“There are no men like me.”
Thanos’ fist closed around Loki’s throat and squeezed.
It was a slow, agonizing way to die. Intimate, even, with skin on skin, Thanos’ bare-handed strength wringing him up off the ground. Crushing him in small, uneven measures, fisting around his windpipe until breathing became impossible. Loki’s pulse fluttered in his purple palm, heart straining to circulate. Blood rushed as loudly as the crunch of his own bones grinding, cracking under pressure. Thoughtlessly, helplessly, his feet kicked in a hanged man’s dance. Breath hitching, jaw slackening, the world spun and any desperate thought he had seemed realms away. He would die, but Thor might yet—
Thor’s anguish echoed throughout the Statesman, shaking beams and displacing rubble, but Loki heard none of it. No, the sound was too far away. All sound was too far away, in fact, as if he were falling through the Void again, consumed by its endless darkness. The Bifrost below him, then suddenly above him. The galaxies of time and space stretching him, burning him, floating his corpse in the realm-between-realms.
The pleasant feeling of not-being rolled through his bones long before fear struck. Transfixed by it, nearly drunk on it, Loki considered letting the sensation overwhelm him.
Not-being, however, had never been his destiny.
(What was his destiny?)
“You will never be a God ,” he remembered. Thor’s lightning flashed in his mind’s eye.
(Not like them. Not like Odin, or Thor, nor Hela herself. Never like him.)
Latching onto that memory, to that spite, Loki remembered himself.
(He was Loki, of Asgard, God of Mischief and the rightful King of Jotunheim, Odin’s son, and he’d solemnly pledged his undying fidelity…)
Undying, echoed his fate, and the darkness spun away from him.
Floating became falling. Panic crawled through his chest like an unwanted spider, webbing fear through his veins. Falling, flailing, dying, falling—not again, no, not again — Thirty minutes with his heart in his mouth, his stomach turning; a thousand years in panic, swallowed by the Bifrost.
Light exploded in a thousand shards of glass, banishing the darkness with starlight.
This was not a mystical dark. Neither was it the Void’s endlessness, ruled by nothing but space and time. No, it was far more terrifying than that.
Ygdrassil stood above him – around him, below him, existing everywhere at once – while a thousand helpless realms flickered between its gnarled branches. Rot, festering in dark mist, blackened its majesty, threatening creation itself.
No, Ygdrassil answered, and Loki’s windpipe was crushed all over again, the wind ripped out of his lungs. Six impossible stones glimmered in the stars while the Norns took him in hand, splintering his spine into a million tiny pieces. The threat is more infinite.
The world tipped backwards. Loki fell headlong into it, burning like a bolt of fire in a meteor shower. Stars and stardust swirled by, biting and snagging; galaxies in colors both imaginable and not tumbled across his vision. Yggdrasil’s roots began to crumble and She, unbound, unraveled in strands of magic, began to die. What was, will, and ever would be teetered on the precipice of existence. All stories threatened to end.
Light culminated in fire. It extinguished everything: sight, sound, and feeling, gone, blazing in its white-hot rage. Seidhr itself withered into nothingness. Loki became nothing, bent like a blade at the forge, red-hot and raw, unable to feel, to know, to think until –
Valhalla stood before him.
Loki stumbled, falling on hands and knees before Asgard’s glory. Valhalla’s gates loomed over him as his fingers scrabbled against stone, plumes of mist underhand. Hitching and heaving, wracked with tremors, his lungs failed him; he still couldn't breathe, couldn't speak, couldn't plead. The dead were deaf to him. No one would come to ferry the fallen Prince of Asgard home.
“Oh. It’s you.”
But she might, he thought languidly, and swallowed hard.
The world expanded, stretched like stars in the Bifrost. Loki watched, sickened, as Valhalla was torn away from him. Shuddered as familiar magic gripped his heart and pulled back, until the gold-white light was extinguished by grey. The sunlight’s warmth faded. There was nothing but the hand on his back – her nails, digging in, yearning to break skin – and the long shadow of death over him.
Loki trembled as Hela’s breath danced across his cheek.
“Hello, little brother.”
