He didn’t hurt anymore, and that was what signaled to Loki that something was wrong.
Everything was blackness around him, not for the first time in his life, but the sickening disorientation of falling was absent, and there was something hard, cold, and damnably uncomfortable at his back, so at the very least, he knew he was stationary.
Entirely stationary, as it turned out: he could not move. There was something holding him to that cold rough surface. He beat back the wave of panic waiting at the ready and tried, though his heart was racing (at least, he thought it was), to take calm, dispassionate stock of his situation.
His arms felt raised, so that his hands were on either side of his head, and his wrists and elbows felt especially immobilized, though by what, shackles or chains or something else entirely, he wasn’t certain. But the same bonds were present around his abdomen, just below his rib cage. There was another at his waist, one around each thigh, each shin, each ankle.
He thought there might be one around his neck, but that one did not seem to preclude all movement – he could turn his head from side to side, but he wasn’t strong enough to lift it.
And he was naked.
So someone had found him, gone to the trouble of putting him back together, and then shut him into an entirely dark space (or else he had gone blind, which was only the eighth or ninth most awful thing that could happen to him) and bound him hand, foot and all onto a rock, and without any clothes.
Yet instead of being petrified out of his wits, he was... examining his situation utterly without emotion.
Something was very wrong. He ought to have been terrified. He should be sweating, his blood pressure should have been a fountain to the heavens by now, his lungs ought to be burning—
“You will never... be a god...”
“No,” Loki whispered, and wept.
How long he cried, he did not know. It hardly mattered; he would not soon run out of tears now. This, then, was his reward. He wasn’t scared, or even surprised. Only – now that there was no one to see and mock – so very tired.
He felt a hand on his hair, slowly stroking, and didn’t bother questioning it. He was dead and trapped, unable to move or see in the dark, and now he was beginning to hallucinate, just as he had done after too many eternities of falling through the endless empty space between worlds. What did it matter?
Then the hand touched his cheek, and Loki stilled. He knew that broad, callused hand, though he hadn’t felt it since his childhood. He had yearned for it all his life: a single touch, one kind word of encouragement or praise, and how infrequently it had been bestowed upon him, in comparison to his brother!
Loki swallowed his tears and hunted for his voice. “F-father?”
He turned his head towards the hand, and then Odin was... there. Just standing there, almost exactly as Loki had last seen him on the grassy, breezy clifftop in Norway. And he could see him, though there was no more light in the space – a small, cold, apparently door-less bubble of space surrounded by black unfeeling rock – than there had been a second before.
And he saw something else – a pale Asgardian skin, spreading outward from Odin’s hands on his cheek, and overtaking the rough blue flesh of the Frost Giants that had apparently reasserted its native dominance over Loki’s form. He saw the blue on his bent arm disappearing under a wave of warmer tones, and felt both giddy and sick.
“Oh, my son,” Odin whispered hoarsely. “I am so sorry.”
It was far too little at such a late date, but Loki didn't have the strength to point that out.
“You shouldn’t be here.” Odin gripped the chains binding Loki to the rock, and every muscle in his body bulged as he strained to rip them free, but he could barely rattle the links, let alone break them.
“Neither should you.” Small need to ask where ‘here’ was, if Odin was before him hale and whole – almost whole; he still lacked an eye. But surely Odin ought not to be where Loki had always known he would end up. Even with all he had learned of his adopted father’s past, there was no doubt in his mind as to who was the greater villain. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in Valhalla, drinking and fighting and doing all the other entertaining things that are supposed to await great warriors when they die? Or have you gotten bored with paradise already and come to slum it with the monsters down below?”
“Oh no, you’ve got it all wrong.”
Loki froze. That had not been Odin. That was a voice he had only heard once, and once was enough. Deep, ringing, undeniably regal, and bone-chilling.
