This story is dedicated to Tom Hiddleston.

You started it.

VVV

"Jane Foster knows SHIELD is behind her sudden relocation. But she has no idea why until another version of herself appears-one who warns her that the seams of space-time are ripping, and will destroy the universe if Jane does not complete this task: rescue Loki from the Avengers, with only a mysterious violet stone to guide her. Fallen Star Series."

THE LOKISTONE

"Out of the nothingness of sleep,
The slow dreams of Eternity,
There was a thunder on the deep:
I came, because you called to me.

I broke the Night's primeval bars,
I dared the old abysmal curse,
And flashed through ranks of frightened stars
Suddenly on the universe!

The eternal silences were broken;
Hell became Heaven as I passed. -

What shall I give you as a token,
A sign that we have met, at last?

I'll break and forge the stars anew,
Shatter the heavens with a song;
Immortal in my love for you,
Because I love you, very strong."

-"The Call," Rupert Brooke

CHAPTER ONE

Wind rushed through his cape, cutting between the chinks in his armor as he leaned forward, slapped his hands down and took control of the Chitauri flier. He dove straight down, the engine screaming, then leveled out into a stomach-plunging swoop. An escort instantly flanked him, turning their nightmarish helmeted faces toward him for a moment before following him in a breathtaking swing around a narrow stone building.

Loki glanced at the burning chaos of the city far beneath him, his jaw tightening. Rolling black smoke billowed from lower windows and the lines of vehicles upon the cracked streets. Sirens howled, bricks groaned as they crumbled from weakened walls and crashed to the ground. Chitauri engines hummed and whined as they swept between the skyscrapers like reapers through rows of tall grain. The air reeked of ozone and chemicals, and blasts of intense heat peppered the tangled sea breeze.

Something clouded Loki's right eye. He frowned, and reached up with his right hand to swipe it clear. His knuckles bumped his helmet. He took a sharp, bracing breath and glanced down at his hand…

Cold water marked the white skin of the back of it.

His engine slowed.

He stared at that droplet of water, the cacophony of the battle fading.

He closed his hand—felt something sticky.

His breathing became unsteady as his eyes focused.

The bright scarlet of fresh blood stained his fingertips.

His lip twitched.

It wasn't his blood.

He gritted his teeth, and wiped his suddenly-shaking hand off on his trouser leg with more force than he needed.

Now the blood smeared his clothes.

Loki bit out a snarl and grabbed hold of the steering with both hands again, blinking rapidly and gunning the engine.

He strafed the streets, firing down upon those noisy, dirty lines of vehicles, biting the inside of his cheek as clouds of flame blistered in droves.

Then, he pulled up and simply raced through the wreckage of the city, watching the Chitauri do their good work, listening as the noise built and battered in the canyons between the structures. Explosions shook the foundations. Whole buildings cracked in half and collapsed in slow, titanic measures that obliterated several blocks at a time, giving rise to vast clouds of poisonous gray dust—dust that plumed like a shroud sweeping over a corpse.

He reached the edge of the city and cast out over the bridges, then turned with his escort back into the mess of things, back toward Stark tower, his cape flapping. He pulled up, observing from a distance as the little group of multi-colored defenders took down the lead Chitauri carrier beast, sending its carcass splaying across two blocks. Loki drew in a breath, and spoke quietly.

"Send in the rest."

He lifted his chin and fixed his eyes on the distant beam of sapphire light shooting straight up into the sky, penetrating it like a knife into skin, opening the clouds to the wound of space. He took another deep breath, chills rushing through him as he watched a dozen more Chitauri beasts spill onto Midgard, sending their cargo down to flood the streets.

Loki kicked forward again, bearing down, eyes roving as the little multi-colored band split up, all heading different directions. Loki wove back and forth, easily avoiding the explosions and falling debris…

A flash.

He saw her.

Romanov. Natasha.

She had hijacked a Chitauri flier—she skidded recklessly ahead of him, toward Stark tower.

Loki's stomach turned. He aimed and fired at her.

Blue bolts shot past her head, her flanks. He pushed his engine speed, narrowing his focus, swooping round to catch her…

He felt it before he saw it—a whisper of air.

He didn't even have to look. His left hand moved—

And caught the metal arrow by the shaft. He tilted his head and looked at the tip of it—the razor tip that was only three inches from his face.

