Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Avengers fanfic: Immortal Engines, chapter 7 of 12

Immortal Engines (chapter 7 of 12)
(An Avengers steampunky historical AU)

See chapter one for summary and notes (on AO3 here, or on LJ here)

Chapter seven can be read on AO3 here



Chapter seven

They brought him in chains before his god.

"Who is this?" the god asked, wind stirring his hair.

A new follower, they told him. One who had come on foot, walking as if in a dream. One who had sought them after the battle, and had been intercepted by the scouts. One who claimed to serve the god, but you could never be too careful. Probably a servant. Perhaps a spy. So they had bound him and dragged him into the dirigible along with the rest.

"You are the archer?" the god asked.

Clint's lips moved. "I am," they said.

The god smiled. "I remember. Yes."

Clint said nothing, just stared straight ahead with blank eyes.

"Are you good?" the god asked. "Are you excellent?"

"Yes," said Clint's lips.

The god smiled. "It is better thus, is it not? No false modesty. No understatements in the name of politeness. Just a yes. I ask; you answer. You have skills; I can use them."

"Yes," Clint agreed.

"Does he speak the truth?" There was no audible change to the god's voice, but suddenly he was speaking everyone within earshot, not just to Clint.

Others spoke up then. This was Agent Barton, Clint Barton, sometimes called Hawkeye. The greatest marksman in the world. A great favourite of Director Fury… and Clint might have laughed at that, had he been able to. Assassin. Sharp-shooter. Sniper. Lone wolf. Killer.

Another man, a man Clint had never seen before, gave a long slow nod. He was kneeling on the deck, both hands inside a large open chest.

"So, a great prize indeed," the god said.

Clint stared straight ahead. "Yes." He almost said 'master'; wanted to say 'my lord.' "Sir," he said.

"Untie him," the god commanded.

Someone unfastened the cuffs. Clint wanted to rub his wrists, but didn't, just let his arms fall heavily to his sides. His shoulders protested at the sudden movement. His fingers were slack, cold air against his empty palms.

"This Earth of yours is a sorrowful place, Clint." The god moved behind the kneeling man, and placed his hand on his shoulder. "You have given away your souls to steam and machinery, and scorn old wisdom as magic and superstition. I found Mr Verner, here, performing cheap sideshow tricks in exchange for a pittance, making beggars dance against their will. He had potential, yes, but it had withered from lack of… nourishment. And what can be more nourishing than the touch of a god?"

"I remember you, Agent Barton," said the man called Verner. "I remembered you in the battle, and remembered… this." He brought his hands out of the chest, and showed Clint his bow, the one he had lost when he had first fought the metal giants. "If you want to control someone, you've got to be near them, see, or else hold something that's part of them: a hair, a rag stained with their blood…" He ran his hand along the wooden shaft. Clint pressed his nails into his palms, and stared ahead with blank eyes. "This is very much part of you, is it not? Not dead wood, but your own flesh and blood. The only thing you truly trust, more even than you trust yourself."

"Yes," Clint agreed, his voice dead, as secrets were stripped out and put in words.

"You resisted him," the god said. "You made him angry. You made me angry. Men are like sheep, so easy to control, so desperate to be controlled, but you went away. But you are back now. You will never resist again." His smile was cold. "Will you, Clint?"

"No," Clint said. My lord. My god. Master. My king. "Sir."

******

They gathered in a makeshift meeting room in the wreckage of the fort. Somebody had gone to considerable effort to bring civilisation to the ruin. Pictures hung on the walls, and a dried arrangement of flowers sat on the sideboard, encased in a glass dome. A silver tray had been placed in the middle of the polished table, holding a decanter and seven crystal glasses. A plate of exquisite cakes lay nearby, arranged in neat perfection.

"Is it foolish," Steve wondered aloud, "or brave?"

Stark was busy helping himself to one of the glasses. He looked up, grunting a question.

"This," Steve said, gesturing at the room. "This… veneer of polite society. I've seen it before. We were losing ten men a day, but the officers still wore the right clothes to dinner, and were careful to tie their cravats just so. Is it foolish to cling on to such things when you are staring into the face of death, or is that precisely when these things matter the most?"

Stark twirled his glass, making the crystal flare like jewels. "Jarvis," he said. "You asked if it was foolish or brave," he said, when Steve looked blank. "I say it was Jarvis."

"Gentlemen," Director Fury said firmly. "Agent Coulson?"

Coulson placed a bundle of paperwork on the table. "Lists," he said. "Inventories. All thoroughly checked."

