Even confined to the dungeons, Loki haunted Odin.
He lurked in the empty place Frigga kept stubbornly set at the family table. He hovered, unnamed, in the corners of council meetings on the Jotunheim question. He circled the fringes of troubling dreams in which a rangy, lean, half-feral Loki stalked and tore apart his younger self, while Odin stood by and watched.
I could have done it, Father! Loki cried as the wolf-Loki caught him. Struggling, reaching, and in the dream Odin said nothing, unable to look away as the wolf-Loki tore out his son’s heart.
The meaning of the dream was clear even to him, and he was no dream-reader. Frigga did not agree, or approve. “He is still your son,” she said coolly. “You cannot simply claim some parts of him and discard others. The Loki in that cell is the Loki who fell is the Loki you carried on your shoulders.”
“No,” Odin said. “I think what was my son is gone, devoured by the Void. What it spat out are his bones.”
“Allfather,” one of the Einherjar said, sinking to one knee before him. “There is…something is strange with the second prince.”
They did not speak his name, Odin had noticed. As though Loki was some magic thing given power by naming.
“Strange how? Speak plain,” Odin said.
The guard hesitated, plainly unsettled. “He does not wake, Allfather,” he said. “He has been sleeping the past three meals that we attempted to deliver.”
“He may be feigning,” Odin said, but an odd disquiet at the back of his mind tingled.
“So we thought. But the third time, our captain sought to wake him, and failed. He reacts to nothing and no one.”
Odin frowned. Even exhaustion - which he had seen, even through Loki’s feckless mask - should not account for such deep slumber.
“There is more, Allfather,” the guard said, plainly reluctant. Odin gestured for him to go on. “The second prince’s skin is…cold, like corpse-flesh.” Odin fell still, a sudden fear flashing through him. He stood.
“I will go to the cells,” he said. “Pray escort me.”
“I had not finished-”
“I have heard enough.”
The Einherjar stood and bowed, closing his mouth. Odin followed, considering sending a raven to Frigga and deciding against it.
It was possible that Loki was feigning sickness, Odin thought as they descended. Perhaps even likely. But that phrase - cold as corpse-flesh. If Loki changed shapes before witnesses…that could likely go very badly.
He descended the last set of stairs. A small knit of guards broke apart and bowed immediately, but Odin ignored them, going directly to the cell and triggering the spell to allow him in.
Loki lay on his back on the bed, a man who must be the guard captain bending over him. “You may go,” Odin said, his eyes fixing on Loki’s still pale face. “I will manage him from here.”
The Einherjar did not protest. When they were gone, Odin waved a hand to make the cell’s barrier opaque black and looked at Loki.
He did look sick. Blue circles like bruises in his eye sockets, the cut of his cheekbones too sharp and his complexion ashy rather than fair. Nor did he move, not even when Odin spoke his name: “Loki.”
Odin moved to his bedside and looked down. He was not, Odin realized, completely still. His eyes moved under the lids, twitching rapidly as though in deep dreaming. His breathing, however, was shallow: not quite panting but not deep and smooth either.
Something was wrong here. Odin could feel it, now, standing close: something bitter like wormwood, poisonous and foul. Traces of something in the air like a slick of oil on water: strange magic, not of Asgard.
Hanging thickly around Loki.
Odin laid a hand on Loki’s forehead and reached down, cautiously.
Something pushed back.
Odin jerked his hand away with a sharp inhalation as the pieces fell into place and he stared at his son with new unease. There was another mind there, linked with Loki’s. A psychic bridge between his son and…and who?
He looked at Loki’s greyish skin and rapidly flickering eyes. Whoever it was, it was clear that they were holding Loki against his will.
This cannot stand.
The clarity of the thought took him off guard. There was no question, no hesitation. Only certainty, and if he delayed any longer there might be damage to Loki’s mind that could not be repaired. And maybe, just maybe, he could find some answers.
Odin sat down on the edge of the bed, clasping Loki’s head between his two hands. This time when he met that resistance he pushed back, closing his eyes—
--and opening them on another landscape.
A nightmare landscape, Odin thought, surprised and not a little alarmed by how easy it had been for him to reach Loki’s psyche. He should have been better protected. It was like all the meticulous defenses that he had learned to place on his thoughts had been flayed away.
And around him – he stood in a blasted country, one wasted and torn apart by disaster on disaster. Everything was black and grey, the sky a strange greenish hue that threatened storm. As Odin looked ahead of him seemingly solid ground bubbled, releasing an ominous yellow gas. Diseased. Rotten.
And this was his younger son’s mind.
Odin’s heart sank, thinking of his dream, and for all his harsh words to Frigga, seeing it like this…he had not realized until that moment that some part of him had still wanted to believe that Loki could be saved.
