A human fool started the Apocalypse. He was immediately sorry but had little time to regret his actions before the Gates of Hell opened and two Hellhounds ripped his throat out.
But Sif was glad it had started finally, because that meant the Host was sent to battle. Finally she could use her sword and dispatch the low level minions. It was glorious, cleaving through the hideous creatures and burning them with her sword of holy flame.
The Humans in the middle almost didn’t notice, since the war happened mostly on a different plane of existence, in the shadows and behind mirrors where they couldn’t quite see.
The war dragged on. Demons falling by the score, cherubim by the dozens, and yet there was no victory. There seemed no end to invasion, and no one could find the Gates to close them. It dragged on, past glory into necessity. And she began to wonder why she saw only the minions. No lords, no master, no king. Where were they?
She spoke urgently with the Allfather with her suspicions. “There must be something else happening. Why else are there no lords, my king? They empty Hell of the servants and dogs, but where are the masters? Why do they not come forth?”
The Allfather stroked his beard and looked enigmatic. “They have come forth, Lady Sif.”
“Then where are they? Send me to them, so they might be slain and this war ended, my lord!”
The queen raised a hand to gesture Sif to calm, and she exchanged a glance with the king before she said, “They are among the humans already, Lady Sif.”
“But how can such foul creatures disguise themselves to fool even a human?” Sif demanded in shock. “To say nothing of the Host?”
The king and queen exchanged another glance and the king said, “Because not all demons are foul, Lady Sif. They remain our kin -- fallen, but still of the Host.”
The queen added, “We would welcome them back. Some we sorrow to have lost.”
The king shook his head in denial, beard rustling. “Nay, my queen, we sorry that they have fallen. But now, it is too late. The fallen send forth their minions to do battle, while they hide in the shadows, waiting to seize dominion over the Earth.”
Amazed and alarmed by this news, Sif left the great hall, troubled in heart. It troubled her more to wonder why she never knew this before and why she was being told now.
It was troubling enough she decided to go to Earth herself. It was strange to walk the streets of the mortal realm, with her wings and grace hidden.
Knowing there were Hell Lords on Earth, she expected Earth to seem frightened, or beaten. She expected ruins. She saw only a mortal realm that continued. Life went on, separate from the war waging between Heaven and Hell.
The only sign of the Apocalypse was the constant storm that darkened the sky – lighting flashed, thunder rumbled, and the rain came down, sometimes in mist and sometimes in sheets, but it was rarely not wet. The lower angels said it was because the Creator cried for the deaths of his children; the mortals argued over the climate. They were both wrong: the storm happened whenever Archangel Thor fought, and he loved to fight.
She saw children playing in the rain, laughing as they kicked as much water as their ball. They were resilient, but she wished they would know peace.
There would be no peace until the demons were sent back to their master, Hell King Thanos, and the gate was closed.
Light and music spilled out from a building across the street, as a group of people emerged, their laughter echoing across the walls. Curious, Sif crossed and pushed the door open.
Noise and warmth pressed against her and she had to blink, trying to adjust to the change. There was a television broadcasting a game far away where it was snowing across the grassy field, while words crawled across the bottom that she didn’t read, fearing it was reports of death, collateral damage of a fight that few could see.
She found a stool near the front window and turned to watch the crowd. Some watched the sport, some gathered at the bar to drink, and others gathered together in small groups to eat and drink.
A man said, at her elbow. “Is this taken?”
Sif turned to look at him, finding nothing remarkable in the mortal. “It is.”
“Can I buy you a drink?”
“If you wish,” Sif said with a shrug, and turned away.
He seized her shoulder. “Hey, I was being polite--”
She turned back, one hand seizing his wrist and whipping it downward until he gasped. “Do not touch me,” she hissed. Perhaps a bit of Grace gleamed in her eyes because he suddenly went pale, or perhaps it was pain. “Go away.”
He crawled away with less dignity and intelligence than the lowest demon, she thought with disgust.
One of the male servitors came up, “Everything okay? Do you want us to throw him out?” he asked, dark eyes soft with concern and so she smiled at his kindness.
“That seems not necessary, not for my sake,” she answered and said to him what she’d heard another person order, “I will have a Sunrise Martini.” The martini proved a beautiful drink, orange and yellow layers with fruit meant to be the sun on the edge of the glass. She sat it on the ledge in front of her to admire before ruining the artistry of it.
Outside, the streetlights glinted off the wet pavement, and the reflection of the lights behind her meant she didn’t see when it happened, only heard with everyone else as two women came in the door, calling, “The rain’s stopped! It’s like a miracle!”
“You can see the moon!”
