friends," she whispered. "I know not what kind of predator this dragon is, but judging by its size, it is not used to feeling fear or concern for a potential enemy."

"Then we will teach it such," Volstagg said, slamming his hands together before lifting his massive blade in both hands, staring around them.

The others waited, spreading out to fight better yet still in a position to aid one another. Skadi was hidden in the center, along with Tyr, ready to fire in either direction.

For several minutes, all was still and slowly, the Warriors 3 and Thor began to relax, believing it was just a trick of the acoustics of the tree which had surprised them. Or perhaps the dragon regularly expelled its breath like that. Even Sif and Tyr began to relax, leaving only Skadi still glaring out into the darkness around them, as tense as her bowstring.

"A false alarm…" Tyr began right before Níðhöggr pounced.

How it had gotten so close to them without any of them sensing its movements was something that Skadi would castigate herself about severely later. For now, she had more important things to concern herself with. One moment, they were all wondering if they were jumping in shadows, and the next, those shadows were alive, coming at them from above with claw and fang.

Hogun was knocked flat instantly. He was held under one claw, having dodged just enough to not lose his neck or arms to the rending power of them but unable to get away from the paw beyond those claws. Fandral was smashed to one side, his head ringing from a blow from its tail, sending him to his knees. Sif and Tyr were both hurled aside from another blow, and with Volstagg out of position and Skadi scrambling away, only Thor stood against its charge for a moment, his hammer slamming out to meet its snout, only to be bashed aside as his blow merely angered the creature.

"By my father's beard, what is its hide made of!" He shouted, even as he rolled in the air to land on his feet nearby. And it was only now that he saw the true horror accosting them. Not for nothing was Thor known as the champion of the gods, and because of that, he did not quail at the sight as the others around him did.

Níðhöggr wasn't as large as many might have expected given the sheer size of Yggdrasil. Indeed, it looked only about two stories tall at the withers, if that. But it was long, at least a hundred yards long, maybe more. And it was also misshapen, almost diseased looking.

None there knew it, but this was a side effect of Níðhöggr being down here, away from the sun for so long and subsisting on only Yggdrasil's roots. While the tree had intense magical reserves within its wood, that magic was all nature magic, the magic of a living being. Certainly not the air or fire magic that Níðhöggr should have subsisted on as a dragon.

And there was also the taint to consider. Harry had fought Professor Quirrell, who had been keeping himself and the shade he remained alive by feeding on the blood of the unicorn, one of the holiest, intrinsically good creatures alive. And while Yggdrasil was not exactly good, it was only a tree after all, it was far holier than any unicorn.

The dread wyrm's scales were marred by moss the color of puss. It had six limbs, all of them with larger claws and paws than should've been expected, each of them a different length too. The dragon's head was also large in comparison to the rest of its body, with large, deep-set eyes, which seemed to glow with an eerie, almost sickly greenish glow, a horrifying imitation of the bright, vibrant green of Yggdrasil's sap.

The dragon's tail was massive, half as long as the rest of its body and marked here and there with stabbing spikes, the tail coiling and twisting this way and that as if it had a mind of its own, just waiting to strike. Its fangs were as large as a longsword, and dozens of them gleamed in the light of the luminescent sap, looking like they couldn't quite fit into its mouth, with slather dropping from the fell wyrm's mouth.

But the greatest change from before he had made his home in the roots of Yggdrasil was that Níðhöggr was now a true wyrm despite having once been a dragon: his wings were gone, having become weakened and then perhaps even scraped off. This left behind slightly shinier scales and a back spotted by large spikes, each of which gleamed sharp as daggers.

"What is this, I wonder…" the dragon's voice hissed, sounding almost as if coming from inside a deep cavern, reverberating the bones yet also somehow sounding high-pitched and exceptionally unpleasant. "Little god creatures coming to see mighty Níðhöggr? Well, if you have all tired of life, far be it from me to dissuade you, creatures of Asgard!" that voice said, its timbre changing abruptly from teasing and almost convivial to sharp and hateful. "All of you will die here, die and feed Níðhöggr!"

With that, his neck twisted, and he leaned down, opening his maw, intent on biting Hogun in half. However, not all of Níðhöggr's victims were stricken with sudden fear at his coming. Not at all.

"Have at thee!" roared Thor, slamming his hammer into the wyrm's side, causing it to grunt in pain and rear backward. "It is time to fight or die, friends! Rally to me!"

Sif was the first to reply. "For Lord Odin and Asgard!" she shouted, racing forward to try and stab into the side of the beast. But her blade didn't penetrate, and she stood there, her charge entirely stopped by the scales of Níðhöggr, and in return, one of his six legs lashed out. She ducked with a yelp, barely able to dodge. Her sword flashed up, catching the paw but not penetrating again even as she deflected the blow away from her.

At the same time, the beast's tail whipped side to side, only to be grabbed by Volstagg, who had dropped his claymore for a moment. "I think not! No mere drake is going to best the mighty Volstagg!"

For a second, his prodigious strength was able to stop the twirling, lashing tail and even pulled Níðhöggr back away slightly, releasing Hogun, who lashed out, not at Níðhöggr's paw or anything like that, but where the wyrm's claws met the paw. His club smashed down with deadening force on this weak point, and Níðhöggr shouted in pain. The dragon breathed down at Hogun with his breath weapon, intent on killing the presumptuous fool.

But Hogun was already rolling away, letting himself fall entirely off that root of the tree, trusting that there would be another root close enough so that he wouldn't kill himself in doing so. Hogun was correct, even though he did burst through several smaller roots before coming to a stop. When he did, Hogun smiled grimly and began to circle around the sound of the fight above, his mace still clenched in one white-knuckled fist.

Above Hogun, Skadi and Tyr had engaged now. Skadi had retreated upwards and now rained arrows down on Níðhöggr's head, trying to aim for his eyes or open mouth. That latter stopped being a target as she saw two of her arrows actually enter the wyrm's mouth and bounce off the interior. Meanwhile, Tyr closed in, slashing at the thing's side, trying to get behind Níðhöggr's legs or under the tail, where the scales seemed to be slightly smaller.

Níðhöggr laughed at Skadi's arrows even as he twisted to smash Thor to his knees with one paw and smack away Fandral with the other. "I chew upon the oh-so mighty Yggdrasil itself! If you thought your puny arrows could do more damage than its splinters could to the inside of my mouth, you are sorely mistaken, female!"

Cursing, Skadi shifted her aim. The next arrow hit the dread wyrm in the eye. But even there, her arrows couldn't penetrate. There seemed to be a film of some kind over the dragon's eyes defending the orb within.

