II.


FOURTEEN


the vanguard of death


No one spoke a word as we glided through the air aboard one of SHIELD's aircrafts. Though it was larger than those I'd previously had the privilege to ride, the cabin felt smaller with the five of us piled inside. Captain Rogers sat, his shield resting beside him, while Tony Stark stood close by, his mask shut. He'd been silent during our journey thus far, and I wondered if his agitation born of our failure still lingered.

He seemed to ascribe us less fault once I explained how Amora's insidious charms and teleportation had taken us by surprise. Still, his apprehension did not recede from view.

I could not blame him. It was Earth that suffered from all of Loki's rage and our failings. Tony Stark himself had nearly lost his life in the endeavour to save his people from death and desolation. They gave all they could to capture Loki and the Tesseract only for us to lose them both in one fell swoop. It was difficult to argue with him when my sentiments were hardly any different. I continued to lay blame at our feet. We'd made the mistake of trusting, underestimating, misunderstanding. And hoping.

For months, I had not been able to quash the hope that Loki would come back to us, in spite of my efforts. Now that my hopes were beginning to fade, I no longer wished them to. The irony was utterly absurd.

I cast a glimpse at Thor, who had not once moved since taking the seat next to mine. We sat across from the captain and the Man of Iron, our gazes mostly focussed on the panels beneath our feet. Thor had been uncommonly quiet after Director Fury showed us the final image of the one we believed to be the Mad Titan.

"He entered the underground facility less than an hour ago," Fury had stated. "Intel says he's still inside, but if he's travelling through these wormholes like Doctor Foster believes, then we can't be sure. That's where you come in."

Jane had given Tony Stark one of her strange devices, something to detect the wormholes she often made mention of. We'd spoken our parting words to her before we left; they'd been no more substantial than our greetings.

"E.T.A. twenty minutes."

The break in the silence drew our attention to the helm where Agent Romanoff came slinking out from her seat. "This is it," she said, holstering one of a multitude of weapons she had on her person. "Just got word from Fury. We're gonna have to do a drop. He'd rather not risk us being spotted before we reach the facility." She raised a brow at me and proffered a cloth bag labelled with the word 'parachute'; Captain Rogers was already equipping one. "I hope you don't mind."

I declined with the shake of my head. "I assure you, I will fare well on my own."

She gave us each a SHIELD earpiece so that we might find one another upon separation. I had to assist Thor with his—tiny human technology was not his strong suit. Like the captain, Romanoff harnessed herself into a parachute of her own. Once prepared, our company remained stock-still, awaiting the cue to descend.

"So, what's in this facility?" Rogers asked, straining to be heard above the purr of the jet. "Anything of interest?"

"No idea. Need to know basis," Romanoff replied with the tilt of her head. "Fury doesn't tell me everything, you know."

Stark turned, the glow of his suit's eyes shining in the dimly lit cabin. "That's never stopped you before."

"Never heard of the place." She shrugged. "Didn't care to know."

The helmsman's voice sounded in the craft. "E.T.A. five minutes."

Romanoff inched forward and smacked one of the large red buttons near the aft. With a shudder and a groan, the door to the quinjet gaped open, the edge of the ramp leading into the sky. The wind whipped through the cabin, yanking at my cape. "You got the coordinates, Stark?" Agent Romanoff had to shout over the screaming gale.

"Yep." Striding closer to the end of the ramp, Tony nodded to Thor. "Come on, Fabio. I'll race you there." In the blink of an eye, Tony jetted off into the clouds. With a grave expression, Thor wound up Mjolnir and was soon flying in his wake.

"Our turn," Rogers said to me. He pressed his shield to his side before striding to the bottom of the incline. Without slowing, he leapt from the aircraft, and I moved to follow.

Taking a deep breath, I swathed myself in a barrier before plunging through the clouds. Even with the waver of my magic blurring my vision, I could see Captain Rogers' parachute in the dark. I clenched my jaw and concentrated all of my power on slowing my fall to match the speed of his descent. Upon glancing upwards, I saw Agent Romanoff floating after us, the quinjet vanishing into the clouds somewhere behind her.

It was difficult to discern what lay below, even as the world rose to meet us. Rogers was the first to reach the ground, subsequently removing his parachute and letting it drift away in the breeze. I braced myself and landed in a crouch before allowing my barrier to dissolve, the darkness seeming to overcome us the moment I did.

