Destiny – Odin
Ragnarok. Odin knows what will come, one day. He spends hours in study and contemplation, trying to understand it. The actions he takes are all woven into a grand attempt to avert it. He dreads it, and knows deep in his bones that it will happen whatever he does. (Or perhaps because of his actions. That is a thought that troubles him in the dark, late hours.) His lady wife, Frigga, who sees the future in flashes of prescience, tells him much, but he cannot piece together a complete picture. His ravens stare over his shoulder as he scribbles down what he comes to understand in his ponderings.
What he writes begins to resemble a map, although how the words and runes reshaped themselves this way eludes him. It is a map of a labyrinthine space, a space of borders and boundaries and narrow, blind pathways. As he studies the markings, he begins to see how the many paths come together, each feeding into a single course that makes its way through the maze. Sometimes the tributary paths are marked with runes he is able to put to particular names. Others bear no such attribution.
With a thrill of his heart in his chest, he sees the paths marked with the names of his family. Odin. Frigga. Balder. Thor. Loki. He tries to follow their progress, loses his place, traces them carefully with the tip of his finger. The paths shift and leap and re-form as he watches, but he sees that no matter how they change, they end in the same place. He cannot quite follow the map to it. The markings grow confused and blurred, and he feels a sense of emptiness and loss that is quite different from the gleaming fire of determination that usually envelops him as he tries to find his answers.
As he works through weariness in the highest room of the tallest tower in Asgard, out of the corner of his eye (the one that is covered now with a plain white patch, the one that was lost) he sees a figure in a long grey robe. In the crooked arm of the figure there is a book. Odin knows without being told that the page he studies belongs in the book. Though he should not be able to see such detail obliquely, he notes that in the figure’s face, its eyes are closed, shrunken, blind. And he of all beings knows that this does not mean the figure that stands beside him does not see. Perhaps he sees more than any other.
The figure waits silently for an interminable time, until Odin has exhausted his efforts and feels cold tears spring into his eye (from weariness, from strain, from the sense of inevitability yet unvanquished). He sits back from the paper and takes care not to turn toward the figure, suspecting or fearing (knowing) that he would see nothing should he seek it with his other eye.
“Thank you,” he says, sliding the paper a few inches closer to the grey-hooded shape, though he would have been more grateful had he been able to learn more. Or had what he learned been more palatable. He does not say this, of course, and the figure reaches out a pale hand toward the table.
A moment later, Odin is alone, and the sheet of paper in front of him is blank but for one word.
Death – Jotunheim
There are no watchers to note the arrival of a pale young woman in the ice and snow of ruined Jotunheim. Only her black hair and dark eyes stand out like shadows, like the charred black of a burn in this landscape where cold reigns. A glint of silver dangles around her neck like an ice chip. She walks a short distance from the place where the Bifrost’s power struck, her slim hands in her pockets. It’s hardly the first time, she thinks, and at least she doesn’t have to come for a whole world with this one. Only a part.
She edges around a wall of ice to find a small figure huddled at its base, half-hidden behind a fallen boulder. The young Frost Giant opens its ruby eyes as she approaches.
“Hello,” the young woman says, holding out her hand to the youngling, but the child only looks at it warily and scrambles to his feet by himself.
“What happened?” the child asks. “Where are my parents?”
She tells him, briefly and without cruel detail.
“Oh. And I guess I’m dead too?” The young voice is defiant. He was raised on stories that ended like this, stories that ended with his people’s blood freezing in the snow and his people setting about the slow and bitter work of rebuilding something of their world. He had secretly imagined his own end coming in such a tragedy, though he had always imagined being grown when it happened, and he cannot even voice the idea that this is unfair. Nothing is, his parents had told him countless times. The world does not care for us.
“I’m afraid so,” the woman says with a nod, her dark eyes kind and sad.
“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter, really, does it? They always kill us. Always always always.”
Across the nine realms—and countless more, across the wide expanse of time and empty space—she is there for so many beings. She is there for a young musician bleeding out in a car crash on Earth just as she is there for the moment after the last breath of an aged dwarf in Svartalfheim, just as she is there for the passing of billions of creatures light-years away on a world being engulfed by a black hole.
“Of course it matters,” the young woman says. “That is the one thing every life has in common. Now, if you are ready, take my hand and you will get to find out what comes next.”
The child hangs his head for a moment then looks up into the woman’s face.
“All right,” he says, jaw clenched, sparing a long glance back at the far untouched distance where his people prepare to gather themselves up again. There would be war. There would be more death before the end. The air would continue to sparkle in the dim blue light over his home, and someone, at least, would continue to breathe it. It wasn’t fair, but it was enough. “I’m ready.”
New Dream – Sif
When she was a girl, she always used to have the same dream. Nearly every night, for a while, though it was always a little bit different. She stood in the middle of a field, perhaps, or a wide paved lane, and there was a storm crowding the edges of the sky and making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She could hear the voices of her family and her friends, she knew they were behind her, but she could not turn to look at them. Instead her eyes were fixed on the shape that was looming in front of her. It changed from night to night. Sometimes a great wolf, midnight black and growing huger as she watched. Sometimes a snake with glistening fangs, coiled and ready to strike. Sometimes a giant, brute-faced and cruel. The menace, whatever it was, would kill those she loved if she didn’t fight it; she knew that the way that you know things in dreams, without question. And through her fear, through the sweat and the trembling of her limbs and the sudden dryness of her mouth, she picked up the sword that lay abandoned on the ground, and she fought.