A pale face framed in black loomed out of the darkness, terrifying in her complete self-possession. “After leading a life of conquest and deception, and then dying to serve his own convenience? Hardly an honorable end. Odin is right where he belongs. You, on the other hand, Loki, prince of Asgard, Odinson, the rightful king of the Jotunheim, god of mischief, you sacrificed everything to save your brother. You’re the one who’s not supposed to be here.”
“And yet, here I am. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, sister?”
“Mmm. I might.” Hela reached down and removed Odin’s hands from the chains as though he had no more strength than a child, and shoved him away. Loki saw the red-rawness of Odin’s palms, and he couldn’t help it: he winced.
She noticed, of course. “I knew you were soft-hearted,” she said, rolling her eyes. “And all that bluster about Valhalla. Still longing for daddy’s approval?”
“I’d tell you to go to Hel, but that seems rather redundant.”
“I know, it does get annoying after a while. But really, no words of warmth for your big sister?”
“Big sister has me chained naked to a rock, so no. Besides, you’re not my sister anymore than he’s my father. And lastly – didn’t Surtur kill you?”
“I’m the goddess of death, you little idiot. Ugh, how many times do we have to go over this...”
“Sorry, but I need to go back a few steps. If I’m not supposed to be here, then why am I here?”
Hela’s smile was not one he would soon forget. “I have a score to settle.”
“I think your quarrel’s with your actual brother.”
“And you’re not worth the trouble to torture, is that it? Or are you worth ten of Thor?”
“Well, I don’t like to brag...”
“Then don’t.” Quicker than thought, something blacker than the stones around them slashed through the air, and then it was in Loki’s chest, searing straight through the middle of the old scar, pinning him even more insultingly to the rock, and he heard someone scream but it wasn’t him – he couldn’t have breathed if he’d tried.
No, not Thor… Thor wasn’t here, that was the whole point. Then who…?
“Don’t give yourself airs,” Hela advised. “It’s not ornamental. You’re nothing but a canvas; he’s the subject.”
The rock suddenly lurched him into a more upright position, and now Loki could see more than the ceiling of the claustrophobic space – he could see Odin, and the old man’s face was drawn with horror.
“You don’t matter. Of course, you already knew that. But you matter to him.”
Loki caught just enough of his breath to manage a brief, hacking laugh. “You’re... wasting your time, if you believe this is going to break either of us.”
“You think that because you managed to leave the Black Order’s clutches once, now you know pain. Little boy, you know nothing. I will—”
“—make me long for something as sweet as pain, yes, I know. I’ve heard it, it bores me.”
Odin climbed painfully to his feet. “Hela, stop this. He’s done nothing to you!”
“‘Nothing’ is a bit of an exaggeration, when he was the one who unleashed Surtur and brought about the end of days. Then again, compared to everything you've done, Dad, one little cataclysm like that is child’s play.”
“Daughter, I am warning you—”
He took a step forward, which was unwise. Hela’s face twisted into an expression of loathing such as Loki had never seen before, not even on his own face, and with one sharp, sickly green flash, she thrust Odin back, out of reach of where Loki lay. “You’re here to watch,” she said shortly, “not to touch. Besides...”
She traced a finger down the line of Loki’s jaw, spreading the little trickle of blood that dripped down from his lips. “He’s rather pretty, for a Frost Giant. But I know how much you hate this monstrous hide, Laufeyson,” she continued, pulling the blade from his chest and curling her fingers into the gaping wound. “So I think we’ll just relieve you of it.” She slid her fingernails under the frayed edges of his skin, and ripped.
Instantly, Loki mentally turned and fled, diving deep into the recesses of his own mind, away from the screams coming out of his throat. It was an old trick with him now, and the motions of his mind were smooth and practiced. He had to get away. Far, far away. From a safe distance he could ignore the pain, examine his surroundings, perhaps even find a way out.