"Good for you." Stark poured a second glass. "Nothing like a good inventory to make an evening complete."

"Actually," Coulson said mildly, "the inventory shows that nothing important went missing, which is interesting because--"

"My brother claimed that he took something," Thor said. "These tiny cakes are truly wondrous! Something that would help him rule. They are pink and… squishy."

Coulson leafed through his papers. "We sent most of our artefacts and technology away before the attack. The only ones we left behind were those we needed for defence and daily living, and those Mr Stark and Dr Banner needed for their work. These are all accounted for, except for the hand weapons and personal effects of the agents who… went missing."

Agent Romanoff was very careful not to react, Steve thought. Once again, Banner was sitting apart.

"He took something." Thor's voice was muted by cream.

"And then we get to the unimportant things," Coulson said. "The… pointless decoration. Flower arrangements. Decanters. Jewels." He looked at Stark as he said the last word.

Stark put his glass down. "It wasn't attached to any workings. There were no wires, no gears. It was just decoration." He let out a breath. "Loki took it."

Coulson nodded. "The only thing, as far as we can tell."

"So this is my fault, is it?" Stark gripped his glass. "It had no workings. It didn't do anything. I called it like I saw it. And now it's a magical mystical god-like… ruley… thing?"

"We don't know what it does," Fury said, "but Loki took it, which must mean that it has power."

"Or that he thinks it has power. He could be wrong." Stark turned to Thor. "You guys aren't the kind of gods that do infallibility, are you?" Thor's reply was prevented by cake. "Thought not. "So far, I'm thinking Norse god equals crazy."

Thor nodded happily, either absorbed with cake, or happy to take it as a compliment.

"We have to work on the assumption that this item has power," Fury said, "and that Loki is more powerful now that he possesses it. As to what he will do next…"

Steve watched them all, these people who were, for now, the only team that he had. Fury and Coulson liked to smother him in expectation, never doubting that his life was theirs to command. Agent Romanoff was distant, never smiling at anybody. Banner was wrapped in guilt, breaking free only when he was working with Stark. Thor took more delight in battle than Steve liked to see. Stark was… Stark was infuriating and self-centred and flippant, but they had fought well together, and by the time the battle was over, the name Stark made Steve think of the son, and not the father.

But every time he caught himself thinking that, he wanted to recoil. It meant that the past was fading, becoming truly past. It meant that he was burying Howard Stark and all the others, giving them up, moving on.

Was this his war? He had told Thor that it was, but he had been fresh from the battle then, surrounded by the wounded and the dead. But now…?

Sometimes he wanted to walk away, but where could he go? Home was not a place, but a time, long ago past, and people, all dead. Other times he found himself caring about this cause he had been dragged into, and mourning their ruined fortress and their dead. Sometimes that felt like the worst thing of all, as if it made him a traitor to those he had lost.

"…and if we're apportioning blame here," Stark was saying - Tony Stark, Steve told himself firmly, not just Stark - "has anyone thought to wonder how Loki and his automatons--"

"Golems," said Agent Romanoff coldly.

"Okay, right, so they all had a piece of paper in their mouths, saying 'alive' in… some language or other, and they stopped moving when we took it out, but that doesn't mean…" Stark - Tony Stark - gave a martyred sigh. "Okay, then. Golems. Whatever. So they came. Why aren't we wondering how they found us?"

Agent Romanoff pinned Stark with a hard glare, as if daring him to say anything else.

Stark ignored it, and turned to Coulson and Fury. "Is it guilt? Because you tell us afterwards that your precious Agent Barton was compromised. He came here, you kept that useful little fact secret, and a few days later his new friend Loki comes round to play."

Agent Romanoff put her hands flat on the table, fingertips pressing down into the wood, every muscle taut.

"Yes, Fury," Banner said, "we know you like your little secrets. "

Steve swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. "Please…" he said, but he didn't know these people, he didn't know how their world worked. What could he say?

Banner raked his hand thought his hair. "I don't think it was Barton," he told Stark. "Maybe Loki came because of Thor. Maybe he can sense him somehow."

"I should be able to sense my brother." Thor was gripping the empty plate. "When I could not sense him, I thought it was because he was lost and mortal. It could be that he knows how to hide from me."

"Can he sense you?" Steve asked.

"I do not know." Thor shook his head. "Loki is clever."

"That's just great!" Stark exclaimed. "Why didn't we just send up a giant flare shouting, 'Here we are, come and kill us.'"