"We're not doing any damage!" she shouted as Fandral came back into the fight. He leaped from one root to another to try to get above Níðhöggr, slashing at its side and back before sliding out of the way of a return slap down a root. Above him, a blow shattered the root he had been on, the luminescent sap splashing everywhere, giving more light to the battle.

"We must keep trying. Something has to get through!" Sif shouted from the other side, thrusting hard towards the exposed underside of Níðhöggr. The dragon had turned to attack Thor and Fandral. Yet Sif found her sword blocked by one paw as another slammed her aside, a claw cutting into her chain mail armor and opening a long but thankfully shallow cut along one side.

"No," Níðhöggr growled dryly as he lashed out at Sif again, ignoring the attempt of Tyr to attack his tail with Volstagg, smashing them both flying with that same appendage. "something doesn't. Now, if you could all just stay still and die, that would be magnificent."

"I say thee nay! You will not have the life of fair Sif this day!" shouted Thor, racing forward and slamming his hammer down with all of his mighty strength into the side of the foot that was about to slash Sif into cutlets. This blow actually did some damage, smashing and breaking the joint there, the paw now hanging limp.

Níðhöggr howled in real pain now and hopped backward with a speed that belied his size, and a second later, his two forwardmost claws smashed into Thor, sending him flying and cutting his chainmail armor to ribbons, opening long gashes in his chest. If it had been any of the others, those blows might well have ended them, but Thor was reckoned one of the strongest of his people for good reason, and he merely groaned as he crashed into another root, sliding down into the darkness.

"The joints, we must aim at his joists! Go for thrusting or blunt damage!" Skadi shouted before taking another shot at one of the eyes. Then faster than anyone could follow, Skadi launched two more arrows to hit the same mark. The first two arrows shattered. But they did do some damage to whatever glass-like film. Skadi's eyes, which could see as good in this gloom as in the light of day, saw a crisscrossing pattern appear on the eye as if the covering had been shattered there.

Tyr's attempt to stab the beast's foot failed, the point of his sword being unable to penetrate. Then Volstagg was striking at the thing's other side, followed by Fandral attacking it from behind. A second later, Hogun appeared out of the darkness beyond the battle, slamming his club down on one of the spikes sticking out of the thing's tail.

But none of those attacks had penetrated even the weaker portions of Níðhöggr's armor. Instead, Frandral lost his blade, wrenched out of the Asgardian's hands as Níðhöggr twisted around, while Tyr was sent flying by another blow. Hogun was able to dodge a blow sent his way, though in doing so, he slipped off the root they were fighting on, disappearing below the battlefield once more. His head barely peeking up from where he pulled himself out from a similar fate, Thor watched a wounded Sif get smashed aside with one paw. The next second, Fandral and a leaping Hogun were borne to earth by the dread wyrm's front paws.

Níðhöggr roared in triumph, leaning down with his mouth wide open, his breath appearing like a vapor around the sides of his maw. But then Tyr was there racing forward and using all his strength to slam a makeshift spear into the side of Níðhöggr's neck. Even that mighty blow failed to penetrate, but it forced Níðhöggr's head to the side and stuck there. The spear, like Hogun's weapon, was made from a branch of Yggdrasil that had been broken in one of their earlier fights. The point had been hardened slowly over the course of many days in the fires of their camp, making something as hard as steel while retaining the holy properties of Yggdrasil's wood.

Seeing the spear sticking out of Níðhöggr's neck right next to a broken arrow tip from Skadi's attack gave Thor an idea. After all, there were several metal things sticking out of the wyrm at this point...

With that thought, Thor began to whirl his mighty hammer from its leather cord, gathering his energy. For Thor was not just the god of the common man, defender of Aesir and human and wielder of Mjollnir. He was also the god of lightning. With a roar, Thor brought the hammer down, slamming it into the branch of the world tree that Níðhöggr was crouched on over the bodies of Hogun and the Fandral. A blast of lightning lashed out from the head of the mighty hammer, slamming into Níðhöggr's head.

If it had just been lightning, it would not have harmed Níðhöggr much. But all the metal bits stuck in Níðhöggr's scales acted as conductors directly into his body. Thus bypassing his scales, the lightning started to do some damage, causing him to cry out in pain.

The instant Níðhöggr's mouth opened in a scream, Tyr took immediate advantage, pulling out his spear and thrusting up into the thing's mouth. But even through his pain, Níðhöggr saw it coming and twisted his head aside, the spearpoint puncturing into the membrane to the side of his maw, punching through there instead of up into the slightly weaker segment at the top of his mouth.

Then the mighty wyrm twisted its head and dragged both man and spear into the air, hurling them through the roots to crash with bone-breaking force against the main trunk of Yggdrasil. Tyr gasped in agony and flopped, almost boneless to another root far below.

But for a moment, Níðhöggr was distracted by the spear through the side of his mouth and the agony of the lightning. It screamed angrily, leaning down and trying to get at it with its paws, but its claws were not exactly created for detail work like this.

The wounded Sif and Skadi both took advantage of this. Sif ducked under the Níðhöggr's side, stabbing hard at what she hoped to be the wyrm's soft underbelly. A second later, Skadi's last arrows flew, so straight and true it would've made the greatest of human archers weep and promise to be a better person in his next life if he could just shoot one arrow so unerringly under such conditions. The arrow caught the same eye as before, shattering its defensive visibly, small clear bits of crystal falling away.

Thanks to the lightning Thor had sent at the beast, Níðhöggr was in even more pain now thanks to the metal spear through the side the dragon's of his mouth. But while it could ignored the hit to the side from Sif, the wyrm couldn't ignore the arrows peppering its eyes from Skadi. In response, Níðhöggr twisted, forgetting the spear in its mouth and letting loose with a hiss breath attack, the attack flashing out towards where Skadi was still hidden.

Then Volstagg was there, roaring, "No maiden will die to thee while Mighty Volstagg lives beast!" he lashed out with all his considerable power in a roundhouse cut with his claymore, slicing into the creature's snout and along its mouth. Not deeply for all the strength and power that the man had put behind that blow, but the wound and the impact were enough to rock the creature to the side, his front claws skittering sideways.

This freed their two trapped companions, who Níðhöggr had forgotten he had pinned. They now rolled clear, with Hogun instantly grabbing up his mace and slamming it down onto one of the six feet that gave the creature just speed and stability in such an odd terrain. Níðhöggr roared, that arm coming up to crash into Hogun, hurling him away again.

As Tyr looked around wildly for a weapon, Sif dove in once more, trying to get her blade into one of Níðhöggr's existing wounds. But she miscalculated how much he could see out of the corner of his eyes. Then the spear tip was wrenched out of the side of Níðhöggr's mouth, and he was twisting, biting down hard.

