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Debts

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1281 BCE

The pegasi touch down on a flat outcropping of colorless stone. Looming above, casting a shadow over the horses and their riders, Hela’s black palace in the center of Hel, her kingdom. Valtrauta dismounts. Glad, her pegasus, shuffles to press up against her. The animal flares its nostrils. Its ears flick back and forth.

“Gunna, stay with the pegasi,” Valtrauta commands, stroking down Glad’s neck. The other Valkyrie nods. Valtrauta looks to Friagabbi and Herfjotur. “You two are with me. Come.”

The Valkyries walk the desolate path to the grand, ebony entrance. Valtrauta’s skin prickles, a sensation that alerts her they are being watched. There is no one in sight, and nowhere for someone to hide along this path. When they stand before the doors, a shimmer of green light swirls over patterns etched into the material. They slide apart, rumbling and scraping. Valtrauta leads them through the doorway into a magnificent, shrouded hall.

Their eyes land on the throne at the far end of the chamber. Wide, and carved of bleached bones, the seat contrasts with the darkness surrounding it, and the woman in black sat upon it. Queen Hela’s crown--a vicious, pronged thing--stands out against the white background. Draugr peer from the wings of the hall, the green glow of seiðr illuminating their eyes and outlines in the shadows.

As Valtrauta and her sisters-in-arms draw near to the dais, a massive creature emerges from the darkness.

“You stand in the presence of Queen Hela of Niflheim, Keeper of Hel, and the Goddess of Death,” the wolf rumbles. Valtrauta swallows, momentarily petrified by the beast’s blood red stare. She’s faced hundreds of monsters, fought at Odin’s side to subdue Surtur, but nothing in this room can be defeated, save for the Valkyries.

“Your Majesty.” She bows. “I am Valtrauta, Second of the Valkyrior. I come on behalf of my king. He wishes to bargain with you.”

Hela’s head tilts. Her kohl-rimmed eyes linger on each Valkyrie. “I do not strike bargains through intermediaries.”

With a low whistle and a rush of displaced air, Odin materializes between Valtrauta and Friagabbi. The wolf growls. Clicking sounds erupt from the shifting zombies. Herfjotur stands straighter on Valtrauta’s right side.

Hela leans forward, hands poised on the armrests of her throne, almost hovering above the seat. “Hush, sibling,” she admonishes. “King Odin is a most welcome guest in my halls.” The grin she turns on them is feral. “Your Majesty,” she coos.

Odin nods, an uncharacteristic display of respect. “Your Majesty.”

“Valtrauta mentioned a bargain.” The way Hela says her name makes the Valtrauta’s skin crawl. Hela gestures with a hand, inviting Odin to speak. “State your business.”

Odin faces her with a grim expression. “I wish to bargain for souls. Enough to pour into the Odinforce, and strength the power on which Asgard depends.”

“Oh?” Hela raises her maintained brows. “Why?”

“Must you know my reasons?”

Hela places a gloved hand over her breast. “The souls of the dead are in my care. I cannot relinquish them to you for an unworthy purpose.”

There is silence, apart from the occasional click of skeletal jaws. Odin yields. “I mean to storm Jotunheim; to bring the Frost Giants to heel.”

Hela leans back on her throne, wearing a thoughtful expression. “Tell me, Odin. Why come to my realm? Why not enrich the Odinforce with the souls of Valhalla?

Valtrauta swallows bile. The others cannot have taken the suggestion well either. Friagabbi looks scandalized. “The souls that feast in the halls of Valhalla are of the Æsir.” Odin spits. “It would be barbaric.”

The thoughtful expression remains intact. “I do not give away souls for nothing. I require something of equal worth, plus interest.”

Odin smiles. “Perhaps the finest ores from Nidavellir? The Uru in their mines is fine, indeed. Or a sum of gold--”

“Dull,” Hela interrupts. “I have Uru blades, forged by the finest Dwarves who ever lived and died.” She shrugs. “Gold serves no purpose here.”

“Then, what would you ask of Asgard’s king? What would you demand as payment?”

The sudden return of the feral grin turns Valtrauta’s blood to ice. Hela rises from her throne. She steps down from the dais, stalking towards them like the tigers of Vanaheim. Herfjotur crosses in front of Odin. She draws her lance and prepares to spring into action. Hela stops directly in front of her. Without hesitation, she reaches forward, clamping a hand around Herfjotur’s wrist. The Valkyrie tries to maneuver her lance, but Hela’s grip prevents her.

“Such dedication,” Hela sing-songs. “It’s admirable.” Quick as a flash, she snaps the lance above where Herfjotur grasps it. The end twists round and round between her fingertips. Then she throws it. The point of the lance embeds itself in a draugr’s chest cavity. The monster stumbles back a few steps but otherwise remains unaffected by the weapon protruding from its upper body. She looks past Herfjotur, to Odin. “Call me a barbarian, Your Majesty. For the souls of my dead, I demand the souls of yours.”

The towering wolf barks in amusement at the stricken expressions on the Valkyries’ faces. Hela simply holds her grin steady, aware of her advantage. “You needn’t kill anyone. Just let me have the next few that pass. Our kind are so much more. It would only take a few to repay your debt to me. Three or four, depending on who they were in life. You’re about to start a war. You’re bound to lose a few foot soldiers. Nothing you’d miss in Valhalla’s halls.”

Odin’s chin lowers. He exhales at length. Valtrauta resigns herself to her king’s next words, ignoring the sting of unshed tears.

“Very well.”

“Then, before the Norns, I declare our bargain struck, King Odin Borson of Asgard,” Hela proclaims. “From now on, until I am repaid with Æsir souls, you owe my kingdom a great debt.”


The light from the sun, the gentle breeze carrying fresh air, and the sounds of Asgard seem surreal after journeying to and from the depths of Hel. Valtrauta goes directly to the training grounds just beyond the palace, knowing she’ll be there.

A gaggle of children and some of the younger recruits lean over the barrier that separates the arena and the benches meant for sensible onlookers. Valtrauta cannot fault them their overexcitement. In the center of the dusty arena, Crown Prince Balder and the First of the Valkyrior spar ferociously.

Though barely of age, Balder’s a mighty lad with great skill in combat. On his best days, he’s defeated a Valkyrie or two, though never the one he fights now. Balder also wields Mjölnir, one of the most fearsome and powerful weapons in existence. No one would expect different from the son of Odin.

Balder rarely spars using his hammer. Now is no exception. He believes the weapon grants him an unfair advantage, which he will not abide. Nor does he abide the reverential address he receives from Asgard’s warriors, at least not outside Odin’s hearing.

Brunnhilde is the only one who humors the prince’s request that they flout rules and tradition. It’s evident in the way she fights him. Her blades cut through the air, no hesitation over whether she might injure His Royal Highness. There’s nothing gentle in the way she swipes one of his ankles, sending Balder toppling to the ground with bruising force. She is on top of him in an instant, an elbow digging into his arm that still clutches a weapon, and one of her blades held against his neck. Balder gasps out laughter, nearly drowned out by the whooping and murmurs of the enthralled young witnesses.

“Do you yield?” Brunnhilde asks, sounding like she’s scolding a small child.

Balder nods, which causes the blade at his throat to leave a thin, red slice.

Brunnhilde rises. She offers a hand to the prince, but he ignores it. He stands on his own.

“One day, Lady Brunnhilde, I shall best you in combat,” Balder pants. He holds an arm out. Mjölnir sings through the air, thumping against his palm.

Brunnhilde raises her eyebrows in disbelief. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

Balder gazes at her with open adoration.

Valtrauta clears her throat. “Forgive me for interrupting, Your Highness. I came to report that we’ve returned from Niflheim.”

“Lady Valtrauta, I have said before we are equals here. You needn’t address--”

“I’ll need a full report.” Brunnhilde smiles apologetically at Balder. “Apologies, Majesty. It appears I’ve work to do, so we will have to drink to glorious battle another time.” She does not wait for a response, nor a dismissal, marching from the arena towards the barracks of the Valkyrior. Valtrauta bows to the prince before following her leader, caught between feeling amusement or pity at his sour expression.

To be young and idealistic.

Valtrauta enters the barracks. Brunnhilde’s already stripped herself of her breastplate. Her blades carelessly tilt against the doorframe, one escaping the call of gravity only due to a notch in the stone. Valtrauta leans next to them, letting her gaze sweep over Brunnhilde’s back. The sparring caused her to work up a sweat, so her tunic sticks to the muscular shoulders, exposing every contour.

“He’s a little young for you, isn’t he, Hilde?” Valtrauta teases. “You usually prefer your partners know how to use a cock. And what to do with a cunt.” Brunnhilde tears off a vambrace. “Then again, confidence can do a lot for a person. He is a confident little thing. Oh, Lady Brunnhilde! One day I shall have you beneath me,” she flirts, pitching her voice low. Brunnhilde strips herself of the other vambrace. “Or maybe our prince gets off being pinned beneath you.”

Brunnhilde whirls, catching Valtrauta’s breastplate, dragging her flush against her. “And maybe you get off on the sound of your own voice. We’ve all got something that makes us burn for it.” She captures Valtrauta’s lips in a searing kiss. Her harsh bite is entirely expected, but Valtrauta gasps in feigned shock. Brunnhilde deepens the kiss. When she pulls away, Valtrauta chases. They share breaths. “The only person I want pinned beneath me is you, Val.”

Valtrauta chuckles against her lips. “Is that an order?”

“You bet your ass.”

Chapter Text

Excerpt from “A Critique of Seiðkona Ýrr’s Compendium on Rare Seiðr” by Loki Odinson, Second Prince of Asgard, published 1582 CE:

“The most grievous errors in Ýrr’s work can be found in her discussion of the powers of foreknowledge, also called precognition, future vision, or future sight. Ýrr proposes that Seers, as those with the power of precognition are referred to on Vanaheim, refuse to share their visions to prevent ‘the corruption of the Norns’ path’.

In preparing my critique of Ýrr’s work, I visited the Seers temple in Vanaheim, and spoke with the practitioners. Through that research, I’ve reached the opinion that Ýrr fundamentally misunderstood the powers of foreknowledge. The first erroneous assumption that must be corrected is the clarity of future sight. Every Seer I spoke to explained that their visions were nearly always abstract, irrational, or fanciful. The word ‘sight’ must also be amended. Some visions are entirely without visual input. Instead, the other senses may be stimulated. Deriving an accurate prediction of future events is near impossible for Seers. The powers of precognition are limited to suggestions. Many Seers expel their visions by channeling them into creative works. In doing so, they are able to avoid cyclical analyzing of the incomprehensible.

The Norns’ path is predetermined and cannot be altered by even the Allfather. Seers do not fear that others will seek to alter destiny. It cannot be done. The true reason Seers do not share predictions of the future is that to do so would be to irresponsibly spread misinformation detrimental to societies across the Nine Realms. To possess such integrity should be the aspiration of any seiðr practitioner.”


2017 CE

Muspelheim smells of sulfur. Thor smells of sweat. He envies Gullinbursti. The great beast snouts at the volcanic rock beneath their feet, unaffected by the oppressive heat.

Oppressive does not begin to describe it, Thor thinks. He does not possess the vocabulary to properly describe how uncomfortable he is in this realm. The air around him does not sustain but suffocates. He glances down at the rune he drew on his skin, somewhat smudged by perspiration. It should mitigate the effects Muspelheim’s environment has on him—probably is mitigating its effects—but he’s never been especially skilled at employing rune magic. The longer Surtur keeps him waiting, the more the rune washes away. The seiðr will fail.

Thor cannot turn back now; Asgard may be in peril.

After leaving Midgard, Thor travelled to Vanaheim. Their temple libraries hold many of the same texts that can be found in Asgard, and Thor did not have to face Odin to explore them. He found nothing about the Infinity Stones that he did not already know.

Before he left, Thor learned of the violence and unrest sweeping through the Nine Realms. One of the seiðr practitioners at the temple spoke candidly about the conflicts between Vanir tribes. They wondered at Odin’s reluctance to enforce peace. Thor had no answers for them. Privately, recalling his father’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of their people when Malekith sought the Aether, Thor worried. However, he knew Odin had his reasons, and he could not return to Asgard to question her king when he had relinquished his claim to the throne. The Allfather was a great king, and that meant he could not always be a good man.