Unless…unless this wasteland was part of the game of whatever creature held his son in its grip. Unless this was as much a prison as Loki’s paralyzed body.
The sound of screaming split the air and Odin spun to face it: a crescendoing sound that ascended to a howl of absolute agony that seemed to go on and on, and if Odin was grateful that he could not hear words in it that did not mean he could not recognize the sound of his child in pain.
“Loki,” he breathed, and would have run – only to stop just in time before he stepped into one of the treacherous bubbling pools of poison that blended perfectly into the ground. No, he could not run. No matter how much he might wish, he would have to be careful.
So he walked. Walked as he had once wandered the Realms as a young man, but now through his son’s despoiled mindscape. He could see nothing of beauty anywhere around him, only this rocky, poisoned ruin – and there was nothing else, only him and Loki’s cries, growing ever louder, far away and all-consuming, each one cutting deep, to the bone.
(How could he ever have convinced himself that he was indifferent?)
Odin reached a jagged path and began to climb the uneven steps. He was perhaps halfway to the summit, the screaming growing ever louder, when silence suddenly fell. Odin stopped, cold seeping into his chest, and he felt the world – shudder around him, like an earthquake but somehow more complete. He hastened his pace, anger intensifying along with dread. He almost missed the screams.
They did not begin again by the time Odin reached the top of the stairs. He stood at the mouth of a cavern, and inside he could see a figure with its back to him, robed and hooded. In front of it-
It seemed to take too long to understand what he was seeing, as though he could only take it in in pieces. Odin could not see his face, but he knew Loki nonetheless, knew his son, hung like a side of meat, a hook driven through his shoulder, limp toes just barely dragging on the floor.
For a moment – an eternity too long – Odin stood frozen. The robed figure moved, one hand reaching to touch Loki’s face. “Beg,” it hissed.
“Please,” Loki said, his voice raw and shattered. “No more. Please.”
Whatever force had held Odin still shattered. “You,” he said, and almost did not recognize the sound of his own voice, thick with fury. “You will not touch my son.”
The hooded figure turned, but slowly, as though it did not see any need to rush. I will see that it knows fear before I am done, Odin thought coldly. “Odin Allfather,” it said, voice peculiarly sibilant, as though not quite shaped for the words. “How unexpected. The hour is late in which you finally attend this pup’s cries.”
Odin did not stop moving. Did not blink, and did not bother to speak again. He might not have used his craft in decades, having other powers at his disposal, but that did not mean he had forgotten how. He cast, and fire sprang up around the intruder.
His spell did not give it pause. It doused his flames and answered with a casting to sap his will, to bring on despair and for a moment it sucked at him (too late, too little, you have failed as father and as king)-
He shook it off and countered, trying to turn back this magic on the creature, to invade its mind the way it had invaded Loki’s, but even as he tried he recoiled. Something was there, something awful and rotten.
The creature rasped a laugh. “I serve my master’s will, Odin Allfather,” it said. “As does he,” and when it glanced at Loki he twisted weakly, whimpered.
Once, in his prime, Odin had been known for his battle-fury. It was that which came upon him now, and he struck with a roar, no finesse, nothing but raw force as he bore ever nearer until at last he held the creature by its throat. He did not know its face. He did not care. Its skin smoked under his hand.
“Let your master hear me,” Odin growled. “He has challenged Odin, son of Bor, and Allfather of Asgard. If ever he should seek to touch Loki Odinson again, I will wipe him utterly from existence so that not even memory remains.”
The searing blast of power left only a crumbling skeleton behind. The mortal form in life would fare no better.
But the creature was almost forgotten when Odin turned looking for his son.
Loki had not moved. He was not struggling, just hung there, limp and motionless. The fury melted away, leaving Odin cold. It had not been so long, he told himself, but a full day…and time could seem malleable, in dreams, particularly under the control of those with the power to manipulate them. Too late, but this time it was not a spell of despair but rather only his own thought.
Was this his punishment for avoiding facing Loki? To be faced with losing him, and realize that there was still grief to be had?
He moved toward Loki slowly, wary that his son might lash out, but he did not. He flinched when Odin reached out, but no more than that. The hook remained, jutting out of Loki’s flesh. He had hoped it would vanish with the death of the creature, but apparently he was not to be so fortunate. Odin inhaled slowly and let it out even more slowly.
“I am sorry,” he said, “but this will hurt.” The physical injury might not be real, but the pain would feel so. He took hold of Loki’s body and lifted him. Odin knew when the hook started to move because Loki cried out – if it could be called that, a barely audible “ahhh”. Odin tried to keep him steady, but there was only so much he could do. He could feel Loki shaking but he still didn’t try to fight.