Sif smiled and shook her head. Thor must have gone Home to visit his parents. She should tell him to give the mortals a break and let the storm clouds pass for a while. But she knew what he would say, better that the mortals live in the storm than live under demon rule.
Sipping her drink, she found it sweet with fruit essences, quite pleasant. As she was nearing the end of it, a different servitor came up to her. “Want another? Or something--?” But her gaze was distracted and her words fell silent as the door opened. “He’s back,” she murmured and her smile grew wider with delight.
Sif turned to see who was having this effect on the woman.
The man was tall, wearing a long dark coat that flowed around a slender frame and black hair framed a pale face of arresting angles. Something deep inside her began to glow at the sight of him. Her lips parted and couldn’t draw breath.
The waitress dropped Sif cold and headed for him. “You’re back!”
His smile seemed lazy but warm. “Cora, good evening.”
“Is it true, it stopped raining?” Cora asked, and his smile widened.
“Indeed, it has. Sadly the sun is not up, but the moon will have to do. It’s still cool and damp out there, so coffee with whiskey if you would.”
She nodded and went off to fetch it. He turned, searching for an open space. When his eyes fell on her, he grew still, and though his expression was unreadable, she thought he was surprised. He recovered quickly, spying the empty stool near her. “May I sit here?” he asked her.
And where she’d told the first man no, this time she didn’t hesitate to answer. But she made her voice casual and gave a shrug. “If you like. I’m Sif.”
“Sif?” he repeated. “The famous Sif?”
“Famous?” she said and laughed. Did some famous mortal have her name and she didn’t even know about it? “I’m not famous.”
“No? Well, you’re beautiful enough you should be,” he said, and her jaw loosened at the line, and she had to shake her head in appreciation.
“Very smooth,” she told him, amused, and he inclined his head accepting the compliment, with a smirk hovering on his lips. “And your name?” she prompted, when he didn’t immediately offer one.
He stilled and the little smile became fixed for a moment before it widened again. “Loki,” he answered and he seemed tense, waiting for a reaction.
“Oh, are you famous?” she asked, teasing. “Should I know your name?”
He relaxed, and yet the curve of his mouth seemed more bitter than amused. “No, it was someone else’s name, long ago. I thought you might know that.”
She shrugged. “No, I know little of such histories.” She almost said ‘mortal history’ but caught herself in time.
Cora came with his drink, which came in a glass mug, and when he offered Sif a refill of her own, she accepted. When they were alone again, he wrapped both hands around the mug to warm his hands and inhaled the steam, with his eyes closed. “I think I love the smell more than the taste,” he murmured.
She could smell it, too, and she didn’t think it smelled all that wonderful, but what did she know? “So, tell me, what did the previous Loki do?”
His eyes popped open. “Well, I – I heard--” He started a bit hesitantly, as if surprised she would ask, but soon settled and leaned back. “It’s said… there was a powerful king, who had three sons, and is often the case, the youngest found himself over-shadowed. He grew resentful that the first were so lauded when he was not. He decided instead of fighting he would seek his own path elsewhere, but not even that was permitted; they brought him to battle, and by accident, the middle brother, who was the one most loved, was slain.” He halted and sipped at his drink before finishing, “Believing Loki irredeemable, they threw him into a dark pit to suffer for all eternity.”
His voice was soft but she shivered, sensing the horror of his story for herself. “That seems a tragic name to have. Were your parents so cruel?”
His finger traced the rim of his mug and he stared into the depths. “I have long thought so. Though that is not the end. Because he climbed out of that pit to find his freedom and take his revenge on those who wronged him.”
“Good for him,” she said, with a nod. A smile flickered across his lips.
“So fierce?” he asked.
She could have answered she was an angel of the Host and she had been made fierce, but she answered, “I have my moments.”
“I’m sure you do,” he answered. Their eyes met and she felt that strange tightening in her abdomen that made her breath short in this human body.
“Would you like to get something to eat?” she blurted. “I mean, with me?” It was graceless, and human must be some sort of contagion because she was suddenly behaving like an awkward mortal, not one of the Host. But that didn’t change how she waited, hopeful for his answer.
“Shall I ask Cora for a table in back?” he asked.
She’d been hoping to go elsewhere, but smiled. “Somewhere we could talk more easily.”
For a long moment, his eyes met hers, and she felt measured in his gaze, and a frown deepened between his brows as if he wasn’t understanding her. Maybe she was doing something wrong. She had observed humans for many years, but that wasn’t quite the same as pretending to be one. There being nothing to gain from admitting that, she just smiled and waited.
Cora brought them to the very last booth, a small one right near the kitchen with high backs for the two bench seats that offered the illusion of privacy, though the wait staff continually walked past.
“So, she likes you,” Sif observed, nodding in the direction Cora had gone to put their food order in.