Thor tried to be a good man. He visited Hogun’s tribe, offering them aid. Hogun’s aunt, Chief Húngerðr, assured him they needed none. Their situation was not dire. Crops still grew, water still ran clean and clear in the stream, and children still played. Thor struggled to reconcile the safety and joyfulness of their village with the abandoned battlefields he’d crossed journeying to it.

Vanaheim’s shipyards only service trading vessels that shuttle between the Nine Realms and Asgard’s other territories. Thor caught one to Ria, and from there ventured to galaxies he had only heard about. Many places he visited seemed fruitless to begin with, but the dire visions necessitated he leave no stone unturned.

The Nova Empire appeared promising. It was known for its vast knowledge and multiculturalism. Despite Xandar’s numerous libraries, Thor left the planet disappointed. He had even taken the opportunity to meet with Nova Prime Irani Rael, commander of the Nova Corps, after hearing about the Battle of Xandar. Rumors throughout the city mentioned a “Mad Titan” and an object of great power, but Rael explained that it was merely a newly developed Kree bomb, which the Nova Corps had neutralized, set off by a Kree terrorist named Ronan the Accuser.

Arago-7’s archives were second in size only to the libraries he’d visited on Xandar, and the Pheragots, despite their intimidating size, proved gentle and eager to be of service.

At one archive, Larros, a Pheragot male, claimed he knew just the text Thor required. He trudged enthusiastically through the lower floors, Thor matching the wide, yet slow, gait. He used a robotic arm to pull a secure, electronic box from a high shelf. The box clicked unlocked, lid sliding away, when Larros inputted the code. There was a moment of silence before Larros let out a quiet, “Impossible.”

An hour later, Thor stood with seven Pheragot and Hurctarian archivists, his frustration and anxiety charging the air. The book he needed had been stolen. The thief left no evidence, had not been captured on any security cameras, and had wiped digital copies of the book from their computers without a trace. Someone else was gathering information on the Infinity Stones and ensuring no one else could.

It was also on Arago-7 that Thor experienced the first vision of Asgard set ablaze, of the realm burning away to stardust before Thor’s eyes. He woke at night burning with fever, listening to bloodcurdling screams that no one else could hear. Some days, anything he ate would taste like ash. He’d walk through the streets and smell brimstone, despite the frozen landscape of Arago-7’s mountains.

Thor feared he had inherited Frigga’s gift of precognition. He recalled the prophecies of Ragnarok, which warned of fire obliterating the Golden Realm. The visions drove him back to the Nine Realms, drove him to Muspelheim. If Ragnarok approached, he would delay the end of Asgard, at least until the Infinity Stones were no longer a threat to the universe.

Gullinbursti snorts, pulling Thor from his thoughts. A Fire Demon with twisting horns and a tale of hissing lava stands before the golden boar. Thor’s heartbeat increases. He will never be permitted an audience if the creature attacks one of Surtur’s people.

“Be cautious. The beast—”

“Is uncontrolled, unstoppable, and vicious. Like wildfire.” The Demon’s voice sounds feminine. Volcanic rock forms the Demon’s exoskeleton, occasionally turning molten and reshaping the body. Thor would not describe their figure as feminine, but admittedly he knows too little about the races of Muspelheim to make that judgement. “I am in no danger of being burned, Your Highness. We understand one another. We share the same bestial nature.” They stroke down Gullinbursti’s snout.

Thor ducks his head. “I meant no offense.”

The lava under the exoskeleton gurgles and spits—something akin to laughter, Thor suspects. “I am not offended by your ignorance, Odinson,” the Demon says impertinently, moving towards Thor. “I am Sindr, daughter of Surtur, Princess of Muspelheim. We are honored by your visit, Thor, son of Odin.”

Thor forces a diplomatic smile. “I am honored to meet you, Your Highness.”

Sindr stops before him, glancing at the enchanted rope Thor holds Gullinbursti with. “I pleaded with my father to meet with you, Odinson. He was reluctant, but I have convinced him to grant you an audience, provided you agree to his terms.”

“And what terms are those?” Thor wonders.

“His Majesty would meet with you in private, without courtiers or guards to overhear, and he would have you come unarmed.” She looks pointedly at Mjölnir, strapped at Thor’s hip.

Thor hesitates for an instant, then pulls Mjölnir free, setting her on the volcanic surface of Muspelheim. In a dire situation, he can call for her.

Sindr bends, catching hold of the rope. She follows it back to the boar’s neck and unties it. Thor reels it in. “Our peoples live so long, they sometimes forget to change. I want change for the Nine Realms. I know that if you meet with my father, together we can bring real change to the Nine Realms.”

“I admire your optimism, Princess. I hope I will not disappoint you.” Thor grins.

The way the fire sparks, and the molten rock pulls, Sindr appears to smile back. She rests a palm against the beast’s side to guide it. “Follow me, Your Highness. Watch your step and touch nothing.”


Surtur’s throne room resembles the wasteland of Muspelheim’s surface—dark, protruding rock cut by snaking rivers of lava. The red sky cannot be seen, but the lava pours from tunnels in the walls of the chamber. Shadows are numerous, but no one would call the chamber dark. Ominous, perhaps. Skulls, both manlike and not, litter the ground.

Thor follows Sindr as she moves to stand before Muspelheim’s ruler.

“Your Majesty,” Sindr bows her head. Thor mimics the movement. “Allow me to present Thor, son of Odin Allfather, Crown Prince of Asgard. He brings tribute—Gullinbursti, the golden boar of Vanaheim, given breath by Brokk and Eitri, the greatest Dwarven smiths who ever lived.”

Surtur stares appraisingly down at Thor, slouching on the Burning Throne. “Muspelheim is honored by your visit to our realm, and by your tribute, Thor, son of Odin.” he recites. He flicks a wrist and Sindr bows again. She presses herself to Gullinbursti’s side, leading the creature to the other end of the chamber. Thor and Surtur study one another. “My daughter seems quite taken with your tribute. Or perhaps she is taken with you.” Thor forces himself to hold Surtur’s gaze—to not glance at Sindr and confirm or deny what her father suggests. “I would not have agreed to meet with you—would have chained and caged you for daring to set foot in my realm—if she had not insisted. You are fortunate I love to indulge my Sindr. My heir. The first sire who understood that starvation must be satisfied with power, not nourishment.”

“Father, the Odinson did not request an audience with you to discuss the trial of my youth,” Sindr admonishes.

“Indeed,” Surtur rumbles. “What has brought you here, Odinson?”

Thor blinks sweat from his eyes. “Your Majesty, I come before you hoping to foster friendship between our realms. Millenia has passed since your conflict with my father, Odin, and his father, Bor. It is my belief that true peace may yet be attainable.”

“How would you foster friendship?”

“Our peoples have much to learn from one another. On Asgard, we have seiðr that protects animals and items from the heat of your realm.” Thor flashes Surtur the rune drawn on his wrist. “Your landscape could flourish with new fauna. Asgard could partner with you in trade, as well. Muspelheim would grow rich. And I am sure there’s much your people could offer mine. Secrets known to only your realm.” He allows Surtur a moment to digest the words.

“Your ideas have merit,” Surtur muses. “You are an admirable sort, Odinson. I do not doubt your intentions.” The pregnant pause rings with an unspoken “but”.

“What prompted you to risk life and limb coming here? Answer me honestly.”

Surtur knows. The question is a test. Thor’s chest feels tight. “I have experienced visions in recent days. Terrible ones. Visions filled with fire and death,” he admits.

“You have foreseen Ragnarok.”

Thor focuses on maintaining a level tone. “I do not know. The prophecies are vague.”

Surtur straightens, clutching his stomach. With his other hand, he grips a jutting piece of his throne, and the rock glows, morphing into a malformed hilt. Thor’s heart hammers. “Ragnarok is the end of Asgard. I will march on the realm, reunite my being with the Eternal Flame, and grow till I tower over the forests, the city, and even the mountains. I will wreak havoc and end the tyrannical rule of the Æsir.”

“We needn’t fight, Surtur.”

The Fire Giant stands on unsteady legs, drawing the hilt and exposing an Uru blade, blazing runes crafted into the metal. The point hits the ground with a clang. “Your honesty and commitment to peace do you credit, Odinson. Under your rule, the animosity between our realms could have healed. A pity destiny demands I deny you a chance to rule.”

Thor steps back, raising his palms. “If you insist on following this path, Surtur, know that you will be stopped. I will fight you. My father will prevent you from reaching the Eternal Flame.”

“You cannot stop Ragnarok. It has already begun. Odin is not on Asgard, and your absence has left the throne defenseless.”

A lie meant to distract Thor. He would know if Odin abandoned Asgard. The Allfather’s disappearance would be news throughout and beyond the Nine Realms. Unless some villainous usurper found a means to disguise themself as Odin…

That liar!

Surtur limps forward. He raises his weapon, preparing to strike.

A noise caught between a roar and a squeal reverberates through the chamber. A golden mass crashes against Surtur’s volcanic skin, cracking the surface. Rivers of lava flow like blood from the Fire Giant’s wound. Gullinbursti shakes his head, whipping his tusks around. He pins Surtur at the foot of the Burning Throne.

On the boar’s back, Sindr perches, her tail sending rivulets of lava cascading down the creature’s flank. She brandishes a wicked, flaming sword. While Gullinbursti’s holds Surtur, Sindr darts up his neck, leaping from the top of the beast’s head, and landing behind Surtur’s skull. She buries her sword in the seam between the skull and the rest of the body. Surtur wails. His entire form glows molten. Sindr puts her weight into the next thrust.

Surtur’s skull hits the rock below, bouncing twice. It lands six paces in front of Thor. With a sound like rushing air, it sucks a luminous power from Surtur’s melting corpse.

Sindr maneuvers to solid ground. Gullinbursti grunts, accepts a pat from her, and trots away, hooves clicking.

Thor eyes the scene, allowing himself a moment to slow his breathing. “Thank you,” he says. “You saved many lives. I am in your debt.”

“You can repay me by claiming you defeated Surtur,” Sindr suggests. “My people would object to my rule if they knew I had betrayed my father, even if it plays to their advantage.” Thor nods.

“May I?” he gestures to the skull.

“Of course.”

Thor threads the enchanted rope through the eye sockets, winds it around the horns, and slings Surtur’s skull across his back. He ties a tight knot over his heart.

The temperature seems to rise. Thor suppresses his anxiety. In a few short minutes he will depart from Muspelheim and the vanishing rune on his arm will no longer be necessary. He turns to the chamber's entrance.

Fire Demons spill through tunnels in the walls. They cling to the ceiling, wrap around pillars, and line the edges of the room. Thor’s stomach drops.

“Thank you, Your Highness. I promise you a painless death.” Sindr speaks in the language of the Æsir, though she lisps her words. In her own tongue she shouts, “My people, the Odinson claimed to come under a banner of peace, but he has slain my father, Surtur! Defend our realm! Defend your Queen! Bring me the head of this treacherous Áss!”

A cacophony of deafening battle cries assaults Thor’s ears, dwindling away, replaced by a low growl. Sindr retreats, Gullinbursti following, but her subjects hasten to heed their Queen’s command. Thor extends an arm.

Mjölnir bursts into the chamber, dislodging Demons who fall and shatter against the floor. She thuds against Thor’s palm. He can feel the heat radiating from the nearest Demon. Lightning sparks.

Thor slams Mjölnir down.

Every Demon within twenty paces disintegrates, lightning withering their exoskeletons. Others shriek, crawling away or attempting to stand. Disoriented, their fire quivers. Thor takes the opportunity to scan for the source of the growl.

Behind the Burning Throne, an immense cavern illuminates. The orange glow backlights vicious spikes. No, teeth. They move when the dragon claws its way to the mouth of the cave.

“Heimdall, I know it’s been a while, but I could really use a fast exit.” He braces himself.

Nothing.