The sharp, distinct smell of burnt meat hit his nose. Her hand fisted in his hair as he choked on his tongue, yanked up to his feet. Whatever sound she wrenched out of him was lost in the mist, mirthless underneath the soft hum of her laughter.
“Look at you. So…” The fingers on his back crawled up, raking over leather until she found his neck. What was left of his adam’s apple bobbed as her nails raked against cold, broken skin, trailing across the cratered handprint that Thanos had left behind. “…crushed.” A wave of nausea surged as her palm lay flat against him. “Oh, darling…”
Hot breath chased away the cold, skating across his ear. She squeezed and his spine snapped taut, uncontrollable fear rushing through him. It cupped his heart, infectious, and disbanded thought; his pulse raced in her hand and he remembered that deafening, numbing snap, the way he’d lost control, his fingers scratching on Thanos’ wrist. Choking, sinking, falling— I can’t breathe, Thor, I can’t breathe, help me, save— falling, flailing, falling— I did it for you, Father, and letting go— I didn’t do it for him , and dying.
“No need to be afraid.”
The sound of his windpipe snapping back properly cracked across his vision as he fell, gasping, onto the stone. Hela let him go. The heels of his palms pressed hard into the ground as he steadied himself, uneasy as the world kept swaying. Dragging ragged, painful breaths into his lungs, he coughed, gingerly holding his throat with one hand.
“You,” his voice was glass against stone, raked over gravel.
Valhalla’s gates stood so far away. He could see them in the distance, still gleaming, where sunlight spilled freely over white mist.
“No.” She snapped her fingers and his mouth flew shut, bound by invisible thread. Loki’s chest heaved, panic barely contained. Not again, came the traumatized thought. He had no power here. This was the realm of the dead – her realm, to which she’d freshly returned.
It occurred to him suddenly that they had died only days apart from one another. The realm Asgard was still smoldering. The people, the new Asgard, did much the same. He sat back on his calves, defeat pitted in his belly. What was done was done. He was here now, and all his tolls had come due in the same day.
“You have a lot of nerve, Odinson,” she began. “The fires haven’t even cooled.”
The fires? he wanted to say, but thought better of it. Asgard wasn’t so much on fire as it was exploded. All that was left of their home was blood and dust.
Then, with a sickening realization, he knew she didn’t speak of realms.
“A whole realm, my realm, incinerated for nothing, and that’s the least of it.”
For the first time, Loki was faced with the horrors he and Thor had wrought upon their elder sister.
Hela was burning.
Her boots, licked by flame, left orange-white prints smoldering on stone. Pools of smoke trailed off her cape, swirling in the mist. Her clothes, tailored as tightly as they were, had melted into her skin; stretches of green and black fabric threaded across her limbs, fused with bubbled flesh. She stood without her helm, then crouched low, taking his face in her burning palms.
“Tell me, brother…”
Half of her face was gone. Decay cut across its left side in ragged, uneven lines, still smoking, maiming her beauty with a rash of fire that would never stop itching. Her cheek had been burnt through to the teeth; when she smiled, a charred muscle in her jaw slid against bone, blackened at the flame.
“How does it feel to lose everything?”
She smelled like fire, smoke and decay – like Asgard, in its final moments. Horrifyingly, he felt his eyes water. His lips went dry, cracking in the smallest, forced smile when her spell snapped away. He hid his terror behind gallows humor and flattery.
“I still have you, don’t I?”
Hela sneered, palming him backwards as she stood away. He fell sideways onto the stone, catching himself on his arm while mist billowed around him. Chuckling didn’t seem to lighten her mood in the slightest.
“Sweet sister,” he managed, pushing down his trembling, forcibly smothering it with the rest of his pain. “Whatever did you expect?”
This mists continued to drift away. Hela turned, ascending stairs that materialized beneath her steps, heels clicking on stone. Loki struggled off the ground as a grey, dreary hall appeared and banished the mists of the In Between.
Helheim, he knew, dusting himself off when he found his footing. Wonderful.
His sister lowered herself onto a throne of skulls, folding herself into a dismissive, irreverent pose, one leg bent up on the seat with her elbow pointed into her knee. Relaxing her head against her palm, her expression was drawn with a long, languid sort of boredom. Strange, how quickly her interest waned, he thought. Surely his role in her downfall would warrant more interest. Perhaps he should be grateful it didn’t.