Loki shrugged. “Some men were threatening her brother. I persuaded them to leave him alone.”
“Oh, persuaded. That sounds exciting,” she leaned forward. “What did you do?”
“I threatened them,” he answered simply, leaning back against the wood and tapping the fingers of one hand idly against the tabletop. “They were cowards, and easily impressed.”
She lifted her eyebrows at him, feeling rather easily impressed herself. “That sounds pretty fierce, yourself.”
His lips curved in a smile as their eyes met. “I have my moments.”
The deliberate echo of her words made her grin, and a shiver pass through her corporeal form.
Hours passed, talk and drink and food were shared, and when the empty plates were removed, Sif propped her head up on one hand, with a smile she couldn’t suppress teasing her lips as she looked at him. She wasn’t even listening to his words anymore – he was declaiming something about an author she’d never heard of – but she was basking in his passion. He didn’t do anything by half, it seemed, and for a mortal he was more like her than anyone she’d ever met.
She would enjoy an eternity of looking at him: shining eyes, handsome face, long fingers flicking through the air gracefully….
It came to an end when his gaze flicked to the front of the bar, and he fell silent. Sudden intensity burned in those eyes. “Forgive me, Sif,” he said with only partial attention on her. “This has been most delightful, but I must go. There is business I must attend.” He stood up. She turned to see what he was looking at, but saw nothing unusual.
“Will I see you again?” she blurted, too eagerly for trying to be cool with him.
His smile was bright and sharp. “If you wish. Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” she agreed with a nod, and her heart felt bright and full as she watched him go.
They met the next day, and the day after. They talked – mostly he talked, about people he knew or books he’d read, and he gently questioned her impulse to defer to authority. She wanted to say that of course the All-Father was always right, but because she couldn’t speak of ‘her boss’ as a supernatural entity of immortal wisdom, she was forced to think that perhaps ‘always right’ wasn’t true. And that unquestioning obedience was not always good.
“So do you not obey your superiors?” she challenged.
He smirked. “Only when I wish to. And only when they deserve it.”
“If only we could all exist so freely.”
He saluted her with his cup. “Someday.”
She drank to that. “Shall we get out of here? The rain has stopped again, and I’d like to walk with you.”
He hesitated. “It’s late. There are, uh, criminals and other bad people about at night.”
“I’ll protect you,” she offered, meaning it, though she made the offer more jokingly. No one would get past her blade to harm him.
He smiled into his cup before he drained it and set it on the table. “It sounds reckless and exciting. So why not?”
Out on the street, the night was cool and damp, and the lights shone amber and orange on the dark grey of the streets and sidewalks. She held out her hand to feel the lack of rain, then yelped as a stray drop from an awning fell on the back of her neck. Loki snickered, until she smacked him in the arm with the back of her hand. Somehow that ended with her hand tucked in his. Neither of them said anything about it, holding hands, as they walked. Except for the occasional car passing or people gathered near scattered night-life spots, they were alone, passing shuttered storefronts and flickering neon.
“The city seems quiet,” she murmured. “I thought more would be outside since the rain stopped.”
“It’s late. Most people are at home.”
“What about you?” she asked. “Where’s home?”
He shrugged. “I don’t have one, not a true ‘home’. Where I live is temporary.”
She wished it didn’t feel so much like a warning. “Oh? Why is that? Surely you’re not leaving?”
He looked away and admitted, “I would rather not, but it seems likely I’ll have to move on. Spending time with you, makes me wish I didn’t have to. But the reality is, this can’t last.”
Though she believed that was true too, she didn’t want to admit it. “Maybe there could be a way? You and I could try to make it work...”
He stopped and lifted her hand to his lips. “I wish that could be true.”
As she looked into his eyes, she wondered how she had fallen so hard and fast for this mortal. He was more right than he knew – he didn’t know the truth about her and how impossible it would be – but if she told him… if he knew that distance was no bar to a relationship?
But no, that was absurd. She was of the Host, a thousand years old, and this flirtation of hers was foolish.
Which didn’t make the hurt less.
Pulling her hand from his, she lifted her chin, “Then I think we should just say goodbye.”
He nodded in sad agreement. “I think it would be wise. You and I … are not meant to be together, Sif. It’s impossible. But so you know for later, I have enjoyed these nights with you more than you can possibly imagine. They’ve been… an oasis of peace and beauty, that have reminded me there’s more to life than the darkness in the rest of my life. So, I thank you for that.”
Though curious what he meant by the ‘darkness in the rest of his life’ since he’d been rather vague about his business, she nonetheless understood. Being with him was a refuge from the battle. She knew demons were out there, but on the mortal plane when she was with him, the battle seemed far away.