Impressive… she actually got that whole skin off me in one piece. …Huh. So that’s what a flayed Frost Giant looks like… not the first time she’s done this…
Five, six seven… if she cracks my head on that rock again, it’s going to split like an – yes, there goes the skull. I hope those bone fragments don’t get lodged anywhere important, that would be very annoying…
What’s in the bowl, poison? I can’t swallow anything, you’ve recrushed my – oh, not for ingesting, for external use. Just tip it out and ow, that hurts… feels appropriate, though. No idea why…
At some stage, he got bored with commenting on his own torture session, and drifted off somewhere. When he came back, his skin was back on and his skull was mostly intact again, but everything still felt so jumbled… “Father?” he called sharply.
“I’m here, Loki,” Odin promised.
Hela snorted. “Oh, spare me.” And she bent over Loki again. “Don’t let that go to your head. You don’t matter. You’re not special. You’re not even your own person. You’re nothing but a puppet. A plaything. A vessel for other people’s shame. That’s all you are to him, you know. His guilt made flesh.”
“You are... a madwoman...”
“Only if you’re a madman, baby brother.”
“Keep this up and... I might be.” He darted one quick, swimming glance at Odin. The first pallor of shocked anguish had gone, and the old man’s face now was as disinterested as the stones around them. “Are you sure this isn’t—” A sharp pain sliced through Loki, momentarily stealing his breath. “—a waste of time for you? We both know he doesn’t care... and he doesn’t look very guilty to me.”
Suddenly his ribs were all twisting and snapping and breaking into little pieces inside him. Over his screams, he heard her laugh. “What’s time to the dead?”
When the bones had all broken and Loki’s mind was clear – And isn’t that a demented state of affairs? No wonder those stories of the terrors of Niflheim were never explicit, who would believe them? Or perhaps this is simply my body’s reaction to pain now. Utterly overtaxed with abuse. – he looked again at Odin.
Who appeared to be asleep.
But only at first glance. Loki blinked several times and then shrank down as much as his chains would allow him.
Odin’s eye was closed, but he was not asleep. His lips moved rapidly, and his face was drenched with tears.
Loki swallowed, moistening his lips with whatever fluid was in his mouth at that moment – not saliva, that was all he was sure of. “Wha... Where... is she?”
“Called away.” Odin unfolded himself with some pain and came to Loki’s side. “She is still ruler of this place, and rulers have responsibilities.”
“What does... what does she want?”
“I’m not certain. To torment me, that’s all I know.”
“Oh yes, because... everything must always revolve around you, great Odin All-father...”
In former days, that would have earned him a thundering shout, at least, but now, Odin only sighed. “Here.” He laid his hand gently on a small area of unbroken, unbruised skin. Loki sighed gratefully, watching the skin he was most comfortable in cover his body once more.
“Foolish,” he murmured absently, “that I should prefer this lie.”
“It is not a lie. It’s who you are.”
“It’s a lie—”
“It is not. It’s the truth you were raised with. This Asgardian flesh is your identity.” The moment of stern patriarchal command passed, and Odin seemed to diminish, somehow. “It is the only truth I ever allowed you. Your Jotunn face could never be anything but a stranger and a horror to you. I saw to that."
Loki sighed, and felt something in his soul unclench and dissipate. “Stop it. Just... stop. It’s done. You can’t change anything now. Let it alone. It... it doesn’t matter.”
Odin frowned down at him, his seamed faced fighting not to crumple into tears. Then he bent and pressed a kiss to Loki’s broken head. “But you matter.”
For one moment, with his father’s lips on his head, Loki felt at peace.
Then Hela came back, and for the first time in his life, Loki wished he didn’t matter quite so much.
“The funny bit it, this isn’t even the first time I’ve seen someone tear my heart out of my chest. It’s an odd thing to be blasé about, I know, but—” Hela scowled and jammed the organ back into his rib cage. Loki might have screamed again, but on the whole, he thought he only groaned that time. He was getting bored.
