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Ere the World Falls

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The sonic boom ripped through the sky over Asgard’s capital, rattling windows in their casements and scaring clouds of pigeons into the air. It overlapped with a deafening crack, and the combined reverberations, enough to set the dust of the streets shivering into the air, vibrated through Loki’s chest. He frowned, looking up from the doll-like mask of the Svartálfar corpse he was examining. He knew that sound. Catching the eye of the einheri captain beside him, he tilted his head in silent command. “It seems my brother has come home,” he said. “We should give him a proper welcome.” The captain nodded and withdrew his men from their tasks.

They were in the part of the city worst hit by the skirmish, sweeping the streets for the last of the Svartálfar troops. Rubble and fallen artillery lay strewn about, and Loki could just make out the feathered stern of a longship clogging the entrance to Jewelers’ Row. Corpses, too, lay crumpled on the cobblestones, draped indiscriminately in einheri gold and elven black. Civilians peered out at them from behind their shutters, watching them work and waiting silently for the all-clear alarms to be sounded. The weight of their eyes on him would normally have brought with it a sense of their silent judgement, but this time Loki was far too preoccupied to care what the populace thought of him. He led the way through the winding streets, up stairs and through built-over tunnels, all the while dreading the meeting to come. He looked to the faces of the guards pacing him, and saw they, too, were eaten by morbid curiosity and nerves.

It had been long years since Thor was sentenced to exile for practicing the berserkergang and fomenting war between Asgard and Jötunheim. The Allfather’s justice was always swift, but somehow Thor had known what was coming. He had escaped his sentencing, and despite Loki’s best efforts to recapture him, he had always vanished—only to reappear on a new world, leaving corpses in his wake. And Loki, who knew every secret path to Asgard, could not find how he had gotten from realm to realm. Thor shouldn’t have been able to set foot in the city, let alone Asgard herself, without Loki knowing first. He checked the charms on his spear and broke into a run. The guards followed suit.

They heard Thor before they saw him. His hauntingly familiar voice echoed through the streets like his tumultuous landing, mingling with the sounds of combat and furious shouts. “You want me to put the hammer down?” Shouts turned to screams, punctuated by the meaty thud of metal on unprotected flesh and underscored by a low peal of vicious laughter. Loki opened up to a sprint, surpassing the guards to round the last corner. There, standing atop the stairs leading down to the Market Plaza, he saw his brother for the first time in two years.

He was a silver blur in the midst of a sea of yellow, the einherjar surrounding him trying unsuccessfully to subdue him. Thor slipped inside their guard, batting away their weapons like they were naught but children’s toys, Mjölnir shining like a star in his hand. He wore no cape, and his hair was tightly braided back from his face—concessions to melee the brother Loki remembered would never have made. His armor was scarred and pitted, and his arms, bare between his pauldrons and bracers, were overlaid by a thicket of mismatched scars. Thor had always loved battle, always relished tests of strength, but this new, unholy glee Loki saw in his brother’s eyes chilled him to the bone.

“One little, two little, three little fingers!” Thor laughed, and swung his hammer. Three einherjar fell beneath Mjolnir’s stroke, the weaknesses in their armor expertly exploited. Beside Loki, the einheri captain swore softly. “Four little, five little, six little fingers!”

Loki deemed it well past time to intervene. “Thor!” he cried, hoping that would cease his brother’s marauding, but Thor laughed again when he saw him, and crushed the ribcage of another guard. “Come join them, Loki! I could use a good fight!”

Loki gritted his teeth. Fighting Thor was exactly the last thing he wanted to do. “Thor, outlaw of no family, I am placing you under arrest for escaping Asgardian justice and for atrocities committed upon the realms. I order you to lay down arms and desist. In the name of Odin Allfather I say this.” Hearing his words, the guards surrounding Thor backed away, keeping their weapons trained on Thor but refusing to engage with his sallies. Thor looked at the thicket of blades pointing at him and sighed.

“You always did ruin a fight,” he said.

Loki didn’t rise to the bait. He made his way down the stairs, feeling vulnerable despite his armor, and examined his brother more closely. Thor had less muscle than before, and there were dark shadows under his blue eyes. He looked hungry, and a whipcord viciousness coiled through him. He wore a Nornish armband, Loki noted. He hadn’t realized Thor had made it to Nornheim. Karnilla had powerful magic; had he allied with her? He thought furiously. It would make sense.