"Loki was focused," Fury said. "He wasn't interested in wiping us out. He launched a feint to keep us distracted, then went straight in and out and took what he wanted. He knew what he wanted. It could be that the jewel itself called to him somehow."

"Which Coulson brought here," Stark said.

"And you dismissed as useless," Coulson pointed out.

"And Captain America kindly brought to this continent in the first place."

Steve could feel his heart racing in his chest. "I told you not to touch it." He clenched his fist, his palm damp. "I told you it was dangerous. I told you to leave it alone. But you always think you know best. You always have to interfere. Everything's a game to you, isn't it?

Stark poured himself a drink, and smiled that arrogant empty smile of his. "I thought you liked games, Cap. After all, you've let people play you ever since they turned you into their pet soldier boy."

My war, Steve thought. His team. His cause. His masters. His comrades. This is what the future was offering him. This.

******

Bruce was looking in the mirror when the door opened. In the mirror, he saw Agent Romanoff enter the room. He saw the expression on her face, and saw how it changed when she realised that she was not, after all, alone.

"I apologise," she said, stiffly formal. "I hadn't realised…"

"No." He turned round, managing a smile. "I probably have no right to be here."

She looked at him sharply. "Yes you do."

He was conscious of the mirror at his back. "I'm not normally…" He gestured at the mirror. "Stark gave me some clothes. He's got a whole room of spare clothes on his private dirigible." He paused; gave a half smile. "He has a private dirigible."

"There's rich, and then there's Tony Stark." She stopped beside a chair, but didn't sit down.

"I'm not…" Bruce said. "I couldn't…" He plucked at the exquisite cuff. "Expensive doesn't even begin to describe this. He doesn't want them back. I don't know if he means them as a gift - a real gift, I mean - or whether he's so rich that things like these, they're immaterial to him, given away with no more thought than an old newspaper."

She ran her hand across the back of the chair. "Maybe a bit of both."

He had no idea of the etiquette of the situation. He was alone with an apparently unmarried woman. It would have been inconceivable back home. Before.

"It…" He clasped his hands together to stop them shaking. "I'd never have expected him to be like that. He seems genuinely pleased to get the chance to work with me. Tony Stark, pleased to work with me! That's not how you think about people like him. The rich and famous, I mean."

She walked to the sideboard and poured herself a glass of something clear from a decanter. "I have… encountered the rich and famous on several occasions. They're just the same anyone. They bleed the same as anyone."

"Yes." He ran his hand through his hair, then tried to smooth it down again. The room felt stiflingly hot. He was painfully aware of the fact that he was underground.

She sat down with her drink, face carefully composed. "You came here without a change of clothes?"

Should he sit himself? He turned away and saw dead things reflected in the mirror: hunting trophies on the wall, and a stuffed bird on the mantlepiece. "I hadn't intended to come. It was a spur of the moment thing."

She drank, a tiny sip barely touching her lips, then swirled the liquid round in the glass, looking down at it. "I didn't think Agent Barton could be that persuasive."

"He wasn't." He gave the ghost of a smile. "I think that's one of the reasons I came with him, really. He didn't try. He didn't… make demands."

"No." She raised the glass again, but lowered it without drinking.

Bruce's knuckles were white. "I shouldn't have…"

"No." She looked at him at last. "Don't do that to yourself."

He had to look away. The mirror showed him a reflection of a man he no longer knew. "You saw what the other guy did. How can you sit here with…? No, not the other guy. Me."

"Yes," she agreed. "You."

"Don't--!" He shouted it. It was torn out from him, but he forced it to stop. "Please," he said. "Don't."

"You," she said again, soft, remorseless. He watched her in the mirror, her image distorted by imperfections in the glass. "I knew someone once. A girl. It turned out that she was very good at killing, so she killed. Men told her who to kill, and she didn't ask questions. Then her life began to take a different path. She met someone who… But there is no need for you to hear that. Let's just say that she came to regret what she had done."

His own eyes stared back at him from a face that the glass made subtly inhuman. "So she never killed again?"

"She… considered that course. But it wouldn't change the past. And she possessed certain skills. She was good at what she did. What else was she good at? What other life could she live? So she accepted that she was what she was, an assassin, a killer, and made sure that in the future she only ever killed people who deserved it."

Bruce closed his eyes. "And she made her peace?"

She was silent.