“You know, I’m not surprised he took you in. Disgusted, but not surprised. Was it guilt, Odin? Over what might have been?” Hela seized Loki’s bloody chin in her hand and turned his face this way and that. “It must stab at what remains of your conscience every time you lay eyes on him. He looks just like Laufey. Don’t you think?”
Loki heard Odin utter a very quiet, “Yes.”
“It must have felt so fitting to you, so perfectly cyclical, to have Laufey’s son in your court. Nestled in the bosom of your own family... like a lost dog who managed to find its way home.” The black blade caressed Loki’s cheek, and then he felt her lips by his ear. Her cold breath and the intolerable intimacy made him want to tear his skin off. But there’s always another skin underneath, isn’t that the problem? “Did you know that Odin and Laufey were raised as brothers?”
“Hela, stop! He doesn’t know, he has no need to know now!”
“Of course he doesn’t need to know now, he doesn’t need to know anything now. You decided that long ago. And it won’t do him any good, but when have any of your choices for Loki turned out well? You’re both beyond help, so why not let it all out into the open?”
Her words were graciousness itself; her tone dripped with poison. “I remember Laufey in the halls of Asgard, clad in an Asgardian form, handsome and charming and fully a match for the old king’s son. He was sent to Bor’s house for fostering after the death of his own father – or the Jotunn king’s murder at Bor’s directive, more likely. The men of my line have always had an obsession about ruling Jotunheim by proxy. Bor wanted Laufey raised in our ways so that he would be loyal to Asgard. To himself, and after he was gone, to Odin. Sound familiar?”
“It—” Loki coughed harshly. His blood on the rock had dried to a clammy stickiness, but he no longer felt quite as weak. He remembered how the broken in Valhalla were restored at the end of each day’s battle, and wondered if it was the same here. It might help, if he could keep track of time... or it might send him raving over the cliff into total insanity, because if he was right, he’d only been bound for a day.
One day, cast up against an eternity of his sister’s ministrations and her thirst for Odin’s undying horror and regret.
Madness sounded preferable.
“It doesn’t seem to have worked out well for anyone involved.”
“Not really, no.” The edge of the blade traced thin slices down his chest that burned like hot water on frostbite. Or so he supposed; he’d never had frostbite himself. Thor and Fandral had, the idiots. But cold had never much affected him.
No small wonder why, at this late date.
“And then Laufey had to bang out of Asgard to go back to Jotunheim and reclaim his throne, and of course by then he knew all about Bor’s defensive and tactical capabilities, so that first attempt at conquering Jotunheim... oh, it was a slaughter.”
Her wistfulness sickened him, all the more so for it being all too familiar. How many times had he heard other warriors speak of old bloody battles in that same tone of fond reminiscence? Volstagg... Thor... Odin.
“I’ll give Laufey this: he was never a monster. He was weak and inferior, as all beings are before the might that is Asgard – or was, thanks to you and your brother. But he was a good king. He cared for his people, and never escaped the shame of having once believed the lies he’d been taught. And he – well. Let’s just say he wasn’t the one who left you to die of exposure.
“He was no more a monster than I am, or than you are. We’re all put into the universe to serve a purpose, after all. Unlike Odin. Do you know, on Vanaheim, they still call him ‘Odin the Butcher’? A pity you didn’t let Laufey kill him years ago. Then you could have been king and I could have had this pleasure all the sooner.”
“What, and without me as your canvas? Far less satisfying, surely.”
“Oh, I’m sure I could have found someone else... Someone like your precious golden brother, perhaps.”
“Not likely. Thor’s still alive, in spite of everything. He’s good at that.”
“Oh?” She stroked his temples with the very tips of her fingers. “Are you sure about that?”
“The Tesseract... or your brother’s head. I assume you have a preference?”
“Oh, I do. Kill away.”
He thinks he can handle it. He believes Thor can withstand it. They’ve prepared for this possibility.
He thinks he can handle it. And he does… until he can’t any longer.
