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The three old women had many names. The lad who now approached them, as so many had approached them over the ages, knew them as the Norns. Sometimes they appeared to be spinning and weaving, but for this one they watered the roots of a gigantic tree, pouring water from buckets that never needed to be refilled.

“We didn’t expect you for another year yet, Loki Silvertongue,” Skuld remarked as the lad approached them.

“This one never does quite what we expect.”

“I shall take that as a compliment,” the prince retorted. The Norns took no notice. Most of the few who ventured here were full of anger and defiance. Except for those who were full of pleas. “I suppose you also know why I am here.”

“You want what everyone who makes the journey to us wants,” Urðr muttered. “You want to know why.”

Yes, why,” Verðandi echoed, mocking. “Why has your lot been such a hard one? No matter that all the Nine Realms are one great vale of tears; you want to know why your cup has been so full of bitterness.”

“Most cups have a great deal of bitterness in them,” Loki acknowledged. “But you do not turn most of your playthings into monsters.” He set his jaw. “I never wanted to be what I have become.”

“And do you think that beings such as we, who chart the fate of worlds and gods, explain ourselves to every adventurer who presumes to come and question us?”

Loki smiled, a smile as sharp as a dagger. “Of course not. But I have been an exception to so many rules. And thanks to your untoward interest in me, I am now king of Asgard - under a false name and a false face, to be sure. I must pretend to be the bloodiest tyrant the Realms have ever seen to compel Asgard’s obedience.” He raised his hand, and in it gleamed a yellow gem. “But unlike my predecessor, I grasp the potential of the relics he has spent the millennia stealing from other worlds.”

The Norns ceased to water the tree. They stood frozen, staring at him.

He raised his eyebrows slightly. “Can it be that the Fates themselves did not expect this?”

“The Reality gem,” Skuld rasped. “You have no concept of what you are toying with, child. Give it to us.”

“I think not. As for what I am toying with, I came here to gain that very concept, and you seem reluctant to share it.” He closed his slender fingers about the gem. “I cannot fathom what beings such as you wish for. But you must want something. You must have some aim. Whatever it is, this little toy can destroy it. With it I can grant any wish, no matter what laws of the universe that wish may violate. All your inscrutable aims, every chain of events you have set in motion to lead inexorably to whatever end you have in mind - all of that can be rendered into chaos. I shall journey from one realm to another with this gem. I shall select people at random and grant whatever wishes they blurt to me. What shall be left of your grand design when I have finished?”

“Even such as we have laws we must obey,” Urðr said, but she did not take her eyes off his fist which held the gem.

Is telling me why against those laws?”

Verðandi set down her water bucket and sat upon one of the tree’s great roots. “No. It is merely against our custom. But are you truly ruthless enough to unleash turmoil throughout the realms in the service of your own curiosity?”

Loki’s chuckle was a dark and ugly one. “You know my story. You have seen me nearly destroy a world out of love. You have seen me terrorize a realm in order to save it. You have seen me spare those I hate with all my heart because they can serve my aims. I have become a monster in the service of the noblest ends. Do you doubt I have the will to become a greater fiend yet? You allowed me to be abducted and fostered by Odin the War-Merry, the Spear-Shaker, the Battle-Wolf, the Terrible One. You then dropped me into the clutches of the Purple Ape. Why should you imagine I would stick at anything?”

“We shouldn’t,” Skuld retorted. “Your willingness to hold nothing back is what has made you useful to our ends. If only you were more predictable, we could have spared you a great deal.”

The lad’s knuckles whitened around the gem. “Explain yourself, or a thousand foolish wishes will be granted.”

“Calm yourself, lad. We will answer you.” Skuld upended her bucket - the water supply from it vanished - and sat upon it. Urðr remained standing between the others, her bucket swinging idly from one wizened hand. “Old One-Eye was doing what you have threatened to do: skew the events of the ages so much to his own design that ours was thwarted.”

“We arranged generations of unions to produce those who could carry out our ends, only to have those we had cultivated for centuries before their births cut down by Odin’s warriors that he might have more realms to rule.”

“We scattered magic throughout the realms that no world would have too much of it, that every world should warm itself at its glow, and Odin rampaged from one world to the next, seizing every relic for himself until the other Eight Realms are all but stripped of magic.”

“We granted dynasties fit to rule to every race in the Nine, even allowed for an influx of fresh blood to quicken them every few generations, only to have Odin slaughter half the princes we made and collar the other half like dogs, to rule only by his command.”

“He stole the queen we meant for Vanaheim and forced her to wed him.”

Loki stiffened at the mention of his foster mother. “And he also stole the king you meant for Jotunheim, I suppose?”

“No. We meant you for Asgard’s throne. We made you small for a Jotun so that he would steal you when he found you.”

His eyes were hard and shimmering. “Why?”

“So that you would kill him, of course.” Skuld snorted that he had not already seen it.

“We meant you to slay him as he Slept - and his oafish son, too, who has been his instrument in so many murders that foiled our plans - and claim Asgard’s throne for yourself.” Urðr’s lip curled. “We never dreamt you could love either of them enough to spare their wretched lives. It isn’t as if either of them neglected to give you cause to hate them.”

Loki closed his eyes a moment. “And when I sought death. You could not have the mercy to let me die because I had not yet achieved the end you had assigned me.”