Bruce had no idea what to say. He turned to face her, but she was looking away. "It… It isn't…"

"Isn't the same? Probably not." Her face was hidden from him. "But you fight it. You fight it so much. So when it comes, it comes out screaming."

"I have to fight it." His heart was racing. Shadows pulsed in the corners of the room.

"Perhaps," she said.

Bruce sat down, pressing both hands flat against his face, letting out a hot breath against his palms. He let his hands fall again with a sigh. "Agent Barton said much the same. He said I had to accept the monster, to let it out on a tight leash when I needed it." Her reaction was barely visible, but it was there, and he saw it. "You're worried about him," he realised. "Agent Barton. He's your…?"

"Partner," she said. "At times."

"I could tell something was wrong with him. I'm sorry I couldn't…"

"It's not your fault." She spoke abruptly, harshly.

He remembered the expression he had seen on her face when she had thought herself alone. "But he was fighting it," he said gently. "I was with him, remember. I didn't understand at the time, but now I know what was happening to him…" He let out a breath. "I know the signs. I see it every time I look in the mirror. He was fighting it."

"I know," she said quietly. "That is, I know him. I wouldn't expect anything else." She looked at him at last, her eyes shining in the lamplight. "And you were right. What you were going to say." He was unsure what she meant, but she spoke again before he could ask. "Thank you," she said.

For what? he wondered. For trying? For noticing?

******

Tony reached one-handed for the decanter, as he tightened a screw with the other hand. The clock struck midnight, its workings hoarse with dust. "And we're done," he said out loud, although there was nobody to hear him. "Go me." Putting the mechanical screwdriver down, he drank himself a toast. This was port, warm and dark and tasting of raisins. An after-dinner drink to enjoy with friends, but everyone else had wandered off after dinner, leaving him with the bottle alone.

The door opened. Tony turned round to see Captain Rogers frozen in the doorway. "Hey. Cap." He raised his glass. "Couldn't sleep?"

Rogers just stood there, not moving forward. "I thought… I didn't know…"

"Have a drink," Tony said. "Here, take a look at this." He pointed to the gun on his work bench. "It's something I was working on… before. You strap the aetheric power pack on your back, and run that cable down your sleeve, and the gun fires super-heated aether instead of bullets. Melts metal. Good against golems. Need a name for it, of course."

Rogers took one step forward, then stopped again.

"Go on, try it," Tony urged him. "On second thoughts, try it outside in the corridor. If anything gets broken, blame Loki."

Rogers touched the gun, but still didn't pick it up. Was he mentally deficient, or something? Tony's father had always implied, well, super everything, not just muscles and strength and square-jawed handsomeness.

"Don't worry, you won't prick your finger on it, Sleeping Beauty," Tony said. "I made it for you, on account of… " He took a long swig of the port. "I said I wouldn't make weapons again, in case people misused them. But you're Captain America, you couldn't misuse a toothpick, and come on, just pick it up already."

"I don't normally use…" Rogers slowly gripped the gun. "You made it for me? After… this afternoon?"

"This afternoon?"

"We… exchanged words."

"Oh. That!" Tony laughed, flapping his hand dismissively. "That wasn't 'exchanging words,' except that we… exchanged words… literally… but it wasn't 'exchanging words' in the 'zounds, sirrah, thou hast offended me mortally!' way. If that was 'exchanging words,' then some of the things people have said to me over the years must have been fucking Armageddon."

Rogers put the gun down. "People often…?"

"Oh yes." Tony shrugged. "All the time. Screaming at me in public. You should read the papers one day, just the last twenty years, I'm not in them before that, so pretty much… boring."

"I thought…" Rogers sat down on the tall stool that Banner usually used. "I thought a man like you would be… would have…"

"A man like me?"

"Millionaire. Playboy…"

"…and all the rest." Tony sat down opposite him, and took a drink. "A man like me would be what?"

Rogers ran his finger along the barrel of the gun. "Unaccustomed to insults. Unaccustomed to being opposed. And you seem so…"

"So?" Tony prompted.

"Confident."

"By which you mean arrogant. Say it like you mean it, Cap. I can take it." Tony stood up and rummaged through the spare parts until he found the glass he had brought for Banner, in case Banner showed up for some impromptu late night tech. "Drink?"

Rogers made no move to take the glass. "I can't get drunk."

"Really? That sucks." Tony poured him a glass full. "Drink it, anyway. Getting drunk isn't the only reason to drink. So they try to tell me, anyway."