Yet now he was going to have to go to his real life, which meant she would, too.
She swallowed hard and dampened her lips, determined to be brave and let him go with a smile. “And I thank you, Loki. Perhaps we’ll see each other again, one day.”
“Perhaps,” he answered. “Until then, farewell.”
He turned, long black coat hanging behind him like a cape, and his form dipped in and out of the pools of the streetlights until he was gone.
It fit her mood that the sky began to drip again, with cold and heavy droplets sliding down her cheeks.
She returned the war, yet found little to fight. Where were they? Once, a demonling saw her and tried to flee. Laughing, she pursued it and ended, but that was one of the few who crossed her path.
But it was a strange fortune and did not last, as finally a demon lord coalesced out of the higher plane, right in front of her.
This one was not afraid of her. The demon’s silver eyes glowed with malice, as it smiled and gestured with its clawed hand. Oozing out the shadows behind it, she saw Hellhounds.
Demonic beasts, half her height at its shoulder, with fangs and claws sized to match – one would be little difficulty for a fighter of her skill. But one by one, they emerged until she counted ten.
This was no accident, but an ambush. She extended her blade and grimly readied herself to battle for her life.
“No!” a male voice called in command.
Sif turned her head, first alarmed that anyone was there, and then horrified to see Loki standing in the middle of the wet street. “Run!” she shouted. “Loki, run!”
He didn’t. Instead, he kept walking down the street, between the parallel yellow lines, toward them. He looked straight at the demon and hellhounds – wait, how could he see them? How could he see her?
The demon smirked, not noticing anything strange, and gestured with one clawed hand to send some of the Hellhounds against the interloper.
Four turned to slink toward him, but as they grew closer, they shook their heads as if confused and then abruptly burst into a run right for him. She yelled a warning, stricken with the belief they were about to rip him to pieces.
But instead, they ran around him, circling him, but not attacking. What were they doing? Hellhounds lived to hunt and kill, that was what they did. She’d thought that was only thing they could do, until one pushed its muzzle against Loki’s hand until he rubbed its thick fur of its head and neck. The four planted themselves on either side of Loki like bodyguards and turned their hostility to their former master.
“She was not to be touched,” Loki declared, glaring at the demon. “You disobeyed.”
The demon hissed, “I take no orders from mortals.”
“Fool. Can a mortal know you for what you are?” Loki demanded. “No disguise will hide your true form from me.”
He spread out his arms to either side and a brilliant light flashed, washing the darkened street with golden light. Within the light, Loki was visible as a shadow against the light, with wings at his back.
Wings. He was one of the Host. And more. Her mouth dropped in awe, as the wings unfurled.
Beautiful wings black as a raven’s shadowed at the tips to merge with the night, Towering infinite wings, gleaming at the edges with blue fire, and they were matched by the Light pouring from him, as he let slip the mortal guise to reveal the power within.
The demon behind her fell to his knees. “Great Ikol, I meant to obey, I was but toying with the angel. She is our enemy, I thought--”
A long thin blade appeared in Loki’s hand as he stood before the demon. “You disobeyed me,” Loki said. “What did I say would be the penalty for that?” The demon closed his eyes in resignation and for a moment Sif felt pity for him, before Loki struck and the demon’s head rolled off and thumped on the ground.
Loki shut his eyes and the Light and the wings vanished, leaving only cold and darkness behind.
“Ikol,” she managed to make her voice work, despite feeling so much like a fool. “I-- I should’ve known.”
Ikol was the Prince of Hell, second only to Thanos. But that wasn’t all, because now she also knew the terrible secret kept from the rest of the Host that Ikol was also one of the Seraphim. He was one of the few, the greatest of the Host. How could one so great fall so far?
“Loki,” he corrected. “It is my true name. The Allfather struck it from knowledge when he threw me into the Abyss. But I reclaim it now.”
“No,” she whispered and shook her head in helpless denial. This couldn’t be. “You tricked me. You knew all along.”
“About you? Of course.” He smiled, amused. “They call me the Prince of Lies, you know, not because I lie, but because I see through all untruths. Including your mortal guise.” His amusement faded away for something darker. “I always have. And I remain Loki of the Seraphim, not even the Allfather may change that I am of the highest order.”
“The lowest,” she snapped. “Causing death and war and ruin, for the glory of your master!”
He recoiled, stung by her accusation. “I have no master,” he snarled. “I refused to be second to Thor, do you think I would so easily be second to Thanos?” he demanded and let out a harsh bitter laugh. “Oh, he tried, believe me, he tried. A thousand years of pain and darkness, languishing in his pit, while he sought to unmake me and force me to serve. So I deceived, I promised, I lied, and when the chance came to escape I did.”