Crackling resonates from the dragon’s throat. Thor whirls Mjölnir before him, a shield that throws aside the fire breath. The barrage dwindles. He lets the hammer fly, carrying him out of the chamber, over the heads of the Fire Demons. They scramble over one another, reaching out with blazing talons.

Thor emerges beneath the red skies of Muspelheim. He spares a moment to catch his breath, and chokes on the poisoned air. He glances at the rune on his arm. It’s broken in several places, sweat tracks having washed it away. The rock quakes beneath him. Thor’s heart seizes.

“Heimdall!”

The ground erupts. Thor spins Mjölnir, hurtling himself away. The dragon pursues him, its thundering fiery core growing louder as it draws closer, and closer, and closer.

The Bifrost envelopes him. He’s swept away to Asgard, leaving a burning symbol on Muspelheim’s surface.

Chapter Text

The moment Thor feels solid ground beneath him, he lets Mjölnir slip from his fingers. Cool air strikes feverish flesh. He chokes attempting to sigh in relief. Gasping and unable to see, Thor lifts a quivering hand to rub away the rune. The seiðr uncoils and disperses. Slowly, the spots in his vision shrink, and Thor steadies his breathing. Shivers still rack his body as it rapidly cools. He clears his raw throat.

“Thank you, Heimdall, my—”

The man before him is not Heimdall. Silent, he pulls Hǫfuð from the Bifrost.

“Who are you?” Thor questions, wary.

“Skurge the Executioner.” He punctuates the introduction by sheathing the sword. Heimdall’s sword.

Anger begins to heat Thor’s blood. “Where is Heimdall?”

“The traitor, Heimdall, flees the Allfather’s justice. He disappeared when His Majesty charged him with negligence of duty.”

Odin named Heimdall a traitor?”

“Heimdall’s negligence cost our Queen her life, Your Highness.” Thor turns to glare at Amora. She sweeps into the observatory, revealing jade dress billowing. “He also aided in your act of treason, which endangered the lives of many Midgardians. And, of course, cost Prince Loki his life.”

“Did it?” Thor bites. “I wonder.” Amora simpers at him.

When they were young, Thor had worried she would prove a negative influence on Loki. Loki did not spend a great deal of time with other seiðr practitioners, but Amora went out of her way to train with him. Loki had told him once that she only hoped to ensnare Thor, which made him bellow with laughter. Amora held too much dark ambition, behaved too selfishly, to attract Thor. He trusted Loki not to succumb to her way of viewing the world. He’d been too blind to see that they had always been alike.

“Tell me where I will find Loki.”

Confusion crosses Amora’s face, fading to worry. “Your Highness,” she begins gently, as though she speaks to a child.

Thor does not allow her to patronize him. “We both know the Allfather would never hand the Bifrost to a man such as this.” He gestures to Skurge, who straightens. Amora raises a palm to calm him. “A man who responds to your directions. You would never be permitted such power, not when your sister’s crimes against Asgard are so grave.”

Amora raises an eyebrow. “He did not strip you of your title, though your brother was a murderer and a war criminal.” Thor shoves aside the foolish irritation that rises hearing her spit Loki’s crimes. “Pray tell me, Your Highness, what warrants my worse treatment? Our King, in his infinite wisdom, realized the injustice—”

“You are a disloyal liar. Your treatment is warranted because you are no better than the criminals you call sister and ally. You have aided said murderer and war criminal in usurping the throne, plunging the Nine Realms into chaos. Do not insult my intelligence by claiming otherwise again.” Thor splays his fingers, and Mjölnir thuds against his palm. Skurge tenses, prepared to spring into action. “I will ask once more. Where is Loki?”

Amora’s face betrays nothing. She studies Thor for an uneasy moment, then tilts her chin defiantly. “Very well. You may find Loki at the Loom.”

“The Loom?” Thor wonders.

“A theatre. Look for the gardens at the heart of Asgard. You won’t miss it.” She looks him over. “You may want to… freshen up before you interrupt the production.”

Thor adjusts Surtur’s skull across his back. “You should leave Asgard. The Allfather will not spare you. Nor will I if I discover Loki murdered our father.” He strides around her, spinning Mjölnir.

“Thank you, merciful Thor, for granting clemency to this disloyal liar.”

Mjölnir lifts Thor from the Bifrost Bridge, carrying him toward the heart of Asgard.

The realm appears rebuilt and renewed after Malekith’s attack. The Æsir may bear scars, but their home does not. It glows golden and proud, as Thor remembers it. Gardens swirl around the technological and architectural wonders, in the full bloom of summer. People stroll through the city proper in bright clothing. Some tilt back their heads, taking notice of Thor’s flight. Sounds of weapons clashing in the training grounds rise above the rooftops.

Until this moment, Thor had not realized how homesick he had become.

At the heart of Asgard, just before the gated entrance to the walls that ring the palace, lies one of the realms most impressive public gardens. Shops that belong to ancient artisan dynasties surround the garden. Thor lands at the entrance, startling passersby. One woman pinches her nose, though she attempts to curtsy seeing him take notice.

Thor forges on. Up ahead, there is a building he does not recognize. The architecture of it resembles woven yarn. The sun strikes each individual thread at different angles, revealing different colors and deeper patterns. Looking upon the Loom—for Amora’s words were true, it’s an unmistakable sight—would steal Thor’s breath, if the statue that stands before it had not already.

Frigga looks lovingly over the realm, her smile capturing pride and protectiveness.

Loki commissioned this, likely after slaying Frigga’s beloved. Thor tears his gaze away, charging toward the Loom’s entrance.

Before he even enters, the rumbling music of the choir sets an ominous tone. False battle rages on stage. There’s a boom, horrified gasps. Thor nods to the Einherjar guarding the door, pushing in.

The song of a blade sinking deep into armored flesh rings out over the audience. Subdued, anxious cheers sound as Actor-Loki steps backward from where he’s just embedded the sword through Actor-Kurse’s back, moving to center stage. Actor-Kurse lumbers deliberately after him.

Thor shuts his eyes. The crowd erupts, but Actor-Thor’s anguish rises above the din.

“See you in Hel, monster.”

A shrill, electric roar hushes the room. Thor does not witness whatever seiðr mimics the Dark Elves’ black hole grenade. Through shut eyelids, there’s an impressive red and orange spark. It lingers until the noise dies with a pop.

Hurried steps thump on the wooden surface of the stage.

“No. No, no, no! Oh, you fool, you didn't listen!”

“I know. I’m a fool. I’m a fool!”

“Stay with me, okay?”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Shh.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” The choir begins to hum a building melody. “It’s alright. I'll tell father what you did here today.”

“I didn’t do it for him.”

Thor shakes in anger.

“It cannot be!”

“What is the meaning of this?”

“Norns!”

“A Frost Giant?!”

Actor-Loki’s skin is blue. Icy tendrils swirl outward from the 'corpse'.

Enough! Thor must end this!

He thunders toward the stage to the sound of the choir’s song reaching a crescendo and his counterpart releasing another heartbroken cry.

“Thor?” Fandral unwinds an arm from around the shoulders of a beautiful maiden. He takes in Thor’s appearance and apparent fury with a look of concern. Thor ignores him. Fandral jostles through the crowd. “Thor! What in Hel happened to you?”

He reaches the base of the stage, turning back to the audience. 'Odin' sits in a private wing above them, flanked by Einherjar. He wears comfortable, elegant robes and sips from an ornate goblet. If he is made uneasy by Thor’s appearance, he does not show it. “My people, Prince Thor has returned! Greetings my boy. Are you well?”

Thor ignores the question and the worry emanating from the crowd. Fandral descends through the rows of seating two steps at a time. Thor unties the enchanted rope, holding aloft the skull. “You know what this is?”

“The skull of Surtur? That’s a formidable weapon.”

'Odin' flicks his wrist. An Einherjar amongst the crowd hurries forward, relieving Thor of his burden. “Lock that in the vault,” he commands.

“Will you return to Midgard now you’ve found victory in glorious battle?”

Thor once more ignores the question. He rounds on the actors, ascending the steps to join them on stage. “A glorious rendition.” Thor applauds. “You are all very talented. You captured every modicum of devastation I experienced witnessing my brother die in my arms.”

“Thor!” Fandral jumps on stage. “You’re making a scene. Come, you need rest.”

“A scene! Yes! The next scene. Stand up.” Thor hoists Loki’s quivering actor to his feet. The Frost Giant glamour shimmers at his touch. “An actor to play my father!” Jane’s actress looks to the wings. “Come out then!” Thor cries. A hesitant man dressed as the Allfather enters from backstage. “Come closer.” Thor beckons. “Now then…”

“Thor, enough!” Fandral pleads.

Thor turns a black look on his 'father'. “Tell me, Liesmith, how does this scene play out? Do you stab him while he weeps for his wife and son? Or do you show mercy? Do you even know the meaning of that word?”

He sets the goblet aside. “My son...” The imitation of Odin’s voice is too much for Thor to bear.

“Tell me, Loki!”

Anxious silence falls over the room. Fandral blinks twice, looking to Odin’s seat in the Loom. “That explains—”

“Only you could twist your vicious trick, your final bid for the throne, so that you might find enjoyment in mocking the way the realm mourns you! The way I mourned you! Only you could demean the very monument to Queen Frigga’s memory that you commission!”

Loki shoots up, Odin’s guise fading. The crowd gasps. Muttered words hum throughout the theatre. The Einherjar behind Loki draw their weapons. “You had what you desired, you had the independence you asked for. But you just couldn’t stay away, could you? Everything was fine without you. Asgard prospered. Ask them.” He gestures to the audience below. “You’ve ruined everything!”

“You abandoned the Nine Realms! You’ve allowed our allies to suffer!”

Loki snarls. “You abandoned this realm! You abandoned your responsibility to Asgard!” The scowl curls upward, morphing into a hideous, humorless smile. “And why is that? So you could fuck that mortal wench! Behold, the Mighty Thor! The Golden Prince!”

“No!” Fandral catches Thor, pressing him backwards. “Don’t!” Thor struggles against him, but his friend has always been deceptively strong, and fatigue weighs on Thor’s shoulders.

“Do not presume to mention Jane ever again!” He should say no more, but the need to justify himself against Loki’s charges burns. “Nor should you presume I have been idle! I have prevented Ragnarok! I left my friends and companion on Midgard to seek out knowledge of the Infinity Stones, so that the peace across the Nine Realms would not be threatened!”

One of the Einherjar slinks behind Loki. He reaches out. His touch shatters the illusion.

“There!” A member of the audience shouts, pointing to Thor’s left. He whirls. Fandral muscles Thor’s arms behind his back.

“Thor! For Norns’ sake! If you fight him here, innocents will be hurt!” That penetrates Thor’s temper, but does not abate it. He relaxes in Fandral’s grasp.

Loki stalks downstage. “You fool! I am protecting this realm! I intend to save it!”

“You are not Asgard’s savior! You are a usurper!”

“You were not here! I was!”

“Did you murder my father?”

Loki freezes, draining of anger and color. Thor cannot name the expression that replaces Loki’s fury. His heart wars with itself, squeezed in a vice grip, yet sinking into the pit of Thor’s gut.

The silence is deafening.

Thor watches Loki’s chest rise with an indrawn breath, then fall again when he releases it between parted lips.

“No.”

A murmur travels through the audience.

Thor ignores the tightness in his breast. He cannot be certain what measures Loki took to usurp Odin’s throne. “Where is he? Imprisoned? Banished?”

Loki’s pursed lips quirk. “Both, in a way.”

“Loki,” Thor growls. Fandral’s grip on his bicep tightens.

“Midgard. He is on Midgard.” Loki crosses his arms over his chest. “I’ll take you to him.”

Chapter Text

The Bifrost deposits them in Central Park, amidst a grove of trees. Past the trunks lays an expansive, green field. Clouds conceal the sky, dark and heavy, granting the park a slow, gloomy atmosphere. A few raindrops speckle the sidewalks.

Loki scans for nearby mortals, but Thor and he are alone. He shifts forms, donning the guise he used when he brought Odin to Shady Acres Care Home in Manhattan. Short, red hair. Tanned and freckled skin. The bones in his face pull, curve, or lower a fraction, making his features recognizable, but not identical.