Rogers took a sip of the port, and stopped, his eyes going suddenly distant. He didn't have it easy, really, the poor guy. Stranded over sixty years away from everything he had ever known. All his friends long dead. And the minute he woke up, he was thrust into a war that was nothing to do with him, stuck here underground with a one-eyed autocrat, an agent who hid true deviousness behind a mild smile, a green rage monster, an excitable god, a truly scary female assassin and… well, him, which kind of made up for…

Which kind of probably maybe made things… worse.

And then there was the history book, the poor guy trying to catch up, trying to make sense of a world that had changed so much. The world Rogers came from had been ignorant of so many things, such as refrigerated beer, photography and chorus girls.

Huh. What do you know? he thought to himself, as he drained his glass. Here's me being sensitive. Go me.

Of course, the man had a giant stick up his ass and was humourless and squeaky clean and… and it was enough to make you feel tawdry and selfish, to be up against someone like that, and his father had talked about Rogers so much, his eyes positively shining, but whenever he'd looked at his own son, which wasn't very often, his eyes were…

"So Cap," Tony said. "Golden boy. What we doing next? What plans does the mighty Fury have for us?"

Rogers took another sip, holding the glass neatly and elegantly, like a grandmother at a wedding. "I don't know. This isn't… That is to say…" He drank again, then pressed his lips together to clean them.

"Expected to fight, but not trusted with their secrets." Tony poured himself another glass, and slammed the decanter down. He fought the urge to be as messy as possible and not fucking care. "Are you going to dance to their tune?"

"I… don't know." Rogers put the glass down, politely, of course. "What else do I have?"

Everything, Tony wanted to say, because according to Howard Stark, he was so fucking perfect so much so that nothing Tony had ever done, nothing he had ever designed or ever made could ever…

Nothing, Tony wanted to say, because he remembered the history book, quietly read by a man who was utterly lost.

"I can tell you one of their secrets," he said, his voice harsh. "You know that emitter we placed, the one that they threw away? It's not the only one out there."

"What?" Rogers asked.

There was nothing left in the decanter to pour. Tony shook it, getting only drips. "They've sent out messages to all their outposts, asking them to listen on the frequency I told them. Why would they do that if ours was the only one? Why would they lie about it, and not tell us there was another?"

******

Natasha had conducted the interrogations herself. Three defected agents had been captured from Loki's attacking force, and all three were questioned thoroughly.

At first they were desperate, wanting only to return to their lord. On the second day, they were confused, alternating between hatred for her, and bewilderment. On the third morning, they looked at her with lost eyes, and begged her to tell them that it was over, that their minds were their own again.

It was a comfort she could not give them. It was a comfort that was not hers.

She asked them what they knew. They knew little. The last days and weeks were hazy for them, like a dream in which the dreamer watches events unfold without the power to change them. They had no idea where Loki's base was. They had come here by dirigible, and had not looked down.

Loki aimed to rule; that much they knew. Loki had three men beside him - two street corner magicians and a crazy scholar. One helped him rule minds, one helped him go unseen, and one knew everything there was to be known about golems. Without Loki, these men were nothing. Without them, Loki was… less? Perhaps. They did not know.

Was it possible to be near Loki and fight free from the grip on your mind? No, no, they sobbed, three times no. But others served willingly, one of them told her: drifters, unemployed soldiers, people who needed a master to show them they way; people who wanted a piece of the action. Only the SHIELD agents were coerced.

"I think. I don't know. It wasn't me. You have to believe it wasn't me."

She wanted to say yes. In a few days' time, a week's time, a month's time, would this be Barton sitting here, begging for absolution?

She wanted to say no. She wanted to believe that these men were weak, to have been enslaved so thoroughly, but that Barton was strong, and would break free and come back to her.

Back to SHIELD. Once she would have added that correction. It was too late for that now.

She left the prison, locking the door behind her. Captain Rogers found her before she was ready, but she was practised at such things, and was able to show him the sort of face she needed him to see.

She had slipped with Banner the night before. She was not entirely sure she regretted it.

"Agent Romanoff," Rogers said. "Ma'am." He was awkward in her presence, as good men often were, embarrassed by her profession and her lack of traditional female modesty. The less good ones just wanted to fuck her. Both types were easy to manipulate.

But this was not the time, and Captain Rogers was not the man. "What is it?" she asked.

"I was told something last night, ma'am. Something the person who told me probably shouldn't know about, so you will understand if I refrain from naming him."

Stark, of course. She waited for him to continue.