“I’m no expert,” he said, planting the butt of his spear on the edge of the crater Thor had made in the flags, “but it seems to me even a good fight isn’t worth risking imprisonment or death.”

“No, those are the best fights,” Thor said, hefting Mjölnir. “Only a runty little coward like you wouldn’t notice the difference.”

A hush fell over the scene. The guards looked to Loki, speculation clear in their eyes. His fingers tightened on the shaft of his spear. Damn Thor for coming back, and damn him for putting Loki in this position. Loki may have been made crown prince in the wake of Thor’s disgrace, but he was by no means loved as Thor had been, and there were still voices in darkened taverns that whispered his brother should be restored to heir apparent.

“This is exactly what you want, isn’t it,” Loki hissed, raising his spear to meet the challenge. “To sow havoc and bloodshed wherever you go. Are you proud of yourself, Thor? Are you happy you tore our family apart?”

“It’s not your family,” Thor snarled, swinging his hammer at Loki’s head. “You’re not Odin’s son, you’re barely even an Asgardian! I should be prince, not you!”

“Well, it’s not like you left Father much choice,” Loki spat, dodging his blow and striking at Thor as hard as he could. Oh, how he hated his brother for trotting out his weaknesses yet again. Thor batted the spear aside.

“He had a choice!” Thor roared. “He chose wrong!”

“Only from your stunted view,” Loki said, twisting around an elbow to his chest. “It wasn’t me that used forbidden magic for all the realms to see.”

Thor scowled, blocking Loki’s strike to his lightly-armored flank. “You use forbidden magic all the time! Why is the berserkergang any different?”

“You know why! Don’t pretend you don’t know why!” Loki danced back from Thor’s windmill punch. “Father had to pay weregild for your actions! Hogun was a citizen of Vanaheim! A chief’s son, not some nameless karl!”

“He was my friend!” Thor bellowed, punching through Loki’s guard with Mjölnir to knock the wind out of him, and his feet out from under him.

Loki rolled frantically away, struggling to drag air into his lungs. Thor swung at his unprotected head, and missed crushing it by an unpleasantly narrow margin. In desperation Loki swung a punch at Thor’s face, catching him in the eye; Thor reared back, and Loki took the moment of reprieve to suck in a rasping breath.

“You were my brother,” he croaked, leaning on his spear and pushing himself to his feet.

Thor’s only reply was to set Mjölnir spinning. He whipped it at Loki’s head.

Loki dodged it, barely. He was already exhausted, worn from the battle and the emotional drain of seeing his brother; he had to end this fight now, before he slipped. Striking as quickly as he could, Loki lobbed a dagger at Thor’s face. The throw was off, but it hardly mattered; Thor lurched back, and as he did Loki conjured a double, sending it forward to distract him while Loki swept his feet out from under him. He went down like a sack of bricks. Loki shoved the point of his spear under his chin. “Surrender.”

Thor glared at him. “Can’t win a fight without cheating, can you, Loki.”

Loki pressed the spear tighter against Thor’s windpipe, angry and stung. “Not against you.”

“Loki!” Frigga’s voice cut through the tense air of the courtyard. “Let him up.”

Loki withdrew his blade in surprise, and backed away to watch his mother come down the steps. Her face was stoic, a sword ready in her hand. She handed it to a guard as she passed. She stopped short of where Thor was pushing himself to his feet. “You should not have come here, Thor,” she said quietly.

Thor drew himself up, not quite able to meet her eye. “Mother. I would help Asgard against the Dark Elves.”

Frigga looked pointedly at the fallen einherjar about the courtyard. “You can clear your wounded, now, captain.” The man bowed and began giving orders, directing the clean-up. Thor watched in silence, his eyes betraying a glimmer of guilt. It vanished as soon as Loki locked the manacles about his wrists.

He seized Loki’s surcoat, snarling in his face. “Take them off!”

“Make me,” Loki replied.

Thor growled, and looked as though he were ready to give a go, manacles or not—but Frigga was there, laying a hand on Thor’s scarred bicep. “Let your brother go.”

“He’s not my brother,” Thor muttered, shoving Loki as he released his grip.

