Author's note: Again, my apologies for the delay. Life is kicking me around at the moment, and I've been focused on finding a new job. *sigh* Anyway, here's the newest installment! I'm giving up on the thought that this will ever be compliant with the Avenger's movies, but that's okay! J And just as a note, I'm really not down on Thor as much as it might seem in some of my chapters. Remember, this is from Loki's POV!

As always, I do not own Loki, Thor, or anything else that could be considered Marvel's property.

Know Your Place, part seventeen: Whispers in the Dark

Svartalfheim was not what Loki expected, even though he had read descriptions of it in books. He knew the Druergar had carved massive halls out of the caves riddling the realm's rocky subsurface, but the descriptions failed to do justice to the truth of what he saw.

The audience hall was massive, nearly the scale of Asgard's golden hall. The ceiling stretched further than the light, leaving its true height shrouded in shadow and mystery. Marble pillars thick as centennial trees sprouted from the floor as if grown from seeds—and in truth, the sinuous decorations twining their bases looked so organic that Loki could not justly describe them as carved—and stretched wide and powerful into the darkness overhead. Quartz, gypsum, and celestite sparkled in the dark marble of pillars and walls, catching the light of a thousand lanterns, again in patterns too ordered to be natural but too natural to be crafted. The floor was a giant chessboard of dark and light marble, one square large enough for the entire Asgardian delegation to stand on it uncrowded.

"Such a large place for such small men," he murmured at his father's side. Odin smiled faintly, seemingly at ease in their massive surroundings, but Loki could see the sharp awareness in his eye and his relaxed but strong grip on Gungnir. "Do you expect trouble?"

"Not of any physical sort," his father said quietly so that his voice did not travel.

Loki nodded, but any answer was forestalled by a rumble at the other end of the hall. Two doors, each as tall as a small building, swung ponderously open, and through them came the Clansleader of the Druergar, his entourage, and guard. Loki barely managed to hide a smirk; the doors were meant to evoke wonder, but he could only laugh at how small the already diminutive dwarves appeared in comparison.

It took time for the Druergar on their stunted legs to reach them. The Clansleader was tall enough for one of his people, and yet was barely waist-high to any of the Asgardians. His greasy yellow hair was untamed, arranged in what Loki could only think of as clumps bound together with ties adorned with rubies. He was no uglier than any of his kind; as his features were mostly covered by a clumpy beard Loki could not be certain how ugly the Druergar might in truth be. His garments were of rich cloth imported from other realms (for the only cloth made in the caves were woven of some lichenous growth found in the deep earth), covered in precious metals and gems.

Surrounding him were twelve other Druergar of varying heights and shapes, whom Loki knew to be the heads of the other clans. They were uniformly unattractive to Asgardian eyes, twisted and stunted, their various shades of hair consistently wiry. They dressed richly, though by custom less ostentatiously as the one who had been chosen to lead. Outshining the chosen Clansleader would be considered a challenge to his leadership, though as he looked at them Loki decided that some were coming perilously close to making just such an unspoken challenge. Perhaps there will be complications after all.

"Allfather," the blond said with a respectful nod of the head. Thor would have bristled at the greeting, and even Loki had to admit the gesture held less respect than it should. Odin did not see fit to comment, however, so Loki merely raised his chin a shade, looking down at them all, his green eyes flickering in the lamplight. "I offer you the hospitality of the Druergar."

"Clansleader Althjof," Odin replied. "I accept."

"Your presence honors us, as does that of the young prince," Althjof continued, now giving Loki an even shallower nod. His voice was grating, stone dragged across stone. "A feast in your name is arranged, and on the morrow we will open negotiations."

"A good way to mark the continuation of our talks," Odin responded, and Loki knew that he was not the only one who marked the Allfather's emphasis on continuation.

Althjof nodded, and the party of Druergar turned to lead the Asgardians through the massive doors and into a slightly smaller hall containing many long tables, their benches full of Druegar who rose to their feet at the appearance of their Clansleader and Odin. A dais holding rich chairs and a smaller table overlooked the hall. Loki was glad to see this room was brighter by a shade—the walls were of red marble instead of black, though he had to admit the overall effect could be considered a tad gruesome.