To my left, Romanoff appeared to drop from the sky, having detached her parachute in midair. She looked calm and collected, not even a shred of fear in her countenance. Unlike her, I could barely contain the tremble of my body, the awful twisting of my stomach. The Mad Titan was a figure that I'd been unsettled by for decades, a frightening creature from the unknown spaces of the Cosmos who'd brought devastation unto the places I'd called home. The idea of facing him in person almost kept me from accompanying my allies to this facility. But I would not let my fears deter me.

Romanoff gestured some ways to our right. "This way."

As we traversed the land, we found ourselves in some sort of meadow. The grass was knee-high, the occasional wildflower budding in the green. Tall stalks of wheat stood nearby like sentinels in a row, their coronets rustling in the breeze. The warmth of day went with the disappearance of the sun.

Letting out a shaky breath, I hurried to keep pace with Agent Romanoff. We found Thor and Tony Stark amongst the green. In the shadows of the night, Stark's suit shone like a beacon in the endless sea.

Through his suit, I heard him clear his throat. "Sorry about the whole... glowing thing." He gestured to the circle in his chest. "I know we're trying to be stealthy here."

Agent Romanoff quirked a brow, one that spoke volumes. But then she turned from him and began brushing aside handfuls of grass, dirt and overgrowth of purple wildflowers. There was a door in the ground, long untouched, if at all. It looked rusted over, but the little mechanical device in the centre lit up at Romanoff's touch. She crouched and pushed several buttons before its light faded.

Shaking her head, she stared at the door. "No good," she said. "Looks like this back door was a little too well hidden. Nobody's been upkeeping it."

"Allow me." Thor strode forward and brought his hammer down upon the metal door. It buckled with a crash and a groan. He reached down, tugging up with his great might and opening the way.

Standing, Romanoff nodded her head. "That works too."

Slinging his shield onto his back, Captain Rogers approached to lean over the shaft. "I should probably go first." He looked at Agent Romanoff. "What can we expect down there?"

"By our estimate? A lot of casualties, possibly an alien mass-murderer."

Although he hesitated for half a heartbeat, Rogers nodded and began his climb into the yawning, inky tunnel. His every footfall echoed with a thunk thunk thunk.

The remainder of our company waited, listening to the whispering winds and the swish of the grass. In the quietude, I could hear my heart pounding, erratic and intolerable.

"Coast is clear!" Rogers called up the gloomy duct. "I could use some light. It's pitch-black down here."

I held up my hand to forestall Tony Stark. "I will go." Not a soul protested as I lowered myself into the shaft. My gaze met that of Thor, and he gave me a reassuring nod before I began my descent. Peering downwards, I wondered how Captain Rogers climbed into such darkness without making a misstep.

I went halfway down—or what I believed to be halfway—and let my power flare around me. The tunnel lit up, and I went plunging into the deep, slowing my drop just enough for me to land in a crouch without injuring myself.

In an otherwise empty corridor, I found Captain Rogers squinting and shielding his sight with a hand. "Oh, my apologies." I cringed and allowed my magic to fade, leaving us in the shadows.

"It's okay," he said. "Though a little light would be nice."

I upturned my hand, igniting a small sphere of magic in my palm. It glowed enough to illuminate even the darkest angles of the hall. Straightening my cape with my free hand, I paced a ways from the ladder to observe our surroundings. The passage was plain, its walls pure white with but a single door at the far end. It was a door of solid steel, latched shut with various contraptions.

Agent Romanoff came rappelling down the shaft next. She was followed by Thor who plummeted to the ground, the floor cracking upon his landfall. Tony Stark arrived last, his propellants stirring the air as he lowered himself into the earth. Once all were settled, I raised my hand and let my magic light shine a little brighter.

"So, what have we got here?" Tony asked, his suit whirring as he turned every which way to observe our environment. Not that there was much to see.

"Only one way to go from here," Rogers remarked. "This was one really secret back door."

Romanoff said nothing in response, instead sidling down the hall to fidget with the device beside the door. The rest of us stood back, allowing her to work undisturbed.

I shifted on my heel and nodded to Tony. "Has Jane Foster's device detected anything?"