There was a sad glint in Frigga’s eye. “I raised him as your brother, and your father called you both son. Who are you to contradict that?”

Loki stared fixedly at the pavestones before him.

Thor held up his manacled wrists. “Apparently, no one.”

Frigga sighed, and met Thor’s angry gaze. “I must take take you before Odin,” she said. “You are my son, Thor, but you have also broken the frith of Asgard’s rule. You must make your case to the Allfather.” She gestured, and two guards came to either side of him. Even diminished as he was they looked laughable next to him, their helmets barely reaching above his head.

Loki gestured them onward. “Take him to the palace,” he said. “The Allfather is in the War Room.” They nodded and escorted Thor up the stairs. The bulk of their remaining number went with them, keeping the disgraced prince under heavy guard for the entirety of the journey. Loki watched them go before turning back to his mother.

Frigga was standing in the middle of the courtyard, staring down at Mjölnir where Thor had dropped it. She reached down and picked it up, gently running her fingers over the knotwork inlaid in the metal. Chills ran down Loki’s spine. Was he the only one in his family who could not lift that mighty weapon?

The words burbled forth before he could stop them. “Why did you adopt me?” he asked, the old, familiar mix of suspicion and fear borne of uncertainty coiling in his gut. Thor’s return had done nothing but dredge up his inadequacies to the forefront of his mind.

Frigga cradled the hammer in her arms and looked to Loki. “Oh, Loki,” she said, and raised a hand to stroke his cheek. “It is true you are not of my flesh, but I love you no less, my son.”

Loki swayed where he stood, drained and heartsore. “That’s not what I asked.”

Frigga seemed to sense his distress, and her expression softened. “Have I ever told you how your father brought you to me?” She asked.

Loki glanced around for idle ears before shaking his head.

“He had just returned from Jötunheim, triumphant and full of battle fury. He cradled you in the crook of his arm all the way down the Causeway. I think he saw you more as a warprize than a child, at first, for when he presented you to me, it was as though he were displaying some great wealth of jewels. ‘Look what I have brought you, my queen,’ he said. ‘A son, even as you have given me yours.’ I, barely a decade out from birthing Thor, was unamused. ‘Did you think we had need of another child?’ I asked him, thinking only of the new responsibility he gave me. He said in reply, ‘I had thought he might be brother to Thor. They are not so far apart in age, and besides: he was left alone in the cold. He would have died had I not taken him.’ I accepted you grudgingly, Loki, I will not claim otherwise. But then I came to know you. You were such a sweet child, so bright and curious, so quick to smile. I could not help but love you. A child of my own, to whom I could teach my arts the way Odin taught Thor his; it was as though the Ancestors themselves had granted you to me. Odin, too, came to love you for your own merits, in time.” She reached out to cover Loki’s scraped hands with her own. “I would not have it any other way, Loki, son of Frigga.”

Loki started at the matronymic, his heart beating furiously in his chest. So he had been nothing but a prize, at first. “What about when you named me heir? Why would you do that for a fro—a Jötunn?”

Frigga gave him a look of gentle admonishment. “Because we felt you were worthy of it.” She took his free arm, steering them back toward the palace. Loki couldn’t help glancing at Mjölnir, tucked in the crook of her arm like an infant. He looked quickly away, but Frigga caught him staring. She snorted.

“You may have noticed, but Mjölnir only accepts the most absolute certainty from its wielder. Thor and Odin have it in spades. You and I, we must use spellcraft.”

Loki stared at her, eyes narrowing; now that she said it, he could feel the subtle bands of magic coiling about the hammer’s shaft, masking her mind and augmenting her strength. His eyes widened. “That’s cheating!”

Frigga smiled serenely. “You think you’re the only one who bends the rules to get what they want? My son, you have much to learn.”

Loki was beginning to see that. He wanted to ask more, to lance the old wound and let it drain a little more, but the words lodged in his throat. He swallowed them back and let the matter drop. They walked back to the palace arm in arm, and the sick, falling sensation in Loki’s gut followed him every step of the way. You’re not Odin’s son, Thor sneered in his thoughts. I should be prince, not you.