“All right, stop!”
But he doesn’t stop. He keeps going, and Thor keeps screaming, and Loki is rooted to the spot by his own pathetic terror, and he does nothing.
Thor’s screams stop abruptly, with one wet crushing squelch, and Loki does nothing.
Thor's blood and brains splatter the wreckage, and Loki does nothing.
From far away, he hears another scream.
His eyes never closed, but the sights before them tilted sharply and then slithered away, and he was back on the stone slab, with Hela hovering over him and Odin being kept just out of reach.
Loki’s head thudded painfully against the stone. “I thought you said you weren’t a liar.”
“Death is present across all realities. That might not be what you experienced, but it happened somewhere.”
“...you experience death across all planes of reality? Are you sure you’re not insane, sister?”
“I never had any sanity to lose. It’s a problem, when you’re born the physical embodiment of a near-universal constant. But I cope, because I have to. It’s why I’m here. But you? You’re not important, brother. You don’t matter. And I really don’t care.”
“You repeat that phrase a suspicious amount for something you don’t care about.”
“Do I?” Hela struck him across the face. “Well, you’d know.”
“I know a lot of things. What would you like me to divulge first?”
“You don’t matter, aren’t you listening? You don’t matter to me and you certainly don’t matter to him.”
The words were jabs at the old, infected wound in his heart, the pain familiar and awful in how used to it he had become. Worse, far worse, was the horror on Odin’s face. Loki couldn’t credit it – it was nothing less than the truth. They all knew it. Why should Odin still be so appalled? Was it the abhorrence of having his hypocrisy thrown back in his face? Or was he sick at this further evidence of his first-born’s cruelty?
“Stop it,” Odin whispered. “Stop this madness.”
“I'll stop when you stop lying,” said Hela flatly. “But that’s not likely to happen, is it? You lie with every breath, because it’s your nature. I never learned that knack from him, you know,” she continued, turning her attention to Loki. “He tried to teach me, but I just couldn't learn the way of it. Doesn’t seem like he had any trouble transmitting that art to you, though.” She ran her fingers consideringly through his sticky hair. “It’s odd, this. So much like his and mine and yet Laufey’s face… Are you sure you’re not Odin’s natural son? Laufey was as handsome as a woman as he was as a man, so it’s not impossible.”
Loki’s brain shied away from the possibility like a horse from a snake, and laughed, though each breath was like fire in his lungs. “You tell me.”
Hela shrugged. “Oh well. It doesn’t really matter now, does it?”
“Do you know,” said Loki genially, utterly unsure of how long he could keep up this idiotic babble of pleasantries but willing to keep trying, as it seemed to give Odin some peace of mind to know he wasn’t yet broken, “you’re almost as good at twisting minds as the Black Order.”
“Oh, no. I’m much better they are.” She massaged his temples with her fingertips. He knew what was coming next, but even under the circumstances... it felt nice. “Who do you think Thanos learned it from?”
He strides into the solar, with the king’s scepter clutched in his hands, and sees Frigga in the grip of a monster. “Release her – release her!”
Another figure, smaller and more regal but no less menacing, approaches him warily. “Are you the new king?” Malekith’s voice is deep, cautious, and strange – alien. The stuff of nursery nightmares. The Dark Elf looks from Loki to Frigga and back. “Is this your queen, then? No... your mother?”
Loki says nothing. In the silence, he hears his mother whisper, “Kill them.”
“If it is revenge against Asgard that you seek—”
“Revenge?” Malekith sounds incredulous. “Do you truly believe I care about Asgard?”
“It was my grandfather who put an end to your kind.”
“Is that what they told you?”
Loki feels the cold hand of uncertainty take hold of him. He’s been told so many lies... He takes a fresh grip on the scepter. "I said, release her, elf."
But Malekith is not intimidated by a boy-king with inherited delusions. “You know what I want. Give it to me... or watch your mother die.”