Clusters of smoky crystals were placed throughout the hall and were somehow lit from within, giving the hall a pleasant-enough glow. He wondered at the method; it was not magic, and yet he could see no hint of how it had been accomplished. Still, Loki found himself missing the golden brightness of Asgard. He also found himself missing windows. The air here, while not stale, held an undercurrent of stillness, smoke, and sweat. It was subtle enough that one could not complain, but he found it objectionable all the same.

Odin was offered the place of honor, with Althjof taking the seat to his left. Another Druergar moved toward the chair at the Allfather's right but froze as Loki fastened his eyes upon him and arched a skeptical eyebrow. Giving him a slightly greasy smile, the small man bowed and gestured for the prince to take the seat instead. The other Asgardians found themselves scattered along the table with Druergar at either side, and for a moment Loki had wondered if his brother had been correct in his fears. But his father did not seem to feel anything was amiss, and two of the royal guard stood at their backs.

Don't let Thor make you paranoid, he chided himself as servers began making their way through the hall. There was no sense of betrayal or hostility from any of the Druergar at the table, though Loki could all but taste the hidden undercurrents of intrigue snaking through the hall. Nothing here was settled or certain; it was obvious to Loki that Clanleader Althjof was not as secure in his position as he had claimed in his last visit to Asgard. Perhaps this was all a grand waste of time?

The food certainly was. The fruits of subterranean life offered little that was palatable to Asgardian tastes. All sorts of fungi, oddly metallic ale, albino fish and crustaceans—it was an adventure, but one that Loki found sat uneasily on tongue and stomach alike. He picked at each offering to be polite, but let his attention wander the hall and the Druergar. Soon he decided that each table sat members of one particular clan, most likely grouped by prominence and power. He began to note where each sat, for the knowledge might be useful in his father's negotiations.

As he surveyed the room he felt eyes on him, and after a moment he located the Druergar responsible sitting near the head of a table midway down the hall. It was not easy to make out his features, but there was something familiar there, something that tugged on his memories. The Druergar was small in comparison to his clanmates, even more twisted and dark. When he saw the little man smile and nod to him the memory snapped into place: It was the one who had offered him the net for Sif's hair. The Druergar had been a member of the embassy those many years ago, and yet now sat far down the hall. Certainly his clan's star had fallen, and yet . . . it could be useful, that previous contact, if the negotiations became complex.

Loki nodded, the smallest of gestures, and then let his eyes travel on. Best not to let any of the Druergar at the table note his interest in any one individual or clan. After a long while of pretending to swallow more of the less-than-tasty fare, the prince had his Druergar seatmate tell him the names of the clans and where they were placed in the hall. By the end of the feast Loki at least knew more than when it began, and knew where to find his previous benefactor should the need arise.

It was a relief when the feast ended. The Asgardians were shown to a large suite with separate rooms for Odin and Loki, shared rooms for the other delegates, and one large room for the guards. While it was not on such a grand scale as the halls, the ceilings were twice Loki's height. The walls were of a creamy, smooth stone shot through with golden veins, and plush carpets padded the floor. The furniture was of white wood adorned with carvings of all sorts of wild creatures.

When Odin retired to his room Loki followed, drawing a look of curiosity from his father. "Thor made me promise to keep you safe. He'll pound me into dust if I allow you to go into chambers I haven't inspected," he explained, drawing an amused headshake from Odin.

"The guards have inspected them thoroughly. What do you think you will find?"

"I can inspect in ways they cannot," he answered, pride coloring his words. "They can only identify physical dangers."

Odin sighed, but waved his hand. "As you wish. Get to it, though I think you will find we are perfectly safe."

Loki nodded and paced to the center of the room, then stretched out his hands before him, palms outward. He needed no incantation for this; sensing magic was a skill so basic and ingrained that all he needed to do was simply do it, like Thor picking up Mjolnir or Volstagg downing a mug of mead.