***

“It is only your offer of aid that has stayed me from ordering your execution,” Odin was saying as Loki and Frigga entered the audience hall. He felt more than heard his mother’s sharp intake of breath as they joined the small gathering below the seat of Asgard’s throne. Odin glanced to them in acknowledgement, then went on. “Malekith has proven his is willing to raze Asgard to the ground if it means he will get the Aether. I will do whatever I must to prevent that.”

Thor’s audience had already begun. Odin stood upon Hlidskjálf, looking down upon his oldest son with a black scowl upon his face. Loki wondered how much of his anger was due to Thor’s crimes, and how much was due to his fall from his father’s hopes and expectations.

“I had heard of your troubles,” Thor replied, and the sardonic edge to his voice was strange to Loki’s ears. “Though I did not hear you had the Aether. I thought Bor destroyed it.”

Odin gestured off to the side of the throne, where the clustered columns cast a deep shadows. Loki tensed. He glanced to Thor, watching his reaction as Jane emerged from the gloom. She looked small and fragile in the corner of his eye, as all Midgardians did, and though her countenance was petrified, she did not falter in her steps.

Thor started, genuinely surprised. He broke into a grin. “Jane Foster,” he said. “It is good to see you again.” Loki wanted to rip that grin off Thor’s face. Jane glanced to Loki. He met her gaze and nodded in what he hoped was an encouraging manner.

“This mortal managed to find and activate the Aether,” Odin said. “Loki found her and brought her to Asgard, that we might remove it.”

“Ahh,” Thor said. “Sweet Jane Foster. It seems your curiosity has finally betrayed you.”

“You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Thor,” she replied, her voice was strong, betraying only a slight wobble. Loki once again found himself admiring this tiny creature. And the power surging through her, he admired that, too.

Thor chuckled, a dark laugh full of promise, and Loki saw Jane shiver. “Enough,” he said, stepping forward to Thor’s side and staring him down. “Enough, Thor. Leave her be.”

“Getting attached, brother?” He leaned forward, into Loki’s space. “Remember—I was there first.”

Loki’s lip curled, but he said nothing. Instead, he looked to their father. Odin was watching the drama play out, face creased in disapproval. “Thor, you will be sent to the prisons to await future sentencing,” he pronounced. “You will remain there unless we have need of your skill. Loki, you will take him.” Loki bowed, and found himself wondering if Odin would have felt it as keenly if he had been the betraying son. He glanced to Jane before ordering the guards to place Thor in chains; a healer was at her side, bundling her away from the throne room. Loki turned back to Thor. Somehow he doubted it.

The procession was a quiet one. Loki led the way, followed by the soft jangling of Thor’s chains and the clank of the guards’ armor. The earlier silence of the city had dissolved in the wake of the all-clear sirens, the shock of the skirmish with the Svartálfar sharp in people’s minds and on their tongues. Everywhere neighbors were chatting over walls and on street corners, and the taverns and restaurants were full to bursting despite the threat of war. The noise only grew as the procession passed, and rumors flew that the crown prince had been spotted leading his disgraced elder brother to the Hall of Justice in chains. Loki read the curiosity in their faces, and the fear and hope as they looked upon Thor.

“It seems my people have not forgotten me,” Thor called forward. Loki ignored him, schooling his face to impassivity, and picked up the pace out of spite.

The Hall of Justice was a shining dome of a building, lined all about with colonnades and reflecting pools. Loki strode up the stairs to the main entrance; Forseti and Tyr were waiting. Chief Justice and Commander of the Einherjar respectively, they looked upon Thor with grim faces.

“Returned, has he?” Forseti said, his golden head tilting in interest.

Loki turned to look back at Thor, standing nonchalantly between his guards as though he weren’t dragging near his weight in chains. “Father has decreed he’ll be kept imprisoned until his punishment is decided.”

“Well, there’s room enough for him,” Forseti said. “I’m sure you know the way?”

Loki nodded and took his leave, gesturing to the guards. They tugged Thor forward, into the Hall and toward the dungeons. Tyr spoke as they passed, his gravelly voice carrying through the pillared arcade. “Oathbreaker.”

Loki closed his eyes. “Damn.” When he opened them, he saw that Thor had torn free from his captors and was looming over Tyr, challenge written in his stance. “Call me an oathbreaker again, and I will tell you the story of a man with two hands,” he growled.