"Nope." When I glanced in search of the handheld instrument she'd given him, he tapped the side of his helmet. I blinked, to which he replied, "I uploaded the program to JARVIS. No hits so far. I haven't decided if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

"We're good to go," Romanoff called.

We trod the hall to meet her just as the door shook, sliding forward before shuffling to the side, as if the wall were swallowing it whole. She brought out her firearm and leaned against the stone. "Follow my lead. Silence would be preferable." She gave Tony a pointed look, and he raised his hands in mock defence.

Together, we slunk from the hidden hallway and entered another. This one was lined with various doors and shuttered windows, broken light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. The lights that remained flickered and smouldered like dying fireflies. In our path, there lay the bodies of the dead—few in number, but my blood ran cold at the sight of them nonetheless. If anyone yet lived, I hoped they had locked themselves in the numerous rooms we passed by.

Romanoff paused at a corner, peeking past the edge before darting around it. The rest of us did the same.

A narrow staircase lay ahead, its steps steep and small. Romanoff, Rogers and I toed the treads with soft, hushed footfalls. Given their size and weight, Thor and Tony Stark were painfully loud in comparison.

At the base of the stairs, we were faced with a lengthier and wider corridor. Along the floor, little lights revealed the way ahead. I closed my fingers over my palm, extinguishing the orb of energy. "Backup generators," Romanoff murmured. "But none of the emergency doors dropped shut."

"Overrides." Tony Stark strode forwards, past her, to scan the rooms ahead. "Jackpot's definitely down here."

My brow dipped when I joined his side to see what he what he was regarding. Through a large window, in the soft blue glow, I could discern the outline of a strange chest piece. Wires jutted out from either side, like whips. In fact, the heart of it much resembled the centrepiece of the Iron Man suit. I glanced at Tony, but he did not remark upon it. He merely continued onwards in Agent Romanoff's wake.

Thor walked beside me, his gaze settling on every window we passed. Each chamber contained one strange contraption or another. "What is all of this?"

Romanoff gave us a backwards glance. "R and D—research and development."

"And you've never been curious about this place before?" Tony Stark sounded incredulous. "SHIELD must house everything down here." His head turned back and forth, whirring with the constant movement. "I keep expecting to see the Ark of the Covenant."

While the rest of us shared in confusion, Agent Romanoff smirked. "We just might."

On the righthand side of the hall, I peered into a deserted room. It contained a massive glass cylinder and a screen with the words 'Project: Mr. Orange' shivering in and out of focus. In the room beside it, there was a far smaller glass receptacle, albeit a broken one. Green-tinted water spilled across the floor, worming its way across the metal flooring. I could read 'Project: Mr. Blue' on a screen hanging off the far wall. The door was unopened, but the window was smashed in—the protective metal hadn't dropped to shield it.

I heard Agent Romanoff swear under her breath. "They took Sterns." She did not elaborate, instead pressing on with renewed tenacity.

Near the end of the corridor, Tony Stark strode ahead. "Energy readings are soaring off the charts." He started for the set of stairs that led down once again. "We've got company."

A palpable dread filled the air when I looked back at my companions. Nevertheless, we descended further into the depths of the world. As we kept walking, the lights seemed to brighten, the sudden glare making me flinch. No one commented on it; we all understood that we were seconds away from coming upon that which we sought.

At the foot of the staircase, there lay two lengthy windows lining either side of the hall. Both were slanted, allowing us to gaze downwards into the rooms below. I stared, wide-eyed, at the window on the right side. It permitted us a view of a gigantic table and the machine that had been placed upon it. For the first time in my life, I laid eyes on the Destroyer, the mythical guardian of Odin All-Father's vault.

To our left, the window did not contain glass, only its broken remainders. Captain Rogers inched closer. "Heads up, guys." Leaning over the empty frame, he surveyed the shards beneath. At the opposite end of the sunken room, a door had been left wide open. From our angle, we could not see beyond the threshold. All the same, the trail was obvious—too obvious, in fact. "Looks like the end of the road."

The captain looked over both his shoulders as if to ensure we hadn't been trailed. Then he readied himself for a jump through the broken window. Before he could take the plunge, Tony blurted out, "It's a trap."

Rogers stopped, raising a brow at him. "I know it's a trap. We don't exactly have much a choice."