Barton.

Loki smirked, going cold down to his gut. His hand tightened, his thumb pressing on the front of the shaft to snap it in half—

He never heard it.

He just went blind and deaf.

In the split seconds that followed, a white light dominated his vision, flashing through his whole head.

Then, his body slammed into, and through, sharp steel, stone, glass…

His hearing came back like a clap of thunder.

Ringing shattered his senses. He forced his eyes open. Dazzling lights danced across his vision. He staggered to his feet, his shuddering breathing echoing through his skull. His brow furrowed.

His helmet had come off…

He stood at an immense height on a sunlit balcony…

That arrow had exploded in his face.

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, fighting to clear it.

A violent, visceral roar tore the air right in front of him.

He opened his eyes.

A huge emerald blur—

And a fist clubbed him.

Loki flew backward and crashed through a tall pane. He tumbled haphazardly across the smooth floor. Shards of glass rained down around him, jingling as they struck the stone.

Loki's blood turned molten.

He lifted his head, his vision clearing. He clawed at the tiles, at the glass beneath his fingers.

Bruce Banner, in his massive, brutal, mindless green form, towered at the other side of the destroyed room. The beast opened his wide mouth and roared again, shivering the air. His giant shoulders rippled—he slammed his mighty fists against the floor and bellowed once more, vibrating Loki's bones.

Loki's vision turned red.

He leaped to his feet, spreading his hands and lowering his shoulders, his eyes flashing.

"Enough!" he snapped. "You are all of you beneath me! I am a god, you dull creature! And I will not be bullied by—"

The next instant, Loki's back met the stone with more force than he had ever felt in the length of his life. His thoughts decimated, his will shattered—and blinding agony split his frame. His muscles liquefied—he was yanked back up, and slammed violently down.

Again—

Again—

Again—

His mind whirled and spun and reeled—went blank.

Then, all of a sudden, he lay still, half buried in stone, facing the ceiling—seeing nothing.

He couldn't feel the leg that Banner had just released.

He couldn't feel any of his body.

His throat spasmed.

His chest wouldn't rise—his ribs locked in place.

His heart had suspended in his chest, unmoving.

And as nothing but wild, reasonless panic overwhelmed his entire being, he waited for it to beat again.

LLLLL

"Miss Foster, how did you get this number?"

"From the agent walking right next to me," Jane answered, the sounds of her footsteps and the footsteps of the three black-clad agents echoing as they strode down the narrow, bright-white corridor.

"Only select personnel are authorized to call me using this—"

"I know, Director Fury, and I won't keep you on the line very long," Jane interrupted. "I just think I'm entitled to some answers."

"What kind of answers?" Nick Fury's gruff voice crackled. Jane pressed her cell phone closer to her ear.

"Well, for one thing, why was I picked up from my hotel and driven in a black sedan to an underground compound?" she demanded, pulling her jacket closer around herself. "I was in the middle of nowhere, and it's not like I'm the president or something. The stuff going on in New York shouldn't—"

"What stuff going on in New York?"

Jane rolled her eyes.

"Okay, I'm in the middle of nowhere but we still have televisions."

Fury was silent.

"Come on, Director—I knew SHIELD had something to do with this as soon as I got called the other day to consult," Jane pressed. "Tell me what is going on."

Fury sighed—a hiss of static in her ear.

"Okay, I don't have time for the long version, so I'll summarize," Fury said. "Thor's brother Loki showed up just a couple days ago and stole the tesseract—"

Jane jolted to a stop. Her eyes went wide.

"He what?"

"—and now he's opened up a portal over Stark Tower in New York and is letting an alien force called the Chitauri through. They're pretty much blowing the city to pieces."

Jane's head swam—her vision flickered and her heart raced. Something pressed against her lower back—an agent's steadying hand.

"We've got a force on the ground," Nick went on. "Several guys from all over—guys with special abilities. Thor is one of them."

"Thor?" Jane tried, but she couldn't make much sound.

"They're doing their best, but it doesn't look good. And I'm in the middle of trying to keep the global council from sending a nuke in."

The word "nuke" lodged in Jane's throat.

"Um…okay…" she managed, shutting her eyes and pressing her fingers to her forehead. "So what does that…I mean, what does that have to do with me?"