Tyr puffed up like an offended cat, and Loki wanted nothing more than to bash his head against the nearest wall. He started toward the impending holmgang, but Forseti got there first. He spoke to the two antagonists, softly as was his wont; Loki couldn’t make out the words, but the prickliness of their demeanors eased the longer he talked. This was Forseti’s gift: he could ease the hearts of those around him, and if not reconcile them completely, at least bring them to an accord. Thor’s face was hidden from Loki, but Tyr’s was plain to see. There was anger in it, and he stroked the stump where his hand should be, but he no longer seemed inclined toward homicide. Forseti asked him something. “Yes,” Tyr replied, after some difficulty of spirit.

“Do you swear not to shed blood in this House?” Forseti asked Thor, his words finally audible. Thor’s pause was even longer, and the thunderclouds across Tyr’s brow darkened. “Yes,” he said after far too long. Forseti nodded, relief more than a little evident in his expression.

“Good,” he said. “Leave your quarrel here, and part with honor unstained.” Tyr jerked a short bow to Forseti, then walked stiffly down the arcade before disappearing between two columns. Loki pondered the delicacy of honor, and the unnecessary fuss spent on keeping it whole. He could never hope to voice it out loud and retain the loyalty of his men, but he thought on its utter uselessness all the same. He grabbed Thor’s arm to drag him back into line. He nodded his thanks to Forseti, who nodded in turn and vanished into the darkness of the Hall.

“Now if you’re quite finished with your measuring,” he said.

Thor snorted, glaring out at nothing in particular. “Just because your cock is shriveled and useless as your balls, Loki, does not mean the rest of ours are.”

Fast as a snake Loki had a blade tucked up against Thor’s jugular. “Don’t test me, Thor,” he said softly. “Father said you were to be kept safe in the dungeons, but I assure you I can find a way to ensure my blade slips. Riots are so common, after all.”

Thor transferred his glare to Loki’s face. “Do it, and you’ll never be king. You know, don’t you. You must, by now. You’re no son of my father.”

Bitter gall pooled in the back of Loki’s mouth. “What do you know of it?” he hissed, shoving Thor back in a clatter of chains.

“I know many things,” Thor said loftily, nastily. “I always knew you were adopted, you never fit in properly. But there are all manner of beings on the Tree, and some of them know a thing or two. Some are even willing to talk. Minus a few fingers, of course.”

Loki stared at Thor, wordless. He had done his utmost to conceal the truth of his heritage. Aside from his parents, only a single frost giant scout knew he was less than Asgardian, and he hadn’t lived long enough to tell the tale. It was only Thor’s general lack of subterfuge that convinced Loki his brother wasn’t playing upon his insecurities, and that he had found someone who had at told him, if not the actual truth, then at least what he wanted to hear. Suddenly furious, he seized Thor by the collar and flung him forward, deeper into the Hall. Thor stumbled but didn’t fall, much to Loki’s annoyance, and he righted himself with a laugh. “Hit a tender spot, did I?” The guards exchanged wide-eyed glances. Loki ignored them and Thor’s teasing probe, taking the stairs to the dungeons below at a quick trot. He could hear Thor struggling to keep up, hampered by the chains. It was a petty victory, but Loki found himself smirking in satisfaction.

Many turns and corridors later, they reached the prison level. A long line of cells stretched out before them, all of them pristine white but for the dark stains of their occupants. All were shielded by golden fields chased over by knotwork and runes. Loki led Thor to a darkened cell, its field not yet activated, and waved for the guards to toss him in.

The walls and ceiling lit up as soon as Thor stepped onto the immaculate tiled floor. Squinting against the brightness, Loki handed his spear back to one of the guards and followed him in. The guards tripped the sequence that activated the fields; the achingly white light was filtered with gold as they lowered. Loki stared at Thor, who stared at the fields. Loki didn’t like the calculating air to his expression. He stepped forward and began to unlock the chains.

“You want to know what I know, don’t you,” Thor said as Loki unwrapped one chain and dissolved it into a dimensional pocket. “It’s eating at you.”

“Shut up, Thor.”

Thor snorted. “Not up to your usual standard, Loki,” he mocked.

Loki flipped a chain over Thor’s shoulder, narrowly avoiding flicking him in the face. “It’s better than anything you can come up with.”