"Whatever happened to 'we need a plan of attack?'" Tony asked.

"Look, we don't know what we're going up against," Rogers replied, gripping the cracked frame with a gloved hand. "But we have a couple of Asgardians batting for our team. I thought our odds were pretty good."

After a moment's pause, Tony shrugged. "Point taken. So... if we're a team, does that make me M.V.P.?" Before the captain could formulate a response, Tony was already climbing through the window, landing amongst the shattered glass with an audible crunch.

Exchanging a look with Agent Romanoff, Rogers all but sighed and followed suit, dropping below. Without a sound, the rest of us trailed in their wake.

Round shield gleaming in the dull lights, Captain Rogers assumed leadership, and we wound through the tables. Countless contraptions and devices had been left on their surfaces, each of them small and unremarkable—though I suspected they were much more than they seemed. Upon reaching the door at the far end, Rogers motioned us towards the wall.

"We go in two at a time," he said. "Thor you're with me. Stark you've got the rear."

No one bothered to offer an affirmation, and he strode forth alongside Thor. Agent Romanoff and I followed behind as we rounded the door's edge, crossing the threshold.

The chamber we entered was immense, standing almost as tall as the grand entrance of the Asgardian palace. The walls were stone, wires and tubes and various other mechanisms delving into the slab. Floodlights illuminated the centre of the room. The corners remained shadowed, darkness lurking behind the machines and tables scattered about. A pedestal stood in the heart of the chamber, set atop a platform. It had contained something important, judging by the broken glass and mangled metal that lay at its feet.

My breath hitched when I realized what it was meant to hold—and that the object in question was currently in the hands of Loki.

Silent as a shade, he stepped out from behind the pedestal, the sceptre clutched before him. The glow of the sceptre cast a gleam on the brass helm he bore, his eyes icy blue. He scanned us as we drew closer, and I saw not the prince I once knew, but an enemy. Another enemy among the many I wished to protect the Nine Realms from.

"Loki, put down the sceptre," Captain Rogers called out. "It's five against one. You're outnumbered."

His head tilted to one side. "I believe you've miscounted."

Before anyone could decipher his meaning, two figures came barrelling out of the shadows. One delivered a blow to the side of Thor's head, strong enough to make the God of Thunder stumble, while the other made to swipe at Agent Romanoff. She proved to be quicker, springing backwards, just out of the creature's reach.

I caught a glimpse of them both: two monstrous creatures whose height rivalled that of the Rock Trolls. Their colouring was red—blood-red—and they much resembled apes garbed in armour. The curious thought flitted through my mind before I dodged a fist large enough to crush my skull. I dropped to a crouch and gathered my energy amidst my palms. Distantly, I heard the discharge of Loki's sceptre hitting the captain's shield. But I spared them little regard when I thrust a bolt in the face of the nearest ape.

My heart plummeted when he did nothing more than blink, as if my attack was little more than an irritating insect. He would have grabbed me by the head if not for Mjolnir striking him in the jaw. Even Mjolnir seemed no more than a pebble to the brute, and I had to scurry backwards to draw my sword. I moved to cast my spells of protection, to slash at the creatures until they bled, but I froze when a new voice boomed throughout the chamber.

"ENOUGH."

The two brutes were the first to desist—the one Thor and I had engaged in conflict stopped dead, his fist mere inches from Thor's brow. Some yards away, the other ceased trying to grab for Agent Romanoff. Despite the sudden stillness, Tony Stark let off one of his repulsor blasts to the creature's face. As powerful as it was, it hardly made the monster stumble backwards.

Loki lingered at the base of the platform, poised to fire upon Captain Rogers. I could see his gaze flying towards the beast with whom Thor and I had exchanged blows.

The two red creatures eased away from us, their footsteps echoing with a heavy thump in the vast chamber. They moved to flank Loki, both towering over him. I had thought them the most forbidding beasts I'd ever seen. At the sight of the new addition to our gathering, however, they didn't seem so intimidating anymore.

From the opposite side of the platform, he rose. I all but staggered backwards upon recognizing him, his purple skin pulling back to reveal the glisten of white teeth as he grinned. He came forth, descending the steps to stand beside Loki, taller than the former prince, but not as tall as the red apes. Even then, he was so formidable, so menacing, that they appeared as nothing more than monkeys next to him. I could feel his might, the magic he contained, a magic I felt almost as strongly as that of the All-Father.