A chilly, warning breeze rustles the trees surrounding them. Thor’s odor strikes Loki’s nose, which wrinkles. He bathes Thor in seiðr, watching the sweat and grime vanish from Thor’s skin. He catches Thor staring and raises an eyebrow.

“Your look different,” Thor comments.

“Aye, different.” Loki swipes a hand down the pant leg of his black suit, ironing out a crease. “I thought it might be best if I did not appear wearing a face the Midgardians know to fear. The Loki of their mythology’s hair is red. It seemed fitting. Amusing, even.”

Thor hums. “You did not disguise me.”

A fat drop of water strikes Loki’s cheek. “I could glamour you, if you wish. However, this rain will disrupt it. I didn’t think you needed a disguise.”

“I don’t, I suppose. Where to?”

They walk towards 5th Avenue. Loki tries to ignore the tight feeling in the pit of his stomach. He should be furious. He should escape somewhere Thor can’t follow. Every step they take towards Odin is a step towards Loki’s downfall.

Loki keeps walking. Is there anywhere further to fall?

“The mortals weave such interesting tales. I particularly enjoy the one where you must wear a wedding gown to retrieve your hammer.”

“My favorite is the one where you’re fucked by a horse,” Thor rejoins, not missing a beat. Loki scowls. “Do not play games you cannot win, brother.”

Loki’s body tenses, pulse quickening. “When Odin executes me, I will play no games at all.”

“Father will not execute you.”

“Have you forgotten your own words?” Loki’s lip curls. “He is not my father, Thor,” he spits. He avoids Thor gaze.

“Loki, I—” Thor begins.

“Don’t.” Loki picks at his fingers and tries to swallow around the lump in his throat. “The truth finally embedded itself in your thick skull. Don’t attempt to pry it out again.”

“I thought you killed—”

Your father, yes.”

Traffic travelling down 5th Avenue hushes Thor’s next attempt to speak. Loki scans the busy street.

“Best we take the public transit.”


Loki grinds his teeth together. “I swear I left him right here.”

“Right here on the sidewalk, or right there where the building's being demolished?”

“The building, you oaf,” Loki glares at one construction vehicle. “I’ve been making payments,” he mutters.

Thor pays no attention. “Great planning.”

“How was I supposed to know? I can’t see into the future. I’m not a witch.”

“No? Then why’d you dress like one?”

Loki shoots him a withering look, then returns to scowling at the rubble. Seiðr thrums around the site. Restless. Confused. Distraught. Odin’s left his mark, and Loki might be able to trace—

“I can’t believe you’re alive!” Thor interrupts, fury bubbling over.

“Do be quiet.” Loki refocuses on the task at hand.

“I saw you die,” Thor continues, disregarding Loki’s request. “I mourned you, I cried for you.”

Thor’s seiðr—wild, natural, chaotic, tempestuous—buffets against Odin’s, eroding the remnant of it. “Would you calm—”

It’s not Thor’s seiðr, Loki realizes. The world turns inside out. He steadies the space around him but does not stop the power from carrying them where it wills. It’s too unstable to meddle with.

“What in Hel?” Thor gags, one hand clutching his stomach, the other prepared to wield Mjölnir. Loki checks Thor for injury. Aside from the apparent nausea, he looks well.

They are still in Manhattan, still stood before the wreckage of Shady Acres Care Home, but they are not. Seiðr warps around them. He mistook this power for Thor’s, but upon further examination it feels too immature.

“A child plays with fire.”

Loki scans for the source, ignoring the distracting itch of the seiðr. He hears the sizzle beneath him too late.

“Loki, what are you doing?” Thor asks.

Loki falls.


Falls and falls and falls. Surrounded by empty blackness.

“No, Loki”

Norns, just end it. End it. End it!

It does not feel cold. He cannot feel cold. Frost Giants do not feel cold.

His eyes do boil. The surface of his tongue boils. Loki knew they would when he let go. Exposed liquid vaporizes in space. His tears are gone, and he cannot shed more. He tries.

“No, Loki”

Will it ever stop? Will he ever slip away?

People warned that Frost Giants can hold their breath for long periods of time, longer even than the Æsir. That is how the monsters lie in wait under the surface of the water, hiding and striking when the enemy least expects it. A coward’s way to kill. Everyone thought Loki a coward.

Loki is a cowardly monster, a disappointment, but he will die soon.

“No, Loki”

End it!

Would that he could scream.


Someone screams.

Loki slams into a solid surface.

It’s he who is screaming, throat raw. His vision is blurred. Belatedly, he recognizes tears streaking over his cheeks.

“Loki?”

Loki gasps against the floor.

“What have you done to my brother?” Thor demands, too near to Loki’s ear. He finches first from the noise, then from Thor’s touch.

“I needed to make sure he wasn’t able to cause trouble. You can handle him from here.”

Adrenaline courses through Loki. The beat of his heart pounds in his ears. He shoves himself upward, rising to his feet. “Handle me?”

“Loki are you alright?” Thor asks.

Loki ignores him, fixating on the man behind him. Black hair, greying at the temples. Blue robes. Red cape. An artifact around his neck that’s much too powerful for a mortal. Immature. Inexperienced. Crude.

“Who are you?” Loki heaves. “You think you’re some kind of sorcerer? Don’t think for one minute you second-rate…” He releases the seiðr licking at his fingers. The mortal sorcerer manages to deflect it, summoning a ring of golden symbols before him, but his spell does not absorb Loki's power. It pervades the room, shattering a chair, a lamp, a mirror, and chipping the corner of the hearth.

“Alright, time for you to go.” A sizzling portal sweeps past Thor and Loki, and suddenly they’re stood in a field of wild grass. Birds chirp. The ocean rolls in and out. “You have ten minutes, Thor,” informs the sorcerer’s disembodied voice.

“Loki…”

Loki flinches back, stumbling. “Don’t touch me!” He tries to subdue his heart, madly thumping beneath his ribs.

Thor’s no longer looking at him. He passes Loki, wandering towards the sound of the ocean. Loki follows Thor’s gaze.

Odin stands sentinel at the edge of the cliff, overlooking the wind-cut water.

“Father?” Thor asks, halting beside him. Loki trails after Thor, hesitant.

“Look at this place. It’s beautiful.” Odin does not acknowledge Thor’s presence. He speaks to the horizon.

Thor glances at Loki. “Father, it’s us.” Loki steps next to Odin, opposite Thor.

“My sons.” Loki bristles. Joy buoys within his stomach. The contradiction overwhelms him. Odin nods. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“I know. We’ve come to take you home.”

“Home, yes. Your mother, she calls me,” Loki’s breathing shudders. Odin tilts his head, eye unfocused. “Do you hear it?” He cannot help searching the skies with him, though Frigga resides somewhere else. Somewhere in Yggdrasil’s highest branches.

“Loki lift your magic,” Thor demands, hoarse.

Loki meets Thor’s glare, shaking his head. None of his seiðr clings to the Allfather.

Odin chuckles. “Took me quite a while to break free from your spell.” He looks directly at Loki. “Frigga would have been proud.” Anguish lances through him.

“Come and sit with me.” Odin gestures towards a smooth, grey stone a handful of paces behind them. “I don’t have much time.”

They move to sit. Thor steadies Odin. “I know that we failed you. But we can make this right,” Thor implores.

“No, my son. It is upon us. Ragnarok.”

Thor shakes his head. “Surtur’s skull resides on Asgard. Ragnarok will not happen, father.”

“No. It’s already begun. The Odinforce kept her at bay, but my connection to the power of Asgard’s throne dwindles. My time has come. I cannot keep her away any longer.”

The confusion in Thor’s eyes mirrors Loki’s inner thoughts. “Father, who are you talking about?”

“Hela, Queen of Niflheim. ‘Goddess of Death’.”

Loki’s brow furrows. “She is a fiction. A phantom to frighten children.”

“A wraith. Cruel and terrifying,” Odin agrees. He trains a disapproving stare on Thor. “Loki let you have your freedom. The actions of my sons condemn Asgard. She will raze the Realm Eternal.”

“Whatever she is, we can stop her together. We can face her together,” Thor insists, panic squashed beneath determination.

“No, we won’t.” Odin’s statement leaves no room for debate. “Valhalla awaits me. I shall be among the last to enter the halls. Whatever path Hela dooms you to, lead our people well, and embrace your brother. Tell him I tried.”

“Loki is here!” Thor barks. Loki flinches.

“I love you, my sons.”

Tiny flecks of gold pepper Odin’s wrinkled skin. The glow spreads. The Allfather turns to stardust, a gentle breeze catching him. Loki and Thor stand, watching his essence disperses to the skies above Midgard.

Numb. Loki feels nothing. Odin is dead. His father is dead.

Dark clouds roll over their head. The wind picks up. Thunder roars.

Loki studies Thor. “Brother…” Lightning crackles across his clenched fist. He can hear every heavy breath Thor takes. He looks at Loki by increments, expression stormy. Distraught.

“This was your doing.”

Loki inhales, squaring his shoulders. He does not summon his armor. Not this time.

Howling echoes around the distant ring of hills. Power knocks Loki and Thor off balance, blinding them with golden light. Loki steadies himself, rounding on the source of the power.

Queen Hela is far more horrifying than a mere wraith. The seam of her skin runs in a line down the middle of her body. The right side of her has a pale complexion, straight, dark locks, and a cool, calculating green eye. Her lips are pursed in a tight line. The left side of her is exposed bone. Her eye socket is empty. Her teeth are cracked and yellow.

Thor scowls at Loki once more, then steps forward and to the side, hefting Mjölnir. More thunder rumbles. Their stance is familiar. Loki is not hidden behind Thor, but he’s relegated to support. Thor fights melee, Loki with seiðr. Loki summons his armor.

“So he’s gone,” Hela’s jaw clicks when she speaks. “That’s a shame. I would have liked to have seen that.”

“You must be Queen Hela,” Thor says. “I am Thor, son of Odin.”

“Really? You don’t look like him.”

“Perhaps we can come to an arrangement,” Loki suggests.

“You sound like him.” Hela’s eye sweeps over him. “I’ve no need to arrange anything with you. You’re irrelevant, Jötunn.”

Loki summons a knife. “Beg your pardon?”

A smile tugs at Hela’s half-lips. “I meant no offense.” She turns her full attention to Thor. “I’ve come to collect the debt Asgard owes Hel. How does your kingdom wish to pay, Your Highness?”

Thor adjusts his grip on Mjölnir. “Asgard owes you nothing.” With a grunt, he throws his hammer. Mjölnir sings towards Hela. She raises her right hand, palm vertical.

Hela catches Mjölnir, golden glowing fingers curling around it. The hammer vibrates, trying to plow forward, trying to return to Thor’s outstretched hand.

Dizziness engulfs Loki. His breath catches.

“It’s not possible. It’s not…” Thor says, voice strained.

Hela stares piteously at Thor. “Son of Odin, your ignorance cannot be overcome by a hammer.”

The Uru surface of the hammer cracks. Lightning discharges. Thor shields Loki from the blast. Stripes of electricity chase down his arms. Loki glances back at Hela over Thor’s shoulder. Fractured pieces of Mjölnir thud into the grass. Thor whimpers, barely audible.

Hela strides towards them.

Loki’s focus sharpens. He has his knives and seiðr. He can summon forth Jarnbjorn, stored away in a pocket of space, for Thor.

Hela destroyed Mjölnir. The blast left her unscathed. Loki cannot identify the source of her power. It’s not any sort of seiðr Loki’s familiar with. Indeed, it feels nothing like seiðr.

Odin said that the Odinforce kept her at bay, that Thor’s freedom condemned Asgard.

Loki grips Thor’s bicep. “Bring us back!”

“No!” Thor jerks free of Loki’s hold. He takes one frantic step toward their advancing foe.

The rainbow light of the Bifrost envelopes them, carrying them from Midgard. Thor streams past him, shouting furiously. Loki purposefully untenses his hand around the hilt of his dagger, letting blood flow back into his knuckles.