In the early years of this dream, she would most often wake suddenly from her struggles, tangled in the blankets and breathing in quick gasps, tears wetting her pillow. The monster was always too great for her strength and skill, and she would wake in the moments before it struck one final blow.
Soon enough, feeling as if it might be the only way that she would dream more pleasant dreams, she bulled her way into training with the Asgardian boys in her waking hours, learning to use the sword, the spear, her bare hands to best her enemies no matter their size. She sparred with Hogun and Fandral, her mouth set in a grim line, and convinced Thor that she was no less than any man in valor. She never told any of them of the monsters that haunted her sleep, even long after she ceased to fear what they might say. Either way, it worked. She grew in confidence as in skill, and soon the creatures in her dreams fled in terror at the sight of her, and then later the dreams ceased altogether.
It had been years since the last time it had come to her, but one night, shortly before Thor was to become king, she found herself on a broad cliff in an icy waste. She could hear the voices of her friends behind her, and before her there was a dark shape, though not so large as it had sometimes been.
“Ah,” she said, a sigh of recognition at this her oldest of nightmares, long since lost its terror for her. But then the figure came more clearly into view. It was a tall, thin man with pale skin, white hair that fell around his shoulders, and eyes like a night sky glittering with stars. He bore no weapon, and she did not feel afraid. “Who are you?” she asked.
“You are dreaming,” the man answered.
“Yes. I gathered as much,” Sif said, her eyebrow quirking. “But I still don’t know who you are.”
“I… my predecessor was a friend to you, a friend who knew what you could be before you even suspected. I think he thought fondly of you. I owe it to his memory to tell you that your skill, your wits, and most of all your loyalty will be needed soon…”
She listened as the man with stars for eyes spoke until a pale sun rose over the horizon of her dream, and then she made her answer.
Sif woke in the morning, feeling perfectly rested and happy, as if the sleep she had awoken from were somehow specially blessed. It had also, as far as she could remember, been dreamless. No matter. She’d had enough of dreams to last a lifetime, she thought, and as she rose and went about her day, she smiled.
Destruction – Thor
Banished to Midgard, his powers stripped from him and his hammer out of his reach, Thor was often baffled by the way the humans reacted to his presence. He certainly didn’t know what to make of the man who addressed him in the café when Jane excused herself for a minute.
“Do you mind if I give you some advice?” The cheerful, deep voice broke through the clatter and buzz of the other diners, and Thor glanced over to see at the next table a stranger who seemed even larger than Thor himself. The man had a neatly trimmed beard, long brick-red hair tied back in a ponytail, and he was clad in worn jeans and a soft-looking green sweater. He cradled a half-empty mug of coffee in his massive hand.
“On what?” Thor asked, grinning in confusion.
“I recognize you, lad, and I’ve always had a soft spot for you. That hammer of yours—I guess you wouldn’t know it, but I was there when it was first cast, before they even broke the handle,” the man said, pausing just then for another mouthful of coffee before returning Thor’s smile, though that was now fading. “And the advice I would give you is that… well, family is something to cherish, but it can also get complicated. Brothers particularly.”
Thor was stuck about two sentences behind. “What do you mean you were there? I do not believe I have heard of—have we met before?”
“Not as such,” said the man with a shrug. “But never mind that. I’m sure you’ll get your own back eventually. I hope you know what I mean about family. Not long ago, my own brother was going through a difficult patch, working himself up to do something stupid, but there’s really nothing I could say that would stop him. And when it all crashed down—well, I try not to hold it against him.”
“What happened to your brother?” Thor asked, though he was still not sure how this stranger might be known to him. The rest of the café continued on; he could still hear the sound of forks tinking against plates and soft country music from the jukebox, but it seemed distant, somehow. Jane still had not returned.
“The weight of being who he was caught up to him, or at least that’s what I gather. Really, it started a long time ago, though I didn’t notice it until I got some distance. But in any case our elder sister told me he brooded a lot while it was happening,” the man added with a quiet chuckle.
Thor still wasn’t sure what the man meant for him to have gotten out of this conversation; he got the impression that he was trying to say something about Thor, or maybe about Loki. It didn’t fit comfortably against the last image he had of his brother, his face drawn with silent concern turning to horror as their father cast Thor out.
“Humans have such charming ways of saying things, sometimes,” the stranger said suddenly, shaking him out of his thoughts.
“Change is inevitable,” the man said, clearly quoting someone else, “except from vending machines. Humans know that even in their own short lives, the world will be destroyed and remade countless times, a little different each time. They know that they have to change with it. Living too long gets in the way of seeing that, don’t you think?”