She shook her head, rejecting what he claimed. “You seek the conquest of Earth!”
“Nay, Lady Sif. I have no interest in dominion over Earth.”
“Then what are they for?” she pointed at the Hellhounds watching him in adoration. “If not conquest.”
His smile was slow and vicious. “So I can watch my enemies destroy each other, of course.”
“But the mortals--”
“Do they seem unduly frightened? If not for my brother’s constant storms, would they even notice the war raging all around them?” he countered. “I keep them as safe as I can.”
She opened her mouth to object, but shut it again. The street was empty, except for them. Even the rain had stopped. She glanced up at the sky and could see stars, pure silvery light in the darkness, and looked at Loki again. He brought the clear skies. She recalled the mortals in the bar, and Cora so happy to see him. He couldn’t be wholly evil, not if he could do that, could he?
Three Hellhounds wandered to the side to sniff at the garbage bin, while the rest remained at his feet, under his control.
She shook her head in confusion. “But surely Thanos wants Earth. That is why he sent you and the other lords here, isn’t it?”
“He does. And certainly many, like this one,” he nudged the corpse with the toe of his boot, “are minions of Thanos, so they are the ones I am most eager to end. But there are a few of us who made common cause and want only to be free.”
“You betrayed him?”
He hesitated and said, “He doesn’t know it yet, but yes. I have.”
She shook her head. “But then they will come after you, when they realize.”
He returned with perfect equanimity. “I will destroy all who come against me.”
“All?” she repeated, in doubt. “But surely Thanos will send great armies in his wrath. You cannot prevail alone against so many, not even with your power. They will pull you down and destroy you.” Strange, how the thought made her sad. Yesterday she would have said the end of Prince Ikol would be something to celebrate, but today, having heard his tale, she knew it would be something to mourn. It was something she didn’t want, and yet she was sure it would happen. He couldn’t stand alone against both Hosts.
Taking a quick step toward him, she said, “You should come back, speak to the Allfather--”
His eyes narrowed and he made a sharp gesture of rejection. “I should come crawling back and beg forgiveness for what was no crime?”
“The Allfather and Allmother looked grieved, when they revealed to me there were members of the Host among our enemies. They were thinking of you. They await your return, I am sure of it.”
“They await my return to put me back in shackles and dump me back in the pit with Thanos,” he spat. “If they wanted me back in peace they would not have sent me to that place nor made everyone forget that I exist.”
“What if I fix that?” she asked impulsivey. “What if I can get them to forgive you, to restore you and restore your name?”
“If you could...” He hesitated and looked up, expression briefly softened by longing before it closed up into a hard mask. “No. It will not be. And I would never go back. Not for anything.”
“No?” she asked. She stepped nearer, urgent need telling her if she let him go now, enmity would fall between them, inevitable as fate. But she didn’t want that.
He tensed as she moved within touching distance. At this range she could strike, and he knew it. She might not be Seraphim but she was a warrior, and her blade was one of the most lethal in all the realms. But she had no intent to harm him, and something that was not anxiety thrummed between them, the closer she drew.
How had she been fooled into believing he was mortal? Close to him he was warm with his power, welling from him irrepressible. There was a glow in his eyes, turning them a glinting green as they looked into hers.
“Not even for me?” she asked.
His hand stilled in a motion to touch her, before drawing lock of hair of her hair through his fingers. “For you? I would do much, Sif.”
“Then trust me,” she implored. “Let me make this right. Keep yourself safe and I will work to bring you home.”
His eyes flicked upward again at the sky before looking down at her. “Home I lost long ago, Sif. The Realm Eternal casts only shadows, and I will not hope for the light. But,” he hesitated and nodded faintly, “I will abide here, as long as I can, and if you create a miracle, I will not scorn it.”
That was probably the most she could ask, so she nodded, at first somber, but then smiled. “We are of the Host, of course we can perform miracles.” She curled a hand around his neck, and drew him down, nearer and nearer. “Humans do this,” she whispered. “Let’s find out why.”
Their mouths touched, sending a shock through her body, a singing across all her senses as his lips met hers.
In an instant, she felt weak and yet more alive than she’d ever felt before, and when she parted again, her breaths came, ragged.
Loki’s pure green eyes stared at her, wide and shocked as well. Before he turned away sharply. “I must go.”
With a hand gesture, he called the Hellhounds to him and with a twist, walked through the curtain of reality to elsewhere, and was gone.
She launched herself upward, shedding her mortal form, determined to do as she had promised.
Entering the vast hall, Sif headed toward the golden throne with a measured steady step. Wondering how much the All-Father already knew of what she’d done and promised, she kept her chin and her wings high.