Skuld told him, “We saw a way to put you back in the place we had labored to make for you, which you were so ready to flee - and at the same time make a beginning at stopping another fiend who set thousands of our designs to naught, courting the demoness who imagines herself Death.” She shook her head, mournful. “We had such plans for the Chitauri, before he slew them all and then raised their bodies to be his mindless army of draugar .”

“You made me fall into Thanos’s hands, so that I could foil him and then set about preparing the realms to stop him.”

“We did.”

“You could not have let my father and brother rescue me from that monster, and listen to me when I told them of the threat?” His voice cracked against the dreams that had given him succor during his ordeal. “You had to instead set them both to tormenting me and give me no choice but to slay one and send the other to play with mortals like a child?”

We lack the power to change the hearts of men,” Verðandi said.

“Or to give hearts to those who lack them,” Skuld added.

Loki spat, “Do you know what Thanos’s creature did to me, while my false family went merrily along believing me dead? Have you any idea what it is to go through a wormhole and live?”

“We have indeed. After you failed us so, we had to shatter you in order to reshape you.”

The rage that emanated from Loki at this was almost tangible. Had the Norns been corporeal beings he would have blasted them to nothing, but they were not and he stored up his rage against the day when he could use it.

When he was able to speak, he ground out, “Is it impossible for you to achieve your ends without so much cruelty?”

As my sister said,” Verðandi answered, “there are laws for even such as we. Things we cannot do, lest Yggdrasil itself shatter. Things that would strain the fabric of the universe to its breaking point.”

His mouth twisted. “I suspect you could do better than you do.”

“As you are trying to do, is that right, boy? You are sitting on Odin’s throne, trying to wield his power less cruelly than he did. Do you think you can keep that power without sowing murder and terror across the realms, as he did?”

Green eyes glinted. “Watch and see. Now that I have played out your games, what comes after is pure entertainment for you.”

You have one task yet assigned to you,” Urðr said. “We have never before told any creature what we ordained for him, but today is a day for exceptions, it seems.”

“You might consider asking for volunteers. I never agreed to be shaped into a man capable of slaying my own father.”

You did agree. Long ago, striving to lift Mjölnir, you asked to be made worthy. You swore you would do anything to prove your worth.”

Loki was more coldly furious than when Odin had sentenced him to eternity in a box for deeds identical to those for which Thor had endured a scant three days on Midgard. “You know perfectly well Odin’s story about the hammer was a lie. It never measured worth. Only the whim of the king of Asgard.”

“A sorcerer should know to be careful how he words his vows.”

His eyes were poison green now. “What task remains to me?”

“To rid the realms of your foster brother. His father gave him a taste for slaughter. He will continue until he dies, ending lives before they can fulfill their own destinies. We have been trying to do away with him for centuries, but every time you have saved his wretched life, from Vanir and Jotuns and Dark Elves and even from yourself.”

“You are still fool enough to imagine he can love you,” Skuld jeered.

“No, I am not.” Loki’s voice was as sharp as his glare. “But I have killed enough people at the behest of you hags. I have killed two fathers for your schemes. Allow my soul at least to escape fratricide.”

Urðr shrugged. “We can find another way to dispose of the Odinson.”

You will not touch him.” When they only looked at him, glacially indifferent, he said, “I shall find a way to render him harmless. There are no laws that require me to be as cruel as a cat with a mouse.”

“You have spent a thousand years trying to teach your brother to restrain his bloodlust. What makes you think you can do it now?”

Loki opened his fist enough to regard the gem, thoughtful. “With the Gauntlet I can grant him a new life. He will forget all he has been and all he has done. He will grow up again, not as the spoiled favorite son of an all-powerful tyrant, but as a common man, a mortal, prone to the struggles and woes of all. He will not have a magic weapon that makes him all but invulnerable; he will be subject to the same dangers as all, and thus can learn sympathy for those who must fear. And one day I may even give his power back to him, if he can learn to use it to protect instead of to oppress.”

The Norns cackled at this like the old women they seemed to be. The Odinson’s heart was as cold as the winds of Jotunheim, as cruel as Muspel fire, as ugly as a bilgesnipe’s back end. It would take more than a mortal childhood to quicken it with warmth and beauty. But the Silvertongue had always been quixotic. He never had the sense to give up before all hope was irrevocably lost. And so he would give his unworthy brother another chance and another and another.

“Have you any other tasks for me?” He spoke with exaggerated courtesy, a parody of the graces he had been taught as a prince. “You might try asking instead of arranging brutal circumstances to force me to do your will. Just for a lark.”

Verðandi let her eyes gleam at him from her wrinkled face. “Once your not-brother is rendered harmless, you will have played out your destiny. After that it is your own to chart - as much as anyone’s destiny is ever in their own hands.”

Loki shot her a penetrating glance before he left them, his fist still tight about the gem.

The Norns did not let the guises they had assumed for him fade for hours, as lesser beings measure time. Before they did, Urðr twisted her withered lips into a crooked smile.

“He is the one we have awaited.”

Verðandi nodded. “He will aspire to do our task more kindly than we have done. He will find a way to seize our place and slay us.”

Skuld finished, wistful and weary. “And then, at last, we shall rest.”