“I should tell you, just to see what you do,” Thor jabbed back, annoyed. “Would you try to hit me? That’s always funny.”

Loki ground his teeth. “I’m not sure whether I’m as curious to hear as you are desperate to say,” he said. He unlocked the chain about Thor’s belt, loosening the rest. He slipped the contraption off and vanished it away.

Thor glared at him. “Don’t pretend you don’t want to know, Loki. Remember, we were children together. I know how you think.”

“Then as I so clearly wish to know, and you so clearly wish to share, I’m sure you’ll end our mutual torment.”

This response, predictably, displeased Thor. “Maybe I won’t,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just keep it to myself.”

Loki applied himself to the manacles. “Suit yourself. I'm meeting with Mother to go over evacuation plans, I don't have time to sit and listen to you argue with yourself all day.” He stepped back, manacles in hand, and turned toward the field where the guard waited to let him back out.

“Did she tell you you're a frost giant?” Thor’s voice was overloud, clearly reaching the ears of the guards beyond. Loki froze, his very worst fears confirmed. He turned, his face pinched in a frown.

“What?”

Thor smirked. “You’re a frost giant, not an Asgardian. Did Mother ever tell you? I ripped it from a Jötunn temple guard along with his fingernails. Your father is Laufey, not Odin. You’re a frost giant spy, a cuckoo in the nest.”

Loki blinked at him for a moment, then began to laugh. It was a jagged, torn thing, a twisted perversion of a laugh, full of derision and condescension. “Oh, Thor,” he said, shaking his head. “What a fool you are. Do you honestly think that a frost giant would know such things? That a frost giant would know anything at all? He played you for a fool just to get the pain to stop, and you, you great idiot, swallowed the lie whole. If I felt anything but pity I would strike you down here and now for that, brother or no.”

Thor’s face curdled into a motley shade of red, but Loki had already gestured to the guard to raise the field. By the time Thor had mustered his words Loki was safe on the other side, and beyond the reach of his fists. It took every ounce of his determination to meet the guards’ gazes and roll his eyes.

“Loki!” Thor yelled behind him. “Don’t you turn your back on me! I’ll find you and strike you down, you filthy frost giant! I’ll rip your head off, do you hear me?”

“Ancestors spare me,” Loki muttered, shaking his head. “Get him some food when he’s calmed down.” He took his spear back from the guard.

“Do you believe it, m’Lord?” the guard asked. Loki speared him with his stare. “I-I mean that you’re adopted,” he stuttered, eyes skittering to the side. “Not that rubbish about you being a frost giant.”

Loki turned away. “I believe he believes it. He took it hard, when he lost the inheritance.” His tone was dismissive and final, and the guard let the matter drop. He left them both there in the prison stretch, his stride calm and brisk, his expression carefully set in an annoyed mask.

Inside, he seethed.

***

No more than a day later, the Svartálfar reappeared, this time their ships poised over every major point in the city. Odin was leading a squadron of einherjar to the throne room when Loki ran into him, struggling into his surcoat and trying to buckle his baldric at the same time. “Father,” he called, straightening himself at the last second. “What would you have me do?”

Odin paused a moment, staring at his younger son as though he had forgotten about him. “Go to your brother,” he finally said. “We have need of his arm.”

Loki gave a jerky nod as his father passed, bitterly unsurprised, then paused mid-step. His mother’s words came to him, and with a spreading grin, he turned back the way he had come.

Mjölnir had been returned to the weapons vault in the absence of his brother’s hand, and Loki thought he might now have a way to get him back for the day before. It was with light steps and a budding plan he raced to the weapons vault, tying back his hair as he ran. Already in the distance he could hear the ratatat of repeater fire, and the metallic clangs of shield on armor. The guard about the weapons vault had been tripled, as per the Allfather’s standing order, but Loki barely paused to acknowledge them as he slipped past. They knew better than to question him, in any case.

The vault was dark when he entered, and cold. Loki summoned a tiny flame before checking the alcoves. The eye… the flame… the hand… the head… the hammer. Locking down his inner turmoil, Loki rooted himself in his magic, wrapped its tendrils about Mjölnir’s haft and head, and pulled. It came as easily as a daisy from its stem, and Loki almost felt disappointed. It was swamped, however, in a wave of exultation and the thrill of conquest. “Let Thor see how he likes this,” he said, and laughed. Then he turned and sprinted back up the stairs.