Sif cried in agony as the creature bit into her side. It was only thanks to her armor that she wasn't bitten in half, and it was a close call. Instead, she could feel her chain mail get crushed. The runes of protection on it pulsed and then dissipated with a sound like shattered glass as the chain was pushed deeper into her body by the wyrm's teeth.

Níðhöggr's neck reared up, carrying her into the sky and shaking her like a dog with a rat, before tossing Sif aside, to crash groaning into another tree branch. She had felt something pop in her legs, two places at least and collapsed, her legs no longer able to support her weight or anything really. And there was blood, so much blood coming from her midriff and chest.

"No!" Thor screamed in heartrending agony, racing forward, ignoring his still bleeding wounds. But he couldn't get there in time to save Sif or Níðhöggr's next victim.

As Thor watched, the dread wyrm had turned, and one claw raked across Volstagg's stomach, opening him up from one side to another, in long gouges, his armor, unlike that of Sif not having been able to stop his attack at all. He cried out in pure agony, falling back, as gouts of blood burst from his torn stomach.

"No!" Fandral while Hogun pushed himself to his feet, howling in wordless fury.

The two remaining Warriors 3 charged from different directions joining Thor, while Skadi whipped out her last weapon. It was a long hunting dagger, its edge and point wickedly sharp, nearly gleaming in the light generated by the tiny bits of luminescence among the tree from Yggdrasil's sap.

Even as they charged, Níðhöggr reared up and then breathed out. The cold poisoned blast of gas spread out in a cone, threatening all those before him. Fandral and Hogun pulled up short, but Thor came on, pushing through the edge of the breath attack to slam his hammer into the side of the beast's head with such force it was lifted off the ground. He then rained blow after blow on it, roaring all the while like a berserker.

Skadi raced forward from behind the wyrm, stopping momentarily to look down at Volstagg, who gazed up at her, his face white with pain, blood loss and the knowledge of his own mortality. But there was also something else there, something deep in his normally obtuse, dense eyes. "Thor," he gasped. "Get him. Need, need to talk to him, before the end…"

"This is hardly the time," Skadi began, staring over at the fight. Even with their berserker fury helping them along, their friends were not any closer to winning now than they had been moments before. Even as she watched, the wyrm's tail whipped around, catching Fandral in the face, opening up a gash from one side of his forehead to the other, causing him to back away blood-blinded and unable to see the wyrm twisting around, backhanding him away.

Tyr was now back in the fight, even if he was moving gingerly, one leg dragging, while his back was a mass of agony. Sif was nowhere to be seen, although Skadi could make out her form in the shadows of another nearby root. Skadi feared now that they had underestimated the sheer brutality of the great creature.

"Will you listen!?" Volstagg growled, his voice coming out stronger than someone whose guts were literally dripping down their front should have been able to, causing Skadi to blink and stare at him. "Get him for me, or we all die for nothing here."

Skadi stared at him in shock. Yet, it was as if his coming death gave Volstagg some kind of unknown power to see the future. And his eyes, deep-set in his fat swarthy face above his ridiculous red beard, were iron-hard with determination, and Skadi could only nod. "All right, I'll get him if I can. You just hold on until he gets here."

Volstagg nodded weakly, and she raced into the fight, leaping from one root up to another branch, then flipping herself through several more, gaining momentum each time. When she arrived in the fight once more, she landed onto the shoulder of Níðhöggr, leading with her dagger thrusting down, her entire body's weight and all of the momentum she had built up behind the blow.

Her dagger penetrated, sinking into the hilt, and she shouted, "Thor, Volstagg, go to him! It is important. I believe that lady Freyja is using him to send us a vision of how we can win this!"

At those words, Thor backed off, while Níðhöggr, bucking and tossing Skadi aside, turned one gimlet eye to stare through the darkness around them to see where the fat one had landed. He roared a challenge and moved in that direction.

But Hogun climbed up his side and slammed his maze into the side of Níðhöggr where he thought the kidneys or livers might be. Hogun could never tell those apart anyway. He just hoped that the wyrm had them, and they would hurt as much as in a person if they were hit.

It worked too as a second later, Níðhöggr howled in pain, trying to twist this way and that's to get him off. This opened up his chest and throat to several thrusts from the badly wounded Tyr. But none worked, his sword bouncing off even there. And Fandral was now useless, unable to staunch the flow of blood to a wound on his forehead. The blood kept on seeping into his eyes, blinding him, and he was moaning on the top of one of the shattered roots.

For a moment, Thor hesitated but then broke away as he had been requested. The use of the name Freyr was not one Skadi would have made lightly.

He was soon back next to Volstagg, kneeling next to him, gingerly putting a hand underneath his head to lift it. "What ails you, Great Volstagg? If it is your injuries, I'm sorry to say I have no skill in the healing arts. And even if I did, it would be most unfair to our fellows for me to leave the fight for such a reason."

"No healer could help me, and we both know it, my mighty friend," Volstagg said with a chuckle, pulling away and patting his vast bulk with his free hand, his hand coming away slick with his own blood. He seemed to shiver at the sight, but he went on firmly. "No, to end this fight in our favor, we need more of an edge. And I know what that can be. Now on the brink of death, I know what I am, what I was created for. What I was created by…"

"You're not making sense, Volstagg," Thor said, hearing a loud snarl of feminine fury from nearby and wanting to get back to the fight.

"I was created, created for a reason, a need of the Shadows. And I reject that purpose!" Volstagg shouted, grabbing Thor's hand with one of his own in a surprisingly powerful grip. The next second, Volstagg lifted it to his torn stomach. To Thor's horror, Volstagg then plunged Thor's hand into the horrendous wound that had opened up Volstagg's stomach right below his guts. "No! If you wanted me to give you mercy, I…"

"Nnnnno," Volstagg replied, his words hissing as he fought back the multiplied agony of his wounds. "This has nothing to do with mercy but everything to do with duty to friends." For a moment, Thor could only stare as Volstagg used Thor's hand to search around inside of his own fat belly, the smell of it causing him to grimace in revulsion.

But then he felt something odd, something that shouldn't be there. There was a feel of leather under his outstretched fingers for a second instead of guts, and he blinked, frowning. "What is…"

"Gauntlets of Power," the man said, smirking slightly even as he let go of Thor's forearm and let Thor pull the object he had discovered within Volstagg's stomach out, the big man biting his lip to keep from screaming. "Youuuuuurr gauntlets."

A moment later, Thor pulled them out. They were almost non-descriptive to look at, simple leather gloves studded along the back with small studs tied together by thread. And yet, they had a weight to them, a weight that nearly brought thought Thor to his knees next to Volstagg.