For the first time she looked at the throne, truly looked at it: the All-Father in his throne, with the queen to his right, and Thor to his left. And she noticed there were two spots left empty, one to either side. One for Loki and one for the missing slain brother. Both wiped from memory, and yet those those squares were silent testimony that they had existed.
Thor smiled at her in greeting; he clearly had no idea what she was about to say.
At the foot of the dais, she sank to one knee and bowed her head, awaiting permission to speak.
“Rise, Lady Sif,” the Allfather commanded. “Rise and speak your news.”
“Allfather.” She stood and raised her head. Her eyes met Frigga’s briefly, and the queen looked startled, with some foretaste of what was to come, but then Sif looked to the king.
“My lord, I do have news. That I have met Prince Ikol.”
“Met? You did not fight?” Thor asked, in confusion.
“Nay, my lord,” she answered Thor, but kept her attention on Odin. “I spoke to him, and I discovered that prince Ikol is Loki of the Seraphim.”
“You lie!” Thor challenged.
“I do not lie, my lord,” she answered steadily. “Ask the All-Father.” Because there was no surprise on the king’s face, nor between them when king and queen exchanged a look fraught with dismay.
“I need not ask,” Thor snapped. “I know. For that would mean I have a brother, and I know I have none. A demon slew my brother Baldr, and I alone remain.”
Sif waited. King and queen were silent too long, and Thor noticed. “Father? Mother? This is a lie. It must be.”
“We will speak of it another time,” Odin said.
“NO!” Thor roared and lightning engulfed the room. “I will hear this now!” As the echo died he demanded, “Ikol is of the Seraphim? Ikol, prince of Hell, is my brother? Is this true? Speak!”
Frigga stirred and in a soft voice answered, “It is true. Once you had two brothers, Thor. Balder and Loki. Balder the beautiful, and Loki the--”
“Wicked,” Odin interrupted. He was sharp where she was not, saying, “Loki slew Baldr, by deceit and treachery, and he was banished for his crime. He has fallen and is no longer of the Host.”
“He said it was not his hand and not intended,” Sif protested.
“And you believed the prince of lies?” Odin retorted. She opened her mouth to object, but realized Loki mgiht well have lied to her. There must be a reason Ikol was known as the Prince of Lies.
In a voice taut with barely suppressed rage, Thor said, “And yet Ikol – Loki – has never lied to me as long and as thoroughly as you, Father. My own brother! You hid him from me! You told me a demon slew Balder.”
“Loki was no longer your brother,” Odin protested.
“You let me fight them, without knowing the truth!” Thor cried. “I might have slain him myself, my kin.”
“He is no kin. He had fallen. His rebellion set in motion the extinguishing of the fairest light in all the Realms. His punishment was just.”
Sif recalled what Loki had said of that and shook her head. “To be thrown to a pit, to suffer? Forever? To be forced to serve Thanos? To be tortured until he would rather perish than return?” She took an urgent step forward. “Please, heed me. He has left Hell, feigning loyalty to Thanos, but he wants to bring himself and his handful of companions back into the light. Please, my lord, allow them to come home.”
“No,” Odin declared, slamming Gungnir against the floor. “He has been condemned, and stricken from thought and memory. He is only Ikol now, wicked and lost.”
“No, he is not!” Sif protested. “He is not, if you would see him--”
Odin cut off her plea. “I will discuss this no further with you. You are dismissed.”
Her lips parter to speak, but Frigga’s small shake of the head warned her not to try. Sif bowed and left.
In the garden she stared at the fountain, angry and upset that the king would not listen. He would believe only the worst and she didn’t know what more to do. Worse, she feared she had now drawn attention to Loki being on Earth, and what the All-Father might do to recapture him.
The sense of power touched her first, before the sound of a step, and she turned to greet Thor with a nod of her head. “My lord.”
He shook his head. “None of that here, my friend.” He joined her, to gaze also on the fountain. The silence lay between them, before he broke it with a murmur, “I have a brother. All these long years, I thought Balder’s death left me the only one. And yet, Father refused to restore my memory of Loki. I pleaded with him, but he would not yield.”
“How could he, Thor? To yield would be to admit mistake,” she answered heavily. “We claim perfection, but we are no different from the mortals down below. Loki made a mistake and he paid for it. He still pays for it, and he will pay for it again when Thanos destroys him for his betrayal.”
“You think that likely?” Thor asked.
“I think it inevitable,” she answered. “Loki has been trying to play both sides against each other in secret, but such a game cannot endure. And so long as the gate stands open, Thanos has a near limitless supply of demonkind. They will turn on Loki and rend him to pieces, and worst of all, he will still prefer it over being forced back to Hell.”