Loki’s eyes dart to Frigga, to the creature holding her, to Frigga again.
And Malekith sees his hesitation. “You must ask yourself, as I did once: What are you prepared to sacrifice for what you believe?”
“Kill them,” Frigga whispers insistently. “Kill them!”
But hasn’t he already sacrificed enough?
Slowly, Loki lays down the scepter on the edge of the fountain.
Malekith smiles, and then very clearly, he says, “Kill her.”
Loki watched the horned monster drive a vicious blade into his mother’s body... and he does nothing.
“Stop it, stop this! It wasn’t him, it was me! He wasn’t there—”
“No?” Hela’s unconcern cut straight through the anguish and guilt muddling Loki’s brain. “And him so close to her? Whose fault was that, I wonder?”
Loki made a colossal effort and heaved his head up, rolling it onto his opposite shoulder and forcing himself to look his sister in the face. “His. And mine. You can leave off trying to turn me against him, if that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s too late. He did that himself, long ago.”
Hela smiled, which was frightening enough, and the smile was almost fond, which was even worse. “You almost believe that. I’m not sure if that’s impressive or pathetic. But what does it matter, whether or not you saw Frigga die, or if that usurping blockhead you call a brother is still alive or not? When has truth ever mattered to the family of Odin?”
“Let him go, Hela. I beg you—”
She raised her eyebrows at her father’s choice of words.
“Set Loki free. He earned his place in Valhalla. Let him join his mother there.”
The goddess of death shrugged lean, hungry shoulders. “Honestly, who’s chained to that rock doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. I’ll let him go, if that’s what you really want… if someone will take his place. Who should it be? Would you prefer I got your other spawn down here? Or your wife?”
And Loki held his breath, waiting for the old king to say yes, knowing that he was lower than the very bottom rung of the ladder of Odin’s affections.
Odin’s bloodless face was warped with grief. “If I agree, I’m condemning someone else I love to unceasing torment. If I refuse, Loki stays where he is. It is a cruel choice. Too cruel.”
“Well, you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Father?”
“Is that what you want, Hela? My suffering? My repentance, for the way I treated you?”
“If I wanted anything from you, it would be for you to admit that you are what I could never claim to be: the vilest of hypocrites. I am what you made me, just as this misbegotten Jotunn whore’s get you call a son is. All of your children are what you made them, Odin Borson: brutes and monsters, even your pretty golden Thor. So sit here, and watch, and beg for your son’s freedom. Perhaps in a few centuries I’ll get tired of this farce.”
“I – I can’t.”
“You can’t what?”
“I can’t watch this anymore. Not for a century, not for another second. I can’t stand by quietly and watch my child suffer for my sake. I beg you, Hela… relieve us both.”
She looked at her father kneeling on the rough stone floor, pleading like a decrepit beggar, for a long time. Loki watched her, and felt like he was dying all over again. “No,” he whispered. “Father, no.”
Finally, the goddess of death shrugged. “Fine. You traded the first eye for him, it’s only fitting that you do the same with the second.”
She struck like a snake, and the black blade that had pinned Loki to the rock like a goat to a sacrificial altar sliced out Odin’s remaining eye.
“No. No no no no…”
“Oh, shut up, boy.” Hela turned and gripped his chin hard. “I’m a little disappointed. I’d expected centuries of this fun. But apparently he does give a bit of a damn about you. Who’d have thought it?”
“Father? Father, I’m here,” said Loki helplessly.
“Not a very impressive man to have for a father. But,” Hela sighed, “he’s all the father we’ve got, I’m afraid.”
Looking at Odin, huddled on the ground, clutching his bloody face in pain, Loki was afraid.
And then, she simply left, with Odin weeping blood upon the floor and Loki still chained inexorably to his rock.
“He’s yours, if you can free him. Have fun getting to Valhalla, Father,” she called over her shoulder as she vanished, “I’m sure you can find the way.”