“Loki!” He looks up, but Thor’s eyes are trained past him.

Hela accelerates through the Bifrost. She comes level with Loki, left hand shooting out. Boney fingers catch him. She wrenches his wrist. Loki hears the snap of the bone. She plucks the knife from Loki’s fingers, but does not relinquish her hold. Loki’s heart stutters.

Hela tosses him from the current, into the abyss.

Chapter Text

Gunnhild ducks beneath Mógils’ swing, rolling behind him. It takes her away from the sword he disarmed her of, but the weapon seems more a hinderance than an asset. Too heavy.

Mógils pivots. He hesitates, conscious of her age.

How foolish.

Gunnhild waits for the next strike. He aims for her left flank, weight shifting to accommodate the heft of the blade. She throws her body against him, using the shift in his momentum to send them both toppling into the dirt, dust swirling around them.

Mógils releases a groan. Gunnhild recovers faster. She scrambles, using her ass to pin the arm that brandishes a weapon, and digs her elbow into the exposed, tender inside of his own joint. He yelps, fingers slackening. She kicks the blade away, whirling to press a dagger to his jugular.

“Do you yield?”

“Aye,” Mógils huffs. “Wild beast, you are.”

Gunnhild beams, hopping up.

“Always keep your center of balance,” Hogun reminds Mógils.

Mógils rises, rolling his shoulders. “Yes, Commander.” He nods once, a show of respect.

Hogun appraises the recruit. “Dismissed.”

Gunnhild volts over the training ground’s barrier, bouncing to a halt beside Hogun. “How did I do?”

“Visit a healer.” He touches her jaw, thumb coming away red with blood.

“I will have bruises. I feel them forming!”

Hogun’s eyes soften, though his face remains grim. “Well done.” He looks back at the training ring. “Retrieve your sword.”

Gunnhild does, sprinting after Hogun towards the armory. She slots the blade back into its rack.

“Here.” Hogun holds out another blade for her. It’s slightly curved, the metal darker—nearly black—than any Æsir or Dwarves would forge.

“This sword is Vanir.”

Hogun nods. “My grandfather forged it.”

Gunnhild grips the hilt. The sword is light. Turning it under the sun, subtle runes glint. “Fine, indeed.”

“Your new weapon.”

Gunnhild gasps. “I cannot! It is yours!”

“It is a gift.”

Warmth blooms over Gunnhild’s cheeks. Her freckled knuckles turn white. “Thank you,” she mutters to her feet, hiding her besotted smile.

“Hogun!”

Gunnhild whirls, grateful for her father’s sudden appearance. “Father! Look!” She brandishes the weapon.

Volstagg jogs closer, puffing. “A fine sword.”

“Her new sword,” Hogun informs him. Volstagg raises his eyebrows, patting Gunnhild’s back.

“Did you thank Hogun, Hilde?” he asks.

“Yes, father.”

“Good, good. Hogun, you will never believe what news I bring. Thor’s returned, but that is not all. Loki lives!”

Hogun’s face remains expressionless. Volstagg laughs. “Well, perhaps that is not so surprising. Yet he has been right under our very noses this whole time, disguised as Odin! He usurped the throne!” Gunnhild gasps.

“Where is Thor?” Hogun asks.

“Gone again. Gone to Midgard to retrieve Odin.”

“Loki’s really been tricking us for four years?” Gunnhild wonders.

Volstagg nods, ruffling her hair. “Aye. Vicious little trickster.” He turns back to Hogun. “Fandral awaits their signal to open the Bifrost.”

“Orders?”

Volstagg laughs again. “None. Can I not simply share news with you, my friend?”

Gunnhild presses into her father’s side. “You gossip like an old spinster!” she giggles.

“Aye!” He hoists her up. She wraps her arms around his thick neck, blowing his red mane of hair aside.

Hogun surveys their surroundings. “It is not news to me. I knew it was Loki.”

Volstagg drains of merriment. “What?”


Hela emerges from the Bifrost, dagger twirling between the finger bones of her left hand, staining them red with Thor’s blood.

Hoops of gold weave across the dome of the Bifrost Observatory. Familiar. A half-remembered final glimpse of the realm she’d been cast from, the ghoulish infant who shared more in common with the dead.

Odin’s pride gifted Asgard to its underestimated outcast. Poetic.

“Who are you?”

An Áss. Passionate soul. Vibrant. Loyal. Flamboyant. Powerful. The body containing it reflects such traits. Trim, athletic build. A warrior, but not bulky like Odin or his sons, nor lean as the masquerading Jötunn runt. Well groomed. Handsome, Hela supposes.

“I am Hela, Queen of Niflheim, Keeper of Hel.” Her eye homes in on Hǫfuð. “The Goddess of Death.” Hela exaggerates the click of her exposed jaw. The Áss flinches.

“Where are the princes?”

Hela shrugs, joints scraping. “I couldn’t say. I cast them from the Bifrost. There’s no telling where they may have landed, or if they landed at all.” His hand lands on the hilt of his sword. “There’s no need for that,” Hela reasons. “I have no cause to fight you.”

“You have assaulted my friends.”

“His Highness hurled Mjölnir at my person. I cannot be faulted for defending myself.”

He draws his blade.

Hela clicks her tongue. “Very well," she sighs.

Within her, the golden soul shudders, edges frayed. Traumatized and weakened after obliterating a weapon with which it shared a bond. Hela decides against drawing on it. She brandishes the Jötunn runt’s wickedly sharp dagger.

The Áss showboats, weapon cutting swirls through the air.  “For Asgard!”

He moves in.

Hela catches his blade with the knife, feeling the quake in her joints.

The Áss withdraws. He sizes her up.

He comes for her again and again. Hela leads them, allowing him to press her backwards. Encouraging him to tire himself. He possesses the advantage of reach—an advantage of little use against her when she commands her true power, but that is not the case—and she does not risk failure testing openings.

He backs her up to the platform in the center of the Observatory.

Hela swipes aside his slash.

She secures her footing.

The Áss bullies forward, utilizing her shifting weight. He pushes into her space.

He parries her attack with his vambrace. He brings his sword around.

The blade slices cleanly through her arm bone.

Arm and dagger clatter to the floor.

Hela hisses, throwing her severed upper arm across his face. He steps back to avoid the strike.

“You are not so skilled with that knife as its owner,” the Áss remarks.

They lock stares. Hela circles him, fleshless side faced inward. She waits.

He lashes out.

The sword grinds against Hela’s ribs, snapping one.

She captures his hand. She squeezes.

Audible cracks and snaps accompany the shattering of his finger bones.

She tugs the sword from the slackened hold.

It sinks into his stomach with a satisfying squelch.

The Áss drops to his knees, releasing a pitiful noise.

Hela steps around the dying man, retrieving her arm.

The soul shies away, but it cannot ignore the summons of the Goddess of Death. Bones reknit themselves in a shimmer of golden light.

Hǫfuð’s hilt feels warm against her flesh. The Bifrost hums, redirecting toward Niflheim.

Hela glances down at the Áss. He crawls up the platform, armor scraping over the ground.

Determined soul.

“Witness the arrival of Fenrir, eldest spawn of the Mother of Three Monsters, leader of my legions of the dead.”

She turns the sword. The Bifrost opens, rainbow light pouring forth into the stars.

Fenrir’s great head emerges from the light.

The light vanishes, the Bifrost closing with a sudden grating tone.

Fenrir’s decapitated head slides to a halt at the base of the platform.

Hela stands frozen.

Her sibling’s lifeless, red eyes stare up at her.

Hela looks down at the knife embedded in the Bifrost’s mechanism. At the man glaring up at her, blood spilling out the corner of his mouth.

His eyes slip closed. “Lo, they do call to me. They bid me take my place among them, in the halls of Valhalla. Where the brave may live forever.”

Hela lets loose a cackle.

Her fingers close around the Áss’ throat, lifting him. “You believe I will kill you for this?” she hisses. “No.” She exits the Observatory, steps echoing.

Her arm stretches out over the edge of the Bifrost Bridge. The Áss’ legs dangle above the abyss.

“You will suffer, die slowly, endlessly, scattered to the farthest reaches of the Nine Realms.” She pulls the sword from his stomach. “You will never feast in the halls of Valhalla.”

Hela lets go.


Odin’s throne room is predictably ostentatious. An extensive walkway of intricately carved pillars leading to an elaborate golden throne. On the ceiling high above, murals painted with seiðr play out scenes of peace and prosperity. Hela notes a swooping symbol present in every element of the room’s architecture. Softer than the valknut, the symbol of power she recalls Odin favoring.

There are others in the room. A unit of Einherjar stand in a half-circle around a group of well-dressed Æsir. The woman at the center of the group peers down her nose at the leader of the Einherjar, clutching Gungnir. Her soul is intelligent. Suspicious. Determined. Strong. Stronger for the abuse it’s born. The soul she faces is loyal. Sturdy. Imbittered.

Hela remembers him young and naïve, screaming, trapped under the weight of Jotunheim’s packed snow.

“Hogun’s command is illegitimate. A Vanr cannot lead Asgard’s warriors,” he pronounces, glaring at the Ásynja. “You were all appointed to your positions by a usurper. A Jötunn. You aided this Jötunn. You may well have betrayed Asgard. Until His Majesty is certain of your loyalty, I will ensure you are all locked in cells. Hand over Gungnir.”

“I will not. You have no authority to imprison us. The Allfather did not order you to, nor did Prince Thor.”

“My orders have ever been to secure the safety of this realm. Traitors are a threat to that safety.”

The Ásynja’s nostrils flare. “I have not betrayed this realm. I serve, just as you do. Before today, you bowed to the same ‘king’. You were made a fool of, Lord Tyr, as were the rest of us.” She taps Gungnir on the gilded floor. “I will not relinquish this weapon. In the absence of the reining monarch, the senior most member of the council protects Gungnir. This is our way, or has your shame made you forgetful?”

“Then you leave me no choice. As you are resisting arrest, my men and I must—”

“Captain!”

An Einherjar on the edge of the conflict points across the room at Hela. Captain Tyr whips around, slipping into a defensive stance.

His eyes grow wide with recognition. “Norns,” he mutters.

Hela raises her unmatched palms, placating. “I come only to retrieve what’s rightfully mine. There’s no need for bloodshed.” Her voice sounds hoarse. Raw.

“Attack!”

Hela does not spare a thought for strategy, too weary. She untethers the threads of the traumatized soul, letting its grief and her own send its remaining potential hurtling for the crowd.

The resulting explosion scatters the Æsir. Some are thrown into pillars with bone-splintering force. Others roll in a heap over the pockmarked, once-polished floor, rubbing their skin raw. Tyr strikes the base of the dais with a sickening crack.

Hela picks her way through the bodies—some groaning, others silent and still. Gungnir skids toward her. She stills it with her heel, bending to take it up. The metal feels hot to the touch, thrumming with energy.

She spins it around, letting loose sparks, each Einherjar the spear assaults hit with a deadly punch. The other Æsir—those who were not trained as warriors or who carry no weapon—stumble behind pillars. A few hasten for the exits.

Tyr struggles to his knees. He turns his gaze to Hela, eyes and soul alight with bitterness cultivated millennia ago. “As long as there is life in my breast, you will not sit upon this throne, murderer!”

Hela faces him. “I do not mean to rule Asgard.” She lowers Gungnir, pointing it at Tyr. “I mean to raze it.”

Hela lets loose another blast from the tip of the spear, tilting it to fire just over Tyr’s shoulder at the last moment.

Boom!

Odin’s throne erupts, melted and singed fragments raining down over the throne room. Over Tyr. He quivers, blinking away tears.

“You killed my friend.”

Hela stalks closer. She presses the end of the spear under his chin, uncaring that he might try to disarm her of it. Her strength is superior.

“No. The Frost Giants did that. I merely took what belonged to me by the terms of the deal I struck with the Allfather.”

“You—”

Hela digs Gungnir’s point into his throat. “Silence. Greet death with some dignity.”

“Wait!” Hela turns to the newcomer, a slender, elegantly dressed woman. Her bodyguard—a massive man with a huge axe carried over his shoulder—hovers behind her. His soul is unremarkable. Her soul, on the other hand, dances with incredible, chartreuse seiðr. Grasping. Anarchic. Passionate.