The being we knew as 'the Mad Titan' spread out his hands, as though he were welcoming us. "I do not believe we have ever been formally introduced." His deep, reverberating voice sent shivers through every part of my being. "I am Thanos, the First Emperor of Titan, and the herald of your death—the death of your world and all who stand before me."

With each step he took, the members of our party had the good sense to back away from him. This did not escape him; I was sure those glimmering blue eyes of his missed very little. "Loki has told me much about you—the Avengers, as the mortals have seen fit to declare you." I peered at Loki who was determined to look anything but me. Thanos, on the other hand, gave Thor and I pointed looks. "Loki, is this not your dear brother, the Mighty Thor? And of course, your lover, the Lady Eirlys."

At last, Loki's gaze met mine, and my heart clenched. His countenance was hard and unfeeling, yet his words lacked any real conviction when he spoke. "Yes, their coming here was a great folly," Loki said. "They seek to end your schemes."

Thanos began to laugh then, a harsh, deep laugh entirely devoid of actual amusement.

"Okay..." Tony Stark lifted his hand, the repulsor in his palm growing bright. "Hate to break up the meet and greet, but I'd like to be home for dinner." He fired a blast straight at Thanos, only for the Mad Titan to block it with the mere wave of his fist.

His mad laughter continued. "You mortals may quarrel with me all you like," Thanos said. When he upturned his palm, the Tesseract seemed to materialize out of thin air. It hovered, a brightly burning star in the palm of his hand. "But I will give you forewarning now: you have no hope of defeating me. I have untold power at my disposal. With the Cube in my possession, I am implacable."

He moved closer still, as if to prove he held not a shred of fear for us. But then he stopped, laying his free hand flat on the gold and grey chest piece of his armour. "Alas, I have wasted enough time here. I am sorry to depart so soon. But, rest assured, the Blood Brothers will keep you fine company." He gestured to the two red creatures, each of them smiling dumbly at the promise.

All of his false humour vanished when he looked back at us. "You best hope our paths do not cross again."

While he headed back towards the platform, I had half a mind to appeal to Loki once more. He was looking at me now, his face guarded, unmoving. Word stuck in my throat—sentiments and entreaties I wished I could express. But it was too late for that. He would only mock and deride and tell me that there was no turning back for him. On impulse, I took a step forward, and Loki turned the sceptre on me. He shook his head near imperceptibly.

Before I could even react, Thanos was at Loki's side and a flash of white light filled the room.

I stumbled back, blinded. When the light faded, Thanos and Loki were gone, but the Blood Brothers still remained.

And they were heading straight for us.

The first to reach us charged at Thor, while the second came for me. He was far faster than I anticipated, and I was forced to cast a barrier, one of ill fortitude. The Blood Brother punched through my shield, his fist colliding with my temple. Though my magic bore the brunt of his attack, the force still sent me careening to the ground, my sword slipping from my grasp.

My assailant leaned over me, baring his teeth. No, not teeth—they were fangs, sharp and long like knives. My heart jolted when he grabbed my shoulder, pressing me to the ground, his mouth drawing ever nearer to my neck.

But then the chamber burst into action, the Avengers joining the fray all at once.

My attacker disappeared, flying out of sight. It was a great cacophony of Agent Romanoff's firearms, Tony Stark's repulsors, and the captain's shield. The melody of Mjolnir's thump and clang resounded loudest of all. I scrambled to heft up Silvertongue before launching myself towards Thor and Brother One.

I encompassed my whole form in a barrier, even if my head was smarting and the use of magic seemed to make it worse. I ducked and dodged and side-stepped every swing of Brother One's meaty paw. The manner in which he was able to strike Mjolnir with his fist and not falter was a testament to his considerable strength. However, upon meeting Mjolnir a third time with his right fist, I noticed he began to favour it, using only his left hand to swipe at Thor.

With the back of one massive hand, Brother One brushed Thor aside like a doll made of cloth. The blow knocked him into a nearby machine that crumpled beneath him. The red ape came at me next, and I slashed at his right arm, blood spattering across the floor. He roared, swinging his other fist at me. I managed to drop into a crouch and bring my sword over my head, fully expecting him to attempt another strike. But it never came.