He could see the shock in the guards’ eyes when he emerged, hammer in hand. Their expressions gratified him in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

The moment was short lived, when from above came a thunderous explosion, and the renewed popping of weapons fire. “Time to go,” he said, and raced back up the hall.

Quick as a fox he ran, dodging guards and civilians and making for the Hall of Justice as fast as he could. Not for the first time he cursed the monumental size of Asgard’s architecture, forced as he was to run down pillared hallways and cloistered walks, through meeting chambers and feasting halls and all manner of bureaucratic structural nonsense before he reached the palace entry hall. He brought himself up short on the top step, staring, then ducked behind a guardian statue as an energy bolt sizzled through the air where his head had been. He took a deep breath, calming his racing heart, then peeked out to get a better look.

Blocking his way was a battalion of einherjar, facing off against a ragtag cadre of elves. They poured like an oil-slick from their landed ship, their blank-eyed masks maggot-pale in the morning sunlight. Loki hesitated half a heartbeat, then seized his magic, twisting it to slip himself through the veil of reality into the In Between.

Mjölnir burned in his hand, pushing against the sudden non-reality Loki had forced upon it. It dragged against his magic, resisting the unnatural character of their surroundings, and threatened to drop them back into the middle of the firefight. Gritting his teeth, Loki forced all the strength of his will into locking them in place. On one side lay death. On the other, oblivion. The hammer could accept the liminality, and with it, preserve its current wielder’s life, or it could battle him for dominance—and be lost if it won. Loki focused his will to a fine edge. He would not be the one to yield. As if it sensed his conviction, the hammer’s resistance eased, and lay quiescent. Loki heaved an airless sigh of relief and looked around.

Shadows predominated in his sight. The men of the Einherjar were little more than smudges in his vision, the Svartálfar slightly clearer. Only Asgard’s buildings stood firm, deathless for millenia and leaving an imprint not to be denied. Loki could feel the tap of a fingernail against the fragile moorings of his soul, reminding him of his own, however distant, death. He sucked in a stifled breath, counted his steps, and Walked.

One step took him past the incipient battle, Mjölnir ablaze in his hand; another through the palace sally port. A third drew him level with the Causeway’s root. Buildings flew by at dizzying speeds, and only the smearing of shadow in his peripheral vision eased his disorientation. A fourth brought him to the Market Plaza, the impact of Thor’s landing the day before nothing more than a tiny spiderweb of fractures in the flags. A fifth, beyond the artillery tower for this division of the City. He fought to keep his breakfast down. His sixth step came out at the foot of the Hall of Justice, and his final step deposited him at the base of the stairs before the prison stretch. Loki fell out of the In Between, dropping the hammer. He fell to his knees, sucking in air in a massive gasp. Sweat cooled on his skin. He waited for his breathing to ease, then struggled to his feet. There was no time to waste; even in this place he could hear the sirens wailing, and he had seen the Svartálfar ship hovering over the Hall. He drew himself to his feet, hefted Mjölnir, and went to see his brother.

The prisoners were restless, milling about and testing the fields’ integrity. Thor stood waiting as Loki approached, an expression of impotent frustration on his face. That dissolved when he saw Mjölnir in Loki’s hand.

“That’s mine!” he said, sounding like nothing so much as an overgrown child. “Give it back!”

Loki held the hammer up. “What, this? You want it back?” He looked at Mjölnir and frowned, as though deeply confused. “Whyever for? It’s awfully fickle, for a one-man hammer.”

Thor practically growled in his cage. Loki smirked.

“The elves are attacking, I can hear them,” Thor said, pounding on the fields holding him in. “Let me out, and I will fight for you.”

Loki sobered. “If I give you this hammer, do you promise not to enter the berserkergang?” Do it anyway, a small voice deep inside him said. I want to see. Loki pushed it down. There wasn’t time to quibble over their allies, not when Asgard’s safety was nominally in their interest, but the berserkergang was no ally.

Thor smiled a hungry smile. “Give me Mjölnir, and I am yours to command.”

Loki considered his options. He raised the field.

END