"Thor tells us that Loki threatened to come find you," Fury said.

Jane's eyes opened. She went still.

"And do what?" she murmured.

"We don't know," Fury admitted. "And Loki's actually pretty distracted right now, but we don't want to give him another game piece to play with. Which is why we're hiding you. I'd appreciate it if you stay put. I'm trying to get a handle on things here—but as I said, it's not looking good."

Jane didn't know what to say in answer. Fury sighed heavily.

"I'm not giving up yet," he said. "But just in case—I want to tell you that it's been an honor knowing you, Miss Foster."

"Thank you," Jane managed.

"Goodbye."

The call cut out. Jane stood there, motionless, then slowly lowered the phone and stared at the blank screen. She swallowed.

"Miss Foster," the agent cut in. "Your room is just up here."

"Yeah," she whispered, her eyes unfocused. "My room…"

She walked the rest of the way in a haze, absently feeling the agent pull her along by the elbow. Another agent opened a door to her left, and the man nearest her reached in and flipped the light on inside the small room.

"Call us if you need anything."

"Okay. Thanks," she said automatically, and stepped through. The door clicked shut behind her. Silence fell.

White walls, floor and ceiling. White nightstand and lamp. White double bed. She didn't notice anything else. She limply let her phone slide out of her grasp and thud softly onto the quilt. She took a deep breath. It shook. Then she reached up, slid her fingers through her long hair and took a fistful.

"Thor…" she breathed, her brow furrowing hard. She clenched her jaw, turned and began to pace beside the bed. Her feet made no noise on the carpet. She lowered that arm and pressed the fingertips of both hands to her lips. Her heart beat unsteadily against her breastbone. Her knee bumped the nightstand. She paused.

Slowly, she turned back, picked up her phone, and sat down on the bed. She touched the "contacts" button with her thumb and watched the list pop up.

Darcy.

Jane's gaze slid over that name. Not long after the Destroyer incident, Darcy had gotten a boyfriend and transferred to a different college on the east coast. Jane hadn't really talked to her in almost a year. She scrolled down.

Erik.

Jane bit her lip. No point, there—his voice mailbox was full. Full of messages from her. But he'd been so busy lately, with the Cube and SHIELD, that he'd only returned her calls a handful of times. And none at all, recently. She kept scanning.

Humphrey's Pizza.

Isabella's Diner.

Hank's BBQ.

Cal-Tech Admin. Office.

And that was the end of her contact list. Jane swallowed hard, staring at it. She'd had more than forty names there when she was in college. But as time went by, as she'd slowly drifted away from each classmate and teacher, she had whittled down her list.

Now the world was ending, and she had nobody to call.

She closed her eyes for a moment, then lifted her face, took a deep breath and tossed her phone down on the bed.

A slight form caught the edge of her vision. Her head came around.

She stared at the wall opposite the door—right into the dark eyes of her own reflection.

Jane froze. She frowned. Had there been a mirror there the whole time…?

Wait.

Her reflection was standing up straight, her hands at her sides.

Her hair looked darker—halfway pinned up, curly.

She wore a brown, v-necked, long-sleeved dress with black embroidery, and a silver necklace.

Jane risked a glance down at herself. She wore a t-shirt, jacket, jeans and boots.

Her skin crawled. Her eyes pulled back up and met those across from her.

Her reflection's eyes looked bright, her face flushed.

Jane's face turned ice cold.

She screamed.

She leaped up and slammed back into the door, arms flying up to protect her face. The other one's eyes went wide.

The door shoved open. Jane tumbled forward and spun around.

"Miss Foster, what's wrong?"

The agent's gray eyes urgently searched hers.

"There's a—" Jane yelped, spinning back around—

To an empty room.

Her thoughts stalled. Her gaze swept through back and forth, her heart pounding so fast there was hardly a space between beats.

There was nobody there.

"I…I uh," Jane panted, trying to keep standing up straight. "I saw…"

"What? What did you see?" the agent demanded, leaning in further.

"Uh…" Jane swallowed, staring at the blank opposite wall. She cleared her throat. "A mouse. I saw…a mouse." She turned back to the agent, taking a deep breath. He raised his eyebrows.

"A mouse," he repeated flatly. "Miss Foster, we're a hundred feet underground."

"I…Maybe I just thought I saw a mouse," Jane amended, nodding. His eyes narrowed at her.