I looked up to see him meandering through the chamber, towards his brother, who was amidst a battle with the humans. Brow furrowed, I made to follow him, but paused upon seeing Thor rise from the wreckage. He soared, Mjolnir held before him, and crashed into Brother One. In a jumble, they flew across the room from the other brother.

While Brother One skidded along the floor, Thor landed on his feet, dropping Mjolnir down on the brute's chest and leaving it there. "Eirlys!" Thor held out his hand, and I tossed him my sword. He caught it effortlessly and, with a strength I could never hope to conjure, he plunged the blade into the Blood Brother's neck. Although there was no hope of the creature vocalizing anything with life and blood surging from his throat, his brother let out a horrible wordless bellow.

At the opposite end of the chamber, Agent Romanoff was perched on the shoulders of the remaining creature, electrical weapon in hand. When he began to thrash about, he managed to buck her. She was able to flip backwards and land without significant injury.

I expected him to fly into a rage and attack our mortal allies with renewed vigour.

Instead, he started to run.

Romanoff and Rogers were quick to make chase. Faltering, Stark seemed bemused by the sudden turn of events, but he soon trailed after them. I cast Thor a look, and he removed Silvertongue from the dead brother with an audible squelch. Despite wrinkling my nose at the sound, I still caught the blade when he threw it back to me. My own deft hand surprised me, but my wonder was short-lived as we ran after our allies and the last surviving Blood Brother.

We hurtled through the room's second door. It led to a narrow corridor whose ceiling was too low for the red ruffian, or so I gleaned from the occasional dent in the stone above. We followed the path it left, and I thanked the Norns that we did not stumble upon any mortal remains along the way.

Once we turned the corner, Thor and I were able to catch up to Agent Romanoff and Captain Rogers. Ahead, Tony Stark zoomed down the hall, albeit a little clumsily given the width. He banked around a corner several seconds before we did.

We came to a rather steep incline that ended in a gate—or what would've been a gate. The iron bars were now twisted and torn apart with just enough room for the Blood Brother to escape. Tony Stark blasted the remains free, flying through and coming to a full stop. The rest of us followed suit, slowing to a halt just beneath him as he hovered some yards in the air.

In the cover of darkness, it was impossible to see which direction he'd gone. We stood surrounded by a field of wheat, the exit behind us nothing more than a metal box peeking out from the ground. It seemed as though none of the grain stalks had been disturbed. Nonetheless, Tony Stark succeeded in discovering our quarry.

"I see him." He pointed some ways over the wheat. "Looks like he's practicing the long jump."

"Wait!" Agent Romanoff exclaimed. I glanced at her, noticing for the first time the tremendous bruise overtaking half of her face. Her eye was beginning to swell, but she carried on just the same. "Is anyone else picking up chatter on their comm?"

I did not understand to what she referred until she tapped her earpiece. Faintly, I could hear a voice. "Come in... can... incident..." A look of uncertainty passed between Rogers and Romanoff. The voice sounded again, and this time it was familiar and coherent. "Come in. Can anyone read? This is Agent Hill. There's been an incident at Stark Tower."

Without a moment's hesitation, Tony took off, jetting farther above with a huge boom. We lurched back, watching as he sped away, vanishing into the night. Captain Rogers made to go after him, but came to an abrupt stop. "Agent Hill, we read you," he said, turning in place. "Requesting immediate extraction."

Seconds later, the quinjet in which we'd arrived came gliding down from the sky. The ramp descended and we climbed aboard in a rush. While Romanoff hurried across the aircraft to take her place at the helm, I exchanged a fretful glance with Thor. He frowned, not speaking a word, and the trepidation in my heart seemed to grow.


Author's Note: For the curious, much of what I described in the SHIELD facility is a reference to the Avengers tie-in prequel comic called "Fury's Big Week." I did take a few liberties with regards to the sceptre and 'Project: Mr. Orange'.

Oh, and the Blood Brothers came from Thanos' first comic book appearance in a 1990s Iron Man comic.

Big thanks to all my readers and my awesome beta, Hr'awkryn.

Also, thank you to BlooAngels and Bat3man for helping me out with the timeline. I was a little uncertain before, but now I've got a good grasp on things.

Until next time!

Please don't forget to review :)