In all the years I have known my brother Loki – and, as we are brothers, it is quite literally a lifetime which we have spent side by side – rare have been the moments in which his words and deeds could be taken at face value. For he prided himself on his cleverness, on his misdirection and his illusions, and, most of all, on his mischief, which he used to achieve such ends that more conventional means could not manage. And while, indeed, his talents were worthy of such pride – it was pride that proved, for a time, to be his downfall, for it was matched only in strength by his self-loathing.
But since such time as he had found his way back to his home and his family and himself, that pride had been tempered by a true-hearted humility – one that had not only eased the burden on his heart, but had seen him turn those talents he’d once used to wreak havoc and hurt, to instead protect and save and even, at times, find justice. It had been his idea to use the trickery and mischief he’d learned as a master criminal to the far nobler, kinder, more selfless pursuit of finding and catching those who continued their criminal activities still – though it was to the kindness of Detective Inspector Heimdall that he owed the chance he’d been given to prove himself by doing exactly that.
Proud as I’d been to see my brother move from the company of thieves and murderers to the cell of a prison, to, upon his release, a life devoted to stopping the machinations of a criminal world which he himself had once been party to – proud as I was, still I found that the two of us had grown undeniably apart. Partly, I knew, this was due to the path he had once chosen; we had adjusted to lives moving in opposite directions from one another, and it was a difficult habit to break even upon his reformation. As he’d rebuilt his life and new reputation, we had remained far apart from each other still, each of us forging lives that seemed to carry us farther and farther away from the bond of siblinghood we’d once shared, if without the animosity that had once driven us apart. And yet as I read about his exploits in the papers, heard tale of the case he’d solved for the local constabulary, or the safe return of a shopkeeper’s missing son that he’d orchestrated, or the impoverished souls who came to him for help in proving their innocence when no one else would listen to their words and their pleas – I found myself wishing I could find some way back to the easy bond we’d once shared, though I confessed to myself that I knew not the first way of going about it.
So it was that I found myself in a pensive mood one evening in late winter, thinking about the friendship my brother and I had once shared, wondering if we would ever find such an easy path back to each other again. It had been a quiet day of few appointments, and I’d been more than pleased to close up my practice early and come home to the comforts of bright lights and a warm fire. I fixed an easy supper of stew and bread and cheese, and I’d just sat down in the cozy sitting room to eat it when I was startled by the sound of a light tapping on the outside of the window.
At first, I took it to be the branch of a tree rattling against the glass, for the wind outside was blowing in force that evening. But then the sound came again, more insistently this time, and at last I came to my feet, making my way towards the window. In the light of the fireplace, I could not easily see through the glare on the glass, and I found myself reaching for the revolver I kept in the drawer of the writing desk set to one side of the room. I held the pistol at the ready as I neared the window – only to draw back with a cry of alarm, hands jerking up to ready the revolver, at the sight of a pale-white face staring back at me through the glass.
I stared at the face in shock and alarm, and was still trying to regain my balance and my good senses when a dryly amused voice came from behind me.
“Still falling for that one after all these years, are we, Brother?”
A shout tumbled from my lips and I whirled, dropping into a half-crouch with pistol at the ready.
Standing in the middle of the room was Loki. He was dressed in his usual dapper attire – long embroidered coat over his black dress jacket and emerald-green waistcoat, golden tie pin on a silk-green tie, polished boots on his feet and hat at a rakish angle upon his head. He was looking at me almost appraisingly, one eyebrow raised in mock solicitousness.
“I would’ve thought you used to my illusions by now; I really did not intend to cause such alarm. Had I known you to still be quite so jumpy –”
“Yes, and such surprise appearances are meant to soothe my frazzled nerves, is that it?” I snapped, feeling slightly peevish. And yet I could not quite stop the smile tugging at one corner of my mouth, for I was legitimately pleased to see him all the same. I placed the revolver on top of the desk, then folded my arms across my chest. “Perhaps if my only brother could be bothered to visit me more than once every six months, such unexpected visits would no longer be unexpected and, therefore, would not be such cause for alarm.”
“Point taken.” Loki smiled in return, eyes dancing with that amused sense of warm-hearted mischief that he seemed now to carry with him wherever he went. He lifted the hat from his head, holding it before him in contrite apology. “I am sorry, Thor. It has been rather awhile since I last came to call.”