It was only as he held those gloves that Those Who Watch Above In Shadow, as always watching events, realized they had made a mistake. The Shadows had been unable to destroy many of the Asgardians' mightiest weapons and items of power, such as Gungnir or Odin's armor, when they had initially betrayed and trapped the Asgardians in their never-ending cycle of life and rebirth. Items like that had all their power devoted to a few goals, which meant that power could not be drained away from them as Those Who Watch in Shadow had done to the Asgardians themselves.

And like Odin's wargear, Thor's belt and gauntlets had power within them. A power that could only be activated by an Asgardian Aesir who had the blood of Gaia in his veins and which made them indestructible. In other words, they couldn't even give them to their own champions because they were tied by blood to Thor alone, unlike the spear Gungnir.

So instead, they had drained Thor himself of much of his power, creating the being known as Volstagg. They had done much the same to Odin, to Balder, to Freya, creating alter egos and backgrounds for them and weakening the Asgardians while also giving themselves more godlings to drain of power in their endless death/rebirth cycle.

But they had miscalculated. For in so doing, the Shadows had created people. People who were able to forge offsetting loyalties offsetting loyalties, personalities whose growth they could not predict. One such alter ego, Sif, had slipped her leash and had not returned from Earth, where she had disappeared to their limited senses in that realm. And now another, on the brink of death, had suddenly realized his own fakeness and what he contained.

Would those gloves be enough to make Thor able to fight Níðhöggr on an even footing? That was a question the Shadows could not answer. None of them had any memories of having physical forms, let alone fighting with them.

Yet their choices were the same as they had been before the Asgardians found Níðhöggr in the first place: either simply watch and deal with the fallout or risk their own power by doubling down on the energy they had imbued Níðhöggr with. They couldn't even use illusions any longer. That kind of magical application wouldn't stick in the highly magical area created by Yggdrasil's roots. And once more, they erred on the side of personal caution, willingly letting their anchor face this challenge alone.

Thor marveled at the gloves, for despite being deep inside his friend's bulk, among Volstagg's guts and blood, they were dry to the touch as if they'd been under a stasis spell within Volstagg. Yet how could even an Asgardian live with such as these within him? It boggles the mind!

"They are yours. Use those gauntlets to defeat that beast and more. Remember me and use them to free our people from those who, who created me! I, I never was a real man, but at least this way, I can die like a true Aesir!" Volstagg announced, a fierce smile on his face, ruined by the blood flowing from his mouth and the rictus of pain he could not hide as he breathed his last.

Hesitantly, Thor laid down his hammer and slipped on the gloves, one after another, and as he did, they molded to his hands as if they had been made just for him. Even the wrist guards were formfitting on the inside, no matter what they looked like on the outside. And when they were in place… power!

Power filled Thor from his fingers down to his toes, like he had just spent time in an electrical storm soaking in all the energies of every lightning bolt, of every bit of wind and zephyr. Thor felt strong, stronger than he had felt as far back as he could remember. Unbeknownst to Thor, once more, like back on earth when he fought the Hulk, his hair started to change, shifting colors from blonde to a deep, blood-red as the power made his hair stand on end.

For a moment, Thor simply stood there, staring at his clenched gauntlets as he felt the power within. Then a cry from nearby reminded him of the fight still going on, and he reached down and hefted his hammer, a hammer which up to this point had been his favorite, favored weapon. But now, for some reason, holding it felt slightly wrong. As if the weapon was but an imitation of the real thing somehow.

Yet Thor had to discard that thought. There are friends to save and a beast to slay. What else could the God of Protection ask for? He thought, reaching down with one hand gently to close Volstagg's eyes. "You will be remembered as the truest of warriors, my friend. This battle will be known as the battle of Volstagg. And I will dedicate that creature's corpse to it!"

Níðhöggr had finally gotten Hogun down once more and was gnawing at the shield he had grabbed up from where Sif had dropped it, trying to tear him apart, mangling the shield as he did along with Hogun's armored side, the runes on his armor.

Skadi was now clinging to Níðhöggr's back, holding onto her dagger hilt with one hand and a spike with her other having been there since the moment after she shouted at Thor. She had refused to be tossed off, knowing the moment she let go, the beast would be on her. Between the two of them, they were keeping him busy, unable to ravage the scattered, badly wounded members of their team. But it was only a matter of time before one or the other gave out as Fandral had. The blood-blinded blonde warrior had been nearly crushed by a blow that shattered every bone to his right side, his leg and arm useless.

And then, suddenly, it was as bright as day as lightning lit up the eternal darkness among Yggdrasil's roots. Níðhöggr had barely a second to register the lightning before Thor slammed into him, hammer first.

This blow was not one of the light taps that Níðhöggr had felt from Thor before. No, this was a full-blown head-on collision far beyond the strength of any blow the dragon had yet felt. Níðhöggr found himself lifted off of it for of his six feet, his body rocked backward onto his spine by the blow to his head, which also smashed a few teeth into pieces. It was only because of his last two feet that he kept any kind of control, and he twisted around, bringing his other four paws to bear, even his unresponsive one.

One paw found itself stopped by Thor's free hand, grabbing it around where one of the claws met the paw, halting it in place. Then the hammer was swinging in a low arc, slamming into the elbow of that same hand, shattering it as Thor ducked away from the other strikes. Such was the power of the blow that the bone exploded in fragments ripping outwards and making the entire limb useless.

It was also painful. "GRAAGGGHHH!" Níðhöggr screamed in shocked agony, feeling more pain from that than from any other blow. Even Skadi's dagger in his shoulder hadn't hurt as much.

The dread wyrm barely dodged the next blow towards his head, now no longer having any faith in his ability to take such a hit. Níðhöggr quickly used his breath attack on Thor, who felt himself weakening as the poison of the breath washed over him with the smell of bad eggs and foul meat.

Thor blocked the next two blows from the wyrm, which was now standing upright on its back most legs, flailing at him with its forward and middle paws, except for the one that had already been crippled. This gave Thor enough time to defend himself from one, then the other two, not enough time to attack. And the poison was working through his body, which Thor knew would spell his doom if he didn't get out of the range.

So he did the only thing he could. He dodged inwards, which was too close for Thor to put as much power into each strike, but which also limited how much the misshapen arms of Níðhöggr could get at him. Once, twice, thrice, he hammered blows of only fair to middling strength into Níðhöggr, each blow accompanied by the crack of lightning. And with his strength being far greater than it had been before he put on the gauntlets of power, each blow was doing a lot of damage.

"GUhh, damn you!" Níðhöggr groaned in agony and backed away far faster than Thor had expected and in a manner no human would have. He curled himself back and over his own spine, flipping in the air for a brief moment, his tail whipping up towards Thor.