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah," she answered, forcing a weak smile. "Yeah, sorry. No big deal."

He watched her for a second longer, then nodded once.

"Okay. Call me if you need me. I'll be right outside."

"Okay," Jane nodded, fixing her smile. The agent glanced through the room one more time, then withdrew and shut the door again.

A hand slapped down over Jane's mouth.

Jane screamed again—but the cry stifled in her throat. Arms shoved her back against the wall and pinned her.

"Sshh!" a voice hissed right in her face. Jane's wide eyes stared into identical eyes, just inches away.

"Now promise me you won't scream and I'll let you go," a low, calm voice promised—a voice that sounded as familiar to Jane as her own heartbeat, yet more alien than anything she'd ever heard. Those brown eyes bored into her—and Jane suddenly realized she'd been completely immobilized. She jerked against the other woman's hold—she couldn't move. Not even an inch.

"Stop it," the other woman ordered. "You're not going anywhere until you listen to me, understand?"

Jane swallowed again, hard. Then, she nodded. If she could just get her to let go of her face, then she could scream for the agent—

The other woman dropped her hand—

Then pointed at Jane's nose.

"Don't even think about it."

Jane blinked.

"What?" she rasped.

"Yelling for that agent," the other woman, in Jane's own exact inflection and expression, warned sharply. She let go of Jane, and took a step back.

Jane started breathing again, raggedly—but she couldn't say anything. The other woman stood there, gazing back at her for a long, silent moment, looking like nothing more than Jane's exact reflection.

Suddenly, the other one smiled, her eyebrows raising and drawing together, shattering the illusion.

"I've seen a lot of weird things," she confessed, glancing Jane up and down. "But I think that this might have to be the weirdest."

"Who are you?" Jane tried. The other one met her eyes. Her smile faded.

"Who do you think I am?"

Jane's hands closed.

"I'm…" She tried to steady her breathing. "I think I'm hallucinating."

The other one's eyebrows raised and she sighed, nodding.

"Yeah, I know." She regarded Jane seriously. "But you're not."

Jane shook her head, her heart speeding up again.

"No. No," she insisted. "This is impossible—"

"Listen, neither of us have a lot of time right now," the other one glanced around the room, as if gauging something Jane couldn't see. "So you're going to have to get over it and try to follow what I have to say."

Jane didn't answer. The other one glanced at the door, then back at Jane.

"Okay," she began in a low voice, taking a deep breath and gesturing with both hands. "My—our—the theory about space-time, about traveling from planet to planet, or realm to realm—everybody here knows that it works, right? If you have enough power and the right conduit?"

It took a moment, but Jane finally got her head to nod.

"Well, there's another layer to that," the other one went on, her dark eyes intent on Jane's face. "And it's linked to both the power and the conduit. Realm-to-realm travel takes an extreme amount of energy, and because it creates a bridge that cuts through time as well as space—which makes this kind of travel practical—it has to be focused correctly and precisely, like with Asgard's bifrost," the other one indicated Jane with one hand, as if acknowledging that she already understood. Which—somehow—Jane did. The other one went on.

"If it isn't focused correctly and precisely—if interstellar travel is conducted with a great deal of power but without the right conduit…" the other one paused. Her mouth tightened. "Then time starts to tear."

"Wait—time?" Jane repeated.

"Space-time," the other corrected. "Causing a single path of possibility to split into two or more diverging paths."

Jane went still, letting that sink in.

"Okay, so…" Jane prompted, trying to keep her breathing even.

"About seventy years ago," the other one told her. "The Nazi Johann Schmidt used the tesseract without knowing how. He opened a random portal into space and traveled through it—but it blasted a hole in space-time, causing the structure of the rest of the universe to sort of…" the other one reached up with both fists and tugged them apart from each other. "Split at the seams," she finished. "After that, anybody who performed interstellar travel without a bifrost—or something like the Jotun ice casket—would tear the holes open a little more, and also run the risk of replicating himself and creating different time-planes for his existence."

Jane tried to dislodge her thoughts from whatever a "Jotun ice casket" was and digest the rest of the other one's sentence. But when she did, she almost lost her balance.

"So wait, you…I…tried to go somewhere and split off into…" Jane couldn't finish. The other one watched her.