“No, I will not allow it,” Thor declared abruptly, and she glanced at him in surprise. He amended his statement. “We will not allow it.”
“What can we do?” she asked.
“Do you know where he is?” Thor asked. “I would like to meet him.”
She shook her head. “No. He comes to me. And I doubt he would come if you were near.”
As much as Thor had not surprised her with his approach, a voice shocked her into whirling around and reaching for a weapon.
“My son.” The queen stood there, calm and with her wise eyes. She carried a golden scepter in one hand that Sif had never seen before.
“Mother!” Thor greeted her, a false note to his voice and in his smile. “How lovely your garden is today!”
Frigga let the silence take that effort, making Sif uncomfortably aware that the queen had probably overheard everything.
“I will help you,” she said.
“Help us do what?” Sif asked, wary, and not wanting to commit to anything before she knew what side the queen would be on.
Frigga didn’t make them wait. “To find and help my son. My third son,” she said. Her gaze flicked away, brow furrowing with pain. “Loki was always so … discontented. He could not be satisfied with our quiet life here in the Realm Eternal, but war with demon kind did not suit him either. He said he wanted rule, but in truth, I think he did not know what he wanted, other than something different. And in that discontent, he rebelled against the All-Father, sought his own dominion. The Host was sent against him, and in the melee, Balder the Bright was slain. By this very weapon.” She hefted the golden scepter in her hand, both Thor and Sif stepped back from it.
“Loki said he had not wielded it himself, but the war was his doing, so the fault was his. And so the king proclaimed him fallen, bound him, and sent him to Thanos as his punishment.” She paused and looked down at the softly glowing gem embedded in the blade end of the scepter. “My grief at Balder’s loss blinded me so I did not realize until it was too late, that I lost two sons that day. I have… felt his suffering,” she admitted in a whisper. “I have heard his cries. I could not answer, could not tend him as my heart longed to do. But now I will. Balder is gone, but Loki is not, so I must act to save him. Take this,” she handed it to Sif, who took it carefully in one hand. “It will help you find him. When you are with him, give it to him from me, so he knows I wish to bring him home.”
The scepter felt heavy in Sif’s hand, and it hummed with power. She bowed her head. “Thank you, All-Mother.”
“Mother, will you lift the enchantment so I might remember him, too?” Thor asked.
“I cannot, my son. It was not my casting. But I sense it weakening, as Loki pushes against it.” Her lips lifted in a wry smile. “He always was one to disdain limitations. Even when he should.” The smile faded and she glanced at the scepter again, before straightening. “Go, then. Both of you. I fear he needs you.”
At first, she had no idea how the scepter would find Loki, but once they arrived at the upper plane of Midgard, the scepter tugged at her grip. It wanted to return to its wielder, it seemed, much as Mjolnir did for Thor.
“They had this,” she said to Thor, as they both observed the light of the jewel brightening and the tip of it straining in the right direction. “Since the gate opened and the war began, the All-Father could have used this to find him.”
“Perhaps,” Thor answered. “I would like to think he chose not to. But, it’s also possible that it responds to you because it knows you intend to return it to him.”
She grimaced and had to allow that was true. Fortunately she did intend that and the scepter showed her the way to him.
Then, all at once, they no longer needed the scepter at all, as a column of brilliant light shot upward to the night sky, pushing aside the heavy clouds to allow the stars to shine once more.
Thor looked on in dawning wonder and understanding. “That was him,” he murmured. “I should have known no demon lord has power like that.”
“But why unshield himself...” She frowned at the beacon of light, wondering why now? Wasn’t he still afraid of both sides finding him? And if Thor was with her, who could he be trying to intimidate or fight?
Ice formed inside her, with the sudden terror. “They found him. Thor, hurry.”
His alarmed eyes met hers and, as one, they flew toward the beacon of light.
Closer, she knew she was right. It was a battle – the brilliant power of one of the Seraphim unleashed, against the roiling shadow of the forces beneath. Great black wings and golden daggers faced the leathery wings of a familiar Lord of Hell, Ronan, Hammer of the Underworld, Accuser of the Damned.
“Traitor,” Ronan shouted at him. “Thanos has ordered your death for your betrayal.”
He swung the great hammer, but Loki swirled out of the path, launching daggers. One was beaten aside, and the other drew blood in Ronan’s shoulder.
“LOKI!” Thor bellowed.
Turning his head, Loki saw Thor and saw Mjolnir upraised, and a terrible resignation came over his expression. He lowered his arms and the brilliant light dimmed, the great wings grew transparent, as he let his power fade.
Behind him, Ronan swung the great hammer.
Both Thor and Sif yelled, “NO!” Thor threw Mjolnir at Ronan, but the demon lord was too close. With horrific sound, the Hammer of the Underworld struck, smashing wing and bone and flesh.
