Still here? Oh, good. That last one should have scared off the faint of heart. Now, for those of you who made it here, enjoy. This is just the beginning.
As soon as she was on the ground floor, a balding gentleman in a tuxedo made his way to the small stage with the microphone stand. Astrid found Karine, Nicolaus, and Benedikt.
"What took you so long?" Karine whispered. She didn't notice Astrid's face was so pale, drained...Astrid tried to come up with something – ANYTHING – that would explain what had just happened, but she was cut off by the man's voice on the microphone.
"Guten Abend, everyone. I am Dr. Heinrich Schafer, and on behalf of the University of Heidelberg, I'd like to thank you for joining us this evening." Polite applause. "We so rarely have the opportunity to come together and celebrate such incredible achievements as we do tonight. The advancements in treating neurological disorders using nanotechnology and iridium surpass anything I could have imagined when I first started my career thirty years ago, and it is because of your generous support that we have been able to continue our research."
As the crowd applauded again, Astrid noticed out of the corner of her eye that the man on the balcony was walking down the stairs toward the foyer. Dr. Schafer's words blended into the background with the orchestral music as she watched him. His face was intense and focused, but his gait remained casual and easy as he approached the stage. Astrid could not take her eyes off of him. As he came up behind the platform, a nearby guard noticed his approach and turned to face him, hand moving toward the gun on his hip. But before the guard could draw his weapon, in an instant, the man flipped the golden cane around and swung up at his head. THWACK! - the heavy blue stone connected with the guard's jaw, and he went flying backward, landing hard and crumpling in a heap on the marble floor. In the confusion, as the people in the room registered what was happening, the man grabbed Dr. Schafer and pushed him toward the huge Persian stone table in the middle of the foyer. With one arm, he flipped the doctor up and over onto the table and pinned him down.
Astrid was transfixed by what she was seeing. The crowd stood shocked as they watched this man pull a metallic silver device out of his jacket...and plunge it into Dr. Schafer's face. Dr. Schafer screamed in pain, and his body convulsed spasmodically under his attacker's grip.
Chaos exploded around her. Astrid saw the man look around at the frenzied scene, and a slight smile crossed his lips. The same smile he made when he first said Astrid's name. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't move, she just stood frozen in place, staring at him, her thoughts spiraling madly...a rough tug on her arm broke her trance. "ASTRID! RUN!" Karine panicked, trying to get her friend away from the danger. Astrid finally broke her gaze and turned.
Karine's grip on her arm was going to leave bruises. She was surrounded by running, screaming people in formal evening wear, everyone trying to get away from the museum as fast as they could. Onlookers turned and watched the stampede of people exiting the museum as Astrid and Karine approached the short stairway in front of the building, Suddenly, Astrid was hit from behind and fell out of Karine's grip. The force of the collision spun her backward, facing the museum...HIM, Time slowed as he walked toward her, and he began to shimmer in light..she saw a golden helmet materialize on his head, two long horns arching upward from the front like a ram's, followed by a floor-length green cape, golden armor, and green leather. As the shimmering faded, the cane he carried lengthened into a vicious spear, the glowing blue rock surrounded by its blade.
A police car rounded the corner, sirens blaring, but without hesitation, he pointed the spear at the oncoming vehicle and shot. A bright blue beam of energy exploded from the stone and hit the squad car, flipping it onto its roof. It skidded to a stop in front of the museum,
Astrid was trying to stay with the herd of people as they ran when she heard a strange noise, like a car driving by. She spun around to see him materialize out of thin air.
"Kneel before me!" he boomed. More copies of the man appeared to block the people's escape, corralling them in the plaza. The crowd continued to run and scream, hardly reacting to his voice. "I said..." He raised his staff and slammed the base of it on the concrete. The blue stones on all the copies ignited in a bright flash.
His voice echoed off the buildings in the plaza, and a silence fell over the terrified victims. Slowly, everyone lowered themselves to their knees. Astrid just stared at the man as she bent closer to the ground - never blinking, just trying to absorb what was happening..
A short, cold laugh escaped his lips as he looked over the sea of kneeling onlookers. That smile again: powerful, confident, no remorse, no question in his look as to what he was there to do. He opened his arms. "Is not this simpler?" He walked slowly into the crowd of people, lowering his staff as he moved. "Is this not your natural state?"
Astrid's eyes went wide. No, she thought, no, no, please no. A wave of shame and humiliation washed over her. She couldn't bear that again - not in front of all these people. Even though no one around her had any idea the significance of those words, her secret exposure made her body tremble. And then...something deep inside thrilled at hearing them. Wanted to hear them. Wanted to feel the power and control he held over her when he had last spoken them.
What had he done to her?
He continued to walk through the crowd, moving slowly in her direction. "It's the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power...for identity. You were made to be ruled." He stood right in front of Astrid. She looked up at him. His sinister smile appeared again...that terrifying, delicious, powerful smile.
"In the end," he spoke directly to her. "You will always kneel."
Everyone around her averted their gaze or looked down, trying not to draw his attention. But their eyes locked, as they had on the balcony. Her breath caught in her throat - his power, his confidence, his willingness to act. He WAS a leader, a ruler, a king - definitively greater than any human could hope to become. He was in control. And he would take what he wanted...was he in her head again?!
Her heart pounded, her mind raced; she had never felt like this before, both excited and terrified, wanting to run but wanting even more...
He lifted his eyes and his staff as something in the distance caught his attention. Astrid turned to see an old man in the crowd standing, facing him. Defiant and angry. the elderly man glared. "Not to men like you."
The man laughed. "There are no men like me," he smiled.
"There are ALWAYS men like you," the elderly man said.
And Astrid saw that sinister smile...drop.
"Look to your elder, people," He lowered his staff and pointed at the old man, the blue stone beginning to glow violently. "Let him be an example."
The bright beam of energy shot over Astrid's head and toward the old man. Within a split second, it would all be over...
Out of nowhere, a blur of red, white, and blue jumped in front of the old man and threw up a circular shield, deflecting the blast. The beam ricocheted back in the direction it had come, and it hit the man in gold in the chest. Sparks bursting from his body, he fell forward onto his stomach. She turned to look over her shoulder at the person who had just saved the old man…
It couldn't be...Captain America was standing there, right in front of her. She had only ever seen him on television. The man in gold beside her quickly recovered and lifted his head and torso, glaring at the hero.
"You know," said Captain America, walking forward, "the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everyone else, we ended up disagreeing." People in the crowd started to rise as the Captain walked by them.
The man got to his knees and laughed darkly, "The soldier," he chuckled in a low voice as he stood. "The man out of time."
"I'm not the one who's out of time," said the Captain, and as he spoke, a black jet soared behind him and hovered in the sky. The bottom compartment of the jet opened and a huge turret gun dropped out. "Loki," said a woman's voice, "Drop the weapon and stand down."
Astrid's heart stopped. Loki…!? she thought, As in the GOD?
Without hesitation, Loki shot at the jet with a beam of energy. It barely missed as the jet flew out of the way, but in the moment Loki was distracted, Captain America hurled the shield at him, smashing him squarely in the chest. Loki stumbled but did not fall, and faced Captain America as he approached with an angry, determined snarl.
Astrid found herself glued to the scene, until she was shoved. Then she ran with the rest of the crowd, but she turned back one last time to see the man...Loki. She felt a knot in her throat, his voice echoing in her mind. You were made to be ruled...