“No matter, Brother. It is good to see you now.” I stepped forward and, before Loki could object, wrapped him into a tight hug. To my surprise, he returned the embrace, albeit with a certain stiff formality that nonetheless failed to hide a genuine warmth that I was still unaccustomed to seeing in him once more. He felt thinner than I’d remembered, and as I drew back, I could see that he was even paler than usual, with dark shadows encircling his eyes.
“Well!” I drew back, patting Loki on the shoulder, and beamed at him. “Have you eaten? It’s naught but stew, but it’s a good thick one.”
“Thank you, but no. The truth is that I mustn’t tarry here for long. The trick, when one is being followed, is not to remain overly long in any one location –”
“Followed!” I cried, alarmed. “Who is it that follows you? Are you in danger?”
Loki patted the air in a stay calm sort of gesture. “Not at the moment, I’m sure. My illusions should be leading my antagonists on a merry chase through the city streets even as we speak; we have some minutes yet before they catch onto the ruse. Besides, lives lived in our particular lines of work means a little danger is always to be expected. Do not alarm yourself.”
“Our lines of work?” I demanded. “You do not see me risking life and limb on the city streets, confronting thieves and tracking down murderers.”
“No,” he agreed, “I do not. Instead I must see you spending your days tending to the sick in workhouses and tenements.” He arched an eyebrow again. “Hardly more respectable locations than where I often find myself.”
“Yet I am in less danger,” I argued, “for the patients I tend to are not criminals.”
“No. But they live dangerous lives, through no fault of their own – and so, therefore, do you, when you enter their lives to help them.” His eyes were tired, I saw, but the smile he gave was no less bright. “It is the price we pay to shed light on the darkest corners of the world.”
“And the absence of a straight answer is the price I pay for allowing you to distract me.” I gestured towards the armchairs by the fire, and watched as Loki hesitated before making for the nearest chair. “What’s this about being followed?”
“It is only to be expected.” He set his hat down on the writing desk, then sank down into the plush chair with a sigh, momentarily closing his eyes. When he opened them again, some of the tension had eased out of the lines of his face, and I found myself wondering when he had last allowed himself a relaxing of his guard enough to find a moment of comfort or safety. “When one has declared war against an adversary, one must be prepared to remain on the field of battle until such time as victory has been truly achieved.”
I joined him in the opposing armchair, my brow creased in confusion. “Battle against whom?”
“I don’t suppose,” said Loki, his voice low, “That you’ve had occasion to hear the name of one Professor Thanos?”
I shifted slightly in the chair. “I’ve heard a few rumors concerning such a man,” I said at last. “Several of my patients have spoken of him, for he is a businessman and landlord, in addition to being a professor of – mathematics, I believe?”
“That is so, and at one of our country’s most prestigious universities, no less – though I wonder if they’d be so keen to keep him if they knew where his interests truly lie.” With an apparent absent-mindedness, Loki reached out and plucked the bowl of stew from the end table. “His ambitions run deeper than that of running businesses and owning property, just as his field of study far surpasses that of mathematics and enters the realm of more esoteric academia.”
“You are speaking of magic, then.” I smiled, then felt the expression falter. “The stories I’ve heard make him out to be no more than a typical tycoon – and yet, if he holds magic at his command, he may be a formidable foe, after all.”
“More than you realize, Brother. For some time now, I have been aware of a presence – a force, if you will, existing in the center of the criminal underworld, pulling the strings of half the crimes which take place in this city. Those crimes he himself does not orchestrate to his larger purposes, he is at least aware of, and nothing takes place in the city’s underworld that he has not either made possible or at least permitted to occur. The genius is that each robbery and forgery and kidnapping and murder feels wholly disconnected, wholly unrelated to every other, so that no one may suspect that it is a single hand which guides each activity towards an ultimate purpose. No one but I, for the patterns connecting each strand of the web would be hard to detect to any but the most experienced of magicians – of which, it must be admitted, I am one.”
“I am confused,” I admitted. “His exploits, are they of a magical nature? Or a criminal one?”
“Both. That is precisely what makes him so undetectable – and so powerful. He could not have achieved such mastery over the criminal underworld had he not had such mystical abilities to mask his control, and he could not have become so powerful a magician had he not been willing to commit such crimes to achieve it. He is a mastermind, the Titan of crime.” Loki spooned up a mouthful of stew, chewing thoughtfully as he stared into the fire.