“Forgive my intrusion,” the Ásynja begins, bowing her head in deference. “Only, I need him alive.”

An opportunity. A replacement for her depleted power source.

Gungnir bursts with energy. Tyr’s corpse slides to the base of the maimed throne, neck burnt to near nothing.

The tips of the Ásynja’s fingers glow green. Her bodyguard drops into a fighting stance, axe hefted before him.

“No, my dear. You did not need him.” Hela soothes, keeping her eye contact steady and her expression adjacent to pleasant. “I sense we can be of assistance to one another.”

The Ásynja studies her. “Why should I aid you?”

“I am Hela, Queen of Niflheim, Keeper of Hel, the Goddess of Death.” The Ásynja’s eyebrows raise. Her fingers remain tinged green. Hela tightens her grip on Gungnir. “And you are? Come, let us be civil.”

Her seiðr recedes. “I am known as Enchantress.” She gestures to her bodyguard. “This is Skurge the Executioner.” His axe lowers. “A favor for a favor. I will assist you, and you will assist me. Swear before Yggdrasil and the Norns that you will honor our arrangement.”

“I do so swear,” Hela intones. “Once you liberate what’s mine, I will grant you any boon of your choosing. You will find nothing beyond my abilities.”

The Enchantress scans the room littered with corpses, craters carved into pillars and the floor, the throne shattered, a burnt depression upon its dais.

“Indeed.”

Hela grins, teeth gnashing. “To Odin’s Vault.”


Skurge pulls his axe from the skull of the patrolling Einherjar.

“Stand guard,” the Enchantress directs her bodyguard.

Hela releases a humorless laugh. “No need.” The Vault’s doors slam closed. Hela levels Gungnir, letting energy spill forth. The blast fuses the doors together, the Enchantress, Skurge, and herself entombed within.

The Enchantress eyes her, uncertain.

Hela turns away, continuing down the steps into Odin’s Vault. “It may take a few days for you to complete your side of our bargain. You are unravelling the Allfather’s enchantment.”

“You cannot?”

Hela swallows. “The enchantment is designed to withstand my seiðr.”

The Enchantress’ heels resume their click. Relief lances through Hela.

She scans the contents of the Vault.

“Odin’s treasures,” Skurge says, sounding impressed. The Enchantress hums in agreement.

Hela blasts a golden gauntlet—styled to look like the Infinity Gauntlet—from its display. “Fake!” It clatters to the floor, dented, with a gaping, melted hole. “Odin’s vanity demanded every battle yield a worthy spoil. Amusing to witness, in truth. Most of the stuff in here is fake.” She paces forward. To her left, the Casket of Ancient Winters pulses—the very soul of Jotunheim. “Or weak.”

Surtur’s skull sits on a display ahead. “Smaller than I thought it would be,” Hela remarks. Her eye lands on the Eternal Flame, blazing at the other end of the Vault. “Unwise to keep them so near one another. All it would take is one slighted cretin to—”

The Space Stone. It’s trapped within a cube, but the energy—a fragment of the universe—is unmistakable. “That’s not bad.” She hovers in front of it, daring to run a finger over its surface. “How did Odin come to possess this?”

“Prince Loki assaulted Midgard with it. When Thor returned with him in chains, he brought the Tesseract for safekeeping,” the Enchantress recalls.

“Prince Loki?” Hela cackles. “That Jötunn runt possessed an Infinity Stone? No wonder he failed. He toyed with artifacts he could not hope to wield. Its power is beyond the Æsir—let alone the Jötnar—beyond even Odin or me to harness without instruments or extensive study. A century’s worth, at least.”

The Enchantress nods. “We are here to retrieve your property?”

Hela hums, closing her eyes, letting herself feel the objects in the room.

“There,” she declares, crossing into a shadowed wing of the Vault. She stops before an unexceptional chest tucked away on a shelf. She pulls it down, holding it out.

The Enchantress’ manicured fingers wrap around the chest. Her seiðr flickers over its surface.

“You are right. This may take days to unlock.”

“I waited millennia to come this far. I am patient.”

The Enchantress blinks.

“Open it.”

Chapter Text

“Stop!”

That one word echoes. He knows the voice. He knows—

It’s like there’s an axe lodged in his temple!

Someone screams.

His throat—

“Stop!”

There’s terror and hopelessness in that voice. He wants to comfort—

It’s like living, ravenous fire beneath his skin!

It burns!

It burns!

It burns!

“Alright, stop!”


“Loki!” Thor wheezes, eyes flying open, then squeezing shut against the brightness.

The sun beats down upon him.

There’s no searing pain radiating from his temple, though Thor’s body aches and feels overwarm.

Thor grunts, pressing up on his elbows.

A goat bleats in his ear. Thor feels the creature snout at his hair. He cranes his neck, squinting, watching the goat chew on a strand.

Thor blinks at his surroundings. Sugarcane stalks swaying in a gentle breeze, the quiet hiss of their rustling leaves providing a soothing background noise.

Singed and flattened stalks lay strewn in a ring around Thor.

His brow furrows.

The goat bleats once more, Thor’s hair slipping free of its mouth. Thor pats the side of the creature’s neck absentmindedly.

“So, you’re alive then.”

Thor looks towards the voice. One of the Ljósálfar—a Light Elf with the race’s signature harshly pointed ears, as opposed to the swooping ones of the Dark Elves—hovers at the far edge of the devastation. His skin is the same color green as his crops, Thor notes, and he holds an openwork material drenched in a viscous, pink substance.

“Came crashing outta the sky, you did.”

“I—How did—”

Thor scratches at a scab on his bicep. The place where Hela slashed at Thor with Loki’s dagger.

Hela! Her fingers wrapped around Mjölnir. Wrapped around Loki’s wrist before she tossed him from the Bifrost. Loki!

The dream. The fear in his brother’s voice.

A wave of nauseous crashes over Thor, but he forces himself to stand, legs shaking.

“The actions of my sons condemn Asgard.”

Hela arrived via the Bifrost. Odds are she controls it. Thor must find another way to return.

“Tell me, how far from Ljósálfgard are we? In which direction does the city lie?” he demands.

The Ljósálfr’s face pinches. “It’s east of my farm.” He gestures toward the east. “‘Bout half a day’s walk, though you might meet a shuttle on the roads.”

Thor digs his nails into the flesh around the scab. It itches. He feels too hot.

“She will raze the Realm Eternal.”

“I am in your debt,” Thor mutters. He takes a step in the direction the Ljósálfr indicated.

“That’s it? What about my crops? The ones you destroyed?” He shakes the material in his fist. “These rejuvenating webs don’t come cheap, and they don’t bring back the crops, only make sure the land heals.”

Thor glances about him at the ruined patch. At the goat trotting away. He closes his eyes, trying to slow his racing heart. To calm his scattered thoughts.

“I swear to you, you shall be compensated threefold once I return home.”

“And how do I know you’re good for it?”

“I am Thor, Son of Odin.” Thor chokes a little around his father’s name. “Prince of Asgard.”

King of Asgard.

Thor swallows bile.

The Ljósálfr’s verdant complexion turns ashen. “Prince of—”

“I must make haste,” Thor interrupts. “I will keep my oath to you.”

He leaves the man then, marching through the sugar cane, the sound of the goat bleating behind him.


It’s only a short hike to the road, and from there Thor can see Ljósálfgard—a sea of red roofs meeting the cyan ocean.

If he had Mjölnir…. Thor misses the heft. His muscles twitch, ready to swing the hammer in an arc. Ready to hold on as she carries him.

How had Hela held her? How had that wraith held her even for a moment?

Every step feels like a burden.

Get to Ljósál fgard.

Step.

Return to Asgard.

Step.

Save the people.

Step.

Thor tries not to consider what the mantra does not include. Locating Loki must wait. Wait until Asgard is safe. Then Thor will find him.

If he is alive.

He is alive. He has been “dead” twice. This time will be no different. Another trick.

Thor hears a puttering behind him. He turns and spots a personal shuttle traveling towards him. It’s more worn than Thor’s ever seen on Alfheim, but he’s only ever spent time in Ljósálfgard or deep in the jungles, hunting for big game. There had never been a need to visit the peasants outside the capital.

The shuttle functions. That’s what matters.

He flags down the driver. The Ljósálfr woman startles, halting her shuttle a few paces away from him. Thor moves to stand beside it.

“Norns! I’ve never met an Asgardian before!” She blushes brilliantly beneath her topaz skin.

“Are you headed to Ljósálfgard?” His voice comes out hoarse. He clears his throat.

“I am. I am,” the woman bubbles. “I was just delivering orders to the eateries.” She gestures to the crates in the back of her shuttle.

“I am in need of a ride to the Ljósálfsaal. I am Thor, Son of Odin, Prince of Asgard. I swear you shall be rewarded for aiding me.”

Her eyes bulge. “My—I’m Nora,” she offers, blinking rapidly. “A ride! Yes, I can give you a ride!” Nora nods, frantic, smacking the spot beside her to wipe away crumbs and bits of thread. Thor climbs in.

“The Prince of Asgard riding in my shuttle,” Nora chortles. Thor settles into the seat, feeling a bit bulky for the small space. “Eha will never believe me!”

She passes a finger over a portion of the seiðr display before her. The shuttle whines, recommencing the journey to Ljósálfgard.


Nora fusses over the gash on Thor’s bicep, insisting that she should take him to a healer named Priidyk, another personal friend who would never believe that she’d had the Crown Prince of Asgard in her shuttle. Thor insists otherwise, more curt than she deserves, so he offers the widest and most grateful smile he can muster.

She reluctantly deposits him on the sidewalk beside Ljósálfgard’s sunken Amphitheater Garden, avoiding the shuttle traffic at the far end crawling along before the Ljósálfsaal, Thor’s destination.

Ljósálfar pass him, appraising him, whispering and giggling to one another. A child gawks at him, dragged along by an older man who trains his eyes on the pavement. Most of them, unlike Nora and the farmer from earlier, cover their baldness with wigs in every color imaginable, though magenta, yellow, and turquoise appear to be the seasonal fashion. The most elaborate wigs Thor spots are updos with bird feathers, flowers, and ribbons woven into Æsir-inspired plaits, treated with woodsmoke or ginger scented oils.

Frigga had taken Thor and Loki to Ljósálfgard’s shopping center when they were boys. She’d been ushered to a private fitting room and adorned in the latest styles of Alfheim. Loki and Thor waited in the front of the shop. Loki had climbed up on the wig display and modeled them for Thor’s amusement, making ridiculous faces whilst turning back and forth so Thor might get a good look at the puffy orange curls and the stuffed rodent nesting in them. The store’s minder hovered nearby, ringing his hands, afraid to admonish princes from the Realm Eternal.

Thor manages an unsteady breath.

Get to the Ljósál fsaal.

Step.

Return to Asgard.

Step.

Save the people.

Step.

Some of the Ljósálfar do not notice him. Others part for him. There are even a handful who bow and offer a quiet “Your Highness”, startling those around them, who hasten to copy the display of deference.

Get to the Ljósál fsaal.

Step.

Return to Asgard.

Step.

Save the people.

Step.

Stood at the base of the stairs, Thor absorbs the scene depicted on the mosaic façade of the Ljósálfsaal. Bor, Thor’s grandfather, marching with the Einherjar, driving cowering, hideous Dark Elves from the jungles of Alfheim. The liberation of the realm millennia ago.

Millennia ago, when the Nine Realms were divided by war and strife.

Asgard’s fall could expose so many innocent realms to horrors now held at bay. Thor will not permit that. It is not only his own people that he has sworn to protect.

He ascends the steps to the entrance of the Ljósálfsaal.

Inside the atmosphere is welcoming, Thor’s mood a blemish on the warmth. Mahogany panels line the walls, carved with images of native wildlife. At the far end of the room, Thor recognizes one of the Hverfálfar, the primitive reptilian peoples of Alfheim. They appear to be a cleaner, polishing the gawping, wooden lips of a fish. The floors are grouted sandstone slabs. Woolen rugs run the width of the lobby. A Ljósálfr pads across a rug, head bent over swirling tendrils of ancient seiðr script. On his feet he wears slippers, contrasting with his salmon business suit and slick, professional carmine wig. He disappears down a hallway without noticing Thor.