"No," she said. "Loki did."

"Loki?" Jane repeated, bewildered. The other one nodded.

"After Thor left earth to confront him, Thor broke the bifrost bridge, disrupting a portal that had been open to Jotunheim." The other one glanced worriedly at the door again and quieted her voice. "Loki fell off the edge of the bridge and down into that dissolving portal. And he split into two planes. That we…know of," she finished, muttering. She was starting to look pale…

"Where did he go?" Jane asked, brow furrowing as she fought to concentrate.

"I don't know," the other one admitted, shrugging heavily. "I know where he went one of the times. He landed in New Mexico. I found him—I was looking for Thor." She laughed lightly. "I thought he was Thor." Her expression sobered, tightened. "Loki was hurt. So I took him back to the lab with me and he…We…" She swallowed. Her expression took on a tinge of pain. "It's a really long story, and it…I mean, it doesn't really make any difference to you. Right now."

Jane couldn't draw a breath to say anything to the contrary—but all at once, she felt as if she was standing on a huge precipice, about to step forward and gaze out across…

"The point is that you're in danger. We all are," the other one said firmly, shaking Jane's attention. "Only a few seams are still keeping everything from blowing apart."

Jane stood for a moment, then shook her head, her gaze flitting back and forth.

"I still can't believe any of this," Jane whispered, feeling faint.

"I know—I've had several hours to think about it and discuss it we still don't…I mean…" the other one held her hands out to the sides and shook her head helplessly. "All I can tell you is what I saw."

Jane waited, watching her, a heavy, icy sensation sinking down through her stomach. The other one took another labored breath. Her eyebrows drew together.

"I saw through a split seam," she murmured, her gestures becoming shaky. "It was like…I was standing out on my bedroom balcony and the sky just…It just cut open. I saw flashes of where Loki went—when he took a different path from the one I knew. There was a lot of…" She swallowed. "A lot of darkness. And pain. And then I saw him on Midgard—just pieces. Fighting underground. Standing on a mountain, with Thor. And I heard them talking." The other one stepped closer to Jane. "Thor traveled here to Midgard to find Loki without a bifrost—it still isn't fixed here, where you are. Which means Thor made the rips even worse. And he's planning to use the Cube to take Loki back to Asgard. Again, without focusing it through a bifrost. But if he does that…" The other one closed the distance between them, staring straight into Jane's eyes. "That will be it."

"What do you mean?" Jane whispered.

"The universe won't be able to stand the strain anymore," the other one said simply. "It'll tear apart, and then…I don't know." She shook her head. "But I really don't want to find out."

"What…What are we…" Jane started. "I mean, what do you want me to do about that?"

"They're after him—Loki," the other one said. "And I know the guys they have teamed up against his army. It won't win. He won't win. And then Thor won't waste anytime before grabbing Loki and trying to use the Cube to get them both back to Asgard." She shook her head. "None of us will even know what hit us."

"So, I have to…" Jane fished.

"You have to keep them from getting to Loki," the other Jane finished.

Jane's mouth fell open.

"Me?"

"You are literally the only one who can," the other one said. "We've all talked it over a thousand times—"

"We?" Jane cut in, frowning. "Who's—"

"I don't have time to tell you," the other one shot back, eyes flashing toward the door for the third time. "Look, the Thor in this realm is too busy right now, and I don't trust any of the SHIELD agents with something like this. Besides, they couldn't get there fast enough."

"I can't either!" Jane objected.

"Yes you can," the other one said—and reached up, pulled off her necklace, and held it out to Jane. The amulet dangled from a silver chain right in front of her.

Jane's eyes fixed on the stone in the center.

The limitless, sparkling, twilight-colored stone.

Her heartbeat calmed.

Her mind stilled.

For a moment, the universe balanced on the head of a pin.

"What is that?" Jane murmured into the deathly silence.

"It's called the Lokistone," the other one answered. "And it'll take you to him."

Jane's eyes flew to the other one's.

"To Loki."

"Yes," the other one nodded. "Wherever he is, whatever he's doing. You'll be right beside him in a matter of seconds. It can also make you invisible." She smiled wryly. "I didn't find that out until just recently, though."

Jane stared at the purple stone as it twinkled in the artificial light. The jewel looked deep, multi-layered…fathomless…

"What else does it do?" she whispered, echoes of suspicions creeping through her mind.