Just then Jane returned from the restroom and Thor turned his attention to her. When he glanced back, the table next to theirs was empty, with a few green bills curling under a pile of silvery and coppery coins. The man had left abruptly, Thor thought, and he still didn’t know his name or where he might have met him before—there was something strange about all this, but he had too many other things to worry about to think about it much just then. A moment later he caught a glimpse of the man through the broad window of the diner, walking away, his hand on the shoulder of a smaller figure beside him. The figure was a girl with wild, multi-colored hair and odd clothes. When she saw him looking she gave a little wave, just her fingers flapping and the corner of her mouth turned up.
“What’s going on?” Jane asked, following Thor’s gaze. “Do you know them?”
“No,” Thor answered, eyes still following the two figures as they disappeared around the corner. “I am fairly certain I do not.”
“Okay,” said Jane dubiously, furrowing her brow and thinking about waving a hand in front of her crazy new friend’s face unless he quickly snapped out of it. “But anyway, we were talking about going to get your hammer…”
Desire & Despair – Loki
It is all a game, and Desire (when it thinks about it) is sure that the little god-creature would see the humor in it if he knew. Centuries ago, when the Asgardian king discovered the abandoned runt of a Frost Giant and gathered it up against his armored breast to raise as his own, Desire had felt a spark of potential and had sought out its twin for a wager. Some of their wagers had involved attempts to woo a mortal to one of their realms or the other. Others were more… pointed. This time, Desire laid out the rules with a wicked smile twisting its soft pink lips. Despair listened in silence, feeling the hook of her ring entering the flesh of her own lip with a comforting sting, and then agreed.
Loki is a creature of two realms, or none. This is what defines him, and it is easy enough to see how these feelings fester in his heart over the years. He desires so much, so many things, but they are forever out of reach. He walks through his life just out of step with those around him, and he learns magic so that he will have a chance at victory should the opportunity come. He hones his wit razor-sharp on tricks and pranks and lies, amusing himself while he prepares for greater work to be done. At night he lies in bed, staring up at the ceiling, longing for something else. The radiance of Thor blinds him as he thinks of it, wanting as no one has ever wanted, despising as he could despise no other. The tears are hot against his cheek and they tickle in his ears, and he doesn’t bother to wipe them away. In the mornings, though he wakes refreshed and revitalized, when he glances into the mirror he feels something catch in his chest that brings it all rushing back. The feeling lingers.
When he seats himself upon Odin’s throne for the first time (Thor banished, the Allfather asleep, Asgard in dire need, and who better to take on the task?) he waits for the pleasure it should bring. For the first time, he is second to no one, and answers only to himself. He throws one knee casually over the arm of the throne, slouches backward as if—as if he were born to it. It does no good. He feels no happiness there, not even when Lady Sif and the Warriors Three come to beg for him to bring back Thor from his banishment, kneeling on their own pride, voices pitched low and obeisant. He gets no satisfaction from it.
When his brother returns, he forgets the idea of happiness, knowing only his anger, his desire for all the things he has been denied, his plan, his hope. Words spew from his tongue without thought; they are weapons as true as any made of cold steel, keen enough to deal a deadly blow. And this is truly a battle. He sets the Bifrost onto Jotunheim (a voice in his head whispers: monster, monster of monsters), his lip twitching in a mirthless smirk. And then, like everything he has ever wanted, his brother tears even this last victory away.
He falls to Earth.
Sometimes Loki asks himself if he is being toyed with. If destiny or fate or some other power had long ago arranged his fall and spent all these long years laughing in anticipation. But he is harder to break than this, far harder to kill. He picks himself up, quickly adapting to the ways of Midgard. He walks unnoticed among the mortals, appearing as one of them. In the midst of one of their cities, he pauses on a crowded sidewalk to glance at his own reflection in a window, minutely adjusting his garments. The mirrored glass does strange things—his eyes, normally green, seem iron-grey at one moment, golden amber at another. No matter. He smiles briefly at himself and goes to meet his brother’s friends.
Delirium – Heimdall
Most Asgardians would have believed it to be otherwise. When they gave a thought to the one who guarded their borders, they saw him as the most sober-minded among them, the one whose eyes never closed, who heard and saw all. They did not consider that so much sight brings with it hazards; to see through Heimdall’s eyes was to be drowned under an onslaught of colors, of swirling images, of the slow turn of galaxies and the motion of tiny jeweled insects in the soil. It was to be caught by the heartache of a weeping child and to be swept up by the passion of lovers. Though he did not let it distract him—he could quash the feeling at any moment if he spied a threat to his land—the vision of Heimdall was a delirium unequaled by the gift of the finest spirits or the most potent herbs.
If he sometimes heard the wandering laughter of a young girl—he was not sure who she was, but he had his suspicions—or caught a brief glimpse of mismatched eyes, he did not admit it. Some knowledge was only for those who experienced it. If he sometimes felt the presence of a small, slight shape beside him, awkwardly scratching the back of her knee with one toe and placing her hand on his arm as she leaned in to whisper a secret about what makes glowworms kind of like supernovas and also like little glowing bugs, or tilted her head to ask if he (“Mister Guardian-of-Boundaries Person”) had happened to see her doggie anywhere, he did not mention it to anyone. He simply let his face soften, for just a moment, into a smile.