Odin thought he would give much, now, for Loki to snap and snarl at him.
The last of the metal came free and Odin set Loki on his feet, but even before he started to let go Loki folded like there was nothing left in him to keep him standing. Odin caught him, easing them both down to the ground.
Loki’s face looked like a wraith’s. Blood had dried under his nose and down his neck from his ears. His eyes were open but unseeing. They had torn his mind apart to punish him, and Odin thought of the half feral, wild thing that had come back from Midgard and no longer had to wonder what could have changed his son so much.
“Loki,” he said, his voice rough, but Loki stared through him without responding, gaze fixed and empty, and Odin’s heart sank further. He tried to soften his voice. “Loki. Look at me.”
Loki blinked, but he still did not seem to register Odin’s voice. He took a ragged breath and reached for his power, moving to touch Loki’s cheek and draw him out.
Loki flinched from his touch and Odin fell still. There was no other sign of life, or response – just that flinch.
Too late, whispered a dark voice in the back of Odin’s mind. You were too late for him.
No, Odin thought savagely. I will not accept that.
He pulled Loki upwards, clasping his neck as Loki’s head lolled limply back. He bent his head and touched his forehead to Loki’s, closing his eyes. “Loki,” he murmured again. “My boy. My son.”
Odin felt just the faintest twitch. “I am here,” he said, nearly stumbling over the words. “I will not leave you. Not this time. I wish you had told me of this. I wish you had said…”
He stopped. He did not need to hear Frigga’s voice to know that now was not the time for scoldings or recriminations. Not when Loki’s mind wavered on the edge – or might be already gone.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I am here now. You are safe.”
Nothing. Not even a twitch, or a breath. He opened his eyes and pulled away, watched Loki blink slowly. Odin bowed his head and pulled his younger son to him again in an awkward embrace. “I am sorry,” he said. “That I did not come sooner.” How often had he thought what sort of monster Laufey must be to leave his own child to die out in the cold?
Had he not done just the same, unthinking?
Loki’s arms stayed limp at his sides and he did not make a sound. Odin closed his eyes and drew them both out of dreaming, Loki back to his own body and Odin into his.
They were still alone, the Einherjar doubtless lingering outside. Odin pulled his hands away slowly, looking down at Loki’s still and pale face and wondering bleakly if he would ever open his eyes again. Or if he did, how much sense would be in them. Odin wondered if he should call them back, open the cell, have Loki removed to the healing chambers…
No. There was nothing Eir could do with this sort of sickness.
He looked at Loki, whose breathing was easier though he still looked sick, drained. Odin sighed, his shoulders slumping. Perhaps if he sent Frigga…maybe her voice could reach Loki, wherever he had fled, where Odin’s could not. She had always been better able to communicate with Loki, where Odin only ever seemed to stumble.
He did not stand to go just yet, though. Unwilling to depart, however futile his presence might be.
So he heard the small shift in Loki’s breathing and turned at once, alarmed – another attack? – only to see Loki’s eyelids flickering. Dread clogged Odin’s chest but he leaned forward, because however little he could offer perhaps there would be something-
Loki’s eyes opened a blurry sliver. “Loki,” Odin said, searching for any sign of recognition, dreading any sign of hatred or anger – or fear. Or worst of all, nothing. “Do you awake?”
He licked his (dry, cracked) lips, but his eyes moved slowly to Odin’s face. As though he saw him, maybe, except then he said nothing, just stared, gaze cloudy and uncertain.
“Loki,” Odin said again, a knot in his chest. “My son. Do you know me?”
Loki blinked again, slowly, his eyebrows drawing together. “Pabbi?”
Something lurched in Odin’s chest. Loki had not called him that in centuries. Nothing so affectionate or informal. “Yes,” he managed to say, before too much time had passed. “It is me.”
“You came,” Loki said, sounding very faintly surprised, and Odin wanted to flinch.
“Yes,” he managed to say. “I came.” Almost too late.
Loki made an odd sort of hiccupping noise. Odin looked at him and saw that he’d started to weep, not quite silently. In that moment, the image of the wolf that had devoured his son vanished, and all that was left was this: Loki, small-seeming, wounded, his son.
Loki was no longer the child he had been, and Odin was no longer the warrior he had been. But there was still strength enough in his arms to lift his son and hold him close to his chest, just comforting his boy after a nightmare. Loki did not flinch or struggle, and Odin’s own eye burned with tears threatening to fall.
“My boy,” he said. “You are my bright-eyed, clever son. And I am going to help you.”
The Void could not have him.
Odin would not allow it.