Thor got his hands up and Mjollnir and blocked the blow but was still flung through the air rolling backward. Still, he was unharmed and hopped to his feet.

Both Thor and Níðhöggr had forgotten Skadi and Hogun, both of whom were still viable combatants, if only barely in Hogun's case. Hogun, still crawling on the root, used this opportunity to slam a blow down onto the first paw of the wyrm that touched the ground again. Once more Níðhöggr roared allowed in pain, flinching away from the blow.

Yet that had been merely a distraction, though Hogun had not planned it so, Skadi was the real threat. Having clung to the hilt of her dagger thrust ineffectually into the shoulder of the great beast, through all of Thor's assaults, she had been close enough to its face to notice that the defensive membrane over his eyes hadn't healed itself from the damage she had done to it earlier. Skadi knew with a certainty that that was a weakness she could target.

Now, as Níðhöggr roared aloud and tried to twist around to get at Hogun, she took her chance. She pulled her knife out of the shoulder, and between one breath and the next, Skadi hurled herself the short distance between where she had been clinging and to the swerving head as it dove down towards Hogun.

Níðhöggr but a second to notice her out of the periphery of his vision before half of his vision disappeared forever, and agony shattered his world. "GRAAAYYAYAYAYAYA!" He howled in pain, flinging his head this way and that, causing Skadi to lose her hold on the dagger and go flying, leaving her dagger embedded in the eye she had just destroyed.

"GAAH," She cried out in pain herself as one of her arms flailing around as she was flung through the air slammed into a root with bone-breaking force and rolling on a second later simply made that agony worse. But still, she had enough wherewithal to shout, "Thor! Target my dagger!"

With half of his world now a blood-red mass, Níðhöggr decided instantly to retreat. He had been hurt badly, far worse than he'd been hurt in his entire life, and Níðhöggr's eye wouldn't be able to heal from the damage done. The panic of having half his world occluded had broken through his hunger for the Asgardian's flesh, and now all he wanted to do was retreat and live to hunt another day.

It was the right move to make, but too late. With the kind of combat understanding that came as second nature to him, Thor had moved into Níðhöggr's blind spot the instant he saw what Skadi had done and stayed there is the great beast tried to retreat, dragging itself down through some of the roots and away from Hogun and Skadi.

He never even saw his doom approach. Thor had followed him and then raced ahead of him very slightly before leaping up onto a root, twisting himself back towards the beast Mjollnir in both hands above his head as he prepared to bring it down with all his amplified might. "For Odin The All-Father!"

The roar made Níðhöggr twitch, but he couldn't dodge fast enough to get out of the path of Thor's hammer, which slammed into the pommel of Skadi's dagger, pushing it deeper into his head. He screamed and spasmed backward, the dagger actually disappearing into the offal and shattered remnants of his eye.

Níðhöggr tried to bring his good eye to bear on Thor, lashing out blindly as best he could, but Níðhöggr found his snout grabbed by Thor and then the pain ratcheting higher as another blow came down from the hammer swung into the remnants of his eye. Blood and gore splattered everywhere, covering Thor's body, but his blow drove the dagger, deeper into Níðhöggr's head, then through its skull into his brain.

Níðhöggr howled out "NOOO!" as this happened, but then the tip of the dagger penetrated into his brain and Níðhöggr spasmed, losing control of his body.

He flung Thor away but slumped down, none of his faculties responding to his desperate need. He couldn't even talk properly, such was the pain, and he looked up through his one remaining eye as Thor got to his feet. The Thunder God trooped over and brought his hammer down without any further words or outcry. With the dagger no longer visible so deep was it into Níðhöggr's skull now, Thor couldn't aim for it. Instead, he simply brought his hammer down again and again and again onto the creature's forehead.

He was still swinging his hammer into the ruined, shattered remains of the wyrm's skull when a weary, limping Hogun touched his shoulder, breaking Thor out of his berserk fury. "Enough, my friend. The beast is dead, well and truly dead. Mighty Volstagg has been avenged, and our other friends need our aid now."

Thor turned, staring at his friend almost blankly, before some semblance of intelligence came back to him, and he nodded, staring down at his hammer, frowning as he saw that the metal of it had become warped and twisted in his grip, uncaring of the blood and puss and brain matter covering his forearm up to his elbow.

No, it was the fact his hammer, Mighty Mjollnir, had been so badly deformed by his own monstrous assault. How is that even possible? And where did these gauntlets come from? They feel as if they are a part of me, but if so, then surely Mjollnir should have been able to withstand their addition to my might.

That and the answer to many more questions would not be Thor's that day. But beyond that, this hunt had far more reaching consequences than Thor had ever even dreamed was possible…

OOOOOOO

Elsewhere, Odin felt it. One of the Shadow's anchors to his people and their universe had been broken, and he could feel the effect of their weakening net already, could feel his thoughts moving more freely than they ever had before, could feel the shock and fear reverberating through from that net to the Shadows who had long kept his mind pressed down, his true self unable to act freely, unable to challenge them even as he saw the truth when no one else could. But now, now that pressure had disappeared for once.

Others might well have struck out, might well have used the magic of their minds to attack the Shadows, to try to push straight through and overcome them now when they were the weakest they had ever been. But Odin had studied the Shadows over the millennia just as they had pushed him down, controlled his actions and the fates of his people. And he knew that in the realm of the mind, he could not fight them on an equal footing. They would win, crush Odin's sudden sense of independence, and then reassert themselves elsewhere, if with more difficulty.

No, although it pains me to say it, with their remaining anchors intact, I still lack the strength to fight them on even footing in the mental plane. But that realm is not the only one, and nor is Asgard the only dimension where those who would be the Shadows enemies dwell! So instead of attacking the Shadows directly as they scrambled to try to figure out what to do now, he struck out in a manner that they could not have foreseen.

Odin's thoughts flashed like liquid silver sending a message out into the darkness, out beyond the Bifrost Bridge to a small part of himself that Odin had freed several months before, the Wanderer Aspect, the more… flighty, wild persona he sometimes took as he moved among the people. The message was simple: Now! Now is the time. Bring our allies, our wandering fellows. Drag them home if need be. We will need them here, where we will need to meet the might of the Shadows on the field of battle and on the field of the mind!

An instant after Odin had sent that thought he again erased his mind of any memory of his doings to prevent the Shadows from finding out his plans. An instant later, Odin felt the pressure on his mind renewing, crashing down on Odin like a physical force. The One-eyed king grabbed the armrests of his throne in a paroxysm of agony, not noticing as his wife turned to him in shock along with his advisors as the force of the mental blow pushed Odin into a sort of paralysis then deliberately over into the land of unconsciousness.