“Hello!”

Behind a wide desk sits a Ljósálfr woman, orange plaits spiraling atop her head, lavender ribbons woven throughout.

“My name is Lehte. May I assist you?”

Thor approaches the desk. “I am Prince—Prince Thor.” Lehte’s eyes widen. “Please, I must return to Asgard through the Portaal. The matter is urgent.”

Lehte nods, dazed. “Of—” She bites her lip, sharp, brown teeth worrying the flesh. “I—One moment. Your Highness.” Her fingers fly through strands of seiðr. She waits.

Thor clenches and unclenches his fist.

Lehte’s nails click atop her desk.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

She clears her throat. “It’s an honor to meet you, Your Highness.”

“Thank you,” Thor murmurs.

Lehte’s fingers lift to her ear. Thor notices a device within—a shell. Enchanted, no doubt. She nods.

“The Minister wishes to meet with you.”

Thor’s brow furrows. “I must return to Asgard,” he insists.

Lehte nods reassuringly. “The Minister will see to your needs.” She rises. “I am to escort you to her office. Please, follow me.”

Thor follows her up two flights of stairs and down a hallway, the walls painted with a mural of fishing vessels along the shore. Lehte pauses, places her palm against the art, exposing a web of blue seiðr masking an office door. She opens it, gesturing for Thor to enter. He does.

“The Minister is finishing a meeting. She will be with you in a moment. Please, sit.” Lehte grants Thor a sunny smile, then closes the door after her.

Thor considers the visitor’s chair, but to sit seems wrong. He is too unsettled, stomach twisting.

Soon.

He paces to the window, gazes down at the families peppering the pebbled beach, out at the ships on the horizon. He turns and surveys the Minister’s office. Nothing special. The furniture is well made, but not extravagant for a head of state. There are no personal touches, either. Even the books on the shelves reveal nothing, all dry political tomes.

Thor hears a click behind him—the door shutting.

The Minister toes off her slippers, unbuttoning her periwinkle jacket. Surprisingly, she wears no wig.

“I am Minister Piia. It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Your Highness,” the Minister inclines her head towards him, then crosses the carpeted floor to sit behind her desk.

Thor studies her. “Have we met before?”

Minister Piia nods. “I don’t expect you to remember. This was a century ago, when I was just an intern, and we were not formally introduced. But I could not soon forget bumping into the Princes of Asgard. I ruined the seiðr writings in my hand. Had your brother not been there, I would have been in serious trouble. He had a talent. A true gift.” Her face falls. “Such a shame, the final years of his life were unfortunate. Dreadful business. You have my deepest condolences.”

Thor opens his mouth to speak. Closes it. Nods.

Return to Asgard.

He takes a seat in the visitor’s chair.

Save the people.

“Your Highness, I know why you are here, and I am relieved. I have been petitioning Odin to aid us in our troubles for over two years. I’m grateful the Allfather, in all his wisdom, sent you.”

“I am afraid he did not,” Thor chokes. His eyes burn. “My father is dead.”

The room falls silent for a beat.

“What?”

“As we speak, Asgard is being invaded by Queen Hela of Niflheim. I have not come to offer you aid, but to request it. The Bifrost has been taken. I require your Portaal to send me back to the Realm Eternal.”

Minister Piia blinks in astonishment. “Norns,” she breathes. “Your—Your Majesty, I grieve for your loss. To hear of conflict in the Golden Realm.” Her face creases. Deep in thought, her fingers begin to drum atop her desk.

She blinks at the wooden surface, then meets Thor’s eyes. “Are you aware, Your Majesty, of the chaos in this realm?”

Thor frowns.

“The Hverfálfar tribes are rebelling. I wish I could say they have been unsuccessful, but, in truth, their violence yields results. Several towns and cities have been captured. Järvgard and Varilinn were significant losses for our side. We are threatened by the rebels. Our efforts to regain the advantage require careful, considered allocation of our resources, including our seiðr reserves.” The Minister places her folded hands on top of the desk. “What I say next must not leave this room, Your Majesty.”

“Of course.” Thor nods.

“Last week, we were informed by one of our spies that the rebels intend to intercept a supply convoy en route to Fort Kull. Its placement allows us to control the main road from Varilinn, limiting the city’s usefulness to the rebels.”

“They’re attempting to starve you out.”

“It’s not their first strike. Several of our previous convoys have been attacked. Successfully. Even those we had under heavy guard. My people report that the rebels have some sort of beast. I thought they might have recruited a Drekálfr, but my people do not believe that’s what they saw.

“To combat this beast, whatever it may be, I have ordered my strongest seiðr practitioners to prime defensive and offensive seiðr. Their skills are necessary for this attack. Whereas, the strength of the Einherjar is unmatched. Please understand—” Minister Piia sucks in a breath, shoulders tense. “The Portaal requires a magus to operate. There are two alive who’ve attained such distinction. Both are preparing for the ambush. I cannot fulfill your request before that battle. If you believe you must return to Asgard before then, you will have to invoke your title, King of Asgard, and demand aid.”

The words are on the tip of Thor’s tongue.

Palm weightless.

Worthiness.

Fist clenching.

“… the strength of the Einherjar is unmatched.”

Thor breathes shallowly.

Fist unclenching.

“I would never make demands that might endanger your people,” Thor swears.

Minister Piia’s shoulders sag, releasing their tension. “I am immeasurably grateful, Your Majesty.”

Thor nods, acknowledging her gratitude.

His mouth tastes like ash.

“Your Majesty, forgive me if I presume too much, but your assistance in the coming battle would be invaluable. Our strongest sorcerers would not be so taxed if they could count on a highly capable warrior to engage the enemy’s brute.”

Something to do.

Clenching.

“I—I will fight beside your people,” Thor agrees.

Minister Piia’s eyes light up.

Unclenching.

Thor rubs his thigh.

“We are forever in your debt, Your Majesty. I will—”

“The actions of my sons condemn Asgard.”

Protecting the Nine Realms is the noblest of Asgard’s duties.

Thor knows this.

It requires sacrifice.

How much?

“This is Alar, an intern.”

Thor jolts. He shifts in his seat to look at the newcomer.

“He will guide you to suitable lodgings,” Minister Piia continues. “The Ljósálfsaal will cover all costs, of course. If you need anything, do not hesitate to contact us.”

“Thank you,” Thor says, tone flat. Stomach knotted. He leaves behind Alar.

Emerging into the lobby, Thor notices the Hverfálfr guiding their maintenance cart, sleeves rolled up.

A hagalaz rune carved into the scales of their forearm.

Chaos and destruction.


“Heimdall?”

The gatekeeper does not answer. Again.

Thor cradles his head in his hands, compartmentalizing the trepidation, sorrow, and shock muddling his mind.

Minister Piia spoke true, the Einherjar are a force to be reckoned with. Thor’s companions possess considerable strength and skill. Sif, Hogun, Volstagg, and Fandral will defend Asgard to their dying breath.

Thor wishes he could be certain of their safety.

Or, better yet, fight beside them.

A handful of days. They will withstand Hela. They must.

His fist clenches around nothing.

It occurs to him, he can mourn. Not properly—he has no body to send out on a ship, adorned in splendor—but he does have time.

Thor exits onto the balcony, salty sea breeze nipping his skin. The sun lingers on the horizon, a sliver turning the ocean gold. Turning the sky brilliant oranges, yellows, pinks.

He sinks to his knees, palms settling atop them.

He clears his throat. It does nothing to loosen the tightness.

Thor begins to pray.

“Odin, I bid you take your place in the halls of Valhalla, where thine enemies have been vanquished. Nor shall I mourn but rejoice for those that have died the glorious death.

“Lo there do I see my father; Lo there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers; Lo there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning. Lo, they do call me, they bid me take my place among them, in the halls of Valhalla, where the brave may live forever.”

The sun sets.


On the fourth day—the day of the ambush—Thor rises and readies himself.

He calls for Heimdall.

Silence.

Four days of silence.

One of Minister Piia’s assistants, a nervous young man, greets him at the entrance to his lodgings, bowing deeply and stuttering an introduction Thor doesn’t catch.

They exit onto the promenade, merging into the veritable rainbow of pedestrians. The wigs the Ljósálfar wear today are pinned beneath wide-brimmed hats. There are smiles almost everywhere Thor looks, except on the faces of the handful of adult Hverfálfar peppering the walkway, dressed in plain, functional work uniforms. The Hverfálfar children race themselves, banging the sandals they carry against the railing, beyond which lies the sea.

It’s hard to find war on the streets of Ljósálfgard. Thor can almost forgive himself the delay in returning to Asgard when he thinks of the threat the Hverfálfar rebellion poses to this peace.

Almost.

After tonight, he will know whether he made the worthy choice.


Minister Piia’s spies reported the rebels would ambush the supply convoy along the inland stretch, between two low-lying mountain ranges. Uneven terrain ensures the convoy cannot retreat with ease. Dense jungle lies to either side of the road for cover, and slopes provide foot soldiers with high ground.

Thor understands how Ljósálfgard’s forces could be threatened by the rebels. Their tactics are well considered.

He studies the scene of the convoy crawling down the path, gripping the hilt of one of two borrowed swords, its point cutting into the foliage and dirt carpeting the forest floor. Eighteen guards stride beside the vehicles. The drivers are well prepared, defensive seiðr primed. In the covered bed of one shuttle, twenty more Ljósálfar await their signal. And then there are the ten Thor’s crouched beside, in position to flank the rebels. Any moment now they will attempt to take the convoy by surprise and—

Explosions shatter the quiet stillness of the night.

Trees groan, felled by bombs set low on their trunks. Their collapse blocks the path ahead.

The convoy jolts to a stop.

“Why have they alerted the convoy to their presence?” Thor questions, voice hushed.

Magus Marta, the operation’s leader, shifts forward. “The element of surprise is unnecessary and unsustainable with their beast present. Intimidation and fear serve to disorient an enemy. Guards might see fit to separate to investigate.” Around her, seiðr thrums. “There are any number of reasons. Prepare yourself, Your Majesty.”

Figures emerge from the foliage. Two. In the lead, a Hverfálfr, barring their bladed teeth. The other wears a cloak and a mask, unidentifiable.

Thor’s skin prickles. He peers into the gloom, searching. There’s nothing, but Thor’s certain they’re being watched.

“Surrender, and none die.”

Blades sing.

Thor faces the conflict.

The Hverfálfr shrugs. “And you call us bloodthirsty.” They clap their hands.

Claps echo amidst the trees.

Thumps quake the ground. The convoy guards shift, nervous. Thor’s grip tightens around his swords.

The jungle collapses, the rebels’ beast bursting into view.

Green. Hulking—

Thor’s breath catches.

“Banner?” he blurts.

Eyes land on him—furious, shocked, startled. The Hulk snorts.

“Your Majesty!” Magus Marta hisses.

The Hverfálfr’s eyes dart around. “What—”

“No, it’s well. I know him.” Thor gestures towards the Hulk. “We have fought side by side. We are shield brothers.”

Warmth radiates throughout Thor’s body. Banner’s on Alfheim. A fellow Avenger is on Alfheim.

An ally in Thor’s darkest hour.

“Where have you been, my friend? How came you to this realm?” Thor descends the hill, smiling.

The Hulk glowers.

“Banner?”

The Hulk roars. He yanks a bent tree out, roots shedding dirt.

“Fire!” Magus Marta orders.

“No!” Thor pleads.

Ten palms glow, primed seiðr expelling.

Translucent webbing slices through the air, trailing an arrow.

Seiðr fizzles against the web. Dies.

Magus Marta gapes.

“Aces!” cheers the masked figure.

“Right. Weird start, but no more delays.” The Hverfálfr throws his spear. It embeds itself in Magus Marta’s jugular. “Lahing!”