He could see wisps of magic here and there, faint traces of past magics, old and harmless. Loki turned slowly in place, his senses sweeping the walls, then the floor, and finally the ceiling. A small but bright flare of magic hid there, all but obscured in the lantern suspended from the middle of the ceiling. He frowned and probed it carefully with his will before breathing a small sigh of relief. It was no physical threat, at least.

"They wish to listen to what you have to say here," he reported to his father, who was watching him from a large if low chair obviously crafted for those of greater stature than the Druergar. "Would you like me to destroy it?"

Odin did not look surprised, and merely nodded. Loki returned his attention to the light, his brow furrowing, and held out a hand again. This time he did speak, murmuring words to draw the magic to him. It resisted, struggling against the pull of his summons, and Loki sharpened his concentration. Magic was crafted and shaped through talent and will; the stronger the willpower of the caster, the stronger the magic. Whoever had crafted this was no match for a prince of Asgard.

The magic was soon pulsing in his palm, at least until he closed his fingers around it in a fist and crushed it out of existence. "It is done."

"Hmm. Well, I doubt it would have done much harm, but best gone than here," Odin said with a nod. "They would have overheard nothing of use. We should be home soon, else we starve, eh? A real feast would be welcome after that dinner."

Loki smiled faintly and nodded as his father laughed—he was not ravenous but certainly was not satisfied—and spoke in a low, wary voice. "I fear it might not be so easy. The air is unsettled. I can almost hear the whispers, and though I do not know what they say they sound like challenges, either to us or the Clansleader or both."

His father dismissed his words with a wave of his hand. "The agreement lacks only the approval of Althjof's counselors, which is a formality and nothing more. Nor am I interested in anything more; they will understand this. Get some sleep, and tomorrow take advantage of your visit by exploring the city. There are wonders you should see, not just read about in books."

The young prince blinked. "I would rather stay at your side through the end of negotiations."

Odin smiled kindly and shook his head. "No, Loki, do not waste your time with these formalities. Enjoy yourself. Learn, as you like to do. And for now, get some sleep."

"But I . . . yes father, if you wish." The concession was galling, for he was certain Thor would never be sent away like this, no matter that his brother would find all of the proceedings deadly dull. Arguing with Odin Allfather, however, was an exercise in futility, and was something that Loki avoided. Discuss, yes. Argue, never. He would never win his father's approval with words; only through deeds would he win the respect he craved.

. . . . .

Loki took time to explore some of the paths he had found on Midgard, both the be prepared and to gather the other materials he needed. The Tesseract Cube was a dangerous artifact, and even though he was confident that he could touch it without dying, keeping it properly contained was certainly the intelligent thing to do. He appropriated his supplies from sites across the country, so that SHIELD or any other watchers would be hard-put to notice any patterns. They would know of him soon enough, but they would learn about him when he allowed it.

As he crafted the vessel—a structure of magic and craft, not the crude electronic prison used by SHIELD—he left the television playing, softly, in the background. He had turned it on the first time to see what was in the box that seemed to entrance the inhabitants of Midgard. Repeated watching had not solved that question, but it had taught him a lesson. Midgard was a world of chaos and violence, of famine and terror, of sorrow and pain. Leaders killing their own people. People starving because of changes in the atmosphere wrought by the more advanced nations, while across the ocean others killed themselves by eating too much. Wars and hatred. Neighbors killing neighbors for politics, for sex, for money. They had been trapped in this cycle since Midgard began, and as Loki watched the news he saw the destruction had only gotten worse—and that knowledge brought with it revelation.

He needed Midgard, to be sure. He wanted it, wanted to make it his own place, a place of strength where he could stand against the might of Asgard. But Midgard also needed him. He could take those fragmented nations and form a realm, united under his guidance and strength just as Asgard united under his father. He could offer Midgard peace and strength. Whether its people understood it or not, wanted it or not, he could save them and make them better.

That they would resist, he had no doubt. But that did not matter. What were a few lives lost in resistance compared to the numbers that were lost to disease, famine, and civil war every day of Midgard's existence? They would have a king, and some day after that they would thank him for it.

(end part seventeen)