"I'm not sure," the other one admitted. "Lots of things. It can be a beacon, a life support…A storage for memories…"

Jane stared at her other self.

"You aren't seriously suggesting that this little rock can—"

"Yes, I am," the other one said. "It's magic."

Jane's vision faded in and out again. She pressed her hand to her forehead.

"I'm…"

"No, no, you have to listen—I just have a couple minutes left," the other one insisted, stepping close and grabbing Jane's jacket collar. Jane straightened, gasping, but couldn't look away.

"Take this," the other one ordered, pressing the necklace into Jane's palm and closing her fingers around it. "Put it on and never take it off. Never." The other Jane wrapped Jane's fist in both her hands—her grip felt warm and too tight. Jane gulped. The other one went on.

"Just follow where it leads you. It won't steer you wrong, I promise," she said, her brown eyes burning. "Okay listen to me: When you find him, be careful. I'm not sure what mood he'll be in—but you still have to act quickly."

"What am I supposed to do?" Jane asked.

The other one let out a short sigh.

"Your best bet will be to let him take you hostage."

Jane's pulse thudded.

"Hostage—!"

"He won't hurt you," the other one stated.

"How do you know—" Jane cried.

"He won't," the other one shook her head, once. "He won't."

"What about the Cube?" Jane demanded, her mind flailing. "Thor will still come after him and still want to—"

"I know, I know—you're just buying us time," the other one cut her off. "We have the tesseract, back at my end—we're trying to figure out how to sew everything back together with it. We just…We can't have Thor or anybody else trying to use it here until we've got things under control, okay? Keep your head down, keep calm, stay with Loki, whatever you do—but don't let him see that necklace. And don't tell him about me unless you absolutely have to," the other one commanded. "Whatever happens, he will protect you. Understand?"

Jane nodded yes—but that was far from the truth.

She must have betrayed something on her face. Because the other one fell silent—and then her brow twisted. She gasped, and her eyes filled with tears.

"Look, I know…I know that people have probably told you…" the other one tried, her voice shaking. "Just don't…" She pulled in a breath and blinked—her tears fell, and trailed down her face. She swallowed, and took one last look at the door, then behind her. "I came through a seam and I'm making it worse. I have to go," she whispered. She faced Jane, and squeezed her hand. "Take care of him."

Jane's lips parted, but she was stunned speechless. The other one withdrew, backing up toward the foot of the bed.

"Don't sit and think too long," she cautioned, swiping at her face. "You have maybe ten minutes before Thor and the others find him. And if they do…You'll never be able to get him back."

Jane started to say something—but a twinkle of light caught her attention. She glanced at Jane's left hand...

And a strange hole opened up inside her.

"You…There's a wedding ring," she pointed. "Are you…" Startled, she met the other one's eyes. "You're married?"

The other one nodded.

"Yes."

"To…Thor?" Jane floundered. The other one almost smiled, her tears still glimmering.

"No."

Jane's mouth worked, but there was no way she could articulate what suddenly spun and tangled through her chest. The other one forced a smile.

"Hurry, Jane," she whispered. "And whatever you do…Don't lose that."

Jane lowered her gaze to her fist and eased open her fingers…

The violet stone flashed back at her, like a flame that stood dangerously close.

She glanced up.

She was alone.

Jane sucked in a sharp gasp and covered her mouth with her free hand.

For a long moment, she stood paralyzed.

"Are you…Hello?" she finally breathed, searching the corners of the room.

Silence answered.

"Okay…Okay, Jane…" she murmured, her heartbeat battering erratically against her breastbone. "It's okay, just…" Her throat locked up. Her knees weakened, and she sank down onto the bed, her fingers shaking. Her eyes unfocused and her thoughts slowed to a halt. The edges of the amulet cut into her palm as she squeezed it tight and reflexively pressed her fist to her lips. Her whole body shuddered.

"Loki…?" she murmured in bafflement, her lips moving against her fingers.

Searing heat shot through her hand.

She yelped, jerked back and tried to throw the necklace down—

The chain caught on her fingers.

The air shivered.

She went still.

The walls around her wobbled.

Jane clamped her jaw shut. Slowly she got to her feet…

In a windy rush, the room vanished.

Suddenly, she was swallowed in a whirling, roaring gray fog.