I waited a moment, apprehensive, but reluctant to interrupt my brother’s moment of peace. “What argument,” I asked at last, “has this Titan with you?”
“Just this,” said my brother. “That he intends to build a new empire, one far vaster than his current criminal underworld. And that I intend to stop him.”
I stared at him, too struck dumb to know which question to ask first. “How – how vast an empire does he intend?” I sputtered at last.
“Nothing short of complete worldwide domination.” With apparent reluctance, Loki set the mostly-untouched bowl of stew back upon the table. Then he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and stared at me with glittering eyes. “And he intends to do it with this.”
He raised a hand, fingers suffused with green light, and gestured. Above his open palm, an illusion took shape, or rather half a dozen of them – six glittering points of light, which I realized, after a moment, were gemstones, each a different shining color.
“Behold!” said Loki, with a certain grand flourish. “The Infinity Stones.”
“Jewels?” I said, a trifle doubtfully, staring at the hovering illusions. “Expensive-looking, to be sure, but hardly of sufficient worth to pay for a takeover of the world’s governments and peoples. Are they of a – symbolic nature?”
“To some, most assuredly. But their true power lies in far more than symbols.” The gems above his palm began to twirl around each other, orbiting like planets around an unseen sun. “Each grants their wielder complete mastery over an elemental force: time, minds and souls, pure power. Reality itself.
“For some months now,” Loki continued, his face looking hollow in the shadows cast by the light of his illusion, “Thanos has sought to gather these gems, from where they have been flung to the four corners of the earth. And with each prize he’s gained, so too has grown his power.”
I stared at Loki uncertainly. I was no stranger to magic; I had seen the true power of the supernatural on more occasions than I could count, both during our childhood and in the days I spent as a soldier, fighting a war that had gone beyond the bounds of reality itself. And yet what my brother was saying sounded impossible – or perhaps I only wished it could be so. “How many does he currently hold?”
“Five.” One by one, the illusions of gems floating above Loki’s palm winked out, until there was only one, a shining blue crystal. “Once he gains the final stone, there will be no stopping him.”
“So your plan? –” I prompted.
“Why, to get to it before he does, of course.” Loki grinned, closing his hand, and the illusion of the remaining gemstone vanished.
“You know where it is?”
I shifted in my seat. “Then what do you propose?”
Loki cocked an eyebrow. “You speak as if you are preparing to enter the fray.”
Folding my arms across my chest, I settled back into my seat, returning the expression. “Did you not come here to ask for my help?”
“I did.” Loki leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and steepling his fingers together. “But before you offer it, there is something you must understand. Professor Thanos is unlike any foe I have ever faced. He is as ruthless as he is cunning, as cold as he is calculating, as brilliant as he is deadly. Those who go up against him – and fail – do not live to make the same mistake twice.”
The wind suddenly gusted so hugely that the glass in the windowpanes shook, as though the elemental forces were doing everything they could to wrap their fingers around the house’s very foundations and shake the structure itself to the ground. Loki and I both startled, then exchanged sheepishly amused glances – though I noticed my brother’s shoulders continued to tremble for a moment, just slightly.
“I want to be clear,” said Loki, resuming once more his pose of quiet intensity. “Thanos is the most dangerous adversary you will ever face. Should you choose not to enlist in this battle, it would be only sensible of you.”
“And leave you to fight the war on your own?” I shook my head. “I should hardly think so. This madman must be stopped, Brother. I would not have you challenge him alone.”
“Then it is once more unto the breach, after all,” he said with a smirk – but his eyes were gleaming with a kind of fierce affection. “It has been a long time since we’ve faced an adversary together.”
“He won’t know what hit him.” I grinned, then blinked in surprise as Loki snapped to his feet. “Where are you going?”
“Where are we going, you mean,” Loki corrected. “The last of my illusions was discovered by Thanos’s soldiers some two minutes ago. Which means it is no longer safe for either of us to dally here long.”
“But – but where are we going?” I managed, even as I climbed to my feet. “Have you a plan?”
“Of course,” said Loki airily. “Not to worry, my dear chap – I’ll tell you all about it on the way. So pack a bag, and quickly. We’ve a train to catch.”