As they did, the Shadows planted the image of the 'Odinsleep' into Freyja's mind and those of the other Asgardians around, creating a fantasy out of wool cloth to try to force them to understand what was going on in the manner the Shadows wanted them to: That Odin had to sleep for months on end every few centuries, the time wildly different each time to regain his magic and power which he routinely used to enhance the defenses of the city of Asgard. It was complete fantasy, but with the power of the Shadows behind it, the Asgardians could not but believe it, even Freyr.

But that was only one aspect of the Shadow's response, which was driven by fear, as Odin knew it would be. Fearful of his mind, fearful of releasing Odin, who of all of the Asgardians was the strongest and most wily, the one whose senses they had never truly been able to fool as much as they could have wished even when they had been able to control his actions and even much of his thoughts. Fear was one of the Shadows driving emotions, right up there with arrogance, greed and the twisted pleasure they took in what they had done to the Asgardians.

Now, this fear pushed the Shadows forward with their earlier plan to bring about Ragnarök even earlier than anticipated.

None in the city of Asgard could see it, but elsewhere in their realm, Balder could. He was leading a war band against what he had thought were simply Night Elf raiders, a band either acting against their king's orders or with that King's orders to cause trouble in a way he could disavow. But now, as the sky between the realm of Yggdrasil and the realm of Asgard tore open and Fire Jotun began to peer in hundreds and then thousands, Balder could only stare and whisper, "Retreat. Retreat back to Asgard! We must warn Lord Odin! Surtr has released his fell troops upon us!"

OOOOOOO

The day before the wedding was scheduled, Harry ran through the woods around Camelot, trying hard not to grumble at the sight of Steve in front of him, looking like he was simply jogging along rather than full out sprinting as Harry and Scott were. The fact Piotr was running behind them was no consolation for Harry, knowing as he did the big man was going slowly because he had to duck under and around more branches than either Harry or Scott.

This was the first real exercise he'd been able to have in the past few weeks, although if you asked him, keeping up with Illyana and the other kids should count as exercise. With the system of governance in place, Harry was able to set aside either the morning or the evening for his work as leader of the Avalon Empire, which let him have more time to train the budding young Enchantress.

Yes. Illyana had already decided on her codename when she grew up and joined the Custodes. Piotr and Harry were both uncertain whether to be proud or worried.

Regardless, as nice as this run had been, trying to keep up with Mister Super-human without using his magic was beginning to grow old. "So, do you have anything else you want to say to me," Harry gasped out between lungfuls of air. "Or is pushing me like this an answer in itself?"

"While it's true I do some of my best thinking while running, I am not doing this to punish you. That is just a pleasant bonus." Steve's voice was calm and measured, showing no sign of the exercise they were doing. "As to what we were talking about… I can understand why you put this information under that magic spell of yours. it would certainly be divisive."

"Divisive, he says," Scott snorted, halting to one side of Harry, his own breathing labored. They'd been running for eight miles now, and running through a forest like this, even one which now had a few trails, was a much harder prospect than around a track. "Didn't know you were British, Steve."

"But your tongue Scottie," Steve snorted. "I like to think I'm not nearly over the top enough to be Captain Britain." Still, he started to slow, signaling a stop, pointing in one direction towards the

"Heh, I think, that, hah, that's just Captain Britain, not a prerequisite," Piotr gasped out as he joined them. "Although, I wonder how much of that joke comes from the fact Brian's crashed two of your dates with Betsy despite his fanboying about you."

"Quite you," Steve shot back, blushing more than a bit. Betsy, Laura, and Steve had formally stopped dancing around one another and gotten together a few days ago. The trio was still working things out, but it seemed to be working. Brian Braddock, however, had gotten over his fanboy reaction to Captain America and didn't like that Steve was basically two-timing his sister, ignoring the fact that both women knew about one another.

His joke delivered, Piotr looked over at Harry seriously. "I thank you for telling us about what you and the others accomplished against the Shi'ar. I… that was not a choice I would have made, although I see the necessity of executing their emperor and the rest of that mission. I, I also have learned since coming here that the honor of a leader, an Emperor who must defend his people, cannot be that of a general, let alone a simple man."

He then smiled, reaching out and grasping Harry's shoulder. "But I am very happy you then turned around and set up the means with which we could help the Shi'ar Empire's formerly conquered people. That puts you rather higher up on the scale of ethics than any leader or government my own Mother Russia has ever had, Tovarish."

"Yeah. I'm thankful you let us into the secret, and I also understand why you did what you did. This past week, I've had time to look over the history books Ororo stole, and it makes for disturbing reading, much like talking to the Una and the other Kree about their own history. Like Piotr, I don't think I could have made that decision even if I knew beforehand I would offer to help. But I understand why you did it. Beyond that, it is between you and God."

Piotr nodded agreement to that while Scott made agreeing noises and began some cool-down exercises. Despite Steve's (and perhaps Piotr's, Harry still had no idea what was going on there) romantic entanglements and the knowledge that some Gods were very real, both Steve and Piotr had remained firm in their belief.

Harry sometimes wished he believed in some greater power like that. He believed in good and evil and had known since he was sixteen that sometimes good people had to do evil things to create a good outcome. "Thank you both for that endorsement. It eases my mind."

Although not as much as talking to Melody, oddly enough. Harry had been very much of two minds about what he'd had to do in the Shi'ar empire. But when he spoke to young Melody, she mentioned that his song hadn't changed. "What you do might be bigger and more important, Mister Harry, and you might worry about becoming something you're not, but you haven't. Your song is still the song of a hero. You're still determined to save all you can, and that makes you a hero."

Shaking off that brief memory, Harry went on. "But I want to ask you all once more to speak up if you think I'm going too far…" Harry trailed off, looking at Piotr, who was already opening his mouth. "Okay, I didn't expect it this quickly."

"It isn't anything you have done, Harry, but more who you've allowed yourself to ally with. I understand, hah, none better, that corruption in governments and crime will always be with us. I understand why you thought beyond using him as a go-between that leaving the Mandarin in place and dealing with him was a good idea so he could start to control any crime that would develop in the Avalon Empire in turn. But Dennis has been digging into the criminal side of things in Asia more, and the Mandarin is not as clean as we thought he was. The Mandarin has his fingers not only in the illegal drug market but also the… the sex industry."

This didn't mean that the Mandarin was involved in porn or something so banal. The sex industry was, in effect, the modern slave trade. Much like the Black Spectre's activities, this industry was built around kidnapping or otherwise tricking people into subservience, taking them – usually young women - and then keeping them in such subservience any way they could.

Harry's eyes flared, and his hands tightened at his sides. "Alright. I will look over the evidence and then contact the People's Party council or whatever they're called. At this point, we can work with them directly. After that, and heh, after the wedding tomorrow, the Custodes will hunt the Mandarin and hammer him under. I thought he was smarter than that, but evidently not."