She let out a strangled cry. Her hair blew around her face—she pulled her arms close to her chest…

A steady thrum rumbled beneath her feet and vibrated the air, building in pressure and volume until she thought her bones would crack.

Then, all at once, it released—

Sending a gust of rainy wind through her hair and clothes. She drew in a deep, shocked breath of it. It smelled of the sea, of pine forests, of smoldering fire…

A pulse reached her. It neared, sharpened, focused…

Until it gathered together like strands of cobweb, she understood a whispered word in the heart of it.

"Jane."

Her head came up and her gaze flew back and forth—but the thick mists still twisted and spun all around her. She could see nothing.

"Jane…"

The voice sounded low, masculine—effortless, distant, delicate.

"Jane," it called—as if from the other side of a mountain.

"Jane!" it breathed—right in her ear. She twitched—saw nothing. She tried to open her mouth to say something…

She couldn't.

A cape flapped against her legs, then rustled and vanished.

A tall shoulder brushed hers.

Soft lips moved against the side of her face.

"Jane…"

She twisted, gasping, to see…

No one.

For a long moment, only the wind blasted in her ears. Then—

An unearthly hiss cut the air.

Jane went ramrod straight.

Slithering scales slid against her legs, winding slowly over her feet.

She bit back a scream and squeezed her eyes shut as the heavy, slick body of a giant snake slipped past her. Seething and spitting to itself, it writhed away into the fog. Jane let out a wrenching breath, her teeth chattering.

A dark figure suddenly coalesced far in front of her—tall, winsome, lean. He had his back to her—he turned his head, but did not see her.

"Jane…!" he cried, searching. The wind caught his voice and swept it away.

"Look out!" she exclaimed, the ice-cold memory of that snake seeping up through her legs.

He didn't hear her. He dissolved and vanished.

A flurry of movement. The snap of jaws.

A quick, startled cry.

Her heart hitched.

"Hello?" she choked. "Where are you?"

No answer.

She tried to move forward—couldn't. She gritted her teeth and fought it. It felt like she was trying to slog through mud…

But she caught traction. Steadily, she gained speed, though she couldn't see more than a foot in front of her.

Her toe caught something. She fell down—crashed to her hands and knees. The Lokistone rattled in her left hand.

The air in front of her cleared.

Swirling black tendrils, like ink spilled into water, coiled and curled across the mercurial ground. Then, as she watched, frozen, it solidified, took shape…

Into the figure of a man, lying on his back.

He wore obsidian armor—it glimmered like mirrors. His black cape spread out haphazardly yet majestically beneath him. He had a white, narrow, marble-like face, long lashes, and lengthy, wild raven hair. His graceful hands rested on his lower chest—his face expressionless, his mouth silent. Colorless, motionless.

Except for the jagged, bright-red wound on his left hand.

Jane crawled to her feet, horrified, strangled.

The savage wind calmed. The mist retreated.

The air blew clear—brightened.

The ground hardened beneath her feet. Hardened to smooth stone floor.

She blinked—then had to squint…

Out an immense, floor-to-ceiling window at the shining peak of the Chrysler Building, and the shimmer of the river beyond.

Her mouth fell open.

The air was completely still—air-conditioned. Except a few gusts wandering in through one of the tall panes, which had been shattered and now lay in millions of pieces all over the floor.

Her breathing sped up and she glanced around…

She was in a high-rise office suite—a bar over to her right, couches over there, desks…

Wide cracks in the floor.

Dread filled her. Her gaze slid downward…

She jolted.

There, at her feet, lay the same man.

But now, his presence was immediate—vivid. Real.

He wore battered, dusty gold armor, torn leather, and a shredded emerald cape. His hands lay limply across his middle. Bruises, dirt and lacerations marked his otherwise-perfectly-formed, angular face—his black brows had drawn together, his lips were parted, as if searching for a breath that would not come. His eyes stayed shut.

And the floor had impacted down all around him—as if something had flung him on his back with titanic force and splintered the stones.

He had to be dead.

Jane swallowed, then swallowed again.

For a long moment, she stayed just where she was, holding her breath.

The jewel went cold in her hand.

"Loki?" she whispered.

His chest heaved—he sucked in a breath.

And his eyes flew open.

To be continued…

Review, if you want me to go on!