Loki staggered, face crumpling with pain, and he collapsed. His form disappeared from the higher plane, falling beneath it, and Ronan grinned in evil satisfaction.
“No! You die, you monster!” Thor roared and hurled himself at Ronan.
Sif ran to Loki instead, slipping down to the mortal plane herself.
Heavy clouds shrouded the sky again, lightning and thunder crashed with the ferocity of the battle, but the rain held off as she ran down the muddy path of this small city garden.
A few struggling rose bushes and long grass were all that grew, a concrete bench was half covered in green growth, and the fountain in the middle was full to the brim.
Loki lay next to the fountain, sprawled on his back, blood on his fingers and pooling from his side.
“Loki, no, no, why?” she demanded. But she knew why-- he'd thought Thor was coming to take him prisoner. “We were coming to help you, you fool.”
His eyelids flickered and still those eyes were arresting, so green in the fading color of his face. “Sif?” he murmured, and bloody fingers groped restlessly in the dirt. “Can I – see your face – one-- last time?” His breath hitched with the desperate request, his voice weak and immortal grace fading. Was it raining again? Water was falling down her cheeks and onto her hands and she reached for his face, shaking her head in desperate denial.
She still had his scepter. She still had it. She showed it to him. “Your mother gave this to us, Loki. She wanted you to come home...”
Twining her fingers with his – they were already so cold – she lifted his hand and made him touch the scepter. “Can you feel it? She loves you still, Loki, she wanted you to come to her...”
In his eyes, hope dawned, and with his hand shaking, his fingers wrapped the haft of the scepter.
The jewel at the tip shone with a new purity, casting the silvery glow across and within his form, shining on the essence within. It grew brighter, and brighter, blinding, and she had to close her eyes.
When the brightness diminished, she opened her eyes again and saw Loki sitting up, hale and whole again. She gaped at the healing, and he grinned at her. “I feel better.”
She slammed a hand against his chest. “You stupid fool! You could have died!”
The grin faded but didn’t disappear. “So you care?” he asked.
Instead of answering, she grabbed a fistful of his coat and yanked him closer to her, mouth seizing him. He flung himself into it, one hand behind her back to pull her closer and another hand tangling in her hair.
Almost gone forever, almost lost to her forever – she didn’t want to stop touching him, rejoicing that he was with her and he was whole.
A delicate throat-clearing interrupted, and they parted, both breathless and stunned. Sif looked up to see Thor watching them, with an affectionate amusement.
As soon as he had Loki’s attention, too, Thor said, “Loki. It is you. I remember now… Brother.”
He held out his hand in offer. Loki hesitated, and his left hand found the scepter at his side.
Thor understood the distrust, and he said, “I did not know what he would do, Loki. I would never have urged you to come to Asgard with me, if I’d known.”
Sif didn’t dare speak and damage the fragile thread between them, but inwardly she urged Loki to take his hand and find some forgiveness. Both of them, it seemed, had done harm.
Loki’s jaw was tight as he considered, but his free hand grabbed for Thor, and they clasped arms. Thor pulled him to his feet and into a tight embrace. “I missed you,” he said hoarsely into Loki’s hair. “I did not know what I missed, but my heart knew something was wrong.”
Loki allowed himself that moment’s embrace before twisting away and saying more briskly, “I presume you ended Ronan? Then I thank you, brother. I shall fade into the shadows once more and--”
“No,” Sif interrupted. Both turned to her, with matching expressions that would’ve made her laugh if the situation were not so dire. “No. We need to close the gate.”
“Sif, the gate is guarded--” Loki tried to object.
“They know you’re a traitor,” she pointed out inarguably. “Until the gate is shut they’ll keep coming. You will never be safe until it’s shut.”
“Then we close it,” Thor agreed, and he seemed not interested in argument. “Together. Before Thanos finds a way through.”
Loki blanched at the thought, lips pressing together, and she folded her free hand around his and gave a squeeze. “Together,” he agreed.
“And then?” she asked, hoping he would say he would come home.
He shook his head once. “I will not lay plans for the fates to spoil. I … learned that lesson long ago.”
“Then let us be about it,” Thor declared and raised Mjolnir. “To battle!”
She raised her glaive and, beside her, Loki twirled his scepter and lifted the glowing stone above his head. All three disappeared.
The mortals tell of how, all that night, lightning flashed and the thunder rolled, the rain came down unceasing in the storm. Some even say there was the shadow of great wings against the lightning.
By dawn, the storm passed. The clouds parted, and the rain stopped. The mortals saw the sunrise for the first time in living memory. Golden light spread across the land, bringing warmth to all it touched.