Relieved at that, Piotr looked around at the lake. It was frozen now, it being winter in Scotland, "Hmm… I don't suppose any of you have ever gone ice fishing?"

Moments later, with all of them using warming charms to go along with their warming exercise gear, the four men were joined by The Thing, carrying several cases of beer. Only Harry, keeping to his old vow to Jean that he wouldn't' drink while she was pregnant, didn't partake, instead sipping from a warm apple cider, while Cory provided the group of men several plates of snacks. In front of them was a series of fishing lines, the lines dipping down into neat holes cut into the ice.

As the drinks and food disappeared, the conversation wound through several points, from teasing Steve about his recent multi-amorous status to asking Harry how he felt about tying the knot twice. "And it's one knot on top of another, not after the first's come untied," the Thing hooted.

Harry just rolled with it, saying it made no difference to him. "All my ladies have been wearing my rings for months now. Really for everyone but Hela this part is merely a formality."

The conversation then turned to the FF, how Susan was, in Ben's words, "turning into a real 'rhymes with itch'" as the pregnancy continued due to the hormones messing with her, and the fact Johnny was still trying to reach out to a 'dame' named Crystal. That was a name Harry had heard before in conjunction with a group called the Inhumans, but this time as before, Harry didn't push.

Then the conversation turned back to the aliens out there and how the EDF and the Custodes had met and dealt with all the local bully boys at this point bar the Skrull. "Mind you, we only dealt with that Super-Skrull guy. He was an arrogant ass, but we ain't seen hide nor hair of them since," Ben opined.

"True. When we talked about the Kree and the Skrull, the psychologists and sociologists compared the Kree to the Spartans with a healthy leavening of Nazism. The Skrull were the Carthaginians. Still Fascists though, just like the Shi'ar," Steve said, sighing as he drained his seventh can of beer. "God, what is it with advanced races and deciding they're automatically better than anyone else?"

"Eh, not all of them. The races that make up the Free Zones aren't. Mind you, none of them are all that powerful, but the Free Zone races were able to set aside their differences and create a mutual defense treaty. I'm hoping to find some actual allies, if not trade partners, out there eventually. But I want to be able to send a capital ship designed and built by human minds and a few escort ships to do it."

The Kree ships, all of which were now fully repaired and ready for use, if not manned, were good for defense and maybe muddying the waters behind enemy lines. But if Harry wanted to show the Free Zone that humanity was a rising power, they would need to send their own ships. Forge and Reed are already working on that task, but it will be more than a month before they have a viable design, whatever E might say about the super-carrier concept, and longer to build those ships.

Leaning back in his conjured lounge chair, Harry looked over at Scott. "So, do you still want to go with the supply convoy to Corsair and the others?"

Scott nodded firmly, nearly overbalancing as he was already leaning forward, and Ben reached out, a gentle hand the size of a shovel tapping Scott in the chest. "No more for you, Scotty."

Glaring at the large rock man, Scott made to object, then shook it off and looked over at Harry, enunciating his words with deliberate slowness. "Yes, I want to go. I want to meet my father. I want to talk to Alex about this. I understand why he made the decisions he did, but that still doesn't make me any happier he didn't come back to talk to me first."

"Heh, you want to introduce him to Rogue?" Piotr asked.

Scott blinked at that before slowly shaking his head. "Er, probably not. We're not as serious as you and Amara are, let alone Harry and his ladies. We're still young after all, it's not quite all fun, but it isn't serious either."

"So long as you both are on the same page, and speaking of love interests…" Harry answered before changing the subject. "So, any of you watch real football, or is it all that poorly named American version for you lot?"

OOOOOOO

The next day dawned blustery and windy, as it had been for several days, and the snow on the ground was still several inches thick, helped by a late-night dusting. If Gaia was going for a complete counterpoint to mine and Emma's wedding, Harry reflected, leaning against the doorjamb as he stared out onto the lawn, I think she succeeded."

"Truly," Ororo smiled from where she stood to one side, ready to preside once more over the ceremony. Although apparently, that had caused a bit of an argument between her and Hela as to who should do so. Ororo won out when Emma stepped in and reminded Hela that she would oversee both Ororo's wedding and the panoply of her own, although she would obviously not be officiating. "Yet, like most of nature, it is still beautiful, is it not?"

"Oh, I agree. I just have to laugh as this kind of weather seems to fit more with Emma's Diamond fixation than Jean." As Ororo and the nearby Hela laughed, Harry leaned over and hugged Ororo, who was resplendent once more in the sameoutfit she'd worn overseeing Emma's wedding and returned the gesture with a smile. "How's Jean doing?" he whispered into her ear.

"She was a ball of nerves again this morning, half about marrying you, and going through with this 'whole marriage thing' as she puts it, and half because of her pregnancy and how it looks to be walking down the aisle with a very visible belly," Ororo reported, smiling fondly as she leaned against Harry. She had been busy since their break after returning from the Shi'ar mission ended with the wedding preparations and attending an international education conference in Sweden, so they hadn't had much couple-type time.

Harry frowned. "How bad?"

"Emma stepped in before it got too bad. She's in with Jean now. Honestly, we all just had to repeat that no one here was going to judge her, or you, for that kind of thing often enough for it to sink in."

"Verily, even I would not look down on Jean for that. While in ancient times it was always more decorous to go to your wedding bed a virgin, so long as the paternity of the coming children was the same as the man she was marrying, that was all that mattered," Hela opined, taking a single step to the side to join the conversation, looking on in simple pride at the area around them. "And you have not mentioned our work on this wedding yet, my Seidr man."

Harry's frown disappeared at the droll humor in both women's voices, even though he knew some of it from Hela was centered around herself and her own desires to wait for marriage to take that final plunge. But Harry knew that regardless of her droll understanding that her belief in this area was somewhat silly, Harry knew that was important to Hela. Instead, he commented on the last sentence. "Heh, fishing for compliments, love? Just watch the faces of our guests. That will give you all you need."

Hela smirked, and they all looked on as more of the wedding guests came out of the castle. Jean had wanted to have the wedding outside, like Emma, which, as Ororo indicated, had rather forced them to set aside any thought of large amounts of red, for Jean's hair, or green, for her and Harry's eyes, in the ornamentation. After all, that color set along with white would evoke Christmas instead of a wedding ceremony.

So instead, they, or most probably Hela, had decided to go with black. First, a black carpet was set out on top of the snow. The snow also had been magically enchanted so that someone's footsteps disappeared within seconds all around and within the wedding area. The chairs were marked with conjured black furs. Above, a light gray awning rested, with tinkling bells swaying in the wind in each corner. Bobbing blue and yellow lights moved around the area randomly, giving the grounds an ethereal feel and providing more lights than the wan sunlight coming down from on high.