“I expected more,” she answered plainly. “Or maybe less.”
Loki watched her carefully, hiding the trembling of his hands by folding them behind his back. Standing before the throne of the dead – this wasn’t the first time, it wouldn’t be the last – he focused on finding his resolve. It was alarming how difficult it was to formulate any useful sort of thought.
“Well,” he said, awkwardly. Hela glared down at him. “Here we are.”
Lovely, Loki. A strong start.
When she didn’t honor him with any sort of response, he tried again.
“The last time I was here, I recall you seeming far more invested in my circumstance.”
“The last time you were here,” she repeated idly, studying her nails. “I was alive, and you presented an opportunity. Both of those things are no longer true.”
“I dare to disagree with you, sister.”
“You dare to do nothing.” Her gaze flicked to him, hand falling aside as she glared. “I brought you back from the brink of death once. You indebted yourself to me in return, then deftly avoided me at every turn. In that, you damned yourself to Hel. Except now,” she gestured lazily towards herself, eternally burning. “I’ve no need of a Trickster God.”
“Everyone needs a Trickster God,” he argued, not so humbly. The coldness of this realm swept over him, seeming to settle frost in his bones. “You’re not curious, then? How I died?”
The expression on her face clearly said, no, she wasn’t, but Loki went on anyway. Full of nervous energy he couldn’t dismiss, he began to pace the long, grey hall of Helheim, whose feasting table stood empty and cold. The silver sconces on the columns burned with black flame.
“How half of Asgard flooded Hel’s gates?”
She sighed. “I suppose you’re going to tell me.”
He flashed her a wicked, uneasy smile, turning on heel towards the throne again. Boldly, he leaned against ones of the columns, diagonal to her court. But his lips fell into a flat line when he thought about the past – about Valkyrie, stowing the women and children into escape pods while he and Thor fought desperately with the remaining warriors against the Black Order. The Hulk, smashed.
“Thanos,” he managed, tempering himself. He crossed his arms, hiding the shaking of his hands against his sides.
Panic crept up his throat. Some foolish, hopeful part of him had hoped for Hela to recognize that name. For her to hate him as equally as he did. But how could she, locked away in Odin’s exile? What was the Goddess of Death to the Mad Titan but a figment, a concept that only distantly matched his ideals? Half the universe, dead – that was where their paths crossed, and only there.
“You don’t know?”
Loki swallowed, then let his head fall back against the stone. His eyes passed over the craftwork carved into the ceiling, mirror images of the murals from Asgard. From home. They were the red ones he’d never seen, but Thor had described them at length.
“No,” he murmured. “But he threatens us all. The dead, the living. You and I.”
“I won’t revive you for the sake of your revenge,” she said, dismissing him outright. “I’ve yet to get my own. And, I assure you, the dead don’t die so easily.”
“It’s not about death,” Loki snapped, leveling his gaze back to the throne. “It’s not about killing. It’s about power. Control. Bringing his ideals of balance to the universe.”
“You fail to tell me why I should care.” She picked flakes of ash out of her hair, flicking them aside.
“You should care because he will not fail.”
“Hm. You sound afraid.”
“Yes. I am afraid,” his admission was slanted, strained. It brought Hela’s attention back up, if only momentarily. “Because where many have failed, he will succeed. He’ll have the stones long before anyone can muster up the might to kill him.”
Her eyes flashed at the mention of the stones, and, for a reason Loki couldn’t quite articulate, relief washed through him. He pushed off the column, gesturing to the vast emptiness around him.
“He won’t kill half the universe. He’ll wipe it out of existence. Make it so they never were.” Absently, Loki touched his neck. “Eitri will’ve made him a gauntlet, by now.” When he’d been plucked from the Void after his fall, Ebony Maw had drawn the name out of him, the legendary tales of Nidvallier’s craftsmanship. “He’ll harness infinity and bend the world to his whim.”
Hela’s response was halted, slow and careful. “If the flame burned me, it will’ve burned the stone in the Vault.”
“No.” he said, biting back shame. “No, it didn’t.”
