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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 Norn’s 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 Norn’s 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 train 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 Not Loki steps backward from where he’s just embedded the sword through Not Kurse’s back, moving to center stage. Not Kurse lumbers deliberately after him.

Thor shuts his eyes. The crowd erupts, but Not 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?!”

Not 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 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.