All in all, it looked amazing, if very different from Emma's wedding, and the guests, of which there were only eighteen, all complimented Ororo and Hela for their work. And when Emma came out, she did the same, before taking her position by Dani and Hela as a bridesmaid. "She'll be out in a minute. And if you think, Harry, that these two have outdone themselves with all this, wait until you see Jean. I might not like the whole pregnancy thing, but even so…"

She cut off as the Wedding March began, and Jean appeared, coming down from the castle.

When he had married Emma, she had looked the picture of austere, aloof beauty, a diamond gleaming in the sunlight of a perfect day. When she appeared, Jean was just as gorgeous, but in a very different manner. Her dress was almost simple, not showing off her body at all, looking almost like what a teacher or a librarian would wear, a simple loose blouse and long skirt. But it was made of silk and some other substance that shimmered in the lights of the little globes, not like sequins, but close. Her dress was mostly black with red highlights that perfectly matched her hair, and from her ears and around her chest, silver jewelry gleamed, grabbing the attention of those looking at her, bringing to attention her gorgeous face.

Later, Harry freely admitted that the rest of the wedding ceremony passed by in a blur. He could hear Ororo, but her words didn't register. He could hear his own voice but couldn't remember what he said. No words registered until Jean said "I do", both aloud and into his mind. "Now and forever, I do."

"Now and forever, and I do," Harry answered instantly, the words tumbling out of his tongue in his haste to get them out. "Now and forever, I will love and cherish you, Jean Grey Potter. By my name, magic and soul, I swear it."

OOOOOOO

The old man had never given Clare (do not call her Clarice if you value your life) his real name. That was fair enough, in Clare's opinion. After all, she preferred to go by the name of Blink most days. But at least she kept to just those two names. The Old Man had at first insisted on changing his name on a whim, sometimes changing it a week later, sometimes changing it much faster. Indeed, once, he'd been five different people in a single day.

When Blink had asked, the old man chuckled and said, "There's a pattern, my dear. Find the pattern, and you will know me."

Blink had simply shaken her head with a sigh. "I'm just going to call you Trickster because that's what you are."

"An insult, an insult indeed, for no mere Trickster am I, that title belongs to another," the old man had cried, shaking his head from side to side, setting both the wild hair on top of his head and even wilder beard to flying this way and that. As if it was a lion's mane instead of a man's hair. "Truly, do you wish to challenge me to a Flyting?"

Blink had rather foolishly done so and had spent the next thirty minutes being insulted, only able to shoot back occasionally, although she got better at it as the game went wound on.

So, this is my life now, she reflected as she looked at the sticks Blink had stuck out into their campfire, on which she was looking baked potatoes. For some reason, Trickster, which she still insisted on calling him much to his chagrin (whether real or not, she couldn't say) had developed an extreme taste for tubers of all sorts. The fish too, a freshwater fish of some kind, would take a bit longer. Still, it was way better than my life before this.

That was very true, although Blink hadn't really realized how bad her life had been at the time. When Trickster had come into her life, Blink had been a mule, a transporter for an Argentinian gang. Her powers had been discovered very early in her life, and the gang had basically kidnapped her, using her for years, although she hadn't known that at the time.

Blink had been in her room when the old man had appeared. She had looked up from where she had been reading, staring as Trickster had come through a wall, appearing in her room as if he had always been there. Looking down at her, the man had asked a simple question, a speculative gleam in his eyes. "Are you a pawn, or are you a player?"

"What do you mean," Blink had asked in return.

"Do you wish to make your own decisions, or do you wish for others to continue to control your actions, your life. Do you wish to continue to be played with, or are you a player? Which is it, child?"

For some reason, that simple question had made Blink think about the idea of being free of the gang. Looking back on it, Blink knew that Trickster had somehow weaned her off the various drugs she'd been fed for years to keep her docile within an instant, which had allowed Blink to put her full mental faculties on the question. And as that happened, Blink knew she couldn't go back to that kind of life, to being used, her mind in a drunken fugue. I want to make my own destiny. I want to act as I want to, not as someone else demands!

Something in her face had told Trickster what her choice was, and he had smiled before smashing his staff onto the floor of Blink's small room. A second later, the manacles, which Blink had never even questioned before, had come off the teen, falling by the wayside. And then, as he reached out a hand to her shoulder, Blink had used her power, and they were gone.

It hadn't always been easy traveling the old man. First, Trickster insisted she read and learn, something she hadn't done since the gang had begun to take her. Second, he never wanted to stay in one place for more than a day, and more often than not, Trickster would hasten that movement along somehow by pissing off the locals. Still, Blink had been enjoying herself a lot, even if her looks sometimes played a factor in their moving on so quickly.

Blink shook her head, brought back to the here and now as Trickster hopped to his feet and began to cackle. "Hahaha, it's time, it's time!"

Huffing, Blink crossed her arms, looking down at the two fish still cooking in front of her very deliberately. "If you want to eat your fish raw, you can. Although I'll keep cooking mine, thanks. I prefer my brain cells in one piece, and eating raw fish and such like that has to have some kind of downside, or else everyone would be doing it."

The old man turned to her as if only now realizing she was there. which was quite possible. "You know, I've never quite decided whether or not you're eccentric or utterly crazy," Blink drawled, smirking at the old man across the fire. "You're cackling like that is certainly a clue pointing me towards 'utterly crazy'.

"Bah, I have given you numerous clues about who I am and where I come from. It is your own ignorance that blinds you," the man she called Trickster answered, shaking his head. "And yet, the time of flyting, the time of wandering has passed."

Blink's eyes narrowed, as for the first time since he'd asked her that question months ago, the old man's voice sounded normal. There wasn't a hint of his over-the-top attitude, none of his easygoing confidence or anything else. Just deadly seriousness. "That, that sounds mildly ominous."

"It should. A kingdom will rise or will fall. A people will be free or be tied forever by greater chains. Regardless, my dear, a time both great and terrible has come, and it must begin now."

Blink cocked her head thoughtfully, then hopped to her feet, dusted herself on, and moved around the fire to take Trickster's arm in her hand. "Well then, what are we waiting for?"

"And again, you give me the right answer," the old man said. "We go to rouse the one called Harry Potter and his Custodes. There is yet another world that they must save…"

End Chapter


So a short chapter here guys, more to work as another between chapter and give Harry and co some more rest. I thought about putting more fun and games here and even a bit about the government in the savage land, but too much of that felt like padding, rather than really interesting. So next chapter, the Asgardian War finally begins!