"Since you are an agent of SHIELD, I wondered if you knew more," Rogers said. "It might be nothing, but Director Fury speaks as if we are in his confidence, as if he expects us to take the lead in fighting Loki. A commander has the right to keep secrets, of course, but…"

"But what?" she prompted.

"There was a second emitter. It's out there. They're searching for it."

She understood immediately. She saw the hand of Fury, of Coulson, maybe even of Barton himself. She wanted Fury. She found Coulson instead, as she threw open the door, as she drew her gun and aimed it at his head.

"You lied to me," she said. "You've planted an emitter on Agent Barton. You expected him to defect. You wanted him to."

"Yes," Coulson said.

"You lied to me." She spat out every word separately.

"Please lower the gun, Agent Romanoff." She had seen so many men this way, sighted down the barrel of a gun. Coulson was more calm than any of them. No, she realised, not calm at all. Nervous. Anxious. And not because of her.

"Why?" she asked, lowering the gun, but keeping it ready in her hand.

"It was his idea," Coulson said. "No, no it wasn't. It was my idea. Director Fury supported it. Agent Barton… agreed. It was his idea that we kept him locked away and that nobody was told. If he didn't see our preparations for the attack, then he couldn't reveal anything to Loki. If nobody else knew about the plan, then nobody else could reveal it, if they themselves were caught."

"So he wasn't compromised at all." She felt something intangible shift inside her chest. It was just a simple undercover operation, the same as they had done a dozen times before.

Coulson shook his head. "No," he said. "He was compromised. That much was real. But he had resisted it. He hopes… Because we asked him to, he will try…"

"To resist it again?" She remembered the men she had interrogated. Impossible to resist, they said. "To fool a god into thinking he's a mindless slave when all along he's…"

"Working for us. Yes."

She wanted to hit him. She wanted to shout. She wanted to…

She turned and blindly walked away.

******

The god was preparing for war.

Clint released the bowstring and sent the arrow into the makeshift target. His bow felt strange in his hands. Everything felt strange, as if he was wearing his skin like someone else's ill-fitting clothes.

He was afraid. He couldn't let himself be afraid.

"Again," the god said.

Clint pulled another arrow from the bulky quiver, unfamiliar on his back. Vermer sat nearby with his chest of plundered items, stroking them periodically like a musician playing a tune. Clint knew whenever his bow was touched - his proper bow, not this cold replica.

"Shoot at me," the god commanded.

Clint did so without hesitating, letting the arrow fly fast and true towards the god's face. Loki snatched it out of the air with a smile. "Again," he commanded. This time he turned and walked nonchalantly away. Clint nocked and loosed in the space of a single breath. Loki reached behind him without turning round, and stopped the arrow a hairsbreadth from his back.

Vermer's eyes were gleaming. Hidden in the chest, his fingers played their tune, and this time Clint was their instrument.

Clint felt his lips moving in a question. He forced the words to stop, and stood there, staring straight ahead. Had it been a test, he wondered, or a warning? If it was a warning, the message was clear. Against Loki, even the best marksman in the world was useless.

"Again," Loki said. "Vermer this time."

Vermer played his tune. Clint's hands did not move.

The god smiled.

Loki's army was preparing to move again. After Clint had joined them, they had travelled for a day and a night to a base in a deserted quarry. Now they were loading the dirigibles again. Only a few giants remained, and the human force was depleted, or so he had gathered from the chatter of those who served the god willingly.

"A small force for a god, is it not?" Loki's voice reflected his thoughts too closely. Clint made his mind blank, the way he did when focusing on a target, concentrating only on what he could see.

"But it is no matter," Loki said, smiling. "I have the jewel I was seeking. I sensed it from afar, far to the north, dormant beneath the ice. I caused it to awaken, and men came to its call, not knowing what they sought. I thought to snatch it from them and let them know my mastery, but the fools did not realise what they had found. They had cast it aside as worthless trash."

Clint wanted to ask more. He could not.

"It increases the effect of anything it is attached to," Loki said. "What need do I have of armies now, Agent Barton?"

Clint said nothing.

"Just a few soldiers such as you." Loki gathered up the arrows, and dropped them back into Clint's quiver. Clint stopped breathing; forced himself to start again. "A few soldiers such as you, to demonstrate my mastery, to kill the leaders and the heroes that they send against me. To kill those you once called friends." He touched Clint on the shoulder, the touch almost gentle. "Is that not so, my hawk?"

"Yes, my lord," he heard himself say.

******

end of chapter seven

******

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On to chapter eight
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