Hverfálfar spill from the jungle. Guards engage the rebels. Their comrades hasten to exit the shuttle.

Thor rounds on the Hverfálfr leader. “Banner, protect the—”

“No Banner! Only Hulk!”

Thor crashes into the jungle, gut throbbing, struck by the Hulk’s weaponized tree trunk.

Thudthudthud.

Thor rolls between the Hulk’s legs.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Thor reasons.

Branches swipe across Thor’s breastplate, leaving thin scrapes.

“Banner—”

The tree arcs downward, above Thor’s head.

He brandishes his swords.

Arrests the momentum of the Hulk’s swing. Blades lodged in the bark.

“Banner, I know you’re—”

The Hulk shifts the tree, ripping Thor’s swords out his grasp.

Punches Thor into the mountain.

Pain blossoms along Thor’s spine. He groans. Rises.

“Fine!”

The Hulk charges.

Thor crouches. Dives aside.

The Hulk collides with the mountainside, slate and stone rupturing forth.

He whips in Thor’s direction.

Thor bashes a boulder against the Hulk’s skull.

Crack!

The Hulk crumples.

Thor chucks the boulder away.

Hulk sits up, disoriented, blinking at Thor.

“Hey, big guy,” Thor soothes, projecting calm. “The sun’s getting real low.”

The Hulk scrubs a hand over his face. He snorts.

Thor stretches out a hand. “Shhh.”

Hesitant, the Hulk responds, green fingers bridging the gap between them.

“That’s it.” Thor brushes the Hulk’s palm. “Sun’s going down—”

The Hulk’s hand traps Thor’s wrist. Yanks him off his feet.

Bashes Thor into the earth. Once. Twice. Three times. Over and over.

Dirt invades Thor’s senses. His head pounds.

Thor slams into the ground a final time, released by Hulk. He rolls onto his back. His ribs protest. He winces.

His eyes sting.

It is unfair.

Thor could scream.

And scream, and scream, and scream.

Why do the Norns punish him?

Why? What has he done? How has he incurred their wrath?

Hulk is supposed to be an ally. Hela is supposed to be a fable. Odin is supposed to be king. To be alive. And so too should Frigga and Loki be. And he should be surrounded by them. By Sif, Volstagg, Hogun, and Fandral, too. By every person dear to him. And circumstance should not have carved an insurmountable divide between Jane and him.

What could Thor have done different?

Mjölnir should be at his side. In his grasp. Channeling the power of the thunderstorm boiling within his veins.

Because he is worthy. Not Hela. She cannot be. She is a wraith. Murderous. Wicked. Monstrous.

How had Hela held her?

It is unfair. It is all so unfair.

Or are you unworthy?

“Son of Odin, your ignorance cannot be overcome by a hammer.”

Thor’s jaw tightens. A tremor wracks his body.

Unworthy of the loved ones you failed to protect?

A low rumble reverberates through the wilderness. A frigid breeze bites at Thor’s flesh where sweat sticks. Where tears run tracks from the corners of his eyes.

You failed them all!

A horrendous, protesting bellow burns, strangled in Thor’s throat.

No.

No! No! No!

And something snaps.

Adrenaline courses through him, fueling instinct.

The instinct to fight.

The world goes red.

He is standing.

His enemy has turned its back on him.

A charge zings across his skin. Through the air.

Lightning forks overhead, converging on his enemy.

Striking his enemy.

Stretching over the surrounding area. Leveling the flora. Searing. Searing everything.

Wind and streaks of rain batter the charred landscape.

His enemy groans.

His enemy stands.

His enemy roars.

He lets the thunder roar for him.

The sky reaches for him. He lets it carry him.

He flies. A flash. Bathed in ozone.

They crash together, creating a thunder of their own.

His enemy does not hold against his might.

His enemy lies sprawled in the mud and jungle debris.

The storm builds and builds within him—around him—whipped into a frenzy.

He tastes electricity and blood. And victory.

A solid force cracks across the back of his skull, pain blossoming, pulsing in his temples. The haze of war lifts, but Thor’s vision fades. Disoriented, Thor notices his face now pressed into the muddy earth, his body tingling.

“Angry Girl!” Hulk cheers.

“Hey, Big Guy.”

Thor drops into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

“Amora—”

“Norns’ sake! If you must worry like some mother hen, do so out of my sight!” the Enchantress snaps.

Skurge hovers beside her, face lined with concern.

The Enchantress’ condition worsens each day she spends unraveling the Allfather’s seiðr. Eyes bloodshot. Shoulders hunched. Hair tangled and greasy. Cheeks hollow. So unlike the gorgeous, proud woman Hela met.

Hela enjoyed witnessing the decline, at first. Now, she paces, fingers and bones twisting around Gungnir.

“She needs rest,” Skurge demands, addressing Hela.

“I need silence,” the Enchantress insists. “I am close.”

Excitement surges up Hela’s spine. She steps nearer.

Skurge’s eyes follow her, filled with disgust. Hela smiles, jawbone scraping, echoing through Odin’s Vault.

Seiðr crackles over the chest. The Enchantress tips forward, bracing herself on the pedestal, her fingers straining, turning white.

“Amora!” Skurge’s hand flies to her waist.

“Done.”

“Move,” Hela commands, rushing forward. Skurge draws the Enchantress to his chest, stepping back.

Gungnir clatters against the floor.

Hela’s fingers settle at the base of the chest’s lid, quivering. She opens it.

Glimmering within, vicious prongs stretching out in greeting: her crown.

Hela lifts the wicked thing. Licks her lips.

Places the crown atop her head.

Yggdrasil’s branches tremble, climbing across her withered half-corpse. The weight of fresh skin growing. Sight adjusting to the presence of a second eye. Armor forming. Cloak cascading from her broad shoulders.

Power. Oh, the power. Licking at her rejuvenated fingertips—a pup excited to see its master.

After centuries.

“You have fulfilled your part of our bargain,” Hela moans, overwhelmed by sensation. She turns her neck, eyes landing on the Enchantress. “What boon would you ask of me?”

The Enchantress appraises her crown. Her fingers drum lightly against Skurge’s muscular arm where it remains wrapped around her middle. The delicate appendages freeze in midair, then lay still over his skin.

“I ask you free my sister, Lorelei, from her prison cell, and allow the three of us to leave this realm.”

“I grant you your boon,” Hela instantly intones.

She closes her eyes. Reaches with her seiðr.

Behind her eyelids, the prison hallway stretches.

“What does your sister look like?” She peers into each cell. Most of them are vacant, and the creatures within the others are of little consequence. “What level is she on?”

The Enchantress’ voice filters through Yggdrasil, arrives distorted. “Auburn hair. Our features are similar. She’s held on the second level.”

Hela’s projection melts through the floor, drifting deeper.

Two Einherjar patrol the second level. Hela lingers in their path, hands poised.

Seiðr gathers, turning her flesh dark green and luminous bellow the wrists.

The Einherjar pass, raking her Hands of Glory through their guts.

They stumble, blood and intestines spilling from their gaping stomachs. One of them chokes around half-formed words. Their armor clangs upon striking the ground.

Rustling sounds a few cells past the corpses. Hela moves towards the noise. The woman within the cell steps up to the barrier. She gazes down the hall, auburn hair flowing over her shoulder. She spots the dead Einherjar, grins, eyes darting around the prison.

Hela wills her projection visible. Lorelei stares at her.

“You will have to fight your way out. Until your sister finds you.”

Lorelei scoffs. “Amora sent you?”

“Indeed.”

Hela rests her palms against the golden barrier. It dissolves into misty, black seiðr. Alarms ring. Lorelei’s head snaps in the direction of the din of multiple sets of pounding feet.

“Have fun.”

Hela opens her eyes, reabsorbing the surroundings of the Vault. The Enchantress’ drained, curious face watches her.

“Your sister awaits.” She tosses her arm out, a bolt of seiðr shattering the sealed door. Pieces of its heavy material slam into waiting Einherjar—those tasked with apprehending Hela, no doubt—crushing them. “Make haste. I have not remained inconspicuous.”

“Let me go, Skurge,” the Enchantress huffs. Skurge releases her, watching for signs of impending collapse. “We must find Lorelei. Retrieve your axe.”

Skurge hefts the axe leaning beside the stairs. The Enchantress’ heels click against the polished stone. She throws a last glance at Hela, then the pair disappear through the open doorway.

Hela circles the symbol in the center of the Vault, halts facing the entrance. Seiðr pools—viscous and black—in the etched lines of Odin’s softer valknut.

Fist clenched, Hela punches the outermost lines. Cracks the entire surface.

The floor crumbles, falling into the lower chamber of the Vault.

Hela summons Gungnir

Smiles.

Drops into the chasm.

Ahead of her, a simple platform with a protruding mechanism—not unlike the Bifrost’s.

Hela’s seiðr sings.

The mechanism’s flat top opens, exposing a cylindrical slot.

Gungnir sinks to the point. The mechanism hums. The crest of the spear illuminates.

Flashes blinding, white light.

The soul that bursts throughout the chamber ranges the entire color spectrum. Buzzes with enough power to annihilate a thousand solar systems.

The soul of Asgard.

The Odinforce.

Hela reaches up.

Traces a finger through the soul—souls. Dwarves, Jötnar, Vanir, Svartálfar, Drekálfar, Hverfálfar, Ljósálfar, Midgardians, and long-extinct others. Beyond that, the hum of sated, glorious souls. The Æsir dining in Valhalla. Distant, yet their power travels Yggdrasil, offers itself, a tribute to the Golden Realm—the realm that nurtured them.

Captivating.

Tremors rock the foundations of the Vault.

A hideous, deep zing splits the reverent silence

Hela leaps clear of the blast. Into the air. Returns fire on Odin’s servant.

The Destroyer absorbs her seiðr.

Hela lands at the base of the steps, eyes wide.

Shouts outside the Vault draw nearer. Reinforcements.

The Destroyer’s mouth smolders, charging.

Einherjar round the corner. Hela’s seiðr latches onto them.

They swap places.

The Destroyer burns the Einherjar to ash.

Hela retreats from the palace, slaughtering Æsir in her way.

Eerie, metallic thrum pursuing.

She dodges blasts through the city. Æsir scream and flee, except for the unlucky few Hela trades places with. Their charred bodies litter walkways. The Destroyer strikes the base of buildings, their supports groaning.

Hela charges onto the Bifrost Bridge.

Holds.

Dives beneath the next column of fire.

The Destroyer stands on the bridge, water drifting below the rainbow surface. It prepares its flame.

Hela launches herself into the construct, seiðr augmenting her weight. The force sends them both toppling over the edge, submerging with an enormous splash, Hela perched atop the Destroyer’s torso.

Water pours into its gaping maw.

The orange-yellow blaze extinguishes.

Hela shoves her Hand of Glory down the Destroyer’s throat, closing it around the seiðr core.

It fractures.

The Destroyer goes limp, devoid of power.

Hela kicks it away. Floats upward.

She climbs ashore. Seiðr swirls, stealing the excess moisture from her person.

Towers—those buildings that the Destroyer hit—collapse. Clouds of dust and smoke and debris billow outward, engulfing the adjacent pavement and structures. A cacophony of horrified voices accompanies the thunderous, rolling clangor of destruction.

Hela tastes death on the wind.

Above the city, the shimmering defenses soar, enclosing the palace.

The Einherjar have taken it.

No matter.

Hela commands her army to rise. Draugr form from scorched Æsir corpses. Glowing green eyes gaze upon their queen.

A wolf howls.


The Goddess of Death. Powerless without her crown.

Amora purses her lips, tracking the chaos through the streets of Asgard.

Tricked into liberating the crown.

She frowns.

“Stop gawking!” Lorelei shouts. “We have to escape!”

Skurge’s boots scrape against the dirt. Under the twilight, his bulk casts a dark shadow down the slope of the mountain. “Amora?”

“They have always despised me.”

“No one could despise you, Enchantress,” Skurge murmurs.

“Disloyal liar.”

Conceited fool.

“Amora!”

“Come, Skurge.” Amora spins, traces a finger along the bulge of Skurge’s bicep. “Let’s get my impatient little sister to safety.”