The black flames shook, casting odd shadows across the walls. Loki refused to look away from Hela as she considered this, his protest explanation enough. Unlike Thor, she didn’t seem to care one way or another that he’d stolen away with a piece of the Vault.
“He killed you, this Thanos,” she started, piecing his story together. “The Aether? Still in Tyr’s holding, I assume?”
Loki didn’t know that name, but resolved that he should after hearing the venom in her voice.
“The Aether was restored to Malekith within the last decade. Only shortly,” he added quickly, when her eyes flashed dangerously. “Just briefly, before Thor took the matter in hand. That was when we met last. After my return…” he shrugged. “We couldn’t return it to the secret place from whence it came, so we were forced to entrust to a Collector. An Elder being. He still holds it, far as I know.”
“You…” She blinked once, then shook her head. “You’re all fools.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Hela rolled her eyes, stood, and descended from her throne. Loki watched as black smoke slithered out from the shadows, ghosting between her steps.
“Let me return to my body, indebted to you still,” he tried, “Let me try to stop him.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“It was before.”
“Before,” Hela said pointedly, drawing closer. “Asgard thrived. I lived.” He didn’t dare let his gaze falter from hers as she stared him down. “Now, Asgard is no more and I’m, well... Dead.”
Brave, bold words came to the forefront of his mind. “So you’re cut off from Asgard’s power, as you were before,” and “I find it curious that death tames the Goddess of Death” played across his tongue. Yet he said none of it, cautioning himself. Bravery and stupidity too often went hand-in-hand. She continued on through his silence.
“Were it Asgard alone, perhaps it might be different. But alas, our dear brother summoned Surtur, that big, fire-brained oaf,” disgust curled her features, as if the prophecy were her greatest peeve. Loki pursed his lips and admitted to nothing. “He begun Ragnarok.”
Dismissively, she passed him by, going to the head of the great feasting table in the hall. The shadows that dogged her footsteps coiled up around her calves, licking like flames on a log.
“What of it?” Loki ventured, turning to watch her back.
“What do you know?” Hela asked sharply, looking over her shoulder. “Did Father teach you nothing?”
He shrugged. “Odin hoarded prophecies the same as secrets, it seems.”
Her brows furrowed in pointed disbelief. The shadows swirled away from her, pooling at her feet. Whatever thoughts she had on the topic were discarded when magic began to hum through the stone floor, rattling up Loki like a snake up a tree.
“Come,” she gestured, and he obeyed. “The prophecy is a cycle. In the interim between end and beginning, there are no resurrections.”
The shadows at their feet shook themselves to life, curving through the air without distinguishable shape. In time, under her guiding hand, the darkness wove itself into shape: a fire, swaying in green and black flames, casting a chill from its core instead of warmth.
“If no resurrections, then what?”
“Oh, princling…” Her smile crawled under his skin, but he refused to tense under her scrutiny. The way he jolted couldn’t be helped when she gripped his shoulder, nails clawing into leather. “Is that skepticism I hear?”
There was a crack like lightning across his vision, her nails digging deep as pain spiderwebbed across his skin, every one of his bones snapping in the stress, and then—
“Don’t need to—what the fuck?” Tony Stark’s voice buzzed in his brain like insects burrowed in his ear. Everything felt wrong: his limbs, somehow numb and agonizing at the same time; his eyes, frozen open; his breath, nonexistent; his neck, snapped. A corpse above him, below him, beside him. A child’s dead-eyed stare drilling into his. Heimdall’s corpse lying cold on the ground too far away from him. Panic bubbled up in his chest – he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t even struggle to breathe. Already the darkness was closing back in, the long fall impending. A few seconds later – if felt like years, like centuries, enveloped in a million years of agony – Tony Stark stared at something like the world was ending all over again. Loki burned.
Magic whip-cracked across his vision. Breath ripped through his chest and he heard Hela laughing before he felt ice prick his knees, before he realized he’d fallen into the fire that burned with cold instead of heat.
“Don’t worry, love.” When he tried to lurch away from the flames, from the cold that burned his skin blue, she pressed her heel into his back. He choked on the smoke of his own body burning, agony igniting a panic he hadn’t felt in years. “We’ll find a way to make you right.”